With winter now in full-force, for most it’s impossible to go through the whole season without seeing at least a bit of snow. For some it may be the playing grounds for a fun-filled day, for others the catalyst to bad traffic conditions. Either way, cold conditions are inevitable, and since the very beginning of cinema, movies have utilized snowy weather in important ways.
Whether a movie aims to achieve that warm, fuzzy feeling of being inside on a snow day, such as It’s A Wonderful Life, or wants to highlight the freezing conditions as the backdrop to something more sinister, such as The Shining, Letterboxd has ranked the best films set in the snow to watch to match the outside chilly air.
Following a tense crash on a snowy Colorado road in the 1990 Stephen King film adaptation Misery, author Paul Sheldon is at the whim and mercy to the seemingly helpful hand of Annie Wilkies, who ultimately proves to be an unstable and volatile fan of his work.
In a performance that made King so impressed he wrote roles with Kathy Bates specifically in mind, the portrayal of Annie Wilkies is both harrowing and electrifying. The claustrophobic feelings that Sheldon faces being stuck in bed are amplified by the inescapable blizzard brewing outside.
‘The Gold Rush’ (1925)
Although technically named The Lone Prospector in his 1925 silent comedy The Gold Rush, seminal comic Charlie Chaplin once again channels his iconic portrayal of The Tramp in a film where this time he ventures into Alaska looking for gold. The snowy setting becomes the backdrop for memorable characters and a yearning chance at love.
For a silent film released almost 100 years ago, The Gold Rush lives up to its title and can certainly feel like a rush. The excitement and creativity behind every one of Chaplin’s jokes and bits of physical comedy brilliantly contrasts the strong emotional beats.
‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ (1946)
For those who are uninitiated, It’s A Wonderful Life starts on the altruistic George Bailey during a troubled Christmas Eve when his modest business loses everything. As the film progresses, the depressing affairs are ultimately managed with a newfound love of life and an iconic sequence of Christmas cheer that makes this an all-time snowy favorite for many.
There may not be a more classic Christmas movie than It’s A Wonderful Life. The James Stewart lead picture is mainly remembered as a timeless and heartfelt display of Christmas cheer, yet many modern evaluations explain a much darker emotional resonance than remembered. This proves a depth and staying power far beyond the typical “Christmas movie” moniker the film often receives.
‘The Revenant’ (2015)
Featuring one of the most visceral initiating incidents of the decade, The Revenant follows Leonardo DiCaprio as frontiersman Hugh Glass in a vengeful quest against a man who left him for dead in the aftermath of a brutal bear mauling.
The snowy setting is utilized here with a beautiful grace, highlighting the stark, crisp, and vivid imagery of the early 1800s countryside. It’s no secret that DiCaprio went for so long in his career without receiving an Academy Award, and while it was certainly deserved before his portrayal of Hugh Glass, The Revenant showcased the extremes of his performance abilities in a way that finally let him bring home the gold.
‘Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back’ (1980)
Arguably the greatest installment in the Star Wars franchise and one of the most influential sci-fi flicks of all time, The Empire Strikes Back may not typically be remembered as being set in the snow, but the opening sequence on the ice planet Hoth leaves some frigid memories as Luke Skywalker needed to take shelter inside a tauntaun to survive the freezing conditions.
While the twist reveal from the line “No, I am your father” uttered by Darth Vader to Luke during their climactic battle is universal knowledge at this point, the moment would have been revelatory in 1980. The fifth chronological episode of Star Wars took risks that paid off, ramping up the hero’s journey arc from A New Hope into something truly memorable.
In a dystopian 2031, Snowpiercer highlights Earth seventeen years after it became a desolate wasteland from a disastrous attempt to stop climate change and causing a new ice age on the planet. As a class system evolves aboard the train where humanity remains, a desperate group of passengers revolt for better conditions.
Director Bong Joon-ho is no stranger to satirizing class disparity, with his most acclaimed film Parasite becoming the first non-English film to win Best Picture at the Oscars, but it may be his single English language effort that is most overt in its messaging. The seemingly odd concept the film operates from becomes the battleground for poignant social commentary.
‘The Hateful Eight’ (2015)
Trapped indoors by a harsh blizzard, eight strangers with hidden motives and deceptive purpose in The Hateful Eight feel danger both inside and outside. Featuring Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Samuel L. Jackson and a varied cast of other characters, the plot quickly unravels under the threat of murderous intent.
Presenting a dour ethos that everyone is only out for themselves, this may not be a universal favorite of Quentin Tarantino’s work. Yet, it’s his thematic dedication that separates The Hateful Eight from the rest of his filmography. The director’s eighth film will leave viewers with plenty of twists and turns to marvel at regardless, undoubtedly making this a suspenseful mystery.
‘The Shining’ (1980)
With one of the most memorable Jack Nicholson performances in one of the most tense Stanley Kubrick films, The Shining has become ubiquitous in horror movie conversation. When Jack Torrance (Nicholson) accepts a temporary job at the Overlook Hotel for the winter, his isolated wife Wendy and son Danny face dire situations against the madness of Jack and the hotel itself.
Fans of Kubrick will certainly have a difficult time picking a clear “best” film from his oeuvre, yet The Shining consistently ranks high on many lists for its genuine scares, shocking imagery, dense plotting, and attention to detail. The blizzard brewing around the Overlook Hotel mimics the harsh conditions within, and the finale outside in a hedge maze proves to be one of Kubrick’s most tense.
Fargo is a goofy yet grounded crime thriller/comedy that follows a meek Minnesotan car salesman who hires two criminals to kidnap his wife in a scheme to get out of debt. When the plan turns sour, a local police chief won’t let anything stop her to bring justice in her snowy small town.
The Coen Brothers are masters at escalating situations from the most unassuming places, and Fargo may be the pinnacle example of this. Lots of the laughs from this seemingly serious situation comes from the contrasting mannerisms of Minnesotan life, and career-defining performances from Frances McDormand, William H. Macy and Steve Buscemi elevate Fargo to something truly special.
‘The Thing’ (1982)
While some may prefer their Kurt Russell lead John Carpenter films to be on the fun side, Snake Pliskenn and Jack Burton respectively from Escape From New York and Big Trouble in Little China could never handle the unspeakable terror that R.J. MacReady does. The Thing follows MacReady and a team of research scientists in remote Antarctica as they face-off against an incomprehensible creature that can morph into the shape of its victims.
With revolutionary practical effects in a film that truly highlights the isolation of winter conditions, it is no wonder why Letterboxd has named this the greatest snow-filled film ever made. The dreary setting leaves the characters of The Thing with nowhere else to go, trapping them against unimaginable horrors with no sign of escape.