Friday, January 6, 2012

The Top Filipino Films of 2011

Riches, an embarrassment of riches. It is a year liable to go down in local cinematic history as one of the most accomplished, one of the richest. The year 2011 will also likely serve a benchmark against which other years, past and future, will be measured. It was the year the steadfast patience of the Filipino film enthusiast was rewarded with a veritable cornucopia at the local art-houses. The vaunted indie film festivals – Cinemalaya, Cinema One and Cinemanila -- delivered in spades. This troika of film venues constituted a vibrant independent circuit that kept everyone busy and buzzing for the duration of the festival season.

My shortlist of the previous year's top films – an unimaginative decimal list, I admit – may look spick-and-span on this blogspace, but it doesn’t reflect my frantic and confounded efforts to shoehorn all my favorites in. It is painful to leave anything out, and it underscores how arbitrary a top-ten list can be. Another ten may have been possible, and arguably just as solid: Bahay Bata, Amok, Busong, Isda, Ang Babae Sa Septic Tank, Mapang-Akit, Pahinga , and Bisperas would have been worthy candidates. That does not even include some putatively excellent films I neglected to see: Zombadings has been touted to be among the best comedies released last year, supposedly trumping even other more ballyhooed films. My almost complete ignorance of commercial-run fare also meant that some quality films may have fallen through the cracks.     

Refreshingly surprising and startling is how the past year’s harvest of films came in a broad spectrum of approaches and aesthetics, in a wide variety of themes and subjects. There is a healthy demonstration that our cinema and our filmmakers are not cut from the same cloth. Formal experiment, for instance, stands just as worthily alongside more conventional methodology and techniques. That Six Degrees of Separation from Lilia Cuntapay, a self-conscious mockumentary, and Buenas Noches Espana, an experimental, category-defying film, can make it alongside a serious neorealist tract like Sa Kanto ng Ulap at Lupa, is a testament to the cinematic diversity on offer.  

Experimentalism did not simply find expression in various forms and aesthetics, but in a petulance with straight spatio-temporal diegetics: it was imperative as opposed to decorative. With Buenas Noches Espana, Raya Martin served up an anti-narrative that meditates and hallucinates about colonial history. In Sakay Sa Hangin, the camera ostensibly records the everyday life of a tribe in a kind of ethnography, but simultaneously tells a timeless mythic story. Big Boy cinematicizes memory, so that cinema becomes almost gospel that second-guesses our own supposed human faculties. The realities of time and space are almost like suggestions to these films. What it says is not escapism but a tendency toward a summa, a rootedness to the past.

Like the aforementioned films, Lav Diaz’s A Century of Birthing is also a hybrid work, an allegory that meditates on the nature and progress of cinema, its many practical and quotidian anxieties that go uneasily hand-in-hand with a filmmaker’s personal vision. Diaz's paean to cinema, it shows how he remains at the peak of his creative powers. Like Diaz's film, Shireen Seno’s Big Boy is both concerned with the personal and the historical. It is quite uncanny how someone’s personal vision of the past can codify everyone else’s memory.  

Discourse about more current and pressing issues is all but a given, a constant, when it comes to independent filmmaking. Films of this persuasion are probably the plinth that underpins the whole movement, and they sure enough made their mark in 2011. A film about sexual awakening like Sayaw ng Dalawang Kaliwang Paa can be seen in the context of wider gender and identity issues embedded in its subtle discourse. The demystification of the diaspora was the overarching theme of Lawas Kan Pinabli: it supplies an anti-heroic perspective so alien to the headlines and laudatory poetry. Sa Kanto ng Ulap at Lupa lures us to one corner of Cagayan Valley to shed light on the tragic lives of waifs here and therefore elsewhere.  

The heterogeneity spills over into other forms. Mga Anino sa Tanghaling Tapat mystifies adolescence into a Grimm fairy tale with unexpected, almost Grand Guignol underpinnings. Six Degrees of Separation from Lilia Cuntapay is that tongue-in-cheek, and unusual biopic noteworthy for its thinly veiled sympathy for its subject while foregrounding a mocking and mock irreverence on the surface. In Nino, we find a well-told and affecting tale of a clan’s decline, a tale that circumvents the conventions of distraught family dramas. There is a genre-bending awareness that informs all of these films, a sure sign of growing and continuing maturity for local independent cinema.    

If some of these films have eluded you, fret not. It is almost certain that there will be opportunities to see these films in the new year. Their excellence almost guarantees it. But do catch up on this backlog sooner rather than later, as a new festival season opens at the middle of the year with the promise of still another bountiful harvest.                       

Here is my list of the top films of 2011 (Click on film title for full review):

"Big Boy, the first feature film by Shireen Seno, is in many ways about the traumatization of childhood. Childhood is not always magic and idyll. True, to some extent, Seno’s film mirrors Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s A Summer at Grandpa’s with its evocation of a happy childhood. Here with fondness are the wonder years: the parlor games, the outdoor adventures, the staunch playmates, the favorite songs, and the innocence."

2) Century of Birthing  (Lav Diaz)

"From Autohystoria (2007) to Maicling Pelicula Nang Ysang Indio Nacional (2005) to Independencia (2009), Martin has been engaged on a mission of dredging up and retrieving our colonial past. That has meant everything from reconstructing the lay of the land in 1896 to doing a diachronic depiction of Filipino culture circa American times. This time Buenas Noches reveals more about our present-day cultural relations with Spain than anything else, something that might seemingly involve more diplomatically palatable facets of geopolitics, but still puts into perspective how much – or how little – has changed between the two countries."

"The grand and not so grand narratives of sexual awakening are a dime a dozen. Each one of us has a story to tell – and how often a story to embellish – at an early juncture of adolescence. More relevantly, within the annals of cinema, the terrain is a well-trodden one, assuming a subgenre all its own. Many a tawdry youth-oriented film has singlemindedly sexualized love, and thus vulgarized and grossly irrigated this honorable ideal. An entry of a preeminent kind, Alvin Yapan’s Ang Sayaw ng Dalawang Kaliwang Paa is a lyrical and poetic tale that brings back respectability to eros so often shortchanged."

5) Six Degrees of Separation from Lilia Cuntapay (Antoinette Jadaone)

"Episodic in structure, neorealist in approach, De Guzman's film shows these kids caught in the last gasp of innocence. Their naivety is best illustrated in a scene where they bring home a discarded vhs player found on a garbage heap. Believing it to be a gift, they have it tested on a neighbor’s television, only to realize that it is broken and  beyond repair. Worse, it is technology as obsolete as their innocent worldview."

"These girls are the newly adolescent. Their flowering is headlong, and complacent. They embrace the latitude of their young age, but ignore the fine print that comes with it. They handle sex as an unfamiliar apparatus, in different stages of clumsiness and callowness. They are tempting fate, a fate that memorializes them in various stages of maturation. You can all but draw a schema. Thus there is a reason to read a symbolic subtext into their destinies."

"Forever Loved, in the end, may well be the most thorough, most textured, and most insightful study on the Filipino OCW. Perhaps such a saga of a people's exodus is bound to unfold in many more unforeseen ways and might never see an immediate end. Gozum deserves to be commended for going against the grain, forwarding a perspective the rest of us aren't prepared to entertain. He never loses sight of the human picture, the stories he has heard or knows first-hand. These stories, whether grounded on the real or the invented, must resonate with him, cut him to the quick, a heart that harbors the traumas of being so far from home." 

"Sakay Sa Hangin is a worthy ethnographic document of singular distinction. Few films -- Murnau's Tabu and the works of Flaherty perhaps -- can be compared with it through cinematic history. Sakay Sa Hangin, without didacticism, also retrieves our lost connection and communion with nature. Framed in an open-ended structure, the film demonstrates the flow of life and how it ought to be held sacred: war should not enter into it. And once we latch on to its lyrical imagery, its fabulous structure and spare storytelling, it is a breeze to watch. A breath-taking ride on the wind."

"Faded glory crumbles from the walls of the Villa Los Reyes Magos, the ancestral dwelling of the Lopez-Aranda family. This house used to be grand, laments one of the remaining members of this once-proud family in a resigned and regretful tone. And there is every reason for regret. From having born witness and played host to some moments and figures of historic importance, the house teeters on its last legs. The fate of its occupants seems inextricably linked with the fate of the very house."

Postscript: The Best Non-Local Films 

I was able to watch around 250 films last year. Ironically very little proportion came from 2011. What's important, I guess, is discovering these films at all.

Here then, without regard for year of release, are the best non-local films I saw in the year just concluded:


Once Upon A Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2011)

Tie Xi Qu: West of The Tracks 1,2,3 (Wang Bing, 2003)

The Circus Tent (Govindan Aravindan, 1978)

Hunting Scenes from Bavaria (Peter Fleischmann, 1969)

Nostalgia for the Light (Patricio Guzman, 2010)

A Simple Story (Marcel Hanoun, 1959)

The House of the Angel (Leopoldo Torre Nilsson, 1957)

Sao Paulo, Sociedade Anonima (Luis Sergio Person, 1965)

Oxhide (Liu Jiayin, 2005)

Kosmos (Reha Erdem, 2009)

Blockade (Sergei Loznitsa, 2006)

Anything Can Happen (Marcel Lozinski, 1995)

(tag: The Best Filipino Films of 2011)


  1. Good to see votes for both Anino and Big Boy. Possibly the two most underrated films of the past year. Mes' film fell through the cracks for me but it deserves all the shout-outs it can get. But Sakay Sa Hangin and Century of Birthing I simply wasn't able to see.

    Oh butvAnatolia was all sorts of sublime, wasn't it? :)

    Superlative list, Noli. :D

  2. Thanks, Dodo! It was particularly hard and easy to make a list this time around. Easy that there were a lot of worthy candidates, but hard to trim them down to 10. I still regret having cut off Bahay Bata and Amok. These were debuts for their filmmakers, and they deserve to be championed. A list of the year's best could conceivably consist of first-time filmmakers. The bench is getting deep! And our grizzled veterans are still going strong. Century of Birthing could have been tops, even of an international list. It was that good. Big Boy just struck a deep chord with me, it was well-conceived and ingenious in its transposition into film. Anino is there for its unique take on thanatos and eros, and yes, its indelible, sui generis images. I'm downloading and rewatching Anatolia again. That good!

  3. Woohooo. Inggit ako sa mga nakapanood dyan ng Anatolia, Sakay Sa Hangin, at Century of Birthing. Anino is pretty disturbing. Didn't know what to make out of the last few sequences (that's a good thing, though). Kudos, Noli!

  4. Thanks, Chard! When is your much-awaited list coming out? Iba na ang may tunay na buhay, too pleasantly busy for incidental things like cinema.

  5. I have yet to see Guzman's Nostalgia for the Light. Anino sa Tanghaling Tapat is an honorable mention for me, but I can see where Baldoza is going. I've seen some of her short films and they're quite original: the surreal, mysterious and ambiguous elements are there.

    I'm quite curious about the following films you've chosen for the non-local films:

    THE CIRCUS TENT - it's indian and the filmmaker is not a canonical Indian Filmmaker like Ghatak or Ray.

    HUNTING SCENES FROM BAVARIA - ive seen great films from West Germany during the late 60s.This might be an underrated masterpiece from the region.

    and Ive been meaning to watch that BLOCKADE. Can't find decent download links. :)

  6. Much-awaited? Haha. I dunno. Been really busy at work and home these days. I cannot find time to write or catch movies. Also, I don't think I've seen enough films last year to merit a top ten, but let's see. I might devote a weekend to write a piece like yours, but not as comprehensive! By the way, have you seen Alix's Haruo?

  7. Hi Adrian,

    Battle of Chile first, then Nostalgia, second. That's how Guzman should be seen. I say that because both films refer to the same turbulent times in Chile's history, when Allende (and socialism) came to power and was never allowed a free and peaceful mandate. Battle of Chile documents the actual events, historical and social in tenor, while Nostalgia is a contemporary meditation on the past, rooted in humanity and poignant hindsight.

    Baldoza's other works sound intriguing too. Anino has a tantalizing and elusive quality that still has me wondering.

    Make no mistake, Aravindan is a major director in Indian art cinema – that is, if John Hood's book The Essential Mystery is to be believed. He gives the first chapter to Ghatak, and second to Ray. Then he devotes individual chapters to Aravindan, Mrinal Sen, Shyam Benegal, Adoor Gopalakhrishnan, Buddhadev Dasgupta, Govind Nihalani and Girish Kasaravalli. I bought this book blindly based on the title, years ago. I'm only now starting to read it as I'm getting more access to Indian films.

    Hunting Scenes from Bavaria is a great film, I say that without reservation. I like it a lot better than many of the German films of the same era, even better than Schlondorff’s Sudden Wealth of the Poor People of Kombach, with its unflattering, “anti-touristic” view of German folk people. I won’t say what, but the theme here is something that someone who has read Madame Bovary can relate to.

    No links to Blockade unfortunately, just Karagarga. If you need an account there, let me know.

  8. Hi Chard, Sorry to hear about how work is keeping you away. What a four-letter word, work is. But if your work is related to film, then it's film's gain just the same. Baka director ka na ngayun. Still, you should you continue writing about film; your readership is clamoring at the gates. Don't you hear? I haven't seen Haruo. Is it any good? I like the last two Alix films I've seen, Isda and Chassis. If you seriously say it's good, I'll take note of it.

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