It’s that time of year when ski movies drop from the digital heavens in which they’re conceived into theatres and social media streams across the White Planet.
As usual, never before have there been as many top-drawer, well-conceived and written, laboriously storied, fastidiously shot, gloriously drool-worthy films for your eye-grazing pleasure.
There’s a few I can’t wait to see (Passage, Tatum Monod’s paean to her family ski history with CK9 Studio, and Blank Collective’s Tales from Cascadia among them), but suffice to say, given their sheer number, few if any new films will stand the test of time. That wasn’t true in the bad ol’ days of limited media, where a solid ski flick, could, over decades, legitimately influence audience and filmmakers alike. Everyone likely has their own list, but here’s a handful that got to me.
Ski the Outer Limits (Summit Films Productions, 1970)—The first (and possibly only) ski film to pose the question “Why ski?” was so far ahead of its time it still knows no peer. The plodding, philosophical narrative driving the often slow-mo black-and-white imagery can rivet the dullest (or stoned-est) viewer’s attention; even non-skiers are wowed by Tom LeRoi’s “full-gainer” (front flip) into Corbet’s Couloir in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Many have claimed (myself and Glen Plake among them) that being able to situate skiing as a scholarly subject, as Ski the Outer Limits did, changed their lives forever.
Downhill Racer (Michael Ritchie, 1973)—This existential flick features a youthful Robert Redford as a maverick U.S. ski racer with the chops to beat Euro legends if he can just ditch the Yankee hubris. Despite his disruptive influence on the team, a crusty coach recognizes the racer’s potential and a classic self-realization drama ensues. Noteworthy for some of the racing footage captured on rugged early ‘70s courses—when “weather delay” wasn’t a thing—by local stuntmen like future heli-ski legend Rudi Gertsch, the home-run script by award-winning writer James Salter helps make this Hollywood’s best ski movie ever.
The Performers (Dick Barrymore, 1971)—Dick Barrymore’s classic documentary about four K2 pros crisscrossing the U.S. in a red, white, and blue motorhome was originally intended as a ski-shop film but delivered much more. Holding up a mirror to the stirrings of the original freestyle revolution, 360s, backflips, and mule kicks offset the expected cliff hucks along with over-the-head pow footage to rival today’s best segments. In Aspen, the K2 posse also judges two events—a Hot Dog contest on a steep mogul run, and a wet T-shirt contest invented for the film. It’s the closest thing skiing has to Bruce Brown’s epic surf doc, Endless Summer.
The Blizzard of Aahhhs (Greg Stump, 1988)—Sure you’ve heard of this film, but even if you and your buddies watched it a hundred times on the shitty VCR in your parents’ basement you should watch it again. Ushering in the extreme era (later recast as “freeskiing”) with a killer soundtrack and more neon than Times Square on New Year’s Eve, Blizzard offered a cure for the tired, formulaic Millerism that had infected ski movies to that point. While introducing instant legends Glen Plake, Scot Schmidt and Mike Hattrup to the world at large, Blizzard took viewers on a steep, deep, high-octane trip from Squaw Valley, California, to Chamonix, France, and the ski world never looked back.
Free Radicals (Down Films, 1996)—In 1995, future Oscar-nominated Swedish film director Ruben Ostlund found himself directing a snowboard movie in the Arctic resort of Riksgränsen, Sweden. During a chairlift ride the antics of local skier Jesper Rönnbäck caught Ostlund’s eye and shifted his focus. His decision to shoot Rönbäck and his exuberant mogul and telemark buddies resulted in Free Radicals, a film whose strong skiing, bulletproof landings, and nascent New School tricks would form the foundation for a much-loved franchise. In a mind-blowing closing segment, Rönnbäck nails the Trifide 3 exit couloir in La Grave with hard-packed snow, once considered the craziest thing ever done on skis.
Degenerates (Poor Boyz Productions, 1998)—For his second film, Johnny Decesare took his borrowed cameras to the Petri dishes of the progressive freestyle movement bubbling up from the snowboard-envy of the late-nineties mogul-skiing scene. As a film it’s raw, sometimes ugly, the music terrible, the production values suspect, and the skiing often as awkward as the on-camera athlete clips. Everything is an experiment here, many of them failed. But the seeds of what was to come shine through in skiers trying aerial grabs and inverts that look as new to them as the audience who watched the film’s debut. Degenerates captures the effort—plus the inevitable bone-shattering spills—that birthed a new ski genre.
All.I.Can (Sherpas Cinema, 2011)—Whistler-based Sherpas Cinema took the Hail Mary pass of producing an annual ski movie to appease sponsors and said “no thanks.” The quality that time buys shows in this multi-year effort that also offers an environmental kick-in-the-balls to the industry, showcasing cutting-edge skiing while asking questions about its role in climate change. The movie deftly blends this green theme with white explosions of powder, an uneasy marriage in a sport attuned to a nature under siege but very dependent on fossil fuels. The message is clear that if we want to keep skiing, we all need to do what we can to reduce our climate footprint.
Leslie Anthony is a Whistler-based author, editor, biologist and bon vivant who has never met a mountain he didn’t like.