The Year in Film 2015

2015 was a really interesting year for our cinema. For over a decade now, our “independent” scene has been defined by projects funded by festival grants. While this has worked out pretty well for us, it has also resulted in a lot of filmmakers compromising on their ambitions. And it has relegated these movies into a strange ghetto, only to be seen by a certain set within certain times and certain places.

But this year brought several big films made completely outside the competing systems that have been running our cinema for so long. This feels like it’s a turning point in the history of our cinema. When we reassess what has happened to our industry years from now, we’ll likely be pointing at 2015 as a very important year.

The Top Ten

10. Creed (dir. Ryan Coogler) | Read Critic's Review

It usually isn't a good idea to keep going back to the well. But the Rocky well is apparently far from dry. Coogler takes the sturdy structure of the original and embellishes on it with bravura filmmaking. The film pays tribute to the past without living in it, holding back on the nostalgia, saving it for key moments that makes audiences openly cheer in the cinema. What might have been a pointless retread in other hands turns into one of the most satisfying movie experiences of the year.

9. Miss Bulalacao (dir. Ara Chawdhury)

Regional Cinema continues to be a really exciting aspect of our local scene. Miss Bulalacao is a film from Cebu, and it is another fine example of what that region contributes to the overall cinematic conversation. What is the essence of being a woman? This explores this question through a quirky lens, studying national attitudes through an immaculate conception that may have otherworldly origins. As far out as the movie gets, it never lets go of the simple things. At its heart, it is a story of family and community, the movie drawing emotions from well-observed and dramatically solid scenes of life in a small town.

8. ARI: My Life with a King (dir. Carlos Catu) | Read Critic's Review

Regional cinema is important partly because of its ability to document aspects of our culture that are disappearing. ARI: My Life with a King is a loving elegy for a kingdom of verse, tracking a young man's journey through the strange, dying world of Kapampangan poetry. The film manages to tell this story without resorting to empty sentiment. It instead lets the poetry speak for itself, making an eloquent case for its preservation by the simple act of sharing it.

7. Apocalypse Child (dir. Mario Cornejo)

QCinema has grown quickly in its three years of existence. The films it produced this year could easily stand up to the output of any of the other festivals. The best of the bunch is Apocalypse Child, an astounding little drama that captures the spirit of its setting and the characters that exist within. Brilliantly shot and edited, this film ought to be studied by film students for years to come. Its technical merits alone would merit its inclusion in any kind of list like this. But then there's more.

6. The Martian (dir. Ridley Scott) | Read Critic's Review

There's at least a part of me that recognizes that The Martian breaks some of the rules of good storytelling. There is no real tension in this film, no real doubt that the stranded astronaut and the brilliant team of scientists and engineers back on Earth will be able to work together to find a way back home. Despite that, I can't help but love this film, which exhibits a faith and a love for humanity that is rare in modern cinema. The Martian makes the case that if we all just work together, that if we put aside all our differences, humanity can achieve the impossible. That's a story that's always worth telling.

5. Sicario (dir. Denis Villenuve) | Read Critic's Review

On the other side of the coin: Sicario, a story of an insurmountable problem happening right now on the border between the US and Mexico. Outside of the realm of science fiction, humanity is a lot less worthy of praise. The film elegantly sketches out just how entrenched the problems have become, how the drug war has devolved into a game of attrition where even the ostensible good guys are forced to make deals with the devil. It is a harrowing film that depicts the death of ideals, the audience forced to follow the one good person involved in the whole thing powerless to stop anything that's going wrong.

4. Heneral Luna (dir. Jerrold Tarog) | Read Critic's Review

A lot has been said about Heneral Luna at this point, with both supporters and detractors taking to the Internet to discuss the merits and demerits of this film. And that's exactly what makes the movie so great and so important. Its no-holds-barred approach to depicting our history has sparked a conversation that we haven't been having. There will probably be a lot more talk about Heneral Luna as time goes on, and that can only be a good thing.

3. Mad Max: Fury Road (dir. George Miller) | Read Critic's Review

Plenty of films have been described as non-stop thrill rides. As it turns out, our standard for non-stop thrill rides has been way too low. We've been too easy on action blockbusters, too accepting of all the standard nonsense used to pad out the runtimes of these corporate constructions. Mad Max: Fury Road is legitimately a non-stop thrill ride, the movie never really letting up once it starts. And in all that, it still manages to be smart and socially relevant. Blockbusters need to step up their game in the world post-Fury Road. It will be difficult not to hear Immortan Joe in my head when one of these big, overstuffed action movies settles for the same old stuff. "Mediocre," he'll utter. And I'll agree.

2. Honor Thy Father (dir. Erik Matti) | Read Critic's Review

In all the nonsense that has cropped up over the last week or so regarding the status of the film in the MMFF, it hasn't been said enough that the film is just good. That it is a tightly plotted, brilliantly directed, wonderfully acted, and thematically sound film. The movie chooses a grim path in its depiction of one man's attempt to preserve a semblance of the civility that he believes he's only wanted. But when all else fails, the artifice breaks away and it's every man for himself in this cruel, unjust world of rampant venality.

1. Balikbayan #1: Memories of Overdevelopment (dir. Kidlat Tahimik)

There haven't been nearly enough local screenings of Kidlat Tahimik's latest opus. This film is a culmination of over three decades of development, the project starting as a pretty straightforward imagining of the life of Enrique de Malacca, the slave of Magellan who might actually be the first person to ever circumnavigate the world. Kidlat Tahimik, the father of local independent cinema, has evolved as an artist and a filmmaker in the years since the project went on hiatus, and the film has evolved into something much more extraordinary. This film is the height of postcolonial filmmaking, defying Western filmic conventions in order to tell a more personal, much more interesting story that turns art into a means of endless reincarnation. That Kidlat Tahimik remains obscure in his own country is a sin that ought to be remedied in the years to come. This is one of the most remarkable films produced in the last few decades. It deserves a place in the conversation of the greatest Filipino films of all time. Now all we need to do is to let more people see it.

Honorable Mentions:

Miss Bulalacao was my favorite, but it could easily be argued that Dayang Asu and Hamog (Bor Ocampo, Ralston Jover) were actually the best films of Cinema One. Your preference will vary, of course. The beauty of Cinema One is the diversity of its selection. In that already strong batch of films, Manang Biring (Carl Joseph Papa) also emerges as one of those little miracles of our cinema, an unlikely project that just has no right being as good as it is. The animation isn't nearly as clean as it could be, but there is no denying the value of its creation. Also premiering at Cinema One was Salvage (Sherad Anthony Sanchez), a truly bizarre horror picture that transforms into something truly worth watching as it abandons the constraints of the genre in favor of something far stranger. Aside from Apocalypse Child, QCinema gifted us with Kapatiran (Pepe Diokno), a fascinating experiment in depicting the life of Metro Manila, using seemingly disconnected scenes, some staged, others not, that delve into the tribalism that gives this metropolis its strange and difficult personality. It isn't as meaty as it could be, but this is a project that feels like it could grow. Also in that lineup is Matangtubig (Jet Leyco), which lingers in the mind as something more substantial than it first appears. The film benefits from distance, its distinctive brand of strangeness gaining more vitality as the demands of plot seem further and further away. Sleepless should probably have been the next big indie crossover hit, if anybody had just bothered to pick it up for local distribution.

On the international front, we got the lovely Inside Out (Pete Docter and Ronnie del Carmen), which is another win in Pixar's ridiculously overstuffed win column. Amidst the yearly deluge of subpar horror releases, It Follows (David Robert Mitchell) really stood out for being thoughtful about its scares. Crimson Peak and Bridge of Spies (Gulliermo del Toro, Steven Spielberg) had master directors doing what they do best. Though losing some shine in the post-Fury Road world, Fast & Furious 7 (James Wan) and Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation (Christopher McQuarrie) were solid action spectacles.

Special Mentions:

Best Failed Experiment: SineAsia

It doesn’t seem like anyone is actually watching the SineAsia releases. There is some merit to the idea of releasing Asian films with Tagalog dubbing in cinemas, but it just never seemed to find its audience. If nothing else, the initiative brought a lot of interesting movies to our cinemas. As the Gods Will (Takashi Miike) is probably one of the craziest films to ever hit our cinemas, and SineAsia brought it here.

Best Car Stunts (That Aren’t in Fury Road): Beauty and the Bestie

Everyone will tell you that action in the Philippines is dead. But apparently, the talent for it is still around. Within the absurd bounds of Wenn Deramas’ MMFF entry lies a series of ambitious car stunts that we haven’t seen in local cinema in years. The film really deserves credit for that, if nothing else.

Botched Release of the Year: The Visit

M. Night Shyamalan’s The Visit was a solid little film that probably deserved a bigger audience than it got here. But it was released with very little fanfare exclusively to Robinson’s Cinemas.

Best Local Festival: Cinema One Originals

QCinema put up a really good fight this year, but Cinema One Originals continues to have the strongest, most consistent output in this country. QCinema still has a lot of room to grow, though.

Most Improved: MMFF New Wave

While there are still a lot of problems with this little sideshow of the main festival, it still managed to put a spotlight on some really worthy films. Its short film program is actually really solid, and a good place to catch a glimpse of the future of our cinema.

Best Portmanteau Pairing: Ruscaymada

The other big romantic phenomenon of the year was the love of a historical figure for a local pastry. But seriously, the existence of Heneral Luna fanfiction is one of the greatest to ever happen.

Actor(s) of the Year: John Arcilla and John Lloyd

Arcilla has always been a commanding presence on the sidelines of our cinema. Given a chance to really take center stage, the actor really gives it all he’s got. And he’s given us what is probably the most memorable performance of the year. To most people now, he is Antonio Luna, and that’s a remarkable thing.

But this is also a year where John Lloyd Cruz went back and played Popoy, and then went on to deliver a completely different performance in Honor Thy Father. And that’s no small thing, either. John Lloyd Cruz has grown up, and he’s clearly looking for more than what he has been given. Only better things can come.

Actress of the Year: Anna Luna

Though mostly staying on the fringes of our cinema so far, Anna Luna has already proven to be a praiseworthy talent. She is the supporting player that cannot be ignored in already great films, an actress whose talent is clearly too large for the roles that she currently has.

Filmmaker of the Year: Jerrold Tarog

The success of Heneral Luna just didn’t seem possible six months ago. I sat in on meetings where people from all corners were declaring the film an inevitable failure. And yet here we are, the movie having spent over two months in cinemas, and now out in DVD. Tarog’s ambition and faith in audiences has paid off, and now it feels like things have changed somehow. Maybe it’s just a fluke. Maybe the success of Luna will never be replicated. But Tarog made it seem possible, and that’s an incredible thing.

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