Even though it’s a foggy 54-degrees here in New York City today, it is December after all, which feels like 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 meteorological issues and complications and philosophical quandaries 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 by the time we talk about Winter movies. A Winter movie isn’t about celebrating — quite the opposite in fact — and it probably doesn’t end happily. A great Winter Movie may or may not have snow in it, although all of my choices do, so maybe that is a criteria after all.
OK, so 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 other parts.) A great Winter Movie leaves you lost and snowblind and deeply suspect at the very concept that springtime will ever come.
The following handful are the movies that I chose. It was a top ten until that eleventh movie fought its way onto the list. Will THE HATEFUL EIGHT force the list to expand again? It’s possible. If you have your own suggestions, please share!
11. THE GREY (2012)
“There are no atheists in foxholes,” as the old saying goes. But what about in wolves’ dens? It’s a question I never knew I had. Just one of many reasons why THE GREY, the 2012 thriller from co-writer/director Joe Carnahan, is such an uncommon and splendid achievement is that it asks (and answers) that question.
I had been sold on this movie from the minute I was made aware that it was to be a survival drama where the great actor Liam Neeson faces off against a pack of hungry wolves. “Herman Melville meets Jack London meets Hemingway meets wolves meets Liam Neeson’s fists.” That movie would have been just fine. But this movie is twice as good. It’s got all the thrills and chills you could hope and expect out of that brilliantly direct premise — but on top of that, THE GREY is one of the more profound, dynamic, and uncompromising illustrations of existentialism I have seen on a movie screen in quite a while. This film goes deep — like “straight to the bone, through the ribcage, all the way through to the soul” deep.
For those of us who have been starving for brutal, bruising, uncompromising American cinema, THE GREY is proof of life.
As I wrote while putting it on my year-end list at the time: THE GREY marked its territory in my number one spot all the way back in January of 2012, and fiercely warded off all comers with teeth bared. I love all the movies in my top ten and there are plenty still which almost made the list, but THE GREY is the one I really took to heart. For one thing, I am ready to go to the mat on the argument that the storytelling and filmmaking in THE GREY is at least as exemplary as any of the year’s more award-friendly critical darlings.
The score by Marc Streitenfeld is gorgeous and heartbreaking, particularly where it quotes this suite by Jamin Winans. The cinematography by Masanobu Takayanagi is crisply delineated and winter-clear. The script by Ian Mackenzie Jeffers & Joe Carnahan is perfectly-paced and indelible. And Joe Carnahan’s direction is world-class. I was a huge fan of Carnahan’s movie NARC, and I think his SMOKIN’ ACES and THE A-TEAM, while surely on the cartoony side of the action-movie spectrum, show action chops on par with the best of ‘em. I have been following and enjoying his work for a long time, but THE GREY makes Carnahan a canon filmmaker in my eyes.
I was lucky enough to see THE GREY a month early, so I could watch with fascination as it was received by the public. Considering how thoughtful a film it is, all the simplistic and reductive “Liam Neeson punches wolves!” jokes were almost obscene. Some of the marketing did seem eager to group THE GREY alongside the Liam Neeson action-thrillers of the last few years, and obviously this is a different thing entirely. Interestingly, some religious groups embraced the movie, although I’m not sure it’s saying what they may want it to be saying. And some environmental groups were bothered by the portrayal of the wolves, which is a well-intentioned complaint but misses the point. First of all, Liam Neeson’s character views the wolves above all with a kind of respect. But more importantly: The same way FLIGHT isn’t really about a plane, THE GREY isn’t exactly about the wolves.
Think about the title. Did you look at the wolves in that movie? Didn’t look all that gray to me. They looked almost black. They blended in and out of that night with ease. These aren’t real-world wolves. These are something else. The wolves in THE GREY are an engine, relentlessly forcing the sands through the hourglass. In my reading of the title, “The Grey” refers to that space between existence and non-existence, between the white of snow and the black of death. No, this isn’t a movie about wolves. This is a movie about mortality.
Many fans of the movie have noted how THE GREY structurally resembles a typically horror movie, as the cast of characters are gradually winnowed away, and maybe that’s true, but in that case I’ve never seen a horror movie that treats the ranks of the culled with such care. Most of the characters who die in THE GREY get sent out on a moment of dignity, even grace, or at least as much as can be mustered. (There is one major exception, maybe the most upsetting death in the entire film, but that is the one that prompts the film’s most important emotional moment, so it’s not much of an exception after all.) This is a movie that shows many people dying, yet it is the rare such movie that happens to value life. That is one reason why I am struck where it matters by THE GREY.
There are also personal reasons. I’ve spent the last four years attending more funerals than I wanted to attend in a lifetime. Without any exaggeration and in a relatively short time, I’ve lost half my nearest and dearest. I’ve been living with death. This movie is what that feels like. Wolves and winter – that’s all just visual trappings meant to illustrate an idea. The point is, there may come a time in your life when everybody you know starts dropping like flies at the hands of some relentless cosmic flyswatter, and then what are you gonna do? Pray to God? Good luck there. Worth a try. Maybe He answers your prayers. Maybe He doesn’t answer. Probably he doesn’t answer. Now you’ve got a choice to make. Or maybe there isn’t a choice at all.
“Fuck it. I’ll do it myself.” That isn’t a renunciation. That is, in fact, a profoundly spiritual decision. This movie illustrates that concept so beautifully that if I had the tears to do it, I’d cry them. I thank this movie for existing in 2012, and I thank Joe Carnahan and his cast and crew for braving the cold to make it.
10. ENCOUNTERS AT THE END OF THE WORLD (2008)
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 literally 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. It’s so cold down there, a motherfucking penguin loses his shit. When Herzog warns you at the beginning that this ain’t no MARCH OF THE PENGUINS, he isn’t kidding.
9. NEVER CRY WOLF (1983)
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. At one point our hero strips down and goes au naturel, which is meant to indicate that he’s gone native, but really is the kind of thing that wants you to put a coat on the guy, and that’s not meant as an insult. 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 I’m getting so old!) and still it makes my list. That’s some memorable cold.
8. ORCA (1977)
I’ve written about ORCA before, in the context of its intentions as a post-JAWS horror movie, 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 on out.
7. FARGO (1996)
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 Winter Movie scene: Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy), frustrated and furious, venting his blind rage on his iced-over windshield with an ice scraper. Been there, Jerry.
6. LET THE RIGHT ONE IN (2008)
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.
Honorable Mention: The American remake, LET ME IN, from 2010. Nearly as chilly as its inspiration.
5. GROUNDHOG DAY (1993)
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.
4. A SIMPLE PLAN (1998)
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 trudging deeper into the top five bleakest Winter Movies ever made, so you know I mean seriously bad.
3. THE SHINING (1980)
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 and sometimes oblique 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.
2. THE GREAT SILENCE (1968)
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 (1982)
Skip the shit remake, with all its CGI and sound stages. This right here is the G.O.A.T. Accept no substitutes, or more specifically, beware all imitations.
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 but has never revealed it, and naturally I have my own take on it, even while Keith David allegedly settled the question once and for all earlier this year – what do you make of it? Who was it? See the movie (again) and let’s hear your opinions!
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