Tuesday, October 6, 2015

My favorite movies of 2014

(Originally appeared on my Facebook page)

My annual list.

1. Boyhood (Richard Linklater) - A story that encompasses many years, involving the same characters and actors, and simply Richard Linklater at his best. Of course I’m referring to Before Sunrise / Before Sunset / Before Midnight. Boyhood is in the same vein. At first it seems nothing much happens, but life is like that, you realize how rich it has been only when you sit still and look back. In a year of gimmicky Oscar baits and the usual effects-heavy blockbusters, here is a slice of life captured on film that feels natural and authentic, suprisingly rare in feature filmmaking. The best movie of the year.

2. Guardians of the Galaxy (James Gunn) - Finally, a Marvel movie that captured the tone and spirit of Marvel comic books (unlike the X-Men movies and the others that are just too darn serious.) There were noble attempts to do so in the past, specifically the Fantastic Four movies and especially Sam Raimi’s Spider-man movies, but what’s different this time is I actually CARED about the characters. Star-Lord! Gamora! Drax! Rocket Raccoon! Groot! Little Groot! Not many people knew about these characters before this movie, but now, they’re huge favorites, including mine. And that soundtrack! I can’t wait for the next one!

3. The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson) - This barged into my top 3 Wes Anderson movies (after The Royal Tenenbaums and Fantastic Mr. Fox.) Such an intricate work of art and an enjoyable romp. This movie also proves that Ralph Fiennes can do ANYTHING.

4. Godzilla (Gareth Edwards) - I’m still puzzled by the level of hate that this movie got when it came out, to the point that people were saying that it’s the worst movie ever, or that the horrible 1998 Godzilla movie was better, and that (gasp) the craptastic Batman and Robin movie was better. Like, whut?? People on crack? What were they expecting, Jurassic Park XL? King Kong with an interpreter? For me, the great achievement of this movie was that it was able to strike a balance between a modern day blockbuster, and a tribute to the original Toho studio movies from the 50s to the 70s. In many ways, it was this franchise’s Skyfall, looking back into the legacy with respect while moving the property forward.

5. Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch) - Vampires. Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston as said vampires. Jim Jarmusch. Vintage hardbound books. Literature. Analogue audio. Records. Rock and classical musical score. History. Morocco. Goth. Noir. There’s no way I would not like this movie because it speaks to many kinds of nerds. No, this isn’t a horror movie. Oddly, the tone of the movie reminds me a lot of Sofia Coppola’s “Lost In Translation,” including the humor.

6. Interstellar (Christopher Nolan) - You know I could care less about the science behind this movie’s story since one of my favorite movies of the year has a talking raccoon. I watched this on 70mm film IMAX; I’m not sure how this looks like on smaller (digital) screens, but what I saw was a movie comparable in ambition to 2001: A Space Odyssey, and I certainly don’t think anybody had the guts to question Kubrick about his movie’s science.

7. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (Isao Takahata) - There are two geniuses within beloved Studio Ghibli: Hayao Miyazaki (“the Walt Disney of Japan,” but he’s more than that), and Isao Takahata, who was responsible for classic films such as Grave of the Fireflies, simply one of the best anti-war movies of all-time. It is tragic that in 2014, both Miyazaki and Takahata made known that they are retiring, with their latest films to be their last (Miyazaki’s was 2013’s The Wind Rises), putting the future of Studio Ghibli as a production company in limbo. Takahata’s work is quite distinct from Miyazaki’s because, unlike Miyazaki’s blockbusters that are decidedly light and fun and such crowdpleasers, Takahata’s is a bit more serious. Like a lot of Japanese art though (Edo paintings, haikus, Kurosawa productions), there’s a lot of wit and humor beneath the surface of Princess Kaguya. The hand-drawn animation is quite an achievement in itself, not to mention the story (an adaptation of a Japanese folk tale). If Takahata is indeed serious about retiring after this, then he’s bowing out with a winner. (note: watch the original Japanese version and not the Hollywood-dubbed one)

8. How To Train Your Dragon 2 (Dean DeBlois) - I did not expect that I would love this movie. It’s a sequel, with the kind of title usually reserved for direct-to-video cash-ins. I watched this because I loved the first one. This sequel surpassed that first movie in all areas, especially in the uplift and feel-good department. This has happened before: Spider-Man 2…Toy Story 2…Shrek 2…(Godfather Part 2??)

9. Citizenfour (Laura Poitras) - The Edward Snowden documentary. There are scenes that are every bit as suspenseful as anything by Hitchcock, except that they were actually happening. And like in those Hitchcock movies where protagonists are pursued and cornered, you root for the hero. Unlike in those movies though, we have all been cornered for real without knowing it. Yes, you.

10. Selma (Ava DuVernay) - It defies logic that this movie got a lot less attention and recognition than some less-deserving ones (listed below under “Underwhelmed.”) Admittedly, there are moments in the movie that felt like the audience is being slapped left and right with Oscar trophies, but they don’t take away the fact that this movie has more heart and balls AND cinematic values than the likes of “The Theory of Everything.” And this could have been the year when a black woman would be nominated for Best Director. Until she wasn’t.

11. The Book of Life (Jorge Gutierrez) - More than an enjoyable animated movie musical, it is a colorful and euphoric celebration of Mexican culture, a labor of love by its mostly Latino crew. If afterlife exists and it’s as fantastic as the movie portrays, who would want to live? (Also, dig that soundtrack that reworks popular songs like Radiohead’s “Creep.”)

12. Birdman (Alejandro Gonzalez Inarittu) - Had I seen this movie yesterday, it would have been ranked higher on this list, top 3 even. However, as time passes, I could not help but feel that this entire movie was a stunt, a gimmick that’s not going to stand the test of time. Enjoy it while the novelty lasts.

13. Under The Skin (Jonathan Glazer) - A slow burner of a film, saying more would give its secret away. Memorable performance by Scarlett Johansson. Fantastic synth soundtrack by Mica Levi.

14. Finding Vivian Maier (John Maloof, Charlie Siskel) - Vivian Maier: a nanny, hoarder, pack rat, oddball, and apparently, one of the greatest photographers ever, whose work was discovered only after her death in 2009.

15. The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness (Mami Sunada) - This is a documentary about Japan’s Studio Ghibli right around that time they were making Hayao Miyazaki’s “The Wind Rises” and Isao Takahata’s “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya,” and right before the two filmmakers decided to retire. For fans, this behind the scenes look is quite the privilege because these famous filmmakers and the Studio rarely let people into their private world. We also get to know Hayao Miyazaki and the people around him more, as humans and not as the icons that they are considered to be. Miyazaki’s announcement that he was going to retire was a shock to fans. Watching this film, I realized that the kind of work that they do is truly difficult and time-consuming, and I now understand why they deserve a break after their remarkable run. I also like how this documentary is very austere, very Japanese (if you’ve seen Jiro Dreams of Sushi or documentaries on NHK, then you’d know what I’m talking about).

16. Big Hero 6 (Don Hall, Chris Williams) / The Lego Movie (Chris Miller, Phil Lord) - Very entertaining, very witty. Big Hero 6 feels more like golden-age Pixar, while The Lego Movie is simply one of the funniest of 2014.

17. Edge of Tomorrow (Doug Liman) - What struck me most about this movie was, it’s probably the only film in memory that is able to show exactly how video games work (and it’s not even a “video game movie”). You try and try until you perfect it, and even if it’s already game over, you reboot and do everything all over again. Simply one of the smartest movies of 2014.

18. Gone Girl (David Fincher) - I’ve got nothing to say except that this fits perfectly in the David Fincher filmography, from the story to the style to the cinematography and music.

19. Still Alice (Wash Westmoreland) - I don’t like movies concerning diseases, and if they’re really good, I like them less so!, simply because when they’re too realistic they make me feel nervous about the possibility of said disease afflicting me or people close to me (I’m weird that way). However, the craft involved in the making of Still Alice is just undeniable, especially Julianne Moore’s performance as a person afflicted with Alzheimer’s. Sometimes she would blank out and seem lost like how people with Alzheimer’s would, and it’s just too accurate and devastating.

20. A Most Violent Year (J.C. Chandor) / Nightcrawler (Dan Gilroy) - I like these movies because they have such a ‘70s vibe that recall those gritty urban crime/morality films in the ’70s directed by the likes of Sidney Lumet (Serpico / Dog Day Afternoon / Network). Great performances by Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain in Violent Year (nope, no award recognition for both), while Jake Gyllenhaal gives probably his best and certainly creepiest performance ever in Nightcrawler (nope, no Oscar nomination for him either). Both of these movies are very much underrated or overlooked; I think their stature will rise as the years go by.

21. Dracula Untold (Gary Shores) - I would certainly not call this a bad movie. Unnecessary perhaps. This is now meant to be the first movie in a reboot of the Universal Monsters universe, and it does feel like that was a belated decision since the movie lacks the usual excitement of a franchise starter. However, an additional scene (the eventual ending) was shot to set up the planned franchise. Now I'm excited. If it doesn't work out, please turn this into a TV series.

22. WolfCop (Lowell Dean) - A comedy. A cop comedy movie. A werewolf cop comedy movie. #throwback

23. Finding Fela (Alex Gibney) - Nigerian superstar Fela Kuti was one of the greatest and bravest artists who ever lived, but not many people know him (unlike Bob Marley for example, he did not have his own “Legend.”) I think it’s because Fela left this whole universe of music and legacy behind that people who want to get into him do not know where to start. This documentary by Alex Gibney (Taxi To The Dark Side) is a great introduction to his life and music.

24. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Anthony Russo, Joe Russo) - Speaking of the 70s, here’s one superhero movie that feels less like a comic book movie but more like a full-fledged political thriller, in which the events serve as a turning point in the Marvel cinematic universe. Even the TV show Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. got a lot more interesting after the events in Winter Soldier. Heil Hydra! 

25. Force Majeure (Ruben Ostlund) - You know that feeling when you’re on holiday when you’re supposed to be relaxing yet everything just got messed up and you’re really pissed off because of it and you just want people to shut their faces and you just don’t wanna be here anymore but you’re stuck here for days and can’t really do anything about it? This movie gets that feeling right.

26. PK (Rajkumar Hirani) - The highest-grossing Indian film ever. It’s also one of the most hilariously subversive movies I’ve seen, and it’s an Asian film (!). In this movie, the absurdity of certain aspects of religion gets skewered, and nobody is spared. Aamir Khan is one of Bollywood’s most popular and outspoken, and doing this movie certainly was a big risk that seems to have paid off.

27. Coming Home (Zhang Yimou) - Actress Gong Li and master director Zhang Yimou (Raise the Red Lantern, Hero) reunite for this Chinese drama about the after-effects of the Cultural Revolution to ordinary people’s lives. Since this is Zhang Yimou, the actual theme is much bigger than that, and this movie fits in nicely with the rest of his body of work. Gong Li’s is one of the year’s finest performances.

28. The Raid 2: Berandal (Gareth Evans) - If you saw the first movie, you’d know what to expect. Just a reminder that this movie is extremely violent — Tarantino’s Kill Bill at least is funny — and the banning of it in some countries is justified. If you do watch it, see the original Indonesian version with English subtitles because the English-dubbed version is just atrocious.

29. What We Do In The Shadows (Jemaine Clement, Taika Waititi) - A mockumentary about vampires living in New Zealand, perhaps the funniest in the genre since Best In Show. ‘Nuff said!

30. The Missing Picture (Rithy Panh) - The emotional and harrowing story about life under the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, as told by the director (a labor camp survivor), accompanied mainly by shots of wooden hand-made dioramas as well as propaganda videos shot by the Khmer Rouge. Essential viewing.

Some more that I liked:

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (Matt Reeves)
We Are The Best! (Lukas Moodysson)
Queen (Vikas Bahl)
The Babadook (Jennifer Kent)
Lucy (Luc Besson)
Paddington (Paul King)
Noah (Darren Aronofsky)
Particle Fever (Mark Levinson)
Into The Woods (Rob Marshall)
Big Eyes (Tim Burton)
Magic In The Moonlight (Woody Allen)
Starry Eyes (Kevin Kolsch, Dennis Widmyer)
The Interview (Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg)
Dear White People (Justin Simien)
Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson)


The Theory of Everything - it’s amazing how unremarkable this movie is
The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies
The Imitation Game

My bests:

Actor: J.K. Simmons (Whiplash)
Special mention: Ralph Fiennes (The Grand Budapest Hotel)

Actress: Julianne Moore (Still Alice)
Special mention: Gong Li (Coming Home) / Mira Grosin and Mira Barkhammar (We Are The Best!)

Ensemble: The Grand Budapest Hotel
Director: Boyhood
Screenplay: Boyhood
Cinematography: Ida
Editing: Boyhood
Production Design: The Grand Budapest Hotel
Costume: The Grand Budapest Hotel
Visual Effects: The Grand Budapest Hotel

Musical Score (all great, in alphabetical order)
Birdman (Antonio Sanchez, et al)
Godzilla (Alexandre Desplat)
Interstellar (Hans Zimmer)
The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (Joe Hisaishi)
Under The Skin (Mica Levi)

1. Guardians of the Galaxy
2. Only Lovers Left Alive
3. Selma (note: the overrated theme song, though, sucks.)
4. Boyhood
5. Inherent Vice

My favorite movies of 2013

(Originally appeared on my Facebook page)

There were so many great movies in 2013 that any movie on my top 10 here could have topped my list for some weaker film years in the past had they been released at that time. I have to say though that while the major studios may have churned out more quality movies in 2013 than in any recent year, I don’t think many of them would be considered as future cinema classics (2012 was a particularly strong year as well, and I could think of at least three movies from that year that I would put in a movie time capsule). I might add some more films to this list, simply because there are still so many notable 2013 movies that I’ve yet to see, like Hayao Miyazaki’s “The Wind Rises” and other films from Asia, and some festival favorites like “Sacro GRA” which won in Venice, and “Omar” from Palestine. But as of today, here are my faves:

1. The Act of Killing (Director’s Cut) (Joshua Oppenheimer, et al)

OMG. WTF. Indonesia, I hardly knew ya. 

(Also, I’m glad it’s justifiable that I can put it this high on this list, to annoy those who feel that the filmmaker crossed the boundaries of ethics in documentary filmmaking. Ethics? The subjects of this extraordinary film and the authorities who empowered them implicated in the movie are unrepentant butchers. They deserve all the shaming in the world. If we cannot haul their asses off to The Hague, at least we know this film will live forever.)

Further viewing: The similarly chilling and surreal 2003 documentary “S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine,” which basically does the same thing but to the Cambodian genocide of the ‘70s.

2. Big Bad Wolves (Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado) - From Israel. One of the most brutal films of the year is also 2013’s finest allegory and satire. If you did not get it, you either were not paying enough attention, or did not make it till the end, which would be a shame.

3. Blue Is The Warmest Colour (La Vie d'Adèle – Chapitres 1 & 2) (Abdellatif Kechiche) - A lot has been said about the extended love scenes between the protagonists, which if shortened, the film I believe would still retain its message and impact. Ok so perhaps the scenes put people on those seats. Fair enough. Great performances overall, especially by Adèle Exarchopoulos.

4. Only God Forgives (Nicolas Winding Refn) - It’s beautiful, it’s brutal, it’s arty, it’s trashy, it’s cerebral, it’s hollow. Nicolas Winding Refn’s follow-up to 2011’s “Drive” (now regarded as a modern noir classic) divided opinions, and it’s truly all that. Kristin Scott Thomas’ delicious turn as a mob matriarch / mother from hell deserves recognition, but sadly no recognition came.

5. Rush (Ron Howard) - There are very few Ron Howard movies that I like, too bad this one didn’t make as much money as the usual drivel he comes out with. This movie belongs to Daniel Bruhl, who brings a lot of honesty and humanity to his character more than Thor can to his.

6. Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach) - And I thought nobody makes sparkling New York dramedies anymore after Woody Allen made his in the late 70s and early 80s. This movie is just a delight from start to finish, and I’d like to see more movies starring Greta Gerwig.

7. Her (Spike Jonze) - A future classic right here. Watch it.

8. Gravity (Alfonso Cuaron) - What is there left to say, except that I thought it was too short.

9. This Is The End (Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg) - The comedy of the year, especially for stoner guys :D. Like The Wolf of Wall Street, this movie doesn’t give a shit what you might think about it. 

10. The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese) - The most Scorsese-esque Scorsese movie since Goodfellas. It’s refreshing to see Scorsese return to form and not try to win Oscars (Hugo???!? Scorsese did that??!?). And Leo’s best performance since “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape”

11. The Grandmaster (Original Cut) (Wong Kar—Wai) - Many people, including critics, were disappointed, perhaps because they were expecting the usual big-budgeted Chinese martial arts extravaganza—or because the version that they saw was the shorter Harvey Weinstein cut. However, this is a Wong Kar-Wai movie through and through, with keenly observed moments that are both intimate and ravishing. Tony Leung Chiu Wai and Zhang Ziyi being together again in a movie is enough for many fans.

12. Wadjda (Haifaa al-Mansour) - I’m amazed that this movie was shot entirely in Saudi Arabia (a first), made by a Saudi female director (!), and officially submitted by the country as its entry for the Oscars (also a first). The fact that it’s actually an excellent, keenly observed movie about girls/women in the country is just icing on the cake. While the filmmaker might have intended it to be a glimpse into (and subtle rebuke of) everyday challenges of being women in Saudi Arabia, the government might have thought that it’s a movie about how females should toe the line; kinda like how Zhang Yimou would make these excellent Chinese epics about how the individual tragically succumbs to authority (the hero almost always dies in the end, watch them all again), while at the same time being funded by the government thinking that it’s a movie about how authority and groupthink should always triumph over individuals. Genius. If I didn’t know any better, I would even think Saudi Arabia is changing as a society. Well, of course not.

13. Pacific Rim (Guillermo del Toro) - It’s the live action Japanese robot movie we’ve been dreaming about since the ‘70s.

14. Thor: The Dark World (Alan Taylor) - A candidate for best superhero movie ever made. Marvel does Star Wars.

15. Oblivion (Joseph Kosinski) / Ender’s Game (Gavin Hood) / Elysium (Neill Blomkamp) - Am I the only one who thoroughly enjoyed this trifecta of sci-fi films that did not get enough love even from sci-fi nerds? Were people too busy playing video games?

16. The Search For Weng-Weng (Andrew Leavold) - Not only is it an in-depth look at the life of Filipino diminutive actor Weng-Weng — who through the years has become this pop cult figure — it is a love letter to Filipino low-budget genre filmmaking that is ripe for re-evaluation. Anybody who had ever sat through double features at a bug-infested Philippine movie theater in the 70s and 80s would get misty-eyed.

17. The Square (Updated Version) (Jehane Noujaim) - As Egypt continues to unravel, watching The Square feels like reading a year-old news article on the country: sad, hopeful, and you feel sad that the subjects were hopeful because you now know that the despair was just going to get worse. Viewers should not expect the documentary to be exhaustive as it mainly focuses on events in the capital city Cairo. The Square nonetheless is a great snapshot of the insanity, complexity, confusion, the passion, the defiance, the heartbreak, and numerous other elements that surround the protests in Egypt since 2011, that one outside Egypt can’t really get from Western TV newscasts and wire reports and even YouTube phone videos.

18. Snowpiercer (Bong Joon-Ho) - An excellent sci-fi film based on cult French graphic novel Le Transperceneige, it features great performances from Chris Evans, Song Kang-Ho, and especially Tilda Swinton; if only this movie actually got shown in the U.S. prior to awards season, the movie press would be all over her performance. Reportedly, the U.S. release is being held up by Harvey Weinstein (aka Harvey Scissorhands, who did the same to movies like Cinema Paradiso, etc.), who wants a shorter, possibly more commercial cut.

19. Los Amantes Pasajeros (I’m So Excited) (Pedro Almodovar) - The latest romp from Almodovar, a return to form after a string of critically-acclaimed dramas. 

20. Inside Llewyn Davis (The Coen Brothers) - I could understand why not many people took to the Coen’s latest. It’s meandering, sort of just stays where it is. Which is faithful to the story it’s trying to tell. This is not a movie to be transported to another place, but for kicking back, like with a good old friend.

21. Cutie and the Boxer (Zachary Heinzerling) - Or how it feels to be struggling artists in New York, while also being senior citizens. Starring avant-garde Japanese-American artists Noriko and Ushio Shinohara.

22. Before Midnight (Richard Linklater) - The trio of Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke, and Julie Delpy could never go wrong. Even if they don’t make another movie together or individually, their legacy is assured with the “Before” movies.

23. The Past (Asghar Farhadi) - Iranian filmmaker Farhadi’s follow-up to “A Separation” is a great ensemble piece led by Ali Mossaffa and Bérénice Bejo (“The Artist”)

24. Bhaag Milkha Bhaag (Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra) - A biopic of Indian runner and Olympian Milkha Singh, the movie is the best picture winner at Bollywood’s Filmfare Awards.

26. Nebraska (Alexander Payne) - Alexander Payne has never made a bad movie, they are all great including this latest, featuring the best ensemble performance of 2013.

26. American Hustle (David O. Russell) - Fun as cotton candy, and as substantial.

27. Kiss of the Damned (Xan Cassavetes) - A stylish vampire film that recalls not only early 80s Euro horror, but also 70s Italian horror (giallo) and even the heydays of Hammer horror with its use of location, cinematography, costume, make-up and music. And no Bella, Edward or Jacob in sight!

28. The Wolverine (James Mangold) - An underrated but excellent superhero movie set in Japan. This certainly is my favorite X-Men-related movie ever.

29. Blue Jasmine (Woody Allen) - “A Streetcar Named Desire” is one of my favorite movies ever, and this is a modern retelling of it. Hands down one of Woody Allen’s best late-period films, and Cate Blanchett’s best performance (with her take on “Blanche DuBois”) since “Elizabeth.” My short take on the latest eruption in the Woody Allen family saga: I don’t care about Woody Allen’s personal life, and whatever he did in the past however murky the details, it doesn’t take away the fact that Woody Allen was and still is a great filmmaker, and his films will live long after everyone concerned has all died.

30. Here Comes The Devil (Adrián García Bogliano) - A stylish but ultimately frustrating Spanish-language horror movie set in Baja, California. A throwback to 70’s-style psycho-horror/demon-possession films, enjoy it for what it is, just don’t look for a satisfying conclusion to a story that raises a lot of questions.

The rest:

31. Frozen (Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee)

32. The Hunt (Thomas Vinterberg)

33. Dallas Buyers Club (Jean-Marc Vallée) 

34. 12 Years A Slave (Steve McQueen) - While excellent, I’m getting sick of the hype. It’s an “Important Movie,” therefore “good for you”, therefore you should be ashamed if you did not like it :(. It just might win the Oscar.

35. The Bling Ring (Sofia Coppola) - Only a Hollywood brat like Sofia Coppola could have made a movie this good about Hollywood brats. And Emma Watson is getting prettier with every movie.

36. Philomena (Stephen Frears)

37. Gloria (Sebastian Lelio) - From Chile. Because senior citizens also have sex lives and have all the right to party and be irresponsible. Great acting and soundtrack.

38. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (Peter Jackson)

39. Planes (Klay Hall)

40. Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine) - Former Disney girls go bad and dirrtty. Inspired by Britney.

41. Filth (Jon S. Baird)

42. Upstream Color (Shane Carruth) - Carruth’s follow-up to 2004’s “Primer”

43. Dirty Wars (Richard Rowley) - Are there other kinds? From the investigative-reporter-in-a-warzone subgenre of documentary filmmaking, this is the latest entry in the 9/11-related film canon, about unpublicized night raids in Afghanistan (and in other countries where there is no declared war) and how a certain country’s forces and its government cover up killings its soldiers make by mistake or for other reasons unknown. Appaling reality — and essential viewing — as always. (Note: So it just so happens that I’m writing this from Kabul. Fun.)

44. Fruitvale Station (Ryan Coogler) - How I wish though that the filmmakers were able to find more things uniquely film-worthy about the subject than the last moments of his life. A case of a powerful theme that even clumsy filmmaking can’t bring down.

45. 20 Feet From Stardom (Morgan Neville) - If you love music, if you love Motown and soul music and singing, then you should watch this film.

46. A Field In England (Ben Wheatley) - A low budgeted, black and white, costume film (still here?) that feels more like a play (thank you for staying with me), albeit a very unhinged one. 

47. Child’s Pose (Calin Peter Netzer) - There are only two countries in the world that have been consistently churning out great movies these past two decades: Romania and Iran. This latest piece of Romanian new wave was the big winner at the 2013 Berlin Film Fest. 

48. Trance (Danny Boyle)


The Great Beauty (Paolo Sorrentino) - If I wanted Fellini, I’d have watched Fellini. If I wanted only gorgeous images, I’d have gone to Google Images, instead of a very long Italian movie. Pauline Kael would have complained loudly had she lived to go through this. Certainly topping the lists as we speak of critics who want everybody to know that they “appreciate Art.” Good camerawork though, I give it that.

Regret of the year: It was again one of the best years for Filipino filmmaking. I read. My soul is now cursed to pass through movie purgatory wherein I would be made to watch 9-hour Lav Diaz and Raya Martin movies on a loop as a consequence of not making time for their (rare) screenings.


Direction: Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity)
Actor: Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club)
Actress: Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine) / Adèle Exarchopoulos (Blue Is The Warmest Colour)
Supporting Actor: Daniel Bruhl (Rush)
Supporting Actress: Tilda Swinton (Snowpiercer)
Ensemble peerformance: Nebraska / The Past
Original Screenplay: Her (Spike Jonze)
Adapted Screenplay: Before Midnight (Richard Linklater / Ethan Hawke / Julie Delpy)
Cinematography: Gravity
Editing: Gravity
Original Score: Maniac (Rob) / Gravity (Steven Price)
Production Design: Gravity
Visual Effects: Gravity
Costume: Behind The Candelabra / Computer Chess

Best Music Video: Bob Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Sone”

My favorite movies of 2012

(Originally appeared on my Facebook page)

In which I play movie critic. Apologies that I wasn't around to watch many of the good Filipino movies of 2012, shown mainly in film festivals and/or in (very very) limited commercial run. (Hey Filipino filmmakers, it would also be nice if your little works of art could be available on home video).

1. Supermen of Malegaon (Faiza Ahmad Khan) - Originally made for Singapore TV but finally got a theatrical run in India in 2012, Supermen of Malegaon clearly demonstrates the power of cinema and its effect on ordinary people's lives, especially in India where Bollywood remains very much an influential part of the country's modern culture. As both an escape from and a salve for poverty, a community in a small town called Malegaon in India have turned to making their own versions of popular Bollywood movies, screening them in a run-down theater, and selling them on home video. The documentary is a behind-the-scenes look into the community's first attempt at re-making a Hollywood movie -- Superman -- into...Malegaon Ka Superrman! No other movie on this list has made me laugh and smile all throughout. Not only is it one of the funniest movies in recent memory: at just over an hour, Supermen of Malegaon is the most heartfelt piece of filmmaking of 2012, a fitting tribute not only to cinema itself, but to the people over which it continually casts its magic.

2. 5 Broken Cameras (Emad Burnat; Guy Davidi) - A Palestinian farmer gets a video camera to film the birth of his first child. He ended up capturing not only that and his family over the years, but also how Israel slowly moved into their small town of Bil'in in Ramallah and take their land as Israel's own, and the citizens' non-violent resistance. The film, edited by an Israeli solidarity activist, splices together footages filmed by the five cameras of the title, each one ending up either shot at or smashed by Israelis; one probably even saved the filmmaker's life. There are scenes in this documentary that made me feel angry more than any other film on this list. If you've ever wondered what all the fuss has all been about, wanted to know but doesn't know where to start, or if you know somebody who doesn't care, then I definitely recommend this movie.

3. Gangs of Wasseypur (Anurag Kashyap) - Shown at the Directors' Fortnight of the Cannes Film Festival (apparently the first mainstream Indian film ever invited for this section), this 5-hour opus is like the Indian equivalent of The Godfather saga, as directed by Sergio Leone or Sam Peckinpah, especially the first half. Shown commercially in Indian theaters in two installments, this ambitious film is epic not just in length, but also in scope, the story encompassing the lives of three generations of rival families. Credit goes to director Anurag Kashyap -- an outsider in Bollywood just like almost everyone and everything in this movie -- for his mastery over all the elements of a movie this huge, a story that does not lose momentum, a period movie spanning seven decades, with dozens of characters with speaking parts, almost all of them memorable. Gangs of Wasseypur won last month the Critics' award for Best Film at the Filmfare Awards, India's equivalent of the Oscars. 

4. NO (Pablo Larrain) - Many events in this true-to-life movie unfolded the way it did in the Philippines, and perhaps Chileans were inspired by Filipinos even. The 1988 presidential referendum in Chile happened two years after the 1986 Philippine snap presidential election. In its 25th anniversary documentary, the organization National Democratic Institute (NDI) said that the Chilean referendum was their second mission ever; their first was in the Philippines in 1986, in coordination with my organization NAMFREL, which people say pioneered election observation by citizens, as well as the independent parallel vote count. The events surrounding the Chilean referendum, called by dictator Augusto Pinochet, had so many parallels with the 1986 Philippine snap elections, including the citizens' response that eventually toppled the dictatorship, that I could not have sat through this movie without being reminded of the sacrifices that came before us in this work that we do in NAMFREL. Even if the group of Gael Garcia Bernal's character was involved in a highly partisan activity, the goal was the same, the search for truth and empowering people to come out of their comfort zones, face their fears, be heard, effect change. The movie itself is truly excellent, riveting, fun even, and inspiring. It's now in the running for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars.

5. The Dark Knight Rises (Christopher Nolan) - Am I the only one who thinks that this is the best entry in Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy? Remove Heath Ledger from that other one and it truly would not have been the same. The Dark Knight Rises was the big, black, brawny blockbuster that should also have dominated best-of lists come December, but for some reason, didn't. The fact that it got zero nominations at the Oscars is simply a crime. Anne Hathaway's best performance of 2012 was not being covered in artificial dirt while singing/overacting that one song in Les Miz, it was in this movie as Catwoman. Christopher Nolan delivered the best Hollywood movie of 2012, and nobody seem to have noticed (at least the moviegoers did).

6. Skyfall (Sam Mendes) - A fitting 50th Anniversary Bond movie, with enough to bring in the nostalgia as well as appease the fans of the reinvented Bond. I'm a big fan of Casino Royale, and I think Daniel Craig is the best Bond ever, so I was concerned that the franchise might be going back to the conventions of old Bond movies. I hope not! Skyfall, for what it is, is amazing. For the first time, I cared about the characters in a Bond movie. The story is great, the cinematography, the production design, all the actors are in top form, and so is Adele delivering the best Bond theme since The World Is Not Enough (the song finally made sense to me after watching the movie).

7. Argo (Ben Affleck) - Many of the best bits in the film are actually fiction. No matter, whether it was accurate as history or not did not factor into me enjoying the movie immensely. As for accusations of it being anti-Islamic, I surely did not get that while watching the movie. (Plus, it was a pleasant surprise to know that Ben Affleck can direct well. Now if only he would stop acting altogether because he still can't act even if his life depended on it...)

8. English Vinglish (Gauri Shinde) - A movie about the difficulties of not being able to understand or speak English. Slight? Not if you have experienced feeling alienated when surrounded by people speaking in strange tongues. A very 21st century problem, addressed by a crowd-pleasing Bollywood movie. English Vinglish also features perhaps one of the most memorable finale speech in a movie since, hmmm, Chaplin's The Great Dictator. I had fun all throughout this movie, but I was a mess when the credits rolled. A memorable performance from comebacking Indian actress Sri Devi.

9. The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson) - I've always believed that the greatest films ever cannot be judged by their mere plots alone; there's always something they're not telling you outright, and the auteurs behind the films ensured that you will always be intrigued every time you see them. Which is why I think time will be kind to The Master -- directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, arguably the best American filmmaker working right now -- which has been inexplicably snubbed by almost every Lincoln-loving award-giving body. An alcoholic WWII veteran drifted to and gets entangled with the life and family of the leader of a Scientology-like cult, who tries to change him to become a better person. That sounds hilariously limited and limiting. There's more to this engrossing piece of cinema, assembled like a musical composition by a filmmaker at the top of his game, in which all elements just come together -- the acting, the cinematography, the production design, the jazzy brassy exotic music curated by Radiohead's Johnny Greenwood -- into an intoxicating blend that inexplicably reminds me of my fetish for analog equipment and thick brown leather. Ehem. I also never imagined that I would hear Filipino language being spoken in a Paul Thomas Anderson film, as well as a snippet of the classic Filipino love song "Dahil Sa 'Yo." It's just unfortunate that Joaquin Phoenix's performance, his best so far, came at a year when Daniel Day Lewis decided to appear in a movie; it should get all the attention it deserves.

10. Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino) - (Copy pasted from a message to a friend) I can understand why many Americans would feel uncomfortable/upset/offended by the movie, since it deals with a part of American history that many still feel ashamed to talk about or confront, an issue that many outside the US are oblivious to (or, let's face it, might not care about, because they have their own historical baggages). I came expecting a Tarantino movie -- full of foul-mouthed blood-splattered homages to old movies and genres that he loves, and turning Amistad-ish Hollywood earnestness on its head -- and that is what I got. I read a Tarantino interview in which he said that to tackle slavery this way is precisely his intention. The movie is a satire, but one that might prove just too much for many people (towards the end it became more like an indictment, then an execution; plus, there's just too many guns just after Sandy Hook). Ultimately, it's a fantasy, and I doubt if there was ever a real Django that got to exact a similar revenge. If the movie is getting people to talk about slavery and racism and inequality again, which, it seems, have not ended (I'm reminded of the whole Katrina thing in New Orleans), then perhaps it has partly succeeded. I wonder what Obama thinks of the movie.

11. Holy Motors (Leos Carax) - A man named Oscar is chaffeur-driven all over Paris in a stretch limo in the course of a day and gets through his appointments. The "appointments" turn out to be acting gigs, but there is no explicit mention of the man being an actor (as far as I can recall), and there are no cameras to be seen. I'll stop there, it gets more interesting. A metaphor about acting? A metaphor about life? I was happily confounded by this movie, and I still cannot get it out of my head. Great music too. 

12. Looper (Rian Johnson) - A "Whoah!"-inducing re-invention of the time travel subgenre of sci-fi movies. What's not to like? Seriously, there HAS to be a sequel.

13. Prometheus (Ridley Scott) - So many things have been said about this sort of prequel to Ridley Scott's Alien series. What I really like about this movie is its big-ness. I didn't see this movie in IMAX but it still felt like it, truly epic.

14. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (John Madden) - John Madden + British acting royalty + India. How can I possibly not like this movie?

15. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Peter Jackson) - So many things have already been said about The Hobbit. The thing to remember though is that Peter Jackson is not interested in merely adapting the thin book. An Unexpected Journey is not a standalone movie, and definitely not merely the first third of the book The Hobbit, but the movie adaptation of that part in the history of Tolkien's Middle Earth, taking into consideration all of Tolkien's printed output regarding the said time period (e.g. footnotes, appendices, snippets of conversations, descriptions, found in other Tolkien books). An Unexpected Journey hints at events that took place before Gandalf knocked on Bilbo's door, and sets up not just the events in the book The Hobbit, but also The Lord of the Rings and beyond. No other fimmaker in the history of film has ever attempted to do anything Iike it (and almost singlehandedly), except Peter Jackson. Respect.

16. A Simple Life (Ann Hui) - A very Asian depiction of growing old lovingly supported by friends and extended family. Has all the warmth that "Amour" doesn't have, and the simplicity of style that only East Asian cinema could deliver.

17. Jab Tak Hai Jaan (Yash Chopra) - Director Yash Chopra's last film, this is a Bollywood production through and through, with all the singing and dancing and location shoots and sentimentality overload. One really has to hand it to Bollywood, whose sole purpose for being is to entertain its massive fanbase (much bigger than Hollywood's), that even if you're not supposed to like the movie because it kinda sucks, it just DOESN'T. Fastest three hours inside a movie theatre, I wanted more. And Shah Rukh Khan remains the biggest movie star on Earth.

18. The Perks of Being a Wallflower (Stephen Chbosky) - A great coming-of-age movie. Affecting performances, great '80s music, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show!? 

19. Searching For Sugar Man (Malik Bendjelloul) -  A documentary about the search for and ressurrection of Mexican-American singer-songwriter Rodriguez, who in spite of coming out with two albums of excellent music in 1970-71, was totally unknown in America, but "bigger than Elvis" for at least two generations in apartheid-era South Africa, without him and anybody outside South Africa knowing it. So many great artists in history lived unappreciated and in obscurity, and died without tasting glory; here's one story where the hero gets to bask in it in the end, an unexpected second act. (Now I've got to have a vinyl copy of his albums...) 

20. Tabu (Miguel Gomes) - People might initially be put off by the style, a cross between a modern-day "art" film and conventions employed by films from the 40's and '50s (for starters, it's in "standard" screen ratio black and white). Stay with the movie. Beneath this exterior, which is more an appropriate tribute than the director just showing off (it certainly feels organic instead of artificial), Tabu is a movie that exudes the same romance, adventure, and exotic-ness of a bygone movie era that we rarely see anymore. (And hey, it's also from Portugal; when was the last time a Portuguese movie caught people's attention?)

21. The Dictator (Larry Charles) - I am a citizen of the Republic of Wadiya, and I am Admiral General Aladeen's willing bitch. I'm saying it again, Sacha Baron Cohen is as good as Daniel Day Lewis. Should Cohen decide to do drama, Day Lewis will probably give up and retire from acting altogether. Baron Cohen aside, The Dictator is an inspired piece of satire that filmmakers and A-list actors who are not Baron Cohen just don't even attempt anymore.

22. Intouchables (Olivier Nakache; Eric Toledano) - The feel-good European film of the year, which also managed to poke fun at such vestiges of High Art as musique classique, l'opera, and modern art. The French obviously didn't mind, voting with their wallets and turning Intouchables into one of France's biggest blockbusters ever.

23. Beasts of the Southern Wild (Benh Zeitlin) - To non-Americans who watched Sesame Street as kids in the late 70s and early 80s: remember when they would show these 1-2 minute documentaries of African-American kids and other minorities in playgrounds or going about their day, and it's supposedly in America but it looked totally different from your idea of America, yet you wanted to be with those kids and their folks because it sure looked fun and interesting and sort of magical? That's exactly how it felt like watching this movie.

24. Jiro Dreams of Sushi (David Gelb) - You'll dream of sushi too after watching this beguiling documentary on Jiro Ono and his (very expensive!) sushi, served in his Michelin three-star restaurant of only 10 seats in Tokyo. More than a mere documentary on food, it is about striving for perfection, which, even according to such an accomplished man like Mr. Ono, can never be attained.

25. Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow) - For anyone familiar with the political, ethical, and moral murkiness and ambiguity of Middle Eastern politics and the whole war on terror thing, this is always going to prove to be a difficult watch. That said, as a film, this is certainly better than Bigelow's previous, The Hurt Locker, which did not do anything for me. And no, the movie does not endorse torture; quite the opposite. (Filmmaker Michael Moore had a lot to say about that. Google it.)

26. Les Miserables (Tom Hooper) - I am such a huge fan of the musical that even if Michael Bay had directed this movie adaptation starring the extras of Glee, it probably would still have ended up on this list. Yes, first and foremost, this is a movie for the fans who have been waiting for this for ages. Though I agree that Tom Hooper's adaptation could have been a LOT better (there are many scenes especially those involving Russell Crowe and Anne Hathaway that are just ROUGH; Russell, dude, mate, it takes a LOT to make "Stars" sound like a country song) there were many things that he did right. I certainly now have a better appreciation for the second act, which may not have the most memorable songs for the casual fan, but the scenes for which were handled much better than the first, plus it had Marius, Eponine, and Cossette, all well acted and sung. (I just never imagined though that the "barricades" in Les Miz were simply a pile of broken furniture at the end of an alley...) Though far from perfect, I guess fans of Les Miz the stage musical are more than satisfied with Tom Hooper's effort. Though the film critics (and curious moviegoers) are puzzled by the popularity of the musical and the movie, the fans understand. So can we have Miss Saigon next?

27. Lincoln (Steven Spielberg) - A great understated film from Spielberg. It has this muted majesty that I like. And as usual, Daniel Day Lewis is amazing. Can it still be called acting when the actor truly becomes the character, when Day Lewis ceases to be and only Lincoln himself is on the screen, seemingly lipsyncing through his life. Jeez, what do we really know about Lincoln besides the myth and the iconography? It's all there, brought to life by Day Lewis.

28. Kahaani (Sujoy Ghosh) - A whodunit set on the streets of Kolkata, about a very pregnant Indian woman who lives in London who flies in to search for her missing husband. It is a very well-crafted movie, that is, until the very end when the film decides to cram a twist ending and -- a bit clumsily -- a cascade of details tying the loose ends of the story, into its very last ten minutes. (I'm pretty sure many will not have a problem with that though. A Hollywood remake perhaps?) No matter. Kahaani is an engaging movie with a strong female character and lots of local color. And hey, for once an Indian movie with zero dancing and singing. More please.

29. Beyond the Hills (Cristian Mungiu) - Girl named Alina comes back to Romania from Germany to visit and get Voichita, her orphanage childhood friend (slash former lover, it was hinted) so that they could be together. Problem is Girl B is now a nun, in a very conservative convent that doesn't even want electricity, and is fully committed to stay so. Alina, who may or may not be psychotic, or possessed by the devil as the convent would believe it, tries her darndest best to convince Voichita to sleep with her, or take her away, or at least to be with her, in futility. No this is not a comedy, or a horror movie (though it might as well be), but the latest Great Romanian Movie, part of the Romanian New Wave. In cinema, Romania is the new Iran (without the repression). Beyond the Hills won Best Screenplay and Best Actress (for the two leads) at the Cannes Film Festival.

30. Amour (Michael Haneke) - Old age and deterioration in all its brutality, and Michael Haneke's usual cold, unembellished style is a perfect fit to show it. In fact, his direction is so effective that Amour might just be "too real" or would hit too close to home for many viewers. Emmanuelle Riva's harrowingly realistic depiction of an old woman slowly dying of disease is a performance for the ages. (Additional note: Whether or not it should be entitled "Amour" depends on your culturally shaped idea of love.)

31. How To Survive A Plague (David France) - A mysterious illness has begun afflicting hundreds of thousands of people across the world. Nobody knows a lot about the disease, much less a cure. Friends and family one by one become afflicted and die. Meanwhile, the government does not want to do anything about it, and even beats up and arrests people demanding action. The government and drug companies keep the medicines unreachable. The Church condemns the victims and possible preventive measures. Hospitals turn away patients, the dead gets wrapped in black plastic bags, and even funeral parlors turn them away. This is not the zombie apocalypse. This is the story of the siege of AIDS in the 80s, and how communities in New York City and many others fought back. The sad news is this is still very much the reality in many parts of the world. So how does one survive a plague? The film clearly answers: to fight to stay alive, and be able to say "Once there was a terrible disease, and that a brave group of people stood up and fought, and in some cases died, so that others might live and be free."

32. ParaNormaN (Chris Butler; Sam Fell) - A well-crafted, largely stop-motion movie about stopping a witch's curse, not unlike Hocus Pocus and many others. I'm surprised that this turned out to be my favorite animated movie of 2012, instead of Frankenweenie, Brave, or the disappointing Wreck-It Ralph. Music by Jon Brion.

33. The Island President (Jon Shenk) - The beautiful island nation of Maldives is a country slowly being swallowed alive by the Indian Ocean due to global warming. While the rest of the world is preocuppied with technological and economic progress, and political concerns such as terrorism and religious fundamentalism, the Maldives is under serious threat from the very thing that keeps it alive, threatening to wipe out not just its land but its culture and civilization. This documentary is about the futility of getting the world's attention and cooperation to focus on the war against climate change, of which the Maldives is at the forefront. Hopefully they heed before the oceans start taking their own lands back, 300 meters at a time, shortly after the Maldives had disappeared completely from the map. Here's looking at you China, India, U.S. (Trivia from the movie: the Maldives has the same elevation as Manhattan...)


Rurouni Kenshin; Himala Ngayon; The Raid; The Bourne Legacy; Cloud Atlas; Samsara; Life of Pi; The Sessions; End of Watch; The Impossible; Flying Swords of Dragon Gate; Arbitrage; Vicky Donor


Moonrise Kingdom - Ehrmagherd. I'm a huge fan of Wes Anderson, and I think The Royal Tenenbaums and Fantastic Mr. Fox are masterpieces. But I could not take his latest movie, which felt like a parody of all of Anderson's quirks. While watching the movie, I felt like I wanted to be covered in mud and rocks and be thrown into the depths of Mordor just to escape Anderson's tired and saccharine twee-ness.

Silver Linings Playbook - From the American Beauty school of family dysfunction dramedy filmmaking, the movie is...well, entertaining and engaging enough, but I don't think it's special enough to get all the acclaim. Full of quirky characters, situations and dialogue (90% of which are shouted, go watch it), at the very least this could make for a fairly good HBO TV series. With most Academy voters seeing the studio-promoted movies on DVD "screeners," expect this TV-friendly romantic comedy (in the end) to do well (especially since the Weinsteins are behind its campaign) in the awards, where most of its competitors are meant-for-IMAX epics.

This Is Not A Film - I symphatize with the plight of outspoken Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi, who has been imprisoned and banned by the Iranian government from making films for at least 20 years. But this documentary -- shot inside his home in Tehran and partly with an iPhone, while under house arrest -- is just overrated. I thought reviews of this movie in which critics fall over themselves praising it to high heavens were just hilarious. The film was done in secret, saved in a USB flash drive, and smuggled out of Iran inside a cake and shown as a surprise competing entry at the Cannes Film Festival. A case of rewarding a movie because of a more interesting back story.

The Avengers - I love superhero movies, and I saw this twice, but I still don't understand why the only thing I could remember about it is the poster (ok, and The Hulk, because I'm a fan)

Titanic 3D / Finding Nemo 3D / Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace 3D - While the movies in their 3D incarnation remain entertaining, it's very clear that this is a gimmick, adding nothing really to the original films. It's a scam that must be stopped before they make us re-watch the biggest blockbusters of the last thirty years.


Direction: Michael Haneke (Amour)
Actor: Daniel Day-Lewis (Lincoln)
Actress: Emanuelle Riva (Amour)
Screenplay: Looper
Cinematography: The Master / Skyfall
Editing: Argo
Music: The Master / Gangs of Wasseypur
Production Design: Skyfall
Visual Effects: Life of Pi
Costume: Anna Karenina

Let's start again with movies

After several years of inactivity, I've decided to reactivate my blog. As I've said in a post waaaayy back in 2009, I blame Facebook and other forms of social media for my absence.

I've already decided on my first blog post: it's going to be about The X-Files, in anticipation of its return to TV. However, it is not ready yet. I'm now in the middle of watching all 9 seasons of The X-Files (currently in season 7!), after which, the article comes out.

So before that, I'm posting three blog entries that originally appeared on my Facebook page (sorry Blogger!), and only accessible to my friends. In the past three years, I've written about my favorite movies from 2012, 2013, and 2014. I'll be reposting them here. I've blogged about my favorite movies before. Here's my list of the best movies from 2000-2009, which I published in March 2009.

One thing I'll try not to do much anymore is to embed Youtube videos on my blog entries. So if you're browsing through my past blog entries and there are videos that won't play anymore, so sorry!

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Friday, August 27, 2010

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Monday, July 12, 2010

Now geeking out

My heroes

(Note: Last April, I joined Philippine Star's writing contest entitled "My Icon, My Hero." I lost. Here's my entry.)

My icons, my heroes
by Paolo B. Maligaya

It must be anger. Anger and frustration. An overwhelming sense of injustice and feeling of frustration against systems in place and the way they’re run that they feel the need to actively do something about it? Prestige? (Maybe not.)

Or is it plain old love for country?

I’ve always wondered what motivates people to give up their time and source of livelihood to do volunteer work. Being a part of the secretariat team of a volunteer organization like the National Citizen’s Movement for Free Elections or NAMFREL, I am witness to people showing up to perform difficult tasks for which the only form of remuneration is a free lunch, an ID, or the occasional reimbursement of transportation expenses. I’ve met people saying, “okay I’ll be here at 8am tomorrow because I need to make calls to the provincial coordinators and finish a report by evening,” and our reaction would be, “you’ll do that?”

The job of a NAMFREL volunteer is not simple. In fact, it can be complex depending on the kind of work a person does for the organization, which also depends on the set of skills he/she brings to the table.

Take for example a provincial coordinator. This person could be a teacher, a local businessman, a professor, a pastor, a priest, a nun, a housewife, or a second generation volunteer who “inherited” the position from her father, making good on their family’s commitment to free and fair elections. This coordinator would have to convince other people in their area to join his cause, either to be municipal or precinct volunteers, or to help out in logistics and communication. If he lives in a province like Tawi-Tawi or Palawan, this means that he has to travel by land, water, and air to organize volunteers in the different areas, paying for transportation out of their own pockets since the measly (as is often the case) seed money from the national office has not been deposited yet. To augment the expense, he or she has to count on the spirit of bayanihan among Filipinos through sourcing funds from local businesses in his area, often only using his face, track record, and the promise of commitment to uphold fairness in the coming election to secure the much-needed donation.

The job can be perilous. As somebody who has vowed to work for a clean conduct of the electoral process, a NAMFREL volunteer is a target for anybody who would want to disrupt the honest conduct of the process. NAMFREL volunteers have been killed in the line of duty, people like Rodrigo Ponce, Neoldino Del Corro, Abdulhak Balabadan, and others who died while doing what they feel they should do, which is to protect the ballot.

I go back to my question: but why?

I have experienced becoming a NAMFREL volunteer myself. In 2007, I took a leave of absence (without pay) for two weeks from a relatively higher-paying job to volunteer in the national headquarters in La Salle Greenhills. I was met by incredulous stares from colleagues who asked, but why? To be at the other end of this question, frankly I did not know what to say. I may have mumbled something about duty to country or whatever, but the truth was, I didn’t know for sure. Like those Americans who trooped to New York City to donate blood after 9/11, I just felt it was something that I had to do, something that needs to be done, and we could not put words into it. Just.

It’s probably this mishmash of clear yet ambiguous reasons why people have continued to offer themselves to something that they think is bigger than them, but they feel they have to be part of.

The reality is, an election in the Philippines is not just an election, in the way the dictionary or even the UN defines it. For many Filipinos, an election is not simply this party vs. that party (the fact is the Philippines still doesn’t have a mature political party system). For them, it’s more like good vs. evil. How else to explain the heavy presence of bishops, priests, and nuns in the polling precincts, counting centers, and in assemblies? (Do you really expect the priests and nuns to stay idle when they see their flock being cheated, oppressed, or beaten to death?)

For ordinary Filipinos, an election could be a wind of change, a new start, food for the family, the kids finally finishing college, a higher paying job, a way out of this misery. Anything but a mere process of some people getting a bigger number of votes, getting proclaimed as winner, fireworks and cheers. An election in the Philippines is a new lease on life.

The typical NAMFREL volunteer is not a politics geek. He doesn’t go around town thinking that, oh I’m doing this because the political situation in the country is like this or like that or oh I’m doing this because I want to contribute to the democratic process. They do it because they feel deep inside that for some reason, they need to do it, but couldn’t articulate it through words or grand statements about democracy or whatever ideology. More than its national leaders and known supporters, the organization is fueled by nameless, faceless citizens who want nothing more than a decent life but feel they have to actively do something to make it happen. The spirit of volunteerism is exactly that -- a spirit. It’s an invisible force that fuels people into action. You may kill the person, but not the spirit. Which means individual personages don’t define an organization. That is why, when there were some people who tried to discredit NAMFREL by saying that its national leaders are supposedly partisan, it was a slap in the face to its thousands of volunteers. In their provinces, cities, towns, barangays, families, NAMFREL is not the guy in the office in Manila. In their places, they are NAMFREL. And no, you cannot put them down and make them go away.

The NAMFREL volunteer movement is a concrete example of democracy in action, of people coming together by their own free will to strengthen the foundations of their country. People empowering themselves because they feel it is their responsibility as citizens to safeguard the democratic processes of their nation. The movement has inspired and continues to inspire other countries, not just in Asia but around the world, to organize themselves to protect or uphold democratic values. Above all, this national movement of citizens refutes once and for all that Filipinos are “indolent” as the Spanish claimed during their time; Filipinos are a hardworking people who works for their freedom harder.

NGO workers in the country generally don’t earn much, having limited resources for salary and supplies. There’s a feeling among us that it’s unfair that we get paid too little for what we contribute to the country.

But then we come face to face with our volunteers whom we serve and who work harder and contribute more to our cause, but does it for free, and we feel humbled. Along with other ordinary folks like Batangueña public school teacher Filomena Tatlonghari who was killed while protecting a ballot box from snatchers, NAMFREL volunteers use their very own bodies to defend democracy, and they do not ask anything in return after a day’s work other than an honest election process, and perhaps a better life. That is why more than the prominent figures in this country’s history, the unsung, nameless, faceless volunteers of NAMFREL are my icons, my heroes.

Saturday, May 22, 2010