THR Critics' 12 Best International Movies of 2012: THR Year in Review

"War Witch"
Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival

Rachel Mwanza ron the best actress Silver Bear for her unschooled bravura in "War Witch."

The dozen titles that made THR's list of favorite films from around the world stir deep emotions and venture far into the dark lands of the heart.

The world is too wide and the movie industry too enormous to allow anyone to follow all the international films as they come out during the year. What THR critics finally saw and judged in 2012 are several thousand art films filtered through the winnowing baskets of festivals. The dozen titles that made our list of favorites stir deep emotions and venture far into the dark lands of the heart.

PHOTOS: Todd McCarthy's 10 Best Movies of 2012

Two of our choices, for example, talk about selfless love pushed to intense human extremes: Michael Haneke’s ode to an elderly couple in Amour and Kim Ki-duk’s hymn to the poetry and pain of a mother and son in Pietà. War Witch, the story of child soldiers in Africa, and The Impossible, a chilling re-creation of a natural disaster in East Asia, are worlds apart in terms of budget and box office, yet both are unforgettably compelling in their storytelling.

Fortunately there were also more joyful landmark films this year, like Leos Carax’s mesmerizingly original Holy Motors and Anurag Kashyap’s wildly inventive Bollywood gangster dramedy, The Gangs of Wasseypur. In a more classical European vein, Nicolaj Arcel’s beautiful costume drama A Royal Affair describes how the Queen of Denmark and her physician connived to pass social reforms.

PHOTOS: 20 Top-Grossing Movies of 2012: THR Year in Review

We found space to include two first films by remarkable women directors from Saudi Arabia (Wadjda) and Israel (Fill the Void), both warm, affectionate, closely observed portraits of a very particular time and place. Both stories revolve around girls at odds with their society, and both films delight audiences wherever they’re shown.

So many more fine Euro titles beg for a mention: the Taviani brothers’ Shakespeare-in-prison tale Caesar Must Die; Christian Mungiu’s Beyond the Hills, Ursula Meyer’s Swiss drama Sister, Miguel Gomes’ cineaste’s delight Tabu and the Belgian animation film Ernest and Celestine. And let’s remember that 2012 showed the creative blast coming out of Asia has reached critical mass, along with worldwide audiences ready to catch the wave.

1. Amour, Michael Haneke

Nothing in Michel Haneke’s admittedly electrifying oeuvre prepares one for the stark, raw emotions of an elderly couple dealing with their imminent sea change. It’s a film that cannot be admired from a distance; it demands full emotional participation, and will remain in the memory long after the prize ceremonies are over. Read THR's review here.

2. War Witch, Kim Nguyen 

What could have been a morbidly imagined exploitation film about the “problem” of child soldiers is completely turned around and reinvented by Canadian director Kim Nguyen. There is no looking away from the almost unimaginable real-life horrors experienced by a 12-year-old girl played by Rachel Mwanza, who won best actress awards at Berlin and Tribeca. Read THR's review here.

3. No, Pablo Larrain     

?Inescapable election coverage in the U.S. generated chronic political fatigue in 2012. But Pablo Larrain's film provided a tonic, bringing a subtly subversive sense of humor and fascinating detail to his account of the 1988 referendum that overthrew the brutal Pinochet regime. As the skateboarding Chilean Don Draper who orchestrated the campaign, Gael García Bernal scored his best role in years. Read THR's review here.

4. A Royal Affair, Nicolaj Arcel

Danish schoolchildren probably know this story inside out, but to most international audiences, the history of the imbecilic king, his young consort and her German lover was an utterly gripping account of court intrigue and political machinations woven around a tragic romantic triangle. A sumptuous example of old-school European costume drama told from an incisive contemporary perspective, the film is powered by superb performances from Mads Mikkelsen, Alicia Vikander and Mikkel Boe Foelsgaard. Read THR's review here.

5. The Gangs of Wasseypur, Anurag Kashyap

Every once in a while there appears a film so impossibly long (five and a half hours), so over the top, so outrageous a tussle of unrelated genres and so casually, brilliantly acted that you realize Tarantino isn’t the only director on planet Earth able to surprise you. Anurag Kashyap’s epic Bollywood gangster film is total enjoyment. Read THR's review here.

6. Wadjda, Haifaa Al Mansour   

The Middle East is full of surprises, and one of the whoppers this year was the first film ever made in Saudia Arabia, by a woman director no less. Haifaa Al Mansour’s charmer tells of a 12-year-old tomboy and reluctant student whose desire to own a bike is so great she learns the Qu’ran by heart. It opens a window no one was expecting on an unknown world of women. Read THR's review here.

7. Fill the Void, Rama Burshstein

A delightful bolt from the blue, Rama Burshstein’s Fill the Void offers a rare insider’s POV on Tel Aviv’s Orthodox Hasidic community, a closed-circuit world which is turned upside down by a marriage proposal. One of the year’s warmest, most affectionate films spotlighting the family in a tightly knit community. Read THR's review here.

8. The Impossible, J. A. Bayona

Spain’s box office behemoth is a disaster film like no other. Its extraordinary realism and Hollywood-style special effects re-create the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami with the sustained tension of a nightmare. On his second film, J.A. Bayona directs Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor and a clutch of child actors in edge-of-seat performances. Read THR's review here.

9. Pietà, Kim Ki-duk

We all want films to surprise us, to turn our expectations upside down with a pleasurable shock. Korean director Kim Ki-duk does all this, minus the pleasure. The miracle of Pietà is how he ultimately he transforms sickening violence into moving poetry, and that’s what you leave the film remembering. Read THR's review here.

10. Barbara, Christian Petzold

Christian Petzold's tightly crafted Cold War drama is another prime example of the Berlin School director's art of building emotions beneath the surface, before they rise up and boil over. With a brilliant, understated turn by Nina Hoss, the film ingeniously mixes the personal and the political, revealing the chasm between our desire for freedom and our need to do the right thing. Read THR's review here.

11. Our Children, Joachim Lafosse

The feel-bad family movie of the year, Joachim Lafosse's ripped-from-the-headlines saga portrays the slow-burn unraveling of a young Belgian mother driven to the unspeakable. Plunged into a claustrophobic nightmare of despotic in-laws and screaming kids, Rosetta star Emilie Dequenne movingly transforms her heroine into a monster of sympathy and regret. Read THR's review here.

12.  Holy Motors, Léos Carax

Enfant terrible Léos Carax's cinematic whatchamacallit is both a melancholic love letter to the movies and a joyful ode to the medium's demise. With fetish actor Denis Lavant playing everything from a beggar to a leprechaun to a CG'd phallic beast, the film is less about narrative than about unlocking narrative possibilities, with Carax gracefully holding the key. Read THR's review here.

Jordan Mintzer and David Rooney contributed to this story.