Not all snow movies are the indomitably cheery “A Christmas Story” (1983), nor where lack of snow creates consternation like “White Christmas” (1954). Prepare for snow, and lots of it by viewing these movies.
This list won’t include popular holiday titles like “Home Alone” or “Christmas Vacation,” though both are funny and fun. Unique snow movies for this list can and will take crazy twists. Snowshoes aren’t a requirement either; my article The Ten Best Snowshoe Films: Snowshoeing with James Bond and the Sundance Kid covers that segment.
This list of films, listed in reverse order, certainly qualifies as unique if not downright scary—and worse—with important portions filmed on snow. They are followed by a listing of Honorable Mentions, too. Most of both groups will be unusual, unequaled or incomparable stories of adventure and often woe. Many have added features, such as director’s remarks. There may also be other important materials a viewer should want to consider once viewing (or re-viewing) the movie. So, here’s the list:
Snowy Dirty Dozen: Top 12 Most Unique Snow Movies
Sylvester Stallone’s 1993 epic opens with a bang and picks up steam from there. “Cliffhanger” received three Academy Award nominations for visual and sound effects from straddling very large mountains. Be prepared to hang on to your seats while chasing $100,000,000 in really cold cash. His character, Gabe, has an admirable adversary in another of John Lithgow’s dubious dudes, Eric Qualen, whose name evokes thoughts of Quaaludes though he is anything but hypnotic; mesmerizing, yes.
Robert Ryan and Burl Ives star in this 1959 western filmed on Mount Bachelor. Homes in nearby Bend, OR, likely cost more than the movie. They probably cost more than it grossed, too. Regardless, Ryan, who played in Peckinpah’s epic “The Wild Bunch”, is the top billed actor in the movie, followed by Burl Ives. Tina Louise is Helen Crane and Alan Marshal plays Hal Crane.
Quentin Tarantino, in an interview for the UK’s Guardian, says his inspiration for “Django Unchained” came from a number of older spaghetti westerns. “Day of the Outlaw” may be the pasta sauce. “André De Toth’s ‘Day of the Outlaw,’ as famous as it is for being bleak and gritty, is practically a musical by comparison with ”Il Grande Silenzio.’” One MUBI reviewer notes the film is “a Greek tragedy in black & white and in the snow.” It was selected as a feature of the Telluride 2012 Film Festival.
10: Eight Below
Human life is human life, but there is nothing so seductive as a helpless animal, or in this case eight stranded dogs. Disney calls this film, “The most amazing story of survival, friendship and adventure ever told.” The music of Mark Isham for the movie won the 2007 ASCAP Award. Isham played the trumpet in 2003’s “The Cooler,” which is not in the cold at all but one of the most interesting plot twists ever. He has produced or scored more than 40 films or television series.
“Eight Below” seems like having eight “Old Yellers” (Fess Parker’s 1957 epic tearjerker; I saw it) and returning with most of them. By the way, when’s the last time you met someone named Fess? Having your spouse tell you to “‘Fess up” is not the same game, not even the small ballpark. Disney movies are constructed with a high/low plot. Every time something good happens, it’s followed by something bad, and on and on. That’s cryptic but not cynical; it just makes good movies.
“Polar Express” is type of animation that looks human-like with several voices of Tom Hanks here as Santa, the boy, and the father. Robert Zemeckis (Director, “Forrest Gump”) provides a view of life as a box of wacky chocolates. The doubting Thomas youngster rides a magical train to Santa Claus’s outpost.
The film earned a 2005 ASCAP award (to Alan Silvestri: composer of over 100 titles like 2012’s Avengers). It also scored three nominations for the Oscar in Original Song, Sound Editing and Mixing, and other recognition for its “realistic” animation as it’s known. The characters are weirdly fun, and interesting. They have incredible looks and designs done as the physical person is then “skinned” over with animation. I rank it a 9 on IMDB’s 1-10 scale though the average view is 6.5. My ranking is more insightful than those 62,237 other IMDB raters on this film.
Charles Bronson is Deakon in this 1975 Alistair MacLean thriller. An Army unit travels on a train through the mountains to deliver critical medical supplies when passengers begin getting killed. Bronson has to fight any number of bad guys to save the day; thank goodness, too, as his wife, Jill Ireland is on board as Marica. Ben Johnson is always good as the law; in this case as Marshal Pearce. A lot of people end up shot on the snow. Grandiose Gov. Richard Fairchild is played by the great Richard Crenna.
A thrilla in the hilla, as top-selling novelist Paul Sheldon, expertly played by James Caan, crashes his car in the snowy mountains and is saved by, as it turns out, an obsessed fan of his, Annie Wilkes. Kathy Bates won the Oscar for her leading performance as this deranged fan, along with similar awards from others like the Golden Globe. The film directed by Rob Reiner won numerous awards for its portrayal of Stephen King’s novel. Great character actor Richard Farnsworth is a key to the film as the local sheriff snooping around. Be careful in life if an Annie tells you, like she did Paul, “I love you . . . ”
6: The Grey
This 2011 release is based on survival in the wilderness when the plane transporting a group of oil workers home crashes, naturally, in a snow storm; how else? The writer has to get the actors in the snow someway. Liam Neeson stars as the survivalist who fights a pack of ravenous wolves, not unlike those found at bars and taverns just before closing, just with bigger teeth. Joe Carnahan directed; previously two of my favorites, “Blood, Guts, Bullets and Octane” (1998) and “Smokin’ Aces” (2006) came out of his creative mind.
I’m canceling my airline tickets and walking to the USSSA Snowshoe Nationals after watching this film. “Alive” centers on a plane crash with an Uruguayan rugby team, scattered out the back, like so many pieces of potato chips sucked out the car’s open window when I was a kid. It is harrowing, desperate, and Donner-like in spots. However, the reward for the viewer is worth the pain. The 1993 original version is the one I’ve watched. This film had a nomination for Best Action Sequence in the plane crash, nomination for editing, and a win for Australian Cinematographer of the Year, Peter James. James was Director of Photography in “Driving Miss Daisy” and “Meet the Parents” along with more than 30 other films. A 2010 documentary also featuring the lead character in this version, Nando Parrado (Ethan Hawke played the role in the 1993 version) is available. Frank Marshall directed; he has two films in this list.
If Die Hard taught Bruce Willis never to go into tall buildings again, 2003’s Touching the Void will forever keep you away from those summits that make the Fourteeners (14,000 feet peaks) seem like mole hills. Billed as “The closer you are to death, the more you realize you are alive,” this docudrama covers the true expedition of two friends climbing a dream mountain in South America. Their attitude is, “It was brilliantly fun, and then it wasn’t.” It is the “wasn’t” part that will forever make finishing an ultra distance event seem more like milktoast than the nasty challenges they really are. Any endurance racer of any ilk should view and own this movie. I get away scot free here as my barber, Jason Brezee’ of Lili Salon, Minnetonka, MN owns a copy, which is almost like me owning it. No one has viewed the “Godfather I and II” more than he. Too bad the Christmas tree scene in “Godfather” wasn’t longer; it might’ve been considered. Meanwhile, “Touching the Void” won a handful of Best Documentary awards and was nominated for even more.
One of John Frankenheimer’s (“Birdman of Alcatraz,” “Seven Days in May,” “Ronin”) less-known great movies as black humor abides around the Christmas holidays. He said, “This is the picture I made for me; It’s much sexier and much edgier.” Stealing money and snow seem to go hand-in-hand. Though in this case, there are some screwy relations as Charlize Theron and her “brother” Gary Sinise con ex-con Ben Affleck; or do they? Sinise is sly, saying, “Tis the season, convict.” Never dull, never slow, never obvious; “Reindeer Games” makes even Rudolph blush.
2: Ice Harvest
The winner of the funniest movie of this unique snow movie list. Harold Remis (“Caddyshack,” “Groundhog Day”) introduced this 2005 movie with a sly twist of the Christmas spirit: a heist of a partner’s money leads to a Christmas Eve and morning offering of an entirely new look of the holiday. John Cusack is perfect as Charlie Arglist, an attorney for the local mob, though his personal life has been stepped on pretty badly. One of the more outrageous Christmas dinner scenes ever is in this movie and many will recognize some part of this meal from personal experience. Billy Bob Thornton plays Cusack’s crooked partner (“Only morons are nice on Christmas”), while Randy Quaid is hilarious as the mob guy out to get his money back on Christmas Day “When I should be home opening presents with my kids.” Oliver Platt is drop-dead funny as the drunk architect Peter Van Heuten who finds the unwelcomed reward of insulting a star soccer player’s girlfriend: “Man down; man down!”
1: The Shining
Stanley Kubrick’s epic 1980 movie of horror with backtones of Nazism as Jack Nicholson makes Jack Torrance interesting in every scene. The snows begin as the Torrances caretake the luxurious hotel near Donner’s Pass; when the blizzard is at peak, so does the movie. Nicholson ad-libs the famous “Here’s Johnny” as he huffs and puffs and chops the door down to Wendy’s (Shelley Duvall) bathroom. Scatman Crothers teaches the meaning of the word “shining” to the young boy, Danny Torrance (Danny Lloyd, who never acted again). Iconic scenes abound such as the blood spilling out of an elevator to flood the room. Books have been written on this movie; none better than Dr. Geoffrey Cock’s The Wolf at the Door: Stanley Kubrick, History, and the Holocaust.
Amazon’s editorial review says Cocks “inhabits the inner-life of the great, and highly secretive film director.” Learn that yellow snow is much different from what you’ve come to believe. This film was featured at the 2012 Berlin International Film Festival.
The 1978 version features stars like Rock Hudson, Mia Farrow and Robert Forester fighting “20,000 tonnes of icy terror,” and that’s just the skimpy drinks in the airport. Soon enough they arrive at a winter’s resort where all ice breaks loose creating an unlikely survival film.
Gene Hackman (Admiral Reigart) is willing to lose his command to recover a downed pilot, Owen Wilson, shot down where? Right; behind enemy lines. As the movie poster broadcasts, “His only weapon is his will to survive.” Wilson’s Lt. Chris Burnett is relentlessly pursued by enemy troops in this 2001 film directed by John Moore. Moore also directed “A Good Day to Die Hard,” part of the Die Hard franchise, in 2013.
“Doctor Zhivago” is an epic film by David Lean about a doctor/poet who cheats on his wife with a beautiful activist and finds trouble during the Bolshevik Revolution. My brother, Paul, said this is the only film he has seen that made him feel cold. Moving into a house out in the middle of fields, no tree cover at all, in the middle of winter with the house overrun from drifts of snow in and out and ice everywhere else will do that for you. But, of course, it turns warm and cozy due to the magic of film and perhaps the five Oscars the film garnered. Big ones, like Best Picture, though nominated were lost to “The Sound of Music” in the 1966 Academy Awards. Too bad the wonderfully zany nominee “A Thousand Clowns,” one of my 101 movies to watch 1001 times list, didn’t take the cake. Where else could you hear such a line like this (imagine Jason Robards playing Murray Burns): [answers phone] “Hello, is this someone with good news or money? No? Goodbye! [hangs up].
Jack London did all a favor as he “sold his brains” (his words) to escape poverty by writing; without that effort books that entertained me immensely as a kid would not have been published. “Call of the Wild” has several versions (including the first with Clark Gable). My favorite though is the touching 1993 film starring Ricky Schroeder. This movie could have made my original snowshoe movie list.
Retracing the steps of Admiral Peary’s North Pole expedition in 1909, adventurer Sebastian Copeland captures this journey as a documentary for the Tribeca Film Festival. This film offers a unique view and unique images of a difficult journey. Even more difficult is to comprehend the possibility of the Pole melting away.
This 1955 movie had good special features for the time. Two highlights, however, set this movie above the ordinary: a triangle that isn’t all love, set in the frozen northland. Then, the snow eats an airplane, swallows it much like a python sucks in a rat. If one isn’t cold enough, they’re at this outpost regarding “Operation Deep Freeze.” Much of the chill comes from blowing snow, though quite a bit is the fact Major Gannon’s (Robertson) ex-wife is there, chased by another Major. Gannon seems more interested in young Lieutenant Mary Ross; or is it her interest in him? Regardless, bundle up; the movie shivers bones.
Critically dismissed, but the 2009 movie will chill one to the bones; how can’t it since the location is Anartica. Carrie Stetko (Kate Beckinsale) as a U.S. Marshall chases a bad guy in the frozen tundra making one think, why? Isn’t this place prison enough anyway? There is plenty of international intrigue to make it all worthwhile. Best line: “Hey Marshall, don’t you owe me a strip search?” Note, Beckinsale also starred with Sam Rockwell in another chiller “Snow Angels” in 2007, winner of Top Independent Film awarded by the National Board of Review.
Quite a list; chilling in its own way. In case I didn’t list your favorite(s), write them in the comments section below. Then, go through this list, watch the ones you want, then get back with me on your thoughts about these movies.
Thanks to Jeff Kildahl, Snowshoe Magazine’s Wellness Editor, for digging up some of the info on these selections while suggesting other films for inclusion. Connect with him at Wholistic Edge.