The best Filipino films of 2016

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An unofficial webpage lists a total of 108 local films for the year (this is not accurate but the figure is more or less close to the actual). This is equivalent to at least two movies shown every week, which is admittedly plenty. A huge chunk of it came from festivals such as Cinemalaya, QCinema, and Cinema One Originals.

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Year-end assessments exist for emphasis: With the many events in the year, surely, there are a few that stand out and deserve to be mentioned. The mere act of highlighting specific points gives them importance, and the habit of looking back on the past 12 months can be related to the sentimentality often ascribed to birthdays, Christmases, reunions, and similar occasions, to special moments that require time and thought to be put into words. The deed is childish, but the motivation is mature: Gathering in one place personal favorites and seeing them neatly presented and argued is a display of both daring and pettiness, one whose strength and weakness is its nature to assume authority.

There is undeniably strong politics at work in making these lists, especially if the reputation of the writer is taken into account. But despite the often unnecessary lionizing and self-referencing — how every item is chosen based on, and defended by, personal preference — one must acknowledge the limitations of a judgment made by only one person. No list, whoever makes it, is definitive, even if it is by someone who has seen, in this case, all of the local films released commercially in Metro Manila theaters in 2016. This needs to be pointed out, for Philippine cinema, it goes without saying, is not just Manila cinema, and sadly there are films shown in provinces that have not been accessible to be considered. These year-end lists, after all, are defined by their shortcomings — by the confidence in their biases — and it is hoped they are received with neither extreme seriousness nor utter disregard but as something with lasting interest, enough to encourage more people to watch and discuss local movies.

An unofficial webpage lists a total of 108 local films for the year (this is not accurate, seeing a few obvious omissions, but the figure is more or less close to the actual). This is equivalent to at least two movies shown every week, which, considering the perennial concerns with quantity, is admittedly plenty. A huge chunk of it came from festivals, and 2016 witnessed a number of them in succession, to the point of tiring even the most ardent of moviegoers: Singkuwento in February, CineFilipino in March, Sinag Maynila in April, World Premieres in June, ToFarm in July, Cinemalaya in August, Binisaya in September, QCinema in October, Cinema One Originals and SalaMindanaw in November, and Cinema Rehiyon and the Metro Manila Film Festival (MMFF) in December. Already, more than 80 new features, in competition or exhibition, premiered in these festivals.

Except for ToFarm, these festivals are simply carrying on. Cinemalaya has regained its steam, and QCinema and Cinema One have continued offering a selection of foreign-language movies to complement their own productions. The MMFF is the oldest of the lot, and is also facing one of its toughest challenges since its inception: a well-intentioned, quality-oriented reform that will not only determine its direction but also set a precedent for large-scale efforts to make changes in the industry. The controversy arising from the rejection of entries by Star Cinema, Vic Sotto, and Mother Lily — the “Big 3” that have long dominated and infested this annual fare — exhumes the age-old, dead-end argument about mainstream and indie as well as art and entertainment. With these numerous venues for local films, the question remains: Do we really need more festivals, or just a few but efficiently organized ones? Does having more festivals indicate how much the audience has grown, or does this merely illustrate how it’s easier to divide people than unite them? Is there a way to improve the practices of grant-giving festivals, or have they always been the better option? There are no easy answers, but the right ones have often been overlooked.

Also worth noting is the dependability of alternative screening venues, namely, Cinema ‘76, run by TBA (Tuko, Buchi Boy, and Artikulo Uno), and Cinematheque, managed by the Film Development Council of the Philippines, in Manila, Baguio, Davao, Iloilo, and Zamboanga. This improvement is valuable in light of the constant problem with distribution and accessibility. As far as championing of independent cinema is concerned, Cinema ‘76 has been more visible and consistent. Since the release of “Heneral Luna” over a year ago, TBA has produced movies that are not as successful, but despite the apparent struggle, it must be credited for establishing Cinema ‘76 and financing several projects (“1-2-3,” “Smaller and Smaller Circles”) and helping distribute some of them commercially (“Patintero: Ang Alamat ni Meng Patalo,” “Ang Kuwento Nating Dalawa,” “Tandem”).

One of the most remarkable recent developments in local cinema is ABS-CBN's Film Restoration Project, whose laudable continuation seems to compensate for Star Cinema's many instances of terribly problematic films and female roles this year. For someone easily bitten by nostalgia, seeing “Kung Mangarap Ka’t Magising,” “Patayin sa Sindak si Barbara,” “Cain at Abel,” “Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos,” “Nagalit ang Buwan sa Haba ng Gabi,” “Haplos,” and “Magic Temple” on the big screen, imperfect as they are but fully alive in their retouched colors and cleaner sound, can be emotional. With a week-long commercial screening as well as DVD and online distribution, the project is significant at a time when a recognizable portion of the society is vocal about forgetting the past and forgiving its atrocities, and some of these restored classics (and the forthcoming ones) are reminders of responsibility: How art, apart from being a powerful weapon against oppression, is also a document of time and truth.

Winning awards overseas has always been a source of pride, and learning about the victories of Jaclyn Jose as the best actress awardee at the Cannes Film Festival (for “Ma’ Rosa”) and Lav Diaz as the recipient of the Silver Bear Alfred Bauer prize at the Berlin Film Festival (for "Hele sa Hiwagang Hapis") and the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival (for "Ang Babaeng Humayo") makes a huge impression. In a way this inevitable seeking of foreign validation is nudged by mad support for our own: The commercial success of the films of the three biggest love teams today — AlDub with “Imagine You and Me,” JaDine with “This Time,” and KathNiel with “Barcelona: A Love Untold” — proves audiences will flock to theaters voluntarily when they want to, especially when it’s for the on-screen couples who make them go wild with romantic excitement.

Jose’s acting prize at Cannes has received more local buzz than Brillante Mendoza’s best director award years ago at the same festival — or all of Diaz’s prizes in Locarno, Berlin, and Venice combined — simply because we are a culture with high regard for actors. And 2016 is a banner year for notable performances that deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as Jose in “Ma’ Rosa”: Sandino Martin in “Ringgo: The Dog Shooter,” Chai Fonacier and Jess Mendoza in “Pauwi Na,” Barbie Forteza in “Tuos,” Ronwaldo Martin and Hasmine Killip in “Pamilya Ordinaryo,” Tommy Abuel in “Dagsin,” Bela Padilla in “I America” and “Camp Sawi,” Charo Santos in “Ang Babaeng Humayo,” Daniel Padilla in “Barcelona: A Love Untold,” Kristoffer King in “Purgatoryo,” JC de Vera in “Best. Partee. Ever.,” Khalil Ramos and Ana Capri in “2Cool 2Be 4gotten,” Rocky Salumbides in “Lily,” Paolo Ballesteros and Christian Bables in “Die Beautiful,” Joshua Garcia in “Vince and Kath and James,” and Irma Adlawan and Sue Prado in “Oro.”

There's a lot more to say: the small steps forward and the flashes of hope in an otherwise hopeless situation, not to mention the cruelty that persists in micro- and macroscale, and the bad films that will always be part of every meaningful discussion related to national cinema. But there's the rub — not everything can be said in one go, regardless of effort. The ethics of writing understands that omission does not necessarily mean neglect, while its politics is known to be preferential, and at times confessional.

The following 10 films, ranked accordingly, are my idea of "best" —  a one-man deliberation entailing difficult elimination, a struggle for fairness that although insufferable is not completely impossible, until what's left is a selection I am comfortable with personally, politically, mentally, emotionally, holistically. It is all done in the spirit of responsible judgment, aware of each film's shortcomings.

This lengthy introduction is necessary not only for context — to see that Philippine cinema is so vast and complex a silly year-end assessment must not be the door to enter it — but also for alleviating guilt. Well-intentioned as this list may be, it is representative only of one person’s head and heart.

women of the weeping river.jpg Screencap from WOMEN OF THE WEEPING RIVER 2016/YOUTUBE

1. “Women of the Weeping River” (Sheron Dayoc)

Perhaps no single film can illuminate the austere intricacy and contradictions of the decades-long conflict in Mindanao, but one can share the sheer dread and the terrible consequences of inheriting a war, with lives spent on uncertainty and the vicissitudes of grief. Sheron Dayoc is no stranger in this land, and in “Women of the Weeping River” he presents two families in blood feud, with their members dying one by one, making any form of reconciliation impossible. There is narrative drama, but the film wisely avoids fixating on it because of its penchant for perspective, zooming out on the subject and showing the scale of the situation and the deep history attached to the present, its current issues (particularly the Bangsamoro Basic Law) all rooted in struggle. By focusing on the women burdened by fate and tradition, Dayoc creates a prose poem so moving, so painfully clear in its message of peace, and so heartbreaking in its depiction of helplessness that its urgency becomes larger than life.

forbidden memory.jpg Screencap from CINEMA ONE ORIGINALS/YOUTUBE

2. “Forbidden Memory” (Gutierrez Mangansakan II)

In a terrible year when Marcos apologists have grown not only in number but also in shamelessness, “Forbidden Memory” offers factual history through the recollections of the survivors of the 1974 Malisbong massacre in Sultan Kudarat, called “the greatest Marcos horror story never told.” With martial law enforced, government soldiers rounded up around 1,000 men and 3,000 women and detained them, eventually raping girls and mothers, burning houses, and killing around 1,500 people, some of them murdered inside a mosque. All of this happened during the feast of Ramadan. It is only understandable for the film — with the introductions of the subjects and their descriptions of what happened before the carnage — to fumble at the beginning, the way memories are hard to extract if they have been too painful, if they have been thought to stay forgotten for ever. But midway through, the weeping begins. “Remembering,” one of them mentions, “is such a sorrowful act,” and this is felt throughout the documentary: visually, through the anguished faces, the wrinkled arms and hands, the dirtied walls of the mosque; aurally, through the varying tones of the subjects telling their stories, all of them meeting at the same point of grief; and personally, through Mangansakan, trying to piece them together, going through the harrowing process of remembering with them. With the footage of the recent burial of Marcos at the Libingan ng mga Bayani added near the end, “Forbidden Memory” makes an even stronger, angrier case against historical revisionism, a timely protest weapon burning with rage.

pamilya ordinaryo.jpg Screencap from PAMILYA ORDINARYO/FACEBOOK

3. “Pamilya Ordinaryo” (Eduardo Roy, Jr.)

Bing Lao's highly influential “found story” design is not always effective. What his students often forget is the needed skill to direct, not just to follow their scripts faithfully but to tell them with cinematic force and flow, not entirely dependent on grit and rigor. Eduardo Roy, one of Lao’s protégés, knows that to stand out means going beyond writing. Even in his 2011 debut, “Bahay Bata,” he has already shown cunning as a director, turning long walks into a compelling dramatic device, and in “Quick Change” he has become more conscious of staging his actions. His third Cinemalaya film, “Pamilya Ordinaryo,” sticks to the same design. It also revels in repetition, but it raises the stakes every time, at every plot turn, with every challenge it gives to its lead characters. Roy, in a devious way, has perfected it without compromising his subject: a young couple wandering the streets of Manila, desperate to find their abducted child. It is poverty all over again, but poverty always needs to be told, especially if it’s as effectively worrying as this.

Hele Sa Hiwagang Hapis Photo by BRADLEY LIEW

4. “Hele sa Hiwagang Hapis” (Lav Diaz)

The usual accusation thrown at independent filmmakers is they make films specifically for foreign festivals: to draw the attention of programmers, to cater to their tastes, and to win awards. Lav Diaz, often the accused, doesn’t care. He makes an eight-hour black-and-white drama; pulls characters from local myths and folklore, José Rizal’s famous novels, and historical events; and puts them together in an ambitious, intertwined grand narrative tackling patriotism, nationalism, colonization, art, revolution, religion, truth, and freedom — with everything moving in inconspicuous time as though in an escapeless reverie — all its sentiments addressed to every Filipino. The result is nothing like Diaz has done in the past. “Hele” competed at the Berlinale, won a Silver Bear prize, and, with the help of Star Cinema, eventually became his most commercially successful movie.

ma rosa.jpg Screencap from SOLAR PICTURES/YOUTUBE

5. "Ma’ Rosa" (Brillante Mendoza)

There is no question about the terrifying power of "Ma’ Rosa." It moves forward without hesitation, it holds the viewer's neck tightly in peak moments, and it ends on an emotional high note. In the pre-Duterte era, the subject of a couple peddling drugs to support their family makes for a sad story. But it's a sad story with hope, with a life ready to rebuild. But in the time of Duterte and his horrific war on drugs, “Ma’ Rosa” suddenly feels like an inspiring folktale with Rosa given a chance to live, walking around the neighborhood without the fear of getting shot.

lily Screencap from CINEMA ONE ORIGINALS/YOUTUBE

6. “Lily” (Keith Deligero)

“Lily” is defined by its restlessness. The Cebuano filmmaker Keith Deligero enlists Lawrence Ang, arguably the most talented editor working today, and they mess up a stale narrative and turn it into an adventurous ride between Cebu and Manila, jumping from one timeline to another, flying from dark alleys to strange forests, and wrestling with urban legends, mysterious cats, lost loves, and broken promises. Deligero knows that the thin storyline can work only if he shatters it, and it is in the shattering where the film finds its core. “Lily” brims with energy and confidence, allowing the viewers to lose their way in its clutter of sequences, giving them no time to resist. It is utterly exhilarating, the way horror rides should be.

always be my maybe 1.jpg Sreencap from ABS-CBN STAR CINEMA/YOUTUBE

7. “Always Be My Maybe” (Dan Villegas)

The elements of the Star Cinema feel-good romantic-comedy are all too familiar: an attractive couple, intrusive friends, returning exes, career problems, ugly fights, sweeping gestures, rekindled love, happy ending. It’s a scam, but real-life romance, sometimes, can be a scam anyway. “Always Be My Maybe” is no different, except it has less baggage — no sickness and death, no arranged marriage, no shady circumstances to break the love. It’s about two heartbroken people meeting at an unexpected place and time, talking, drinking till the morning, liking each other, dating, having sex, and in due course realizing their connection is, of all things, romantic. The film is just about that — falling in love — but some of its moments hit too hard: the fake date, the make-up tutorial videos, the simple hanging out, the flirtations, all the small things. Gerald Anderson and Arci Muñoz have absolute chemistry, and seeing them together on the same level of comic capacity is too intoxicating for words.

oro.jpg Sreencap from ORO-MMFF/FACEBOOK

8. “Oro” (Alvin Yapan)

It is far from the seemingly idyllic rural life of Ishmael Bernal’s “Nunal sa Tubig,” whose visuals speak volumes of the sad plight of the fisher folk in Laguna Lake, but “Oro” is comparable in how the town and its people become one in the face of misfortune. “Oro” has a smaller canvas and is more focused, enabling Alvin Yapan to create a compelling account of the death of four gold miners in Caramoan, Camarines Sur, in a small village whose livelihood is disturbed violently by a government-affiliated environmental group wanting to take charge of it. Yapan is not subtle — and even his attempts at subtlety become too obvious — but what carries it through, apart from its strong ensemble of actors, is the unflinching resolve to expose the crime, loudly and clearly, and the searing hope that justice will soon be served.

contestant number 4 Photo courtesy of KAJ PALANCA

9. “Contestant #4” (Jared Joven, Kaj Palanca)

Short films, like documentaries and animated movies, are always put at a disadvantage by virtue of their very nature. They are thought to be inferior, not good enough to be part of best-of lists. But “Contestant #4” by the then 16-year-old high-school students Jared Joven and Kaj Palanca leaves a complete feeling, and in less than 20 minutes it is able to share the lonely life of an unmarried man with heart-rending warmth, a bachelor looking back on his past and talking to a visiting neighbor who may or may not be his younger self. The beauty of it is it works either way: as a dialogue with oneself while coming to terms with one's sexual identity or as a story of friendship, about a middle-aged man being friends with a nosy boy, brought together by urban isolation. Its saddest moment is not when they part ways, but when they share happiness for a few seconds of a video clip, smiling, laughing, being deceived by time.

vince and kath and james Screencap from ABS-CBN STAR CINEMA/YOUTUBE

10. “Vince and Kath and James” (Theodore Boborol)

When a formula is mixed right, when the actors are too charming to ignore, and when the material understands and takes pride in the currency of its juvenile ideas, it’s a shame, even unethical, not to admit it in public. “Vince and Kath and James” has a standard narrative kept steady by three precisely written characters with well-defined family issues, and it unfolds gently, aware that pacing is crucial to any good rom-com. The reference to “Got 2 Believe” is worth every second, particularly when Julia Barretto mouths the words of her real-life aunt, Claudine, or when Joshua Garcia, in several moments, becomes the most lovable boy in the world, or when Dominic Ochoa becomes Ronnie Alonte — the kinship of these two films hits perfectly home. In this berserk internet age, the youth offered by “Vince and Kath and James” is very much welcome, the unexpected joy in its unexpected familiarity feeling like an unsolicited but not unneeded embrace.