Thursday, December 29, 2016

Present Confusion 2016 Rundown!

The end of the world year is upon us, and for a lot of people, 2016 can go fuck itself. For better or worse, 2016 was a year of change, not only in the film industry, but also the world. It will probably be a while before we see the lasting effects of this year on civilization as a whole, but until then, we keep on moving on, because that's probably the only thing we can do right now.

In lieu of the usual listicle I will be doing this best-of list in consolidated paragraphs instead. My choices will be highlighted in bold. Of course the usual subjectivity disclaimer applies, and if your film doesn't appear in my list, sucks to be you. (Just kidding, of course.)

Philippine Cinema Favorites in 2016: Shifting Paradigms

2016 in Philippine Cinema was an interesting year. From 2015, which has a number of really outstanding films, there were a lot of really good films in 2016, but not a lot of great films. As the year was nearing its final months I was still struggling to find a local film that really caught my attention. In the end I name six films that I really found notable this year. In no particular order, here they are.

The old stalwart of "indie" film fests, Cinemalaya, came back this year with a lineup of feature films, but most of the films felt safe. Even the shorts section, which usually offers a level of experimentation not seen in the feature films lacked this property. It's understandable for a festival that's testing the waters after a year of hibernation. The extra preparation time may have resulted in a less troublesome resource gathering process, but in terms of the movies' overall quality, the difference in output is quite negligible.

Out of Cinemalaya comes my first selection, Pamilya Ordinaryo, whose premise fits very much within what I usually expect with Cinemalaya. It shows us how even the most ordinary of families ends up exploited by entities higher up in the societal food chain. But it's so well done, it's hard not to give it some credit. If there's one thing that Cinemalaya can boast this year, it's a range of really outstanding lead performances, male or female. In this case, it's Ronwaldo Martin and Hasmine Killip who deliver the goods.

Speaking of great performances, there was one performance in particular that won praise in festivals abroad:  Jacklyn Jose in Brillante Mendoza's Ma'Rosa. Mendoza goes back to the social realist film that he does best, adding in a tinge of relevancy for good measure. However, like I said before, Ma'Rosa is not simply a film about the drug trade - it's about the economy of corruption that has taken root in our society, where lives and people become commodities.

And many films this year tackle deeply rooted societal cancers. Most notable in this subset of movies is Sheron Dayoc's Women of the Weeping River, about the trappings of deep seated mentalities and traditions that prove self destructive towards everyone involved. It's a deeply nuanced portrait of what happens with my brothers and sisters in the south, made even more relevant for me because, as a Muslim Filipino myself, this is a personal story as well.

Some societal cancers go away and are excised, but in my line of work, cancer tends to recur and metastasize - the internment of a certain dictator is evidence of that. People tend to forget quite easily, it seems, perhaps because hardship never touched them directly or they were favored in some way, or because of ignorance. On the other hand, there are people who remember, like the victims in Teng Mangansakan's Forbidden Memory. These days films like this are necessary, because unless we commit these memories to posterity, forces that seek to revise history to their own ends will succeed.

False messiahs like Marcos are actually quite abundant, preying on the gullibility of people and their propensity to seek hope. Another film that tackled this notion is one of three films released by Lav Diaz this year, Hele sa Hiwagang Hapis. Though his later film, Ang Babaeng Humayo, received the more prestigious prize, anad as far as Diaz's films go, this is not his best, I found myself gravitating towards Hele a bit more, because of the way it was made specifically for a local audience. There's something poetic in this film which his other two films do not have.

Let's move away from the doom and gloom of the year and move on to something a bit more positive. Film festivals in the Philippines came and went this year. Cinefilipino, Sinag Maynila and the FDCP's own World Premieres Film Festival had their share of films, but none of the films from their lineups really made me pay attention. QCinema continued with a quality lineup, but I found myself preferring last year's edition a bit more. This year's Cinema One film fest is probably this year's most adventurous, playing with different genres (and completely defying expectations of what a documentary should be.) Even then, I found myself wanting.

But surprisingly, (even shockingly) it is the revamped Metro Manila Film Festival, under the helm of the new FDCP, that really surprised me. I guess it's also partially due to low expectations coming in. The MMFF still has a long way to go, and issues from past iterations of the MMFF with respect to financial transparency need to be looked into, but at the very least, I think this is a step forward.

My favorite film from the fest (still ongoing, by the way,) is Baby Ruth Villarama's Sunday Beauty Queen. This film, along with Forbidden Memory, is part of one of 2016's triumphs - that of the documentary form, which is slowly emerging from under the shadow of its fictional narrative brothers. Sunday Beauty Queen is a celebration of the Filipino spirit, and an acknowledgement of the tragedy behind it, because these people have sacrificed a lot for the sake of their families.

Philippine Cinema Favorites in 2016: Honorable Mentions and Misfires

'Good, but not great' defined most of my year as far as local films are concerned. But of course tastes are subjective, and this year really gave us some gems. Here are the films that rank among my honorable mentions for 2016 (perhaps representing the lower 2/3 of a top 20 list if you look at it that way.)

Some of this year's noteworthy films are just plain gorgeous to look at, and I saw two differing aesthetics with regards to cinematography and production design. The first is large, picturesque views of the Philippines, perhaps best personified by Ice Idanan's Sakaling Hindi Makarating and Bagane Fiola's Baboy Halas. The second, beautifully shot, intimate frames of the spaces we live in, exemplified by Prime Cruz's Ang Manananggal sa Unit 23B and Malay Javier's Every Room is a Planet.

Horror movies figured in some way in the local scene, most notably Erik Matti's latest Seklusyon, which continued his exploration of power and faith. Some films went for the cliches and failed, such as Gino Santos' Lila. Others played with the genre to create something completely unique, such as Keith Deligero's Lily. But the top prize has to go to, of all things, a short film: Eduardo Dayao's If You Leave. While it does touch on similar concepts to his earlier Violator, it does not make the finished product any less scary.

Speaking of shorts, there were a lot of interesting short films this year, and a lot of conventional fluff. My favorite is probably Fish out of Water, which talks about mixed children and their struggle to find a place in a society that tends to alienate them.

Gender issues had its share of the spotlight this year; however, at the same time, independent productions had their share of misses, such as Cinefilipino's Straight to the Heart. But this year had a gem in the form of MMFF's Die Beautiful, buoyed by Paolo Ballesteros's performance and Jun Lana's solid directorial hand. Even in mainstream productions, such issues were starting to reach the surface, seen in movies like Lana's Bakit Ang Lahat ng Guwapo may Boyfriend? and Jason Laxamana's The Third Party.

And it's a good 2016 for director Laxamana as we include in this list two movies that he was involved in. The first one, 2 Cool 2 Be 4Gotten, a collaboration with filmmaker Petersen Vargas, is wistful at times and shows mastery of the cinematic language (impressive for a first time filmmaker). The other, Mercury is Mine, is carried by an impressive performance by, of all people, Pokwang, and its story and themes have proven to be haunting long after seeing it. With productions both mainstream and independent under his belt this year he's on a bit of a roll.

Other notable films of the year include the clash of old and new, whether it be tied to something more mythopoetic, like Derrick Cabrido's Tuos, or to something a bit more grounded, such as ToFarm Film Festival's Paglipay. From this subset of films comes a real gem from Alvin Yapan's Oro, perhaps his best since Ang Sayaw ng Dalawang Kaliwang Paa, whose social injustices are rooted in real and tragic events.

Other films are notable to me for just one particular aspect. In a world where films based on medicine end up horribly inaccurate (even those from Hollywood), Vilma Santos starrer Everything About Her ends up as one of this year's best researched films, foreign or local, in terms of medical care. For the unique way it presented itself visually, I found Cinefilipino's Buhay Habangbuhay immensely interesting.

Philippine Cinema 2016: The Weakest Links

I find myself generally charitable towards local films, even the really bad ones. I also almost never walk out of movies because I know I want to give it a chance. But this year one really bad stinker got me. It's the first and only time this year I've walked out of a film. The distinction goes to the three hour director's cut of Ligaw. It's the kind of film that denies you any sort of satisfaction. I left the theater ragged and tired as hell.

But that's not the only film that tired me out this year. I prayed that Gil Portes' Ang Hapis at Himagsik ni Hermano Puli would be good even in some minor way. In this case, God didn't listen to my prayers. My friends who were with me during the Cinemalaya premiere slept through most of the film, and I think they were the lucky ones. At least I found this movie hilarious, in all the wrong ways.

To complete the trifecta of badness, we go to the most entertaining entry in this year's worst list: Enteng Kabisote 10 and the Abangers. I admit being entertained by this film, but only through interpreting it as a self reflexive criticism of itself. It is the embodiment of the commercialism and decay that the film industry has gone through, commodifying cheap distraction for money.

There's a large number of films that I wish I could have seen this year such as Upline Downline, but alas, those things disappear quite easily.

Speaking of things that are funny, let's speak about jokes that are not funny at all. The most unfunny joke of 2016 in Philippine Cinema goes to the FAMAS awards, which, as an award giving body has lost all of its credibility (to be fair, this might have happened a long time ago.) To give one glaring example, this is an awards giving body that gave this year's best special effects award to Angela Markado a film whose special effects would be bad even in 1995:

this is the FAMAS best special effects winner. You daft bastards

That's it for local cinema. This time it's time for the rest of the world.

Rest of the World: The Hollywood Capitalist Machine

Meanwhile, in Hollywood, executives and corporations polished their latest finely tuned product to consumer perfection. No genre has filled our consciousnesses more in the past decade or so than the superhero genre, and it's Disney (tm) Marvel (tm)'s Captain America: Civil War that wins my favorite superhero film of the year. It's fun, it's exciting, its a wild ride, if not a bit safe.

On the other side of the fence, Warner Brothers was trying to copy this formula to rather disastrous results. I did not enjoy Batman v Superman at all (the extended cut was a bit better) and although I liked Suicide Squad, its tone was more schizophrenic than its most deranged characters.

It's not a problem just inherent with Warner Brothers. Remakes, reboots and sequels all got shafted hard this year, from Ghostbusters to Independence Day: Resurgence. All in all, 2016 was a pretty shitty time to be a big blockbuster franchise film.

One franchise celebrated its 50th anniversary with a whimper this year: Star Trek, my most beloved science fiction franchise. Star Trek Beyond is not a bad movie in any sense, but the marketing that accompanied this movie was almost non-existent at points, leaving a disappointing box office take. It still remains my favorite of the reboot films.

We end this year with Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, which is definitely enjoyable, but shows me the cracks that are forming with Hollywood and its blockbusters. So many of these films depend on intertextuality so much that without the intertextual reference, the movie falls apart - and that's what I see with Rogue One, which would not have worked even half as well without A New Hope. While it gets a pass thanks to the way it complements A New Hope, its a dangerous precedent for films to come in the future.

Hollywood has brought out some interesting original content this year, mostly during the Oscar season. Examples of this for 2016 include Lenny Abrahamson's Room, and Spotlight, which eventually took the Academy Award for Best Picture.

In terms of animation,  Disney had competition from films like Kubo and the Two Strings, which is a phenomenal achievement in animation, even though its story is very basic, My favorite Disney/Pixar film this year is Moana, a charming little film with progressive ideals, honed by years of prototype films in the same mold.

(as an aside Zootopia honestly did nothing for me don't kill me guyz)

Rest of the World: Asian and World Cinema
I really don't have the chops to tell you about World Cinema this year, as I haven't seen some of this year's best films in World Cinema, including Best Foreign Film winner Son of Saul, postcolonial narrative Embrace of the Serpent or any of the films Isabelle Huppert starred in this year.

I have seen a bunch of other films from around the world, mostly in Japan and Korea, so I guess I'll talk about those instead. I promise to watch more world cinema next year.


Some really interesting foreign films seen during film festivals include Taiwanese drama The Kids, and from this year's Eiga Sai, Hirokazu Kore-eda's My Little Sister, as slice of life as you can get with these dramas, and 2014's Pale Moon, a dark look at capitalist excess in the bubble era of Japan's economy. But none have been as impactful for me as this year's Palm D'Or Winner, Ken Loach's I, Daniel Blake, whose issues have sparked discourse in its home country.

This year I had the privilege of seeing films abroad. Hollywood superhero films have a Japanese cousin - the manga adaptation - and my favorite manga adaptation was this year's Chihayafuru (parts 1 and 2,) which I saw in Tokyo last June. It's not completely faithful to the source material but it does have some interesting moments and a great performance from teen actress Suzu Hirose, who seems to be in demand right now.

Quite fortuitously, one of Suzu Hirose's other films finds a spot among my favorite films of 2016. While a lot of people may find the melodramatic last sequence of Lee Sang-il's Rage problematic, I though it was a nice end to an unforgettable, emotionally draining film, probably Lee's best since 2010's Akunin.

Genre films also had their day this year. For horror fanatics, The VVitch was an interesting watch and a phenomenal first film. Korea also had their own share of horror movies in top form, such as Na Hong-jin's The Wailing, as well as this year's runaway blockbuster Train to Busan, mixing both social relevance and good old zombie action.

Kaiju films had their heyday with Hideaki Anno's Godzilla Resurgence, which follows the 1985 and 1954 films in tone, reinventing Godzilla and the Kaiju genre for modern times.

Of course, as a fanboy of director Park Chan-wook, his latest, The Handmaiden, showed Park in a return to form, in what is probably my favorite film of his after the Vengeance Trilogy.

And finally, there's the rare film that I watch and I get this feeling of magic, and the sheer joy of watching movies fills me up. It's a feeling that I haven't felt in a long time, but this year I've been lucky to experience such a film once again in the form of Makoto Shinkai's Your Name. Given how it has demolished box office records in its home country, it might come off as a little overhyped, but in my opinion, not overrated. Your Name isn't just a good anime film, it's a great film, period, and its films like these that remind me why I love doing this shit so much.

Treasure the moment; Dreams fade away when you wake up.
Eleven years and counting, guys. Next year is going to be the centennial anniversary of Philippine Cinema and a new year for the cinema of the world. This is me, signing off for 2016, and as always, see you bastards at the movies.

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