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Top Ten Films of 2012

Friday, December 28th, 2012

With the new year almost upon us, for what it’s worth, here are ten films that really impressed me, all released in 2012, in no particular order:

This Is Not A Film by Jafar Panahi

The Queen of Versailles by Lauren Greenfield

Bernie by Richard Linklater

A Late Quartet by Yaron Zilberman

Tabu by Miguel Gomes

How to Survive a Plague by David France

The Invisible War by Kirby Dick

Wild Bill by Dexter Fletcher

Side by Side by Christopher Kenneally

Farewell, My Queen by Benoît Jacquot

There are lots of other excellent films, of course, and all “top ten” lists are inherently ridiculous, since there’s so much out there that never gets even a VOD release, so this is just a very small slice of a much larger pie. There were a lot of excellent documentaries this year, as well as last year, and all of these films certainly had their moments.

I found myself drifting back though, to Lars von Trier’s Melancholia or J.C. Chandor’s Margin Call (both 2011), as films that, for me, were really transcendent experiences, and none of these films, with the possible exception of the mesmeric Tabu, really came up to that level. That said, This Is Not A Film signals a new era in do-it-yourself cinema, smuggled out of Iran on a flash drive hidden in a birthday cake, proving that you don’t need much in the way of physical materials to make a compelling film; all it requires in genius, and a talent for improvisation under pressure. A Late Quartet is perhaps the most conventional film here, but it still packs a punch, and Side by Side, though also veering towards the quotidian, nevertheless addresses the most central issue facing cinema today; film or digital. Really, it isn’t a contest any more; digital has won. Film is gone.

In Fall 2012, I projected a DCP (Digital Cinema Package) of one film in my film history class, which looked sharp, hard, and glossy; and then after that, a 35mm print of another film, which seemed, in comparison, warm, romantic, and inviting. What can I say; film looks better. But there’s no use bemoaning the death of film, though; it’s an accomplished fact. Christopher Nolan is still carrying the torch for celluloid, but it won’t be long before 35mm vanishes completely – something I predicted as far back as 2000 in a lecture in Stockholm, when one theatre in New York switched, even back then, to all digital projection. The Jazz Singer (1927) opened in one theater, as well; within two years, silent films were gone.

It’s taken digital longer to gain market dominance, but when one looks at the cost savings for the studios in shipping, storage, and print costs, as well as the level of control DCPs give the majors. Digital Cinema Packages must be unlocked by KDMs (Key Delivery Messages) for each screening, so studios always know where and when their films are being screened – the shift was ultimately inevitable. I’ve blogged about this before in detail. The shift was ultimately inevitable. So it’s a digital world, and film – as we knew it – is no longer part of the landscape.

That’s the major story for 2012, and a host of aesthetic and pictorial values vanish with the switch. But sheer economics drive the process, and film is above all a very costly medium, so with distribution and advertising costs rising, to say nothing of above-the-line budgets, mainstream fare will continue to rule the multiplex, while most of the films listed here played “selected theaters,” and never reached the general public.

That’s another problem, and for that, there seems no solution in sight.

About the Author

Headshot of Wheeler Winston Dixon Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

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Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by Fast Company, The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at for more details.

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