The setting of a movie can be its own character when done well. Place is extremely important to any movie, but not all movies pull of place as character. These ten movies are extremely atmospheric – movies in which the place is suffocating, or debilitating, or enhances the story. These atmospheres are consuming. I could have filled this list with war, horror and sci-fi films, so I decided to steer clear of them.
10. Frozen River (dir. Courtney Hunt 2008)
This quiet, but powerful film is all the more powerful due to how Courtney Hunt uses the frozen river as a character. It creaks, it cracks, it is a source of anxiety, a source of comfort, a source of life and death. Melissa Leo gives an outstanding performance of a down-on-her-luck mother.
9. Insomnia (dir. Christopher Nolan 2002)
It’s a great detective movie made all the better due to the setting. Insomnia takes place in a northern Alaska town where the sun never sets. It’s disarming and Christopher Nolan uses it to great effect.
8. A River Runs Through It (dir. Robert Redford 1992)
If you’ve ever been fly fishing, you know the allure of the river. It calls your name and begs you to spend time with it. Redford masterfully captures this fact and films the river beautifully. The river constantly calls.
7. Dead Poets Society (dir. Peter Weir 1989)
The boarding school is definitely its own character in this movie. It’s an inspiring story, but the boarding school seems to suffocate.
6. Slumdog Millionaire (dir. Danny Boyle 2008)
The slums of Mumbai are on full display in this film. They not only provide the setting, but are crucial to the plot and story of the film.
5. Jaws (dir. Steven Spielberg 1975)
When a movie comes along that scares a generation out of the water, the setting must have played a part in it.
4. Into the Wild (dir. Sean Penn 2007)
The topography and landscape of this film is a catalyst for change for Christopher, the main character. Without the setting, their would be no transformation; their would be no journey.
3. The Shawshank Redemption (dir. Frank Darabont 1994)
In this fantastic film, the prison changes Andy and provides a the suffocating force that he must escape.
2. Groundhog Day (dir. Harold Ramis 1993)
Setting plays so much into this film. Phil has to learn to love the place he’s in before he can love himself and eventually others.
1. There Will Be Blood (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson 2007)
The vast open spaces of Texas plays a major part in this revelatory film, especially during the almost silent opening sequence.