From L to R: Enchanted April, Picnic at Hanging Rock, Gosford Park, Orlando
Living in the Bay Area, we are used to weather shifting sporadically between cool windy days pinching at our cheeks and unexpectedly sunny stretches that have everyone shedding layers. Any time a heat wave descends on San Francisco, I can predictably be heard grumbling about it and retreating inside to look at pictures of Scandinavian countries in wintertime.
When weather has you down, a little bit of escapism with movies can help. At least, that's what works for me, which is why I've made this list to share. In an effort to mix things up a bit, I include not just movies I love that have great scenery, but also those that capture the feeling of a particular season in mood and plot.
Filmed in Portofino, Italy, Enchanted April is a perfect armchair vacation set in the 1920s. Four women with distinct life situations come together to escape the rainy gloom of England and share a medieval chateau overgrown with wisteria. Personalities clash a bit at first, but the beauty of the coast does its work, as each guest finds herself confronted by memories and thoughts left unexamined. As much as the film is a lovely postcard of the perfect spring in Europe, it is also a poignant look at the challenges faced by women who tried to step outside their expected social roles of the time.
Cold Comfort Farm
In this film adaptation, Flora Poste (Kate Beckinsale) is a recently orphaned young writer of clunky prose who moves to Cold Comfort Farm, a gloomy estate belonging to her relatives, the Starkadders. A city slicker who thinks she knows best, Flora decides to tidy things up at the Farm, particularly when it comes to its residents. Set against the backdrop of dewy pastures and rolling hillsides of East Sussex, the movie could work for spring or fall, but the spirit of it makes it vernal for me. The cast includes Ian McKellen, as the hellfire-obsessed preacher Amos Starkadder, and Stephen Fry and Ab-Fab's Joanna Lumley in small but comical roles.
A Little Romance
While abroad, a 13-year-old American girl meets a Hollywood-obsessed French boy, and they go on to evade adult supervision to the best of their ability, frolicking around Paris and Venice. This is Diane Lane's film debut in a charming romp about first love. It's a bit saccharine, but sometimes a lighthearted movie about precocious teenagers is just the ticket. And the scenic locations of the baroque Château de Vaux le Vicomte, the green city squares of Paris, and the canals in Venice really don't hurt.
My Neighbor Totoro
With Miyazaki's animated movies, you could go in any direction and find beautiful scenery and vibrant colors, even if the plot might be sad at times. Totoro, the story of two young sisters and the forest spirits who provide a distraction and help the girls cope with the fact that their mother is sick in the hospital, is quintessential viewing. I dare you not to wish every bus was a Catbus, after you watch this film.
Picnic at Hanging Rock
Peter Weir's 1975 cult classic is like a pretty but slightly ominous dream you have when you fall asleep outside in the grass on a hot day and wake up feeling headachy and a little bit confused. Taking place in 1900 in Victoria, Australia, it's the story of what happens when several teenage girls go missing, while at a St. Valentine's Day picnic with their school mistresses. Their disappearance mistifies the community and makes for unsettling but beautiful viewing. Don't go in expecting resolution; the story is as elusive as the memory of that dream you just woke from.
The Station Agent
Before he was a Lannister, Peter Dinklage was Finbar McBride, an introverted man very interested in trains and absolutely not interested in other human beings, mostly because they can be real jerks. When Fin moves into an old train depot he has inherited, he becomes reluctant friends with a chatty food truck driver (Bobby Cannavale) and a lonely, somewhat scatterbrained artist (Patricia Clarkson), both looking for a way to connect with someone. They drink, have awkward conversations, sit in the sun and watch trains pass by, and it all makes for an understated, lovely film.
Mr. Hulot's Holiday
Although Jacques Tati's film is black and white, it captures the feeling of a summer vacation perfectly, with its seaside beach and stripy tents, a lazy dog that likes to lie in the middle of a hot dusty street, and a rambling cast of sunbathing characters. Tati's Mr. Hulot makes a bit of a mess of things, which becomes the character's stock-in-trade, and the movie doesn't have a particular plot and very little dialogue. The best way to watch Tati's parody of the vacationing French is to simply give in to the sunny languor without trying to figure out why anyone does anything.
Wong Kar-wai's story, told in two parts, takes place on sweltering days and nights in the bustling Lan Kwai Fong neighborhood in Hong Kong. Both segments tie together nicely, but my favorite is the second part, with Faye Wong as a snack bar worker obsessed with The Mamas & The Papas' "California Dreamin".
Before Downton, Julian Fellowes teamed up with director Robert Altman to make Gosford Park, a star-studded murder mystery set in the 1930s during a hunting party. You've got the same Upstairs, Downstairs type of characters, the landed gentry and the household staff, as well some wonderful tweedy outfits and rolling fog. While much of the film takes place indoors, what's more perfect for that fall feeling than a little bit of intrigue?
The Last September
The Last September, meanwhile, takes place in the midst of the Irish War of Independence. The film is sensationally beautiful, awash in rich tints signature to cinematographer Sławomir Idziak. It's not, however, light viewing; there is violence and political conflict, and underneath every perfectly composed shot is a sense of foreboding and unease.
Hedgehog in the Fog
This is a piece of my childhood. Yuriy Norshteyn's short animated film is about a little hedgehog, who goes to visit his friend the Bear for a cup of tea and some stargazing, only to get lost in thick fog on the way there. There's a giant rude owl, gently falling leaves and a mysterious white horse. The link above has the full cartoon.
Eyes of Laura Mars
Eyes of Laura Mars stars Faye Dunaway as a fashion photographer who begins seeing a serial killer's murders through her eyes. The setting is New York in the fall, and there are some beautiful shots of the Hudson and autumn foliage, as well as Dunaway's glamorous outfits—turtlenecks and woolen capes galore.
Sally Potter's Orlando only has a section that takes place in the winter, but it's my favorite depiction of winter in a period film. It's beautiful and cruel: the frozen Thames, Elizabethan nobles ice skating at a winter festival decked out in brocade. This interpretation of Virginia Woolf's novel stars Tilda Swinton as a eternally young noble Orlando, who experiences lifetimes as both a man and a woman. There are gorgeous costumes, wit, poetry, and lots of different types of scenery and seasons.
Akira Kurosawa had actually been considering making this film since the 1930s, but it wasn't until his later years that this joint Japanese and Soviet production took place. In the sprawling Siberian wilderness, Russian explorer Captain Arseniev meets an elderly nomad named Dersu Uzala (played by Tuvan actor Maksim Munzuk). Dersu and the Captain may come from different walks of life, but the two men develop a friendship and great respect for each other. The natural landscapes of Russia's Far East under Kurasawa's singular direction make for great viewing, especially as a commentary on encroaching modernization.
Let the Right One In
The past few years have been a great time for fresh takes on vampire movies, and this 2008 Swedish horror film sits at the top of the list. In a snowy suburb of Stockholm, a bullied 12-year-old boy named Oskar develops a fierce friendship with Eli, a vampire who appears to be his age. The two find the solace they don't get at home in each other; Oskar has a fractured family, while Eli's only companion is an older man who harvests blood for her. The gore in the movie—as should be expected when vampires are concerned—stands out against the stark whiteness of Scandinavian winter in a way that's almost beautiful.
I'm pretty sure this one doesn't require much explanation, but in case you've somehow missed it, Groundhog Day is about a grumpy weatherman (Bill Murray), who is forced to live the same freezing day over and over while in Punxsutawney, PA. At first he gets frustrated, even morbid and self destructive, but eventually he figures out that, to get it right, he just needs to stop being a jerk, have fun and get to know the people around him. Well, OK, he's still a bit of a jerk, but the movie always manages to make me smile and wish I could make snow angels.
What's your go-to seasonal movie? Leave it in the comments!