Top Dogs (or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Puns)

I’ve always had a thing for the underdog, so much so that I used to wish I was one. From the age of four when asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would reply: ‘a dog,’ before crawling off, barking. I wore through every pair of trousers I had at the knees.

It was a crushing disappointment, aged roughly six, when I realised it wouldn’t in fact be possible, and to regroup I immersed myself in the world of canine cinema.

I thought choosing my top ten dog films of all-time would be easy, but the more I watched, the more I realised it’s actually a difficult genre to define. We all know that the delightful Jack Russell Uggie stole the show during The Artist, but does that make it a ‘dog film’, or is the title reserved for kiddy cartoons starring our four-legged friends? Then there’s how you define a good work in a genre that covers children’s animations, life action and even dog films with no dogs in them?

To settle it I divided them into cat(sorry)agories:

Kids’ films
I’ve always been fond of 101 Dalmatians, but if it came down to one top dog, I would have to say Lady and The Tramp. This was my first ever VHS (presented to me after I’d fallen into a patch of nettles) and it obviously sparked not only my love of dog themed cinema, but my feminist leanings, as I always wanted to be the Tramp. He seemed to have much more fun sleeping in a railway station and eating spaghetti than Her at Home.

Best scene-stealers
Jack Russells seem built for this category, and while Uggie is the obvious contender, I have a soft spot for wire-haired Arthur from Beginners, who really made the film stick in the mind long after watching. I particularly enjoyed watching Ewan McGregor giving him a guided tour of his apartment, both of them doleful-eyed and loveable, and – fact fans – so strong was their bond that Ewan immediately went and got his own four-legged companion after filming.

Best non-dog dog films
Not a pooch in sight in Reservoir Dogs, Slumdog Millionaire, Dogma, Dog Day Afternoon or Dogtooth. Shame.

The charming, if more than a tad bleak, Swedish film My Life As a Dog has mere glimpses of the main character’s dog, as well as mournful references to Laika, the first dog in space. It’s a brilliant work about a grim childhood, only lightened by boxing and boxers (well, a terrier actually, but that doesn’t sound as good.)

Also, weirdly, Must Love Dogs is surprisingly dog-light…I think they just liked the title. The central characters meet at a dog park, with borrowed pets (including one called Mother Theresa) who are quickly relegated to bit parts. Big mistake in my view, as MT was much more cute and cuddly than John Cusack.

Best in show
A good canine film ought to be funny, endearing and full of character, and Argentine film Bombon El Perro is hard to beat. I’d never heard of an Argentine Dogo before, but if they’re all like Bombon – sign me up! Enormous, slathery-chopped and strikingly white, he’s just what down-on-his-luck former garage worker Coco needs, when he’s given the pedigree specimen. Cue a fantastic shot of the two of them driving through the stunningly barren landscape, en route to various dog shows. It’s charming to see the renewal of Coco’s life, as well as exploring the many sides of dog behaviour – from blind aggression to obedience, all in the most expressive of canine faces.

Red Dog, the little Aussie hit that made it big is well worth a watch too. Following another little known breed – the gorgeous, auburn Kelpie – it’s the story of how one stray dog brought together a mining community. It’s more ‘blockbuster’ than the wonderfully understated Bombon, but if you’re looking for a more mainstream affair you can’t go wrong with Red. Based on a true story, it’s moving, silly and one of very few films with a ginger hero.

I also love adult animation My Dog Tulip, a whimsical reflection on the life of a dog owner. Based on a book of the same name written in 1956 by JR Ackerley about rescuing Tulip, a German Shepard, from an abusive home, this film can’t fail to make you smile and well up in equal measures. Beautifully narrated by Christopher Plummer, you really should see it now.

So, in summary, whether you’re an underdog, top dog, or just dog tired, there’s a canine film to suit every mood. Now in order to be fair I’m going to go and watch cat films for a while.