Winter Watch List: Films for Cold Weather

By Ricky Herbst, Cinema Program Director for the Browning Cinema, December 17, 2020 Browning Cinema, News & Announcements

[About a 6 MIN read]

In second grade, my parents slapped carpet over some oil-stained cement and converted our two-car garage into a family room. It signaled the proper Iowan rumpus room: It had encyclopedias, a houseshow-purchased poster of the WWF’s Demolition, a blue sectional couch with built-in lamp, a dartboard for metal-tipped darts directly above the couch, nearby bloodstains and, most importantly, a big ol’ four-ton television.

Unique though, from my friends’ TV rooms, was that mine housed the house’s furnace, a behemoth vestige of the room’s first career as a garage. With a family prone to aggressive climatizing at the thermostat, the family room doubled as a sauna during the winter, even if watching a movie on a snow day. I legit and distinctly remember a fun-size Snickers melting during a Super Bowl party, which I threw in the freezer to reconstitute and forgot about for approximately two years. I still ate it, even though it looked like a Heath bar at that point.

These inverted extremes fed and led to something odd, though. I very, very much prefer watching “cold” movies during the summer and “warm” movies during the holidays. The habit transferred effectively once out of the garage, too. When it’s cold outside in the winter, I think playing against seasonal type works.

Who wants to watch Alive (not the flesh-eating movie from 2020 but the flesh-eating movie from 1993) when it was released in frigid January? Just save some money and wait until the summer when it’s available on VHS. (I did just that for a summer sleepover and it (shocker) flopped.) But that, perhaps, is an exception that proves my preference: It’s good to chill out with wintery movies during the summer and heat up with summery movies during the winter.

In keeping with our Top 3 brand, here are three movies I recommend for the upcoming holiday season. For those looking for more conventional seasonal December picks, I promise to run through some Santa movies come next June (when they can be watched properly).

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome

(1985, dirs. George Miller, George Ogilvie)
Mad Max Thunderdome

Why not ring in the holidays with an apocalyptic favorite? Deserts are kin to snowscapes, and the just-wait-for-it ice water outside is never more appreciated than when you’re watching mutants, rebels, or townspeople living under corruption — you pick the standard apocalyptic cast — fight for water and resources.

Offering you dust bowls on bowls on bowls are the Aussie Mad Max films, which also track with this piece given the hemispherical seasonal differences come December. I normally end up watching at least one of the four Mad Max films each winter, and, of those, Thunderdome seems to sit up best for the holidays, if for no other reason than it lent its name to familial crucibles of all types. But there’s plenty to make it a good December watch. 

The casting note here could be that it is the last of the Mel Gibson Maxes, but foundational and formational for most is the casting of national treasure and 2005 Kennedy Center Honoree (another good December TV watch), Tina Turner. The best trailer for the movie is the music video to “We Don’t Need Another Hero,” which took me until the 2010s to correct my various misheard lyrics in it. (I still stand by “we don’t need to ride the white horse” over “we don’t need to know the way home.”)

Ms. Turner plays Auntie Entity, who rules over Bartertown with an iron fist shoulder pad in manifold biblical/1980s ways. Along those lines, Bartertown works as a handy stand-in for Jerusalem, even with tamped down Messianic themes, there are still plenty if you’d like to shoehorn it into the holidays.

But what really makes this film great for the holidays is that there’s a lot of neat scholarship on Mad Max movies — why not give yourself the gift of education this season? It is a great rabbit hole and one that can be read pretty directly without prerequisites. If you do give that world a go, check out this Paul Williams piece on Thunderdome which references many desert/hot movies.

Beau Travail

(1999, Dir. Claire Denis)
Beau Travail

Keeping this string of atonal holiday films rolling, let’s pop into Djibouti and the late 1990s for Claire Denis’ loose adaptation of Herman Melville’s Billy Budd.

This film was a Blockbuster rental back in the early 2000s that impressed me a whole bunch. I then soured on it to the point of favorable apathy over the years. However, upon a revisitation inspired by Alex Ross’ recent article, we’re gonna call this rehabilitated (personally, at least, as it never lacked praise) and, by some pulled-muscle stretch of the imagination, the perfect film for your holiday season.

There is something to the reckoning that often occurs, by necessity of limited space and time, during winter visits home. A closeted-attraction film felt like a decent pathway for beginning various unspoken December to remember conversations. Moonlight, Beach Rats, and The Ornithologist (and many others from the same moment, this is a pretty rich subgenre) were all warm-weather festival darlings of a roughly four-year vintage that could work here.

Pushing further reading (supra) and adaptations (below), Beau Travail fits nicely into something to do when you have time on your hands — a code I hope you have cracked during 2020 but why not keep offering extra credit to fill time? Whether reading Billy Budd, which is in the public domain, or listening to Benjamin Britten’s same-named opera, a viewer of Denis’ adaptation can appreciate the strong outlines she borrows from each while applying her own shading.

Also helping its case are the outdoor visuals — something striking in all three of these holiday movies — in which the sun-soaked French legionnaires move in concert with (or physically against) one another. It will make you feel like you’ve worked hard, even if curled up under a blanket. 

Woman in the Dunes

(1964, dir. Hiroshi Teshigahara)
Woman in the Dunes

Are you feeling trapped because you’re home for the holidays? Realize how much worse it could be when you hang out with Niki Junpei (Eiji Okada), who is performing field research in the intense heat of the sand dunes.

Unaware of the time, he becomes marooned but is taken in by the folk in the remote flytrap village. There, he boards with a widow (Kyōko Kishida) who cooks for him in her quaint one-bedroom sandpit accessible only by rope ladder. When the ladder goes missing, things get much more complicated.

The intriguing fable elements take a heavy turn toward the existential (perhaps good for before New Year’s Eve?) but, constant throughout, is the absolutely stunning imagery of sand and sun.

What also makes this film a solid pick for the holidays is that it could be a nice day of adaptation studies, either self-guided or in a group discussion. The Sysphisian story was adapted for the screen by Kôbô Abe, who wrote the original novel declared “strange” by countless AP Literature students. It’s pretty surprising that such a surreal novel would find its way to the movies, let alone in a package that would keep it weird while also being lauded by mainstream awards. (For example, it received two Oscar nominations.)

The novel is a quick read and widely available through online libraries. One could knock out the book in the morning and the film in the afternoon (or vice versa) with relative ease that would make for a very cozy day.

If you like these three elf-free movies, then check out the Establishing Shot “Top 3: Films in Isolation” podcast, which is so evergreen you’ll string popcorn on it.