A Decade’s Worth of Canine-Centric Cinema

By The Bark, December 2009

Cave of the Yellow Dog, Still Life with Animated Dogs, Dark Water Rising, Traveling with Pets

My Dog Skip, UP, Wendy and Lucy, Wallace & Gromit

For lovers of lists, the end of the year brings great rewards as the ubiquitous “best of” compilations pour in from every corner of popular culture — favorite films, indispensable music, memorable news moments. Equal parts honor roll, gamesmanship and shopping list, they offer a chance for reflection and an opportunity to savor recent pleasures. We couldn’t resist compiling our own roll call of favorites for the “best dog cinema” of the past decade: nine films, one documentary subject and two canine-stealing scenes that we found enchanting or thought-provoking—and often both.

Up, 2009
Pete Docter
Cartoon dogs are the ultimate anthropomorphization and in Up, the sheer delight with which the Pixar animators created their canine characters is infectious—you will laugh at every absurd my-dog-does-that trait and be awe-struck by the flawless visual detailing.


Wendy and Lucy, 2008
Kelly Reichardt

The misadventures of the 20-something Wendy (Michelle Williams) and her stoic mutt, Lucy (played by the director’s own dog) during a trip from Indiana to Alaska. A meditation on possibility, melancholy and loss—the scenes between Wendy and Lucy are touching and real to the core.


The Savages, 2007

Tamara Jenkins
Sometimes a single scene is worth the price of admission, although this funny, sad and authentic study of generational family dynamics is rich with memorable performances and superb writing. An aging Golden Retriever has a minor but pivotal role, inspiring an underachieving character (Laura Linney) to a transformative revelation. 


Year of the Dog, 2007

Mike White
Despite some cringe-worthy moments, this makes our list as one of the few films to tackle the passion and eccentricities of devoted “dog people,” portrayed here by Molly Shannon and Peter Sarsgaard. There’s real humor and heart lurking behind the manic performances and script, and a touching compassion throughout.


Traveling with Pets, 2007
Directed by Vera Storozheva

Russian with English Subtitles
A single brief scene involving a woman, a train and a running dog vividly captures the elusiveness of freedom and love in this rarely seen film. Look for it on the film-festival circuit or on cable, and take a chance on this luminous, beautifully acted meditation on a rural woman coming into her own following the sudden death of her deeply unsympathetic husband. (Ignore the title — something must have been lost in translation, as the “pets” include a cow, a goat and a stray dog, and all have minor roles.)


Dealing Dogs, 2006

Tom Simon and Sarah Teale

This HBO documentary exposes the business of buying and selling dogs for medical research as seen through the hidden camera of an animal-rights activist who infiltrated an Arkansas kennel owned by one of the country’s most notorious canine dealers. Brave and unflinching, it’s a story that has to be told. Fortunately, the film appears to have inspired legislation to combat this kind of exploitation.


Hurricane Katrina Documentaries
Trouble the Water by Catherine Laine, Left Behind Without a Choice by Lynne Bengston, Dark Water Rising by Mike Shiley, Mine: Taken by Katrina by Geralyn Rae Pezanoski: Important films all, they document the infamous natural and human-exacerbated disaster that resulted in a reshaping of the way Americans think about their pets and how they respond in emergencies. The stories here are heartbreaking, inspiring and unforgettable.


Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, 2005
Steve Box and Nick Park
Another quirky British claymation adventure starring Wallace and his loyal and long-suffering dog, Gromit. When the village’s “giant vegetable” competition is threatened by voracious bunnies, Wallace takes matters into his own hands, aided (and often rescued) by his sidekick, Gromit. Both children and adults can enjoy this delightful and hilarious tale.


The Cave of the Yellow Dog, 2005
Byambasuren Davaa
A simple story of a young Mongol girl and her family, told against an epic landscape. With its cast of non-professional actors, the film is documentary-like in its pacing and unfiltered gaze at a beautiful other world. When the girl claims a lost dog as her own, the drama begins. A cultural revelation, the film is a reflection on innocence, wonder and the human-animal bond.


Still Life with Animated Dogs, 2001
Paul Fierlinger

This 60-minute gem traces the filmmaker’s tumultuous life from Stalinist Czechoslovakia to the United States as seen through his relationships with his dogs. It is Fierlinger’s loyalty and caring for his dog that sustains him even in an atmosphere of oppression and suspicion. Each dog serves as a marker of the filmmaker’s personal growth from a misanthrope to an artist who appreciates the divine powers of nature. Exquisite storytelling.


My Dog Skip, 2000

Jay Russell
A faithful adaptation of Willie Morris’ classic book about a shy boy growing up in 1940s Mississippi with the help of his beloved dog, Skip. The amusing and touching vignettes are performed by an exceptionally talented Jack Russell and a youthful Frankie Muniz. This paean to a boy’s first dog is told sweetly and sincerely, and will elicit waves of nostalgia.

Best in Show, 2000
Christopher Guest
The tagline from the film is “Some pets deserve a little more respect than others,” and what could have been simply a 90-minute gag turns into a hilarious character study of show-dog devotees. Aside from the searing wit with which these obsessions are made, the film’s genius lies in its kernels of truth, recognizable by all dog lovers.

Do you have a favorite dog film or canine-stealing scene from the past decade? We’d love to hear about it—post your comments below.
 

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