For as long as I can remember, there’s been snow.
As a lifelong resident of the Upper Midwest, I’ve shoveled it, packed it, driven in it, trudged through it, slipped on it (on purpose and by accident), snow-angeled with it, made forts out of it, feared it, dreaded it, cursed it, and above all lived with it for about five months out of every year. I’m 41 now, so that means I’ve been stuck in snow for about 17 years of my life. In another few years, my snowbound self will be an adult. I wonder if he’ll want to finally move to California.
I can’t say I actually like snow — I don’t ski or ice-skate or play hockey or haul my ass on a toboggan. I do not romanticize frigid precipitation. Snow sucks. But I’ve never made an attempt to leave for a place where snow isn’t such a constant presence. My only explanation is that living with snow has shaped how I view the world to an intractable degree. Snow, to me, means balance. If you live in Los Angeles, where the sun shines almost every day, what is the yang to your meteorological yin? How can you appreciate living without snow and all that it entails — the blankness, the overwhelming physical and psychic stasis, the wet socks — if you’ve never actually lived with it?
For us snowbound folk, viewing winter as an annual test of your body and spirit is the only way to justify not moving away. If you can survive this, then you will have earned the right to bask in the sun starting (hopefully!) in May or so.
OK, maybe that makes zero sense. Perhaps it would help for you to watch some snowy movies, in order to understand my utterly incomprehensible pro-snow/anti-snow circular logic.
I love snowy movies; they offer a realer alternative to the fantasies of holiday movies. While holiday movies are about convincing a protagonist that the world is a much better place than he or she believes, therefore making life worth living — this is the basic plot of A Christmas Carol, It’s a Wonderful Life, and all their variants — snowy movies are about putting a protagonist through the very worst the world has to offer, BECAUSE LIFE IS WORTH LIVING ANYWAY, YOU PATHETIC WARM WEATHER WIMPS.
Here are the 18 best snowy movies of all-time.
18. The Empire Strikes Back
17. Inside Llewyn Davis
16. McCabe & Mrs. Miller
These movies are as good or better than anything I have ranked higher. However, this is not a list ranking great movies. It’s a list ranking great snowy movies. While these films all feature outstanding scenes in which characters traverse in the wintry elements, they do not on balance offer a pure snowy movie experience. If the Rebels had spent another half-hour on Hoth, or Llewyn Davis hung out longer in Chicago, or [SPOILER ALERT] John McCabe’s corpse had rested in that snowbank for the entire film, it would be a different story.
15. Jack Frost
I admit it: I really wanted to do a movie list in which Jack Frost is ranked higher than McCabe & Mrs. Miller. But this 1998 sorta comedy/kinda family drama about a blues musician (Michael Keaton) who dies and comes back as a snowman in order to have snowball fights with his son truly is a one-of-a-kind film. It seemed to have been made without an audience in mind. I can’t imagine any responsible parent showing his or her kids Jack Frost, unless you want that kid to have life-long fears about anthropomorphic snow. Jack Frost is best appreciated by guilty parents who also live in a cold-weather climate and like Stevie Ray Vaughan — check, check, and check!
14. Die Hard 2
Die Hard is a Christmas movie because it’s about a disillusioned man who comes to appreciate how good his life is (i.e. he stops pouting about his wife having a presumably high-paying corporate job in California) by besting a significant personal challenge during the holiday season (by murdering terrorists). Die Hard 2, then, is a quintessential snowy movie, because it shows that same disillusioned man experiencing the true awfulness of the world (by forcing him to spend time at the airport during Christmas) and yet wanting to live anyway (by murdering terrorists).
13. Wind River
Taylor Sheridan’s 2017 thriller is an example of snowy noir. (Film blanc?) The dead woman who sets the story in motion is actually killed in part by the weather — according to Wind River, running for six miles in your bare feet when it’s 20 below causes your lungs to burst. Fortunately, nobody where I come from is in good enough shape to run that long in the winter.
This is one of Sylvester Stallone’s best non-Rocky/non-Rambo action films, and not just because it’s set in the snow. In fact, Cliffhanger is good in spite of being a snowy movie. The cinematic virtues of snow are really squandered here. Sly plays a hotshot mountain climber who is coerced into helping a band of criminals (led by John Lithgow) recover their lost loot in the middle of Colorado. However, the drama in Cliffhanger has more to do with great heights than crushing cold. In fact, Sly (and everyone else in this movie) never ever wears a hat or gloves. It’s as if these people don’t even notice the snow. It’s like making a Rocky movie where everybody gets punched in the face and nobody gets hurt.
11. The Revenant
Alejandro González Iñárritu’s punishing snowy western from 2015 is essentially the anti-Cliffhanger. This movie works overtime to make you feel the precise misery of traveling with a pack of trappers in 1823. Most snowy movies are content to merely show people shivering inside of heavy coats, or rubbing their hands desperately over a warm fire. In The Revenant, meanwhile, you get a guided tour of Leonardo DiCaprio’s snot-encrusted beard hairs. Excuse me, Oscar-winning snot-encrusted beard hairs.
10. Runaway Train
Not enough people know about this very underrated ’80s action film and extremely properly rated (by me) snowy movie masterpiece. Jon Voight and Eric Roberts play fugitives who break out of a high-security Alaskan prison and hop a train that is spent careening nonstop after the engineer unexpectedly dies. Runaway Train has it all — harsh elements, hard-living dudes who freeze their asses off in those elements, and … well, what else does a great snowy movie need? The frigid verisimilitude of Runaway Train is assisted by director Andrei Konchalovsky, an actual Russian who worked on several movies with the great Andrei Tarkovsky (including co-writing 1966’s epic Andrei Rublev) and later directed Tango and Cash. That resumé sums up the aesthetic — half philosophical, half-red meat action – of Runaway Train.
9. The Hateful Eight
Leave it to Quentin Tarantino to make a snowy movie that’s an homage to other snowy movies. I can’t delve too deeply into exactly which films The Hateful Eight borrows from, since they all show up later on this list. For now, I’ll just say this: Tarantino understands that you don’t actually have to see the snow for a snowy movie to work. You just have to be able to sense it. (Steven Spielberg used a similar strategy with the shark in Jaws and the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park.) The Hateful Eight is about cabin fever, and seasonal paranoia, and the claustrophobia that occurs when you know you can’t travel or even leave the safety of shelter. You don’t have to be some dastardly bush-whacker to relate to these things — anyone who has been stuck at home during a long, blizzard-y weekend knows how the mind wanders when the body feels trapped.
8. Touching the Void
Whenever I feel sorry for myself because I have to shovel my damn driveway for the 10th time in the same damn month, I think about this 2003 documentary, about two mountaineers who were stranded during a climb in Peru. One of the men was so badly injured he had to literally drag himself down the mountain with a broken leg. In the snow. All by himself. Touching the Void is an incredible film about the perseverance of the human race amid unbelievable hardship, which also makes it a definitive snowy movie. I also like it because it affirms my suspicion that one should never do anything overly adventurous, in the snow or otherwise.
Whereas Touching the Void is the most inspirational snowy movie, Alive is the grossest. The 1993 film tells the true story of a Uruguayan rugby team that is stranded in the Andes mountains after a plane crash, forcing the survivors to eat the dead for sustenance. The film isn’t overly graphic in its depiction of cannibalism — we see living people like Ethan Hawke and Josh Hamilton cut pieces of dead people from the corpses’ backsides, which are then turned into food that sometimes looks like beef jerky, and other times like steak. But even if the realities of the story are shown in a, ahem, tasteful manner, Alive is the snowy movie most likely to make you a vegetarian.
6. The Great Silence
This obscure spaghetti western from 1968 starring Jean-Louis Trintignant and Klaus Kinski was restored and re-released earlier this year, though it’s clear that Tarantino saw it years ago and had it in mind when he conceived The Hateful Eight. (An early sequence set in a stagecoach in which all of the principals interact is all but replicated in Tarantino’s film.) Now that it’s readily available — you can rent it on major streaming platforms — The Great Silence ought to rightfully take its place as one of the best snowy westerns. It’s certainly the snowiest snowy western — snow is falling in virtually every scene, and there are numerous instances of horses struggling to plow through deep snow drifts. Unlike the boundless openness that’s endemic to most westerns, the omnipresence of snow gives The Great Silence a feeling of oppressive suffocation that mirrors the dearth of morality in the film’s motley crew of murderous bounty hunters.
5. The Thing
4. The Shining
Two of the greatest snowy movies ever use the pretense of science fiction to make the psychological effects of living snowbound for several months more tangible for the non-snowbound population. In The Thing, an alien is on the loose in a remote research base — which is bad enough, though you also can’t see it, because it lurks inside the bodies of people who you thought were your friends. In The Shining, the caretaker of a remote Colorado hotel (Jack Nicholson) is slowly driven insane by the evil spirits who lurk within, turning him against his wife and young son.
If the entire world’s population had to endure a true snowy winter, John Carpenter and Stanley Kubrick could have probably shed all sci-fi trappings from The Thing and The Shining. Because what happens in those movies can’t really be chalked up to aliens or ghosts — the real enemy is a mind that can’t take staring at a wide expanse of endless white for too long. You can’t understand that if you live in Arizona.
Without some extraordinary outside force, what takes place in The Thing and The Shining would seem inexplicable to those living in warm climates. But for those of us residing in the great white north, these movies are allegories for a common condition.
3. Jeremiah Johnson
I’m breaking my own rules by ranking this one so high — only about half of this 1972 classic starring Robert Redford actually takes place in the snow. Jeremiah Johnson follows the titular mountain man character through several different season cycles, as he grows more acclimated to the wild. So, sometimes this is a snowy movie, and other times it’s more of a straight-ahead western. Nevertheless, this is one of my favorite movies of all time — contemporary viewers will immediately liken it to The Revenant, but it’s lighter and more lyrical, even as it turns decidedly darker in the film’s final third. Unlike most of the films on this list, Jeremiah Johnson depicts a snow-covered frontier as an ultimately romantic place, full of adventure and possibility, though also capable of evoking tremendous alienation and loneliness as well. It’s as much a movie about post-hippie ’70s America as it is about the Old West.
2. The Grey
Did you see that Liam Neesons movie with them wolves, though? That one with them big-ass wolves and Liam Neesons? Liam Neesons is my shit.
Most of the snowy movies on this list explore barren worlds that are far removed from my own life. Fargo, however, is practically a documentary about life in the midwest during wintertime. The dank taverns, the chilly parking garages, the hockey games, the far-flung cabins, the endless prairie fields blanketed with white — the world of Fargo is one I know all too well. The Coen Brothers approach it all with sardonic humor, wary dread, and, yes, genuine affection. The famous scene in which Steve Buscemi buries the ransom money in the frozen ground next to a fence post along a country road, which might as well be any country road, nails the existentialism of living with snow — how it makes everything around you seem vacant and unknowable, sending you back inside of yourself, the only place where it’s warm.