It’s that time of year when ski movies fall from the digital skies they are made into in theaters and social media feeds across the White Planet.
As usual, there have never been so many top-notch movies, well-crafted and written, painstakingly told, painstakingly shot, gloriously drool-worthy for your viewing pleasure.
There are a few that I can’t wait to see (Passage, Tatum Monod’s hymn to his family skiing history with CK9 Studio and Blank Collective Tales of Cascadia among them), but suffice it to say that, given their numbers, few or no new films will stand the test of time. This was not true in the bad old days of limited media, where a solid ski movie could, over decades, legitimately influence audiences and filmmakers. Everyone probably has their own list, but here are a handful that touched me.
Ski the outer limits (Summit Films Productions, 1970) —The first (and perhaps the only) ski film to ask the question “Why ski?” Was so ahead of his time that he still doesn’t know a peer. The laborious philosophical narrative that animates the often slow-motion black-and-white imagery can capture the attention of the dullest (or most stoned) viewer; even non-skiers are won over by Tom LeRoi’s full-gainer (front flip) in the Corbet Corridor in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Many have said (myself and Glen Plake among them) that being able to situate skiing as an academic subject, like Ski the outer limits have done so, have changed their lives forever.
downhill runner (Michael Ritchie, 1973) – This existential film stars a young Robert Redford as a maverick American ski racer with the chops to beat European legends if he can just give up Yankee pride. Despite his disruptive influence on the team, a crisp coach recognizes the potential of the runner and a classic self-actualization drama ensues. Notable for some of the racing footage captured on rugged routes from the early 1970s – when ‘weather delay’ was not a thing – by local stuntmen like future heli-skiing legend Rudi Gertsch, the storyline of the Award-winning writer James Salter helps make Hollywood’s best ski movie.
The interpreters (Dick Barrymore, 1971) – Dick Barrymore’s classic documentary of four K2 pros crisscrossing the United States in a red, white and blue camper van was originally conceived as a ski shop film, but delivered much more. Holding a mirror to the hustle and bustle of the original freestyle revolution, 360s, backflips and mule kicks compensate for the expected cliff jumps as well as overhead pow imagery to compete with the best segments of today. In Aspen, the K2 group are also judging two events: a hot dog contest on a steep bumpy slope and a wet t-shirt contest invented for the film. It’s the closest thing to skiing to Bruce Brown’s epic surf doc, Endless summer.
Aahhhs blizzard (Greg Stump, 1988) – Sure you’ve heard of this movie, but even if you and your pals watched it a hundred times on the crappy VCR in your parents’ basement, you should. review. Ushering in the extreme era (later recast as ‘freestyle skiing’) with a killer soundtrack and more neon than Times Square on New Years Eve, Snow storm offered a cure for the worn out and stereotypical vintage that had infected ski movies by then. While introducing instant legends Glen Plake, Scot Schmidt and Mike Hattrup to the world at large, Snow storm took viewers on a steep, deep, high-octane journey from Squaw Valley, Calif. to Chamonix, France, and the ski world has never looked back.
Free radicals (Down Films, 1996) —In 1995, future Oscar-nominated Swedish director Ruben Ostlund found himself directing a snowboarding film in the arctic resort of Riksgränsen, Sweden. On a chairlift ride, the antics of local skier Jesper Rönnbäck caught Ostlund’s attention and changed his focus. His decision to shoot Rönbäck and his exuberant mogul and telemark buddies resulted in Free radicals, a movie whose mighty skiing, bulletproof landings, and budding New School figures would form the basis of a much-loved franchise. In a stunning fence segment, Rönnbäck nails the Trifide 3 exit corridor at La Grave with packed snow, once considered the craziest thing ever done on skis.
Degenerate (Poor Boyz Productions, 1998) —For his second film, Johnny Decesare took his borrowed cameras to the petri dishes of the progressive freestyle movement springing from the snowboarding envy of the mogul skiing scene of the late ’90s. As a movie, it’s raw, sometimes ugly, the music terrible, the production values questionable, and the skiing often as awkward as the clips of the athletes on camera. Everything is an experiment here, many of them failed. But the seeds of what was to come shine through in skiers trying aerial shots and inverts that seem as new to them as the audiences who watched the film’s debut. Degenerate captures the effort – as well as the inevitable crashing spills – that gave birth to a new kind of skiing.
Anything I can (Sherpas Cinema, 2011) – Whistler-based Sherpas Cinema accepted the Hail Mary pass to produce an annual ski movie to appease the sponsors and said “no thanks”. The quality that time buys shows in this multi-year effort that also offers an environmental kick-start to the industry, showcasing cutting-edge skiing while asking questions about its role in climate change. The film skillfully blends that green theme with explosions of white powder, a difficult marriage in a sport suited to a besieged but highly dependent on fossil fuel nature. The message is clear: if we are to continue skiing, we must all do what we can to reduce our climate footprint.
Leslie Anthony is a Whistler-based author, editor, biologist, and bon vivant who has never encountered a mountain he didn’t like.