BEST, IF PROBLEMATIC: BALANGIGA (KHAVN DE LA CRUZ)
People have called this film one of Khavn de la Cruz’s most accessible, which is funny because it is also the one that will likely piss the most people off. It is simultaneously de la Cruz’s sweetest, most heartfelt film, and his most openly offensive, with the deaths of livestock captured on screen. And it could be read as empty provocation from a filmmaker with a reputation for being a provocateur, but it does all seem to be part of some greater design, the film’s postcolonial themes leading it to challenge what is and isn’t acceptable in cinema and in the portrayal of our history.
BEST FILM THAT DIDN’T KILL A BUNCH OF ANIMALS: RESPETO (TREB MONTERAS)
In lieu of killing animals, Respeto took on the challenge of being the first feature length film to really think about this era of extrajudicial killings. It’s a Trojan Horse of a film that at first seems like it’s going to be The Karate Kid, but with rap battles. But it plays a smarter game, ultimately. The problem with a lot of the films that tackle drugs is that filmmakers seem more eager to depict the conflict from the side of the killers, telling stories about conflicted policemen and riding-in-tandem assassins. Respeto tells the story from the side of the victims, from the poor people just trying to get by, and ending up dead because of it.
BEST STAR CINEMA ROMCOM: LOVE YOU TO THE STARS AND BACK (ANTOINETTE JADAONE)
If you’ve given up on the Star Cinema romcom, I don’t blame you. But this year gave us something a little different. Love You to the Stars and Back is a teenage melodrama that fully embraces the heightened emotions of the genre, and turns it into something quirkier and more meaningful. It does what the best Jadaone movies do: keep two characters in close proximity to each other, and just have them fall in love. They aren’t trying to close big business deals, or trying to win some big contest. They’re just two kids in pain, stuck in a car, slowly but surely falling in love. And that’s wonderful.
BEST MOVIE WE UNEXPECTEDLY GOT IN CINEMAS: THE LOST CITY OF Z (JAMES GRAY)
Nobody really understands the logic behind which international films get shown in the Philippines, and which don’t. Mostly, one can go by the principle that we are only going to get either mainstream Hollywood productions, or no-budget horror films. But then we got James Gray’s The Lost City of Z, an unusual biopic of explorer Percy Fawcett that deals mainly with how terrible conditions were during his expeditions. It builds this complex portrait of heroism, challenging conventional attitudes towards the masculine ideal, every scene designed to make one question the wisdom of one’s choices. It’s a beautiful, complex film that somehow made it into our cinemas.
BEST INTERNATIONAL MOVIE WE GOT IN A FILM FESTIVAL: CALL ME BY YOUR NAME (LUCA GUADAGNINO)
Both Cinema One Originals and QCinema really stepped up their game this year in acquiring films for their international lineups. QCinema seemed to have the edge at first with the one-two Cannes punch of The Square and The Killing of a Sacred Deer, not to mention an entirely new competition involving new Asian films. But Cinema One Originals had Call Me By Your Name, a remarkable romantic film that makes the growing affection between its two leads so powerfully palpable, thanks largely to two exceptional performances. There are many things to praise about this film, but what feels most notable is the way it captures the physicality of its actors, lingering on tensed shoulders, or reveling in the movement of dance. Even if the characters never got to say the beautiful words written for them, one would easily get a sense of what’s been building between them. Every screening at Cinema One was sold out, but the film is tentatively scheduled to hit select Ayala Cinemas at the end of January. So look out.
BEST FILM I SAW OUTSIDE THE COUNTRY: THE SHAPE OF WATER (GUILLERMO DEL TORO)
According to IMDB, The Shape of Water is tentatively scheduled to open in the Philippines on February 21. This is presumably to take advantage of the awards buzz that the film will inevitably receive. The Shape of Water feels like the perfect expression of del Toro’s obsessions, an evolution of his aesthetic, which intertwines childlike wonder with horrific adult elements. This is a story of a woman who falls in love with a fish man, but it is also a movie that speaks eloquently of our times, pointing to a nostalgic past that is much uglier than people often make it out to be.
BEST STAR WARS MOVIE: STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI (RIAN JOHNSON)
So yeah, there’s only one Star Wars movie a year, but it’s still worth spending some space talking about what makes The Last Jedi special. It is an odd film that builds its plot around what is essentially a low speed chase, and has its characters constantly failing to pull off their grand schemes. But in doing so, it gets to a much more nuanced view of what it means to be a hero. And it somehow manages to say something about the times we live in, despite the fact that this story takes place a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.
BEST DOCUMENTARY: HAUNTED: THE LAST VISIT TO THE RED HOUSE (PHYLLIS GRANDE)
There are all sort of strange tricks in this film. At first, the film seems like it’s going to be about the ghost stories surrounding one particular red house in Pampanga. And then it pushes all that aside, eschewing supernatural horror for the much more relevant horror of what actually went on in that house. The film gets some amazing interviews from the Malaya Lolas of Candaba, the women who lived through one of the worst episodes of World War II. But it doesn’t stop there: in its last minutes, Haunted turns introspective, Grande not letting herself off the hook in just capturing the stories, holding herself complicit in the larger injustices of the world.
BEST VERY SMALL PERFORMANCE: RICKY DAVAO (PAKI)
Paki has a very large ensemble cast of heavyweight actors, many of them given meaty roles that gave them a chance to do some really showy stuff. And then there’s Ricky Davao, who plays the unemployed, largely inutile husband to Eula Valdes’ politician character. And with barely any lines, Davao is often stealing the scene with a strangely studied performance that is exactly right for the role. It is easily one of the best performances I saw all year.
OTHER FILMS THAT ARE VERY GOOD
We already mentioned Giancarlo Abrahan’s Paki, which is just a lovely family drama. Also in Cinema One is Dan Villegas’ Changing Partners, which feels like it could follow the trajectory of That Thing Called Tadhana, and Shireen Seno’s Nervous Translation, which harnesses nostalgia is fascinating ways. From QCinema, we got James Mayo’s The Chanters, a very small sweet film from the team that also gave us the very small and sweet Kiko Boksingero from Cinemalaya. And we should talk about Raya Martin’s Smaller and Smaller Circles, which at no point stifles its ambitions, telling a complex story that goes well beyond the limits of the crime procedural. Mikhail Red’s Birdshot really shows off what the young filmmaker can do. Christopher Nolan brought interesting restraint to Dunkirk, and the result was striking and memorable. Denis Villaneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 took on the unenviable task of crafting a sequel to one of the most beloved films of all time, and created something rather unique in the process. Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman is the superhero movie we needed most this year. Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver is a blast, as is Bong Joon-ho’s Okja, and Nattawut Poonpriya’s Bad Genius. And we could get into all those wonderful international films we got in festivals this year, but let’s just leave it at this: we got a lot of great cinema this year.
WORST FILM: KAMANDAG NG DROGA (CARLO J. CAPARAS)
There were several films this year that openly proclaimed their support for President Duterte and his war on drugs. And all of them are pretty bad. Across the Crescent Moon is an incompetent action movie that features an extended scene of old people line dancing and Dina Bonnevie in bed cheering on the president giving a speech. Durugin Ang Droga is a hilariously bad thriller that at one point has a flashback that features all the same middle aged actors playing their younger selves. But for as bad as these films are, one cannot question their conviction, no matter how much one might disagree with what they’re saying. The same cannot be said for Kamandag ng Droga, a film with a disproportionately large budget that doesn’t really seem to care about the drug problem at all. It is a film where a character takes heroin so that she might seem more energetic on stage, and Koko Pimentel shows up playing himself, only to be told that he’s an inspiration to all young people. It’s diarrhea molded into the rough shape of a movie, and the Philippines is worse off for having created it.