The 12 best Filipino films of 2017
MANILA, Philippines – It has always been a strange and very difficult endeavor to reduce 365 days and so many movies to a subjective list of 12 films that are supposedly the best. It would even be stranger to rationalize the exercise, except perhaps to serve some form of commemoration of the year of film that just closed, extolling all of its realized promises by lining up the cream of the crop while hoping that the truly awful ones are fully forgotten.
What exactly should 2017 be remembered for? If we are going to go by comparisons, 2017 feels like the trough to 2016’s crest. 2016 saw auteurs Brillante Mendoza and Lav Diaz release their most ambitious works, all winning awards at prestigious international film festivals. 2017, on the other hand, opened with subpar films that didn’t quite make it to 2016’s exemplary edition of the annual Metro Manila Film Festival. In a matter of a year or so, President Duterte and his controversies have already made quite an impact cinematically, inspiring filmmakers to either kowtow or resist.
With the exception of Sinag Maynila which decided to open its film festival to independently-produced finished films than ones it selected to bankrolled, local film festivals like Cinemalaya, QCinema and Cinema One Originals are still beholden to the formula of selecting its entries on the basis of submitted scripts and pitches, giving its grantees a few million and few months to finish their film for a week-or-so-long run that will either jumpstart those films’ international festival life or halt all their ambitions entirely.
Predictably, most of 2017’s best films are products of these festivals, but what is becoming more apparent is how filmmakers have started to become more enterprising in the way they make films outside the restrictive budgets and timelines of the local film festivals, resulting in a distinct class of films whose artistic ambitions are matched by crafting. Films like Jerrold Tarog’s Bliss, Mikhail Red’s Birdshot and Loy Arcenas’ Ang Larawan wouldn’t have been made within the restrictive systems of mainstream studios and the restrictive limitations of film festivals.
It is a year of many oddities. It is a year when experimental filmmakers Raya Martin and Sherad Sanchez had their films screening in crowded malls. It is a year when the Metro Manila Film Festival decided to trade its victories from last year for convenient commerce. It is a year when Kita Kita, its director Sigrid Bernardo and unlikely stars Alessandra de Rossi and Empoy Marquez bested Star Cinema and its love teams at their own game.
It is a year so complicated to be summarized by this arbitrary list of what I consider the 12 local films that deserve to be seen and remembered:
Directed by Antoinette Jadaone
The easiest thing to do is to simply give Joshua Garcia and Julia Barretto just another formulaic storyline to spice up with their irresistible charms. What Antoinette Jadaone had in mind instead is something more out of the box, a film about living and dying, about grief and love that didn’t really break any rules but managed to feel fresh amidst all the other rom-coms released within the year. Moreover, it allowed the two young stars to exhibit a lot more range than what a conventional rom-com will allow.
11. Ang Larawan
Directed by Loy Arcenas
A pedigreed film, through and through. Ang Larawan is elegant and refined. Prestige however isn’t the only thing the film offers. It is guided by the spirit of Nick Joaquin’s beloved text, about two spinster sisters latching on to their glorious but fading past. The transition of the musical for the big screen leads to noticeable issues, but the act of adaptation is in itself a noble act of democratizing an important literary work for the more public kind of consumption and appreciation that cinema can afford.
10. Tu Pug Imatuy
Directed by Arnel Barbarona
Arnel Barbarona has either lensed or edited many of Mindanao’s most important films including Arnel Mardoquio’s Ang Paglalakbay ng mga Bituin sa Gabing Malalim (2012), Gutierrez Mangansakan II’s Qiyamah (2012) and Sheron Dayoc’s The Crescent Rising (2015). It doesn’t come as a surprise that his debut as a director is also fueled by a desire to deepen the discourse about the situation of the island. Brimming with painfully lyrical images despite having been shot with a shoestring budget, the film echoes a quiet but palpable rage against a staggered war that has ravished the land and the innocent people who have been caught in the crossfire.
9. Bundok Banahaw, Sacred and Profane
Directed by Dempster Samarista
The focus of Dempster Samarista's sophomore documentary feature isn’t exactly original. Mount Banahaw has been the topic of too many television specials and documentaries, most of which skeptically portray the place as a community of eccentrics. What is most remarkable about Samarista’s documentary is that it doesn’t really waive skepticism, but simply mixes it with wonder, faith, curiosity, suspicion and enchantment. The result is more an ecstatically overwhelming experience than an informative one.
Directed by Raya Martin
At first glance, Raya Martin seems to be an odd choice to direct the adaptation of F.H. Batacan’s novel about Jesuit priests attempting to solve a serial murder mystery. Martin goes through the motion of faithfully telling Batacan’s story, but emphasizing the social constructs that are endemic in the country that might have given rise to such a bizarre crime and the even more bizarre way of solving it. The film is much more than the tightly woven procedural that it is. In Martin’s hands, the material becomes a more potent reflection on the country’s enduring culture of oppression, corruption and violence.
Directed by Thop Nazareno
Deceptively simple in terms of narrative structure, Thop Nazareno’s debut is mannered and beautifully deliberate, never rushing to tell its story but instead relying on gestures to relay its potent sentiments. Propelled by the delicately mature performance of 13-year-old Neil Comia, Jr., the film bursts at the seams with all the resounding emotions that are echoed through whispers. A coming-of-age tale of a boy who grew up with his mother and is now longing for his father, the film is heartbreakingly tender in its portrayal of a life desperately seeking to fit in a world of unfair patriarchy.
Directed by Treb Monteras II
Treb Monteras II’s debut is surefooted in both its crafting and its message. What is ostensibly a moving tale of an ambitious upstart who finally meets his match in an old cantankerous shopkeeper becomes a powerful rumination on the power of words and how they both serve and fail us. The film knows its history and fully utilizes it to explore the cycle of violence in a country where inequity and oppression are prevalent.
Directed by Shireen Seno
Shireen Seno’s sophomore feature portrays childhood with provocative intimacy and earnestness. Everything feel so tactile and tangible, from the various objects of the past, the vivid memories and the restrained emotions. The film’s culmination, which depicts a catastrophe both from the perspective of it being a terrible thing to behold and a marvelous bauble to remember, emphasizes the curative function of reminiscence, and how the pangs growing up have evolved from being a terrifying thing to a beautiful disaster just by virtue of the distance afforded by recollection.
Directed by Giancarlo Abrahan
Heartbreak and humor are seamlessly woven together in this story of an aging matriarch, played by an impressive Dexter Doria who finally gets her spotlight after decades of playing support, who suddenly decides that she’s had enough of her philandering husband. The film dissects the painful complexities of loving within a cultural landscape where the same becomes a burden, a responsibility, and inevitably, a prison that one needs to escape from. Although structured almost like a melodrama, the film’s vital truths are biting and abundant.
3. Three Enchantments
Directed by Jon Lazam
Jon Lazam’s compelling but abstract short film imagines the country as a land of myths and monsters all in the form of its people and its landscape. Mixing both the mysterious and the mundane, the film indulges in the act of exploration, envisioning the Philippines as an uncharted land of hybrid appeal, where history, culture, and geography have all resulted in a country that is defined by the accord of disparate elements.
Directed by Ramona Diaz
The title seems to refer to the crowded government-sponsored hospital where mothers, all wearing the same uniforms while suffering the dehumanizing consequences of poverty, decide to give birth. It can also refer to US-based Ramona Diaz’s impression of her country of birth, and how the hospital with all its flaws but humanizing tenderness serves as a metaphoric prison for the 100 million people who seem to be born only to find ways to escape it.
Directed by Khavn dela Cruz
Cruelty is the core of Khavn dela Cruz’s most daring and ambitious work yet. Taking the massacre of both people and animals by the Americans during their years of occupation as a starting point, the film traverses both real and imagined landscapes to depict man’s instinct not just to survive but also to harbor hate for his fellowmen. The film is devastatingly beautiful but Dela Cruz doesn’t sacrifice his spontaneous aesthetics for unnecessary gloss. The film remains to be distinctly his work even amidst a teetering towards conventional filmmaking. This is an absolute gem.
Francis Joseph Cruz litigates for a living and writes about cinema for fun. The first Filipino movie he saw in the theaters was Carlo J. Caparas’ Tirad Pass. Since then, he’s been on a mission to find better memories with Philippine cinema.