Having co-written this year-ender since 2020, I started writing this list as soon as the year began in the hopes of having a headstart. But as the year went on, the task became more taxing. Even as a person who supposedly does this for a living.
Internationally, there was an abundance to keep up with: Dolly de Leon became the first Filipino actress nominated for a Golden Globe Award for acting. Martika Ramirez Escobar received an Independent Spirit nomination for her film, which premiered at Sundance and subsequently screened at Toronto International Film Festival. Mike de Leon became the first Filipino director to have a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. Merv Espina co-curated one of the most comprehensive retrospectives of Philippine cinema yet for the Taiwan International Documentary Festival. The traveling film program co-curated by Merv Espina and Shireen Seno called “The Kalampag Tracking Agency: 30 Years of Experimental Film & Video from the Philippines” screened at multiple places around the world, including the Metrograph. The list goes on.
But more than these, the local film industry (or whatever is left after a difficult two years) has also begun back to its feat. Notable film festivals such as Cinemalaya and the Ngilngig Asian Fantastic Film Festival returned to physical and hybrid screenings. More funding has been allocated for short films, local productions, and international co-productions at all stages of development thanks to institutions such as the Film Development Council of the Philippines and the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, as well as festivals such as Cinemalaya and QCinema. The Full Circle Lab Philippines held its third iteration physically, allowing people from all over Southeast Asia to creatively converge. Filipino producers and distributors have started rolling out commercial releases and theaters have slowly regained audiences. But most of all, three titans — Ricky Lee, Marilou Diaz-Abaya, and Nora Aunor — were given the recognition of National Artist this year.
With every new iteration of the list, a new question popped into my head: Are there enough films from the regions? From women? Queer and non-binary folxs? Are there too many dramas? Where are the comedies? Am I abandoning emotionally affecting films for more formally daring ones? Is this even representative of the zeitgeist? What about accessibility and availability? Can this list stand on its own? What about a decade later? Is this really good or am I just uneducated? The questions became innumerable, the task became unbearable, and I became depressed.
As a scientist, I thought I could arrive at the best formula or procedure that would allow me to distill the whole year into writing — one that would reap the most rewards and piss off the least number of people. But it became apparent that the questions I asked myself, however valid, were getting in the way of honoring cinema because the impulse was borne out of fear. By attempting to be foolproof, I simply became a fool.
So, dear reader, I concede. In waving my tiny white flag, I made a life-changing discovery: the task is impossible because cinema in the Philippines is alive. And not just on your streaming sites or in theaters either. There are community screenings, online film festivals via Discord and Facebook, museums and exhibits, drive-in parking lots and dine-in restaurants, and even TikTok and Instagram. It’s time we go beyond what is convenient and easily accessible because nothing that’s worth it in this world has ever been available in an instant.
This list is constructed with the knowledge that I am not the lone cartographer mapping the landscape. Every list and opinion born before and after this — whether from resistance or support, hatred or love — will add to the ongoing conversation and will serve as a reminder that there are still corners to be discovered and ignored, work to be praised and panned, and talents to be honored and paid for. I hope to honor the films that have dwarfed me with their ambition, enriched my spirit in their pursuit of truth, and questioned my ideas of Filipino cinema. Instead of affirmation, I choose to challenge all of us: to seek out and create spaces for cinema to thrive, to support smaller artists who deserve our time and attention, and to recognize the breadth and depth of stories from our own shores.
“Rambutan” (written and directed by Shayla Claire Perales, written by Shiela Mae Tanagon)
Who would’ve thought that one of the best films this year would be a stop-motion animation starring your favorite tropical fruits? Made in an experimental film class by Shayla Claire Perales and Shiela Mae Tanagon, “Rambutan” is a film whose ambiguity — not vagueness, but rather the richness in meaning — is its greatest asset.
While created as an allegory for the way COVID-19 disseminates, infiltrates, and destroys during the pandemic, “Rambutan” expands to embody other forms of decay: the AIDS crisis, the contagious nature of graft and corruption, the proliferation of fake news, benevolent assimilation, the list goes on. The film never bores, as Perales and Tanagon keep the vibrantly colored produce dancing, matching Ryan Joshua Mangaliag’s catchy techno-pop beats. With each successive rewatch, the film morphs into a new Rorschach test, all revealing humanity’s rotting core.
Screened at Piling Obrang Vidyo. Available for free via YouTube.
“Divine Factory” (written and directed by Joseph Mangat)
In a dilapidated concrete labyrinth in Antipolo, Rizal, queer bodies shape revered religious figures out of resin. Workers tease each other about their sex lives, drinking, and gambling, as they cast, paint, and retouch statues of a Sleeping Saint Joseph. But by oscillating between observation and participation, director Joseph Mangat makes room for serious conversations too: about how a recent flood washed away the progress of workers on the lower levels, driving them into debt; about how some used to be highly paid cam girls until it became a form of cybercrime, forcing them into the factory; about how the visit of the Pope in the Philippines saved them from succumbing to their vices and enabled them to have savings at the cost of trapping them into unending labor. But Mangat avoids steeping the film in cynicism, nor does it romanticize or sensationalize the poverty at the hands of religion and commercialism. By allowing the workers to narrate their own quotidian lives uninterrupted, the joys and struggles, the contradictions within conservative beliefs, the quiet and humble work, their strength and dignity despite the systems rigged against them, Mangat holds space for the truly human and divine.
Screened at DOK Leipzig.
“Leonor Will Never Die” (written and directed by Martika Ramirez Escobar)
It strikes me now, only a year after its premiere at Sundance and after I’ve written countless pieces about the film, how much of “Leonor Will Never Die” is a resistance to forgetting and letting go. Leonor Reyes (Sheila Francisco) is a hoarder of pirated DVDs and scripts but also of memories and grievances. In her quest to preserve the present, she fabricates the greatest delusion — an ‘80s action film wherein she can predict everything. Until she can’t.
While innovation, ingenuity, and fun have been used to describe the film and writer-director Martika Ramirez Escobar, “Leonor Will Never Die” resonates because of generosity. Escobar extends the film again and again — creating multiple endings, even negotiating with her editor Lawrence S. Ang onscreen — in the hopes of extending Rudie (Bong Cabrera) and Leonor’s time together, enabling them to sing with one another until the very last minute. It had taken Escobar eight years to finish the film. But as Alyana Cabral’s “Ibon at Bala” plays and an image of Quiapo appears before us, one cannot help but feel like Leonor’s story has just begun.
Premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, made available locally through Cinemalaya. Available for block screenings at Sine Pophttps://www.facebook.com/sinepopup.
“Palengke Day” (written and directed by Mervine Aquino)
“Palengke Day” begins with a simple question about baking. But that inquiry expands like dough rising: first revealing lapses in government response during the extended community quarantine (ECQ), ones that citizens are forced to navigate on their own through connections, then later exposing the growing gentrification of the Baguio marketplace at the hands of private developers SM Prime Holdings. Writer-director Mervine Aquino uses handheld phone videos of the marketplace to give a face to those affected by mallification, archival and contemporary stills to show the roots of these injustices in colonialism and capitalism, scanned documents of memorandums to point out the hypocrisy of local politicians, clips navigating Baguio using Google maps to demonstrate the magnitude of these geographical changes, and detailed animations of the upcoming property to drive his point home. While citizens struggle against the bureaucratic structures, Aquino takes their rage and uses it to power the film and make it more kinetic, their voices attempting to be heard amidst the hustle and bustle of city life. With the rising cost due to inflation around the country, these questions of development at the cost of the quality of life of the citizens are not only necessary but prescient.
Screened at the Gawad Alternatibo and the Active Vista Human Rights Festival. Available via Cinemata.
“BOLD EAGLE” (written and directed by Whammy Alcazaren)
The experience of watching Whammy Alcazaren’s “BOLD EAGLE” has been likened to a prolonged and intense psychedelic experience. An audiovisual feast combining NSFW images from alter, filters from Zoom, TikTok, and Instagram, and Carlo Manatad’s hyperkinetic editing, “BOLD EAGLE” is Alcazaren at his most playful and cocky and a middle finger to the (absurd!!!) censorship rules in the Philippines. But beneath the many eggplant emojis, the conversations with the cats, the endless horniness, and the daddy issues, “BOLD EAGLE” is a cry for help; an attempt to connect while in the middle of an existential crisis; doomscrolling and terminally online culture distilled, concentrated, and distributed via film language. Each filter becomes new skin to try on; each sexual act becomes a hurricane that takes you away from the weight of home; each sticker, laced with LSD or not, thrusts you into a new adventure or covers up your junk. But most of all, there is humor and fun, even in the bleakest.
Premiered at QCinema.
“12 Weeks” (written and directed by Anna Isabelle Matutina)
What is rarely discussed about Anna Isabelle Matutina’s “12 Weeks” is the female friendship at the center of the film. When Alice (Max Eigenmann, in the year’s most brilliant performance) needs an abortion, Lorna (Claudia Enriquez) makes the calls for her. When Lorna’s husband falls ill, Alice provides her with support during treatments. When the two get into a drunken argument and Lorna suddenly throws up, Alice rushes to wipe up after her and the two abandon their rage. At every turn, just as one thinks that it is the breaking point, just as they are about to hurt each other irreparably, they make the choice to care for each other, draw strength from one another, sacrifice for each other, make themselves laugh instead. So when Alice, bedridden after a miscarriage, convinces herself that she is unable to take care of anyone, we understand that these feelings are born out of fear. Matutina’s “12 Weeks” is a triumph not only because it draws connections between violations of bodily autonomy and authoritarianism, personal and collective crises, but also because it shows how compassion, even in the smallest and most unrecognizable acts, can exist amidst the turmoil.
Screened at Cinemalaya and QCinema. For private screenings, send a message to their website.
“like people, they change too”/“the river that never ends” (written and directed by JT Trinidad)
There are few filmmakers who are as keen observers of space and human life as JT Trinidad. In two of their films this year, “like people, they change too” and “the river that never ends,” the protagonists find themselves increasingly alienated from spaces that once felt like home. The former, a letter in loving memory to their grandfather, is told through nine subtitled episodes, each space unlocking ruminations about identity, gender, memory, capital, ownership, politics, and more. But when spaces no longer look the same, when beloved golf courses now remind them of conversations about injustices in farming, Trinidad slowly comes to terms with the reality that spaces, like the people who visit and inhabit them, change too.
Meanwhile, “the river that never ends” finds Baby (Emerald Romero), a middle-aged trans woman, providing strangers with attention and affection for cash: from dressing up as a dog for a child to pet to dressing up as someone’s deceased daughter to recreate their nightly routine. Despite the transactional nature of these relationships, Baby sees them at their most vulnerable, narrating her day to her mostly unresponsive father while she bathes him, in what may be one of the year’s most affecting images. But around them, the Pasig River Expressway (PAREX) is slowly being built; a saw slowly cutting the aorta that makes living like this possible.
In each film, Trinidad, through their interactions with space, attempts to close the gap between the dead and the living, what’s lost and what’s slipping away, even if it only brings us marginally closer to others, to ourselves.
Screened in Gawad Alternatibo and QCinema, respectively. “like people, they change too” is available via Cinemata.
“Kung Wala Nang Mga Alon” (written and directed by Lav Diaz)
Shot in beautiful 16mm black-and-white by Larry Manda, much of “Kung Wala Nang Mga Alon” finds Lav Diaz exploring familiar waters — corruption due to power, the ouroboros-like nature of our nation’s history, the stranglehold of authoritarianism on the everyday Filipino. But what threads the lives of the four characters is the toll of spectatorship on the psyche, the lengths they go to maintain moral purity, and the desperate efforts they take to evade the consequences of their actions, to arrive at some form of forgiveness, especially after their involvement in Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs.
But despite good intentions, they fail. Hermes Papauran (John Lloyd Cruz), once the country’s best investigator, succumbs to his violent past, his accumulated guilt and shame manifesting as debilitating psoriasis. Meanwhile, Primo Macabantay (Ronnie Lazaro, in the year’s most disturbing performance), once Papauran’s mentor, becomes a religious fanatic hellbent on providing salvation to strangers and exacting revenge on Papauran after ten years of imprisonment. Specters continue to silently haunt Papauran and Macabantay, forcing them into hiding and estranging them from their loved ones, until their paths cross and the film reaches its most violent delight. Odd and at times darkly hilarious, “Kung Wala Nang Mga Alon” presents the paradox of moral erosion: you cannot escape the wave without sinking.
Premiered at the Venice International Film Festival, made available locally through QCinema.
“Kitty K7” (directed by Joy Aquino, written by Pam Miras)
Here’s what they don’t tell you growing up in a conservative, predominantly Catholic country: sex is fucking fun. But why is it that in so many of the films that have spawned since the pandemic, sex is devoid of desire, intimacy, or just straight-up substance? Where’s the joy? Where are the power dynamics? Why are all of the men thrusting and grunting as if they’re in a bad ‘70s porn? At some point, it just seems embarrassing.
But then there’s “Kitty K7,” which shows sex in all its shades. Not just the violations caused by infidelity and the ways it makes it difficult to see yourself as desirable. No. It shows the life-affirming parts too: how the playful seductions and anonymous hookups can unlock your self-confidence, and help you reconnect with yourself and reimagine your life. It goes even further by depicting the grayer areas of alter culture and sex work — showing the intersections of culture, capital, and the body, providing counterarguments to every conservative rhetoric recycled and unjustly thrown.
Throughout all of it, Hana (Rose Van Ginkel) is our North star. She never succumbs to histrionics nor does she buckle under the shame of others she is often burdened with. Even when her life nosedives, even as her loved ones scurry away from her, she remains steadfast. In that resistance, in that continuous refusal to be reduced, she shows us true power.
Available via Vivamax.
There are too many of this year’s short films to mention: Don Josephus Eblahan’s “The Headhunter’s Daughter” uses music to close the chasm between father and daughter; Minnesota Flores’ beautiful stop-motion creature comes alive in “Daligmata Delivers One Last Time,” Shievar Olegario and Karina Jabido’s “Mga Kadini sa Kaugmaon” is a visually arresting dream-like return of a linguist to their hometown; Claudia Fernando’s “A Roundtrip To Happiness” uses Google Maps to create a portrait of coming-of-age during the pandemic; Jaime Morados’ DIY extraplanetary office rom-com “Aga-Hiw: The Dreamer” is full of charm; Von Victor Viernes and Sean Russel Romero’s “Cut/Off” create a psychological thriller using drag and coming out; Wówa Medroso’s “‘Tong Adla Nga Nag-Snow sa Pinas” touches the soul without using words or color; Raz dela Torre’s “Kwits” borrows from Kafka’s “The Trial” to depict the absurdity and systemic failure of the COVID-19 lockdown. Glenn Barit’s “Luzonensis Osteoporosis” begins as an odd prehistoric road trip that transforms into an allegory for brain drain; and Rocky Morilla’s “Mga Tigre ng Infanta” draws parallels between the wounding of the earth, the body, and history catalyzed by the disappearance of a corpse.
For feature films, Lav Diaz’s sprawling, decades-in-the-making epic “Isang Salaysay ng Karahansang Pilipino” is one to watch out for; Carlo Obispo’s ode to brotherhood and dreaming in a time of war “The Baseball Player” has two of the best performances this year; Petersen Vargas’ “An Inconvenient Love” is a kilig-loaded antidote against cynicism and a bellwether of great things to come for DonBelle; “11,103” returns lost narratives. The re-released restoration of Mike de Leon’s “Itim,” as well as the release of several restored films on streaming platforms, is a reminder to invest in the past as we continue moving forward.
Several of last year’s releases find themselves available on a wider scale thanks to the programming of excellent festivals. Gawad Alternatibo enabled me to see two 2021 releases in the CCP theaters: Edmund Telmo’s eclectic black-and-white religious romp “A Sabbath on the Longest Day of the Year” and Maricon Montajes’s piercing docushort about the political repression endured by activist Reina Mae Nasino “River of Tears and Rage.” Shireen Seno’s photo essay on the ties between imperialism and nature “To Pick A Flower,” previously part of the outdoor Drive-in Theater at the Museum of Contemporary Art and Design, was available briefly online via the Taiwan Documentary Film Festival, while Kukay Zinampan’s “Nang Maglublob Ako Sa Isang Mangkok ng Liwanag,” a stunning slice-of-life short following two grieving trans folx, was available online via Piling Obrang Vidyo and in cinematheques thanks to the Pelikulaya: International LGBTQIA+ Film Festival.
The QCinema International Film Festival continues to host not only excellent work made abroad by Filipino artists — namely actors Dolly de Leon, Soliman Cruz, Chai Fonacier, and Stefanie Arianne, and producers Alemberg Ang and Armi Rae Cacanindin — but also a lineup of international cinema that, when juxtaposed against our own cinema, enriches local cinephilia. The BINISAYA Film Festival continues to train and hold space for young artists, especially those from Visayas and Mindanao, whose experimentations with form and narrative are a sight to behold (shoutout to the BINISAYA Shoot Out). Gawad Alternatibo, the older and undermarketed sibling of Cinemalaya, creates a unique space for more unconventional cinema and makes its selection available year-round online.