There was quite a number of people who came to the Batang West Side screening at 2012's leaner and arguably meaner Cinemanila. Some were watching it for the first time. It was my second. And it had been so long, and I've been used to Lav's immersive long films, I’d forgotten how steeped it was in the ostensible rigidity of film school fundaments. Lav did have tenure at Mowelfund and made his first films under the studio system. But even before the film got a fifth of the way into its terse five hours, you could already feel him pulling away, defiant of the form. Batang West Side was, in many ways, the primordial jolt of our independent cinema, and here it was, 11 years after its premiere in the same festival, unwittingly re-acquainting us with the qualities that made the phenomenon such an intoxicating crucible when it first emerged, primarily the D.I.Y. aesthetic that was a game-changing “fuck you” to the studio way of making films, with its ruthless disregard for protocol, its insatiable curiosity for new modes of narrative, its restless tendency to go out on limbs. Its odd that I should get nostalgic about something that isn't even into its 20th year but 2012 was the year independent cinema crossed over, or attempted to cross over, and made 2001 seem like ages ago. In consorting with the mainstream, these qualities were marginalized even further, if not outright discouraged. A national cinema is healthiest if it can metabolize all disciplines of film. But any whiff of art in the context of independent cinema tended to be scoffed at, by the public, by the producers, by the filmmaking community itself sometimes. And by art, I mean anything that aspired beyond the slim, and myopic, purview that entertainment is the end-all be-all of films. What seemed to be exalted more was the ability of filmmakers to manage compromise more than their ferocity of will to either ignore or even obliterate it. Filmmakers with lofty ambitions or unorthodox processes were routinely dismissed as pretentious and impractical and wankers. Oh, we do uphold Lav Diaz and Kidlat Tahimik for their stubborn and tireless pursuit of art in their work, but our tributes mostly reek of tokenism and misplaced respect because we never go see their films anyway.Having said that, and with at least three corporations giving grants, 2012 was, for what it’s worth, a year of plenty, and as anybody will remember the Cinemalaya brouhaha, a year of controversy. And the volume of output alone was cause to rejoice, particularly for those of us disheartened on a yearly basis by the aesthetic inertia of Hollywood and Star Cinema. There were so many films that my yearly sins of omission, those films I simply lacked the time and the resources to catch, doubled in number. I only saw one MMFF entry as of this writing, two from Cinemanila's Digital Lokal, both here, and none of the FDCP Sineng Pambansa films. But there was also, at some point, a danger of misconstruing quantity with quality. As well-made as many of last year’s films were, there was also a sense of pulling its punches, of coloring inside the lines, of thinking inside the box, of revoking its license to confuse, for most of them. Prudish, conservative, safe. This is borne perhaps from a premature settling into its fickle comfort zones and a misguided desire to expand their demographic, a demographic that remained staunch in its indifference, in its determination to not show up. At least five independently-produced films got a brief, suspense-filled theatrical run in 2012. Suspense-filled because of how there was a daily threat of being pulled out of theaters from lack of traffic hovering over nearly every film, particularly, and oddly, the ones that were aggressively user-friendly, the ones that sold out their festival runs, the ones that gained a fervid cult following, the ones aided and abetted by an over-enthusiastic task force of hype. 2012 was the year in which persisted the folly that the only way for independent cinema to thrive was not only to compete head-on with The Dark Knight Rises and No Other Woman, but also on their playing fields and by their rules, not to mention that other folly that the masses, whose collective wisdom about movies is that they don't want to think while watching them, was somehow within reach. And nary a rustle of developing a viable and sustainable alternative venue system for independent cinema, and nurturing its current audience, was heard in the mad scramble to get into the malls.
The encouraging news amidst the slow mainstreaming of indie, if you will, was that films continued to be made under the same envelope-pushing, anti-traditional , non-conformist, sometimes defiantly no-budget aegis independent cinema used to operate under. Not too surprisingly, some of those creative spurts were shorts: Jon Lazam's Nang Gabing Sinlaki Ng Puso Ang Bato Ni Darna, Victor Villanueva's Saranghae My Tutor, Erik Matti's Vesuvius, Khavn's Solar Syokoy, Carl Papa’s Ang Prinsesa, Prinsipe At Malborita. As a concession to the productivity that distinguished 2012, and also as a concession to loosening up a little, my yearend list has been expanded to 13. I left no room for films seen through means other than a public screening, which means all of the films I picked were all shown publicly here, regardless of nature of venue and how long it ran. Which also means that, delightful as they were, you won't find mention of Leos Carax's Holy Motors or Johnnie To's Life Without Principle beyond this sentence. I also didn't separate the domestic from the foreign because I've always found that a little pointless. And, lastly, after discarding honorable mentions years back, I must also holler empathic shout-outs to the following, the other films I liked a lot but simply did not have enough room for: Joss Whedon's Avengers, Steven Soderbergh's Haywire, Ridley Scott's Prometheus, Michael Haneke's Amour, Rico Ilarde's Pridyider, Erik Matti's Rigodon, Emerson Reyes' MNL 143, Gym Lumbera's Anak Araw, Richard Somes' Mariposa (Sa Hawla Ng Gabi), Whammy Alcazaren's Colossal, Benito Bautista's Harana and Brillante Mendoza's Thy Womb. All of these were flawed, some even terribly so, but then again, the most exciting cinema always is.
1. Florentina Hubaldo CTE (Lav Diaz, Philippines, Cinemanila):
If Siglo Ng Pagluluwal (Century of Birthing), the first film Lav completed in the four years after Melancholia and the one that came before this, had a palpably transitory aura, a sense that he was severing ties with his old aesthetic, and that he was, at times, fumbling for a new one, this feels like he'd at last stumbled on it and that it has come to a fiery bloom. At some point, you sense that the desperate men digging for desperate treasure and the eponymous young woman sold into prostitution by her own malefic father and spiraling into insanity are meant to embody the blunt force trauma suffered by a country that is inexorably cannibalizing itself. It is, but the assumption comes more from a familiarity with the way Lav writes rather than any didacticism on his part. His politics remain fulsome and robust, sure, but his poetry has become intensely given over to a renewed faith in the eloquence of restraint and silences.
2. Kalayaan (Adolfo Borinaga Alix Jr., Philippines, Cinemalaya): If nothing else, this was the year we contemplated, however blithely or flippantly, the possibility, if not the imminence, of our own wholesale extinction and there was no film quite as attuned to such apocalyptic tenor as Adolf's slow burning meditation on the existential isolation that besets us all, set ironically enough in the recent past, and in the Spratly Islands at that, a politicized tract of land as barren of its impositions as it is haunted by its implications. And this ravishing fragment of paradise on earth comes at a price : the damning ennui of disconnectedness and the slow descent into hallucination that is the only way out of it.
3. This Is Not A Film (Jafar Panahi, Iran, Active Vista) : Here is Jafar's sly, often funny riposte against the regime that placed him under house arrest with a gag order from making films hanging over his head. Given the circumstances of its inception and its eventual distribution, though, shot in the house he was prohibited to leave and smuggled to Cannes inside a USB drive hidden in a cake, here, too, is a stripping down to the cogs of the independent filmmaking process, the pushing against limits, the indomitable ferocity of spirit, the prevailing against adversities, the triumph of the will.
4. Post Tenebras Lux (Carlos Reygadas, Mexico, Cinemanila): Is Reygadas an emperor wearing new clothes? Or a street magician engaged in some deliberately obtuse arthouse sleight of hand? And is the illusion compromised if he was one or the other?Part rebus, part hubris, family is the organizing principle in what is his most abstract work, maddening for the way it not only risks the befuddlement we are wired to resist, but somehow twists that very befuddlement into its source of catharsis. No matter what theories you derive out of the images lashed together here, this semblance of clarity, this made-up order, will ultimately lack the visceral satisfaction of the exquisite confusion you're better off embracing instead.
5. In Another Country (Hong Sang Soo, Korea, Cinemanila): Each and every film in Hong's entire ouevre is a variation on themes, those themes being the ways in which relationships constantly shapeshift yet somehow remain the same, and also the ways in which the men in these relationships, Korean men in particular, can be such douches. Here he throws a Caucasian into the mix, several ones really but all played by Isabelle Huppert, and each one unversed in Korean, and touches, with his usual lithe playfulness, with his sprightly grasp of the surreal, on the lopsided interplay that occurs between Asians and Westerners, the way they grope around the language barriers, their desperation to communicate, and the new language that emerges from the dissonance and misunderstanding.
6. Ang Paglalakbay Ng Bituin Sa Gabing Madilim (Arnel Mardoquio, Philippines, Cinema One Originals/ Cinemanila): The revolutionary as zealot can be a reductive misnomer, and in attempting to untwine the intricacies of the Bangsamoro conflict, Arnel dismantles the image by training his contemplative, minimalist gaze instead on the relationship troubles of a rebel couple who also happen to be lesbians, and who also happen to be exhausted by the struggle, as they attempt to evade soldiers who are after the hot cache of ransom money they lug around. Their striking out for friendlier territory is languid and fractious and digressive, but also sometimes becalmed and hopeful, mirroring not only their own malfunctioning determination to stay together, but their own yearning to escape both the demands of their cause and the strictures of their faith.
7. Mamay Umeng (Dwein Tarhata Baltazar, Philippines, Cinema One Originals): A film about a man who can't wait to die, about the slow action of a life unbothered by incident, about tedium, really, is bound to be, well, tedious, and any chance it has at being emotionally involving, let alone being funny or poignant, neutered by its very nature. In theory. But there's a sense of space and minutiae and quietude to this that is more bemusing than it is boring, and somehow defies all that, possessed as it is of a frail grace that is kept from dissipating into banality by the wry passivity of the man outliving himself at the heart of it.
8. Jungle Love (Sherad Anthony Sanchez. Philippines, Cinemanila): Pleasure is the last thing you expect to take away from a work by Sherad, whose ethnographic reveries always seemed in the grip of some sober, enigmatic gravity. Not that this piece of semiotic erotica abandons the veil of mystery entirely but it's more ornamental than forbidding, its uncharacteristic playfulness coming from how this is really a tone poem about seduction and disappearance but wearing the ghostly skin of a pop song about love and salvation and liking how it feels better.
9. Taglish (Gym Lumbera, Philippines, Cinemanila): Language, specifically Tagalog, the dialect of Gym’s native Batangas, and the duplicities and entropies visited on it that the title hints at, illuminates the duplicities and entropies of his film. The second half (Tagalog) is a dark, rueful love story and the first half (English) is what happened after the actual film got damaged in a flood. Mashed up, it's a narrative, in many ways, of wounded longing, for a love forever tainted by infidelity, for a simpler life that's a stone's throw away yet out of reach. But it lingers more as a subtext on how much art is an Other that is never fully subservient to the control of its artist.
10, Pascalina (Pam Miras, Philippines, Cinema One Originals): Essentially the travails of a small girl in a big city but fed through the jittery muck you attain from shooting on a Digital Harinezumi,which comes off less as an outlaw impulse, and goes beyond mere mood-setting into the more aggressively contextual utility of peeling the skin off the titular fuckup's mundane history to reveal how everybody, from her sisters to her boyfriend to her dying aunt, the only person who has the temerity to tell her "I love you", has fangs sheathed inside them and the only way for her to make it through the eternal, grotty night that has become her so-called life is to dance with the devil she knows and spring the catch on her own secret monstrosity.
12. Give Up Tomorrow (Michael Collins and Marty Syjuco, USA-Philippines, Domestic Release): The title swings both ways, as a tweak on that exhortation to procrastinate your surrender or a handing over of your future to someone else. For Paco Larrañaga, it's his mantra of resolve, languishing in jail these past 14 years for the infamous murder of the Chiong Sisters, a crime he vehemently claims he didn't commit, a claim that's bulletproof with corroboration but, to a corrupt justice system, has become as flimsy as a shield cut out of cardboard. It doesn't exactly let us forget that at the other end of its subject's wrongful incarceration, and the Kafkaesque conspiracy that swirls around it, are two dead girls and their devastated parents, and it may all be a function of our own instincts for narrative, but that we somehow do forget, even briefly, is also where the film derives its current of dangerous, harrowing ambivalence.
13. Magic Mike (Steven Soderbergh, USA, Domestic Release): Soderbergh has been on such a streak of win, his last six films have all but overturned my lingering reservations about him, to the point that this is the second year in a row wherein his work earned a slot in the compendium. Brazenly heterosexual and leeched of danger, there's obviously a rosy tint to his vision of the male stripper lifestyle that, while it docks no points for veracity, has that wildly abandoned flavor of zest that befits a swoony valentine to hedonism.