From ‘Gomburza’ to ‘Barbie,’ here are the best movies screened in Philippine cinemas.
The year 2023 will forever be known as the year of Barbenheimer, that dynamic duo of films that brought people everywhere in the planet back to the cinemas with something, no, make that many things fresh, original, even groundbreaking. They’re two of the biggest moneymakers of the year and also among the most acclaimed.
Barbie and Oppenheimer make it to this list of the year’s best films that screened in Philippine cinemas. They are joined by several other big screen gems including Filipino titles that share their exhilarating clarity of vision, commitment to world building, and passion for insightful storytelling.
If this was simply the elegantly gorgeous, handsomely mounted Hollywood-caliber production that it is, it already deserves to be in any Best of Year list. But Gomburza is something more: a sophisticated, intelligently written, insightful piece of corrective cinema literature. It’s not really so much about the untold or little-known private and public lives of the titular Spanish-era Filipino priests but the history of the Filipino as patriot.
It spotlights Gomburza’s role as the lynchpin that bridged the earliest rumblings of resistance and their births way before the all-out revolution for independence long after their deaths. Most impressive is how the film, sharply co-written by Rodolfo Vera and millennial Pepe Diokno, and directed with full confidence and command by Diokno, achieves this and how it ends on an affecting, even rousing note without the usual clichè rhetoric and grandstanding of local historical films. Gomburza is what period Filipino film heaven looks, sounds, and feels like.
Forget the bazillions this movie made in box-offices everywhere to everyone’s surprise and astonishment. The bigger, more notable sleight-of-hand achievement of Barbie is how it reminded the world how radical Barbie the doll was at the time of its conception and delivery to the world in the 1950s. Here, for the first time, was a full-fledged female toy, not a baby plaything that played into, and maybe even advanced among impressionable little children the prevailing impression among the adults of the time—that women are only good for the role of mother
The film posits that things may have changed much for women in the decades since Barbie’s debut but society has also remained pretty much the same: the patriarchy is as alive and kicking now as it was then. It’s an irony that writer-director Great Gerwig and her huge cast led by star and producer Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling capture with scrappy wit and biting humor against the most eye-popping candy-colored lifesize playtown set in all of movieland in 2023. This Barbie is pinklicious.
Poor Things is other Barbie movie of 2023. It’s the better one. Way better. Madder, braver, funnier. And more wicked. And weirder, perhaps even for cineastes already familiar with the work of maverick Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos (The Favourite).
Oscar winner Emma Stone gives her best performance yet as a sort of Unhinged Barbie on an odyssey of self-discovery and world exploration through Victorian-era Europe that’s quite unlike anything that’s been committed to the big screen before. It looks, sounds, and feels period but current at the same time. The rest of the cast just as brilliantly serves the film’s bonkers sense and sensibilities, most especially Mark Ruffalo in a role that’s like Ryan Gosling’s Ken but with a reverse character arc. This 2.5-hour film is definitely no poor thing: it’s one of the year’s most richly extravagant creative things. It’s also one of its very best films.
Firefly is a rarity in the Metro Manila Film Festival: a small film with a big heart and a big idea. Ostensibly a mother and child tale, it’s really a children’s story for adults about the power of stories to inspire and shape us, to heal and bring color and more meaning and more life to life. Soaring on wings of Alessandra de Rossi’s and 10-year-old Euwann Aleta’s earthy and soulful performances, this lovely heartwarming firefly of a movie shines brightly and beautifully.
Like Barbie, Oppenheimer is even more impressive when seen under the Barbenheimer macroscope for the ways it differs vastly with the other film: serious, stately, sprawling. Not that that really matters. This 3-hour epic stands firmly, proudly on its very vast cinematic shoulders.
Combining world history, science, human psychology, domestic drama, and high-level politics with a wizard’s deceptively easy touch and a Swiss knife’s precision, writer-director Christopher Nolan crafted a film that’s equal parts morality play, cautionary tale, scholarly probe, and humanity story on a grand scale and one that’s as potent as the object at the very center of its all. Simply put, Oppenheimer is—dare we say it—the bomb.
Titled The Missing for international audiences, Iti Mapukpukaw is a mini-masterpiece not just of Filipino animation but of Philippine cinema in which the story informs style and style adds substance. The “missing” in the title refers to the various body parts that go missing from the lead character, a young millennial working as an animator in Manila, at various points in the film.
The missing parts are a metaphor for the things that his childhood trauma has robbed him of—an eye for vision, his manhood for intimacy, his mouth for voice. Sure, it’s all quite literal—too on the nose, so to speak—but even that is firmly rooted in the film’s world as a children’s story for adults. And it’s all presented with a deft hand by Papa, his over 90 animators, and his cast: a soulful, a wonderful Dolly de Leon as a loving, with-it mom, and a superb Gio Gahol. Beautiful, intelligent, fascinating, moving, haunting, Iti Mapukpukaw (The Missing) is a not-to-be-missed gem.
Past Lives may not have the artful stylishness and visual splendor of Wong Kar-Wai’s In The Mood For Love but it is as swooning, achingly romantic as the classic from 2000. It is, in fact, quite the opposite—stark, spare, straightforward. But it tells a more expansive tale of love unexpressed and yearning unfulfilled because of time, distance, and societal conventions and dictates bearing on personal liberties.
What makes the decades-spanning Past Lives, which marks the screen debut as writer and director of South Korean-Canadian playwright Celine Song, both more resonantly grounded and soaringly lyrical is its backdrop of Korean culture and the Asian diaspora to the West. In 2023, no other film has brought to cinematic life the past and the present together as beautifully and as heartbreakingly.
All Of Us Strangers
There are family films, there are ghost movies, there are gay romances, and then there is All Of Us Strangers, the year’s best family film, ghost movie, and gay romance. An adaptation of the 1987 novel Strangers, this British drama is an elegant, poignant, haunting portrait of mournful nostalgia, of the debilitating effects of grief and melancholia, and of the healing power of love, both given and received.