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The 5 Best Ocean Films of All Time

In honor of The Blue Ocean Film Festival and Conservation Summit being held this week in Monterey, I review what are arguably the best ocean films of all time.

I am attending The Blue Ocean Film Festival and Conservation Summit this week in Monterey. In attendance are some of the world’s best ocean filmmakers, explorers, researchers, and conservationists

Oscar-winning Director James Cameron is here, along with explorer Don Walsh, filmmakers Greg and Shaun MacGillivray, oceanographer Sylvia Earle, NOAA Director Jane Lubchenco and Jacques Cousteau's son Jean-Michel Cousteau. 

There is something about ocean films that bring me back to my childhood. Maybe it was my love for Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island or being mesmerized by Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Add the wonderful memories of watching The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau on television with my family and I'm a sucker for anything to do with the sea.

In honor of the Blue Ocean Film Festival, here is my list of the top five ocean films of all time.

1. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) 

A highly eccentric homage to Jacques Cousteau with a little bit of Fellini thrown in, The Life Aquatic features Bill Murray as washed up ocean explorer Steve Zissou who searches for the elusive Jaguar shark to revive his career and avenge the death of his longtime friend and partner Esteban. The film also stars Owen Wilson, Cate Blanchett, Angelica Huston, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum and cult favorite Bud Cort. The cast partakes in an underwater odyssey and madcap adventures on Zissou’s research vessel The Belafonte. In The Life Aquatic, director-producer Wes Anderson creates a funny and unique film that is a love letter to our romance with the sea. Mark Mothersbaugh, formerly of Devo, provides the ultra cool soundtrack.

2. Jaws (1975)

With Jaws, director Steven Spielberg launched Hollywood into an obsession with action-packed high-concept blockbusters and furthered the legend of the Great White shark.

While the mechanical shark doesn’t hold up, who could ever forget the dazzling brilliance of Robert Shaw as the maniacal sea dog Quint. The suspenseful scene in which Shaw tells the tale of being surrounded by sharks after surviving the sinking of the USS Indianapolis during World War II while Roy Scheider and Richard Dreyfuss listen on and the shark silently closes in is still riveting. Based on Peter Benchley’s bestselling book of the same name, Jaws destroyed any opportunity to educate the public about the critical role that sharks play in maintaining the health of ocean ecosystems and made the ocean a scary place for people who don’t know better.

3. The Cove (2009)

The Cove is Ocean’s Eleven meets Flipper, an action-packed, emotionally charged, caper film that is so well made it received an Oscar for Best Documentary. Director Louis Psihoyos tells the tale of dolphin trainer turned ocean activist Rick O’Barry as he tries to uncover the brutal and unnecessary slaughter of dolphins in Tajii, Japan. Unfortunately the massacres in Tajii continue, but Psihoyos and O’Barry with The Cove provide a clear understanding of why the world needs ocean conservationists.

4. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003)

In Master and Commander, Australian director Peter Weir does an incredible job of translating Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey series of books into a wonderfully romantic and epic ocean film that deservedly received an Oscar for Best Cinematography. Russell Crowe stars as Captain “Lucky Jack” Aubrey who commands the HMS Surprise to pursue the French privateer Acheron around the New World. The scenes of exploration in the Galapagos Islands are breathtaking, and the depiction of field surgery and the travails of trans-oceanic sailing remind us of how lucky we are to live in the modern age. This is an intelligent and beautifully made film suitable for the entire family. An added bonus: a boat used in the film, HMS Surprise, is part of the San Diego Maritime Museum.

5. Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)

Has there ever been an actor more magnetic than Clark Gable as Fletcher Christian and a villain so unlikable as Charles Laughton’s William Bligh? Laughton’s depiction as Bligh is a precursor to Darth Vader—a brilliant, flawed and evil servant of the empire. This Ocar winner for Best Picture tells the story of the HMS Bounty’s two-year voyage to Tahiti in 1787. The 1935 version of Mutiny of the Bounty is a romantic and classic example of old-school Hollywood at its best.

What are your favorite ocean movies? Share in comments.

Other notable ocean films include: Titanic, The Abyss, Das Boot, Hunt for Red October, The Big Blue, The Little Mermaid, Pirates of the Caribbean, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Wind, The Secret of Roan Innish, White Squall and Captains Courageous.

Diane Castaneda September 26, 2012 at 08:01 PM
Great list Serge, I gotta say The Cove is one of my all time favorites and I always recommend it to people, it's a MUST WATCH! Wes Anderson always does an amazing job and I can't wait to watch The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, thanks for the suggestion! But "The Little Mermaid" is my favorite of all, I used to watch it all the time wishing I could be a mermaid just like Ariel. Thanks for bringing back that memory.
Zach Plopper September 26, 2012 at 08:12 PM
There are so many wanna-be good oceanic films - like that one about the dolphin with the prosthetic tail. What about Finding Nemo? I'm serious.
Ed Sorrels September 26, 2012 at 08:31 PM
And then there is The Deep with Jaculine Bissett, A memorable film for two reasons !
Serge Dedina September 26, 2012 at 09:16 PM
FYI--Am sitting down in Monterey with Cove director Louis Psihoyos who is stoked about his ranking as having directed the #3 best ocean film of all time!
Ann September 26, 2012 at 11:56 PM
Finding Nemo at Disneyworld.
Paloma September 27, 2012 at 05:45 PM
Great list Serge. I do have to say The Cove was very good. It brought to light how far special interests and big corporations will go to make profit. Personally though, my all time favorite has to be Spongebob Squarepants the movie! You can't beat sea stars dressed in fishnets and high heel boots!

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