Still, winter can be an evocative time, especially in cinema. In movies like Fargo, A Simple Plan and The Shining, the season is almost like another character in the film: a big, cold, snowy character. And even when it’s subtler, like in some of the flicks below, that cold winter wind almost always packs some dramatic bite. Especially if they’ve got the AC cranked in the theater.
So enjoy the snowbound random rewind below, share your wintery cinematic suggestions in the comments, and pass me my hot water bottle. If you don’t ask me where I’m going to put it, I won’t tell.
Groundhog Day (1993). I thoroughly enjoyed Groundhog Day when it came out in 1993, but frankly I can say the same thing about Hot Shots, Part Deux. Unlike that Charlie Sheen classic, though, Groundog Day has evolved over the years into what I’d argue is one of the most enduring and frankly philosophical of all screen comedies. It also makes me wonder where the heck Chris Elliot has been – Cabin Boy 2, anyone?
And for our purposes, it’s one of the great winter movies, in that Phil’s odyssey (I recall reading one estimate that his Groundhog Day must have lasted at least five years) wouldn’t have been nearly as wrenching (and hilarious) had it taken place on the Fourth of July. Being trapped in an endless summer doesn’t have nearly the comedic possibilities of an everlasting February; when Phil says, “It’s gonna be cold, it’s gonna be gray, and it’s gonna last you the rest of your life,” you get what he’s talking about.
In fact, besides entering the lexicon, the concept of Groundhog Day – with its underpinnings of religion, philosophy and psychology – has led more than a few of us to question our own perpetual loops. (Check out a clearly tickled director Harold Ramis discussing those concepts here.) In fact, watching it again makes me want to resolve that personally, this will be the year I finally kidnap the groundhog and drive off a cliff into a quarry. Er, metaphorically, I mean.
Cliffhanger (1993). Ah, the snow-capped mountains, the blustery vistas, Sylvester Stallone’s meaty arm emerging from a snow drift to drive a pick into a bad guy’s leg. Such are the sights of Renny Harlin’s Cliffhanger, the best mountain-climbing terrorist Treasury thieves movie of 1993.
The film of course starts with one of the most suspenseful sequences ever put on film, in which Stallone attempts to rescue his partner’s girlfriend (Michele Joyner) and winds up, whoops, dropping her thousands of feet to her death. (“Why did I put that Vaseline on underneath my gloves? Why?” OK, I just made that line up.) The rest of the movie fails to live up to the promise of its opening scenes, except of course for the part where Stallone, after having his head kicked … wait, let me check my notes … one meeeeellion times, impales his attacker on a stalactite. Wait, or was it a stalagmite? I never get that right.
Cliffhanger has much to offer, though, including John Lithgow chewing more scenery than ever before or since, which is saying something, and a fine performance from Michael Rooker as the only character ever to spend an entire movie with an automatic weapon pressed against his jowls. And those wintery scenes are beautiful to behold, even if it looks way too cold for Stallone to be running around in a wife-beater T-shirt.
Incidentally, producer Neil H. Moritz is supposedly remaking (rebooting?) this movie, with filming set to start this year. If it doesn’t have at least one stalactite, I’m not going.
Better Off Dead (1985). As a high school junior I went to see this movie with three friends, and we laughed without pause for 97 minutes. I’m not talking about chuckles or backhanded, that’s-clever snorts, but full-out teary-eyed guffaws. Oddly enough, not a single other person in the theater seemed to find it the least bit funny, and one girl we knew even questioned us on the way out on how we could possibly enjoy a movie that was so clearly retarded. (This was not an offensive term at the time.)
If anything, though, my fondness for the film has only grown over the years. John Cusack has been brilliant in more than a few “good” movies – Say Anything, of course, and another favorite of my high school years, The Sure Thing, come to mind – but I’d put his performance as the not-quite-suicidal Lane Meyer up against the best of them. It’s an ingenious walk of the tightrope between satire and engaging believability, and if you don’t think that’s tough to do, go watch a Corey Feldman movie.
As for its winter pedigree, the film of course ends with a spectacular ski race to win the heart of Monique (Diane Franklin), the exchange student with a heart of gold. And God’s honest truth, I think when the obsessed paperboy appears on the slopes, skis mounted to the tires of his ever-present mountain bike, demanding his $2, I laugh even harder now than I did when I was 17. Not sure what that says about me.
Incidentally, Savage Steve Holland’s next collaboration with Cusack, One Crazy Summer (1987), wasn’t quite as successful – this brand of humor works better in cooler climes, I think. Summer did have the inspired image of Bobcat Goldthwait in a Godzilla costume stomping on a scale model of a city block, though, so all is forgiven.
Spellbound (1945). As evidenced by the famously pedantic ending to Psycho (1960), Alfred Hitchcock clearly had a weird fixation with psychiatrists (along with icy blonds, policemen and Cary Grant, but don’t get me started). And never was that fascination on display more than in Spellbound, which today requires a tremendous act of will to appreciate in the context of the time rather than as, well, one of the stupidest thrillers ever.
Still, even though I wouldn’t put it in the Hitchcock top 10, it does have much to acquit it. There’s the famous Salvador Dali dream sequence (revolutionary for its time – no, really), and of course Ingrid Bergman, who’s as luminous as ever, even as she’s spouting psychobabble or looking furtively over her shoulder while skiing to make sure Gregory Peck, as the amnesiac and possible killer she’s trying to cure, isn’t going to murder her with his pole. (Not being Freudian there, I swear.) It also had an awesome poster.
The ski sequence, as in Better Off Dead, is what qualifies Spellbound as a winter movie, and seen apart from the rest of the film I’ll admit that it’s patently hilarious. Peck, like Stallone, is spectacularly underdressed, and the rear projection has the quality of a mid-’80s Saturday Night Live sketch. But if you can tell me another movie whose denouement features a better revelation of a long-suppressed childhood memory on a ski slope, I’m all ears. And no, Hot Dog … The Movie doesn’t count.
Pale Rider (1985). Pale Rider is another movie that wouldn’t fare nearly as well if the characters were warmer. Unlike Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns where Clint Eastwood first made his mark – in which you could practically hear Eli Wallach’s skin cracking in the desert heat – Rider’s downtrodden miners in darkened hovels are much more convincingly in need of redemption surrounded by snow, cold and distant mountains that look almost like icebergs. And Eastwood’s angel-of-death preacher feels like he was born breathing out cold air.
Pale Rider came across as a fine western when I first saw it (in the same year as Better Off Dead – 1985 and 1993 were apparently pretty good years for winter movies), but it’s grown on me even more since. Eastwood wasn’t yet the accomplished director he is today, but the economy of his shots shows a master in development, and I love the way he keeps his preacher a mysterious figure, letting us decide for ourselves whether he’s a man with a troubled past, a ghost emerged from the snow to wreak revenge, or something in between.
Also, he shoots a lot of guys. If you’re a cut-to-the-chase kind of person, you can watch that in the clip below. Hopefully that will keep you warm until spring. As for me, I’ve got my water bottle.