Level 1 isn't dead, far from it, in fact. However, with 'Romance' touted to be their last annual movie, it's fair to say that there will be a gaping hole in skiing's yearly calendar come Fall 2020. I would suggest that Strictly look best placed to fill that gap. I have no doubt in my mind that Gavin and Andrew would shy away from such a claim, so I hope they'll forgive me for drawing parallels but the potential is there. You have two incredibly dedicated filmers at the core of a new company, out there shooting a varied crew. The movie is a perfect, near equal, blend of street, park and backcountry freestyle. Sound familiar?
And if last year's 'Strictly Business' showed potential, cleaning up the AM category, with Welcome they have raised the bar. Perhaps the true standout here is the unbelievable editing. In my opinion at least, the Strictly boys got stiffed out of an award for their work on Welcome (not that they will care), because this is the best-edited film I've seen this year (except, perhaps, for Pollards, which doesn't count anyway because he's been obsessing over it for 3+ years). My take is there's an increasing amount of over-editing in the industry as technology improves. There's definitely a time and a place for artsy projects, but when we're talking about ski porn, I'm watching for the skiing, not what someone can do in the booth. I want to see the best of the skiing without it being messed with too much. To me, Sammy C's latest project is a perfect example of overkill, while Strictly have nailed putting the skiing first while also keeping things creative. Gavin's animation adds a unique dimension, and in terms of production, Strictly are right up there with the best for me.
The film itself opens with Benny Smith, a skier who I've not entirely understood the hype around. Until now. This whole segment is a banger, replete with those tiny touches that elevate a skier from the 'one of many good skiers' level to someone special. Things like the Candide-esque pole plant on his cork 7 blunt off the backcountry whale tail. Like his control in the air as he bounces through crazy pillow lines. You could copy and paste this segment into more or less any movie out there and it wouldn't look out of place.
Tweaks like this one... it's the little things.
Peter Koukov, who is presumably down to just the one hole now, hits more spots that I absolutely wouldn't want to hit than anyone I've seen this year. There's a whole lot of 'why? moments' in here. His is a part that displays bucketloads of creativity without pretension. Partner in crime and Superunknown finalist Carson Kerr is a master of stunts that appear simple, but are both gnarly and fiddly as fuck. And damn does he know how to tweak a grab.
There's also a proper, relatable park shoot. Shot not on some unattainable or unaffordable freak of a feature but simply a decently big jump with a fun setup around it. Gavin himself has a couple of sneaky heaters in here. And Ethan Swadburg shows in both the park shoot and in his own part that he's the best skier in the world to watch in the air right now. Bar none. It's a big claim but prove me wrong.
Large: Carson Kerr
Parker Norvell has a backcountry part that is both banger and almost scary loose in equal measure, before Calvin Barrett and Sam Zahner's contrasting styles closes the movie. Sam's ender is straight-up terrifying too by the way. And that's it for the plot summary.
So what can I get all 'armchair critic' about? Well, the music in the first half was a bit on the mellow side for me. On my first run-through, I was a touch underwhelmed overall. I think more 'upbeat' songs would have helped with that. It's harder for a film to grab you without a tune early on that gets you going. But as I write this review on my third viewing, every song does work perfectly with how the footage has been cut so I can't really fault them too much on that front, it's just personal taste.
Ultimately, not all of the crew is on that pro level... yet. There are shots in here that would have likely been cut from one of the major movie productions, either for 'illegal landings' (though to be fair, not enough of these are cut in big-budget stuff either), because there are too many shots on one feature or just because they don't quite hit the mark. The cameo from Jonah Williams, in particular, highlights the marked difference between really good skiers and the guys that are cut from a different cloth.
I mentioned this concept when discussing Benny Smith's part. There are other skiers in this crew who are also on that level already. But not everyone and everything is quite up there (yet). All of these guys are stepping up their games year on year though, so there's a good chance they will be soon. But there's no denying you could import riders and strengthen the crew. Whether Strictly choose to do so depends entirely on whether they want to stick with the core-crew vibe or move into the space being vacated by Level 1, and by Poorboyz years prior.
I keep bringing it back to Level 1. In doing so, I don't mean to discount the entirely distinct identity of Strictly. But with the film making skills these guys have (and being based in the industry hub that is Colorado) I truly think these guys have a shot at making it to the big time. To me they are an essential part of the future. More than anything, I hope that we don't lose the annual independent ski movie as an art form. With Level 1 moving on to new challenges, one of the last big bastions of the genre has been lost. I have no doubt Level 1 will continue to blow minds with their future output but I, and countless others, will miss getting stoked for their annual flick. The Strictly crew have made me hopeful that there's more to come in that space.
When writing reviews, it's easier to find things to criticize than to compliment, because if you don't all reviews end up sounding like an endless stream of meaningless stoke. But for me, this is one of the movies of the year (with fierce rivals Carnage being another candidate ). It got me super stoked to ski go skiing. More than pretty much anything else I've seen in fact. I'll be watching segments on repeat to get stoked before skiing this winter. And ultimately, that's the point, isn't it?
Make sure you watch Welcome when it drops tomorrow, it's a great movie and a sign of big things to come.