The best Filipino films of 2020

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A shot from Martika Ramirez Escobar's "Living Things," starring Kints Kintana (left) and Charles Aaron Salazar. Screenshot from HUAWEI MOBILE PH/YOUTUBE

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Philippine cinema in 2020 will be remembered not by its films, but the changes the pandemic brought upon the industry.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic may have been the biggest stumbling block in what is being called the “Third Golden Age” of Filipino films and, overall, the crucible that will determine the future viability of Philippine cinema (or cinema in general).

In 2020, we witnessed film productions stopped for months on end. Those that do get to proceed do so with budgets raised significantly — twice, thrice, four times the original — just to follow safety protocols.

Furthermore, adjusting to the “new normal” also brought to the fore issues long-standing in the industry. Examples include immature and unsustainable distribution models in the wake of streaming, the lack of protective guidelines for film workers, and the widespread practice of “crunch” – with tight production schedules and last-minute reshoots and editing being done days, even hours, before release.

These factors compounded led to, unsurprisingly, a drought in new content for 2020. But true to the adage “necessity is the mother of innovation,” we’ve seen our local film industry pivot. This year saw the birth of initiatives such as “Lockdown Cinema Club,” which made films more accessible while also gathering funds for film workers rendered jobless by the pandemic; as well as the “Inter-Guild Alliance,” a multisectoral network that lobbies for the protection of film, TV, and advertising professionals through regulation.

Film distribution, left with little to no choice, also lowered their defenses to streaming. Many Filipino films, both new and old, became available on Youtube, iWant TFC, and Netflix, whose library of Filipino content significantly increased. Festivals such as Cinemalaya, Daang Dokyu, and QCinema made their way online, effectively making them truly nationwide in coverage as opposed to sprinkling film in a few cinematheques. Though this only limits eyeballs to those who are fortunate enough to have data or internet connection enough to stream movies. There are also new platforms such as Cinema Centenario’s MOOV, TBA Studio’s Cinema 76 @ Home, and Globe Studios-backed Upstream, which became the official platform for this year’s QCinema and Metro Manila Film Festival. That said, these local platforms still do have long ways to go to provide a decent viewing experience in terms of user experience and design.

We were also given unparalleled access to short films last year, such as in the aforementioned Lockdown Cinema Club, Cinemalaya, Daang Dokyu, Mindanao Film Festival, QCinema, Maginhawa Film Festival, Gawad Sining Short Film Festival, etc.

But despite the tremendous foundational shifts in lieu of new content, there were still gems that shone brightly in 2020. We opted out of making a standard Top 10 list as, even with the lack of movies, we didn’t want to include films merely for the sake of reaching a number.

Take note, too, that the films featured here are those that made their wide release in 2020 (we’re aware that some of them may have held a special sneak peek in festivals local and abroad in the previous years). We are also not including restorations that premiered in 2020 (even though we were much tempted to put the restored version of “Kisapmata” made free-to-watch on director Mike De Leon’s Vimeo channel last December). — Gil Perez, Jason Tan Liwag, and Don Jaucian

Photo courtesy of DAANG DOKYU

“Bullet-Laced Dreams”

“Everywhere we look, we only see walls.”

There is a moment midway through Tops Brudada and Cha Escala’s “Bullet-Laced Dreams” that I cannot seem to forget. During a rally, Chricelyn’s face is illuminated by the candlelight but her expression is doubtful, if not completely empty. There is a tiredness that shouldn’t be known to someone as young as her, a hoarseness in her voice that shouldn’t be there after shouting and shouting and shouting in defense of what is deprived of her and her community.

Around her and her fellow Lumads, Manila glances but does not stare. Amid the chaos, the collective struggle seems lost or misunderstood, labeled as yet another nuisance. The film is a story of displacement and tension between two locations and what these promise. Mindanao holds the heart and is where the story is rooted; what each battle is fought for. But Manila is where the fight is and where the body must stay to win the war.

The undercurrent is the tale of persistent schooling, with the hope that education unlocks doors that didn’t seem to be there in the first place. We see this throughout: parallel classrooms where discussions overlap but continue, up to the moment when Chircelyn tells her story to Vice President Leni Robredo, with the VP expressing shock at the lack of media coverage; at not knowing what was a clear reality to the children since before they were evacuated.

To those in the peripheries, dreaming is a relay race across generations. Lifetimes do not seem enough to fulfill these small hopes. But even if the finish line seems far, we keep running. — Jason Tan Liwag



Last year, we included Sherad Anthony Sanchez’s “Salvage” in our list of films that defined the 2010s. In the found-footage horror film, shot way back in 2015, Sanchez draws parallels between aswang myths and military-led killings in the jungle. “Salvage” intentionally obfuscates to whom lines such as “they’ll take you away,” “they’ll butcher you,” and “you’ll never be seen again” are referencing.

Call it prescient, but little did we know then that half a decade and a change of administration later, a similar allegory about child-killing monsters and state apparatus (which is which, you decide) will serve as the foundation of the definitive documentary of the times.

Initially set to premiere last March at the Daang Dokyu Festival before it was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Alyx Arumpac’s “Aswang” chronicles the first three years of President Rodrigo Duterte’s drug war by following the narratives of ordinary citizens, including that of a young street kid, caught in its maelstrom.

What makes Arumpac’s documentary so striking, so close to home, is how it eschews talking heads and arm-length objectivity, choosing to embrace the deeply personal and Filipino lens the issue requires.

This approach casts aside the notion (one catering to foreign audiences) that viewers must be given a primer of the country’s current situation. Instead, it assumes that they know the goings-on, having witnessed them unfold via the news and cultural conversations. From this assumption, the film affords itself the leeway to go much deeper, chronicling firsthand accounts that ultimately build horror via unflinching depictions of the subject matter and style that is both lyrical and evocative of magical realism. — Gil Perez

Screencap from NETFLIX/YOUTUBE

“Lingua Franca”

“Lingua Franca” is a contemplative study of an immigrant trans woman’s life, Olivia (played by Sandoval herself), in the time of Trump. The film is Sandoval’s third but the first since her transition. She began writing the film while undergoing both physical and emotional changes. Initially, she sought to make a straightforward romantic drama in 2015. But in 2016, Donald Trump got elected as the U.S. president. His spectre haunts the corners of the film, from news reports to the way ICE officers track down “illegal” immigrants, which in turn, increases Olivia’s fears and anxieties as she tries to secure a green card husband. The film’s moody cinematography captures the highly specific atmosphere of the film — it’s glum, awash in subdued primary colors that seem to fade over time, which, along the way, paints a portrait of the most miserable city on earth. Quite an apt picture of the U.S. after the 2016 elections.

The film is powerful in many ways, particularly in showing how compelling it can be to allow trans filmmakers to tell their own stories. Sandoval instills dignity in Olivia’s struggles: the way she moves and thinks feels natural and her every decision is a step towards securing her place in the world. — Don Jaucian


“Fan Girl”

“Fan Girl or: How I Learned to Stop Worshipping, and Unlove Paulo Avelino” (as I unofficially subtitled) needs no long summary or plot description. Its basic premise, that of a fangirl finding herself alone with her celebrity idol and realizing what kind of man he is, encapsulates almost the entirety of its story. Twists and plot details are secondary, if not insignificant.

The film is bolstered by a star-making performance from Charlie Dizon — the meat of “Fan Girl” is witnessing how power dynamics unfold and how deception is enabled by that thing called paghanga (see what I did there?).

“Fan Girl” is a film not shy with its metaphors; it wears it on its sleeve. It is a critique of hero worship and the interplay of fans’ inability to let go of the illusion and abusers using this adoration as an opportunity to exploit.

Stripping away illusions and undercutting cinematic tropes with real world expectations is not exactly new territory for director Antoinette Jadaone. One may even call it her brand of subversiveness — with rom-coms that forego declarations of love and dramatic conflict such as “That Thing Called Tadhana,” and dramas that de-romanticize long-distance relationships by way of economic struggle and uneven growth between partners in “Never Not Love You.” However, “Fan Girl” strikes itself as a darker tale as its deeply political critique warrants such depths of depravity in its characters.

While some character developments may verge on caricature — especially come the third act — Jadaone’s script still exhibits deft skill by making the cascade of manipulations understandable. One can easily sympathize with Paulo Avelino (who plays a larger than life version of himself) while also feel antagonistic towards Dizon’s titular overeager fangirl. However, this push and pull is the point of it all. People are complex beings, and abuse often comes from a person one trusts – whether it is a personal relationship or fandom from afar. As long as bits of goodness shine, the sides a person we choose to cherish, many would rather turn a blind eye on the bad and let the cycle carry on. — GP

Screenshot from CINEMALAYA

“Living Things”

It is said that Franz Kafka once encountered a little girl who lost her doll. Unable to find it, he began composing letters for her in the doll’s name — claiming that the doll had only been traveling around the world. Later on, Kafka gifted the girl with a new doll and a letter explaining how though the doll looked unrecognizable, she loved the little girl all the same.

Kints (Kristine Kintana) and Charles (Charles Aaron Salazar) are a couple in the middle of a staring contest to see who ends up throwing the trash. They argue, make up, and repeat the cycle. They sit on a bench and talk about their favorite things, which Charles finds too vague. “Kasi di ba pag ‘thing’, pwede rin siyang pakiramdam eh. Pag sinabi mo na yung dalawang tao nagka-thing kayo...pero di siya nahahawakan.”

In the middle of a pillow fight, Kints takes a bathroom break. When she returns, she finds a cardboard cutout of (an irritated) Charles who seems to speak to her as if nothing happened. But rather than overreacting or questioning what is happening, she simply carries on.

Martika Ramirez Escobar’s “Living Things” sees the protagonist and her lover turn into flat characters lifted from paper. Kints carries Charles around with her, as he tries to convince her to leave him. But instead, she resolves to change herself to match him and seems transformed. But rather than the static characters we get to know at the beginning, the cardboard characters change their appearances to reveal a joyous reunion.

Like the Kafka story (which may or may not be true, by the way), “Living Things” is a reminder that everything we love leaves us and returns in a different form. We are only asked to recognize it, accept it, and transform along with it. — JTL

Screencap from QCINEMA/YOUTUBE

“Midnight in a Perfect World”

“Midnight in a Perfect World” is set in the near future where Metro Manila has become almost utopian. However, while trains run on time, floods are no longer a problem, and water from the Pasig River is clean enough to drink, rotating blackouts plague the city. Blackouts which just so happen to erase people (whether these people are “undesirable” is hinted at but kept unclear). But since everything else works fine, que sera sera.

While the metaphors can get lost in translation and the dream-like narrative can get undecipherable, director Dodo Dayao more than makes up for it in the film’s pursuit of mood and style.

Glimpses of the terror that awaits in the darkness coupled with unearthly sound design, build the dread. Endless hallways and overlapping timelines are confining and ponderous, near purgatorial. And the delivery of a “haunted house” horrors amidst an already hellish landscape feels like an inventive way to heighten the film’s overall sense of helplessness. — GP


“Ang Pagpakalma sa Unos”

When Joanna Vasquez Arong’s “Ang Pagpakalma sa Unos” began, I recognized the image immediately. Children innocently playing on a cement clearing, sliding on their bellies under the rain while rubble surrounds them; encases them. “Yolanda,” I remember mouthing to myself as I watched it in the middle of the night. I began to brace myself as I did for every tropical storm I endured in my childhood.

What is more universal than the language of devastation?

News outlets made the images familiar to us. But so much of the story remains buried underneath the sensationalization and the government’s attempts at minimizing the narrative. The film is an attempt at exhuming these bodies and the stories etched on them through black-and-white imagery and quiet narration. As it unfolds, “Ang Pagpakalma sa Unos” evolves into a photo novel reminiscent of Chris Marker’s “La Jetée” (1962) — a reminder that this language of survival has existed for decades, in and out of fiction.

But more than a quiet rumination of the tragedy that was Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan), it is an attempt at filmic folklorization to make sense of the incomprehensible injustice. In weaving personal stories of loss with grander narratives of government frustration and distrust, the film creates a powerful message: That there are no ‘natural’ disasters; that whatever lives that are lost are the cost of the decision and indecision of another; that the images that we see are born from the incompetence of not just one but the many.

In times of uncertainty, we look towards those in power to know better and do better. But what happens if they don’t? — JTL

Screencap from QCINEMA

“Cats and Dogs”

The QCinema Short-Shorts competition presented a unique opportunity given it’s prompt of “depicting the lighter side of quarantine life.” After being cooped up in households for nearly six months, it’s hard to imagine a life outside. Given everything we’d witnessed, how do we begin to imagine a ‘normal life’ or world that’s even marginally better?

“Cats and Dogs” by Anya Zulueta narrates the too-familiar tension in a household of diametrically-opposed views. The protagonist, her husband, and her mother-in-law’s clashing political leanings threaten the very fabric that seems to hold the house together. The relationship of the protagonist with the stray cats becomes a tipping point but also a refuge of care that she is unable to fully provide herself.

The calmness in the narration of Gabby Padilla and the mundane visuals contrast with the stories of violence and frustration, especially following the signing of the Anti-Terrorism Law in 2020. The frustration within her never seeps out, even as she continues to see the world around her fall into pieces and even as her relationships disintegrate. There is guilt in enduring, in surviving, in safety. But in this also lies a promise of action past the doom that seems ever-present.

Unlike most of the films of late that submerge us in cynicism, this keeps us afloat and offers us a world where things may be alright. — JTL

Photo from SINE OLIVIA

“Lahi, Hayop”

Many forms of empire hound isla Hugaw. There are the Spanish colonizers who came by the island via the Galleon trade, which eventually brought about smuggled goods by the Americans, Chinese, and the rich Malays. Hugaw then became a breeding ground of corruption and prompted people to spread rumors — self-styled myths — about the island. “Nasira ang ating isla dahil sa mga maling kuwento,’ says Inggo, a villager with a criminal streak who narrates this “history” of this island midway into the film. The origin story becomes our window to the roots of what happens in “Lahi, Hayop,” where humans commit acts that appeal to the most basic of instincts. Lav Diaz connects the earlier empire to the spectre of the Marcos dictatorship, and how it essentially forms another empire that oppresses people like those in isla Hugaw — hungry, desperate, and outside the confines of progress that many politicians promise. In “Lahi, Hayop” Diaz presents his signature brand of anguish and melancholy, anchored by a landscape that seems to come alive through his own camerawork. Despite the lush pacing, Diaz is relentless, reminding us that there are many monsters in this world that still lurk in the shadows — some of them in human form. — DJ


“as if nothing happened”

JT Trinidad’s “as if nothing happened” shows the city as a place of grief. Shot vertically, an unnamed, unseen narrator simultaneously mourns the loss of what life used to be and the loss of Kyle — a lover or maybe just a friend. Each face is muddled post-production by white doodles, as the gaze continues to look for a singular face — one which never seems to appear. There is intimacy in the anonymity and meaning in the meaningless, all heaviest in retrospect: like a glass you’re told to hold onto indefinitely, the weight increasing with each passing minute.

Much like Dwein Baltazar’s “Gusto Kita With All My Hypothalamus,” the city is transformed by the vanishing character while the narrator, the holder of the gaze, is simultaneously transmogrified by the city into a shell of themselves. The distance between the landscapes of Quezon City and Manila parallel the emotional distance between the two characters, each cut a futile attempt at bringing the cities and the lovers closer. Imbued in the process of revisiting these spaces and repeating these images, we relive moments that are specific; that are another’s but feel like our own. Through this, the lessons become simultaneously personal and universal; a paradoxical heartbreak in just thirteen minutes.

This is far from nothing. — JTL


Noteworthy shorts that have previously debuted in 2019, but were re-released in 2020 are the following: The digital body-horror “OctoGod” ( dir. Shievar Olegario), the contemplative yet moving drama Gulis (dir. Kyle Jumayne Francisco), the self-aware and hilarious mockumentary “The Slums” (dir. Jan Andrei Cobey), and the pop culture pastiche “Tayo” (dir. Ron Dulatre and Elaiza Rivera).

For full length films, there's Dolly Dulu's “The Boy Foretold by the Stars,” a memorable foray into the Boys’ Love genre; Ramona S. Diaz's “A Thousand Cuts,” which serves as a reminder that while the barrage of disappointments, incompetencies, and the blatant pursuit of political agenda is numbing us to the point of desensitization, they are still attacks on democracy; Raya Martin's “Death of Nintendo,” a highly nostalgic coming-of-age romp; and Kristoffer Brugada's “Elehiya sa Paglimot,” an emotional chronicle of the filmmaker's father's fight with Alzheimer's.