Essential Filipino Films of 2019

2019 has been a year of celebration for Philippine cinema. The industry had marked its 100th anniversary that started with Jose Nepomuceno’s 1919 film Dalagang Bukid. Cinemalaya and Cinema One Originals, some of the pioneering film festivals of the digital era, have both held their 15th edition. QCinema went full-on international, allowing international titles to compete in its main competition, with the goal of becoming the premiere film festival in the entire Southeast Asia.

Alongside the development of streaming technology, iWant had expanded their original movie repertoire with the likes of Abandoned (dir. Kip Oebanda) and MOMOL Nights (dir. Benedict Mique). Mikhail Red made history for directing the first-ever Filipino Netflix original film Dead Kids. Darryl Yap, no matter how problematic most of his films are, still racks up views with his VinCentiments shorts online. More interestingly, Yap’s successful crossover to feature-length filmmaking with the blockbuster hit #Jowable displays a dialectical relationship between traditional and online film distribution that could be more properly observed in the coming decade.

Yet the more I think about, the less I find the past year worth celebrating. For one, the Film Development Council of the Philippines’ (FDCP) strides towards fairer exhibition of local films in movie theaters was blocked by the Cinema Exhibitors Association of the Philippines, Inc. (CEAP). FDCP’s Memorandum Circular No. 2019-01 which was originally targeted to be implemented midyear was deemed “invalid” and “unconstitutional” for “[regulating] the business operations and decisions of cinema owners and exhibitors.” Had the MC been implemented, it could have helped Filipino films stand a better chance against foreign and Hollywood films, but alas, perhaps this is also proof that the problem lies on a more systemic level and that a mere state policy cannot easily change it.

State propaganda has also penetrated movie screens, most notable of which were Adolfo Alix Jr.’s Bato: The Gen. Bato Dela Rosa Story, Maricel Cariaga’s Cinemalaya entry Children of the River, and Brillante Mendoza’s Alpha: The Right to Kill and Mindanao. As government atrocities grow, an ideological divide among film workers also becomes more visible.

But perhaps it is also precisely because of this divide I find the need to celebrate films that champion the people’s narratives. As cultural workers stand at a juncture between conformity and resistance, there is merit in recognizing those who remain firm in their stances on pertinent issues amid an increasingly chaotic socio-cultural landscape.

Feature films

There has been a significant rise in the quality of outputs distributed by mainstream production companies. ABS-CBN Films produced Isa Pa, with Feelings (dir. Prime Cruz, through Black Sheep)and Hello, Love, Goodbye (dir. Cathy Garcia-Molina, through Star Cinema), capturing love both in its most romantic and practical. Regal Entertainment’s Elise (dir. Joel Ferrer) charmed hearts through a nostalgic recollection of a man’s journey through life’s hurdles.

[Read our full reviews of Isa Pa, with Feelings and Hello, Love, Goodbye.]

However, all the good qualities of the aforementioned films culminated in the Nadine Lustre-starrer Ulan (dir. Irene Emma Villamor). It feels like something that Villamor had always wanted to make: a romantic film that is more concerned with the euphoria of falling in love than the actual act of forming romantic relationships with other people. Ulan posits romance as a necessary—though futile—pursuit, and that makes it beautiful. Love is all around us: in the folklore, in memories, in the families and friends that never leave our side, in the failed romances, and most importantly in ourselves. This awareness of love’s abundance removes the fear that might inhibit someone to love as much as they can and pushes them to always love no matter what the result might be.

Open (dir. Andoy Ranay) is another romance film that stood out alongside fellow Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino entry LSS (dir. Jade Castro). It is as insightful a look at modern relationships as any great romantic film we have had the past year. While Ulan finds narrative in love’s purest forms, Open is more interested in examining how people develop ways to cope with love’s uncertainty. It uses the titular “open” setup as an entry point in its inspection of modern lovers’ attempts at salvaging failing relationships and then slowly strips them down to reveal traditionally humanistic values lying underneath.

[Read our full reviews of Open and LSS.]

But like in previous years, most of 2019’s best films were in the festival circuit.

Despite the wider selection of films screened in QCinema, local films have still stood out among other international titles. The visually arresting Cleaners (dir. Glenn Barit) is a colorful time capsule of the Filipino 2000s teenage experience. The photocopy-highlighter aesthetic enhances the film’s nostalgic effect, as if memories are being reproduced for the audience to marvel at and connect with. It is a celebration of youth in all its vigor and naivety, a familiar feeling that renders universality despite the film’s specific setting.

[Read our full review of Cleaners.]

In the documentary section, For My Alien Friend (dir. Jet Leyco) tells a story that is both philosophical and personal, creating a narrative out of random footage captured by the director over a 10-year period. It is an ode to existence and the importance of companionship amid a vast ever-changing world. The film captures big themes through small occurrences and opens an exciting new path for the Filipino documentaries to come.

[Read our full review of For My Alien Friend.]

Similarly, No Data Plan (dir. Miko Revereza) documents the director’s ride aboard the Amtrak train in a time of atrocity towards immigrants in the US. Revereza’s storytelling approach creates a subliminal and immersive experience with the same magnitude of sincerity as For My Alien Friend, except it is melancholic. It achieves profundity in simplicity, balancing factual documentation with a hopeful vision for a future where immigrants are no longer ostracized in American society.

[Read our full review of No Data Plan.]

Cinemalaya 2019’s best films John Denver Trending (dir. Arden Rod Condez) and Edward (dir. Thop Nazareno) are emotional coming-of-age stories with focus on the marginalized youth. In John Denver, Condez investigates the tragic consequences of cyberbullying in the digital era. Rather than succumbing to the usual failings of found story films, Condez provides artistic intervention by presenting the mother-and-son relationship between Marites and the titular young man as a bond stronger than any amount of public scrutiny. It is through Marites that John Denver finds strength to fight and it is also through her that the audience identify their own desire for a just end to John Denver’s story.

Edward offers an unflinching commentary on the country’s health care system. This is a film made with a lot of heart and empathy towards a child forced to handle more than what he could, like a lone wolf forced to hunt in the wild all by himself. Nazareno likens the coming-of-age experience with a life-or-death situation, this scary and unpredictable period that ultimately decides what kinds of privileges, if any, a person would enjoy later on in life.

[Read our full reviews of John Denver Trending and Edward.]

The Tallinn Black Nights-winning Kalel, 15 (dir. Jun Robles Lana) probes into the country’s HIV crisis among young people. The film finds Lana at his angriest, criticizing the hypocrisy and apathy of religious institutions as some of the primary reasons for the existence of the rotten system that the youth are exposed to. After brilliant supporting performances in other films (LSS, Babae at Baril, Edward), Elijah Canlas lands the well-deserved titular lead role, a first in his young yet already fruitful acting career.

In Cinema One Originals 2019, Lucid (dir. Victor Villanueva) depicts urban loneliness with utmost poignancy. It presents lucid dreaming not merely as a medium for escape but also as a form of personal resistance, a fist raised against a society that does not provide enough avenues to uplift people’s circumstances. Through Alessandra de Rossi’s top-notch performance of the petit-bourgeois Ann, the film becomes an empathetic look into capitalist alienation as experienced by the working class. There is a sense of collective solidarity: Ann’s experiences are all too familiar to us, and lucid dreaming opens up the possibility that maybe we can also create our own reality—a new society, if you may—where we no longer need to endure the frustrations of everyday life.

[Read our full review of Lucid.]

Sila-Sila, like the director Giancarlo Abrahan’s previous works Dagitab (2014) and Paki (2017), follows a straightforward narrative elevated through masterful execution. It is one of the most genuine queer films to have ever been told in Philippine cinema, properly representing the community that had mostly been relegated in the margins of film narratives before. Simple moments create magic, conjuring a multitude of emotions that come with the comfort of knowing that we all have our constants in life who will always be there for us no matter what happens. Daniel Saniana’s screenplay should also be noted as one of the best the past year has offered and is a perfect match for Abrahan’s directorial sensibilities.

[Read our full review of SilaSila.]

Short films

Of course, it is impossible to have watched every short film produced in the country in 2019, or at least to have watched enough to make for the most well-informed list. For instance, I was not able to attend Gawad CCP Para sa Alternatibong Pelikula at Video and Indie Un-film Festival, arguably two of Manila’s biggest short film festivals. Likewise, I am sure that the regional film festivals like Ngilngig, Binisaya, Cinema Rehiyon, CineKabalen, Nabunturan, and Salamindanaw, to name a few, have each produced their own excellent short films, many of which have failed to secure exhibition to more audiences nationwide. Even outside festivals, there are a plethora of short films made by students as requirements under educational institutions that are unlikely to enjoy the privilege of public distribution.

Still, I think it’s important to give merit to the great short films I have seen in the past year no matter how incomprehensive the list below might be. Not only are they undervalued by industry standards, it is also in the short medium where alternative cinema truly thrives and develops. Even if only through this list, I would like to reward the ones that continue to diversify narratives in Philippine cinema, especially those who remain stalwarts of democracy and resistance by exposing the culture of impunity perpetrated by the current administration.

From the UPFI thesis film showcase Likha Adarna, The Slums (dir. Jan Andrei Cobey) cleverly uses the mockumentary device to critique the exploitation of poverty in mainstream media. It expands the scope of the likes of Aliwan Paradise (1992, dir. Mike De Leon)and Ang Babae sa Septic Tank (2011, dir. Marlon Rivera) and suggests a solution: empower the poor and let them tell their own stories.

Sa Dulo ng Bahaghari (dir. Aaron Alsol) takes the audience on an experimental journey through the Filipino queer experience, starting with the indigenous babaylan and ending with a kaleidoscopic futuristic sequence. It is a powerful testament on the LGBTQ+ community’s permanence in our society, that they have always existed and will continue to exist despite problems of tolerance and acceptance.

From the Manila film festivals, Kontrolado ni Girly ang Buhay N’ya (dir. Gilb Baldoza, Cinemalaya) follows one fateful day in the life of a gay teenager from the working class. It inspects the inextricable linkages between gender and class issues and uses the cinéma vérité style not only for a social realist approach but also to empower the titular Girly and let him finally take control of his life.

Tokwifi (dir. Carla Ocampo, QCinema) uses the kuwentong bayan as a filmic device in depicting love that surpasses cultural and generational boundaries. It blurs myth and reality, suggesting that the delightful experience of falling in love lies somewhere in between. Watching this short was akin to spending a cold night in front of a fireplace with someone you love: charming and warm.

QCinema 2019 Best Short Film Judy Free (dir. Che Tagyamon) creatively uses animation in telling the Filipino diaspora experience through the eyes of a confused child. Like her previous short Lola Loleng (2017), Tagyamon situates her characters in a clearly-defined social milieu. The societal phenomenon–this time, the OFW experience–distances the characters from each other and provides a space for introspection, acceptance, and growth.

Meanwhile, Here, Here (dir. Joanne Cesario, QCinema) is a film that finds impact in being quiet and meditative, merging the personal and the ethnographic struggles of provincial life in a neo-colonial nation. It uses the body as an extension of place, demonstrating how societal problems eventually manifest themselves in a person’s individual circumstances. As a result, the film ends up being one of the most unique depictions of the emotionality of abuse, trauma, and resilience.

Binisaya 2019 Best Short Film Budots: The Craze traces the history of the budots genre popularized by musician Sherwin Calumpang Tuna, otherwise known as “DJ Love.” Directors Jay Rosas and Mark Limbaga, through this documentary, reclaim this Visayan narrative that had been appropriated by the Manila cultural hegemony. It celebrates regional artistry and gives important insights to their material bases and practices.

Ngilngig 2019 film Lazaro’s Trip is a hallucinatory experimental from director Joy Dalman that takes on an apocalyptic vision of a country in socio-political decay. Dalman cleverly uses horror imagery, seeping them deep into the viewers’ minds as if to forcibly remind the latter not to forget the dark crevices of our history that slowly resurface again in the current times.

Hollow Blocks (dir. Jon Olarte) explores the dialectical relationship between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. Created under Prof. Ingo Petzke’s experimental filmmaking workshop, it uses Sitio San Roque, an urban poor residence area in Quezon City under threat of demolition, as its setting and context. That Olarte’s film was screened in Cinemaralita, UPFI Expe Film Festival, and Nation in Visions Film Festival—some of the year’s notable alternative film festivals—is a testament that this short echoes the woes of the poor and portrays them as the building blocks without which society would cease to exist.

REJKT (dir. Jenn Romano) uses basic filmmaking techniques to tell a quiet but powerful account of the extra-judicial killings under the Duterte administration. The simple yet self-assured formalism lends it a sense of accessibility that encourages victims of the drug war—who are mostly nonprofessional filmmakers—to participate in this film project. It is one of the few films of the past year that are not concerned with racking up accolades, focused only on communicating the gravity of the human rights crisis and the need to reject it through collective action.

But what I consider as the best short film I have seen in the past year is Sine Sanyata’s Sinipi Kay Boni, a documentary on the life and ideologies of UP Gawad Plaridel awardee Bonifacio Ilagan. The fusion of form and content is masterful, unapologetic in its Marxist perspective on the relations between art and society.  It is artistic minus any amount of pretentiousness, always informed of the material conditions as experienced by the basic masses. Although the film is a tribute for Ka Boni, it doesn’t put him on a pedestal; rather, it probes into his life as an artist and an activist whose influences lie on how they capture empowerment and resistance against state atrocities.

[Sinipi Kay Boni can be viewed online here.]

Other Honorable Mentions:

Medusae (2019 Cut, dir. Pam Miras), Lola Igna (dir. Eduardo Roy, Jr.), Jino To Mari (dir. Joselito Altarejos), Babae at Baril (dir. Rae Red), A is for Agustin (dir. Grace Pimentel Simbulan), Watch Me Kill (dir. Tyrone Acierto), Bamboo Dogs (dir. Khavn), Ang Babae sa Septic Tank 3 (Director’s Cut, dir. Marlon Rivera), Waiting for Dedo (dir. Anna Reandelar), Tayo (dir. Josiah Hiponia), The Man Who Isn’t There and Other Stories of Longing (dir. Trishtan Perez), Sa Among Agwat (dir. Don Senoc), ‘Wag Mo ‘Kong Kausapin (dir. Josef Dacutan), Usisa (dir. Jerrold Tarog), Peklat Cream (dir. Kevin Dayrit),  Ang Nagliliyab na Kasaysayan ng Pamilya Dela Cruz (dir. Miguel Louie de Guzman), Isang Daa’t Isang Mariposa (dir. Norvin Delos Santos), Mama Mary is a Drag Queen (dir. Lloyd Reyes), The Faithful (dir. Angela Chaves), A Filipino Hitler is Born (dir. Kiri Dalena), Kiss (dir. Harlene Bautista), Tembong (dir. Shaira Advincula), Gitlo (dir. Bobby Villacarlos II), Heist School (dir. Julius Renomeron, Jr.)

This list did not consider films that have yet to get a wider release such as UnTrue (dir. Sigrid Andrea Bernardo), ICYMI: I See Me (dir. Carlo Francisco Manatad), and Lingua Franca (dir. Isabel Sandoval), nor does it include previous festival films that secured nationwide releases in 2019 such as Billie & Emma (dir. Samantha Lee), Pan De Salawal (dir. Che Espiritu), and Kuya Wes (dir. James Robin Mayo).

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