This year was, by most any barometer, a banner year in cinema. Low-budget and "smart" films went toe-to-toe with standard big-studio blockbusters and more than held their own, both at the box office and in the hearts of moviegoers worldwide. But when I look back at the year in movies, the thing that sticks with me most is the incredible impact of ever-evolving technology on the industry. The game is changing in a huge way, and that change is quite literally a wonder to behold.
From a viewing standpoint, the proliferation of super-theaters (like the Carmike 12's "Big D") provides an audience experience that would have been unimaginable a mere 10 years ago. Plush and spacious seating, screens large and crisp enough to dominate every possible field of vision, and audio so full and multi-directional as to make it seem like it's coming from inside your own head are enough to make the verb "watch" obsolete. You very nearly live these movies. Assuming the goal of the cinema theater industry was to re-establish the experience gap between snuggling on the couch watching a Blu-Ray or on-demand HD flick and hauling your ass (complete with wallet) out to the cineplex, they've succeeded in spades.
In a much more important sense, developing production technology continues to put high-end capabilities into the hands of more and more filmmakers. While that has had, and will continue to have, a positive effect on fiction films, the real benefit here is to documentary filmmakers. Never before has a more highly evolved set of tools been available to a more creative and diverse group, and the results are gloriously evident in non-cineplexes and film festivals everywhere.
In fact, the two most enduring films I saw in 2012 were the crown jewels of local documentary festivals: Chasing Ice, the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival's Best Feature, and Bidder 70, the CINE Fest's Best in Festival film about Tim DeChristopher, the college student who derailed an illegal BLM oil and gas lease auction in 2008. These movies are hugely compelling portraits of remarkable individuals confronting extraordinary circumstances of their own making. Without the low-cost, conveniently sized, high-resolution camera and audio gear toted by the respective filmmaking teams, we never would have known, with the intimacy and power of documentary video, the dogged determination it takes to photograph the world's gorgeous, receding glaciers (Chasing Ice) or the steel resolve it takes to defy federal law—and the steep price to be paid—for a cause (Bidder 70).
So here's to the digital revolution, and to the infinite number of real-life stories it will bring to light. Yeah, they won't all blow your socks off, but the sheer quantity of modern docs facilitated by new technology means the next standout will always be just around the corner. Now that's something to celebrate.