Beware of spoilers: minor, animal-centric plot points are sprinkled throughout this article.
Right up there with quality lighting, charming animal actors are a top-tier cinematic staple.
From Judy Garland’s Toto to Melanie Griffith’s IRL pet lion, Hollywood has been historically fascinated by the furry friends who make our human stories come to life. 2018 continued that industry tradition with an array of talented performers who made audiences laugh, cry, and occasionally meow during dozens of this year’s best films and shows.
Using professional stage names whenever possible, here are the top 10 animal performers of 2018, all responsible for stealing the scene and our hearts.
10. Hot Dog the English Sheepdog in Riverdale
Riverdale‘s goodest boy debate may rage on (#TeamVegas all the way), but you’ve got to hand it to Jughead Jones’ pal Hot Dog. That pup went through a lot for the Southside Serpents this year.
Season 3 of Riverdale saw the kidnapping of Hot Dog by rival gang, The Ghoulies (gasp!) Episode 1 captured the harrowing journey surrounding his rescue with Hot Dog naturally featured quite heavily. Unfortunately, co-star Cole Sprouse may prevent Hot Dog from returning to Riverdale‘s spotlight.
“We got this dog and this dog was the worst actor I have ever worked with,” Sprouse said in an interview with Seth Meyers. “It barks the whole time, it didn’t hit its mark, it broke fourth wall consistently, it was just no good.”
Poor, sweet, maligned Hot Dog. Your fans will not forget you.
Most award-winning moment: Chained to a stake on The Ghoulies’ lawn, Hot Dog channeled a deep-seeded, pain-fueled need for belly rubs only previously attempted on-screen by Academy Award nominee Willem Dafoe. Breathtaking.
9. Freddie Mercury’s cats in Bohemian Rhapsody
To wit: the song “Delilah”—off of Queen’s 1991 album Innuendo—is about Mercury’s tabby of the same name. If singing about your cat’s pee on a global stage (yup) doesn’t say love, then I don’t know what love is.
Most award-winning moment: Not swatting at Rami Malek’s mustache during every take. It is a temptation only consummate professionals can withstand.
8. Kelly the Yorkie in The Meg
Kelly the Yorkie portrays Pippin the Dog in The Meg, a creature whose surprising survival has spurred an onslaught of debate and theory from viewers.
More than just a pretty face, Kelly channels Pippin with a surprising level of gravitas. The reunion with her owners towards the end of the film is a spectacularly layered and nuanced take on the craft of acting. Only a cold-blooded, prehistoric killing machine (trapped deep in the Marianas trench by a thermocline cloud of hydrogen sulfide) could escape those tear-jerking moments unmoved.
Most award-winning moment: Yes, you guessed correctly. Kelly the Yorkie did in fact perform all of her own stunts. Brava, madame!
7. Uncredited pelican in Homecoming
Put simply, what a bird.
If you witnessed the barrage of Homecoming advertisements plastered all over the place, both IRL and online, this autumn, then you are already familiar with this avian artist. (His stunningly handsome visage was heavily featured for many of the series’ promotional materials.)
Performing alongside Academy Award winner Julia Roberts in her small-screen debut, this uncredited pelican wasn’t awarded much screen time, but he did steal a number of critical scenes in the mysterious, tense drama.
Most award-winning moment: Making the most of his one line, our feathered friend repeatedly delivered his loud squawk with a range rivaling Seinfeld’s infamous “These pretzels are makin’ me thirsty.” A remarkable, revolutionary feat.
6. That one kitten in The Haunting of Hill House
Such heavy work from an actor so very young.
This uncredited little kitten is just beginning to gain industry attention, but his iconic and nightmare-inducing performance in that cockroach scene from The Haunting of Hill House carries the knowing severity of an artist twice his age.
Most award-winning moment: Every scene with this kitten is so enormously disturbing, this reporter still cannot tell how much of it was CGI. Fingers crossed for… all of it? Please?
5. Bradley Cooper’s dog Charlie in A Star is Born
Indeed, a star was born.
The cinematic masterpiece that is A Star is Born took theaters by storm this past year—and will likely raise the same enthusiasm at the 91st Academy Awards in February 2019. Unfortunately, most of the movie’s well-deserved acting praise will go to its human stars, Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper.
Let us then take this time to honor Charlie, Bradley Cooper’s on and off-screen dog, responsible for 2018’s biggest heart-wrench. A reserved, but unquestionably precious performance, this Goldendoodle is showing us what rescue dogs are made of.
Most award-winning moment: If you’ve seen the movie, you know exactly what moment this is. If you haven’t seen the movie, see the movie. Charlie’s work must speak for itself.
4. Zeus the Husky from Dogs
Okay, so this dog isn’t technically an actor, but his prominence in the 2018 entertainment landscape cannot go unrecognized.
Zeus the Husky was one of Netflix’s many canine subjects for the docuseries Dogs. While each of the six episodes was touching, Zeus and his owner Ayham’s battle to reconnect over international borders in Episode 2 was uniquely impactful.
Highlighting the humanitarian crisis resulting from long-standing conflict in Syria, “Bravo, Zeus” is as important as it is heartwarming. Naturally, Zeus excels as the story’s star.
Most award-winning moment: Nothing beats a dog video chatting with his owner. Absolutely nothing.
3. Salem the cat from Chilling Adventures of Sabrina
Revitalizing a role previously held by the voice of Norbert from Angry Beavers, Salem the cat shined throughout Season 1 of Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. The highly-anticipated Netflix series required the feline artist lounge composedly, run after stuff, and you know transform into a demon. Clearly: the part of a lifetime.
But it wasn’t all kibble and yarn on-set. In an interview with Seth Meyers, Sabrina star Kiernan Shipka revealed that while filming she discovered her previously unknown cat allergy, a major obstacle for the two entertainers’ working relationship. (Although we continue to seek comment from his representation, we do not yet have word on how Salem took the news.)
Most award-winning moment: Salem’s most dazzling Season 1 performance occurred off-screen at the series’ world-premiere event in Hollywood. Alongside his Sabrina co-stars, Salem pranced down the red carpet, occasionally stopping to pose for photos. Of course, he wore black.
2. Towne the cat from Can You Ever Forgive Me?
It is a rare cat that can get the highly-praised Melissa McCarthy to claim she was “out-acted.”
Towne portrays the real-life pet of author and forger Lee Israel, named Jersey, in Can You Ever Forgive Me? The dramatic biopic of Lee’s life required a well-trained companion join McCarthy in a number of scenes. Towne subsequently delivered in spades.
Director Marielle Heller went so far as to describe Towne as “the Marlon Brando of cats.” A higher endorsement simply cannot be conceived.
Most award-winning moment: Once you have observed the bond between Towne and McCarthy, it’s difficult to pick just one of their encounters as a favorite. However, in the context of the film’s events, their last exchange is uniquely moving.
And the Milk-Bone goes to…
1. Olivia the Westie from Widows, Game Night, and Insatiable
I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again: no one had a better year than Olivia the dog.
Appearing alongside industry icons like Viola Davis and Jason Bateman, Olivia cleaned up on the pooch castings for 2018—and then exceeded expectations on every front.
For her ensemble piece: a small, but poignant role in Netflix’s Insatiable. Showing off her comedic chops: a hilarious (and gory) character study for Warner Bros’ Game Night. Finally, making her dramatic debut: a gripping, harrowing, and starring role in Steve McQueen’s Widows.
Creating a body of work worth barking about, Olivia used 2018 to answer an age old question. Finally, heading into the new year, we know who is a good dog.
Most award-winning moment: The stand-off between Olivia and Atlanta‘s Brian Tyree Henry in Widows is startlingly upsetting. Thank goodness they made up.
Honorable mentions: Paddington and Pooh
IRL animals will always trump animated ones, but you’ve got to admit—this was one great year for fictional bears.
Paddington 2 hit theaters in early January, giving audiences a compassionate lesson on empathy and understanding. Christopher Robin brought Winnie the Pooh back to the big screen in August, reiterating just how immensely adorable this little no-pants bear can be.
Let’s hope for some more unbearably delightful performances in the new year… perhaps with a few of these real-life bears looking for a break centerstage.