Maybe Gen Z and Alpha are not aware of this, but before Live Streaming and Webisodes and Instastories, there was such thing as a surf movie. They came in VHS and DVD (and later in the online version); they ranged from 30-minute bonanzas to hour-long documentaries on surf spots and surf figures; they showed in arthouses and premiered in festivals; we often watched them more than once.
Surf movies are one of the pillars of surf culture. They portray the sport as well as the lifestyle in a language both borderless and timeless. As such, they have the power to start trends, inspire and stimulate generations, disseminate surf breaks, promote brands, consolidate names, and facilitate cross-pollination between surf communities across the globe…all the while providing entertainment to those who might not be able to be in the water right there and then.
It would be both impossible and unfair to attempt to establish a Top 10 based on quality, for rating a surf movie is not the same as scoring a wave, and there are way more than ten movies that deserve high scores. Instead, we created a miscellaneous list of movies of various styles and production budgets, so you can have a glimpse of all shades of the genre.
There are classics. There are hidden gems. There are eccentrics. There is soul surfing. There are educational. There is ripping only. We’ve outlined them chronologically by release year.
1. The Endless Summer (1966)
Director: Bruce Brown
Genre: Documentary / Adventure / Soul
Duration: 1h 31min
Let’s start from the beginning. And it all begins with The Endless Summer – the all-time surf film masterpiece that pretty much gave birth to the genre. Only 26-years-old at the time, Californian filmmaker Bruce Brown embarked on a journey around the world with surfers Robert August and Mike Hynson in search of “The Perfect Wave”. The trip took them to Hawaii and Africa, all the way to Australia, New Zealand and Tahiti, the climax being their visit to Cape St. Francis where they found a remote right-hand pointbreak with no one out – the epitome of the “perfect wave” they had been looking for.
Besides picturing the spirit of surf adventure, the film was welcomed by a wider audience due to it having a kind of plot and not being solely deluged by wave-riding, which made it more appealing to non-surfers who appreciated this “backstage view” of surfing. Somewhat satirical voice-over narration by Brown himself, together with an idyllic instrumental soundtrack by The Sandals, also made it easier for everyone to enjoy the film.
The Endless Summer was first shown in the USA in 1964; then it was re-edited and re-scaled to 35-millimetre before being officially released in 1966 by Columbia Pictures, to a staggering US$30 million profit. A VHR version came out in 1986, the DVD in 2001. The long-awaited Endless Summer II was released in 1994.
The Endless Summer has earned several awards, and in 2002 it was included in the list of historically significant films by the United States Library of Congress’s National Film Registry. Nowadays, the film has also become iconic for its poster: an image of Brown, Hynson, and August holding their surfboards against a sunset-y background. Brown shot shooting most of the footage alone.
2. Morning Of The Earth (1972)
Director: Alby Falzon
Genre: Documentary / Psychedelic
Duration: 1h 19min
Following the Endless Summer boom came Morning Of The Earth boom – which also came after The Endless Summer on the 2007 Surfing magazine list of Best Surf Movies Ever Made. Directed by Australian photographer Albert (Alby) Falzon, Morning Of The Earth contrasted with its US counterpart in that it relied not on plot or narration, but on stunning imagery and a powerful soundtrack that granted the film its psychedelic aura.
Also unlike The Endless Summer, Falzon’s opus turned the lens primarily to Australia, featuring mind-blowing sessions with local surfers Michael Peterson and Nat Young in Kirra and Byron Bay respectively. But when he did aim his lens elsewhere, he did so strategically by portraying Bali’s Uluwatu for the first time on film. Rusty Miller and Stephen Cooney left many a mouth water and turned the eyes of surfers across the globe to Indonesia, inciting a period of exploration of the islands. But perhaps the most unique and influential factor of Morning Of The Earth was the way in which Falzon framed the “back-to-nature” experience Sydney surfers like Young were going through at the time.
Morning Of The Earth was produced with the help of a US$20,000 grant from the Australian Film Development Corporation, and it profited more than ten times the investment in Australia alone, making it a huge success at the time. So was its soundtrack by G. Wayne Thomas, which saw the single “Open Up Your Heart” take the lead on the national charts. Toward the turn of the millennium, the film, which featured a wide array of board designs, also served as a major inspiration for the “retro movement”. A remastered 4K version is currently out.
3. North Shore (1987)
Director: W. W. Phelps
Genre: Drama / Romance
Duration: 1h 36min
North Shore was one of the first, as well as the most successful, dramatisations of the surfing lifestyle. It showcased the unsung values of surfing together with the struggles of an aspiring pro surfer, depicting the romanticised backstage – or rather the idealised psyche of someone following his dream.
The story follows an eighteen-year-old surfer from Arizona named Rick Kane, who, after winning a wave pool contest back home, decides to fly to the North Shore of O’ahu for the summer and try his luck as a professional surfer. As with any Hollywood production, nothing is as easy as it seems, and Rick struggles to find his feet. However, with the help of Chandler, a surf guru who acts as his mentor, and Kiani, a local girl, Rick begins seeing the ocean and surfing with different eyes.
The film was an instant hit both for the narrative itself, the soundtrack, the cinematography, and the bunch of quotes that stuck like a snails trail. It also benefited from gathering an impressive crew of professional surfers of the generation, names like Gerry Lopez, Shaun Tomson, Laird Hamilton, Derek Ho, Mark Occhilupo, among others. Rick’s character was loosely based on surfer Benjamin “Barney” Partyka, a surfer from Connecticut. The storyline also vastly inspired Sony Pictures Surf’ Up twenty years later.
4. Momentum (1992)
Director: Taylor Steele
Genre: High-Performance Surfing / Surf Action
Momentum is known for having “given a voice” to a new generation of surfers – and indeed a new attitude toward surfing – that was sprouting in the early ‘90s. Not only did the movie showcase the talent of up-and-coming progressive surfers like Kelly Slater, Shane Dorian, Rob Machado, Ross Williams, and Kalani Robb, but it also kickstarted the career of Californian film-maker Taylor Steele – one of the industry’s best.
Steele, only 20-years-old at the time, took a no-frills, lo-fi approach to film and editing and relied on the powerful sounds of neo-punk bands like Pennywise, Offspring, and Bad Religion to highlight the equally powerful surfing this group of teenage professional surfers was aiming for. In that sense, Momentum embodies the revolutionary and rebellious character the surfers displayed in the water.
The 40-minute feature was divided into several short segments on a particular surfer, covering mainly Hawaii, Mexico, and California. There’s no narration, plot, interviews, experimental angles or intricate filming techniques – it is surfing only and at its best. Given its popularity and how cheap it was to produce (roughly US$5,000), Momentum was also a huge breakthrough for the surf film industry since it showed other aspiring filmmakers that not much was needed to put a movie together.
Just a year after its premiere, Steele launched Momentum II, and nearly a decade later, in 2001, the third instalment of the series, Momentum: Under The Influence. The HBO documentary, Momentum Generation, directed by Jeff and Michael Zimbalist, came out in 2018 as a sort of tribute-cum-review of how the group was formed and where it all led. The original Momentum placed third on Surfing magazine’s 25 Greatest Surf Movies of All Time list in 2007.
5. Surf’s Up (2007)
Director: Ash Brannon / Chris Buck
Genre: Animation / Comedy / Mockumentary
Duration: 1h 25min
What Surf’s Up lacks in realness it makes up for in realism. Though an animated film, it illustrates perfectly both the good and the bad side of surfing, in a language that is digestible for a five-year-old as well as a fifty-year-old – hence the popularity among surfers and non-surfers alike.
This mockumentary tells the story of Cody Maverick, a young penguin from Antarctica who has dreamt of being a professional surfer ever since meeting his childhood idol, Big Z. The film follows Cody on his journey to the Big Z Memorial, a surf contest on Pen-Gu Island, where he reencounters Big Z, meets and befriends Chicken Joe, a rooster surfer from Wisconsin, falls in love with a female gentoo penguin named Lani Aliikai, and learns about the essence of surfing – the hard way.
Surf’s Up is a combined parody of The Endless Summer, North Shore, and Riding Giants. Characters’ voices are narrated by actors such as Shia LaBeouf, Zooey Deschanel, Jeff Bridges, as well as professional surfers Rob Machado and Kelly Slater, who dub their penguin surfer counterparts. It took Sony Pictures Animation roughly five years to produce the film, which was then distributed by Columbia Pictures. Surf’s Up 2: WaveMania came out in 2017.
6. New Emissions of Light & Sound (2008)
Director: Joe Guglielmino / George Manzanilla
Genre: Arthouse / Experimental
New Emissions of Light & Sound is what it says it is – a son et lumiere show. It differentiates itself from most surf films for the way it places the act of wave riding in the background; here, the music and the images take the helm. Directors Joe G and George Manzanilla went out of their way to shoot from back-bending, mind-boggling angles, creating an audiovisual journey that consolidated Globe’s unique cinematographic style.
The film came at a time when Taj Burrow was at the top of his game, and when names like Yadin Nicol and Dion Agius were popping up more constantly in the world of surfing. New Emissions of Light & Sound is guided by an original soundtrack by the renowned DJ Sasha; the dynamic, multilayered compositions melt into each other, building up and slowing down as the images flicker, thus providing the viewer with a 60-minute-long roller-coaster ride. In addition, the film comes with a warning: BEST VIEWED BETWEEN THE HOURS OF 3:00 and 5:00 am!
7. Modern Collective (2009)
Director: Kai Neville
Genre: Documentary / High-Performance Surfing
Much like New Emissions Of Light & Sound, Kai Neville’s debut, Modern Collective, fits into the list for its experimentalism and boldness. The then 24-year-old Australian film-maker gathered up-and-coming surfers Dion Agius, Dane Reynolds, Mitch Coleborn, Dusty Payne, Jordy Smith, and Yadin Nichol and tapped into their aerial skills to showcase – and usher in – a new level and style of surfing.
The film was broken down into “chapters” by location, among which were places like Japan, Morocco, France, and Indonesia. Besides the progressiveness of the surfing, another factor that set Mod Coll aside was the style of filming and editing: an electronic-led soundtrack partly atavistic to Momentum and a fast-paced, futuristic vibe informing both the directing and post-production. Despite having edited the entire film on his laptop, Neville won the 2010 Surfer Magazine Poll Award Movie of the Year for Modern Collective.
8. One Track Mind (2009)
Director: Chris Malloy
Genre: Documentary / Technical / Interviews
After iconic films like September Sessions, A Brokedown Melody, and Thicker Than Water, Woodshed Productions come back with yet another hit, without losing their cinematographic style. Often overshadowed by its predecessors, One Track Mind is arguably some of the most innovative directing to date – hence the spot on this list. Instead of showcasing a surf trip or crumpling a bunch of high-performance waves together, the film takes a full-on documentary approach: it is a collection of interview excerpts with several big names of the surf world across many generations – from young Kolohe Andino to Jordy Smith, Kelly Slater, Occy, Sunny Garcia, and Wayne “Rabbit” Bartholomew – who discuss what surfing means to them and what it takes to be the best. There’s also a lot of talk about surf equipment, boards, etiquette, and history.
Like the visuals, the soundtrack is well-balanced and varied (from Andrew Bird to The Black Keys); you can somehow feel the stages of the story building up to an end even though there’s no particular order or plot. The last scene of the film, at around 33:00, lulled by the Icelandic band Sigur Rós and narrated by several different surfers, is the perfect example of a grand finale.
9. Intentio (2013)
Director: Loïc Wirth
Genre: Arthouse / Independent
In his first and only feature, Brazilian filmmaker Loic Wirth introduces a unique and poetic view of surfing in a surprisingly polished indie production. There were no budgets, no official sponsors, no definite plans or deadlines. Intentio was filmed in last-minute, often self-funded surf trips, edited on the go, and released independently
Unlike many of its contemporaries, Intentio uses surfing merely as a vehicle to reflect on life and our relationship with nature – the latter being explicit through powerful visuals of mountain tops and rainforests juxtaposed with glistening barrels. Narrated by friend and photographer, Vernon Deck, watching Intentio is like watching a fable in motion. Wirth created a storyline that brought forth existential questions he was dealing with himself, seamlessly forming visual metaphors with the footage and the eclectic soundtrack.
The film foregrounds some not-so-prominent Brazilian surfers (such as Cristian and Gabriel Muller, Fernando Moura, Jeronimo Vargas, and Marco Giorgi), as well as big names like Craig Anderson, Chippa Wilson, Ricardo dos Santos, and Gabriel Medina. Wirth travelled as far as New Zealand, Hawaii, and Indonesia to capture some of the images, whilst paying tribute to his local break in Brazil, his second home in France, and even some underrated spots in Uruguay.
10. Stephanie In The Water (2014)
Director: Ava Warbrick
Genre: Documentary / Competition / Women’s Surfing
Duration: 1h 10min
Unlike the other movies on this list, Stephanie In The Water revolves around a single surfer, seven-times World Champion, Stephanie Gilmore. It is also the only film on the list to feature women’s surfing. And the only film directed by a woman.
Stephanie In The Water is an intimate look at Stephanie’s career, from her beginnings to her rise, through the 2010 event that traumatized her, to her incredible comeback. It is a candid and in-depth take on competitive surfing. It is a beautiful and inspiring portrait of one of the best, most stylish surfers that have ever lived – and a show of surfing.
What do you think of our top 10? Have we missed a surf movie you think needs to be on the list? Do we need to make a top 20?
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