header image


This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.

Interested in What I Create?


Friday, June 11, 2010

entry arrow6:57 PM | The Best Filipino Films? Here Are Thirteen. (But Don't Crucify Me Too Much!)

[With some modifications to the spot.ph article]

All best-of lists are dangerous. They are invitations for condemnation.

But we love them because they fulfill our hankering for order in the glut of things. We love them because they provide a measure, even if a crude one, for our taste. And we love them because they are a concentrated form of validation (“Of course that should be in this list!”) and drama (“How dare he include this and not that? Who does he think he is?”).

Such an endeavor is a trap of sorts—and yet how joyfully we jump into a chance to do so. When I was a kid, I compiled notebooks of movies I have seen, giving them the appropriate number of stars out of five to measure whether they were “great” or "not great"—greatness simply being the capacity of a film to move a 12-year-old. (Steven Spielberg's E.T. was only four stars.) Many years later, the notebooks may have gone, but the innate human tendency to measure something quite relative remains. But in many ways, it is tempered by a very adult realization: first, that one has not sadly seen everything, and second, that what is trash for one cineaste is the glimmer of genius for another. Take for example the esteemed film critic Roger Ebert and his putdown of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. When he calls the last one an atrocity, we shake our heads and tell ourselves, “The guy does not get it.”

Of course, there will always be someone who will soon decry that something else very important is missing. But like all good people tasked to write essays like this, we all know the drill. Lists such as this are more often a reflection of a very personal taste. They are also an avenue for critics to champion something, highlighting an obscure title that usually is not given the chance to move out of the shadows of the firmly canonical. (Lino Brocka! Ishmael Bernal! Eddie Romero! Gerardo de Leon! Manuel Conde! Lamberto Javellana!) At best, they are something that can spark an impassioned debate among film buffs.

I have not seen all Filipino films, but I have seen my fair share of what are considered the best of what local cinema can offer. (Sad to say, a great percentage of our cinematic heritage—those prints that came before the 1960s—has been lost to posterity simply because we didn’t know we should care for them.) In coming up with this list, I arrived at a haphazard criteria—that I will only select something that I have actually watched, and that something must have been able to engage me in a deeper way than most films I have seen. And because there is a sheer number of brilliant Filipino films, I am pegging my number at lucky 13—simply because ten is boring and usual, and fifteen may just be a little too much.

But first I got some help. Because I remember Cinemalaya’s Ed Cabagnot once telling me that he considers Romero’s Ganito Kami Noon Paano Kayo Ngayon as probably one of the best Filipino films ever made—simply because it tasked itself to answer the question: who or what is a Filipino? I wondered what other critics had to say about what is the best, and so I cornered a few of the country’s top film critics and asked them for their two cents’ worth. If they could add at least two titles to a list such as this, what would those two titles be? I told them it didn’t have to be a conventional choice—“You can select a Star Cinema movie, for all I care,” I said—but it had to be something springing from the personal.

Mike Cruz of the popular film blog Lessons From the School of Inattention, goes straight to his choices: “Lav Diaz’s Batang West Side and Raya Martin’s Independencia. But if there’s one which I think is ripe for rediscovery, it would be Joey Gosiengfiao’s Bedspacers.”

The Philippine Daily Inquirer’s Rito Asilo agonized over it: “This is a hard decision. But while there are countless brilliant indies out there, there’s a general feel of relentless grimness and collective myopia. I call them hara-kiri movies, in which all hope is lost. But I choose Magnifico. Despite its tragic finale, Maryo J. de los Reyes’ stirring 2003 drama nonetheless leaves strands of hope for the viewers. In a grim world overwhelmed by cynicism and rancor, the movie reminds us that kindness begets kindness. There’s still hope for all of us, after all.”

UNO’s Luis Katigbak said that a few titles came to mind: “There’s Luis Quirino’s short film Pasakalye, a darkly humorous little road trip of a film, which pulls off the neat trick of having you laugh with mild contempt at a pair of characters who you then find yourself rooting for—and even being touched by—at the end. There’s Quark Henares’ Keka, which I love for the sheer irreverent fun it offers: dance number, death scenes and all. There’s Aureaus Solito’s Pisay, widely considered to not be his best film (that’s probably Maximo), but which I love for reasons nostalgic and sentimental and literary, being, respectively, a Pisay graduate, a sap, and a writer who admires the challenges of the structure of the movie (four years, four-plus story-threads, characters weaving in and out). None of these films is particularly Important. They may not even be particularly good, when all is said and done. But hey, you wanted unusual and personal. I also have a soft spot for Mike de Leon’s Itim, though I suspect that may be more due to the charms of a young Charo Santos than de Leon’s atmospheric, eerie mastery.”

Businessworld’s Noel Vera raves on two films: “Mario O’Hara’s Kastilyong Buhangin stars Nora Aunor and Lito Lapid as a vehicle for both. I can only describe it as a cross between George Cukor’s A Star is Born and Ringo Lam’s Prison on Fire. The finale is an action sequence worth watching. Then there’s Bakit Bughaw ang Langit. Briefly put, it’s Mario O’Hara encroaching on Lino Brocka territory, on neorealist melodrama. I think his take on it is quieter, more intense. I might add that along with Celso Ad. Castillo and Gerardo de Leon, O’Hara is the finest action director we have (Brocka, Bernal, even De Leon have nothing on him). You see a bit of that action filmmaking in Kastilyong Buhangin.”

Which proves my point: the untidy richness of lists lies in the fact that, collating opinions from the film-struck, no one really agrees with another. And that is something to cherish.

In the end, I had to come up with my list—knowing full well my own criteria, and knowing that I wanted to touch on things not usually considered for lists like this, and that included a survey of all genres, as well as a consideration of short films, documentaries, animated films, independent films you don’t often see in the cineplex, and even the unabashedly commercial. And so here we go with my own take, whether I “get it or not.”

13. Trip

Directed by Juan Pula [Jon Red] for Mowelfund, 1993

A boy goes to the city for the first time on board a jeepney, and gets a lesson about the nation that he more than bargains for. That is the basic plot of this short film, but that is not the point. The point is the jeepney as a metaphor for Filipino society. Of course, such things have been done to death—but in this film by Jon Red, signing in as Juan Pula for the project, it becomes an inventive and freshly satirical take on all our collective idiosyncrasies and what-not. This short film came during a brief wave of fantastic filmmaking by the likes of Avic Ilagan (Ang Babae Kapag Nag-iisa sa Manila) and Fruto Corre (Laho), a generation of independent filmmakers who really should direct again.

12. Kimmy Dora

Directed by Joyce Bernal for Spring Films, 2009

I wanted to put in a comedy. Seriously. But Dolphy’s cinematic triumphs—even if iconic in recollection—seem to be totally of a different world now, and scouring the filmmography of Tito, Vic, and Joey leaves us with nothing more than a memory of tired slapstick. Of course, there are a few gems in Joey de Leon’s mix bag of Barbie and Starzan—but I didn’t want to go there. I’ve considered vehicles for Ai-Ai de las Alas and other comedy stars—but could not find anything that not only tickled my funny bone but also my intellect. Soxy Topacio’s brilliant Ded na si Lolo (2009) came close, but it seemed a little too unpolished, although it may well be the best comic rendition of a Filipino family yet. Bernal’s Kimmy Dora—a tale of twins, one scheming and one simple, whose lives suddenly becomes a drama of mistaken identities—seems the best bet. Eugene Domingo’s characterization of the twins is spot-on. And the film is wickedly funny, and incredibly witty—and above all, we’ve already memorized the lines. Talk about an instant classic.

11. Himala

Directed by Ishmael Bernal for Regal Films, 1982

Personally, I prefer the city stories of Bernal in Manila By Night, Relasyon, Broken Marriage, and Working Girls. He had this uncanny ability to capture the lightning truthfulness of contemporary living in the proverbial bottle—but one has to consider the visual poetry and the cinematic bravado that come into play in Himala, his story of a young girl in the province (played with such acclaim by Nora Aunor) suddenly possessed by unearthly visions—and becomes the necessary target for religious devotees, the dispossessed, the opportunists, and the vicious. In other words, the very picture of Filipino society in the grips of a circus.

[Read the rest of the list here]

Art by Warren Espejo and movie posters from Video 48. Special thanks to Gibbs Cadiz, Rolando Tolentino, Luis Katigbak, Rito Asilo, Mike Cruz, and Noel Vera for the help.


[2] This is Where You Bite the Sandwich