Of any medium, surfing lends itself best to being documented in film. Still photography is perhaps second-best – it freezes a moment in time and leaves little to the imagination about the size of a wave, the spray thrown in a turn, or the gravity of a maneuver. But, as someone once explained to me, surfing is one of the few sports where the venue itself is constantly in motion. And so, besides the athletes themselves, some of surfing’s most venerated characters are its filmmakers.
The canon of surf film is rich, deep, and highly diverse. There are big-budget Hollywood films, projects whose funds were scraped together by the director and a few friends, and everything in between. Some films tell stories, others are simply a compilation of punchy action clips that taken decades later defined an entire generation. Below is our best effort to compile a definitive list of the films in surfing that broke new ground, took the sport a different direction, told a story that had never been told, or contributed to the ever-expanding patchwork that we call surf culture. These are the films every surfer must watch before they die. Period. And if we missed any, feel free to let us know in the comments.
58. Let’s Be Frank (2016)
At a time when surf filmmaking has been reduced to highly watchable, snack-size clips that can be quickly viewed while scrolling through Instagram on the toilet, plot-driven, full-length films seem to be a dying breed. On first glance, it feels unlikely that a film about a lesser-known big wave surfer from South Africa, Frank Solomon, would be received with such critical acclaim, but if you haven’t seen this film, it’s definitely worth your time. It asks the same question you very well may be wondering if you haven’t paid much attention to the big wave scene lately: who is Frank Solomon? And answers the question in part Wes Anderson, part Fourth Phase style.
57. The Heart and the Sea (2012)
Byron Bay-based filmmaker Nathan Oldfield has a knack for telling visual stories around surfing’s current avant-garde. And his 2012 film, The Heart and the Sea is no different. With a cast of recognizable characters (think Ryan Burch, Alex Knost, and Dave Rastovich) on alternative craft ranging from alaias to retro fishes to logs, the film personifies the joys of building a life around the ocean.
56. Lost Atlas (2011)
After the success of his 2009 directorial debut, Modern Collective, Kai Neville brought the noise with his follow-up film, Lost Atlas. Starring a dozen more surfers than the original six in Collective, Atlas took the thumping bombastic European dance soundtrack of its predecessor and flipped it to lo-fi garage rock and esoteric international vibes.
55. The Wave I Ride: The Paige Alms Story (2017)
Two-time women’s big wave world champ Paige Alms was long a standout performer at Jaws before her competitive success. But, it was after demonstrating her command of one of the world’s most harrowing waves at the 2016 Women’s Pe’ahi Challenge that she quickly began to soar. Since its inception, surf filmmaking from the stars involved to those working behind the camera, has been very much a man’s game. But, this profile of Paige, directed by filmmaker Devyn Bisson, is the embodiment of the stories of badass women pushing the limits that previously may have been overlooked or disregarded.
54. Manufacturing Stoke (2011)
From ECOBOARDs to natural rubber and (soon) recyclable wetsuits, it’s clear that the surf industry has slowly begun to recognize the impact of its products on the very natural environment those products are built to be enjoyed in. It’s difficult to point to a single thing that led to that shift – indeed, “going green” is happening across industries – but, it’s safe to say Manufacturing Stoke at least played some role in surfers taking responsibility for what they consume by profiling a few of the early leaders of the movement toward sustainability.
53. Strange Rumblings in Shangri-La (2014)
Back in 2014, Joe Guglielmino (better known as just Joe G) debuted what by all accounts is his opus – Strange Rumblings. It’s an incredibly creative flick in partnership with Globe featuring the likes of Dion Agius, Nate Tyler, Damien Hobgood, Noa Deane, Creed McTaggart, and more. The film won that year at the SURFER Poll awards, but that acclaim was quickly overshadowed by Noa Deane’s unfortunate expression of his discontent with the World Surf League and a certain finger.
52. Under An Arctic Sky (2017)
From the creative mind of Chris Burkard, Under An Arctic Sky rekindles the adventurous spirit of surf exploration that exists in every highly-acclaimed surf film for the modern era. A crew consisting of Burkard, Timmy Reyes, Justin Quintal, and more travel to Iceland during a once-in-a-blue-moon storm looking for surf along its frigid fjörds.
51. Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable (2018)
Following a harrowing shark attack that resulted in her losing her left arm at the shoulder, Bethany Hamilton quickly rose to prominence for her determination in the face of tragic circumstances. Immediately after the incident, she was featured on morning talk shows, wrote a book, and even had her story turned into a Hollywood film. In the years since her story was told on the silver screen, though, Hamilton’s become a mother twice over, has surfed Jaws, and cemented herself as one of the world’s best female surfers. Full stop. Unstoppable is an intimate look at Hamilton’s vulnerabilities and triumphs.
50. Come Hell or High Water (2011)
The first full-length film about bodysurfing is as deserving as any surf film to sit on this list – perhaps more so. Directed by Keith Malloy, Hell or High Water captures the purity of surfing sans board and will inspire you to head out for a womp.
49. Blue Horizon (2004)
Back when Billabong’s roster consisted of Andy, Taj, Rasta, and Dorian, Jack McCoy followed AI and Dave around for two years to document their divergent paths and, in many ways, to show their similarities. If there’s a single wave you commit to memory, let it be Andy’s opening tube in the trailer above and ask yourself how he manages such depth.
48. NOW. (2010)
Before Chippa Wilson was a household name, and a few years prior to Burton shuttering its Analog label in surf and skate, Riley Blakeway brought the previously underground talents of one of the world’s most progressive aerialists to the fore. Almost a decade later, Chippa’s surfing then will still cause you to scratch your head.
47. God Went Surfing With the Devil (2010)
Some surf films are about nothing more than watching the artistry of some of the best in the biz ride a wave. But for others, the surfing is just an entry point to tell a bigger story – God Went Surfing with the Devil falls into the latter category. Backdropped by the often fractious relationship between the Israeli government and the territory of Gaza (occupied by Palestinians but technically part of the nation of Israel), the sport of surfing has stubbornly taken root and gives locals the opportunity to forget about the hostility of feuding parties for a spell and exist in the present moment.
46. Thicker Than Water (1999)
Jack Johnson may be most famous for his deep singing voice and stripped-down melodies, but before his debut album went platinum, he was exercising other creative muscles including a directorial debut with film school buddy Chris Malloy titled Thicker Than Water. Johnson lent his musical talents to the film’s soundtrack, and the cast includes countless Momentum Generation surfers.
45. Castles in the Sky (2010)
Like the work of some of the world’s most notable artists (think Picasso, or the Beatles), Taylor Steele’s work can easily be divided into periods. There’s his early offering: Momentum (see below), Loose Change, etc. The Sipping Jetstreams years (including the Drifter and Castles in the Sky), and later work like Proximity. Arguably, Castles is Steele’s best travel epic – like Jetstreams but more focused with a more refined throughline.
44. Fish: A Surfboard Documentary (2016)
In the annals of surfboard design, it’s unlikely any single innovation in board design could carry a feature-length film. The introduction of the fish may be the single exception. From humble kneeboarding roots to ushering in the shortboard revolution to the ride anything movement, the fish has seen it all and continues to influence surfboard design for the better.
43. Bra Boys: Blood Is Thicker Than Water (2007)
At least since the cinematic release of the original Point Break, popular culture has been fascinated by the idea of surf gangs running amok in coastal towns. Probably in part due to the fact that surfers are often thought of as easygoing and good-natured, and a surf gang defies convention. At one time, the Bra Boys were arguably one of the most notorious surf gangs in the world. Narrated by Russel Crowe, Bra Boys tells the story of that group from the perspective of the Abberton brothers.
42. Momentum Generation (2018)
In surfing, the influence of Taylor Steele and especially the surfers he documented in the early years is well-known. But, Momentum Generation is the most in-depth look ever put to film that shows exactly how a group of childhood friends rose to become some of the most well-known surfers in the world and influence the culture as we know it.
41. Dear Suburbia (2012)
A self-described excursion into the absurd, Dear Suburbia is Kai Neville’s translation of the work of Stanley Kubrick into surf. The performances, of course, are impeccable. But, the flick represents a creative visionary at the height of his powers.
40. OCCY: The Occumentary (1998)
Marco Jay Luciano Occhilupo is easily one of the most influential goofy foots to ever step on a surfboard. Jack McCoy’s 1998 feature flick profiles the man from humble beginnings to his meteoric rise just a year shy of raising the ASP trophy over his head.
39. Step Into Liquid (2003)
Nine years after teaming up with his father to create the Endless Summer II, Dana Brown created an epic follow-up in the form of Step Into Liquid, his first solo project. With such a prodigious surname, Brown managed a true cinematic release for the film – one of the few non-Hollywood surf flicks on this list to do so. The film expertly introduces surf and non-surf audiences alike to the culture at the time: from tow-in big wave surfing to Laird Hamilton’s earliest hydrofoil days to Taj Burrow’s early years as a hot-shit phenom.
38. Chasing Mavericks (2012)
The well-known story of Jay Moriarity’s ambitions to surf Maverick’s as a teen under the tutelage of one of the place’s early pioneers, Frosty Hesson, was adapted to the silver screen in 2012. By then, Hollywood had absorbed the many pitfalls it had succumbed to in the past portraying surfing on the big screen – e.g. unrealistic action shots, overly dramatic lines delivered in hard-to-believe ways, etc. – and sought to make a realistic surf flick. Hell, Gerard Butler nearly drowned in the making of the film.
37. Bustin’ Down the Door (2008)
For all its eccentricities, the notion that pro surfing exists in any organized form and that top surfers can earn real money (read: $100,000 for a single event) is now, frankly, taken for granted. Lest we forget there was a time when, for better or worse, there was no Championship Tour to stream on the web, and surfing was simply a hobby that at best could earn you beer money at a local contest. That all changed when Shaun Tomson, Wayne “Rabbit” Bartholomew, Ian “Kanga” Cairns, Mark Richards, Michael Tomson, and Peter “PT” Townend arrived on the North Shore of Oahu from Australia and South Africa aiming to change the game forever. Bustin’ Down the Door examines a crucial point in surfing’s development as a sport and profession, the blowback that effort received, and how the foundations of a world tour were laid in the 1970s.
36. Billabong: Filthy Habits (1988)
If Taylor Steele’s early work perfected the art of pairing hi-fi surfing with thumping, punky tracks, Billabong’s Filthy Habits laid the groundwork for it. The surfing of Occy, Sunny, Ronnie Burn, and Richie Collins set to a soundtrack featuring TSOL, Dream Syndicate, The Johnnys, and Social Distortion was a winning formula. Punchy. Raw. And lots of neon – as you’d expect from the late eighties.
35. Scratching the Surface (2010)
Back when Julian Wilson flew Quiksilver’s iconic mountain and wave, he was the hottest young ripper on the planet. Everyone wanted a piece. Nine years later, Jules is a bonafide CT veteran and in 2018 he came closer than ever to thrusting a WSL trophy over his head. Scratching the Surface preempts Jules’ rise, showing a hot grom’s transition into a full-fledged phenom.
34. 12 Miles North (2012)
The story of Nick Gabaldon, believed to be the first African American surfer in history, is the story of racism and segregation in America in the mid-twentieth century. Learning to surf at an informally segregated beach called “The Inkwell” in Santa Monica in the 1940s, Gabaldon would routinely paddle the 12 miles north to First Point Malibu, defying racial conventions and laws that prevented many blacks from accessing the ocean and public swimming pools. Through surfing, Nick made friends at Malibu with his fellow (mostly white) surfers and his story is as relevant today as ever.
33. The Bruce Movie (2005)
With an older brother of such prodigious talent as the late great Andy Irons, for a while there it would seem Bruce existed in his brother’s shadow. But, in the early 2000s, Bruce was arguably one of the most dangerous surfers on tour, especially in thumping tubes. His residence on the Championship Tour may have been brief – it turns out Bruce was more suited to free surfing so he could charge big waves to his heart’s content – but the drama that unfolds in The Bruce Movie over a re-qualification that requires Bruce make the final at Pipeline, which he does, is even more compelling 14 years later.
32. One California Day (2007)
A story about a single day in California across six different cities, One California Day is about the similarities and differences of disparate surf experiences in the Golden State. Featuring Joel Tudor, Devon Howard, Alex Knost, and more, the film is a love letter to California.
31. Proximity (2017)
Pairing Kelly Slater with John John Florence, Dave Rastovich with Stephanie Gilmore, or Rob Machado with Craig Anderson to see how each plays off the other is something only Taylor Steele could pull off. Proximity is as much about the surfing as it is the dialogues between veteran wave riders and up-and-comers. The awkward, the shared experiences, and the inspiration that flows in both directions.
30. The Endless Summer II (1994)
Nearly three decades removed from the release of Bruce Brown’s opus, Endless Summer II picked up the same formula with a modern twist – uniting Brown and his son Dana behind the lens. Pat O’Connell is the stand-in for the shortboard movement (that developed in the time since the Endless Summer) and Wingnut Weaver represents where longboarding had come by the mid-1990s. The sequel is far from the groundbreaking smash that was the first Endless Summer, but its campiness is its charm.
29. Dogtown and Z-Boys (2001)
Surfing’s heavy influence on early skateboard culture can be traced squarely to the then-seedy seaside town of Venice and specifically Zephyr Surf Shop’s skateboard team. Stacy Peralta, Jay Adams, and Tony Alva are among those who pioneered skating transition and backyard pools drawing inspiration from the likes of pro surfing contemporaries Larry Bertlemann and Buttons Kaluhiokalani. Dogtown and Z-Boys traces skateboarding’s early years and how Venice surf culture changed the sport forever.
28. Shimmer (2006)
Four years after the success of Blue Crush, Roxy had an ambitious plan to launch a surf film with an all-female cast. To date, Shimmer remains one of the few. Featuring Lisa Andersen, Sofia Mulanovich, Carissa Moore, Kassia Meador, and more, the flick is a tribute to women’s surfing in its many forms.
27. Andy Irons: Kissed by God (2018)
Shook. That’s the only thing to feel after watching this detailed look into the life and untimely death of Andy Irons. Nearly every single subject interviewed is moved to tears remembering Andy. At times the film is painful to watch, but its beauty is in its honesty and rawness.
26. Christian Fletcher: Supernatural (1990)
In the late eighties and early nineties, Christian Fletcher helped usher in an era of aerial surfing inspired largely by grabs and maneuvers in skateboarding. “The yuppies are boring. They’re too conservative. Too worried about what other people think,” says Christian in typical renegade fashion of those who rebuffed his approach during the intro of Supernatural. The film documents Fletcher’s efforts to quite literally push his surfing to new heights with a middle finger in the air.
25. Singlefin: Yellow (2003)
A simple concept executed beautifully, Singlefin: Yellow is the Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants adapted for surf. One beautiful yellow log crafted by Tyler Hatzikian gets sent around the world to six different surfers and all surf the thing in their own way. It’ll make you want a yellow single fin for the quiver, too.
24. Gidget (1959)
The Hollywood film that sparked the surf boom of the late fifties and early sixties, Gidget was as much a film as a cultural movement. In 2001, surf writer Andrea Gabbard explained the phenomenon this way: “To the chagrin of surfers suddenly having to share waves with the hordes, and to the delight of those who would create business out of surfing, Gidget lured inland America to the beach.”
23. Surf’s Up (2007)
On paper, an animated film about a surfing penguin voiced by Shia LaBeouf may not scream surf film canon. Admittedly, all the rhetoric earlier about the sport lending itself to film falls out the window when the imagery is computer generated. Still, something about Surf’s Up ends up being both broadly appealing while striking a unique cord with surfers.
22. Blue Crush (2002)
Like Gidget in 1959, Blue Crush may have been singlehandedly responsible for a millennium surf boom that propelled renewed interest in the sport at the turn of the century. And also like Gidget, the film’s star was a female surfer – but in the case of Blue Crush, one who would scoff at the knee-high waves of Malibu, instead preferring to conquer Pipeline. Spoiler: unlike the film, there has never been a Billabong Women’s Pipe Masters at Pipeline, but the filmmakers may have been onto something.
21. Trilogy (2007)
Talk about a flick that undoubtedly killed countless VHS players from being rewound to death. Taylor Steele’s Billabong-supported action flick of its top three team riders at the time, Andy Irons, Joel Parkinson, and Taj Burrow, is a testament to fast, progressive surfing in the below-the-knee boardshorts era.
20. Big Wednesday (1978)
A coming-of-age story that bombed at the box office, Big Wednesday has become a cult classic in recent years.
Jan-Michael Vincent, William Katt, and Gary Busey, comprise a trio of surfing friends seeking to dodge the draft during the Vietnam War, and transition into adulthood in the mid-seventies.
19. Stephanie in the Water (2014)
In 2010, fresh off winning her fourth consecutive world title, Stephanie Gilmore was attacked one evening by a homeless person wielding a metal bar while walking back to her apartment in Tweed Heads, Australia. The experience was traumatizing, to say the least, and arguably caused her to miss out on a fifth consecutive world title. Stephanie in the Water is an intimate look at Gilmore’s comeback to win her fifth world title in 2012, a feat she’d repeat in 2014 and 2018 to match Layne Beachley’s record of seven.
18. Letting Go (2006)
By the end of 1998, Kelly Slater had six world titles to his name and had cemented himself as the most dominant professional surfer ever. Come 2005, though, it had been seven years since his last world title and whispers that he was past his prime were pervasive. And yet, against all odds, Slater made history that year winning his seventh world title (he would follow up with four additional titles between 2005 and 2011). In that context, Letting Go traces Slater’s career through a critical juncture – perhaps its most important one – as the greatest surfer of all time unpacks his willingness to put it all on the line.
17. Riding Giants (2004)
Directed and narrated by Stacy Peralta, Riding Giants‘ most iconic scene documents Laird Hamilton whipping into a wave at Teahupo’o (later dubbed the “Oh My God” wave) that would redefine concepts of what’s possible in big wave surfing overnight. The experience moved Hamilton to tears.
16. North Shore (1987)
Hollywood’s take on surfing’s annual pilgrimage to the famed Seven Mile Miracle seemed like a bit of a stretch when it first hit theaters in the late nineties. Arizona wave pool surfer wins a contest and decides to head to Hawaii to get a taste of the winter there? Yeah, right. Thirty-two years later, though, with truly rideable wave pools cropping up in places like Waco, Texas, the premise seems more prophetic now than it did then.
15. The Seedling (1999)
During a period in surfing when white, narrow thrusters dominated lineups, Thomas Campbell’s The Seedling shed light on a subculture in surfing that endured against all odds and was taking root again, especially in California: traditional longboarding. For many surfers, the film was their first introduction to names like Joel Tudor and Devon Howard who are synonymous with the longboard revivalist movement and turned their backs on the type of performance longboarding that emulated modern shortboarding’s approach. Shot entirely on 16mm film, The Seedling harkens back to the great filmmakers that were the bedrock of the surf film genre, not least of which Bruce Brown.
14. Point Break (1991)
A band of adrenaline junkies that rob banks being infiltrated by a former football star turned F.B.I. agent that must learn to surf to seamlessly join their ranks? The premise sounds corny as hell but Point Break (the original) continues to be a cult classic among surfers and is arguably Hollywood’s best effort in avoiding the countless pitfalls it often falls victim to when telling a story related to surfing.
13. Modern Collective (2009)
If Taylor Steele defined surf filmmaking by documenting surfing’s vanguard in the nineties, it was Kai Neville who did so in the late 2000s. Starring Dane Reynolds, Dion Agius, Yadin Nicol, Mitch Coleborn, Dusty Payne, and Jordy Smith, Collective features a pulsing, dancy soundtrack meant to signal surfing’s progressive future.
12. Raw Irons (1999)
Before Andy Irons flew the Billabong logo on the beak of his boards, he was supported by a little company called MCD: More Core Division. The marriage was brief, but it brought the world a thirty-minute flick carried entirely by Irons in his prime. No narration. No interviews.
11. Slippery When Wet (1958)
Bruce Brown’s first full-length film – bankrolled by Dale Velzy. It endeared Brown as one of surfing’s foremost early filmmakers and – like The Endless Summer and Surfing Hollow Days – is absolutely timeless.
10. Kelly Slater in Black and White (1991)
Before Kelly Slater had a single world title to his name (imagine!) he was just a young sensation from Cocoa Beach on a hot streak. This film, while originally intended to announce Slater’s head-to-toe contract with Quiksilver, fundamentally changed surfing forever.
9. View From a Blue Moon (2015)
The first surf film shot in 4k, and a testament to the sheer athleticism of arguably the best surfer on the planet right now, View From a Blue Moon is a modern masterpiece. The scenery is achingly gorgeous, perspectives the likes we’ve never seen before – the film is grandiose in every way. Like Travis Rice’s Art of Flight did for snowboarding, Florence’s VFBN singlehandedly set the bar for surf film in the modern age.
8. Searching for Tom Curren (1996)
Six years after clinching his third world title – the last to be won by a surfer from California – Tom Curren had thoroughly cemented himself in the pantheon of legends of the sport. And yet, after formally withdrawing from competition he became highly reclusive and arguably more enigmatic than ever. But, in Sonny Miller’s highly acclaimed film, we see the man living “The Search” and reconnecting with the sport through newfound freedom to experiment with equipment.
7. Momentum (1992)
Nowadays, Kelly Slater, Rob Machado, Shane Dorian, Ross Williams, Benji Weatherly, and Kalani Robb are all household names. But, in the early nineties, they were lesser-known up-and-comers seeking to make names for themselves during North Shore free surfs and in the competitive circuit. Taylor Steele’s seminal, no-frills 1992 opus, Momentum, marks the moment surfing’s vanguard class burst onto the scene. And there was no turning back.
6. Locked In! (1964)
Bud Browne’s 1964 flick Locked In! is perhaps the hardest one on this list to actually track down. But its inclusion here is in recognition of the contributions of Browne to surf filmmaking as a discipline as its founding father and early pioneer. Locked In! is widely regarded as Browne’s finest work and features the surfing of Greg Noll, Phil Edwards, Dewey Weber, Buzzy Trent, Peter Cole, Mike Doyle, Mickey Munoz, David Nuuhiwa, and more.
5. Five Summer Stories (1972)
With a cast like Gerry Lopez, Jeff Hakman, David Nuuhiwa, Margo Oberg, Terry Fitzgerald, Bill Hamilton, Angie Reno, and more, Five Summer Stories is an absolute classic in every sense of the word. The flick is backdropped by the context of a generation seeking to find itself in the post-Vietnam era.
4. Surfing Hollow Days (1961)
Banzai Pipeline is widely regarded as the world’s deadliest wave. And like a gladiator pit, it’s also where a single performance can turn a previously unknown surfer into a household name overnight. But before John John Florence, Kelly Slater, and Gerry Lopez graced the glossy pages of magazines in house-sized tubes, hell before Pipeline was even Pipeline, Bruce Brown captured Phil Edwards riding a crystalline eight-foot wave at Banzai Beach for his film Surfing Hollow Days. Widely regarded as the first person to surf Pipe ever, Edwards kicked the door wide open for the decades of tube-riding progression that followed.
3. The Innermost Limits of Pure Fun (1970)
Despite its comparisons to other boardsports, surfing has and always will have one maneuver whose feeling has no parallel: the tube ride. And until 1970, vision inside the tube was restricted only to the surfers capable of putting themselves in the right position and even then it only lasted a second. That is, until Santa Barbara native George Greenough’s seminal scene in his only full-length flick, The Innermost Limits of Pure Fun. Wielding a 28-pound waterproof camera rig on his shoulder, Greenough was the first surfer and filmmaker to capture the view from the inside of the barrel on film.
2. Morning of the Earth (1972)
Morning of the Earth represents the first time the perfectly-manicured lefts of Uluwatu were projected on the silver screen. Almost singlehandedly, the Bali scene in the film initiated a surge of interest in Indonesian surf exploration that continues to this day, for better or worse. Beyond that, Morning of the Earth is a time capsule of one of the most romantic periods in Australian surf culture where city-dwelling surfers, most notably Nat Young, withdrew to country life to reconnect with the land.
1. The Endless Summer (1966)
More than any surf film, Bruce Brown’s opus, The Endless Summer, is the one against which others are measured over a half-century since its release. It is the surf film that defined the genre and is absolutely timeless. “Just a handful of surf movies are thought of as first-rate,” writes Matt Warshaw in the Encyclopedia of Surfing. “Endless Summer alone is regarded as a surfing masterpiece.”