It’s naïve to believe that all dog films are made equal; to even compare Beethoven to Beethoven’s Christmas Adventure is an exercise in futility, as there’s more that goes into a great dog movie than a cute dog. These are the best – and, as an added bonus, the worst – films that the world of dog cinema has to offer.
Air Bud (1997, Charles Martin Smith)
What is there to say about Air Bud that hasn’t been said already? Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman once said, “No form of art goes beyond ordinary consciousness as film does, straight to our emotions, deep into the twilight room of the soul,” and there is perhaps no film that better exemplifies that soul-penetrating quality of great cinema than this 1997 classic about a dog who is pretty good at basketball.
The title’s comparison of the dog to Michael Jordan is very apt, as the late canine actor and star of the film, Buddy, is perhaps the Michael Jordan of dog cinema. He died of a rare form of cancer shortly after Air Bud: Golden Receiver – the second film in the series that almost tops the first in terms of kooky dog antics – but there’s no denying that he left his mark on contemporary dog cinema in a big way. In terms of dog movies there is before Air Bud and after Air Bud; the latter category includes four sequels in which the dog plays different sports (canonical) and six spin-off films that follow his puppies that can speak (non-canonical).
The film itself is the perfect combination of campy ‘90s children’s movie sentimentality and every wacky dog video you’ve ever watched on YouTube. Air Bud really does have it all, from a dog eating numerous cups of yogurt to a wildly non-threatening clown antagonist.
That being said, “it all” also includes some vaguely problematic subtext, namely that the only black character in the movie is secretly a former NBA player and the class disparity between the wholesome middle-class protagonist and the comically evil working class villain makes the movie feel eerily disdainful towards people living in poverty.
So yes, Air Bud is probably a conservative film at heart, and yes, if the dog were alive today he would probably vote libertarian, but that doesn’t stop it from being a truly extraordinary blast of denim-heavy ‘90s nostalgia as well as the go-to template for the modern dog movie.
Umberto D. (1952, Vittorio De Sica)
The absolute finest film that dog-based art cinema has to offer. Umberto D. covers a lot of typical Italian neorealist ground – the eponymous protagonist is a working class man struggling with poverty, loneliness, and finding meaning in post-war Italy – and it does so in the most moving and stylistically innovative way possible within the confines of its ultra-realistic film movement.
But that’s not why you’re reading this. What really makes the film such an emotional rollercoaster is Umberto’s relationship with his dog Flike, the only real constant in his life as he struggles with losing virtually everything else he has. Flike is more than just a cute dog: he’s a cute dog who knows tricks, a dog who stands on his hind legs with a hat in his mouth to help Umberto beg for money and who can catch a pinecone in his mouth no problem.
Neorealism is often seen as a pretty unsentimental movement because its films tended to deal with broad societal issues rather than personal ones. Vittorio De Sica’s neorealist work, however, is the exception in that it merges the societal and the personal seamlessly, and his nuanced depiction of the bond between Umberto and Flike will make you emotional with a capital E. The film’s tense finale focuses entirely on their relationship, and it is without a doubt one of the most poignant sequences in the entire dog film canon.
Heart of a Dog (2016, Laurie Anderson)
I have cried during a grand total of three (3) movies in the past and, as of yesterday, this is the fourth. (One of the other ones is a dog film that didn’t make this list, Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie.) Laurie Anderson’s Heart of a Dog is challenging in a few different ways; for one thing, like Anderson’s music – which she is far more famous for than her film work – it’s produced with a free-flowing avant-garde sensibility that makes it difficult to pin down. Stream-of-consciousness narration, paintings of her dreams, and surveillance footage are all implemented to great effect, but the sidestepping of conventional documentary techniques means the film evades an easy summary. It’s perhaps more challenging, however, because at its heart it’s about death – specifically, the death of Anderson’s dog Lolabelle and her husband Lou Reed.
A little less than a week ago I found myself crying in a single-use bathroom in Oberlin’s Mudd library, unable to stop and embarrassed to walk out with puffy post-crying eyes even after I did manage to collect myself. My therapist told me this is called anticipatory grief; my childhood dog is dying, and I’ve been having short episodes like this irregularly for the last few weeks. All the significant deaths in my life – three grandparents, a cat, a guinea pig – have occurred when I was too young to fully understand them, and now that I’m old enough to see the finality of death I don’t entirely know how to come to terms with it.
Anderson’s film deals with this feeling of confusion and uncertainty in the face of loss. It’s a deeply poetic meditation on death and memory – how to remember someone who’s died, why we remember them, how to understand death as a part of life that can’t be changed but can be accepted.
Some reviews refer to the film as “heartbreaking,” but frankly that couldn’t be further from my own experience with it. It’s a dense film filled with some very weighty ideas that welcome diverse interpretations, – it covers everything from post-9/11 anxieties to the Tibetan Book of the Dead – but I chose to read it as a sort of cinematic handbook on grieving. Rather than heartbreaking I found it to be comforting, reassuring, warm; it’s a film that’s about loving someone so much that to lose them is unimaginable, but understanding that that love and joy you felt continues to exist even after they’re gone.
I still don’t feel ready for my dog to die and I don’t feel okay, but I’m okay with not feeling okay because I don’t think grief is supposed to be easy or comfortable or simple. At one point in the film, Laurie Anderson introduces the Buddhist idea of “feeling sad without being sad,” a concept that seems inherently contradictory but makes more sense the longer you think about it: don’t push away pain, but don’t let it weigh you down either. Heart of a Dog is a film I’m going to return to a lot in the next few months, a reminder that, as impossible as it might seem right now, I can learn to feel sad without actually being sad.
My Dog Tulip (2010, Paul and Sandra Fierlinger)
Underrated and underseen, this animated adaptation of author J.R. Ackerley’s memoir about his German Shepherd of 14 years covers all the highs and lows of dog-human friendship with both graphic detail – lots of poop – and incredible tenderness – lots of tears.
It’s bittersweet, taking a no-holds-barred approach to dog ownership by painting a complex and deeply felt portrait of the central relationship between a deeply lonely aging man and the erratic dog that becomes the first real love he’s ever known.
The sincerity and passion with which it was made is very literally visible in every frame; the two directors drew each individual frame on their computer, comprising over 58,000 separate drawings in the film’s 80-minute runtime. Even beyond the labor-intensive method by which it was produced, My Dog Tulip exudes unfathomable charm; it avoids the forced sentimentality that is unfortunately very common in dog movies, – see: A Dog’s Purpose – and instead achieves a more profound emotional impact simply by possessing an intimate understanding of the kind of bond Ackerley and Tulip share.
Much of plot revolves around Ackerley struggling in vain to find Tulip a suitable male dog to impregnate her, so if it wasn’t clear already, this is hardly a movie for young fans of the innocuous sports-based hijinks of the Air Bud quintilogy. It’s sometimes gross, yes, but also filled with a warmth and humor that can only come from someone who knows intimately the overwhelming joy of loving – and the pain of eventually losing – a dog.
White God (2014, Kornél Mundruczó)
Okay, so White God is clearly about more than just dogs if you spend more than a few minutes reflecting on it; it’s more aptly an allegory about Europe’s poor working class and immigrants rising up against their bourgeois oppressors. That being said, in the film’s metaphor those marginalized peoples are represented by abandoned mixed breed dogs that turn on the humans who abused them, so this is a dog movie on at least a superficial level.
And there are a lot of dogs. A big ol’ gang of them, all led by one Very Good Boy, Hagen, who is forcibly separated from his teenage owner by her father. Even amidst a cast of literally over 200 dogs – no CGI was used, this is truly a landmark film just based on the number of dogs onscreen at one time – the unbroken bond between Hagen and his owner Lily as they struggle to cope apart from each other is what gives the movie its emotional power.
That pathos-heavy side of the film also conveniently justifies its extraordinary brutality. Much of the plot revolves around animal cruelty and specifically dogfighting, which would make it unwatchable were it not were the flood of catharsis unleashed when the dogs unite against their human masters. It is an absolute bloodbath of dog-on-man violence, and it feels oh so right watching the literal underdogs tear their abusive owners apart.
It’s not easy viewing – in case it’s not clear already, there is a lot of dog death in this film – but it’s one of the rare contemporary movies that’s easy to label a masterpiece already; it’s a savage, incisive social commentary that also happens to have placed 250 stray dogs in loving homes in the process. Nice!
BOTTOM FIVE DOG FILMS OF ALL-TIME
Dog Star Man (1961-1964, Stan Brakhage)
Easily my favorite experimental film, but as a film critic it’s my job to be impartial: at 73 minutes and with very little dog screen-time, this is one of the most notoriously bad dog films ever made.
Must Love Dogs (2005, Gary David Goldberg)
There are at most 10 minutes of bona fide dog action in this misleading John Cusack/Diane Lane rom-com. I’ve done the math and that’s less than one-ninth of the film. A profound disappointment to say the least.
Cujo (1990, Lewis Teague)
Deeply inaccurate film; there’s no such thing as a mean dog. Dogs are nice, Stephen King! Write a better book next time.
Dogfight (1991, Nancy Savoca)
No dogs to be found here, but, honestly, it’s a pretty good River Phoenix movie. This one’s a tough call, but I simply can’t in good faith call it an acceptable dog film.
Reservoir Dogs (1992, Quentin Tarantino)
Where are the dogs, Quentin? Where are the dogs?