Cold, cold, cold. That’s all I hear about, the second the thermometer drops below 40. At this time of year, the air occasionally goes scrotum-shrivellingly cold, so it’s a good time to look at the greatest Winter Movies ever made. There aren’t as many of them as you’d think — probably because the majority of folks who make the movies live in Los Angeles and they don’t have the same meteorogical issues to ponder.
So what makes a great Winter Movie?
First of all, forget the holidays – we’re well beyond all that happy-joy-joy nonsense. A Winter movie isn’t about celebrating, quite the opposite, and it probably doesn’t end happily. A great Winter Movie may or may not have snow in it, although all ten of my choices do, so maybe that is a criteria after all. OK, a great Winter Movie convincingly depicts snow. That’s number one. But it goes much deeper than that.
At heart, a great Winter Movie must make you feel COLD. Just watching it, regardless of season, will make you feel cold in your bones (and aforementioned other parts.) A great Winter Movie leaves you lost and snowblind and deeply suspect at the very concept that springtime will ever come.
These are the movies that I chose. If you have your own suggestions, I’d love to hear ‘em…
In keeping with his absolute lack of fear at jumping right into foreign situations, the iconoclastic director Werner Herzog made this documentary about daily life at McMurdo Base in Antarctica. As with every one of Herzog’s documentaries I’ve seen, there are moments of bizarre eccentricity and moments of extreme sadness and sometimes both at the same time. Herzog makes profound observations about an isolated culture made up of people who have abandoned the rest of the world, and captures otherworldly images that will blow your mind. (The underwater footage looks like life in another galaxy.) The must-see moment in this movie happens when a penguin goes insane and heads off alone to certain death. When Herzog warns you at the beginning that this ain’t no March Of The Penguins, he isn’t kidding.
This movie is based on a book by Farley Mowat, a famous naturalist, and it’s about a scientist who is sent to the Arctic to study wolves who have been [wrongly] blamed for a drop in caribou numbers. It stars Charles Martin Smith (American Graffiti, The Untouchables, Starman), Brian Dennehy, and a bunch of wolves. I haven’t seen this movie in more than twenty years (holy crap!) and still it makes my list. That’s some memorable cold.
I wrote about Orca back in October for my month-long Halloween column over at Mapcidy, but Orca’s major cinematic contribution is less its ability to scare you, and more its ability to make you shiver in the literal sense. The movie is set on the wintery coasts of the Canadian North, and killer whale or no, these people are getting in the water. Crazy! The feeling gets more frigid as the movie’s action moves away from civilization. As star Richard Harris pursues the vengeance-crazed killer whale further and further north, the scenery goes white and looming ice floes are as dangerous as the primary threat. Things don’t end well for the human half of the cast, so be forewarned: this list gets ever bleaker from here.
One of the touchstone movies of the 1990s, this movie probably needs little introduction. If you love movies, you’re probably a Coen Brothers fan, and if you’re a Coen Brothers fan, you’ve seen this one. It’s set in Minnesota in the dead of winter, and while serious critics can go on and on about the originality of the screenplay and of the choice of a pregnant police chief as protagonist, all I think of when I think back to this movie is “BRRRR.” That refers to the cold existential state of criminality displayed in the movie, sure, but mostly to the physical reality that a state of constant snow and ice presents. Essential scene: Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy), frustrated and furious, venting his blind rage on his iced-over windshield with an ice scraper.
Another film set in the dead of winter, only this one takes place in Sweden, where I’m not sure if they even get any other season. Have you heard about this movie? It made just about everyone’s year-end best list back in 2008. It really is that good – atmospheric and affecting. It’s a story about a young boy, tormented at school, who meets an unusual little girl who moves into his apartment complex with her much-older companion. Safe to say, she isn’t what she seems. (I won’t reveal it here, but what she is becomes clear fairly quickly, although you’ll never guess how the story develops.) I feel like a movie that’s this good about showing the breath escape from a just-killed person on a freezing night is guaranteed a place on this list.
Yeah, it’s a comedy. There’s a happy ending. Am I breaking my own rules here? Maybe – but remember how dark this particular comedy gets in the middle, even if it never relinquishes its hold on hilarious. Quick synopsis as if anyone needs it: Bill Murray, the most profound of comedians, plays a nasty, self-obsessed weatherman who finds himself reliving the most boring day of his life over and over in a quaint town in Pennsylvania. At one point, the monotony gets to him so much that he decides to take his own life. Which doesn’t work, don’t worry, but let’s see something that dark make its way into a Sandra Bullock comedy. Won’t happen. No one else has the guts. Bill Murray’s never been afraid of the big questions in his comedy, which is why he’s been so successful in recent years in more dramatic roles. Additionally, Groundhog Day is linked to an earlier wintry Bill Murray movie, Scrooged, in a fairly depressing way – both movies feature Bill Murray encountering a homeless person who has died from ailments related to prolonged exposure to cold. In Scrooged, the homeless guy is literally frozen, but in Groundhog Day, it’s arguably more upsetting since it plays out in a more realistic way. For a while there, Bill Murray was uniquely concerned about not letting the homeless freeze to death. It’s not a very humorous concern, but it sure the hell is something we could all stand to think about in this weather.
When people think of Sam Raimi, they are either thinking of the Evil Dead movies or the Spider-Man movies. It takes a moment to recall that he had an intriguing transitional period between those two “trilogies,” where he started to merge his incredible horror-cinema skills with a more mainstream sensibility. A Simple Plan is the best film from that period, adapted from a novel by Scott Smith and starring Bill Paxton, Bridget Fonda, and a hardly-recognizable Billy Bob Thornton. A trio of small-town guys find an abandoned airplane full of cash in the middle of the woods, and decide to keep the money. Things go bad. It’s better the less you know going in, so I’ll ruin no plot details – just please note that we’re now in the top five bleakest Winter Movies ever, so you know I mean seriously bad.
3. The Shining
A Winter Movie rises in greatness proportionally to the level of movie star who is frozen solid at the end, and in The Shining, one of the hugest movie stars of all time is frozen solid. This movie needs no introduction and it’s best remembered, fairly, for its terrifying horror imagery. (The moment with the highest pants-pooping potential, in my opinion, is this one.) But beyond its status as one of the most memorable horror movies ever made, let’s not forget its Winter status. Jack and his family are cooped up in that spooky hotel all winter – it’s the season, even before the ghosts, that turns him into an unfriendly lumberjack.
If you’ve seen Sergio Leone’s The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly, congratulations! You’ve seen the greatest movie ever. But even if you’ve seen every Western that Leone made (which you ought to), you’ve only scratched the surface of the vast reserve of wonderfulness that is Italian Westerns. Sergio Corbucci’s The Great Silence is among the best-regarded of those movies – it’s about a mute gunslinger that tries to help a small community who have been besieged by vicious criminals led by the ever-disturbing Klaus Kinski. And it all takes place on a wooded frontier blanketed with snow – even the horses have a hell of a time getting anywhere. The Great Silence has probably THE down ending of all time, and the score by Ennio Morricone (already on this list for his contributions to Orca) is one of the most haunting I’ve ever heard. If you think you can handle it, then I couldn’t recommend this movie any more highly.
1. The Thing
What can be said, at this point? John Carpenter remade a sci-fi classic by his hero, Howard Hawks, and arguably, he beat it. It’s still a brilliant set-up – a malicious shape-shifting alien being plagues twelve guys manning a research station in Antarctica – and the follow-through is equally brilliant, between the direction by Carpenter, the imagery by cinematographer Dean Cundey, the effects by Rob Bottin, the score by Ennio Morricone (him again!), and the eclectic ensemble cast of character actors (some you’ve seen before; some who were never seen again), led by Kurt Russell and the legendary Keith David. The end result is the greatest movie T.K. Carter was ever affiliated with NOT named Doctor Detroit. It’s arguably Carpenter’s masterpiece. It’s a classic in science fiction, a classic in horror, a classic study in isolation and paranoia, and it’d be all of those things even without that remarkable ending, which is legendarily, chillingly, ambiguous. Carpenter has said that he has the answer to the famous question in that ending, and naturally I have my own take on it – what’s yours? See the movie (again) and let’s hear your opinions!
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