We honor the winter season by picking the ten best films where cold weather plays a significant role.
Ah yes, winter is finally here. For many of us that means snowy days, chilly nights, and maybe even chestnuts roasting on an open fire. With the colder temperatures and declining amount of daylight, we’re spending more time indoors. Certainly some of that time spent indoors will be spent watching movies. Holiday movies are common during this time of year, but I would argue that there are other types of films which align closer to the realities of these bitter winter months….
Below I’ve listed what I would consider to be the ten best “cold” movies. These are movies we recognize for their settings in a frigid environment. When we watch them we need a warm blanket and a cup of hot cocoa or coffee because they make us feel cold. The filmmakers have gone above and beyond to make the chilly atmosphere of the film feel as authentic as possible. These are films which we identify because of their cold settings, and their plots are derived from them. They may be holiday movies, a major component is always the weather situation. Simply put – they could not take place in any other environment.
For each film in my top 10, I have listed two temperatures. The first temperature describes how cold the film’s setting is in relation to the others. And the second temperature describes how emotionally “cold” or bleak the film’s outlook is. The lower, the more impactful that “cold” element of the film is. The best cold films feel cold not just on your skin, but on your conscience. Let’s begin!
Films that almost made it into the top ten:
The Ice Storm
A Simple Plan
- Home Alone
Ok, so it isn’t the coldest film on this list, and it isn’t the best. That’s why it is #10. But when I think of winter films, this one comes to mind immediately. First, there is the connection to Christmas and the holidays. The whole reason Kevin is alone is because his family is leaving for Christmas vacation. When he is left home, it is that absence of his family which makes his fondness for them grow. So, in a sense, the film uses the cold weather and holiday season to teach an important lesson about the importance of family. But the film also uses the cold and ice to stage some hilarious slapstick high jinks. It just wouldn’t be the same without snow and ice.
How Cold? 32 F – Freezing, but not terribly harmful to your health. Unless you slip on some conveniently placed ice….
How Bleak? 50 F – Sure, a family accidentally leaves a kid behind who almost gets kidnapped or murdered, but he makes the most of his opportunity and everyone is happily reunited in the end.
- Planes, Trains, and Automobiles
Cold weather isn’t just potentially dangerous. It can be downright inconvenient. This is a movie which demonstrates the havok winter can wreck on travel. The main character just wants to get home to his family for Thanksgiving, but the weather keeps throwing obstacle after very annoying obstacle in his way. It may be freezing outside, but the frustration the bad weather causes is enough to make your blood boil. Throw in the charm and wit of Steve Martin and John Candy and you have an unforgettable “cold” movie.
How Cold? 28 F – Just below freezing. Make sure you have a warm jacket, hat, and gloves. Don’t set your car on fire trying to warm up.
How Bleak? 32 F – This movie is like one of those nightmares where you are trying everything you can to get somewhere you need to be, but the universe is just not aligning to make that happen. Sure, its uncomfortable, but not exactly deadly.
- Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back
The opening of the second Star Wars film is a hell of an opening. The Rebels have established a base in a place they don’t think the Empire will find very easily, a hellish Ice world called Hoth. When the Empire does find the base, the resulting battle is one for the ages. But the legendary battle on Hoth isn’t the only cold thing about this film. Later scenes take place in deep space, or in Cloud City where our heroes receive what could be considered a cold welcome. From a major character being frozen in carbonite, to the film’s bleak ending – there’s not a lot of warmth here.
How Cold? -25 F – Very very cold. Like enough to kill a Tauntaun. While it is likely much colder than that on Hoth, I’m balancing out all of the film’s locales.
How Bleak? 0 F – The rebel base on Hoth is destroyed. Han Solo gets captured. Luke loses an arm and gains an unwelcome father figure. Let’s just say this film ends with our beloved main characters in a bad place. But at least they’re not dead.
The cold is an excellent tool in a horror film. It can be utilized as a weapon, to harm or otherwise incapacitate a character. It can also be used as a barrier. Preventing characters from going someplace, and making them easier victims. In Misery, the cold is all of those things, and more. At first, the cold is what causes the main character to crash and injure himself. Next, he becomes trapped because of his injuries and the remote location of his captor’s home, as well as the cold weather outside.
How Cold? 10 F – Terribly cold. A blizzard starts off a chain of terrible events. Hence the film’s title.
How Bleak? -10 F – Being rescued by a devoted fan seems like a good thing, but when you begin to realize the fan is crazy and won’t take no for an answer….then you have some significant problems to deal with. That includes having to beat her to death so you can escape.
- Groundhog Day
Speaking of living through a nightmare, that is exactly what Groundhog Day is. A cruel man has to relive the same miserable day over and over again until he realizes that he has to change. The fact that this miserable day is miserably cold only makes it that much more cruel. The scenery is full of people bundled up in winter jackets and gloves, and there are more than a few pots of hot coffee being served to try and warm everyone up. Bill Murry’s comedic talent brings warmth to the movie too – this may be the warmest cold movie on the list!
How Cold? 30 F – Officially cold. Cold enough to be miserable, but the weather doesn’t necessarily cause any harm by itself. But it can get annoying if you have to live it over and over, especially when you are a weatherman and predicted it wouldn’t be cold.
How Bleak? 0 F – Sure, it’s everyone’s worst nightmare. But the guy eventually learns his lesson, changes his outlook, and his life is better for it.
- The Shining
One of the most revered horror movies ever made chooses to use cold weather as a trap to confine its characters. These characters are family, so it isn’t so scary at first. In fact, its downright cozy and calm. But as time goes on it is apparent that the place they are cooped up in is a bit sinister, and it drives father Jack Torrance against his own wife and child. Director Stanley Kubrick does an excellent job of using his camera to create an uneasy feeling because of that cold and isolation – that’s why this one ends up on the #5 spot of my list.
How Cold? -20 F – Cold enough for a man to go outside and freeze to death….because that happens in this movie.
How Bleak? -10 F – Matches the bleakness of the other Stephen King-based movie on this list. A father turning against his own family is pretty dark.
- The Revenant
This one’s about survival, and makes you question what you would be willing to do to remain alive in the desolate wilderness during the winter. From being mauled by a bear, to having to perform surgery on himself, to crossing frigid rivers, surviving a high fever, and spending the night in the carcass of your recently deceased horse….this film takes its audience on quite the journey. All of it makes an unmistakable mark on how deadly the cold can be.
How Cold? – 30 F – Makes it pretty clear how easily nature can kill you. Actually this movie is a trifecta of dangerous things that can kill you: the weather, animals, and man.
How Bleak? -20 F – It’s one man against the world in an effort of revenge. He survives the unthinkable.
No list of cold films would be complete without mentioning Frozen. Unlike the other high-placed films on this list, this one isn’t really horrific. Instead, it is magical. So it earns points for making the cold something inspirational and beautiful rather than treacherous. From its cute animation style, to its unforgettable songs, Frozen is the ultimate pro-cold movie.
How Cold? 0 F – Elsa’s magic is all about the cold and her ability to control it. So it’s a neutral kind of cold – potentially dangerous, potentially helpful. Makes for lots of pretty sparkles. And not to mention one of the characters in the fill is quite literally the weather.
How Bleak? 50 F – Melting. Yes, there are dark moments in this film, but it’s a fantasy where positivity outweighs any negative situations.
- The Thing (1982)
This film takes the danger and isolation resulting from the cold to the extreme. Stuck in an Antarctic research base with a shapeshifting sinister alien creature, there are threats here both seen and unseen. The film’s excellent grasp of paranoia resulting from not being able to tell apart the creature from its victims goes hand in hand with the claustrophobia of its setting. The Thing is unimaginable horror, and we have to at least admit that part of its success is because of its inhospitable cold setting.
How Cold? -50 F – The coldest film on this list. When you think of cold, one of the first things which will come to mind is Antarctica.
How Bleak? -50 F – Amplifies the nightmare situations seen in other horror films on this list. Death is simply inescapable.
Not the coldest movie on this list, not the bleakest. Fargo is the best because of what it represents to American cinema. Quirky, harsh, funny, macabre – all at the same time. This is the film where it all came together for the Coen brothers. It is an almost dark humor approach to a classic noir, but with plenty of intrigue and characters you can’t help but fall in love with no matter if they are good or bad. Fargo’s use of cold is just one of the film’s many palpable attributes, but it may be its most recognizable.
How Cold? 0F – Frosty for sure. In a not quite wholesome, not quite deadly way.
How Bleak? 0F – Kidnapping, ransom, sabotage, murder via wood-chipper. Its full of desperate characters who are a little bit outside the realm of their abilities.