This week, one of our favorite films from last year’s Cannes Film Festival, the Un Certain Regard, top prizewinner “White God” from director Kornél Mundruczó (here’s our review), opens in theaters. It’s a remarkable film, perhaps not quite tonally consistent enough to have the potential for crossover hit status, but certainly a visceral and highly original arthouse movie featuring a tremendous central performance of the canine persuasion. It inspired us to start thinking about some of our other favorite doggy films — The Playlist, inasmuch as a collective can be represented as a single entity, is very much a Dog Person (though not, we hasten to add, to the exclusion of cats of whom we’re also very fond, it’s just they haven’t inspired as many films). (Phew, all-out war averted).
We immediately ran into the obvious issue of whether to make this a list of Movie Dogs or Movies About Dogs. We’ve plumped for the latter, just to be a bit more cineaste about it all, and gone with as eclectic a selection of titles from different eras, regions and genres as we could. But we reserve the right to pit Uggie and Toto against Rin Tin Tin and Arthur from “Beginners” against Dug from “Up” and Mr Smith from “The Awful Truth” in another feature someday. For now, allow us to present to you, bright eyed, floppy eared and panting from having sprinted across the whole park carrying it between our teeth like a Very Good Boy, this selection of 15 Great Films About Dogs.
“Amores Perros” (2001)
Mexican helmer Alejandro González Iñárritu is now a Best Original Screenplay, Best Director, and Best Picture Oscar-winner thanks to “Birdman,” but he got his start not thanks to the avian population of the world, but the canine. The director’s tripartite directorial debut following three separate stories in Mexico City that aren’t linked by all that much, beyond Iñárritu’s trademark misery, and dogs. There’s Cofi, who belongs to Gael García Bernal’s lovelorn Octavio, who uses his pet in dogfighting so he can run away with his brother’s wife, and then who later ends up in the hands of hitman Emilio Echevarría, and there’s Richie, who belongs to injured supermodel Goya Toledo, and becomes lost under the floorboards of her boyfriend’s apartment. It’s an anxious watch for dog-lovers, and Iñárritu and writer Guillermo Arriaga never quite draw the stories together as we might hope. Yet it’s made with such visceral energy and power that you don’t mind the relative lack of substance: it’s as wrenching and impressive a directorial debut as has been made this century, and one that even then suggested that Iñárritu might one day be Oscar-podium bound.
“Lady & The Tramp” (1955)
With the company’s well of fairy tales running temporarily dry, animals-in-peril became something of a trend for Disney in the 1960s and 1970s, with films like “The Aristocats” and “The Rescuers,” and it was all kicked off by “Lady & The Tramp,” the animation giant’s first true romantic comedy, and a damn effective one at that. The film details the romance between pampered cocker spaniel, Lady (Barbara Luddy), and streetwise, cynical stray Tramp (Larry Roberts). Free of the breathless plotting of the company’s modern-day fare, it’s a languid, almost loose picture that sweetly lets the burgeoning unlikely pairing happen organically, culminating in that all-time classic spaghetti scene, arguably cinema’s most iconic image of romance not involving John Cusack and a boombox. There’s a charming specificity to the film’s Southern turn-of-the-century setting, and the supporting characters are all winners, particularly Peggy Lee’s vaguely Blanche DuBois-ish faded belle (her straight-up racist Siamese cats strike the film’s sourest note these days, but the chanteuse’s songs more than make up for it). If anyone can explain why Lady & Tramp’s children are miniature clones of them, though, it’d be much appreciated.
“Bombon El Perro” (2005)
A film we fell for based on the photo used on the cover of the DVD, with the massive muscly Bombon, the titular Dogo Argentino, all but obscuring his slightly wary-looking companion, it was a happy discovery that the movie is exactly as you’d expect from that droll image. Set with a social realist eye in a rural Patagonia, where luxuries are few and life for the unemployed, well-meaning but ineffectual Coco (Juan Villegas) is tough, Carlos Sorin’s film is a sweet-natured, wryly humorous story of an odd-couple friendship that proves the gentle redemption of both the human and the canine involved. Like Bombon himself who looks ferocious, but turns out to be a potentially valuable pedigree, (and then further turns out to have the soul of a happy-go-lucky mutt instead), it’s all about how appearances and circumstances (“breeding”) can’t be the measure of someone’s heart. With a lead human performance from non-professional actor Villegas that imparts almost as much hangdog expressiveness to the film as Bombon’s irresistibly stoic visage, this little road movie is hardly the most dramatic or dynamic of films, but it does scratch at the surface of how, like with people, meeting the right dog at the right time can change your life.
“Umberto D” (1952)
Perhaps the most overtly emotional of the Italian neo-realist masterpieces, Vittorio De Sica‘s “Umberto D” has also been open to accusations of sentimentality over the years. To be sure, it plays on our sympathies, often through the dog, Flike, in a more overt way than the strictest realism should perhaps allow. Yet this simple and devastatingly humane film (said to be Ingmar Bergman‘s favorite film ever) about the onset of genteel poverty for a middle-class pensioner (Carlo Battisti) in post-war Rome whose only companion is his devoted dog, draws its relationships with such grace that it can hardly be accused of manipulation. Near penniless and homeless, the only thing postponing Umberto’s suicide is concern for Flike, so the film is more about his effect on Umberto than about Flike as such. Short of devising some sort of Bechdog Test, wherein films only “pass” if they’ve two-plus canine characters who also have scenes of interaction without their “masters,” this is an unmissable example of how sometimes it’s a dog who can remind us how to be a human.
“Eight Below” (2006)
A prime example of the Disneyfication process, “Eight Below,” based on the 1983 Japanese hit “Antarctica,” which was itself based on a true story, sees 6 out of 8 sled dogs survive months of abandonment during an Antarctic winter, rather than the 2 out of 15 that actually did. But it also shows, under Frank Marshall‘s sure-handed direction, and featuring terrific canine performances and breathtaking snowbound cinematography, how effective that process can be. There are liberties taken with facts, blatant anthropomorphisms, and many inaccuracies as to the weather and daylight conditions, but as pure entertainment, there’s only one problem: too much of the 2-hour runtime is given to the non-canine participants. Paul Walker (RIP), Jason Biggs, Moon Goodblood, and Bruce Greenwood do their best, but can’t really compete with the six stunning Siberian Huskies and two gorgeous Alaskan Malamutes (also the stars of “Snow Dogs“), especially when the dogs are shown not only saving lives, but sacrificing, grieving, trading leadership, chasing the Northern Lights, learning how to hunt, and cleverly decoying one evil bastard of a leopard seal. If you are not silently mouthing a prayer that a certain noble doggie opens her eyes at a certain moment, you are a pod person.
“A Boy And His Dog” (1975)
Based on a series of stories by sci-fi legend Harlan Ellison, and directed by long-time character actor and Sam Peckinpah favorite L.Q. Jones, “A Boy And His Dog” might sound like a simple fable, but it’s actually a strange and distinctive post-apocalyptic tale with one of the more memorably disturbed relationships between man and his best friend in screen history. A young Don Johnson, in one of his earliest roles, plays Vic, a young man traveling a post-apocalyptic America with his only friend, a cynical telepathic dog named Blood (Tim McIntire). His life of violence, rape, and pillage is disrupted when he meets a young woman (Susanne Benton) who lives in a demented underground society, and he abandons his canine pal for her, only to find that he’s been lured to a stud farm for humanity. Enormously influential on the post-apocalyptic genre (everything from “Mad Max” to “The Road” feels like it’s cribbing from this to an extent), but with a delirious weirdness all its own, the film, excuse the pun, screws the pooch with a final coda that feels actively misogynistic (and was derided by Ellison as such), but for the most part, this is a minor classic of both man/dog team-ups and end-of-the-world pics.
“Best In Show” (2000)
Perhaps the funniest dog film that ever was, and ever will be. Christopher Guest assembles his usual comedic troupe of perfectly tuned performers (Catherine O’Hara, Parker Posey, Eugene Levy, etc.), and creates a “dogumentary” based around a prestigious dog show in Philadelphia. While the film centers on the interactions between the delusional and eccentric dog owners, trainers, and show-runners, what binds them all together in “Best In Show” is their unhealthy and uproarious obsession with their respective dogs. One of the greatest joys here is watching how alike dog and owner are, never sure who mirrors whose personality. Of course, the upper class trophy wife (Jennifer Coolidge) is going to have a poodle called Rhapsody In White (a.k.a. Butch, on account of the owner being a closet lesbian), and the yuppie couple (the flawless pairing of Posey and Michael Hitchcock) have a Weimeraner called Beatrice they take to therapy sessions. Inverting the “man’s best friend” convention on its head, “Best In Show” is one of Guest’s greatest achievements. Each owner(s) has oddly tuned and humorous idiosyncrasies to such a degree that the only sane beings around are the poor animals lumbered with them for owners.
“101 Dalmatians” (1961)
With “Lady & The Tramp” such a hit, it was inevitable that Disney would try to recapture some of its magic, and if “101 Dalmatians” has a major problem, it’s that it probably sticks a little too close to the pattern of its predecessor (the various animal sidekicks are essentially interchangeable with Jock & Trusty & co), complete with rom-com elements and rescue missions. To some degree, this adaptation of Dodie Smith’s novel, which sees lovestruck dalmatians Pongo & Perdita (Rod Taylor and Cate Bauer) blessed with a surprisingly large litter of fifteen offspring, only to see the pups kidnapped by the monstrous Cruella De Vil (Betty Lou Gerson), who darkly intends to turn them into a coat, goes some way towards perfecting that formula. It’s a more visually distinctive film, blending angular designs reminiscent of a New Yorker cartoon with a very British Ealing comedy charm (even though it was made relatively cheaply, after the huge cost overruns of “Sleeping Beauty”). It’s also more exciting, and, of course, has maybe Disney’s greatest villain in the shape of Cruella. As good as Glenn Close was in the otherwise disposable live-action remake, there’s no matching up to the animated original. Plus, helpful for this article, it also has an absolute shitload of dogs. Can’t remember how many, but a shitload.
Who’s a good boy, then? Definitely not Baxter, the canine star of this French drama/black comedy/horror hybrid. Overturning all assumptions about the fundamental decency of our doggy companions, the film characterizes the titular Bull Terrier (in contrast to lovely old Bodger of “The Incredible Journey“) as a sociopathically unsentimental and ultimately murderous animal, who loves people but despises human frailty and wants an owner who lives by his sort of rigorous code. A weird and unsettling metaphor for everything from abusive relationships (“She doesn’t like the things I like,” says Baxter of an elderly mistress before pitching her down the stairs) to sexual subservience to political ideology, the film becomes more uncomfortable as it wears on, culminating in Baxter’s adoption by a teenager whose neo-Nazi tendencies temporarily, at least, chime with the dog’s own ruthless sensibilities. A favorite of John Waters, reportedly, Jerome Boivin‘s “Baxter,” about a dog whose thoughts we can hear, is the opposite of a family film, building to a genuinely chilling ending that may partially redeem the idea of the goodness of dogs, but that does so at the cost of the belief in the innocence of children.
“White Dog” (1982)
Contrary to what one might think, Samuel Fuller’s “White Dog” was not an inspiration for the similarly titled “White God,” though had Mundruczó seen it beforehand, we’re sure he’d just have been more stoked about creating his own master vs. owner scenario. This classic, heart-wrenching story begins when Julie (Kristy McNichol) accidentally hits a white German Shepherd stray and brings him home. She grows fond of him when he successfully protects her from an intruder, but finds out what’s going on: he’s a “white dog,” trained by white asshole owners to attack black people. After some horrific incidents, she meets a black trainer (Paul Winfield) who tries to deprogram the dog. The skips between horror and melodrama give “White Dog” its pulse, and simultaneously pierce the heart, especially once we find out the evil methods taken to force the dog into its racist adulthood. Stirring up controversy upon its release, today “White Dog” is a cult favorite and a major statement on racism as a mental illness. It also boasts some of the greatest animal performances of all time (the dog was played by five different German Shepherds, all deserving acting accolades). And here’s a little fun tidbit: the animal trainer for “White Dog,” Karl Lewis Miller, is the father of the animal trainer for “White God,” Teresa Miller. Small world.
“Hachiko Monogatari” (1987)/”Hachi: A Dog’s Tale” (2009)
This is one of those remarkable true-life stories where the vernacular “you can’t make this stuff up” resonates so loudly it’ll give you a headache. Hachiko is, of course, the famous Akita, born and bred in Japan in the 1920s, who became world-renowned after the extraordinary loyalty he showed to his owner, a university professor. Every day, at an exact time, Hachiko greeted his master at the train station and the two walked back home together. One day, the professor unexpectedly died before returning to the station, and for the next nine years Hachiko showed up at the same spot, punctual to a tee, waiting. Even writing about it causes goosebumps and requires substantial tear-duct control. The incredibly story inspired a bronze statue of the canine and became subject matter for two films: 1987’s “Hachiko Monogatari,” the Japanese original with Tatsuya Nakadai as the professor, and 2009’s “Hachi: A Dog’s Tale” starring Richard Gere. Whichever one you pick, you’re guaranteed to bawl your eyes out. Both films take tremendous care to show just how powerful the connection between dog and man is, which obviously renders the films into sappy melodrama, but we couldn’t care less. There is absolutely no other story that makes the truth behind a dog’s best friend qualities as clear and poignant as this one.
“The Plague Dogs” (1982)
So, you thought every animated film featuring dogs was a snuggly pooch story like “101 Dalmatians,” or a sentimental tear-drainer like “All Dogs Go To Heaven“? Let us tell you about “The Plague Dogs.” Based on a novel by Richard Adams (who also authored the rabbit tale “Watership Down,” another adaptation by Martin Rosen), it’s a story of two dogs who escape an animal-testing facility and roam the wilderness looking for safety. Rowf (voiced by Christopher Benjamin) is a mutt with some Labrador in him who had been repeatedly drowned and resuscitated, and his companion, Snitter (voiced by John Hurt), is a fox terrier, unbalanced due to brain experimentation. This ain’t no Disney film, kids. They’re hounded (!) by the media and locals after rumors spread that they’re plague-carriers. As scathing a critique on animal cruelty as any live-action film, “The Plague Dogs” might seem like it nullifies its effectiveness by being animated, but thanks to Rosen’s particular adaptation of Adams’ work (the conclusion is much murkier and devastatingly melancholic in Rosen’s version), the incredible voice work by Hurt and Benjamin, and Tony Guy’s raw style of animation, it’s a tremendously affecting tale of survival and friendship. Its allegorical characteristics wouldn’t be lost on Mundruczó, either, since it too, like “White God,” effectively uses dogs to symbolize society’s outcasts.
“Old Yeller” (1957)
“Best doggone dog in the west!” goes the (now hilariously dated) original song that opens the 1957 classic “Old Yeller.” But, the song wants you to believe that it’s about an “ugly lop-eared mongrel,” which just makes no sense at all because Old Yeller (played by Spike) is an absolutely magnificent Mastiff/Labrador Retriever mix. Part of Walt Disney’s barrage of family-friendly films in the post-WWII era, “Old Yeller” is as homely as Grandma’s apple pie, out of its frames to become a major cultural symbol for baby boomers. Even if you laugh at it more than with it these days, the story of this courageous yellow-haired stray, who finds his way into the Coates’ family ranch and heart, is everlastingly moving. When Old Yeller fights the grizzly bear, or when he helps Travis (Tommy Kirk) capture wild hogs, the heart still flutters with anxiety, while the mind can’t help but notice how ridiculous these situations are in the first place (silly humans). But most people remember the film for its starkly dark ending, when (spoiler) Old Yeller contracts rabies from a mad wolf and has to be shot. It was a defining moment when a teary Travis pulls the trigger, not just for Travis-becoming-a-man (in the 1950s mold), but for millions of aghast children across the world.
“Wendy And Lucy” (2008)
With “Meek’s Cutoff” and an upcoming third movie, director Kelly Reichardt and actress Michelle Williams are shaping up to be two of contemporary American cinema’s most productive and glorious collaborators, and it all began here, with “Wendy & Lucy,” the filmmaker’s third feature, which paired the one-time “Dawson’s Creek” star with a gorgeous mixed-breed dog named Lucy. Williams is Wendy, a young drifter on her way to Alaska with her canine pal to start a new life, only to hit legal troubles after shoplifting, and, being separated from the dog, setting out to find her friend. A sort of Pacific Northwest equivalent to “Umberto D.,” the film is one of desperation, responsibility, and is, in many ways, a coming-of-age story, one of the first films to deal with millennial rootlessness, and was remarkably prescient in anticipating the economic meltdown through Wendy’s tough economic circumstances (the film premiered at Cannes in May 2008, shortly before everything collapsed). Most importantly, in Lucy, it has one of our all-time favorite screen dogs, and the film’s mostly canine-free second half builds towards an “Old Yeller”-style heartbreaker, before ultimately giving the dog, if not her owner, a happy ending.
Birthing a thousand ironic Chihuahua names the same way that everyone who’s ever had a goldfish named it Jaws, “Cujo,” directed by Lewis Teague from the Stephen King book, falls quite short of greatness but gets closer than you may remember. Reviews were sniffy at the time, but its has aged relatively well, albeit more down to the human performances than the deranged St. Bernard, for whom, despite all the icky slime and blood he’s doused in, we can’t help but feel a sorry, taking some of the edge off his scariness — it wasn’t Beethoven’s fault he was bitten by a rabid bat. Tense and claustrophobic, for most of its run time mother and son (Dee Wallace and Danny Pintauro, both excellent) are trapped in a stalled, baking car, miles from help, as the dog mounts salvo after salvo against them. Refreshingly, the husband/father is all but out of the picture (Wallace memorably screams in frustration at the boy when he wails for his dad), leaving it up to the woman to vanquish the monster. It might not tell us too much about our relationship with dogs, but “Cujo,” even with a lighter ending than King’s, is still a bracing corrective to the sweet shagginess so prevalent on the rest of his list.
As we mentioned, it’s an eclectic list, which means there were many other films that could of course have been included, most notably the daft fun of “Turner & Hooch“; the delightfully bittersweet animation-for-grown-ups of “My Dog Tulip“; 1963’s “The Incredible Journey” (the 1993 version isn’t bad either); any of the Lassie films, of which “Lassie Come Home” is probably the best and best-known; last year’s “The Drop“; Disney‘s first live action foray, 1959’s “The Shaggy Dog” (avoid the 2006 remake); “White Fang“; “Frankenweenie“; “All Dogs Go to Heaven“; Mike White‘s “Year of the Dog” and “Bolt.” We should also give a special shout out to the mini-trend for films like “John Wick,” “Red,” and “The Rover,” in which a dog motivates a revenge spree, though in most of those cases the dogs simply weren’t in the films enough for them to qualify here.
Then there are a host of middling-to-poor entries in the category: “Marley and Me,” “K-9,” and “Must Love Dogs” tried to skew a little older, but most of them can be found in the family film genre, like “Beethoven” and its many sequels; “Hotel for Dogs“; “Snow Dogs”; “Beverly Hills Chihuahua“; “the Fox and the Hound“; Red Dog“; “Balto“; and of course, how could we possibly forget, Chuck Norris‘ “Top Dog.” Pitch in with your own favorite canine cinematic gems below. Also, this:
–Jessica Kiang, Oli Lyttelton, Nik Grozdanovic