Staff Picks: Winter (Not So) Wonderland
Winter movies that are the antithesis of holiday cheer.
Feature Presentation’s Staff Picks is not a best-of list. How do you even craft a list of the best of something as subjective as film? This is a list designed to highlight films (and occasionally television shows or other mediums of entertainment) of a certain theme or topic. It’s a watchlist, they are suggestions. Movies on this list will very in quality, length, genre, and home video or streaming availability.
This list’s theme: Winter (Not So) Wonderland
Jerry, a small-town Minnesota car salesman is bursting at the seams with debt… but he’s got a plan. He’s going to hire two thugs to kidnap his wife in a scheme to collect a hefty ransom from his wealthy father-in-law. It’s going to be a snap and nobody’s going to get hurt… until people start dying. Enter Police Chief Marge, a coffee-drinking, parka-wearing — and extremely pregnant — investigator who’ll stop at nothing to get her man.
On a list of movies that take place in snowy conditions but have nothing to do with the commonly-associated holiday cheer, one would be remiss to leave out Fargo. This movie is commonly known as the top of this highly specific sub-genre. Although Staff Picks is not (and never will be) a “best of” list, this list probably wouldn’t exist without Fargo.
The Coens do everything that they do best here: idiotic and idiosyncratic criminals, the darkest of humor, and highly specific regionalisms — they’ve tackled the southern tip of Texas, Arizona, Mississippi, and their home state of Minnesota a few times, as they do here.
I would also be remiss to leave out a mention of the terrific television series Fargo. Although not created by the Coens themselves, showrunner Noah Hawley has created worlds inspired by the movie that are full of those same Coen-isms. Both are fantastic and if you’ve managed to miss both, get on it. The show is one of the best on television and the movie is the height of Coen power.
A Simple Plan (1998)
Captivated by the lure of sudden wealth, the quiet rural lives of two brothers erupt into conflicts of greed, paranoia and distrust when over $4 million in cash is discovered at the remote site of a downed small airplane. Their simple plan to retain the money while avoiding detection opens a Pandora’s box when the fear of getting caught triggers panicked behavior and leads to virulent consequences.
Few would include a writeup of A Simple Plan right after praising Fargo on a list intended to bring diversity to a topic, as the similarities between the two are deep. But I guess I’m just that kinda guy.
Released just two years after the megahit that was Fargo, A Simple Plan is actually based on a 1993 novel of the same name, but the resemblance can’t be missed: a Minnesota setting home to many similar characters that make mistake after mistake when money gets involved. Hell, Billy Bob Thornton (who is really scene-stealing here) even makes the first season of the television Fargo.
But although the two films contain many parallels as they are both tales of foolish people who get what they deserve, A Simple Plan is the truer morality tale.
In fact, I think it’s a great litmus test for one’s morality. When the characters discover the money, you begin your own what-ifs:
Maybe I would just keep some of it.
Of course I’d take some — at least!
I’d run off to South America with it all stuffed in my pants.
If by the end of the movie you are thinking anything except, “I would give back all of the money immediately if this were to ever happen to me,” then you’re dumber than any of the fools in the movie. At least you’ve been warned.
Till Death (2021)
After a romantic evening at their secluded lake house, a woman wakes up handcuffed to her dead husband. Trapped and isolated in the dead of winter, she must fight off hired killers to escape her late spouse’s twisted plan.
If you hit play on a movie where Megan Fox must defend herself against murderous home invaders while she drags around her handcuffed husband’s dead body, then you know exactly what you are getting into.
And it doesn’t disappoint. It really goes for it in a way that I respect. Most films that try and jam in as much as this one or go as insane as they do can get tiresome after a while. How many times in these movies can we hide in the closet or fail an escape attempt because the car is out of gas?
Till Death jams a lot of bold swings into its easy 90 minutes. They don’t always work, but they do keep you invested in a way that other similar movies don’t.
Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984)
Little Billy witnesses his parents being brutally murdered by Santa. Years later, when he has to fill in for an absent in-store Santa Claus, his childhood trauma materializes once again.
As soon as I started this movie, I realized that I definitely watched this as a kid. As soon as it started, I got this weird, tingly-like déjà vu feeling in my body. It didn’t let up for the entire movie. Although I didn’t think that I had seen it and even if I had I definitely didn’t remember it — my body definitely did. And it clearly messed with me.
To be honest, it stills messes with me as an adult. Yes, partially that déjà vu feeling, but also because the first half or so of this movie is very dark and particularly unsettling. I must admit that it goes off the rails a bit after that and a few key sequences save the ending from being a flop, but if you’re anything like child me — this will mess you up.
The Wolf of Snow Hollow (2020)
A stressed-out police officer struggles not to give in to the paranoia that grips his small mountain town as bodies turn up after each full moon.
Jim Cummings is the king of second-hand embarrassment.
In his previous movie, Thunder Road (which he wrote, directed, co-edited, scored, did visual effects, and starred), Jim plays a cop struggling to pick up the pieces in the aftermath of his mother’s death and his impending divorce. It’s significantly more cringe-inducing than it sounds, as it’s nearly impossible to watch if you easily feel embarrassed for others. Cumming’s character really falls apart.
In The Wolf of Snow Hollow, Jim plays a cop struggling to hold it together while a supposed wolfman terrorizes his town, leading him back to his cycles of poor fatherhood and alcoholism.
Why watch both?
This time, he gets to play with genre a lot more. In this case, the mystery is captivating. As you follow his character unravel from the question “It can’t really be a werewolf, right?”, you can’t help but ask yourself the same thing.
Come for the impressive indie filmmaking (I really wish he would get budgets of more than eleven dollars; I have not seen his latest film, The Beta Test, but I’m looking forward to it) and stay for the mystery. You simply will not guess where it goes.
Credit: Each plot synopsis comes from Letterboxd via TMDb.