My 10 best films of 2019

Ferdinand S. Topacio - The Philippine Star
My 10 best films of 2019
Alice Dixson and Aga Muhlach in a scene from Nuuk

2019 was a bumper year for Filipino movies. A drama, Hello Love, Goodbye, has well-nigh breached the billion-peso mark in gross ticket sales. Young filmmaker Breech Asher Harani won a major international Emmy Award in New York City for his video Next to Me. And producers continued to veer away from the tried-and-tested to the realm of the daring, as shown by Ulan and Nuuk, among others. Of course, Hollywood will always take its share of the local market.

In this “year ender” of sorts, allow me to impart to you, dear readers, my (totally subjective) opinion of the 10 best of the 76 movies — local and foreign — I have seen this year, in no particular order. Some of them were subjects of my review with this publication. Therefore, without further ado:

1.  Nuuk — Filipino noir at its noir-est. As dark and as cold as the winters in Greenland, where it was set. Aga Muhlach and the comebacking Alice Dixson give award-worthy performances as an “uncouple” on an inevitable ride to a tragic ending. Not an easy film to watch because of its slow pace, the viewer’s patience will be rewarded with a wild finish that will hit you like a brick wall. Kudos to Viva Films for embarking on this out-of-the-box thriller.

Malamaya’s Enzo Pineda and Sunshine Cruz

2. Malamaya — Sunshine Cruz is in fine form as an eccentric painter who believes in ars gratia artis or “art for art’s sake.” Living almost as a recluse in her old house, with only the occasional roll in the hay with part-time lovers, her isolation is disrupted with the arrival into her life of a young, idealistic photographer played by Enzo Pineda. The love scenes between the two are artistry in motion, with still-sizzling Sunshine showing that she can still raise your libido. The art-film “feels,” as well as the environment that is the Angono art scene, makes this one of 2019’s hidden gems.

Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio and Al Pacino of Once Upon A Time in Hollywood

3. Once Upon A Time In Holywood — Quentin Tarantino’s ode to old-time Hollywood, it is a totally engrossing period-correct homage, yet providing an alternative history to the celebrated Manson murders. With megawatt star power (Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio, Al Pacino, Margot Robbie and Brice Dern), and referencing most of late ‘60s American pop culture (Dean Martin makes a “cameo” via film clips of his tongue-in-cheek spy movie The Wrecking Crew), OUATIH is all-out campy fun with never a dull moment.

Sarah Geronimo and Kim Molina in Unforgettable

4. Unforgettable — Sarah Geronimo’s portrayal of a high-functioning person with autism is, well, unforgettable, being her best performance thus far. Her character going on a solo adventure from Manila to Baguio City, accompanied only by her dog Happy, provides a perfect premise for a feel-good movie that does not insult its audience’s intelligence.  

Birds of Passage

5. Birds of Passage — Although not released theatrically here, it was made available on Netflix this year, so I suppose this crime drama should count. Based on real-life events, it traces the roots of the drug trade in Colombia as having been instigated by American social workers looking for a “high.” Morally-ambiguous Colombians from the Wayuu tribe, to which smoking marijuana is a perfectly legal custom, see an opportunity and begin to traffic in the stuff. Gritty, ultra-violent and unglamorous, it shows the effects of crime and greed for profit on a previously-idyllic place rule by palabra de honor.  Not for the faint of heart.

Carlo Aquino with Nadine Lustre in Ulan

6. Ulan — Magical realism comes to the Philippines. Fresh from the critical success of 2018’s Never Not Love You (NNLY), Nadine Lustre (whom I previously tagged as “the Best Actress of Her Generation” for her work in NNLY), Ulan marries Filipino folklore with profound treatises on life, love and the universe. Lustre shows in this film a sensitivity only she in her age bracket can achieve, and proves that she can act up a storm even when not opposite James Reid.

Carlo Aquino with Maine Mendoza in Isa Pa, With Feelings

7. Isa Pa, With Feelings — A subtle, quiet movie in an industry redolent with tautology and overly wordy screenwriting, Carlo Aquino should be in contention for Best Actor awards for attacking his role as a hearing-impaired person by using techniques culled from the silent movie era. What is more significant is that, by some secret method, director Prime Cruz squeezed commendable acting out of Maine Mendoza, who has hitherto only starred in lightweight comedies. A richly-layered, symbolic film that will bear repeated watching.

Marco Gumabao and Anne Curtis, stars of Just A Stranger

8. Just A Stranger — Flawed protagonists populate this well-acted character study, so much so that the viewer cannot seem to root for anyone. Starting and ending in a confessional, it is an exploration of sin and redemption in an increasingly amoral world. Anne Curtis has never been more lovely, and more adept in her acting. Edu Manzano and the rest of the cast turn in good, nuanced performances. Too bad it was marred by Marco Gumabao, who was abysmally wanting in dramatic skills.

Between Maybes stars Gerald Anderson and Julia Barretto

9. Between Maybes — No matter how I feel about Julia Barretto personally, I must say that this movie evinces her vast talents as an actress capable of communicating complex emotions in the most muted way. I first saw this in Love You To The Stars And Back (2017) and I am glad that Julia shows consistency. Essaying the role of a has-been actress trying to find herself in an obscure region in Japan, she plays off Gerald Anderson very well. Credit this also to Gerald’s indubitable skill as a team player, and what we have is a work of enduring beauty, both in acting and photography.

Rhen Escaño and Cindy Miranda of Adan

10.  Adan — Now this movie is a disrupter. Many saw it as a soft-porn throwback to the 1980s, and must have watched it as such. I saw in it a subdued statement on the continued oppression of women in society, and how it motivates them to adapt in the best way they could. Of course, I would not be candid if I did not admit that I was quite taken by Rhen Escaño, whose innocent sensuality fills the screen, and how she interacted with the other lead, Cindy Miranda. Their contrast in their scenes together — Rhen petite and earthy, Cindy statuesque and fair-skinned — may or may not have been deliberate, but it worked to give the film a texture that proved impactful.

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