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The 15 most epic surf movies

We count down the best, most gnar-shredding surf movies of all time, from feel-good flicks to big-wave docs

Matthew Singer
Written by: Kate Wertheimer

Whether your skin is permanently pruned by seawater or the only ocean you’ve ever seen is on a screensaver, surfing holds an undeniable allure. You might not feel a desire to get on a board yourself, but there is something hypnotic about watching human beings commune with the rhythms of the sea. 

It makes sense, then, that filmmakers have also long been enthralled by the sport as well. From documentaries to biopics to action movies, surfing has been featured numerous times on screen since it evolved from pastime to phenomenon. Here are 15 of the best ways to hang ten vicariously.


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The best surf movies ever

1. The Endless Summer (1966)

It’s the obvious pick for No. 1, but also clearly the correct choice. In fact, it’s hard to think of another movie that means more to its niche genre than Bruce Brown’s documentary about two SoCal surfer bros on a worldwide search for the perfect wave. Surf films had existed before – some made by Brown himself – but The Endless Summer had a beauty, wit and easygoing charm that set it apart, and helped spread the gospel of the sport to the wider world. To a degree, Brown achieved the promise of the title: no matter where you are, or how frigid it might be, pop in this movie and it’ll warm you like the summer sun.

2. Riding Giants (2004)

Three years after Dogtown and Z-Boys, Stacy Peralta came back with another spectactular doc on the history of big-wave surfing. You'll perhaps get more info than you need—starting with the sport's Hawaiian origins, and continuing on through the decades—though there's plenty of exhilirating tube and wipeout footage to illustrate the fascination with and draw of riding such massive waves. Short of dropping them into one, Peralta brings viewers as close as most of them will ever get.


3. Surfwise (2007)

This fascinating documentary tells the tale of Doc Paskowitz, a Stanford-educated man who, along with his young wife, eschewed conventional life to raise his nine children in a camper while following the best surf around the continent. His parenting methods were questionable and his surf-obsessed life perhaps self-serving, but to this day he begs the question: Is it really so crazy to raise a close-knit family more concerned with physical health and spiritual fulfillment than conventional measures of success?

4. North of the Sun [Nordfor Sola] (2012)

In 2012, Norwegian friends and avid surfers Inge Wegge and Jørn Ranum, both in their early twenties, documented their search for perfect, secret (if freezing) waves. The two spent nine months—almost all of them without sun—on an isolated beach north of the Arctic Circle, riding waves and collecting the trash that washed up on shore—in total, over 30 tons. They built a house to live in from said trash, and used it to do all the things (aside from surfing) they needed to survive. There's something incredibly moving about a love of the ocean that runs so deep, and the pair's friendship is beautifully and often hilariously captured in their footage.


5. Five Summer Stories (1972)

This iconic doc features some of the best surfers of its era (look for generous footage of Gerry Lopez tearing it up) set to a perfect soundtrack by Honk, with just a hint of politics. Filmmakers Jim Freeman and Greg MacGillivray produced some of the surfing world's greatest films, and this was their last and most advanced in terms of production quality. You'll see a lot of waves from beginning to end—not just in the juicy action shots. It's a slo-mo ode to surfing's biggest talents and best waves.

6. Soul Surfer (2011)

Even if you don’t follow professional surfing closely, you’ve probably heard of Bethany Hamilton, the teenage surf champ who, in 2003, had her left arm bitten off by a shark. Her remarkable return to competition was bound to be turned into a movie, and Soul Surfer, while steeped in Hollywood convention, is a legitimately inspiring tale of family, faith and personal resolve. AnnaSophia Robb is wholly convincing as Hamilton – and it certainly helps that her parents are played by Dennis Quaid and Helen Hunt. Put your cynicism aside and you’ll find yourself cheering.


7. Step Into Liquid (2003)

Dana Brown's first solo poject takes a page from the work of his pops, famed surfer and filmmaker Bruce Brown, of The Endless Summer fame. Step Into Liquid has the same affable feel, but is technically far superior (decades of camera advancements may have helped there). When you're a Brown, the bar is set pretty high, and Dana delivered: his film is currently the fifth highest-grossing sports doc of all time.

8. Morning of the Earth (1972)

Though bearded, barefoot and pretty much homeless, the few surfers who lived the "back-to-nature" lifestyle were easily romanticized by Albert Falzon in his first and most well-known flick. It still makes surfers and newbs alike want to quit their jobs, toss their wallets and set up shop on a remote beach. And aside from instilling a wallop of wanderlust, Morning of the Earth is also credited with debuting surf footage of Indonesia's coveted, world-class waves, mostly undocumented until then.


9. North Shore (1987)

Arizona wave-tank surfer Rick Kane tries his luck as a pro on the North Shore of O'ahu in this silly '80s surf flick. The typical ensues: He pisses off the pros, falls in love with a local and finds friends who eventually help him see the fun and spiritual side of surfing. The jokes are cheesy—but in a good way—and the North Shore tropes ring true (the parties, the strip clubs, the shave ice). Also, it's pretty fun to see Laird Hamilton play such a dick as the film's antagonist, pro-bro Lance Burkhart.

10. The September Sessions (2002)

It's not hard to make a great surf doc when you've cast the sport's top athletes (Slater, Machado, Dorian) on some of the world's best waves off the coast of Sumatra in Indonesia. But it's almost as if Jack Johnson knew this would be his last hurrah before moving to music full-time; his decision to shoot on 16mm and to score the film himself make it a mellow, almost nostalgic ode to the more lovely side of surfing.


11. Surf's Up (2007)

This animated mockumentary, featuring a rockhopper penguin with big wave dreams, pulls off humor, sentiment and some pretty epic surf scenes. It's the only true kid-friendly flick on our list, with jokes that, yes, the whole family can enjoy. We also love the fact that Kelly Slater and Rob Machado have cameos as themselves... as penguins.

12. Big Wednesday (1978)

Although initially a box-office flop, Big Wednesday has gained a cult audience over the years—people (read: baby boomers) who connected with a coming-of-age story about friends facing life and the Vietnam War. Gary Busey (later to star in Point Break, #13 on our list), William Katt and Jan-Michael Vincent play a tight trio who grow up and apart through surf sessions, parties, marriage and eventually war. Can surfing reunite them after so much? Spoiler alert: Sure can.


13. Point Break (1991)

Would Kathryn Bigelow’s high-octane action classic hit the same if its gang of bank-robbing adrenaline junkies were bigger into, say, skateboarding instead of surfing? Probably not. It’s hard to imagine Keanu Reeves falling for either Lori Petty or Patrick Swayze while learning to kickflip, and it’d be much harder to take Bodhi’s zen-criminal philosophising seriously. Not that you ever come to Point Break for seriousness, of course – you put it on for the big-wave-riding, parachuteless skydiving, pitbull-tossing, homoerotic love triangle awesomeness. Plus, that rad ending that’s long begged for a sequel where Bodhi really does paddle to New Zealand.

14. Blue Crush (2002)

The rare surf flick aimed directly at the teen girl demo, Blue Crush doesn’t exactly brim with crackling dialogue and awards-worthy performances, but it gets by on sheer heart. Anne Marie (Kate Bosworth) is a young surfer dealing with personal and familial trauma while trying to get her head straight for an upcoming surf competition in Hawaii. Throw in a love affair involving a hunky quarterback and you’ve got a fairly by-the-numbers teen movie, but the movie is filmed with such energy – including some truly astounding wave-riding sequences – that it’s easy to appreciate.


15. Gidget (1959)

The bane of every surfer's existence upon its release—especially those whose Malibu beach break suddenly became more crowded than ever—Gidget was the scapegoat for purists upset that their sport, and their waves, were being taken over by the masses. But despite a cheesy faux love triangle and even cheesier back-projected "surf" shots, Gidget made surfing accessible to the American mainstream—and told a sweet and entertaining coming-of-age tale at the same time.

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