Take Five: Man’s Best Friend.

Jackpot Jones Local Hero.

Jackpot Jones Local Hero.

First, an apology. It’s been more than a month since I last put up a post here, and that’s just not right. I blame my personal life, which started intruding into my movie time when my father slipped and fell and wound up in long-term care. He’ll recover, I think. And then my dog, Jones, got sick. And then Jones died. And that was terrible.

Except to host a couple of post-show Q-and-A sessions at the recent Greentopia Film Festival – commitments I made a month earlier – I took several weeks off from seeing new movies in theaters. For a film critic, that’s too long. I’ve caught a few VOD releases at home, but getting back to a movie house waited until this week, when I watched Get Hard (don’t bother) and It Follows for a second time. I first sat down to see that in Toronto last fall, and my stepdaughter loves horror movies. In effect, she helped me get off the couch and out of my funk.

Last night I watched Furious 7, and I’m back in the swing now, I think. But before I close the books on the last month of my life, here’s a quick list of the five best dog movies I know:

my dog tulip (new yorker films) blog

‘My Dog Tulip.’ (New Yorker Films)

My Dog Tulip. In a world where “animation” equals Disney, it took too long for someone to make a ’toon that depicted the relationship between human and pet with sophistication and mature tenderness. And yes, that meant including more than we needed to know about bodily functions. Based on J.R. Ackerley’s 1956 memoir, Tulip is an elegant, intimate recollection of the connection that grew and endured between the author and his German Shepherd. Christopher Plummer does fine voice work as Ackerley, assaying the landscape of affection and bizarre fascination that unspools organically during his 15 years with Tulip. The hand-drawn animation is wonderful to look at, and the story it tells is simple and utterly unforgettable.

Turner & Hooch. Yes, Turner & Hooch. Have you seen it lately? Tom Hanks, fresh off Big in 1989 but still primarily known for his comic chops, gives good controlled mania as a neatnik small-town cop whose life is turned upside down by his inadvertent adoption of a drooling French Bull Mastiff who happened to witness his owner’s murder. Journeyman director Roger Spottiswoode has never made a great movie, but he finds a deft balance here between goofball hijinks and earned emotion – both in Hanks’ budding romance with a soft-spoken vet (Mare Winningham) and his growing fondness for that darn dog.

It’s a Dog’s Life. This 1955 film is narrated by its title character, an English Bull Terrier who survives an early life of urban dogfighting to eventually find happiness as a pedigreed show pup. In real life, it hardly ever works this way: English Bull Terriers, like their Pit Bull cousins, are routinely inbred and abused by owners who see them as savage raw materials rather than animals with the same loving instincts as every other dog.

Michele Williams and Lucy in 'Wendy and Lucy.' (Oscilloscope Laboratories)

Michele Williams and Lucy in ‘Wendy and Lucy.’ (Oscilloscope Laboratories)

Wendy and Lucy. I picked this 2008 film over the somewhat similarly themed Umberto D. (1952) only because it might be easier to find. Michelle Williams plays an impoverished woman, living out of her car while contemplating a relocation to Alaska, who leaves her dog outside a convenience store. Then she’s arrested for shoplifting, and when she returns from jail the dog is long gone. Kelly Reichardt’s remarkable film is lean and relentless – Wendy can’t catch a break, and her despair at losing her only real emotional connection is palpable. Ultimately, it’s both an affecting portrait of life’s potential for chaotic devastation, and a reminder that love can sometimes be better expressed by something other than a traditional happy ending.

Hachi: A Dog’s Tale. Traditionally, dog movies aren’t allowed to reach their final reels without sadness creeping in. Hachi, directed in 2009 by Lasse Hallström, is probably the finest example of this wretched trend. It’s based on a true story of an Akita whose bond to his owner lasted for years beyond the man’s death, and if you watch this film to the end you’d better have Kleenex handy. It’s sentimental in the worst sense of the word – manipulating your tears like a puppeteer plucks at a marionette’s strings – and yet there’s a strong sense of earnestness to the affair that keeps it resonant and true. The only way to avoid making this movie sentimental would have been to not make it at all – which, now that I think of it, sums up the dilemma of anyone who’s ever loved, and lost, a dog.

And now, back to our show.