Movies have the power to make us laugh, cry, and shiver in fear—but most of all they are a reflection of what it means to be human. Of course, dogs have always been important to movies—because what is more human than sharing emotions and experiences with a dog? There have been 90 Academy Awards ceremonies, and none of them—this is true; believe it or not—have properly acknowledged the contributions to film made by dogs. After a banner year for dogs on film in 2018, The Ringer is changing that. Welcome to the first annual Dog Oscars. And the winners are ...
Best Dog Ensemble
Lindsay Zoladz: I would have watched Debra Granik’s quietly excellent survivalist drama Leave No Trace much sooner if somebody had told me there were so many dogs in it. So I will tell you: There are so many dogs in it! And not just any ordinary dogs (even though there is no such thing as an ordinary dog; all dogs are extraordinary), but service dogs helping veterans work through emotional problems, which is a truly special genre of canine. The supporting dog cast is stacked, including a little guy named Willie Nelson—Willie Nelson!—who keeps his truck driver owner company on long drives. But the true scene-stealer is Boris, a fluffy, black emotional-support collie who helps his owner with his PTSD. “He can sense when somebody’s restless,” Boris’s human explains in one wrenching scene: “He can nudge them awake and help them out of the dreams that way. That’s what he does for me.”
Dog Most Excited to See His Movie Family
Alyssa Bereznak: Borras, the family dog in Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, has one job and one job only: to guard the gate of his home with an unflinching sense of duty and greet his family with pure and uninhibited zeal. Does he sometimes try to escape? Sure. Does he do too many poops in the hallway? Yes, but he is only dog. And Borras the acteur knows exactly what he’s doing.
Yalitza Aparicio was raised by a single mother who worked as a housemaid; in Roma, her first acting gig, she gives the performance of a lifetime portraying Cleo, a domestic worker in 1970s Mexico City. Borras too, has an inspiring origin story. In 2016, he was found by a professional animal trainer, tied to a wall of a vacant lot and on the verge of dying from hunger and thirst. After being hospitalized for a month for a handful of medical issues—including scabies, conjunctivitis, bronchitis, and fleas—he made a miraculous recovery. When Cuarón called for a dog that resembled his childhood pet, Borras fit the bill. He has since won the hearts and minds of the masses, landing a barking feature in a song on the Roma soundtrack (“Cumbia del Borras”), and a growing, Photoshop-adept fan base.
All the hype is justified. Borras delivers an impressive first performance, drawing from his well of harrowing life experience to depict resilience, obedience, and desperation. He uses his athleticism to celebrate his journey of recovery—he is a firecracker in dog form, launching into the air and twisting and flailing against the glow of his movie family’s front gate. Most notably, he understands his marks so intuitively, so precisely, that he becomes an essential flourish in many of Cuarón’s painting-like backdrops.
If that’s not a dog who’s excited to see his family come home, I don’t know what is.
Best Behavior by a Dog in a Movie
Alison Herman: All dogs, as we know, are incredible. But how many dogs are so incredible that they need explicit permission to eat a big, juicy steak? Such is the love Charlie Cooper has for his actual human, Bradley Cooper, which A Star Is Born transmutes seamlessly and ingeniously to Charlie’s fictional human, Jackson Maine. In real life, we are comforted with the knowledge that Charlie and Bradley continue to enjoy each other’s company in various downtown Manhattan dog parks; in the movie, our hearts are broken by Charlie’s pure-hearted dedication to an owner we know won’t be long for this world. Charlie’s restraint practically triples the emotional impact of A Star Is Born’s already devastating final scenes. What is the immediate gratification of a medium-rare rib eye, after all, when held up against the long-term satisfaction of an owner’s love? It’s the canine version of the marshmallow test, and Charlie passes with flying colors.
Most Barks by a Dog in a Movie
Bereznak: The world is a chaotic place, filled with suspicious beings and alarming sounds. And sometimes, despite the best interests of all parties involved, a dog just has to bark at them. In the fifth vignette of the Coen brothers’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, a Jack Russell terrier named President Pierce accompanies his owners—brother and sister Gilbert and Alice Longabaugh—on a trek along the Oregon Trail. President Pierce does not take kindly to the journey and feels the need to bark, specifically at the oxen hauling other parties’ wagons. Longabaugh’s fellow journeymen grow so irritated by the dog that President Pierce is eventually kicked out of the caravan. And ultimately his bark leads to the death of his human companions. It’s a tragic fable about what happens when an otherwise loyal dog does not listen to its owner. But what are you gonna do? Sometimes anxiety gets the best of us! And whatever his character’s fate, Decoy—the Russell Terrier from Studio Animal Services in Castaic, California—carried the role with force.
Most Blood Absorbed by a Dog in a Movie
Kate Knibbs: This one isn’t even close, folks. The dog with the most blood on its fur in a 2018 film was, indisputably, adorable white Westie Olivia, in her starring turn as Bastian, the dog in Game Night who gets absolutely drenched in human blood. Special props for Olivia’s physical transformation here—it must have been “ruff” to get the dye out, but it really sets the performance apart.
In Memoriam: A Tribute to Towne the Cat
Bereznak: [The lights dim; a hush falls over the crowd.] We now take a moment in this awards ceremony to honor a special actor we lost this year. Though no longer in our midst, his contributions to the world of motion pictures endure. [A woman in a ball gown begins playing Sarah McLachlan’s “In the Arms of an Angel” on a grand piano to the side of the stage.] His name is Towne. This year, Towne starred in Can You Ever Forgive Me? as Jersey, the enduring and occasionally judgmental companion of Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy). After earning critical acclaim for a performance that culminates in his character’s death, he himself passed away last year. As his trainer Kim Krafsky tells The Ringer, he was “more like a dog than a cat.” And “was one of the greats.” Either way, Towne’s on-screen presence transcended species. He is survived by his brother, who currently has a regular role in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and just wrapped John Wick 3. He will be greatly missed.
Most Poop by a Dog in a Movie
Zoladz: Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma is an artistic achievement—a beautifully acted, masterfully directed living fresco of cinema. It’s such a great movie that it’s difficult to think of a problem with it, except perhaps for one: The dog poops way too much. Like, way too much—a distracting amount, even in a movie that uses dog poop as a minor plot element.
Cleaning up after Borras—who, as we’ve already established above, deeply loves his family—is one of Cleo’s most grueling responsibilities. Since he doesn’t have much of a yard to run around in, Borras usually relieves himself in the family’s stone-paved driveway/outdoor foyer, a space that also sees perilously frequent foot traffic. Naturally, somebody’s always stepping in it. In all other manners of her work, Cleo is depicted as a diligently selfless housekeeper. So this movie—in which every other detail seems meticulously planned and meaningful—either asks us to believe that the one thing Cleo is bad at is cleaning up dog poop, or just that Borras goes way too much. I mean, all dogs go to the bathroom (which is the name of my favorite sequel in the All Dogs Go to Heaven series), but this is not normal:
I will give Cleo the benefit of the doubt here. But given that these are the Dog Oscars, I will give it to Borras, too, because I can’t stay mad at him. Does he poop too much? Absolutely. But we still love him..
The Lassie B. DeMille Lifetime Achievement Award
Andrew Gruttadaro: For many years, dogs could only get cast as dogs. Time and time again, they were passed over, shooed away, told to “stick to barks.” It took one very ambitious, very athletic Golden Retriever to change that. Buddy the dog, fresh off a Dog Emmy–winning performance as Comet on Full House, broke the dog barrier in 1997 with Air Bud, proving once and for all that dogs can do anything, including shoot a basketball. His influence is seen in every following Air Bud film—which would expand from basketball to, improbably, football, baseball, and volleyball—and every time a dog appears in a film being more than just a dog. It is because Buddy shot his shot that future canines are able to take theirs.
Buddy passed away long before anyone was decent enough to create an Oscars for dogs, and thus has no Dog Oscars to his name. But with this lifetime achievement award, his efforts as a performer and a trailblazer—and his ability to mercilessly break 12-year-olds’ ankles—will not be forgotten.
Best Dog-Related Bit
Miles Surrey: With all the (very warranted) focus on Tom Hardy’s gonzo performance, it’s easy to forget that Venom is a superhero flick with a surprisingly deep bench of animals. Michelle Williams’s character owns the perfectly named, fluffy cat Mr. Belvedere; Hardy jumps into a lobster tank and eats a live lobster. But the best animal of the bunch was a tiny dog who was surprisingly integral to Venom’s nonsensical plot.
Near the end of the movie, Hardy’s Eddie Brock is separated from his symbiote BFF, Venom. They need to bond again to stop the evil Carlton Drake, but first, Venom has to find a new, temporary host. Enter this random dog in a San Francisco hospital:
Don’t worry, the little guy isn’t harmed; this wouldn’t be very Dog Oscars–friendly otherwise. Instead, he’s the middle man—middle dog?—in a symbiote transfer between dog, Michelle Williams, and eventually, Tom Hardy. Because of this masterful dog gag, not only does Venom reunite with his original human host—we’re also treated to one of the weirdest movie makeouts … ever?
This unsung canine hero played a small but crucial part in saving the Earth from symbiotes, and also in a three-way makeout session between two humans and horny, black Flubber. I hope his owner rewarded him with a biscuit or two, and perhaps a bath.
Best Performance by a Dog—Musical or Comedy
Gruttadaro: What a tough category. Of course, there’s the animated canines of Isle of Dogs, many of whom are deserving; and the dogs of Show Dogs, who did all they could to elevate the performance of a less-committed Will Arnett. But really, this is a heated two-dog race between a couple of pups who are already going home winners: A Star Is Born’s Charlie and Game Night’s Olivia. Both dogs were integral to their films, whether it be the way Charlie shoulders much of the emotional weight of ASIB’s climax, or the way Olivia clings to the bosom of Jesse Plemons, casting an image of twisted dependency. Charlie didn’t eat the steak; Olivia was a queen of physical comedy.
Ultimately, and as is the case with all awards shows, this comes down to campaigning—and let’s just say Olivia’s bid is much less tainted by the boundless desires of humans. Driven by a need to win Human Oscars, Charlie’s importance has been woefully ignored by the cast and crew of A Star Is Born. No mention of how he happily ran alongside Lady Gaga when she was dressed in that weird skirt; no acknowledgement of how he is an apparently magical dog who can walk through doors in order to sit in mourning outside of a garage. There can be a hundred people in a room, and apparently the owner of an incredibly talented dog will refuse to talk to any of them about him.
And so, in what was a tour de force year for her, Olivia the dog is going to take this award home.
Best Performance by a Dog—Drama
Bereznak: Olivia the dog in Widows is a revelation. She is the emotional mirror of her owner (played by the esteemed Viola Davis), at once vulnerable companion, assertive sleuth, and a stylish, color-blocking accessory. Her body of work in 2018 is absolutely unassailable, which is why ...
Bereznak: For years, the animal film industry has been dogged—yes, dogged—by tired, unnatural tropes. Dogs that roll over or do hokey back flips at the flick of a wrist. Cats who are exceedingly mischievous or volatile. These are not the pets we know and live with, but cheap caricatures of the animal kingdom, relics of dated entertainment-world customs. Animals are far more perceptive, affectionate, and subtle than the entertainment world has given them credit for, and no other animal actor has worked harder to enforce that than Olivia the West Highland Terrier. In her blockbuster year, she has been careful and creative with her role choices, making her debut as a well-groomed pup on Netflix’s Insatiable, only to turn her established good-dog image on its head by taking the role of blood-soaked beast in Game Night. All of this culminated with her role in Widows in which she played a loyal and compassionate sidekick to her (extremely capable) costar, Viola Davis. Olivia is the best dog of the year because, in all of her on-screen time, she strived for depth and dimension, pushing the limits of the canine acting community. Your Westminster “Best in Show” could never.