AS AUSTRALIAN SURF cinematographer Alby Falzon once said, surfing is suited to the film process, with the flow of a surfer on the wave similar to the flow of a film reel through the projector.
But what makes a surf movie stand out from the rest?
While the quality of the footage is important, truly great surf films are a subjective combination of high performance surfing, exotic locations and an inspired soundtrack.
They should make you want to stare at the screen in awe, seek out new bands, search for perfect waves and, most of all, go surfing.
Read on for Matador’s five best surf films of all time…
1. The Endless Summer (1966)
This was the first movie to really capture the fact that surfing was more than just a sport, it was a lifestyle – one that was just as concerned with riding waves as the experience of searching for them.
Interestingly, Bruce Brown’s now seminal movie came about almost by chance – he was initially looking to travel to South Africa, but an around-the-world ticket was apparently cheaper.
Endless Summer followed Californian longboarders Mike Hynson and Robert August chasing summer around the world, surfing in Africa, Australia, New Zealand and strange backwash waves in Tahiti.
Highlight: Discovering Cape Saint Francis, also known as ‘Bruce’s Beauties‘ in South Africa. Hynson and August rode seemingly endless, perfect right handers down the point. All the more important now that the wave no longer breaks as it did in the movie due to large scale development on the nearby dunes.
2. Morning of the Earth (1971)
How many surf movies these days can claim to have discovered a perfect wave – without the aid of jet skis, satellite imaging or swell forecasts?
In 1971, Australian Alby Falzon stumbled upon Uluwatu on Bali’s Bukit peninsula. This was back when Kuta Beach had only a couple of rudimentary huts for the few tourists and Club Med was still a couple of decades away.
On the first day, Uluwatu was two feet high. Falzon came back the next day with his ragtag crew and surfed, without legropes, eight to ten foot swells all day long. The Balinese, who had never seen surfing before, apparently watched in awe from the cliffs.
But the Uluwatu sequence was just one part of an extraordinary movie that documented the experimental, hippie-inspired era that surfing went through in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The best example was footage of Chris Brock at Angourie in New South Wales, who, in between surfs, lived in a tree house in the bush.
Highlight: The opening sequence of a golden backlit wave breaking in slow motion, with the title track playing in support. Perhaps the most famous opening of any surf movie.
3. The Green Iguana (1992)
Twenty years on from Morning of the Earth, surfing had become a marketable product. Contests were fought out between robotic pro surfers doing four turns to the beach in bad waves.
Surf cinematographer Jack McCoy took it back to basics – unrestrained free surfing in some of the best waves on the planet. Occy, Luke Egan, ‘Munga’ Barry and a bunch of Billabong team riders rode giant tubes and tore huge hacks on waves in Australia, Hawaii and Indonesia. Best of all it was captured in glorious 16mm film.
Bunyip Dreaming (1991) was actually the first in McCoy’s dreamtime-inspired series, but The Green Iguana a year later expanded the surfer line up and set it to a soundtrack that captured the energy of an early 90s road trip: The Cruel Sea, Sublime, and Australian indigenous band, Yothu Yindi.
Highlight: The all star Billabong cast surfing perfect waves in the Australian desert.
4. Momentum (1992)
It’s hard to believe rookie filmmaker Taylor Steele‘s breakthrough hit was produced in the same year as The Green Iguana. Steele eschewed perfect waves and exotic locations in favor of choppy editing, a raucous punk sound track and footage of New School surfers led by then 19 year old Kelly Slater.
In grainy, low budget video footage it showed the surfing world what these young Californians and Hawaiians had been practising for years: airs, tail slides and taking on the Hawaiian breaks of Pipeline and Backdoor without a care.
Highlight: Kelly Slater’s skateboard-inspired backside air on a Puerto Escondido left hander.
5. Stranger Than Fiction (2008)
This is as good as it gets. Even if Taylor Steele’s latest effort didn’t go on to become a classic like the other movies in this list, it’s important because it shows where surfing is at right now.
In usual Steele style, this film has the best surfers of today (although Kelly Slater is a notable omission) pulling off amazing maneuvers. In fact, if there’s one criticism, it’s that there are almost too many tricks at the expense of ‘traditional’ moves like cutbacks.
But what tricks they are: sky high snowboard-like airs, flyaway turns in the lip of the wave and rodeo clowns. A couple of years ago rodeo clowns (backside airs combining a flip and rotation) were rare things. In Stranger Than Fiction they’re almost common place, proving just how fast surfing has progressed in the past couple of years.
But it begs the questions: Where does surfing go from here? How much higher can airs be pushed? How much faster can turns be controlled?
Highlight: Too many to list, although South African Jordy Smith’s full rotation alley oop on the first wave of his section is among the best of the futuristic maneuvres on display.
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