2013 was the year when Erik Matti released On the Job, showing the world that there was more to the Philippines than the suffering and dolor most of its films so valiantly depict. It was also the year when filmmakers Siege Ledesma (Shift), Jerrold Tarog (Sana Dati), and Whammy Alcazaren (Islands) broke away from the usual mold to tackles various facets of love that would be too complicated for commercial cinema. Norte, Hangganan ng Kasaysayan (Norte, the End of History), 2013's best film, even had Lav Diaz breaching his trademark aesthetics of monochromatic long takes to deliver a narrative that is comparatively easier to digest but still powerful like no other.
2014 saw Cinemalaya and Cinema One Originals, the Philippines' most reliable fund granters, actively seek out projects with commercial potential. The film festivals heavily featured films where personal visions are draped within conventions that are traditionally connected to genres. Star Cinema, the Philippines' biggest film studio, on the other hand, started to think out of the box, churning out its usual romantic comedies, melodramas, and horrors with slivers of daring innovation.
Intriguingly, the year's top films are diverse in motivation, technique, and social relevance. It only paints a national cinema that has risen beyond the wants and needs of international film festival and is slowly realizing that there is a need to look inward and create products for a slowly maturing market.
There are 2014 releases that did not quite make it into the year's best but deserve to be sought out and seen. Cha Escala & Wena Sanchez's Nick and Chai
documents a Haiyan-ravaged couple's journey from grief to recovery with astounding sensitivity. With Ang 'Di Paglimot ng Alaala
(The Unremembering), Carl Papa, whose animated shorts dazzle with their ingenuity, utilizes footage captured from manufactured Skype conversations and Papa's own photographs to create a film that expertly traverses the thin line that separates documentary and fiction filmmaking and explores the full extent of grief over a dying loved one. Jason Paul Laxamana's Magkakabaung
(The Coffin Maker
), set in his native province of Pampanga, tells the tale of a father, played remarkably by Allen Dizon, who comes into terms with a tragedy he inadvertently causes.
Dementia has first time director Perci Intalan converting the gorgeous green slopes of Batanes into an intriguing stage for both supernatural and psychological terror. Anchored on Nora Aunor's ability to convey the most complex of emotions with the subtlest of facial gestures, the film succeeds in fulfilling its goal of evoking scares that dwell longer. Shake, Rattle & Roll XV, the horror franchise that features three shorts usually from various directors, is predictably an uneven effort. However, Ulam, the middle entry directed by Jerrold Tarog, salvages the film with its ability to draw terror out of both the supernatural and the mundane and commonplace. Alec Figuracion's grossly misunderstood Bitukang Manok masterfully creates dread and tension out of a group of individuals mysteriously trapped in a zigzagging provincial road.
Joselito Altarejos' Unfriend and Kasal (The Commitment) differ in the aspects of gay life it attempts to portray. Unfriend has a teenage loner get tragically consumed by the shallow connections that modern connectivity has so abundantly provided. Kasal, on the other hand, tackles a gay couple's relationship that has been but are united by the emotional sincerity they depict them. Mike Tuviera's The Janitor and Carlos Siguion-Reyna's Hari ng Tondo (Where I Am King) both premiered in Cinemalaya, the country's most famous independent film festival but are crafted with sensibilities that are more common to movies with commercial intentions. Nevertheless, the films are absolute crowd-pleasers, burdened with as little pretensions of being anything else than effective entertainment. The same is true with Dan Villegas' English Only, Please, a rom-com that has the right balance of fluff and maturity.
Chris Martinez's The Gifted is decidedly mean-spirited and is rabidly hilarious because of its unabashed cruelty in its depiction of geniuses on the verge of love-rooted insanity. On the other hand, the humor of Antoinette Jadaone's Beauty in a Bottle, which Martinez also had a hand in creating, is fueled by an accurate understanding of seemingly inane but actually profound common female concerns.
Now to the list:
15) Echoserang Frog (Joven Tan)
Starring second-rate TV personality Shalala as an even more self-deprecating version of himself with a silly ambition to star in a self-produced indie film, Joven Tan's Echoserang Frog surprises with its candor.
Get past its hideous lack of aesthetics, which in my opinion adds to the overall charm of the picture even if it is probably a product of its low budget roots, and you’ll get a hilarious but suspiciously accurate look into the world of independent filmmaking, which topples the more famous satires that also tackle filmmaking ambitions within the indie scene context from the past few years by sheer charm alone.
14) Dagitab (Sparks, Giancarlo Abrahan)
Dagitab has a married couple, played beautifully by Noni Buencamino and Eula Valdez, wrestle with the creases of their relationship. Set mostly in the University of the Philippines where the couple graduated from and imbibed their peculiar view on life, the film tackles its subject matter with maturity, never really beholden to the specificity of the place and culture it presents.
Giancarlo Abrahan’s confidently mounted debut has poets and lovers floating aimlessly in an inert world of their own doing. The past and present intersect. The imagined and the real merge. Subtle tragedy ensues. It is all beautiful stuff, ideas masterfully realized by a director with a clear view of what he wants his film to become.
13) Kubot: The Aswang Chronicles 2 (Erik Matti)
Kubot: The Aswang Chronicles 2 begins where Tiktik: The Aswang Chronicles left off, with Makoy, played by Dingdong Dantes, narrowly escaping the vengeful wives of the aswang he massacred. Director Erik Matti ups the ante by giving Makoy a metallic arm to fight with, the entire metropolis of Manila to fight in, and a horde of enterprising monsters to defeat.
Silliness is proudly in the spotlight, ingeniously overtaking everything else, even its attention to technology. The film is more reminiscent of Matti’s Gagamboy from many years ago than On the Job with its carefree handling of its plot. The result is probably one of the year’s most enjoyably self-aware romps.
12) Little Azkals (Babyruth Villarama)
A few months ago, in an effort to keep alive the dream of the Philippines to finally take part in the World Cup, several kids from various backgrounds were banded together to train as a team in England. Babyruth Villarama, most famous for her sobering take on gay long distance relationships in Jazz in Love has been tasked to document the kids' overseas experience.
Villarama injects just enough pathos to turn what could have been a syrupy tale of kids realizing their athletic ambitions into a poignant portrait of children from diverse backgrounds struggling to overcome odds to unite a nation. The film is still unabashedly inspiring, but never forgets the fact that there are more important things in a kid's life than the sports dreams of a struggling nation.
11) Mga Kwentong Barbero (Barber's Tales, Jun Lana)
A loving tribute to filmmaker Marilou Diaz-Abaya who passed away recently leaving a legacy of fine films and successful students, Jun Lana’s Mga Kwentong Barbero turns Eugene Domingo, most famous for her comedic roles, into the centerpiece of an adamantly feminist tale that amazes with its emotional heft.
The film never really rushes. It allows its story to be told through the nuances of the fine performances of Domingo, Iza Calzado, Sue Prado, and Noni Buencamino. Although it oftentimes teeters towards sentiment, it never really turns out mawkish or corny because of Lana's very mannered direction.
10) Bwaya (CrocodileFrancis Xavier Pasion)
Francis Xavier Pasion’s obsession with the process of shooting, which is exhibited in both Jay and Sampaguita, National Flower, is again the moving force behind the film, which turns the dramatization of the story of a crocodile victim’s family into both a scathing indictment of human callousness and a tool for grief recovery.
Pasion deftly mixes his interviews of the victims with the well-crafted reenactment (wherein Angeli Bayani and Karl Medina portray their roles with both sensitivity towards the suffering of their characters' very real suffering and acknowledgment of Pasion's visions) to create a film that can work as a tale of loss and a cinematic experiment.
9) Mariquina (Milo Sogueco)
Mariquina opens with an aging shoemaker (a fantastic Ricky Davao) committing suicide, forcing the shoemaker's daughter (Mylene Dizon) to come to terms with her past living with a man who was too obsessed with shoes to be able to raise a normal happy family.
The heart of Sogueco’s Mariquina is evidently with the shoemaker whose excellence in his craft is only topped by his failure as a father. He is portrayed with the understanding that his imperfections are the cornerstones of the film's fine melodrama. Carried by astounding performances and Sogueco’s immaculate crafting, the film succeeds in pulling the right emotional punches to create some of the year’s most indelible and beautiful moments.
8) Hindi Sila Tatanda (Malay Javier)
A group of bored friends decide to take a road trip to the province of Zambales to investigate the U.F.O. sightings that were reported a couple of decades ago. In the process of finding out the truth behind the sightings, they learn a lot about themselves and their relationships with each other, which turn out to be as shallow as their infatuation for all things out of this world.
This is a film that grows on you. Malay Javier’s carefully designed look into youthful pompousness experiments with genre conventions with intriguing results. Amidst all its faults and excesses, it remains to be one of the year’s most audacious efforts with its emphasis on style within the margins of a plot inspired by cheesy teenybopper flicks from the 90's and the director's indefatigable obsession over extraterrestrials.
7) She's Dating the Gangster (Cathy Garcia-Molina)
The easiest thing to do here is to dismiss She's Dating the Gangster without even watching it simply because it is marketed as not only an adaptation of the popular novelette of the same title but also as a vehicle for extremely popular onscreen lovers Daniel Padilla and Kathryn Bernardo.
However, the film, directed by Cathy Garcia-Molina who again proves that she is one of the best filmmakers around despite her loyalty to making films with commercial appeal, turns a book that is both loved and hated for its unabashed juvenilia into something that both satisfies the juveniles that is its original market and the once-juveniles who are needed to be reminded of the pleasures of falling in love. This is a film that knows its sentimental roots and is unafraid to showcase it even to the point of overshadowing its more marketable elements.
6) Lorna (Sigrid Andrea Bernardo)
Lorna (Shamaine Buencamino, in a career-defining performance) is a senior citizen whose adventures with romance have only left her alone and yearning for true love. When a flame from the past (Lav Diaz) reunites with her, she once again experiences the joy of being loved and loving.
Sigrid Andrea Bernardo’s film is an ode to geriatric romance. Humorous almost all of the time with its colorful depiction of its aging characters as romance-addicted matrons, it powerfully culminates in an important realization, that while love can be as painful as it is pleasurable. With this and Ang Huling Cha Cha ni Anita (Anita's Last Cha Cha), Bernardo proves to be a director whose compassion for her characters are reflected through the humanity she portrays them with.
5) Relaks, It's Just Pag-Ibig (Relax, It's Just Love, Antoinette Jadaone & Irene Villamor)
The romantic comedy has long been suffering from the clutches of formula utilized primarily for commercialist intentions. Antoinette Jadaone and Irene Villamor’s Relaks, It's Just Pag-Ibig miraculously stays true to the formula not for convenience but with the intention of celebrating the genre and all its joyful excesses, resulting in the year’s most charming film.
Structured like a road film with a snobbish teen (Inigo Pascual) being forced to join a free-spirited lass (Sofia Andres) in her journey to see the culmination of a love affair she first discovered in a love letter she fatedly picked up from a beach trip, the film uses very familiar elements to heighten expectations. The result is a film that is brimming with charm and color, which are all true for the youthful romance it embraces wholeheartedly.
4) Esprit de Corps (Kanakan Balintagos)
Set in a school where teenagers are forced to undergo military training, Esprit de Corps, directed by Kanakan Balintagos (the filmmaker formerly known as Auraeus Solito), has two of the school's finest males (Sandino Martin and Lharby Policarpio) fighting over the position to be left behind by the troop's graduating commandant (J.C. Santos). The commandant however has strict requirements the two ambitious men have to fulfill before they can be chosen to replace him.
The film, based on a play written by Kanakan Balintagos when he was still a teenager, bursts with the most primal of sexual obsessions. Those teenage dreams are then filtered through the maturity Balintagos has developed throughout the years, resulting in a film that is outrageous in its depiction of lust for power and sex, but still managing to feel very grounded on humanity's glaring imperfections.
3) That Thing Called Tadhana (That Thing Called Meant To Be, Antoinette Jadaone)
Mace (Angelica Panganiban) and Anthony (J.M. De Guzman) meet in an airport in Italy. They arrive in Manila as strangers. Brought together by heartaches, they spend the night reveling on their hearts' stupidity. They band together on a trip to Baguio, no longer as strangers but as possible lovers.
While the film’s success belongs to Antoinette Jadaone whose fealty to the genre has allowed her to explore all its variations and permutations, Panganiban, who seamlessly plays a lady who all ladies can relate to, deserves to be recognized for confidently inhabiting a role that is not your traditional showcase for acting prowess but still managing to impress.
2) Violator (Dodo Dayao)
Violator, critic Dodo Dayao’s debut feature is about the world on the verge of an apocalypse. It is persistently a horror film. It is also a critique of its own genre, which has been pulled down for years by a troubling lack of novelty and innovation. It is successful in all its intentions. The film throws away most of the rules and expertly subsists on a consistent atmosphere of dread and gloom.
The film's main plot has a group of cops trapped in their precinct with a teenager who may or may not be possessed by the devil. It is a premise made by familiar by John Carpenter. Its tone is consistently reminiscent of a lot of Dayao's heroes, including Kiyoshi Kurosawa. However, its methods and appeal are distinctly Dayao's.
1) Mula Sa Kung Ano Ang Noon (From What Is Before, Lav Diaz)
Lav Diaz’s meditative document of a town prior to the horrors of Marcos’ Martial Law is a return to form for the director whose Norte, Hangganan ng Kasaysayan (Norte, the End of History), last year’s most impressive feature, has aesthetic and narrative elements that seem to be deviations to Diaz’s traditional methods as filmmaker. Considering the wild success of Norte, Diaz could have reasonably opted to traverse the path of opening his vision within terms that are easier to digest. However, this follow-up has him expanding his craft to test the limits of both his craft and his audience. This film simply proves Diaz’s power, which is sourced from his acute understanding of his country’s sorrowful history and its effect on contemporary thinking.
Instead of centering on a single individual, Diaz has set his eyes on a rural town, whose own history seem to mirror that of the Philippines', that is seen transforming from being a community of religious peasants to a stage to showcase the corruption brought about by Marcos' political maneuverings. The film aches not only with its harsh depiction of human suffering but also with its powerful statements on the effects of history on the psyche of both the individuals and a nation still struggling to overcome the memories of a not-so-distant past.
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