Banff screened more than 50 movies this year—their picks of the year’s best adventure and environmental films. We narrowed that list down to our ten favorites based on what really hit us in the gut. Some excellent films aren’t on here—including Art of Flight, The Freedom Chair, and All.I.Can—but we already featured those online.
EP Films, 40 Minutes
It was a rule among the Gitga’at First Nation of British Columbia: do not speak of the spirit bear. More elusive and rare than the giant panda, the spirit bear is considered sacred among the native population of British Columbia, who recently broke their silence out of concern for the bears’ future. Trip Jennings and Andy Maser document a pristine natural area endangered by the development of oil reserves in and around the Great Bear Rainforest. Their two-week expedition, which included seven accomplished wildlife photographers and three videographers, offers an eerily beautiful look at the ghost-like species and its primeval habitat. As one National Geographic photographer put it, “This place has been hidden away from all the craziness that’s been happening on planet earth.”
9. ‘40 Days at Base Camp’
Dianne Whelan, 89 Minutes
One of the most hotly anticipated Everest films to come out in recent memory, Dianne Whelan’s no-holds-barred documentary uncovers the less palatable side of that emblematic mountain. Whelan focuses on the realities of Everest that we don’t typically see. She holds her camera on porters hauling tons of supplies to Base Camp—and equally massive loads of trash out. Using a mix of frank interviews, handheld confessionals, and compelling scenics, Whelan constructs a narrative about the environmental impact of our mountaineering obsession. We hear from the climbers not usually featured in films. For example, the first Nepali woman to summit Everest suggests, earnestly, that it’s time to stop climbing and just “clean the mountain.”
8. ‘Race for the Nose’
Sender Films, 24 minutes
"The most badass competition there is," brought to you by the adrenaline junkies over at Sender Films. We get a cam’s eye-view of Dean Potter and Hans Florine as they compete for the speed-record on the Nose of El Capitan. The goal: thirty-one strenuous pitches in well under three hours. Since 1991, X Games gold medalist Florine has fiercely defended his position as the fastest El Cap climber out there. Hoping to change that, Potter and his climbing partner Sean Leary blast the 3000 vertical foot wall with palm-sweating speed. “As much as people say, they’re not competitive, it’s a bunch of shit,” as Florine says.
7. ‘The Man and the Mammoth’
Public Ritual, Sherpas Cinema, 6 Minutes
We had to recognize the wizards at Public Ritual, who must really like to shred. There’s no other explanation for the late-night, RedBull-fueled creative sessions it must’ve required to animate this Claymation skiing short. The six minute film took three months to make. One 8-second shot, in which a hermit on skis jibs over the Granville Street Bridge in Vancouver, took 11 hours. Animator Callum Paterson says many fingers were burned conjuring rail sparks with a sparkler in gail-force winds.
Don't Try This at Home: This behind-the-scenes look gives an indication of how difficult it is to make claymation ski porn.
6. Obe and Ashima’
Sender Films, 22 Minutes
It’s rare to find a climbing film that is at once moving and not at all tragic. But Sender Films pulls it off in this unusual short film about a nine-year-old bouldering prodigy and her animated coach. Throughout its screening, Ashima Shiraishi, a two-time ABS junior national champion from New York City, drew more enthusiastic audience encouragement in her climbing scenes than any others we saw at Banff. The scene where Shiraishi traverses a V11 in Hueco Tanks, Texas had people up out of their seats. As her coach, Obe Carrion, puts it, “She absolutely, 100 percent has it. A nine-year-old shouldn’t have it. It’s weird.”
Clear H2O Films, 42 minutes
In 2010, legendary South African explorer Hendri Coetzee adventured into the heart of the Congo with American kayakers Ben Stookesberry and Chris Korbulic. The expedition film they set out to make derailed, tragically, when Coetzee was taken by a crocodile on the Lukuga River. The film Stookesberry produced after his friend’s death is an unadorned homage to a great explorer and a lost companion. Eerie but honest, it seems Coetzee is allowed to reflect on his death in his own words: "Some of the things that we're about to witness are so intense and horrible that they should stop the show. But they don't. People still laugh and dance. Yes the bad things happen, but so do the good things—amazing things, and the show goes on."
4. ‘Towers of the Ennedi’
Camp 4 Collective, 14 minutes
Frankly, we look forward to anything made by Renan Ozturk. Ignoring travel advisories, he and Camp 4 Collective swept across the en-sepia-toned Ennedi Desert in northeastern Chad to produce another visually staggering climbing odyssey. A four-day journey from the nearest hospital, climbers Mark Synnott, James Pearson, and Alex Honnold broke rotten rock to claim first ascents of the Ennedi's unknown towers. The film documents the ups and down of the journey, like Honnold free-soloing a crumbling 80-foot tower and the team being held at knifepoint by desert bandits.
Sweetgrass Productions, 45 Minutes
Call up your buddy with the big screen, or rent out the main street movie theater for a night, and order a presale copy of Solitaire. This ski flick from Zac Ramras and Nick Waggoner deserves a high-resolution treatment—and really shouldn’t be called a “ski flick.” It’s more of a skiing magnum opus. Shot on a shoestring budget, it took the filmmakers and a 31-person crew of fearless backcountry skiers and snowboarders two years of trekking from Peru’s Cordillera Blanca to Chile’s Patagonia to collect all the footage. In an insane display of authenticity, Sweetgrass Productions used no mechanized transport: they tramped unsupported to every location, waited out the weather in tents, used paragliders to film from the sky, and traversed glaciers in order to access remote ranges. Are you getting the film’s vibe yet? This oughta help. The only human voice in the film is a Spanish-speaking Joseph Conrad, intoning passages from Heart of Darkness.
2. ‘Chasing Water’
Peter McBride, 18 Minutes
Growing up on a Colorado cattle ranch, photojournalist Peter McBride would spend long hours irrigating the family fields—and wondering how long it would take for the excess water to flow to the sea. Over a three-year period, he paddled, flew, and walked the 1500-mile length of the Colorado River to track its path through the U.S. to Mexico and satisfy his boyhood curiosity. With stunning cinematography, McBride captures a “symphony of human thirst” as the Colorado is tapped in every direction along his journey, supplying water to 30 million people and 3.5 million acres of farmland. Forced to abandon his kayak in Mexico, McBride finds that the Colorado turns into a dried up delta long before reaching the Gulf of California. The harrowing message: “For 6 million years, the Colorado ran to the sea. Since ’98, it has not...We are all eating the Colorado.”
Forge Motion Pictures, 19 Minutes
Cory Richards likes to say that 90 percent of climbing is failure. This past winter he came close to disaster after an avalanche hit his team on a harrowing descent on Gasherbrum II. In Cold, Director Anson Fogel pieced together Richards’ footage from GII, gave it a stellar audio treatment, and created a narrative line that explores the physical and emotional extremes of attempting an 8,000-meter peak in winter. In a surprisingly expansive 19 minutes, Fogel and Richards have crafted a climbing film with more insight and action than most multi-hour features. Cold took home the award for Best Film – Climbing, as well as the Audio Post-Production Scholarship, before nabbing Banff’s Grand Prize.