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.
On Dangerous Ground
From 1951 comes the strange combination of film noir and upcountry landscapes. Usually the genre plays out in shadowy city streets, and while On Dangerous Ground starts there, it soon moves to a wintry mountain. Robert Ryan plays a cop who roughs up suspects too many times. He's disgusted with the people he's supposed to protect or bring to justice and can only respond with violence, making the protagonist's conundrum particularly relevant today, where the distinctions between "police" and "criminal" are notably opaque. The police chief sends him out of the city to investigate a strange crime in the country, and there Ryan meets and falls in love with a blind woman, played by Ida Lupino. On Dangerous Ground certainly has its time-stamped clichés, but the noir magic still works and still has lessons to teach us today, both cinematically and socially.
Fast-forward 45 years from On Dangerous Ground and you have a new kind of noir, laced with irony and black humor. Fargo gained huge critical acclaim and a good run with the Hollywood awards system (the Coen brothers won Best Original Screenplay at the Oscars and Best Actress in a Leading Role went to Frances McDormand) by combining the comic charm of rural Minnesota with an updated crime drama. William H. Macy plays a husband hoping to strike it rich, and when he hires a couple of toughs to kidnap his wife for ransom, he thinks he's got the money in the bag. Things go terribly awry, and Frances McDormand's kooky cop investigates and cleans up the messes (of which there are many). In the emotionally stunted world of hearty, Midwestern folk, the unraveling calamities take on absurdist qualities — death met with a flat "Jeez" — but there's a growing sense of doom throughout the movie, a tension that only increases as things come to a head and our everywoman brings the bad guy to justice.
The Spy Who Loved Me
There's a lot of campy schlock in the 007 genre, and while The Spy Who Loved Me is definitively campy, it's also delightful. Technically, this isn't a winter flick, but it does open with one of the best winter (or Bond) chase sequences in cinema. Roger Moore is our agent, always polished and aristocratically fey as only the Brits can manage, and the film opens with him fleeing his adversaries on a pair of skis through the mountains of Austria. His ski poles double as shotguns, and when he sails off a cliff and the soundtrack goes silent, you wonder if this is it for Bond. In a moment that the great film aficionado Roger Ebert remembers as one of the few where a movie audience burst into applause, 007 releases a Union Jack parachute and floats to safety. Much of The Spy Who Loved Me follows a similar ridiculous track (all in '70s glam), but the chase scenes are spectacular, framed by the developing relationship between Bond and a female Soviet agent bearing a grudge. The two Cold War nations decide to work together to overcome a madman intent on destroying both countries in order to drive everyone to his strange, underwater real-estate empire. In fact, the villain sounds uncannily similar to the Republican presidential nominee.
The Gold Rush
Charlie Chaplin may be a recognizable figure — his silly little walk, the cane, the mustache — but how many of us have actually seen any of his movies? The Gold Rush is, arguably, the one to start with. The physical comedy sizzles even today, and it's surprising to see how simple things done well can garner a belly laugh. Beyond the comic brilliance of the movie, though, lies an absolute charm and even something slightly aching. Maybe it's that ol' American dream of success and glory which has been leading the hopeful astray since the nation's nascent days, but there's a sense of nostalgic longing that flowers during small moments in the film, elevating it to a masterpiece. During a biting winter, Chaplin's tramp character joins the hordes of prospectors searching for gold in the mountains of Alaska, and once there, he has to contend with hunger, the brutes at camp, and a new love interest. Toward the end of his life, Chaplin said it was the film he most wished to be remembered by, and when watching his charming dinner roll dance or the eating of a shoe, it's clear why he (and film buffs since) held it in such high regard.
At the heart of all effective winter films is debilitating isolation. Snow traps us. We're stuck in the house, on the pass, in the wilderness. No one is coming for us, which leaves us alone with our own disquieting thoughts or, in the case of crap romance writer Paul Sheldon (played by James Caan), alone with a crazy fan. Misery put Kathy Bates on the movie map with her Academy Award-winning performance as Annie, Sheldon's number one fan, and her characterization is mesmerizing in ways both horrifying and heartbreaking. With just the right amount of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, Misery, based on another Stephen King novel, follows Sheldon's imprisonment with Annie after his car overturns on a snowy road in the mountains. She's not about to let him go until she gets what she wants, and if mutilation is a motivator, she's more than willing to provide the impetus. But it's not just gory horror that drives the film — it's Bates' performance, which lends sympathy to the insane woman whose been spending too many winters in her remote mountain cottage.