How about a list to end the new year? If you’ve got the luxury of vegging out over the winter holidays as I do, you may have been holing up with a stack of films to plug through. Might I suggest some dog movies to liven things up?
In chronological order, here is my list of most highly recommended dog movies. This list is geared mostly towards adult viewers. I’m skipping over the more saccharine, family-oriented fare of the 1930s through 1960s, as I don’t have much to say on the predictable titles that most immediately come to mind. The films below are not necessarily my “favorite” per se, but they’re the ones that left a deep impression, for reasons that I try to explain below. I didn’t include full summaries for everything, because you can easily read them elsewhere — clicking on any of the titles will take you to an IMDB link, for starters. Trailers and favorite excerpts are embedded here and there.
Nanook of the North (1921). Dir. Robert Flaherty.
"The shrill piping of the wind, the rasp and hiss of driving snow, the mournful howls of Nanook's master dog typify the melancholy spirit of the North."
Okay, so the dogs aren’t central to this one, but rather a symbol that is alternately shoved to the center of the frame as some of the most fierce actors in this survivalist drama, or relegated to the periphery — left outside in the cold, while the family and puppies huddle in the sheltered igloo. The closing scene of poor huskies slowly becoming snow-puppies in the oncoming blizzard is such a haunting, indelible image, perhaps one of the most devastating that I can think of in film history. In an instant, it presents the melding of nature and creature, the elemental and the organic more effectively than any other early film that I know. No wonder audiences at the time were inspired to praise the power of a well-plotted image; the dogs of Nanook don’t get much screen time, but they are significant, and they really make the film cohere for me.
Flaherty’s documentary techniques would come under fire for staging “reality” as he wished to see it presented, but that matters little to me in this context. There’s a lot here about the dogs that remains up to the viewer’s imagination in the oldest sense of the word, which is often as it should be when it comes to film.
Snoopy Come Home (1972). Dir. Bill Melendez.
The Golden Age of Snoopy feature-length films was short-lived, but it was nice while it lasted. I’m a huge fan of the world’s favorite bulbous-nosed beagle and his human gang. For me, the pre-1980s cartoons (ending with Bon Voyage Charlie Brown) are the cream of the crop. The plots usually enhanced the Peanuts universe in some meaningful way, while the dialogue was peppered with classic quips from the daily strips.
Aside from the stunning revelation that Snoopy had a previous owner (*faint*) who happened to love him very much (so why did they give him up??), what makes this film a childhood favorite is its jaunty soundtrack. What the songs lack in lyrical finesse, they make up for in catchiness — no surprise, since they were composed by the masters of musical kitsch, Richard and Robert Sherman.
Charlie Brown: “I never thought of myself as being a dog owner. Snoopy was more like a friend.”
Linus: “Friends get bored too, Charlie Brown.”
Gates of Heaven (1978). Dir. Errol Morris.
This is an early feature by now-famed documentary director, Errol Morris, on the relocation and final resettlement of a pet cemetery in California. While there was potential for the documentary to turn hokey (as indeed parts of the film cannot help but be), I thought Morris remained respectful of his human subjects. He is extremely adept at teasing out personalities and showing how they’re influenced by time, event, and place. This film is more about people than pets, about California Valley culture in the 1970s than pet cemeteries more broadly, but make no mistake that dogs factored into shaping their particular communities.
My only criticism, or at least question, is — why aren’t the interviewees ever featured with their own living pets? We’re not told if they currently have pets, how they themselves see pets as part of their own, daily lives, names, breeds, types, or anything. Aside from one little random lapdog, we are not shown any live animals throughout the entire documentary. It’s very strange and definitely skews the documentary balance in favor of the humans, whom are ultimately Morris’ focus, but this nevertheless robs the documentary of some potential for greater warmth and vivacity.
Journey of Natty Gann (1985). Dir. Jeremy Paul Kagan.
For the sake of narrowing down this list, I eliminated wolf movies (as much as I wanted to include titles like Never Cry Wolf  and Mononoke hime ). However, I’m keeping this story of a teenaged runaway accompanied by a wolf-dog, because I think it’s fair to say he’s not portrayed as a pure wolf in the story, but a hybrid – an uncanny creature that’s not all that he appears to be, much like Natty Gann herself.
This movie will always be close to my heart. Having rewatched it recently, I realized how much it must have influenced me as a kid. Things I learned from the world of Natty Gann:
- Adults are not to be trusted.
- If you are kind to animals, they will be kind to you. Similarly, if you whip an animal and encourage it to fight, watch out that one day that violence you unleashed won’t turn against you. The same goes for humans.
- Girls can be tough without being conventionally pretty. And girls with badass wolf-dogs are the apex of awesomeness.
- Sometimes you gotta eat out of dumpsters just to survive.
- Work sucks, but there are times when you’ve gotta be thankful to have it, even when it could kill you.
The Adventures of Milo and Otis (1986). Dir. Masanori Hata.
Of all the “incredible journey” type animal films out there, I consider Milo and Otis one of the more creative and endearing. It’s narrated mostly from the perspective of animals, with nary a human to be seen throughout the whole show (I don’t count the omniscient narrator). I do wish I could see the original version, presumably dubbed in Japanese. While Dudley Moore’s voice acting was sufficient for children, it is silly and downright grating on my adult ears now. I do, however, have to give him props for his most inspired performance of expectant pugs and cats. Truly one of the highlights of his career, I’m sure.
Best in Show (2000). Dir. Christopher Guest.
I think Christopher Guest does smart, genre-defying work. It’s a coincidence that he plays my favorite character in this pseudo-documentary spoof on the US dog fancy. He takes the role of a down-to-earth Bloodhound handler. I’m quite familiar with his cast of regulars, and they keep impressing me with the personality reinventions and fresh performances each time. I consider this to be Guest’s most balanced film yet, where he most successfully treads the fine line between playful satire and mean-spirited laughs at the expense of small town America, which some of his other films are more merciless about lampooning.
What I love about this film is that it shows that the purebred dog fancy is just as much about the people in each breed as it is about the dogs. No matter any inaccuracies of portrayal, we can probably agree that very different type of people are drawn to each very different breed of dog. Guest’s film does make you speculate as to why, even if it’s based on pure fancy (pun intended).
Anyway, here’s a trailer:
Amores Perros [Love's a Bitch] (2000). Dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu.
This might be the most difficult film of any on my list. It’s violent, it’s sexy, it’s loud, it’s complicated, it’s hard to stomach. It’s incredibly wrought with cruelty, driven by the emotional charge of all the shitty things that people do to each other, and the way cruelty is perpetuated by the thirst for revenge and redemption. Dogs are the vehicle through which people express their various social inadequacies. Even dog fighting is glamorized to a point, which made many scenes really hard to watch (despite being assured that no animals were harmed in the making of this film).
If you find it difficult to be emotionally or intellectually challenged, this film is not for you. After my first viewing, I wanted to exhort dog lovers not to watch it — not because I think it should be censored, but because it wreaked havoc on my cinephile senses. I am not accustomed to watching films that make me feel so physically wretched. But I’ve since come around to it, though I recommend it with some strong caution. If you’ve ever shared your heart with a dog, you will get a lot more out of this film, but you’ll also react a lot more viscerally.
I’m actually not very satisfied with the HQ English-language trailer for this film, but I haven’t found an acceptable substitute, so here are some screenshots of more pleasant moments instead:
Kala shi tiao gou 卡拉是条狗 [Cala, My Dog!] (2003). Dir. LU Xuechang.
This is probably the most least-known film on my list, but it’s truly undeserving of its obscurity amongst English-reading/speaking audiences. As of yet, there is no US domestic release, although you can purchase a region-3 DVD with English subtitles through Yesasia.com (no idea of the quality of subs).
When an outbreak of rabies prompts the cops to actually enforce the local dog-licensing ordinance for once, a family dog named Cala is impounded. Since there’s no way that the family can afford to purchase a dog registration on the father’s limited income, they resort to all sorts of methods in a frantic attempt to spring their pet before her deadline to be destroyed. This film typifies modern Beijing to me, as laid out by its rules, and its Rules with a capital C-C-P.
It is rather inadequately classified as a comedy. I don’t know… maybe in a Coen Brothers sense. But it pushes reality to the point of absurdity and total aggravation, such that the very ending is rendered unbelievable and dreamlike — I’m really not sure if it’s a happy ending! You will have to see and judge for yourself.
And though I’ve seen it in person before, a couple scenes were still a bit of a culture shock to me — namely, a short shot of a meat truck supplying freshly butchered dogs, and a scene of a back-alley pet market, where peddlers sell small caged animals and animals that shouldn’t be in such tiny cages.
Inu no eiga 犬の映画 [All About My Dog] (2005). Dir. Atsushi Sanada (“Marimo” segment), et. al.
The Japanese make great dog movies (refer to Milo and Otis, for example), but I can’t say I’ve found many examples where they do justice to Nihon ken. There’s a reason that Hachiko monogatari, the 1987 feature-length about the famous loyal Akita, or its recent American remake, and Mari to koinu no monogatari, the 2007 film about the Shiba Inu that helped her puppies survive the 2004 Niigata earthquake, did not make my list. I think they’re terrible movies, for reasons that I might detail later.
Inu no eiga, on the other hand, is one that I would recommend for general audiences with no reservations. Again, it might take some hunting to track down a copy with English subtitles, since it has not been released in the US, but there was at least a Region 3 DVD released at some time in Hong Kong, with English subtitles.
Several directors collaborated on this portmanteau film that bounces kinetically from animation to musical to infomercial to anthropomorphic romance to straight-up, serious drama. The main story arc is about a modern-day adman who recalls his boyhood pet, a Shiba Inu named Pochi, whom he lost when an asthma attack sent him to the emergency hospital. Pochi sets off in search of his boy, and has a series of adventures with an assorted cast of strange people along the way. I can’t even begin to summarize it, but suffice to say, the scenarios were conceived by true dog enthusiasts who allow their poochies to perform, as often as possible.
The last segment, a standalone piece about a border collie named Marimo and the girl she spent her lifetime with, had the Doggy Daddy and me openly weeping in a Taiwanese movie theater even after we thought we couldn’t cry anymore at the end of the film. As much as it tears my heart out every time, it’s still the most potent 10 minutes that I’ve ever seen to describe a lifetime of love between any dog and her human.
My Dog, Tulip (2009). Dir. Paul and Sandra Fierlinger.
Nope, I couldn’t quite make it to 2010 with my list, though I did see this in the theater within the last year. This animated memoir recounts British writer J.R. Ackerley’s German Shepherd bitch. I don’t know much about the Fierlingers, the filmmakers, but they definitely put together something to be proud of. They have an eye for form (loose sketches and contour drawings), and the human traces of production are insistently foregrounded in their style. Their idiosyncratic aesthetics succeed on their own merits, where whimsically hand-drawn computer renderings of a not-too-old world wiggle with life and substance — a refreshing difference from the typical CGI fare that currently dominates the big screen, and which I’m still slow to accept.
This is not a sappy little animal story for kids. Ackerley, voiced by Christopher Plummer, is candid, explicit, unabashedly sentimental, and eloquent about his canine companion, such that you wonder at points if there might be something wrong with him… until you find yourself unable to withhold your laughter at some of the most ridiculous moments of the film because he does, after all, speak a recognizable truth.
A good half of the film is devoted to Ackerley’s efforts to “marry” his unspayed Alsatian — that is, to find her a mate and breed her in order to satisfy his own sense of responsibility towards her anthropomorphized sexual needs. We call them backyard breeders around here, but for Ackerley, it’s more like terrace breeder, living as he does in a small, urban flat. As politically incorrect as such a practice is amongst contemporary viewers, particularly American ones I think, I appreciated the film’s fidelity to its source. It does also give gentle voice to some of the unintended emotional consequences that come with haphazard breeding.
I think where I might agree with Ackerley is that dogs do teach us how to be in the world and how to interact with other people in ways that may force us out of our own element, but they do not teach us to like other people as unconditionally as our own dogs love us. We’re overreaching if we say that love for dogs can be broadly applied, just because most dogs themselves are gregarious by nature. The love we have for dogs might not even make us better individuals!
But I think it might still make us better people, in a more abstract, generalized sense.
More dog films can be found by clicking my blog’s FILMS category, to the left, or accessing the index of films reviewed and screencapped on this blog.