Forget the recent movies, IMAX and otherwise, that recreate the doomed 1914–1916 Shackleton Endurance expedition to the South Pole; this astonishing film was shot on the spot by one Frank Hurley, who stood there stranded on the ice with the rest of the crew, watching the ice shelves crush the ship, not knowing whether he was in fact doomed or not—and yet still filming, beautifully. All other movies about polar survival are pretenders by comparison.
After Gone with the Wind, producer David O. Selznick’s career largely focused on erecting large, crazy movie-poems in honor of his beloved wife, Jennifer Jones, and this unashamedly naive phantasm might be the most lovesick. Joseph Cotten plays a struggling artist in a New York where it’s nearly always snowing, and Jones is a girl that appears to him—and only to him—with a ghostly backstory of her own, inspiring him with her inner light.
Boris Pasternak’s Russian-revolution love story, done up in 1960s-epic style by grandmaster David Lean, about a good-hearted doctor-poet (Omar Sharif) swept up in a political storm he cares nothing about. In fact, he’s passive about pretty much everything, including his torn love for both his gentle, devoted wife and legendary beauty Lara (Julie Christie). Set in Russia, where springtime feels like a Minnesota winter, the movie was actually shot almost entirely in sunny Spain (!); the subarctic ambience is completely fabricated out of white wax. Fake or not, the swirling flurries are relentless, and there are moments where you feel like you’re watching the story unfold from inside a snow globe. Doctor Zhivago is overwrought and visually constipated (so much massive history, so many small rooms), but the “Zhivago and Lara stranded in the ice house” set piece has a cozy, wintry feel that’s hard to beat.
This moody, fur-bundled frontier odyssey might be the best Robert Altman film of all time. Warren Beatty plays a entrepreneurial rogue who sets up business in a muddy northwestern mining town (it looks, no kidding, as if it were shot in 1830) and eventually teams up with an opium-smoking madam (Julie Christie) who’s looking to set up a whorehouse. Trouble sets in when gangsters try to squeeze out the pair and resort to authentic prairie ethics to get their way. This movie teems with life like a beehive; nobody was better than Altman at filling movies up with believable inhabitants and texture, and here the misty, greasy, snowy reality of range life is evoked like nobody’s business. No chicanery here—even though the film was actually shot in Vancouver, it shows just what Rocky Mountain life without utilities was like. Even the relentless Leonard Cohen songs begin to get under your skin. The movie is also an unarguable triumph of the American New Wave—those years between 1966 and 1977 in which Hollywood went out of its way to make gritty, truthful, challenging films you could believe in.
Michael Hoffman’s neglected drama tracks the post-school lives of two Utah kids: Kiefer Sutherland’s shy, geeky damaged goods, and Jason Gedrick’s basketball star turned local sheriff. Meg Ryan costars, launching her fledgling career with her portrait of a bipolar nightmare very far from the upturned-nose sweetheart for which she became famous. The landscape is frozen, and the characters are lost.
A genuine whatzit, this second feature by hermetic Canadian avant-gardist Guy Maddin comes in the guise of a scratched, faded, forgotten movie circa 1930, set in the eponymous Soviet city after World War I, but quite obviously shot on cardboard sets and more believably taking place in Maddin’s movie-crazed head bone. The cheapjack surrealisms and crazy non sequiturs are the joke, covered as they are in fake snow and subjected to the harshest winds fans can produce.
A poker-faced slalom through the icy fields of true-crime docudrama, Joel and Ethan Coen’s cascade of frozen Minnesotan cops and crime is probably the loopiest based-on-fact murder drama ever made, something like In Cold Blood reimagined by Dave Barry. Somehow, the filmmakers tell the snowbound saga of a tumbling-dominoes permafrost bloodbath—featuring nerve-frayed scam source William H. Macy, wired hired gun Steve Buscemi, and serene pregnant policewoman Frances McDormand (who won an Oscar for her performance)—as cold realism, yet retain their trademark absurdism and larky rhythms. Having grown up in a Minneapolis suburb, the Coens know the vernacular inside and out; though it often feels like a snarky plummet down a long flight of stairs, the movie ends up being a celebration of quiet banality. By the time we reach the wood chipper, we’re as thankful as McDormand’s Chief Marge that there’s a mittened world full of idiotic pleasantries and all-you-can-eat restaurants to go back to.
At its heart, this Ang Lee adaptation of the Rick Moody novel is a humane, sane, hilarious, and rich-as-mousse dispatch on the woes, risks, and costs of the all-American family, climaxing in the very real 1973 winter storm of the title and its largely symbolic fallout. The multiple character study encompasses an affable Dad (Kevin Kline) who’s equally bewildered by his affair with a trendy neighbor (Sigourney Weaver) and his slowly disintegrating family, a haunted Mom (Joan Allen) who’s lost somewhere between girlhood and disillusionment, a rebellious daughter (Christina Ricci) who’s experimenting with shoplifting and mock sex with the neighbor’s boys (Elijah Wood and Adam Hann-Byrd), and a sweet-natured pothead son (Tobey Maguire) who’s impassively grappling with puberty. But the real subject is vain, media-drunk modernity itself, and how it leaves us unprepared for the worst things in life—things that can happen at night, when everything’s frozen over.
The first film shot in the Inuktitut language, this nearly two-and-a-half-hour epic about Inuit love, family, and betrayal is all Arctic, all the time, shot with a wholly convincing native cast on digital video. Primal, enthralling, and very cold.
It’s winter 1947 in Washington State, and postwar racial animosity is sky-high. A white fisherman is found dead on his boat, and a Japanese-American neighbor is accused of his murder. The winter vibe of this dreamy adaptation of David Guterson’s bestseller is virtually the film’s main protagonist (Ethan Hawke’s conflicted trial observer is relatively passive), from the opening scene of snow falling gently on the harbor as a lighthouse blinks its warning to the frosty breath of the Japanese citizens as they march out of town (in flashback), wearing fur-collard coats, toward the internment camps. The film was unjustly maligned and ignored when it was released; there is good acting all around, particularly by Max Von Sydow as the stalwart defense attorney, and the snow-crusted cinematography is breathtaking.