I wanted to make a movie list for Christmas, but not a list of Christmas movies, so I decided to zero in on something we often wish for but rarely get for Christmas in Texas where I live: snow. (Funnily enough, we might actually get it this year.) What follows is a chronological list of some of the most memorable moments in film where snow has made a cameo, whether it’s playing a key role or just hanging out in the background. Warning: may contain spoilers.
The Gold Rush (1925) – The Cabin on the Cliff
Charlie Chaplin said he wanted to be remembered for The Gold Rush, and with good reason. His misadventures as a prospector in the snowy Yukon Territory feature some of his most memorable bits, from cooking and eating a shoe (made of licorice) to the iconic scene where he makes dinner rolls dance. In the grand finale, Chaplin and his partner Big Joe are holed up in a cabin when a gust of wind carries it off. They wake up the next morning only to realize that they’re teetering back and forth on the edge of a cliff. Using miniatures, camera tricks and seamless editing, Chaplin constructs a sequence that is still breathtakingly tense and hilarious nearly 90 years later.
Ikiru (1952) – Swing Song
Francis Ford Coppola once said of director Akira Kurosawa, “One thing that distinguishes Akira Kurosawa is that he didn’t make a masterpiece or two masterpieces; he made, you know, eight masterpieces.” Ikiru (which means “to live”) is one of those masterpieces. It tells the story of Kanji Watanabe, a middle-aged bureaucrat who only begins to live after being diagnosed with stomach cancer. He does a bit of soul searching and decides to use his managerial position and remaining months to perform one last good deed: turn a cesspool into a playground for a poor community. In the final moments of the film (and Watanabe’s life), he sits on a swing in the snow-covered park that he made possible, singing a song about the brevity of life with peaceful acceptance in his heart. It’s about as poignant and beautiful a moment as any in the master filmmaker’s repertoire.
Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980) – The Ice Planet
A New Hope captivated the imagination of an entire generation, but The Empire Strikes Back is the film that really added scope and depth to the Star Wars universe. One reason is that it transports our heroes to a number of exotic locales, including Cloud City, the swamps of Dagobah and, of course, the ice planet of Hoth. In the opening segment of the film (okay, so it’s about 30 minutes of the film and I’m cheating a little), Luke Skywalker is put through the ringer on the snowy terrain, escaping the clutches of a hungry wampa, taking shelter in the carcass of his dead taun taun, and finally, leading the rebels in a battle against giant AT-AT walkers. If that sentence made no sense to you, just trust me, it’s awesome.
The Shining (1980) – The Hedge Maze
Snow serves as the catalyst for the events in Stanley Kubrick’s horror classic The Shining, in which Jack Nicholson volunteers his family to be the sole caretakers of a luxury hotel that’s inaccessible during the winter. Cabin fever and the hotel’s haunted past begin to take their toll on Nicholson, building to a conclusion that finally answers the question, “Wouldn’t it be the scariest thing ever if Jack Nicholson chased you through a giant maze in the dead of winter with an axe?” The answer is yes. Yes, it would be.
John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) – And then there were two…
A team of scientists, based in Antarctica and led by Kurt Russell, face off against a shape-shifting alien in John Carpenter’s moody and inventive cult classic. The creature picks off and imitates the team members one by one in increasingly grotesque ways. In one of the most chilling horror movie endings ever, the two remaining survivors are stranded in subzero temperatures, left to wonder whether the other is actually human, but too cold and powerless to act on their suspicions.
Fargo (1996) – Woodchipped
Few films utilize location as well as Fargo, a film that’s pretty much as flawless as its pure white scenery. The film is funny, thrilling and steeped in Midwestern charm. The wonderful Frances McDormand plays Marge Gunderson, a pregnant sheriff investigating three murders in Minnesota’s harsh 1986 winter. It’s hard to pick just one great scene in Fargo, but for the purposes of this article I’ll go with the ending in which Marge stumbles upon the murderer disposing of bodies in a shockingly gory and highly unorthodox manner. The film’s memorable conclusion might not be the end of Marge’s story, though, as the Coen Bros. have recently agreed to develop a TV series based on Fargo.
Gangs of New York (2002) – Natives vs. Dead Rabbits
The thunderous opening to Martin Scorsese’s 19th century epic finds the Dead Rabbits street gang, made up of immigrants and headed by priest Liam Neeson, preparing for battle in an old brewery. The gang assembles at the door, sharpened blades in hand, and kicks it open to reveal a quiet city square cushioned with a bed of white snow … but it won’t stay white for long. The aptly-named rival gang The Natives, led by Bill the Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis in a towering performance), arrives with the intention of removing the immigrants and a gory battle ensues. It’s not long before the butcher kills the priest with the priest’s son watching, ending the battle and birthing a blood feud. The rest of the film divided audiences, but its prologue is undeniably gripping.
Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003) – Final Showdown
Quentin Tarantino made no secret of the fact that he lifted Kill Bill’s vengeful-woman-on-a-killing-spree plot from the bloody cult classic Lady Snowblood, so it’s only appropriate that the first half of his ode to kung fu and samurai films end in snow and blood. After the Bride cuts her way through the Crazy 88 gang, the only person left to face is her betrayer, Yakuza-leader O-Ren Ishii. Their final standoff in a snow-covered garden is beautifully rendered and so tense you could cut it with one swoosh of a Hattori Hanzo sword.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) – “I could die right now, Clem…”
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is lightning in a bottle. It’s the only film to date where director Michel Gondry doesn’t trip over his eccentricities, finding a perfect balance between ambition and intimacy. Everything from the acting to the sound design works cohesively to tell one of the great love stories of our time. After a tumultuous relationship with Clementine, Joel visits the memory-erasure experts at Lacuna Inc. to have her stricken from his life once and for all. However, in the middle of Joel’s procedure, he stumbles upon a perfect memory: Clementine and him completely happy, lying in the middle of a frozen lake. The deeply resonant moment reminds Joel of how much he loves Clementine and inspires him to fight against the procedure.
Let the Right One In (2008) – Courtyard Dates
Sweden’s icy winter is the setting of a burgeoning adolescent romance in the equal parts tender and terrifying Let the Right One In. This is another film where I could pick a number of scenes … and this time I will. Over a series of meetings in the empty apartment courtyard, bullied 12-year-old loner Oskar gets to know the new girl-next-door Eli. By the time he discovers her secret (spoiler: she’s a vampire), he’s already enamored. Not your typical vampire love story, the relationship is imbued with innocence and genuine warmth, but not without an underlying darkness.
Best Snow Scene of the Year: The Dark Knight Rises
Gotham City Police have been trapped underground for weeks while Bane has imposed his twisted form of martial law on Gotham’s citizens. Finally freed, the police intend to fight back for control of the city, but it seems hopeless. They reluctantly march forward on the city’s icy streets, their enemy peering down at them from the steps of City Hall. It’s obvious that they’re out-manned and outgunned by Bane’s army. Suddenly, one of Bane’s tanks explodes. It’s the Batman! The cops ring out a rousing battle cry and run fearlessly into combat. I may or may not have choked up.
Oh, and in case you were wondering, my top five Christmas films are (in alphabetical order): A Christmas Story, Die Hard, Elf, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.