Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — The reader must be wary of any year-end essays that claim to contain the best films of a given year. Like this one. Because there is no such thing. There is no such thing as an objective best, even a subjective best, that can warrant, whichever place of genuine and selfless intentions it is coming from, the simplification of cinema that allows a selection of films to be interpreted neatly, flounced into one cozy corner and asked to wear the most sparkling smiles, and described in brief annotations that render them on near-absolute, holy terms. Even the most seemingly foolproof set of criteria for inclusion cannot wash away the danger carried by this yearly tradition of canonizing.
In the overlay of feeling a sense of community and picking up worthy recommendations from countless lists is the enabling of the inequitable politics of access, which leads to a canon formation that is determined mostly by each film’s marketability, if it is even put on the market long in the first place. It is no surprise that many year-end lists, even those posted by local writers, include films about and by white people. Post-colonialism can never erase the colonial. Post-colonialism is still colonialism. And even if it is not primarily about race, it then becomes an issue of class and gender and ableism, ideologies that those in power hate to be told about.
For what it’s worth, all year-end lists are overt expressions of capital. The ritual is not in the slightest bit different from posting newly purchased items or sharing travel pictures on social media: The tuning of appearance by the author comes with an actual expense. Evidently, there is nothing wrong with that. People are simply enjoying themselves. They are entitled to do it. Let them live. Life on the internet, over the years, has been largely about finding ways to display economic capacity, and capitalism, over the centuries, has been the poison responsible for killing culture and motivating its population at the same time.
But in the process of relentlessly consuming cultural capital, dimly reassured time and again that the rewards of knowledge cannot be quantified, the middle-class might as well acknowledge the power structures underlying their sources of pleasure. For how else can they see over 100 films a year on the big screen without the ability to afford increased costs of movie tickets, food, and transportation, as well as the privilege of being constantly away from work and family, and still have time, at the end of the day and year, to post about them? And since films nowadays are no longer confined to the cinemas, the middle-class, pushed to every direction of the zeitgeist, are also pressured to exhaust other forms of capital to keep up — Netflix, iWant, HOOQ, The Criterion Channel, MUBI, etc., not to mention the dearly beloved torrent sites, offering an endless stream of content beyond one’s lifetime, a library of films downloaded for intellectual security, all of which require wherewithal. Neoliberalism has turned the present-day cinephile into a machine that is given infinite time to consume and less and less time to reflect.
But then again: Why not? The middle-class always feel empowered whenever they ask this question. Because yes: Why not? Why not make lists as a reminder of insufficiency? Why not make lists as a reminder of futility? Why not make lists at a time when human extinction is made certain and celebrate with the little time left? Why not recognize the films that illustrate courage and resistance in an era when the reach of the past is getting wider and the promise of the future narrower? Cinema, however, cannot only be about celebration. There will always be someone who will clean up the mess afterward, who will be mere spectators to the spectacle. “Criticism,” to reiterate what I said in my book, “to be considered indispensable, must first be accountable.” And accountability requires the swallowing of bitter pills.
Nonetheless, we are here. We have dressed up. We have had pre-drinks. We want to have fun. We want to see falling bodies. Like in “Midsommar,” the bloody ritual will be performed no matter what. Given special attention are the local films that have resisted being mere content, those films that have been difficult to contend with and hence have been useful as points of discourse, those films that could have only been made now, and which in the end, in the grand scheme of things, and in my opinion, aware that opinions today can cost lives and futures, make up the hull of essential cinema.
1. “For My Alien Friend” (dir. Jet Leyco)
“For My Alien Friend,” the new film by Jet Leyco, should not come as a surprise considering the terrains explored in “Ex Press” in 2011 and “Bukas na lang sapagkat gabi na” in 2013, both tantalizing in their visions and visuals, films whose heartbeat can be felt in the quietness of the screen. But a surprise it is. “For My Alien Friend” is anything but quiet. It is a tapestry of vigorous sounds and images, tints and textures, stillness and motion, confessions and manipulations, whose raveled threads extend from the most mundane to the most philosophical, from John Torres’s Oulipian wedding vow (“Ito na ang pinakahihintay ko sa buhay ko”) to a comical allusion to Slapshock and Bergman (“God exists 360 degrees like unsolved mysteries and wild strawberries”), from the tenderness of tone whenever the narrator talks about his mom, his sisters, and his nephew in Masbate, to the hilarious personas recorded by his video camera: Reneng Ilaya, Joshua Garcia, Joy Viado, Timmy Harn, Tsarlyboy. For a film so deeply personal it refuses to be exclusive — every second of it burns with life, every moment suffused with color.
2. “A for Agustin” (dir. Grace Pimentel Simbulan)
“A for Agustin” follows Agustin Tiburcio, an Aeta in his late 30s earning a living by making charcoal in Cabangan, Zambales, as he decides to go to school and enroll in a grade one class. His boss cheats him out of wages, he is in debt, and he dreams big for his son. “I told my mother,” he confesses in the beginning, “I want to learn how to read and write.” His mother has died, but his dream has lived on. In class he learns not only how to connect letters and words or add and subtract numbers, but also about the harm his work does to the environment. But what can he do? What other life can he live? The director Grace Simbulan paints a portrait of a man persevering to improve his situation, and she puts on canvas not just his face or body but also his surroundings, the system that continues to oppress him, the chains that continue to tie him to poverty, the hopes that keep him going. After several months, Agustin quits school. He needs to work to support his family. He compares his mind to a setting sun, deteriorating as time goes by. But the film tells otherwise: He is a man whose greatest wisdom is his spirit.
3. “Edward” (dir. Thop Nazareno)
The muffled crying at the end of “Edward” is a most affecting image of despair as much as it is an exhibit of utterly effective simplicity. The scene is executed in three successive shots — a close-up of Edward hugging his bag; a wide top shot revealing he is crouched on a carton that separates his body from the floor; and a wider shot from a different angle showing more crouched bodies in a cramped space — before it cuts to black. All throughout Edward continues sobbing, realizing the certainty of his father’s death. And the people around him, with their dirty feet and tired bodies, the relatives of hospital patients sleeping and awaiting their own certainties, allow Edward this release, understanding his grief by letting him be. It is a short, decisive punctuation to a film that gauges a myriad of high emotions, sliding from a biting commentary on the hopeless public healthcare system to a depiction of a teenage boy’s conflicting relationship with his family and experience of first love, and the movement between the exterior and interior/central and peripheral/social and individual hardly comes across as strained and absurd. Edward’s story, steeped in the harshness of poverty and negligence of the state, feels less a coming of age than a leaving of age, and it is only fitting, at the expense of an audience also reduced to tears, that it ends in kindness.
4. “Cleaners” (dir. Glenn Barit)
When I think of “Cleaners,” the most immediate thought that comes to mind is the experience of seeing it with the high school students from Tuguegarao, Cagayan, at the premiere in Manila. To almost every scene of the film, they responded with the most candid and heartfelt emotion, from hushed delight to raucous laughter, expressing every degree of elation as though they were seeing themselves on the big screen, euphoric as though they were encountering cinema for the first time. They hadn’t for once mentioned how it looked different — how the images were, frame by frame, photocopied and “highlighted” to create the desired appearance and effect, how each visual changed visibly every second — for they were drawn to the stories of the characters on-screen, to the frustrated dancer who shits herself onstage, to the three emo boys and the class president who share an unusual friendship, to the couple who have always felt excluded, to the young politician who has his first taste of corruption. What to us, the learned moviegoer, is the achievement of the film (the process of making it, the boldness of its experimentation, the long history inherent in its production and reproduction of the image, etc.) is to them something integrated into, and not separate from, their idea of cinema. “Cleaners” is not a different film, it is not a film whose form supersedes its content. It is cinema, containing its past, present, and future. As the seven cleaners thrash about the room and “Apoy ng Kandila” starts playing, as they scream one after another and the colors begin to bleed, it struck me how lovely it is to live in this alternate universe where smallness is celebrated, where unknown actors are applauded, when people sit through the entire credits to show appreciation to every single person who worked on the film. And how Glenn Barit, the tiny writer and director, has led a village and brought this universe, this heroic film, to immortal life.
5. “Sila-Sila” (dir. Giancarlo Abrahan)
In my review of “Dagitab” in 2014, I wrote: “Despite the tendency of its characters to talk a lot, there is a quietness that keeps its story steady while in motion, gently peeling away its many layers until it reaches the core.” In my short note on “Paki” in 2017: “[Giancarlo] Abrahan is capable of filling his large canvas with light and darkness, with big and small pebbles washed ashore by conversations that go waywardly, by moments that explode without warning, and the whole becomes too dense and heavy that ending the film is inevitable, almost an act of mercy.” These same words, these same sentiments could apply to his third film, “Sila-Sila,” written by Daniel Saniana, and I wonder, the way writers foolishly wonder about the arcana known only to their trade: Could Abrahan have been doing the same film all along? Changing actors, tweaking lines, altering plots? Devising characters with parallel fates who, after a while, realize that they are merely orbiting the same circles right from the outset? And the film concluding cursorily, after a long, distressing course, as they finally grasp what has long been eluding their grasp? Abrahan understands, perhaps better than any other Filipino filmmaker working today, the costs of miscommunication. He shows surfaces, and he shows how surfaces become faces. One can suppose that “Sila-Sila” is a straight film with gay characters, or a gay film with straight characters, simply because it is concerned less with straightness and gayness than with detachment and delusion inherent in any relationship built on love. It is a tragicomedy, a painful one, that demonstrates the predicament of smart people who keep choosing the wrong thing all the time, and when they finally choose what is right, it hurts them the most.
6. “Isa Pa, With Feelings” (dir. Prime Cruz)
One workable theory is that mainstream films abide by a calculated measure of erasures. These erasures must not be confused with ambiguities, because they leave visibly hollow spaces in the narrative, unexplained to not spoil the intended dramatic turn of events, and are expected to be forgotten to appreciate the film fully. In “Isa Pa, With Feelings,” for instance, the crucial trajectory of passing the board exam suddenly disappears and its significance is diluted to pave the way for the romance. One also wonders: How can a car accident be forgiven easily? More pressingly, how can these two millennials, an apprentice and a teacher, afford living in a condominium in the city and go to places conveniently with their cars? Where are the storylines that untangle this? Yes, magic. And the film has loads of it, most of which coming from Maine Mendoza and Carlo Aquino, individually and as a couple, each exceeding the roles given to them. Thankfully, the story opens credible scenarios involving the anxieties and difficulties faced by Deaf people, circumstances that are given depth and vulnerability, although still riddled with tropes of toxic masculinity and the sacrificial woman. Whenever the director Prime Cruz tries to hit the mark — with those Christmas lights, with the use of Unique Salonga, with the dancing that inevitably reminds one of “Sleepless” — he hits it gently. Those short and poignant moments when the hearing audience is put in the Deaf person’s shoes work like a current passing on skin. Literally electrifying.
The six films in the 2019 QCShorts program resemble stars of varying brightness, flickering in their understated luster, and as a whole make up a vivid constellation. Each has its strengths and weaknesses, with a distinct voice and personality that translate into an absorbing experience. Each also finds a way to rupture facades of realism and discover fresh ways of telling old stories. The worlds contained in them, and the key visuals that define them — the disorienting moods and motions in “SPID” (dir. Alejo Barbaza and Mervine Aquino); the close-up of scars and the ear cleaning in “Here, Here” (dir. Joanne Cesario); the uproarious jingle and Phyllis Grande’s poker face in “Excuse Me, Miss, Miss, Miss” (dir. Sonny Calvento); the heartbreaking conclusion of “Judy Free” (dir. Che Tagyamon); the smell of objects in “Isang Daa’t Isang Mariposa” (dir. Norvin De Los Santos); and the television falling from the sky in “Tokwifi” (dir. Carla Ocampo) — are rooted in the disquiet of and discontent with the present. In some instances, there is joy. In most, there is defiance. In all, there is wonder.
8. “No Data Plan” (dir. Miko Revereza)
“Fuck, this is it,” tells Miko Revereza. “This is where they catch up to me.” An undocumented Filipino immigrant traveling on the Amtrak train from Los Angeles to New York, he recounts, through his Instagram stories and shaky voice, his close brush with the border patrol officers in Buffalo. He shares how this fear has been hovering over him for more than 20 years, not the moment of his death like the man in "La Jetée," but just as intense: the moment of his arrest. This happens near the end of “No Data Plan,” his feature-length debut, and is the second time in the film when the audience hears his voice and the first time it bares his face, as though he has finally come to terms with being identified. For the remainder of the film his stories are told through subtitles, “voiceless,” perhaps similar to the way he sees himself in a foreign country. Train tracks, container vans, the light from the window, bodies getting on and off the coach, people walking and waiting, tickets wedged in corners, a broken lightning cable — these quiet images populate the screen, occupying his thoughts on a tense journey. In brief moments when voices are heard, they are not Revereza’s. The ticket officer demanding identification, the train driver speaking, the aunt narrating stories from the Philippines, a girl talking about Drake being a Scorpio, fellow passengers thinking of home — these sounds teem with life and fill him with hope and anxiety. For the rest of the trip, we hear only the motions around him: traffic, passing, silence, the vessel containing him, the skittering of his thoughts. The nowness of “No Data Plan” does not only come from the present when people document nearly everything with their devices; it also emanates from the crises experienced by every Filipino forced to find their place and forge their identity in hostile lands.
9. “Babae at Baril” (dir. Rae Red)
Gender is never an easy conversation, and films that rise to the challenge of discussing it run the risk of raising the ire of particular audiences, including the community they seek to represent. The online reviews of “Babae at Baril” as well as conversations with friends about the film, many of whom view it negatively, suggest the large-scale strain on independent female directors who, on top of having fewer opportunities to produce films, struggle with relatively intolerant reception to their work (something, if it must be pointed out, most male directors, regardless of the stories they tell, do not experience). “Babae at Baril” does not set out to be strictly about female empowerment, yet because the woman is put at the center and is being violated on many levels, the narrative is expected logically to set things right. The film doesn’t, for it can’t — How can it? The language of narrative cinema is male. Certainly it is a problematic film weakened by overstated genre devices and flimsy execution. But it is able to capture the spikes and labyrinths of any serious gender discussion, how problems breed more problems, how there is no way to solve the problem of violence if the woman seeks to solve it within the framework of patriarchy. Because of the preconceived notions of what a female-led film should be, one casually overlooks the attempt of “Babae at Baril” to historicize and locate her experience of aggression on the larger social scale. One casually overlooks the sleight of hand performed by the music and sound design and editing. One casually overlooks the magic that happens when Asin’s “Magnanakaw” stitches the seams. One casually overlooks the voice of Rae Red, rightfully angry and angered, raring to learn and do more.
10. “Spring by the Sea” (dir. Aleia Garcia)
The title, “Spring by the Sea,” is the English translation of Yanbu’ al Bahr, a city in western Saudi Arabia known for being a Red Sea port and the residence of many expatriates working in the oil industry. This is where the director, Aleia Garcia, grew up, along with her 11 siblings, as one by one, starting from her then-21-year-old father (who was part of the large number of labor exported during the Marcos era) they left the Philippines and built a home of their own in the Middle East. Whereas the audience does not see any of Miko Revereza’s family in “No Data Plan,” with the absence functioning as a significant articulation of his migrant experience, Garcia is very generous in showing her own, whether through old home video footage shot by her father over the years and decades, birthdays, farewells, parties, anniversaries, or through Garcia’s own recording of her trip back to Yanbu, greeted by her siblings at the airport. With a cheerful simplicity that cuts deep in its compassion, “Spring by the Sea” delivers a picture of Garcia’s big family and their understandings of distance, intimacy, and home, profoundly moving in its depiction of love and affection in the mundane. It contributes to the discourse on the ever-shifting concepts of diaspora, particularly the idealization of homeland, and through a study of the self it turns into an illuminating piece of historical essay.