Nobody does winter like the Russians. Set in the snowy streets of Russian cities and the barren wilderness, director David Lean's 1965 Doctor Zhivago is a visual masterpiece and an aching love story that follows the titular character and his love affair with the haunting and haunted Lara. Played by Omar Sharif and a radiant Julie Christie, the lovers are both married to other people, Lara to a Russian revolutionary (what's a great Russian epic without rebellion, social chaos, and corruption?). The film is based on the novel of the same name by Boris Pasternak, who received the Nobel Prize in Literature two years before his death in 1960. The film of Zhivago was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director, and although some reviewers of the time felt the film gave short shrift to the social unrest so present in Pasternak's novel, it's easy to see why the epic love story captured the minds and broken hearts of the public.
While the Russians have cornered the market on epic wintry dramas, the Nordic peoples turn snowy, debilitating depression into high art. The legendary Swedish director Ingmar Bergman directs a story set in a rural town where a priest must confront the doubts not only of his very small flock but also himself. Not much happens in the way of action, but the inner experience of the characters is what makes the film soar. It chronicles the everyday grind where international threats destabilize small-town people and personal relationships teeter on the edge of collapse, where duty is too often conflated with martyrdom and God is an absent parent one can never hope to find. Sure, it's depressing as hell, but in the hands of Bergman (who sat with his cinematographer for an entire day in a church observing the changing winter light), the crushing weight of solitude never looked so good.
Certain movie lines make it into the public consciousness, and "Heeeeeeeere's Johnny!" is definitely one of them. Spoken with diabolical sarcasm by Jack Nicholson, the parody of the Tonight Show's characteristic introduction of Johnny Carson has become legend, but the material surrounding it is what really created a horror legend. Nicholson and his wife (Shelley Duvall) are hired as winter caretakers of a hotel that closes during the snowy season. Soon enough, the couple, along with their psychically inclined son, is snowed in, and that's when the ghosts of evils past come to visit. Increasing psychological pressure and otherworldly disturbances drive Nicholson's character mad, and in director Stanley Kubrick's expert (if sometimes brutal) hands, the disintegration of the nuclear family sounds a warning bell for Middle Americans trying to keep up with the Joneses. The Shining was based on a novel of the same title by Stephen King who never warmed to the movie, partly because he felt Nicholson was too crazy too early, and also because the portrayal of Duvall's character is a misogynistic horror classic (i.e. lots of screaming and bad choices). Yet for many fans, it's a paragon of the genre and one of Kubrick's masterpieces.
Encounters at the End of the World
In 2008, the United States was coming to the end of George W. Bush's presidency, which had a sketchy, if not antagonistic, stance towards global warming (science be damned!), and that same year, director and documentarian Werner Herzog released his gorgeous film Encounters at the End of the World. Herzog traveled to Antarctica and the McMurdo Station, where scientists and other oddities gather for their work — isolated examinations of the region, its denizens, climate change, and the human soul. In his peculiarly compelling voice, Herzog narrates the proceedings, which include stunning underwater sequences and creatures of the deep that seem to have lasted unchanged in that primal sea since before humans could walk fully upright. The specter of climate change hangs over the film, but not grossly so, which is both a relief and also vaguely unsettling. Perhaps most poignant is the invisible character of time — its slow march over eons, the space it grants for biological improvisation, and the very small place humanity occupies in its long arc.
One of the researchers interviewed for Herzog's film is a big science-fiction fan, and in The Thing, it's clear why the Antarctic landscape is fertile ground for the sci-fi imagination. The endless snow, icebergs, frozen mountains, and winter storms are a perfect backdrop for alien life forms wreaking havoc on hapless humans, and that's just what happens in this 1982 film. Kurt Russell stars in the creepfest, where an alien discovered in the ice near a research station takes on any form it chooses, including human, to hunt down its adversaries. John Carpenter, of Halloween fame, directs the movie, which is a riff on the 1951 sci-fi classic The Thing From Another World. Both movies are a good watch for sci-fi and horror fans, and both tap into our fears of being alone in an environment that doesn't have our best interests at heart.