“Friendship between animals and humans is essential. It’s special. And friendship is essential to the soul.” So muses one of the many barflies in “Lucky,” which turned out to be Harry Dean Stanton’s swan song — as well as one of two movies this year featuring a largely unseen pet named Roosevelt. President Roosevelt the tortoise is the bestie of one Howard (David Lynch) in “Lucky,” whereas the eponymous cat’s death inspires our wayward heroine to go home and pay her respects in writer/director/star Noël Wells’ charming “Mr. Roosevelt.”
If interspecies friendships are essential to the soul, what does that make the loss of such a friend? A number of films explored that and other animal-related questions over the last 12 months, some quite movingly.
Howard wants to bequeath all his assets to his 100-year-old tortoise even though he recently went missing because, as he puts it, President Roosevelt might still have another century left — and Howard doesn’t have anyone else in his life. He also makes the sad, poignant observation that his pet’s shell isn’t just protection; it’s his coffin, and he has to drag it around for his entire life. “If it’s meant to be, I’ll see him again,” he says. “He knows where I am, and I’m leaving the gate open.”
Consider this a way to leave the gate open for all of 2017’s onscreen animals. But first, honorable mentions are owed to some of this year’s best creatures: the neomorph in “Alien: Covenant,” which breathed new life into an old monster; the kaiju of “Colossal”; the egg-eating Asset from “The Shape of Water”; the tentacled sex alien from “The Untamed”; and, of course, the porgs and crystal critters from “The Last Jedi.”
As tends to be the case, dogs got the most screen time. Frequent visitors of doesthedogdie.com were surely pleased by the ad campaign for “The Mountain Between Us,” which revealed in advance that the unnamed yellow Labrador helping Kate Winslet and Idris Elba survive their wintry ordeal does, in fact, survive; as spoilers go, that one was hard to complain about. The same can be said of “John Wick 2,” which is very unlike its predecessor in that Keanu’s pet is fine this time around. Some things are too heavy to go through twice.
Speaking of spoilers, turn back now if you haven’t seen “It Comes at Night”: Stanley, the scrappy dog in Trey Edward Shults’ follow-up to “Krisha,” wasn’t so lucky. He truly lived up to the man’s-best-friend designation during his limited screentime, however, offering companionship and protection in the face of whatever unnamed epidemic has wiped most of humanity out. (Ultra-important aside: “It Comes at Night” features a cameo by Charlie, the goat who played Black Phillip in fellow A24 release “The Witch.” This is one cinematic universe we should all be fully onboard with.)
Neither of them can lay claim to the festival circuit’s most prestigious doggo-exclusive award, however. That honor goes to Einstein, the pupper who was honored with the Palme Dog at the Cannes Film Festival for playing Bruno in Noah Baumbach’s “The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)”; he may have benefited from a weak field, as there weren’t too many notable canines on the Croisette this year, but few would deny that he’s a very good boy.
Hercules, one of the canines involved in the controversial “A Dog’s Purpose,” wasn’t so lucky. Footage of him filming a water scene, apparently against his will and causing him great distress, leaked online shortly before the would-be feel-good picture’s release; the recording was said to have been selectively edited by some, and the movie went on to make a great deal of money in spite of the scandal. Hope you’re doing better now, Hercules.
Not all the best best dogs are live-action, of course. Dante the stray steals many a scene in “Coco,” shepherding young Miguel through the land of the dead as we realize that he’s more than just a street dog — he’s an alebrije, a kind of spirit guide tasked with easing the passing of recently departed souls. It’s one of many folkloric rituals conveyed beautifully in Pixar’s latest.
The journey isn’t quite as mystical in “Pop Aye,” but it’s just as arduous. Kirsten Tan’s light drama tells of a disenchanted architect who embarks on a trip across Thailand with an elephant, which is less sappy and more endearing than it may appear — not least because Bong, who plays the pachyderm of the title, is a genuinely compelling onscreen presence.
Pop Aye seems a kind of cousin to Okja, easily the year’s most sympathetic CGI creation. Bong Joon-ho’s latest is also his sweetest, a far cry from the likes of “Snowpiercer” and “Mother” that serves to remind of the Korean auteur’s impressive range. Okja herself, a genetically modified super pig who becomes the best friend of a little girl named Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun), is like a live-action Totoro — the kind of nonhuman bestie that kids dream of and adults fondly recall imagining in their youth.
On a smaller — and, according to most, less cute — note, don’t forget about “Rat Film.” Theo Anthony’s ambitious documentary is about more than just our under-appreciated, disease-bearing friends, but footage of them in the trashcans and front yards of Baltimore is consistently striking all the same. “There ain’t never been a rat problem in Baltimore,” one exterminator says. “It’s a people problem.” Indeed.
Some others didn’t have films named for them and only appeared in passing but made lasting impressions during their brief appearances nevertheless: the circus lions in “Mister Universo,” the livestock on the fringes of “Staying Vertical,” the birds from “The Florida Project” and “The Ornithologist” (which, despite its title, has little do with birds). “The Challenge,” on the other hand, does. Yuri Ancarani’s documentary is the finest of the year not only for its immersive, experiential approach but for the many arresting POV shots of falcons swooping above their high-rolling owners’ luxe rides, one of which has a cheetah in the passenger seat.
There can only be one winner of the coveted, highly prestigious Black Phillip Award for Best Movie Animal, of course, and it goes to the ensemble cats of “Kedi.” The beloved street cats of Istanbul — including Sari, Duman, Gamsiz, Deniz, Bengü, Aslan Parçasi, and (who could forget?) Psikopat — meowed their way into the hearts of moviegoers far beyond Turkey. Ceyda Torun returned to her hometown for this nonfiction portrait of the former Constantinople’s cat population, which has resided there since the city was actually called that; even without their unofficial owners’ testimonies, we’re able to track their individual stories and get a clear sense of how different any two of them are. With a range of personalities, haunts, and communal caregivers, these feline friends aren’t quite man’s best friend — but they are 2017’s best animals.