Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — At the end of every year, there is a silent anxiety that consumes me. Moving around social circles occupied by cinephiles, it’s become a custom that by the end of December, you are ready to answer — or better yet, even if still unsolicited, to share on social media — what your top films are.
What should naturally be a cursory practice, a casual sharing of movies most enjoyed, becomes more tedious as there is this fear of judgment (well for me, that is). What if I didn’t love what the echo-chamber of tastemakers deem as a cinematic achievement (ehem, “Buy Bust”)? Or what if that daring experimental award-winner passes over your head? (Am I too dumb for “Fisting”? Yes, let’s call it by its true name.)
There’s the growing jadedness too on the cynicism of fandom. Is a top 10 list a celebration of a year’s accomplishments in film, or has it become a means of building one’s cultural capital? “I’ve seen this film people have been raving about, I enjoyed it, why haven’t you?” “I pity the general audience. Even if this is in theaters (a feat given the problematic dynamics of Philippine film distribution), they still fail to appreciate art like this!” “You’re not ‘ahrt’ enough!” “What! You enjoyed this, you pretentious hipster?”
Without being naive (of course, we can’t just look past the problems plaguing Philippine cinema), year-end lists often feel like lamentations mixed with an air of condescension. What criteria do we even use to determine what is great art and what isn’t? Or do we simply agree to the collective opinion of what listmakers deem as … dun dun dun … the best?
I am not immune to these criticisms (I swear, these are merely musings, walang atake). I make contradictions, and in fact, many of the entries of my list would mirror those you would see on other websites. Instead, my sharing these thoughts is a personal plea to not take this as a be-all-end-all. Taste is flexible, and what I may rank as the best may change next year, next month, maybe even tomorrow.
And let’s not demonize one list for not including an entry which another list/s may have. I honestly urge you, dear reader, to check out others recommendations and not simply take one “better” than the other. (Same could be said about entry vs. entry.) So before I go on listing my “best of 2018,” promise me that you will check other sites, Twitter accounts, Facebook pages, etc.? Read as many as you can stomach. It will only be for the betterment of Philippine cinema that those interested be made aware of the many “greats” 2018 offered — and it was a fairly great year in cinema, if we’re being honest. A year-ender is not a just a “best of” list, it’s a double take, a second chance to discover what you may have missed in the year that has passed.
1. “Oda sa Wala” (Dwein Baltazar)
Written and directed by Dwein Baltazar, “Oda sa Wala” is a synergy of many finely tuned parts. It’s a black comedy by way of urban fairy tales and magical realism. It is impeccable use of the cinematic language — from scoring, cinematography, to editing. It is well-acted and it is frankly one of the best-crafted films I’ve seen in the past five years.
Just like its title suggests, “Oda sa Wala” (translated as “Ode to Nothingness”), is lyrical in its portrayal of emptiness. Starring Marietta Subong (comedienne Pokwang debuting her birth name), “Oda” takes us through a monotonous drift that has become of the life of Sonya (Subong), an old maid that runs a small town funeral home. That is until one day a mysterious corpse, seemingly bringing good luck, arrived on her doorstops.
What makes “Oda” so remarkable is the poignancy of how it depicts loneliness. It highlights the extent of this loneliness by rendering death — an emotional extreme for many — mundane to Sonya, and how it is only through interactions with a corpse that she finds any semblance of a connection. Subong plays against type using her comedic background to play with the absurdity of the situation but also surprises when it comes to unleashing the pain underneath it all. Couple this narrative with brilliant camera work and precision scoring, and I can’t highlight how much of a cinematic experience “Oda” is.
2. “Ma” (Kenneth Dagatan)
Tired of lazy jump scares and unearned gore disguised as horror, “Ma” trusts its audiences enough to go for a slow burn that rewards audiences with an impressive collision of finely-knit parts. “Ma” patiently builds its story by crafting individual arcs, each highlighting a horror that comes with motherhood — the paranoia of leaving your kids orphans, the fear of abandonment by a partner, the body horror that comes with the loss of agency during pregnancy. “Ma” merely uses the supernatural to externalize, make the subtext overt: being a woman in this world is inherently terrifying.
3. “A Short History of a Few Bad Things” (Keith Deligero)
When “A Short History of a Few Bad Things” first came out, it was easy for people to compare it to HBO’s “True Detective.” (What other noir comes to recent memory?) But a better connection to make would be that to the works of the Coen Brothers. “A Short History,” just like “Fargo” or “The Big Lebowski,” doesn’t necessarily deconstruct but instead flips the genre by taking tropes and transposing them to a locale, and in the process, making the film absurdly comedic.
The film uses Victor Neri in all his world-weary glory to portray the no-nonsense detective Felix Tarongoy. By transporting this Tagalog to the tropical city of Cebu, the film adheres to the noir staple of making the protagonist feel disconnected from the world he is in. What’s enjoyable though is that, In “A Short History,” director Deligero distills things through his signature brand of siraulo subversion. We see femme fatales preferring to skip the dolled-up look in favor of pambahay, police chases without the actual chase, and Bisaya rap in the background of police briefings. “A Short History of a Few Bad Things” is surreal, unassumingly funny, and all very effective.
4. “Paglisan” (Carl Joseph Papa)
Carl Joseph Papa has found his “thing” as a filmmaker. Said “thing” being making people cry by exploring the themes of love, family, and sickness via the lens of animation.
“Paglisan” delivers an overwhelming sincerity to the love it depicts. Love that equates sacrifice, love in the attention needed in serving a partner with Alzheimer’s. There’s a purity in seeing these emotions unleashed through song, and “Paglisan” proves this in a stand-out scene — a melodic apology towards the middle — which could be enough of a justification for the film’s at-times rough form.
5. “Billie & Emma” (Samantha Lee)
“Billie & Emma” is a small story of big themes. Through the young queer romance between newcomer Zar Donato’s Billie and Gabby Padilla’s Emma, the film distills the experience of coming-of-age in a society of restrictions.
For Billie, it’s the struggles of adolescence: being in a new place, trying to fit in, falling in love; but all the more aggravated by her having already come to terms with her “difference.” For Emma, it’s the frustration of dreams deprived; hopes brought down by societal expectations, the lack of privilege, and the loss of rights over her body.
The film manages to make all these heady themes relatable by using the universal language of love, as it employs narrative devices that can easily be cheesy in the wrong hands. But, ultimately, “Billie & Emma” avoids cliché by using these tropes merely as an entry point to tell the story of people and love still underrepresented in Philippine cinema and pop culture.
6. “Yield” (Victor Delotavo Tagaro & Toshihiko Uriu)
Taking a cue from Michael Upted’s “Up” series of British documentaries (no, these aren’t the ones that involve a flying house or a seven-minute ugly-cry inducing love story), “Yield” is an ethnographic documentary that depicts the lives of nine Filipino children, all living in poverty, through the course of five years.
While the “Up” documentaries take a more optimistic note, choosing to chronicle how the dreams of seven-year-olds are achieved or transformed every seven years, in “Yield” there are no dreams to speak of. Instead, viewers are exposed to the daily toil these children have to go through, how at a young age they are robbed of their innocence and bred to be part of the bottom rungs of our deeply capitalist and hegemonic system.
“Yield” is profoundly affecting as there are no beginning or ends to speak of, the film doesn’t give us a sense of finality. Instead, without saying much, it shows the cyclicality of the oppression through the group most deprived and disenfranchised in our societal structure: children.
7. “Goyo: Ang Batang Heneral” (Jerrold Tarog)
It’s admirable when you see a director take note of the criticisms on his previous works and apply it unabashedly in his follow-ups.
Tarrog seems to be obviously affected by those calling “Heneral Luna” as an empowerment of the now-contentious brand of strongman nationalism. He does so to the point that “Goyo” completely lets go of all the histrionics of its predecessor and delivers a subdued deconstruction-cum-reaffirmation of what it means to be a hero.
“Goyo” is about the ills of nepotism. It is about the folly of blind faith and idolatry. It is about how bravado and nationalism cannot conquer all. It is a thinking man’s depiction of leadership and heroics, and how amid all real-life inadequacies, there’s still value in hoping for a better class of hero.
8. “Meet Me at St. Gallen” (Irene Villamor), “Never Not Love You” (Antoinette Jadaone), and “Sid & Aya” (Irene Villamor)
If the release of “That Thing Called Tadhana” signified the boom in the untested pairings and hugot rom-coms, 2018 showcased the next iteration in the continuing evolution of Philippine romance with Irene Villamor’s “Meet Me at St. Gallen” and “Sid & Aya” and Antoinette Jadaone’s “Never Not Love You.”
All these films go beyond the naivete of saccharine love teams of the past and the overly sappy hugots of the present. Instead, they present evolutions on our notions of love, a much-needed counter-programming to the belief of “love conquers all.”
“St. Gallen” shows the constraints of “the right love at the wrong time,” “Never Not Love You” the transformation even devoted couples go through once they enter long-distance relationships, and “Sid & Aya” the class disparity that cannot be easily overcome by affection (kind of smart casting Dantes who was once Sergio in “Marimar,” if you think about it). These three films serve a breath of fresh air in a genre that increasingly feels occupied by movies designed to be screencapped and shared on social media.
9. “Signal Rock” (Chito Roño)
In a remote island town somewhere in the Visayas, it is only via climbing a rock formation that you can get cellular reception. In this place, women are raised believing that the only way to escape poverty is via bagging a foreigner to marry them and take them away or working abroad ... and then bagging a foreigner to marry them and take them away.
With this upbringing, where relationships must be finite as leaving is a requisite, what credence does love hold? “Signal Rock” uses its titular edifice not just as a plot device for which stories revolve around, rather it is used as an embodiment of the distances people have to literally scale for the sake of holding on to love amid the divides that inevitably widen because of separation.
This already rich conceit is made even more compelling by making the island feel lived-in — a place fully-realized by characters we care about, anecdotes that are relatable and entertaining, and small town melancholy that serves touching drama.
10. “Kuya Wes” (James Mayo)
Much like “Oda sa Wala,” “Kuya Wes” tackles the loneliness that defines the mundane existence of a middle-aged minimum wage worker. But while “Oda” decides to delve into these themes via the absurd, “Kuya Wes” does so through romance and comedy.
“Kuya Wes” works by subverting expectations that come with the typical underdog love story. While we are trained by pop culture to believe that nice guys win in the end, “Kuya Wes” questions the dynamics under the romantics. Has love become transactional by which gestures are exchanged for affection? What happens when love supersedes the pragmatic and ventures into something less sincere? Fortunately, through deft direction, “Kuya Wes” wears its heart on its sleeve but manages to dodge becoming overly heavy-handed. Instead, it is charming, sentimental, and potently disarming.
Honorable mentions (almost made the cut but are pretty up there too)
“Asuang,” “Tanabata’s Wife,” “Gusto Kita With All My Hypothalamus” (Hindered by internal logic I couldn’t get past.), “Kung Paano Hinihintay ang Dapithapon,” “Liway” (More admirable for what it accomplishes rather than for what it actually is.)
Blind spots (films I wish I saw but didn’t get to)
“Panahon ng Halimaw,” “Kung Paano Siya Nawala,” “Distance,” “Ang Pangarap Kong Holdap,” “Bitter Melon,” “Beast Mode, A Social Experiment,” more short films in general.