The Ice Storm
Restrained, distant, and still are several ways to describe the work of Ang Lee, and no film captures the starkness and purity of his emotional approach more than The Ice Storm. It’s a somber meditation revealing mundane moments in dysfunctional relationships — confused characters trying to cope with the rapidly changing political, social, and sexual climate of the 1970s in the Connecticut suburbs. Attempts to connect with one another only alienate Lee’s players further. Several are as frigid as the impending ice storm that transforms their lives. Lee shows us, however, that his characters can’t simply blame the chilly tempest for the loneliness they trap themselves with.
There’s no incidental snow in the Coen brothers’ Fargo, which uses the blinding Minnesota winter as a wry visual, demonstrating that petty crimes can snowball into tragic events. Lucky for us, the Coens know how to transform those bleak moments, made more desperate and vulnerable by the unforgiving environment, into a satirical masterpiece.
Le notti bianche
Luchino Visconti’s Le notti bianche — inspired by Dostoevsky’s 1848 short story, White Nights — finds two lonely people in each other’s arms, comforted from the absence of a lover and the alienation experienced by a new city. The setting is reminiscent of Venice, filled with secret canals, tunnels, and bridges where the couple begins to fall in love, but only for a short while. The snow in Visconti’s melancholic, but gorgeous black-and-white film reminds us of the awakening new love brings and the tears that may follow. Here, winter inspires the fantasy and magic of love, and the ways fantasies can deceive us.
The moment we hear Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind’s sonorous electronic score — an adaptation of Hector Berlioz’s “Dies Irae” from his “Symphonie Fantastique” — in The Shining, a sense of doom washes over us, intensified by Stanley Kubrick’s sweeping camera over the Colorado mountains (filmed in Montana). Time is running out for the Torrance family. Winter will soon swallow the Overlook Hotel, leaving the new caretaker and his family isolated from the rest of the world for months. Guests hurriedly vanish, the long road to the looming building will soon close, and each member of the troubled Torrance family is left with their own anxieties to contend with. It’s a quiet, disturbing ice-scape that culminates in a frozen chase through a never-ending maze.
More than one film on our list uses a snowy landscape to mirror the isolation of the film’s characters, and John Carpenter’s The Thing employs this device to terrifying effect. As we wrote in part two of this year’s essential horror films countdown:
“John Carpenter’s The Thing is one of the most claustrophobic horror films ever created. Based on John W. Campbell’s novella Who Goes There? and the 1951 Howard Hawks movie of the same name, the story centers on a group of men (played by Kurt Russell, Wilford Brimley, Charles Hallahan, Keith David, and Richard Dysart) stationed at a remote Antarctic research facility. Things go terribly wrong when a shape-shifting creature infiltrates the center and slowly erodes the bond of the group. It’s a tense, terrifying 109 minutes that immediately puts us in the paranoid mind frame of Carpenter’s characters as they become increasingly isolated from their humanity. The ending is as nihilistic as you’re imagining right now.”
March of the Penguins
Luc Jacquet’s 2005 Academy Award-winning nature documentary, co-produced by the National Geographic Society, depicts the annual journey of the Emperor penguins that march across Antarctica to their ancestral breeding grounds. The resulting chicks’ survival is dependent upon both parents who have a rocky journey as they make the trek to feed their young and battle for survival along the way. The crew spent over a year in -58 and -76°F temperatures filming the penguins, often unable to stay more than three hours outside at a time due to frigid winds and harsh conditions. The majestic creatures are beautifully filmed against sheets of ice and snow — heroic adventurers at the end of the world.
David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago is hailed as a classic for its Maurice Jarre score, sweeping romantic-historical drama, memorable performances, and stunning set design. The film’s wintry World War I setting in Russia was difficult to film — especially for several scenes shot in Spain during a mild winter — but the efforts paid off for the film’s most magical moment: the ice palace. The snow-capped mountain peaks and woodsy environment are breathtaking, but when Zhivago (Omar Sharif) and Lara (Julie Christie) take us inside an abandoned country estate where the couple shares a few final moments, the frozen interior captivates us with its snowy beauty. The winter wonderland was created with several tons of chipped marble and melted wax used to simulate ice and elegant icicles.
Let the Right One In
What else is a quiet 12-year-old boy to do in the frozen tundra of the Stockholm suburbs other than collect clippings about local murders, get bullied at school, and learn about the finer points of hunting knives? Befriend a vampire, of course. Oskar meets the mysterious Eli, and they become close companions — both outsiders trying to cope with their lonely existences. The restrained performances and the film’s slow pacing set in the dead of a Swedish winter is a striking juxtaposition. Blood-splattered snow never looked so beautiful.
A bleak New Hampshire winter is the setting for Taxi Driver writer Paul Schrader’s look at the unraveling of a man (Nick Nolte) trapped by his own despair, who spurns the suffering of those around him. The complex family drama is as blustery as the dim and stormy landscape. Nolte plays a shattered, obsessed policeman that fixates on solving a tragic case, which leads to his own undoing.
Masaki Kobayashi’s 1964 ghostly portmanteau tells one story of two woodcutters that become caught in a snowstorm. They seek shelter, and the younger of the men awakens to an eerie Woman of the Snow. The vampiric figure spares the apprentice’s life, making him promise not to tell a soul about their encounter. A decade later, he reveals too much about that fateful night. The understated Japanese horror film is akin to a haunting, poetic passage rather than a brutal terror tale. The snow witch’s wintry chapter is darkly atmospheric and instantly transports audiences to an otherworldly realm where Japanese folk tales creep to life.