The best and the rest 2000
Been a strange year; can’t say great films have come out (other than in retrospectives) yet can’t really complain…and partly it’s because of the surprisingly strong showing of Filipino films this year. A quick round-up, then, of the year two triple-zero:
They provided a refreshing alternative to the Hollywood pap served at multiplexes, they usually have discounts for students, and they’re a window to what's out there in the rest of the world. Refreshing alternative? Savior of one’s sanity--of one’s soul--more likely (till the next George Lucas or Michael Bay rumbles along).
The first one, 'Pelikula at Lipunan' (Film & Society--classy, no?) was in February. The worse you can say about it is that it rehashed standard-issue Filipino classics (Mike De Leon’s Batch ’81, Lino Brocka’s Insiang); the best you can say about it is that it provided a nice little showcase of French cinema’s formidable back catalogue. I’m talking some of the greatest films ever--Jean-Luc Godard’s playfully dysfunctional Alphaville; Alan Resnais’ much-admired (though for me pretentious) Hiroshima Mon Amour; Marcel Carne & Jacques Prevert’s wonderful Children of Paradise; and Chris Marker’s lyrical La Jetee (in its brief forty minutes one of the finest science-fiction films ever).
March is the Academy Awards and naturally distributors start exhibiting the nominees in the hopes of cashing in on the publicity. Most of them--Cider House Rules, The Green Mile, The Insider--are standard Oscar fare (either they provide 'moral uplift' or condemn cigarettes as--gasp! really?--bad for you). Even with something touted as dark and daring as Sam Mendes’ American Beauty (which won) feels like a conservative choice, because the hero (Kevin Spacey, Best Actor) is balding middle-aged impotent, like a lot of Academy members. Of the nominees, I liked M. Night Shaymalan’s The Sixth Sense for its ingenuity; of the non-nominees, I liked Kimberly Pierce’s Boys Don’t Cry for its intensity.
May brought the Cannes Film Festival, and news: Raymond Red’s thirteen-minute Anino (Shadow) won the Palme d’Or, something even Lino Brocka and Ishmael Bernal couldn't do. Suddenly, Raymond and his film were the flavor of the month, maybe the year, the repercussions of what he achieved rebounding up and down the industry.
June was the French Spring, the embassy pulling more gems from its inexhaustible past--Jean-Pierre Melville’s magnificent Army of Shadows, and Patrice Cherau’s Those Who Love Me Can Take The Train--one of the finest of recent French films.
Cinemanila 2000 in July was a quieter affair than last year’s. In terms of breadth and variety and sheer quality of films however it’s the festival of the year, with everything from Nonzee Nimibutr’s supernatural Nang Nak to Jane Campion’s nutty Holy Smoke to Deepa Mehta’s controversial Fire, and guests like Rena Owens (from Lee Tamahori’s powerful Once Were Warriors), and Charles Burnett (The Annihilation of Fish, To Sleep With Anger), perhaps the best black filmmaker working in America.
October brought the better-funded more middlebrow Cine Europa and its most interesting film, Thomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration--a Dogme 95 film about a dinner party that refuses to end. Like Lars Von Trier’s Breaking the Waves the picture tends to sacrifice character detail to director’s agenda, though in terms of style and sensibility it’s better than practically every other picture in the festival (definitely better than Reinhard Schwabenitzky’s foul turd of a movie, An Almost Perfect Wedding).
The last festival of the year was Iranian, with seven lovely films. Favorites include Varush Karim Masihi's The Last Act, a strange gothic thriller which at times feels like a collaboration between Anton Chekov and Agatha Christie; Moshen Makhmalbaf’s The Peddler, which features one of the most bizarre twenty minutes ever put on film; and Dariush Merjui’s Leila, a harrowing account of a marriage failing.
Films no one in his right mind would consider good yet are enjoyable, sometimes for that very reason. Danny Boyle’s The Beach felt like a sneak preview of Survivor; Mission Impossible 2 was John Woo at his loudest most self-indulgent--and still came across as classier than other Hollywood action flicks. Luc Besson’s Joan of Arc is a particularly perverse choice--think of the Saint Joan legend as medieval fashion show, with a supermodel stripping at its center. But for sheer scale and sweep of nincompoopery it’s hard to beat Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich’s The Patriot, with Mel Gibson as caring father, equal-opportunity employer, and psychotic guerrilla all rolled into a lumpy mass thrust up your ass. Who can resist?
Films that enjoyed either good reviews or good box-office, for God only knows what reason. Rory Quintos’ Anak (Child) was Vilma Santos’ big-time Mother’s Day Picture, with Vilma playing a returning overseas worker trying to reconnect with her children. Mind you, this is the Honorable Mayor of Lipa City so she has to be loving, righteous, practically perfect--don’t even think of attempting ambiguous characterization or subtle storytelling; we’re talking Hallmark Greeting Card wholesomeness.
More Hollywood flicks--Wolfgang Petersen in A Perfect Storm stages decent water sequences, then ruins it all by pulling back to reveal a digitally formed hurricane. Ridley Scott’s Gladiator boasts of wonderful sets and digital effects, plus characters so thin you wonder if they aren't digital too. Bryan Singer’s X Men is the most awaited film of the year, with not a moment of visual poetry in it; shouldn’t be an objection, unless you’ve seen Tim Burton’s Batman Returns or Robert Altman’s Popeye. Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is #1 on Time Magazine’s list of best of the year and is really a watered-down version of King Hu, puffed up with Hollywood glamour and gloss--'a martial arts film, only with more art in it!' they say. Oh please.
David Twohy’s Pitch Black tries too hard to look like an action flick, is at its best when pausing to evoke a world with multiple suns plunging into darkness once every twenty-two years. It’s science fiction that actually makes you think a little, about planetary orbits and the cyclical patterns of alien life forms. Roman Polanski’s The Ninth Gate compared to his earlier work (Rosemary’s Baby, Chinatown) looks pathetic, but compared with practically any other recent horror thriller (Stigmata anyone?) is smart, sexy, subtle stuff. Ron Shelton’s Play It To The Bone is a mess and its climactic fight suffers in comparison to Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull, but nevertheless manages to become an interesting character study. Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow is an emotionally opaque work (ever since Ed Wood Burton seems to be cutting himself off from audiences), but with gorgeous imagery. Andy Tennant’s Anna And The King is still sourced from Anna Leonowens’ historically suspect diaries, but does have Chow Yun-Fat’s slyly funny, genuinely charismatic performance as the King of Siam. Vincenzo Natali’s Cube may be the most visually inventive viscerally thrilling low-budget science-fiction flick around.
Steven Soderbergh’s Erin Brokovich puts Julia Roberts’ cleavage into good use (though he fails to include the less-than-inspiring events that follow Brokovich’s story). Michael Almereyda’s Hamlet turns on a great concept--Hamlet’s family as a corporate entity called 'The Denmark Corporation,' based in midtown Manhattan--though he doesn’t quite integrate idea and original play well enough to make the metaphor inevitable. Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich (which was Cinemanila 2000’s biggest hit) suffers from an amazing first hour--I say ‘suffers’ because that half is so funny I don’t know if anything could have topped it. Stephen Frear’s High Fidelity is shapeless, pointless, unreasonably good fun; ditto Curtis Hanson’s Wonder Boys (though I feel more affinity for writers than music lovers in general I somehow like High’s characters better). This short list of smart and witty films comes to a perfect full circle with Soderbergh again, whose The Limey is more than just witty and innovative--there’s a sad knowingness to the film's finale that gives it genuine resonance.
Restorations & Director’s Cuts
The Exorcist: the Director’s Cut is actually a misnomer; this is writer-producer William Peter Blatty’s cut, where he puts in all the theology and allusions to Casablanca that he always wanted to include. The re-issue comes just in time for us to realize that the film is an overrated exercise in 'boo!'--type horror all along; make mine creepier and more seductive, as in Brian De Palma’s The Fury, or Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby.
The Moises Padilla Story is a far more wretched restoration job of a demonstrably better film--there’s an entire reel missing, and a lot jumps and skips the sprockets, but it’s still recognizably Geraldo De Leon. With a great performance by, of all people, Filipino President Joseph Ejercito 'Erap' Estrada, as the friend who betrays Padilla (Leopoldo Salcedo). Estrada is so intense you don’t know who suffers more, him or Padilla; when finally arrested by the police, you see relief written all over Erap's face, clear as daylight. If only his performance as President was a hundredth as good…
With movie attendance falling and production costs rising, studios are presumably willing to try something new. Mel Chionglo’s Lagarista (The Film Biker) is about bikers who carry film prints from one Manila theater to another. Would be nice to praise the picture for attempting to be different, but so much is an obvious steal from both Cinema Paradiso and Mario O’Hara’s Babae sa Bubungang Lata (Woman on a Tin Roof) it’s impossible to work up any enthusiasm. Joel Lamangan’s Abandonada (The Abandoned) is fairly well made komiks melodrama, Joyce Bernal’s Kailangan Ko’y Ikaw (You Are All I Need) an even better made romantic comedy; both are relatively ordinary fare, improved by either skillful writing (Raquel Villavicencio for Abandonada) or direction (Bernal). Jeffrey Jeturian and Amando Lao’s Tuhog (Skewered) is three-fourths a lovely drama about how ordinary folks are exploited by filmmakers, one-fourth a brilliant satire about how our more pretentious directors try to make sex flicks for foreign festivals. Even if the mix doesn’t work, the film is still very much worth watching; that is, if it’s still the same film--the Movie and Television Classification and Ratings Board (MTRCB) gave it an 'X' rating and the film’s studio has cut up the picture without Jeturian’s permission.
The Metro Manila Film Festival
The entries to the festival this year are unusually ambitious and well made, as if the filmmakers had an eye on Cannes, or were benefiting from Estrada’s two years as president (Estrada it must be remembered is a supporter of the industry). Gil Portes’ Markova: Comfort Gay boasts of a brilliant concept--Markova as played by comic actor Dolphy and his two sons at various stages of his life--but suffers from an essentially shallow interpretation of Markova himself. Laurice Guillen’s Tanging Yaman (Their Only Treasure) features fine direction--Guillen, after seven years of inactivity, has only improved--and yet another weak script (Gloria Romero, wonderful as the family matriarch, drops out of the film’s second half, which is devoted to some of the corniest melodramatics this side of Rosalinda). Joel Lamangan’s Deathrow shows an amazing improvement over his direction of Abandonada; again, it’s the script that suffers, with the relationship between the veteran convict (an excellent Eddie Garcia) and the newcomer (an awful Cogie Domingo) never satisfactorily explained. But it is Joey Reyes’ Sugatang Puso (Wounded Heart), possibly the smallest-budgeted, least-heralded of the projects, that delivers the biggest surprise: with its solid characterization, understated acting, skilled storytelling, it’s easily the finest in the festival.
Best of the Year
So what did I think were the best? Tikoy Aguiluz’s Biyaheng Langit (Paradise Express) lacked a few expository scenes and was further mangled when the MTRCB twice gave it an 'X' rating (with this picture and Tuhog, one wonders if perhaps the MTRCB isn’t actually devoted to banning boldness and intelligence in Filipino films). Yet something still shines through, a glimpse of little worlds rarely seen: a squatter community living beside the railroads; a stream of money flowing from gambling tables to gambling lord (the parallels to President Estrada’s latest scandal lending the picture extra pungency). Aguiluz has always excelled at documentary-style portraits of modern Manila; in Rey Ventura--author of the novel Underground in Japan, about illegal Filipino immigrants in Japan--he may have found a writer with real depth of feeling. Mark Anthony Fernandez gets my vote for Filipino male performance of the year, as an amoral street hustler who picks the wrong girl (Joyce Jimenez) to fall in love with.
Majid Majidi’s The Color of Paradise is about a blind boy and his troubled relationship with his father--a simple story gracefully told, adorned with Majidi’s eye for gorgeous Iranian landscapes (a forest in fog; a boiling river). The boy, who is really blind, gives an unaffected performance; he is complemented by Hossein Mahjoub, who gives a great performance as the dad--the man's lack of empathy for his son is monstrous, yet Mahjoub makes you understand his character so deeply you cannot fully hate the man. Winner of the Lino Brocka Award at Cinemanila 2000.
Mario O’Hara’s Pangarap ng Puso (Hope of the Heart) has been described by Inquirer film critic Lito Zulueta as: 'the most ambitious Filipino film of the year.' Let me add: wildest, fiercest, most courageous, most imaginative, most underrated. It’s a love story between poor farm boy and rich hacienda girl, set against the violent political turmoil of the Negros provinces. It's a mix of grim reality and highflown lyricism, of military terrorists and supernatural monsters; in tone and imagery it comes close to being a Filipino adaptation of Gabriel Garcia Marquez on the big screen--all this done on a mere $70,000. When it opened it was practically ignored, was a boxoffice disaster despite its miniscule cost; yet in terms of intensity and sheer poetry (can you tell I don’t give a damn about boxoffice?), I’d say this is the film of the year.
First published in Businessworld 1.5.01