One of the strongest aspects of Philippine cinema has always been acting and, over the years, thanks to discerning local actors’ access to world cinema and exposure to independent films, it has evolved from the big, bombastic, capital A Acting favored in the past to more nuanced, lived-in, naturalistic portrayals.
Below is an alphabetical list of my favorite performances of 2013. Not making it to the list but were stand-outs nevertheless are Nikki Gil in Badil, TJ Trinidad in both Mga Anino ng Kahapon and Sana Dati, Agot Isidro in Mga Anino ng Kahapon, Carlo Aquino in Porno, Irma Adlawan and Ping Medina in Transit, Joey Paras in Babagwa, Yeng Constantino in Shift, Allen Dizon in Lauriana, Eugene Domingo in Instant Mommy, and Enchong Dee in Tuhog.
NORA AUNOR, ANG KWENTO NI MABUTI. In Mes de Guzman’s modern fable Ang Kwento ni Mabuti, Nora Aunor proves yet again that despite her stature as one of the most recognizable faces in the country, she can easily sink her teeth into any role and fully inhabit the character. Fresh off her widely praised turn in Thy Womb, she gives yet another understated yet highly empathetic performance as a simple faith healer faced with a moral dilemma.
JASMINE CURTIS-SMITH, TRANSIT. Hannah Espia’s impressive debut feature showcased an excellent ensemble performance from its cast but it’s the newcomer Jasmine Curtis-Smith that made the strongest impression as Yael, the Hebrew-speaking teenage daughter who loves her mother dearly yet could not quite fully comprehend the latter’s insistence that she stay Filipino even when she has never set foot in the Philippines. Curtis-Smith imbues her character with both youthful warmth and mature countenance that viewers gravitate towards.
CHERIE GIL, SONATA. Up to today, Cherie Gil is best remembered as the go-to kontrabida in Sharon Cuneta films in the 1980s. Thankfully, she has found the quintessential lead role that showcases her acting prowess outside of the stereotypical villain role she’s always been offered. As Regina Cadena, an aging diva hiding from the world due to a botched performance and wounded pride, she is larger than life (what diva isn’t?) yet fragile and vulnerable. When a veteran actor like Gil delights in finding the role of her life, we viewers are only too happy for her. Bravissima, Cherie!
JHONG HILARIO, BADIL. In Chito Roño’s political thriller Badil, viewers see through the eyes of Jhong Hilario’s character Lando. As his father, the mayor’s trusted yes-man in the barangay, becomes bedridden on the most important eve of a politico’s lackey’s life (election eve), the responsibility to distribute largesse and monitor rival’s countertactics goes to him. Lando, as portrayed by the excellently perceptive Hilario, grows before our very eyes from a hesitant fisherman and obedient son to someone who will fight for the loyalty earned by his father from the powers that be.
DICK ISRAEL, BADIL. It’s difficult to stand out in any great ensemble work, and Badil no doubt features arguably the year’s most outstanding cast. But one of the great casting decisions for any role in any film this year is to get Dick Israel, the ‘bad guy’ in many an action film of yesteryear, as a local padrino – a trusted right hand man of local politicos, a godfather of a godforsaken barrio. Recently recovered from a stroke, Israel’s slump and slurred speech do not diminish but instead add to his role’s respectability and gravitas. It takes extreme charisma to command the screen even when the body is failing, and Israel, bless his heart, has it in spades.
MIMI JUAREZA, QUICK CHANGE. Mimi Juareza’s brave performance in Eduardo Roy Jr.’s Quick Change should make all gender-specific Best Actor/Best Actress categories irrelevant. As Dorina, a transgender who beautifies fellow transgenders by injecting their skins with a (unbeknownst to her) dangerous black-market substance, Juareza is all woman, even with that thing dangling between her legs. As the film’s lead character, it would have been very tempting for Juareza to upstage the many colorful supporting characters surrounding her by playing it big, but she refuses that easy route and goes instead for the subtle approach, imbuing Dorina with a quiet grace even as she shows us her character’s silent suffering as her world slowly unravels.
SID LUCERO; NORTE, HANGGANAN NG KASAYSAYAN. It’s now common knowledge that Sid Lucero is one of the finest actors not just of his but of any generation. He has mastered the naturalistic speaking style, the way people stammer and hesitate and pause when talking in real life. Working with Lav Diaz, who is known to give his actors free rein over their performances, must have been heaven for Lucero who, as Fabian, a disaffected law student who deals with the consequences of a crime he committed, gets to display his acting chops in full throttle, knowing full well that he will most likely never get another role that will be as meaty and as complex.
ALEX MEDINA, BABAGWA. As a counterpoint to Joey Paras’ explosive scheming character in Jason Paul Laxamana’s Babagwa, Alex Medina more than holds his own by refusing to succumb to mug for the cameras. His slacker, stoic mien throughout hides the inner turmoil he’s undergoing as he slowly discovers the immorality of his trade by falling in love with a potential victim. That is why his restaurant blowup scene with Paras is more surprising as viewers do not expect it, and we privately cheer him on as he finally asserts his place and stands up for himself.
LOVI POE, SANA DATI. I wrote in my capsule review of Jarrold Tarog’s Sana Dati that Lovi Poe’s character Andrea Gonzaga, despite being the lead, is not as fleshed out as the supporting male characters. I could not fully empathize with her indecisiveness and lack of consideration for the feelings of her loved ones. I said that it might be because Tarog, who also wrote the script, is a man himself, and might have unfairly simplified Andrea’s situation with a stock “fickle-minded woman” trope. But whatever issues I had with the script do not diminish in any way Poe’s lovely performance. Poe has always been a natural onscreen and here she relishes the opportunity to wholeheartedly embrace her character, warts and all.
VILMA SANTOS, EKSTRA. Even before Jeffrey Jeturian’s Ekstra was released, naysayers doubted that Vilma Santos will ever be credible as a bit player in TV soaps: “she’s too recognizable”, “she won’t be believable”, “she looks too mayaman.” The only way to silence the doubters is to turn in a nuanced, convincing performance as Loida Malabanan, a single mother who continues to toil in substandard working environments just to fulfill her dream of acting. It’s a testament to Santos’ instinct as an actor that she finds the honest core of Loida and operates from there. Everything else follows.
ORLANDO SOL, BAMBOO FLOWERS. Maryo J. delos Reyes’ sincere, affecting, but otherwise bloated melodrama Bamboo Flowers featured several fine turns from its cast (Ruru Madrid, Irma Adlawan, Max Collins) but it’s Orlando Sol who gives the best performance as a ne’er-do-well who refuses to give up on life. Sol’s bulky frame highlights his character’s intellectual weakness and reliance on sheer brute strength and a big heart to survive. Plus, never has a banana trunk-kicking scene been more stellar since the awesome Jean-Claude Van Damme downed the same plant in Kickboxer.
JOEL TORRE, KABISERA. Who would have thought that a pot-bellied, grizzled veteran actor in his 50s would headline not only one but two thrillers in a single year? In his nephew Borgy Torre’s debut feature Kabisera, Joel Torre portrays Andres, the fisherman turned drug syndicate, with a mix of apprehension, excitement, familial love, obsession, and menace, and makes it all too human that even as we curse him for making wrong decisions along the way, we can understand why he had to do the things he did. If that, meaning eliciting empathy, is not the goal of acting in the first place, nobody knows what is.
JOEL TORRE, ON THE JOB. In Erik Matti’s propulsive prison thriller On the Job, Torre, as the avuncular Tatang, schools younger, studlier co-stars in acting by showing that you don’t have to look the part of an action star to deliver a knockout performance – you only have to fully inhabit the character and make sure that you’re playing not just a role but a whole, complex human being. Viewers saw that in Torre’s morally hollow Tatang yet fully understood him nonetheless.
KRYSTLE VALENTINO, PUROK 7. Carlo Obispo’s debut feature Purok 7 would have been impressive enough just on the strength of Obispo’s lyrical, gentle depiction of rural childhood amidst a tragic backdrop, but Obispo knows that for his film to work beautifully as it did, he had to get a young competent actor who will carry the film with aplomb, and the charming, natural Krystle Valentino more than lives up to the promise. As the 14 year-old big sister and de-facto mother to a young boy, she has to hold her fort and maintain a sense of normalcy in the face of an impending tragedy and her own burgeoning womanhood. In doing so, she delivers such an honest, winsome, heartbreaking performance. VIVIAN VELEZ, BENDOR. It turns out that Vivian Velez’ all-too-brief appearance as a mystery woman in On the Job is only an appetizer for her superb turn later in the year as Blondie in Ralston Jover’s Bendor. She plays a middle-aged mother of three whose good-for-nothing husband cannot be relied on to support the family so she takes it upon herself to earn money selling abortifacients in Quiapo while also performing illicit abortions herself. Velez never seems to act here: she makes viewers forget that she was once hot stuff in Pinoy cinema in the 1980s by ensuring that they only see her character, a woman bothered by her conscience yet couldn’t seem to get out of her present state. Here’s hoping that Velez never leave cinema again.