MANILA, Philippines – The connection between art and real life was so apparent in the finest among 2018’s crop of films. From the Philippines and beyond, from blockbusters to those in the festival circuit – the best of cinema this year seemed to be in tune with our fraught zeitgeist.
Those in this list – comedies, dramas, experimental, and the occasional comic book blockbuster – went above and beyond the call of being mere vehicles for our escapist whims. Some reflect the political climate. Some are time-tested and light-hearted tales.
Below, we narrow down our favorites to 15:
Directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda
Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Palme d’Or-winning neorealist drama doesn’t shy from showing the underbelly of Japanese society.
It’s about family – but more of a motley crew without blood ties. Instead, they’re family by choice – out of convenience, and perhaps, to some degree, love.
Shoplifters will pull the rug under you when you least expect it. There are tender moments that will draw a few tears from you, but ultimately – a fair warning – it could be bleak and harrowing.
Directed by Alfonso Cuarón
Hailed by several critics as Cuarón’s best and most personal work yet, Roma comes on the heels of his 2013 sci-fi flick, Gravity, yet it’s a clear standout from all his previous efforts.
Cuarón shot Roma in stark yet stunning black & white, sweeping and swooping through the corridors of a home that’s breaking apart. Meanwhile, outside, Mexico is going through social upheaval.
But Cuarón also made his latest opus a sort of poignant tribute to his real-life nanny – as personified in the lead, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) – giving it a powerful, gripping perspective.
Rappler critic Oggs Cruz wrote: "Roma offers a rare glimpse of the glorious tapestry that is Mexico – from the obscured perspective of one of its seemingly insignificant threads. It is undeniably a towering achievement.” (READ: 'Roma' review: Towering achievement)
Directed by Lee Chang-dong
Lee Chang-dong crafted his adaptation of a Haruki Murakami short story with his characteristically tense, slow-burning filmmaking. But he delivered so much more with a riveting ride of a movie that’s hard to singularly describe.
Yoo Ah-in stars as Jongsu, a withdrawn, struggling individual whose life is suddenly struck by turmoil with the appearance of his former classmate (Jun Jong-seo) and her wealthy, charming new partner, captivatingly played by Steven Yeun.
Over the course of more than 2 hours, Lee lets the pot simmer with a lot of tension, and then deftly ratchets it up in its climax.
4. Never Tear Us Apart (FKA Fisting)
Directed by Whammy Alcazaren
The first thing to notice about Alcazaren’s latest full-length feature is its presentation: vertical, as if they were made for mobile screens and not the silverscreen. His family saga about “private lives even beneath their private lives” was shot with iPhones, after all.
But the thing is, the technique is more metaphorical than gimmicky, and it really deserves to be seen in its full glory on large screens.
Rappler critic Oggs Cruz wrote: “Despite its blatant experimentations, it never fails to connect in an emotional level, relying on the power of its rich and lyrical images and their proximity to today’s technology-driven identities to tell familiar and personal stories. Never Tear Us Apart feels foreign and intimate at the same time. It’s a true wonder.” (READ: Movie reviews: All 9 films in the 2018 Cinema One Originals Festival)
Directed by Luca Guadagnino
Guadagnino’s remake of Dario Argento’s seminal 1977 horror film can be more appropriately called a reinvention – “more its more elegant but subtly more vicious younger sister.”
Noticeably gone are the original’s supersaturated technicolor images, and in its place, Guadagnino gives an unnerving, sensual, and – arguably – more psychological take on the bizarre happenings at the dancing school.
Rappler critic Oggs Cruz wrote: “Guadagnino makes his audience wait, knowing that real suspense is not about unexpected bursts of violence but about the mind piecing together the clues only to unravel an evil that is not just fictional but is also grounded on very real issues. His Suspiria isn’t a horror that irks just the sense. It also punctures the mind.” (READ: 'Suspiria' review: Art and horror)
6. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Directed by Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman
A joyous, electrifying rollercoaster ride of a superhero movie, it is anything but conventional – especially its visuals, as you are bombarded with color and lightning-fast transitions.
It’s not just another Spider-Man movie. It’s self-aware of that, and hoists that idea onto a whole new level with relentless fun – and a boundary-pushing style that was (arguably) best executed in 2010’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Now, it tops that.
Rappler critic Oggs Cruz wrote: “Into the Spider-Verse is a hyperactive pastiche that makes use of a well-loved and constantly evolving decades-old pop culture artifact to imbibe very current moods and ideologies.” (READ: ‘Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’ review: Relentlessly enjoyable)
“Without succumbing to the temptation of overtly pleasing contemporary advocacies, it fulfils the need for pop culture to be truly representative. It also doesn’t take itself too seriously, but still doesn’t stubbornly ease towards being a simple parody.”
Directed by Ari Aster
It was the talk of the town when it first hit cinemas. Whenn you see it, you know exactly why it’s one of the best and most diabolical horror films of the 21st century.
Absolutely horrifying without giving any respite, Ari Aster’s supernatural horror (his directorial debut) is so filled with dread, it will linger long after you’ve finished it.
Rappler critic Oggs Cruz wrote: “Hereditary is simply a rare feat of intelligent, vigorous and purposeful filmmaking.” (READ: ‘Hereditary’ review: Truly horrific)
“It is patient, rejecting all the cheap tricks that will instantaneously result into quick jolts and screams. Instead, it gets under your skin, planting seeds of discord in things like sanity, motherhood, family and other concepts that are supposed to be sacred.”
Directed by Spike Lee
Slick and incendiary, Lee’s ‘70s period piece feels timely and relevant with the current political climate in America.
In BlacKkKlansman, he retells the story of a sting operation where some cops (John David Washington and Adam Driver) infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan. Although he set the story some decades ago, Lee is able to speak volumes about the current state of things and its complex workings.
9. First Reformed
Directed by Paul Schrader
A vehicle for what could be Ethan Hawke’s finest performance to date, First Reformed stars the actor as Reverend Ernst Toller, a small church pastor at odds with his own inner demons.
Austere and bizarre at the same time, the film offers a look into a crisis of faith that transcends the individual. It touches on extremism, terrorism, and climate change – all within the frame of a gripping thriller.
10. Cold War
Directed by Paweł Pawlikowski
In Cold War, Pawlikowski makes the personal political – no easy feat as he depicts a tempestuous love story between two musicians (Tomasz Kot and Joanna Kulig) set in mid-20th century Soviet Europe.
Shot gorgeously in black and white, Cold War is about the actual geopolitical struggle of the same name as it is about the tense, chilly relationship between the couple. It conveys how the political interferes with their own little love story, but also makes the pair’s connection amidst obstacles a metaphor for the larger conflicts.
11. Oda Sa Wala
Directed by Dwein Baltazar
As Sonya, its lead, Marietta Subong (AKA Pokwang) mesmerizes with her performance as an old maid working at her family-owned funeral shop, offering a layered picture of isolation. But rather than going through the motions of ennui arising from her loneliness, the film goes toward a more grotesque direction that crawls under your skin.
Rappler critic Oggs Cruz wrote: “It is a horror picture, through and through. While the corpse that Sonya uses to keep her company is truly grotesque and terrifying, it is the glaring emptiness that ultimately distorts her and convinces her that death is a more satisfying companion than the living that is indelibly haunting.” (READ: Movie reviews: All 5 2018 QCinema Circle Competition films)
12. Sorry to Bother You
Directed by Boots Riley
Rookie feature film director Boots Riley makes a stand against the absurdities of late capitalism in Sorry to Bother You. But he does so in an undeniably hilarious yet hard-to-define romp of a movie – as he throws some camp, satire, comedy, and sci-fi into the mix.
Starring Lakeith Stanfield (the guy screaming “Get out!” in Get Out) opposite Armie Hammer’s, Sorry to Bother You could be at its heart, a dystopian flick that looks at the present’s maladies instead of distant, fearsome possibilities.
13. Black Panther
Directed by Ryan Coogler
Black Panther was hailed as a watershed moment for representation, but it also had the makings of a taut yet rollicking superhero flick. It’s also one of the best pieces to come out of the Marvel Cinematic Universe thus far.
This Marvel blockbuster has everything: stunning Afrofuturist look, high-octane action set pieces reminiscent of spy films, memorable antagonists in Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) and Klaw (Andy Serkis), and a politically resonant undertone.
Rappler critic Oggs Cruz wrote: “A rare animal in a sprawling jungle full of loud but fleeting blockbusters, Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther is shaped like the typical superhero movie bound to fit in the multi-film narrative of a lucrative franchise. However, its heart beats to a rhythm that resonates well beyond the film’s duty to entertain. The film has a sense of history, a palpable drive to connect the power of pop fiction to enunciate real world conflicts.” (READ: ‘Black Panther’ review: Best of the lot)
14. Isle of Dogs
Directed by Wes Anderson
Wes Anderson’s 2018 stop motion animated film is not just yet another story about a boy and his dog.
Here, his quirky and detailed aesthetic turns Japanese (although a word of caution against cultural appropriation) as he sets it in the fictional metropolis of Megasaki and the derelict Trash Island, where the city’s former pets now stay.
With the distinct panache that one can only expect from the American auteur, the film is also peppered with a little political commentary (just like The Grand Budapest Hotel). But of course, it’s still a deeply charming tale with a heart – with the pooches voiced by a formidable ensemble cast.
Rappler critic Oggs Cruz wrote: “Isle of Dogs can either be seen as Anderson carelessly appropriating a culture outside his own to echo his sentiments and obsessions or as a statement on the discordant humanity of the present, of civilization that thrives amidst the lack or deficiency in understanding of every attempt at communication.” (READ: 'Isle of Dogs' Review: More than just puppy love)
“Anderson, based on the way he, is rarely careless and if ever this latest film of his proposes a clash of cultures, the rationale behind it is definitely more profound than cultural insensitivity.”
Directed by Erik Matti
BuyBust is a masterclass in world-building. Hyperreal and awash in garish neon lights, Matti turns the winding alleyways of a Manila slum into a claustrophobic labyrinth and fills it with ultraviolence.
The film also makes a tangential if not overt swipe at Rodrigo Duterte’s "war on drugs" – particularly its repercussions on Philippine society. In a way, it’s more of a truthful depiction of the state of the nation than being simply antagonistic to the current regime’s policies. (READ: Erik Matti on 'BuyBust': 'I wanted to be very objective’)
BuyBust is over the top and anarchic, sure, but Matti’s intentions are so transparent as he orchestrates the action in what seems to be an inescapable snare, and as it happens, an excellent showcase for Anne Curtis’s action chops.
Rappler critic Oggs Cruz wrote: “BuyBust is blunt, brash, and at times, teetering towards being bizarre. Matti is clearly on a mission to push the envelope in terms of both creating bizarre and unique spectacles out of slum-set brawls and testing his audience's tolerance for what technically are murders in the name of survival.” (READ: 'BuyBust' review: Violence, deaths, and discourse)
“In a way, the film's action sequences are quite literally guilty pleasures, as it becomes apparent that their delights hinge not on fatalities of a fantastic quality but on violence dealt on characters representing a very real sector of society.”
While we enumerated only 15, there are a few other films we would rather not ignore:
Paolo Abad is a film/television editor and motion graphic designer. He is also a self-confessed concert junkie.