The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is a regional intergovernmental organization comprising of ten countries in Southeast Asia, namely Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam. Evidently, the movie industry of these countries does not yet reach the size of Japan, India and S. Korea for example, so we decided to include them in one list, although we still retain a hope that in the next years, we will see a cinematic boom from there also. Evidently, the Philippines are at least a step ahead of the rest of the ASEAN countries in that regard, which is the reason so many films from the country are included in the list. Lastly, some films in the list were produced in countries outside ASEAN, but we felt that due to their themes, they also belong in the list.

Without further ado, and with a focus on diversity, here are the best films of 2019 from ASEAN, in reverse order. Some films may have premiered in 2018, but since they mostly circulated in 2019, we decided to include them. (By clicking on the title, you can read the full review of the film)

20. Maria (Pedring Lopez, Philippines)

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And since the focus is on the action, I have to say that the film thrives on this aspect, with the combination of deadly and sexy deriving from Maria and a number of other female opponents she faces, carrying the film for its whole duration. (Panos Kotzathanasis)

19. Last Night I Saw You Smiling (Kavich Neang, Cambodia)

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In the end, “Last Time I Saw You Smiling” is a film about loss, fear of an uncertain future and coming to terms with the inevitable. Rather than focusing on a political message, Neang has managed to make a story about memory and home concentrating on the banality of one’s routine which is about to become extinct. This is an important film about how to deal with concepts like origin and home in our world, because the way we deal with them may just define ourselves and our future. (Rouven Linnarz)

18. Fly By Night (Zahir Omar, Malaysia)

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In the end, “Fly by Night” turns out to be a story of outcomes of greed and the destructive power of a hurt ego. Maybe it is not action-packed, keeping-you-on-the-edge-of-your-seat kind of heist movie, but it smartly mixes genre schemes with a subtle arthouse touch and adds interesting contexts of social commitments to the repetitive elements of a gangster tale. (Joanna Konczak)

17. Ode to Nothing (Dwein Ruedas Baltazar, Philippines)

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“Ode to Nothing” is an unusual but very interesting film, whose quality becomes obvious through the direction, the acting, and the production values. It is always good to watch movies by directors who try different things, and Baltazar has managed to do so and in the same time, to present a work of true quality. (Panos Kotzathanasis)

16. Buoyancy (Rodd Rathjen, Cambodia-themed)

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Rodd Rathjen pulls no punches in the depiction of the concept of modern slavery, in a film that frequently switches from documentary-like detail to a mainstream narrative, a tactic that actually benefits the entertaining aspect of the film the most. In that fashion, the brutality and complete lack of any kind of respect for human life give their place to a rather thorough presentation of the concept of  “When you dance with the devil, the devil doesn’t change. The devil changes you”. Through this combination, Rathjen manages to present not just the awful fate of the people who end up working in these conditions, but also the way the “system” produces slave traders, and the process that ends up stripping people from their humanity completely. (Panos Kotzathanasis)

15. Wet Season (Anthony Chen, Singapore)

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The obvious trait of the film is Anthony Chen’s direction, and particularly the artful build-up of the relationship of the two protagonists, that manages to remain captivating despite its obviousness. The scene where the two share durians as a proof of their growing intimacy is indicatory of Chen’s style in that regard. The fact that he takes his time to explore this notion helps in terms of both character analysis and regarding the entertainment the film offers, since the outcome remains open and keeps the interest from wavering, for the whole duration of the movie. In that regard, he benefits the most by Hoping Chen’s and Joanne Cheong’s excellent editing, who induce the movie with a relatively slow pace that allows Chen to take his time in communicating everything he has to say, without, however, becoming tiresome at any point. (Panos Kotzathanasis)

14. Ave Maryam (Robby Ertanto, Indonesia)

Ertanto uses the dilemma of “God or Love” to present a subtle romantic story about forbidden love, whose narrative and overall aesthetics owe much to Wong Kar Wai’s style. In that fashion, he benefits the most from Ical Tanjung’s cinematography, who presents a number of scenes of meaningful beauty, with the ones with the window and the sea, the beach, and the one with night date being the most memorable, although a plethora of them are exceptional. The way he uses his camera, to allow the audience to feel like they are picking on the protagonists, mostly through Maryam’s character, is exceptional, and another heads up to the visual style of Wong Kar Wai’s movies. (Panos Kotzathanasis)

13. The Long Walk (Mattie Do, Laos)

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Visually interesting, shot in saturated contrast colours (green and yellow for the exteriors, dark brown and grey under the dim light for the interior), well acted and narratively unorthodox, “The Long Walk” is a film worth the time spent on watching it. The film also profits from the time taken for contemplating about it. It might not be the peak of Do’s career so far, but it is certainly something new and fresh. (Marko Stojiljkovic)

12. Lingua Franca (by Isabel Sandoval, Philippines)

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Isabel Sandoval directs a film that manages to make its points through a subtle but eloquent approach. The issues foreigners face in order to get a green card is the one that functions as its base, but the story also deals with how people perceive transsexuals and the difficulty of taking care of the elderly, particularly when they are suffering from mental issues. I was also impressed by the way the film deals with the conflict of identity theme, since, this time, it is not the transgender individual who has doubts, but the heterosexual, who is not sure of how to deal with his feelings. The fact that when he eventually decides, he becomes this conservative, futile romantic man is almost humorous, if not for the dramatic unfolding of the story. (Panos Kotzathanasis)

11. The Halt (Lav Diaz, Philippines)

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In the end, “The Halt” is a dark vision of the future whose consistency has to be noted, while it also suffers from a repetitious nature and redundancy. Supported by a strong cast and interesting links to our reality, this again is Lav Diaz’ version of a story (or rather a possible future) for people unable to learn the lessons of history while focusing too much on themselves. (Rouven Linnarz)

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