(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 Supermen of Malegaon (Faiza Ahmad Khan) - Originally made for Singapore TV but finally got a theatrical run in India in 2012, Supermen of Malegaon clearly demonstrates the power of cinema and its effect on ordinary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)
Cinematography: The Master / Skyfall
Music: The Master / Gangs of Wasseypur
Production Design: Skyfall
Visual Effects: Life of Pi
Costume: Anna Karenina