In 2015, even if the popular Cinemalaya Film Festival took a leave of absence, other independent film festivals, both old and new, came up with quality offerings: Sinag Maynila, World Premieres Film Festival, QCinema, Cinema One Originals, and the Metro Manila Film Festival New Wave Section, each served up at least one outstanding picture to satiate local cinema aficionados. While this proves that the country’s best films still come from its indie filmfests, the limited grants provided (normally around P3M, including counterpart funding) as well as the short time frame given to come up with finished films still restrict the scale of movies coming out of this process. To illustrate, two of the year’s most significant films: Jerrold Tarog’s Heneral Luna and Kidlat Tahimik’s Balikbayan #1 can never emerge from these annual festivals, as the former reportedly cost P80M to make and the latter took decades to arrive at its present form.
Some of my favorite films of the year deal with negotiating the junctures of history and modernity – two are set in the past but render themes that resonate with the contemporary audience, one is set in the present but confronts both personal and historical demons, one is an elegy for a fading tradition, and another highlights the past and uses cinema to connect it to the present.
Three films tackle poverty and insurgency in the South; three more films examine the intersection of morality, religion and the family; another two dissect the vagaries of modern romance; and the last two films problematize migration (albeit in strikingly divergent ways).
Here are my 15 favorite films of 2015:
15 – Anino sa Likod ng Buwan
Jun Lana’s three-hander chamber drama is admirable for featuring a complex female character (played by LJ Reyes) caught in a web of deceit of her own making. The film’s distinct visual technique (the photography is made to resemble 80s analog video) adds texture to the multi-layered narrative involving a military man who befriends a young refugee couple trapped in Marcos-era “no man’s land”, and the committed performances of Reyes, Luis Alandy, and Anthony Falcon make for a breathtaking cinematic experience.
14 – The Crescent Rising
Sheron Dayoc’s compelling vignettes of Muslim Mindanao offers what few other attempts at capturing on-the-ground realities of the region have failed to do, which is to allow individuals to speak about their conditions from their own perspectives yet present their narratives in visually compelling terms. The result is a documentary that not only affords viewers a nuanced understanding of the links between self-determination and bottom-up development from the eyes of the marginalized but also one that adheres to the standards of quality cinema.
13 – Gukod sa Hapak sa Balud
Only a Mindanawon filmmaker could have appropriately captured the idyllic rhythm of life in the Davao mountains the way it is portrayed in Gukod sa Hapak sa Balud (Chasing Waves). Writer-Director Charliebebs Gohetia, who hails from Davao City, involves us in the daily rituals of young boys Sipat and En-En (winsomely played by non-actors Filjun Sevilla and RJ Sasuman, respectively) as the former prepares to migrate with his family to a seaside community because they are being evicted from their land. In many ways, the film is a brilliant exercise in storytelling restraint and in allowing sound (including a diegetic AM radio melodrama of mermaid-human romance) and visuals (of majestic hinterlands) to carry the narrative through.
12 – An Kubo sa Kawayanan
Alvin Yapan does not make ordinary films: he always finds new ways of visualizing his unique perspectives on things, and we should be so lucky to live in an age where, despite his round-the-clock schedule as a full-time literature professor, he is able to churn out films that excite and provoke. Testament to this is his latest, starring his muse Mercedes Cabral as an enigmatic woman who seems to be able to commune with her bamboo hut and other living things surrounding her. The film’s theme of rootedness in an age of of increasing mobility is rendered in subtle narrative and visual codes, serving a reminder to industry up-and-comers that there are always new ways to invigorate cinema.
11 – Iisa
Debuting filmmaker Chuck Gutierrez does not show signs of greenness in his confident depiction of radicals suffering from the effects of a major catastrophe. Arnel Mardoquio’s script immerses viewers into the lives of several New People’s Army members grappling with the aftermath of Typhoon Pablo, and as they try to rebuild their community, previous misgivings against one another are brought to the fore. As Ross, a comrade accused of pilfering from Party coffers, Angeli Bayani once again proves that she is a national treasure by giving an understated yet devastating performance. The film is commendable for portraying a nuanced examination of leftist ideologies and for problematizing revolutionary justice. Ultimately, it is us humans, not institutions, that will find solutions to our own problems.
10 – Manang Biring
Carl Joseph Papa’s painstakingly crafted tribute to mothers all over is a remarkable achievement not only because it’s the first full-length rotoscope-animated film in the country but because it uses black humor – and black-and-white imagery – to create a distinctive look and mood that effectively convey its poignant story. Manang Biring’s fierce determination to ensure that her long-lost daughter has a happy Christmas, even through unconventional means, challenges our notions of maternal love, and Papa gifts us with a movie that makes us reflect on our mortality and wish that we meet our own death with such magnanimity.
9 – Imbisibol
Lawrence Fajardo’s film adaptation (and expansion) of a one-act play he directed for the 2013 Virgin Labfest about several illegal immigrants eking out a living in Japan, is a triumph in disciplined filmmaking, with Boy Yñiguez’s picturesque shots and the languid pacing that do justice to the Japanese landscapes and rhythm. The lead cast (Ces Quesada, JM de Guzman, Allen Dizon, Bernardo Bernardo) all deliver sterling performances, hooking viewers into their individual stories of hope (that their hard-earned money can make the lives of their families back home better) and desolation (constantly hiding from Japanese authorities, working two back-breaking jobs, being bullied by a fellow Pinoy in the workplace, being tagged as too old in the hospitality industry). The wintry Japan setting makes these stories all the more bleak and stifling, but the film still allows us a peek into the agency and humanity in the characters.
8 – Heneral Luna
Heneral Luna‘s success should not be defined by its ability to recoup its substantial production expenses even if it was not made by a major studio, nor by its wild reception among the youth, who promptly took to social media and created memes that fueled the curiosity of many more viewers, nor by its capacity to spark renewed fervor among the apolitical set. Its achievement lies on the film itself, on how Jerrold Tarog orchestrated all production elements to come up with a meticulous period film that respects viewers’ clamor for craft, as well as their intelligence. The film is a game-changer, sparking hope that future local historical movies would no longer feel like stuffy, humorless oratorical pieces.
7 – Waves
Don Gerardo Frasco’s unflinching anatomy of the fading romance between two millennials (Baron Geisler and Ilona Struzik) in a global age allows viewers a glimpse into the lovers’ most intimate moments, and the gradual buildup of back-stories of the lovers’ characters only enriches arguments for both clashing sides. All this is juxtaposed with a backdrop of nature’s untouched beauty (the movie was shot in pristine beaches in Palawan and Cebu), telling us that our travails, no matter how earth-shattering they feel at the moment, will seem trivial over time or when viewed from the perspective of the elements, which will continue to exist long after we depart.
6 – Bambanti
Bambanti‘s story of a poor barrio boy (played by the precocious Micko Laurente) accused of stealing a wristwatch of the daughter of his mother’s employer could have been milked for treacly melodrama, and viewers have writer-director Zig Dulay to thank for expertly calibrating restraint and necessary emotional outbursts. Featuring a powerful performance by Alessandra de Rossi as Laurente’s mother, the film holds up a mirror to a society that readily persecutes the downtrodden despite, or precisely because of, their helplessness to fight the system.
5 – Sleepless
What makes Sleepless stand out from the rest of its local rom-com contemporaries is its emphatic rejection of genre clichés, with debuting director Prime Cruz and writer Jen Chuaunsu infusing a refreshing dose of realism and melancholia to the story of Gem and Barry (endearingly portrayed by Glaiza de Castro and Dominic Roco), twenty-something lonely souls who meet in a call center and find themselves hanging out with each other. The film presents a gauzy-lensed metropolis viewed mostly from high-rise buildings, capturing urban anomie among middle-class yuppies trapped in the grip of global capital. In the end, the decision of one character to leave the country to repair their broken family can also be seen as a way of bailing out of an ever-alienating system.
4 – Honor Thy Father
Honor Thy Father grabs viewers by their collars from the very first frame and never lets go until the credits roll, leaving us gasping for air and holding our chests to stop our hearts from bursting out of a mix of apprehension and heartbreak. Kudos to co-writer/director Erik Matti and his cast and crew for skillfully weaving an engrossing tale involving an unraveling pyramid scam among fundamentalist Christians, with the magnificent John Lloyd Cruz at the center of it all as a man who resorts to desperate measures to save his family. It’s a testament to Matti’s controlled direction and Michiko Yamamoto’s richly detailed script that the film feels less an attack against religion per se as it is a condemnation of the abuse of people’s trust in authority.
3 – Ari: My Life with a King
One of the most active blocs in Philippine regional cinema has been the Kapampangan group of filmmakers, and Carlo Enciso Catu’s beautiful ode to indigenous poetry and the dying tradition of the crissotan (the Kapampangan equivalent of the Tagalog balagtasan) provides a potent argument for the the view that the future of Philippine cinema rests with regional filmmakers.
In Ari (Kapampangan for king), Catu and writer Robby Tantingco create a quiet, heartwarming tale about a King of Poets, Conrado (charmingly played by real-life poet Francisco Guinto) who lives in a remote barrio and is called to receive an award from the town high school. Jaypee (a charismatic Ronwaldo Martin) is tasked to fetch him and over time the two develop a deep friendship. The movie portrays the growing divide between Pampanga’s selfie generation and their tottering elders who hold in their hearts a rich literary heritage that is in danger of extinction. The friendship between the two men shows that all is not lost and there is time left for the youth, not just in Pampanga but in the whole country, to embrace and take pride in their local culture.
2 – Balikbayan #1
I admit I spent a good amount of time trying to make sense of Kidlat Tahimik’s picaresque tale about a slave who inadvertently became the first man who circumnavigated the globe, what with the film coming off as a hodgepodge of footages of the film’s previous iteration (as Memories of Overdevelopment), travelogue, and home videos that do not necessarily coalesce into a neat narrative package by film’s end. But, boy, what a journey this film takes its viewers!
Tahimik takes us on a ride to his quirky, whimsical world, a world that at first glimpse seems detached from that of the ordinary Filipino, yet upon closer inspection actually reflects the country’s never-ending search for a distinct identity. By zooming in on the trials and tribulations of Enrique, the slave, rather than on Magellan, his master, Tahimik imagines a world where history is written by the vanquished, not by the victors.
1 – Apocalypse Child
Director Mario Cornejo and co-writer/producer Monster Jimenez concoct a richly layered story of a typical laid-back surfer (winningly played by the perfectly cast Sid Lucero) who refuses to grow up and face his past, which involves being rumored as an illegitimate child of Francis Ford Coppola. Coppola stayed in Baler, Aurora in 1976 with his cast and crew, to shoot Apocalypse Now.
Apocalypse Child‘s seemingly personal story of ennui and redemption among millennials doubles as postcolonial critique of the American empire – American film crew member impregnates local, leaves the country, resulting child seeks father figure his whole life, finds one in a stern authoritarian figure – but does so in a hipstery, nonchalant manner that even without that subtext, it can stand alone as a thoroughly engaging work because of the way the filmmakers use all the tools at their disposal to come up with a polished product. Everything, from the performances (the ensemble work is the year’s best) to the visuals and editing, is so on point that one begs to watch it again as soon as the credits roll.