Despite everything, this year marked a sort of triumphant, sort of tentative return to form for cinema. Film production around the world may have been stalled in 2020 by the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, but for now the industry seems to have staggered back to its feet.
Cinemas, streaming services, distributors and festival organizers have settled into the rhythms of a new hybrid model, utilizing both in-person and online screenings. This means long-delayed releases finally saw the light of day in 2021, alongside the countless other films coming out every day.
However, with so many releases trying to win audience attention again, this also means some films are bound to get buried even deeper by algorithms and competitive release schedules. Here are eight films that we think deserve more than to be forgotten in the rush.
If you binge Asian romance dramas, check out: Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (QCinema)
This year’s QCinema International Film Festival boasted some of the biggest releases from the global festival circuit, including Japanese director Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s stunning three-hour drama Drive My Car. That film remains an awards frontrunner, but Hamaguchi’s smaller and equally brilliant Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy remains under-seen and under-discussed.
An anthology film that tells three short stories about unexpected connections and human sexuality, Wheel uses stripped-down storytelling and one of the tightest screenplays of the year to challenge how we perceive the people who wander into our lives. This is simple, honest filmmaking with a profound emotional payoff, reminding us of the value of our every fleeting interaction.
If you don’t get the hype for documentaries, check out: Procession (Netflix)
Netflix’s documentary catalog can be daunting to sift through, especially with countless exposés and true crime movies hogging the space. But once in a while, the streaming giant acquires a film like Procession, and reminds everybody of what the form is really capable of.
It’s incredibly heavy viewing, as it follows six men in drama therapy, working through their childhood trauma of sexual abuse from priests. But through this process, of using the tools of filmmaking to express themselves and confront their demons, they also find community in each other. The triumph of these men feels like a triumph for anybody who looks to films to find solace.
If you have a Wes Anderson-inspired Pinterest board, check out: Limbo (Apple iTunes/Google Play Movies)
Despite a successful festival run in 2020, this offbeat comedy-drama about refugees waiting to be granted asylum didn’t seem to make waves after receiving a wider release this year. And that’s a shame, when Limbo seems to understand how to balance tone better than most. It takes the continuing global refugee crisis and manages to find light humor — followed by devastating heartbreak — simply in the way it uses the frame, and how it forces its characters to share the same uneasy, personal space.
If you want horror without actually watching horror, check out: Playground (QCinema)
You’d be hard-pressed to find many grown-up actors this year who achieved the same level of open-wound vulnerability as Maya Vanderbeque, the 11-year-old star of the Belgian drama Playground.
Shot entirely from three feet off the ground, the film is a harrowing account of a little girl trying to protect her older brother from the vicious bullies at their elementary school. It’s pure horror that fully understands the tough decisions kids have to make.
If you like your anime wholesome, check out: Words Bubble Up Like Soda Pop (Netflix)
The sheer amount of anime online may be overwhelming, but save time for Words Bubble Up Like Soda Pop, easily one of 2021’s best animated films. Nothing of great consequence seems to happen during this movie’s innocent summer of love between two shy teenagers, but the way they learn to share and appreciate genuine moments together is just the most romantic thing. And through expressive, colorful animation, the film gets blissfully lost between past and future, and embraces the unique magic of right-now.
If you can appreciate a long heart-to-heart chat, check out: Last Days at Sea (Cinemalaya)
Don’t let the relatively low number of Filipino releases in 2021 convince you that we didn’t put out some excellent non-fiction work this year.
Venice Atienza’s Last Days at Sea, for example, is a gentle, melancholic portrait of a small fishing barangay in Surigao del Norte. The director’s casual conversations with her young friend Reyboy gradually reveal the obstacles faced by fishermen all across the country, and the complicated feelings young people have towards having to leave a home that can no longer support them.
If you’ve always wanted to watch something truly experimental, check out: Age of Blight (Cinema Rehiyon)
Made up of footage shot by 12 directors from Asia — then edited together by our own John Torres — Age of Blight is a singular snapshot of the pandemic, and a prime example of the expressiveness of Asian experimental cinema. Torres doesn’t impose a rigid structure to any of the footage, meaning the anxiety and ennui in each nation spills over to the next. The local mixes with the global, reminding us of the scale of this crisis, and the international solidarity we hope to maintain.
If you miss the power of live theater, check out: Tao Po (Cinemalaya)
Activist-artist Mae Paner has been performing her one-woman monologue Tao Po for years. Now a professional recording exists, to remind us of Paner’s incredible ear for character, and to make sure nobody ever forgets the stain that Oplan Tokhang has left on this country.
Each of Paner’s four characters puts a human face on the statistics, lest we forget the real cost of extrajudicial killings. Tao Po continues to have screenings today, most notably in the Cubao microcinema Sine Pop!, so make sure it doesn’t pass you by.