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The Reelist: Snowed In

With the arrival of the new ski documentary Steep and the first snows of the season, we compile a list of films that depict the whiteness of winter in extraordinary ways. Call it a snow cinema.

Temperatures have dropped, and holiday vacations are fast approaching. The adventurous and athletic are all geared up to hit the slopes, while the young (and young at heart) wait for enough snow to get out the runner sled, make a snowman, or build an ice fort in the front yard. Even if you live somewhere that's perpetually snow-free, it's that time of year again. So with the arrival of the season's first snows—as well as the release of the new ski documentary Steep (TFF '07)—we present a Reelist featuring films that capture the whiteness of winter in thrilling, beautiful, tragic, and extraordinary ways. Call it a snow cinema.
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The Sweet Hereafter

Dir. Atom Egoyan, 1997
Ian Holm plays Mitchell Stephens, a big-city lawyer who visits a small British Columbia town that is devastated after a recent schoolbus accident in which all but one of the children aboard have perished. He goes from door to door, trying to persuade families to initiate a lawsuit, but his prodding only drives the community further apart and deepens its grief. The massive snowdrifts piled up against people's homes accentuate the sense of distance among the townspeople. Atom Egoyan's beautifully haunting adaptation of Russell Banks' novel is the filmmaker's most successful film to date, earning him a Special Grand Jury Prize, the FIPRESCI Prize, and the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury at Cannes 1997, as well as seven Genie awards and two Oscar nominations.

12 More

The Shining
Dir. Stanley Kubrick, 1980

A Simple Plan
Dir. Sam Raimi, 1998

Dir. Rob Reiner, 1990

It's All About Love
Dir. Thomas Vinterberg, 2003

Dead of Winter
Dir. Arthur Penn, 1987

The Last Winter
Dir. Larry Fessenden, 2005

March of the Penguins
Dir. Luc Jacquet, 2005

Happy Feet
Dir. George Miller, 2006

Vertical Limit
Dir. Martin Campbell, 2000

Snow Falling on Cedars
Dir. Scott Hicks, 1999

Smila's Sense of Snow
Dir. Billie August, 1997

101 Reykjavik
Dir. Baltasar Kormákur, 2000

Nanook of the North

Dir. Robert J. Flaherty, 1922
The first anthropological nonfiction feature in cinematic history, Nanook of the North documents one year in the life of the Inuit Nanook and his family. Director Robert J. Flaherty had lived among Canadian Eskimos for many years as a prospector and explorer, shooting footage of them informally until he accidentally set his negatives on fire and decided to mount a full-scale production, funded by French fur company Revillon Freres. Flaherty shot the film on the Hudson Bay in Arctic Quebec, staging much of the action due to the heavy, immobile equipment of the era; the approach raised thorny questions about subjectivity in documentary filmmaking which still persist to this day. But the film's compelling and relatively authentic depictions of igloo-building and hunting on the icy tundra were unprecedented in their time, and make the film an invaluable historical document.

Winter Sleepers (Winterschlafer)

Dir. Tom Tykwer, 1997
Rebecca, a translator, lives with her ski instructor boyfriend Marco in a Bavarian villa owned by her friend Laura, a nurse. On the morning that Marco arrives after Christmas vacation, local drunken projectionist Rene steals his Alfa Romeo, then crashes into a snowbank after almost colliding with a farmer taking his horse to the vet. Rene is unharmed, but the farmer's daughter, who has stowed away in the horse box, is left comatose. But Rene suffers from short-term memory loss, and wanders away from the accident without realizing what has happened, setting up a tragic chain of events involving Marco's search for the man who stole his car, and the farmer's search for the man who killed his daughter. Based on a novel by Anne-Francoise Pyszorahe, the film won Tom Twyker, who also directed the international hit Run Lola Run, the Audience Award and the FIPRESCI Prize at the 1997 Thessaloniki Film Festival.

Touching the Void

Dir. Kevin Macdonald, 2003
In 1985, two young mountaineers, Joe Simpson and Simon Yates, were the first to ascend the summit of the Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes, reaching the 21,000-foot peak in three days. But on the way down, Simpson falls and breaks his leg. Not having set up climbing ropes on the way up, Yates tries to lower his friend down the mountain, one 300-foot section at a time, until a violent snowstorm destroys their ability to communicate and Yates accidentally lowers Simpson over the edge of a cliff, severing their connecting rope and sending him on what should have been a fatal fall. Simpson's story of surviving the 100-foot drop and the three-day journey back to base camp on a broken leg with no food or water is one of the most amazing pieces of mountaineering lore. The film, written by Simpson himself, serves as a strong defense of Simon, whom many believed tried to kill his friend.

Groundhog Day

Dir. Harold Ramis, 1993
What would you do if you loathed all the trappings of winter's wonderland—the snow angels, snowmen, and ice sculptures—yet were fated to live with them forever? In this Bill Murray classic, he plays Phil Connors, a self-centered weatherman who is sent to Punxsutawney, PA, to cover the annual Groundhog Day festivities centered around the appearance of groundhog Punxsutawney Phil. Connors is eager to complete the story and get out of town, but he's stranded by a freak snowstorm, and wakes up the next morning with an acute sense of déjà vu—it's Groundhog Day all over again...and again...and. After suicide attempts and outrageous behavior, Connors begins to realize he must come to terms with the world around him. Though it was unsuccessful upon release, Groundhog Day became hugely successful through cable and video.


Dir. Joel Coen, 1996
It's 1987, and Minneapolis car salesman Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) is having major financial problems. He drives to Fargo, North Dakota, to hire two men (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare) to kidnap his wife and demand a $1 million ransom from her wealthy father. This being a Coen Brothers film, things go horribly awry, and when pregnant police officer Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) begins investigating, the kidnappers get jumpy and Jerry's life quickly disintegrates. This "homespun murder story" is completely fictional, despite the opening claim that it's based on a true story. The film makes the endless flat, white terrain of North Dakota in winter seem by turns comic and sinister (both, when Buscemi's in a scene). The film racked up a total of 52 awards in 1996-1997, including two Academy Awards (Best Screenplay, and Best Actress for Frances McDormand), and Director awards for Joel Coen at Cannes and the BAFTAs.

The Fast Runner (Atanarjuat)

Dir. Zacharias Kunuk, 2001
The first film ever written, directed, and acted entirely in Inuktitut, the language of Canada's Inuit people. At the dawn of the first millennium, a twisted shaman summons an evil spirit to spread violence and dissent, resulting in the death of the local chief, and the breaking of Tulimaq, rival to the chief's wicked son. A few years later, Tulimaq's sons Amaqjuaq (The Strong One) and Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner) continually irk Sauri's temperamental son Oki with their successes as the best hunters. The conflict climaxes when Oki kills Amaqjuaq and sends Atanarjuat fleeing naked into the frigid wilderness, where he meets an unlikely saviour who may be the key to saving his people from the evil spirit. The film was hailed both as a sophisticated depiction of the ancient Inuit way of life and a groundbreaking masterpiece of digital cinema.

The Polar Express

Dir. Robert Zemeckis, 2004
Adapted and expanded from Chris Van Allsberg's classic children's book, The Polar Express is the story of a young boy in search of the true spirit of Christmas. On Christmas Eve, he's awakened by a magical train, whose conductor invites him to the North Pole with hundreds of other children to meet Santa Claus. The faith of all the children is tested on the journey north, and the film's heavily stylized vision of winter captures the wonder and strangeness of Christmas through a child's eyes. Like director Robert Zemeckis' latest, Beowulf, The Polar Express was created through motion-capture technology that turned live actors into animated characters. The technique was criticized due to certain stylistic failures (the characters' eyes don't move, for example), but it remained true to the visual style of the book. Tom Hanks appears in five separate roles, including the Conductor, the Hobo, and Santa Claus.

Winter Light (Nattvardsgasterna)

Dir. Ingmar Bergman, 1962
Few filmmakers ever captured light as beautifully or provocatively as the Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, who died earlier this year. In this, the second in a trilogy of religiously themed films, Bergmann and longtime cinematographer Sven Nykvist used black-and-white photography of a bleak town in midwinter to present an existential drama about man's alienation from God, and from himself.


Dir. Frank Marshall, 1993
This is the first mainstream film to deal with the terrifying true story of an Uruguayan rugby team stranded in the frigid Andes mountains after a plane crash in October 1972. The handful of survivors face unthinkable horrors during two months spent battling frostbite and malnutrition, eventually resorting to cannibalism. Created by the husband-and-wife team of director Frank Marshall and producer Kathleen Kennedy, the film is based on Piers Paul Read's 1974 book Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors, itself based on interviews with survivors, one of whom served as a technical advisor on the film. Some have criticized the film for downplaying the sociological details of Read's book, and for using Northern European actors for Southern European and South American roles. But many praised Marshall's ability to present the story's thrilling—and often sensationalized—events with dignity and respect.

The Day After Tomorrow

Dir. Roland Emmerich, 2004
Why does Hollywood have it in for New York City (see also the just-released I Am Legend and the upcoming Cloverfield)? Roland Emmerich's big-budget global-warming thriller-fantasy is most notable for its scenes of Manhattan as a frozen ghost town. A nifty conceit with cool effects that is ultimately a very silly story, The Day After Tomorrow follows Dennis Quaid as Jack Hall, a heroic paleoclimatologist who tries to save the world when the next ice age hits, unleashing freak tornadoes, hurricanes, tidal waves, ice, and snow on the northern hemisphere. Severely straining the lines between science, reality, and science-fiction, and criticized for being both physically impossible and absurd, The Day After Tomorrow still managed to be the second-highest grossing movie ever not to be #1 in the U.S. box office (behind My Big Fat Greek Wedding).


Dir. Christopher Nolan, 2002
A remake of Norwegian director Erik Skjoldbærg's equally chilly 1997 film, Christopher Nolan's version takes the story to Alaska, where Al Pacino stars as Detective Will Dormer, an LAPD legend who takes a murder case in a small fishing town to avoid an internal investigation that might ruin his career. He's aided by local police officer Ellie Burr (Hilary Swank), a longtime admirer of his work, but when he botches a stakeout of the murder suspect and accidentally kills his partner, things begin to spiral out of his control. Between the guilt, stress, and lack of sleep due to the midnight sun of the Alaskan summer, Dormer finds himself at the mercy of the murderer (Robin Williams) as he tries to lead the investigation towards the right suspect while covering up his own mistakes. Insomnia drew attention for casting Williams as a villain, and was enhanced by a haunting musical score and majestic cinematography of the Alaskan hinterlands.


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