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Oscars: 4 Top Contenders in the Foreign-Language Category

The Broken Circle Breakdown - H 2013
"The Broken Circle Breakdown": Veerle Baetens (right) and co-star Johan Heldenbergh

Even for foreign filmmakers, the Academy Award remains the biggest prize. Iran's Asghar Farhadi already has scored one and would like a second, but he is facing off against a record-breaking field of 76 contenders.

This story first appeared in the Dec. 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

"The race is wide open," says Belgian director Felix Van Groeningen who is hoping that his film, Belgium's entry The Broken Circle Breakdown, about a pair of quarrelsome bluegrass musicians in Ghent, secures a nomination. "There's no clear favorite, like 2013's Amour or 2012's A Separation." Maybe not, but with submissions from 76 countries the competition is fierce. On Dec. 20 the Academy will announce a shortlist of nine films from which five nominees will be chosen.

STORY: Oscars: 76 Countries Competing for Best Foreign Language Film

The Hunt (DENMARK)

Director Thomas Vinterberg won fame with 1998's Cannes smash The Celebration, in which a father's sexual abuse secrets are exposed. His latest, The Hunt, which debuted in Cannes in 2012 and centers on a pedophile witch hunt, is "the antithesis of The Celebration," the director says. "I used one police interrogation transcript word for word," he adds. Mads Mikkelsen won the best actor award at Cannes, and his TV success in NBC's Hannibal further raises The Hunt's profile. "The character was originally a tough blacksmith based on De Niro in The Deer Hunter," says Vinterberg, "but Mads [who's been voted the sexiest man in Denmark] is so manly already, I made him a schoolteacher -- a soft Scandinavian man."

Child's Pose (ROMANIA)

Luminita Gheorghiu starred in 2007's 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days -- its Oscar snub was so shocking, it led to a change in the category's rules -- as well as Romania's 2013 entry, Beyond the Hills. In Calin Peter Netzer's $1 million budgeted Child's Pose, she plays a more upper-class woman than usual, a yoga-toned, overly devoted mom to an appalling son. "It's more universal than other Romanian films," says Netzer. "It's about a neurotic family everyone can empathize with." It certainly scored at the Berlin Film Festival, where it took home two prizes.

PHOTOS: 2014 Golden Globe Nominees

The Past (IRAN)

Asghar Farhadi has a tough act to follow: his own 2011 foreign-language Oscar winner A Separation. So why, instead of making Separation 2 in Iran, did he shoot his $11 million The Past in Paris? "To continue that film would destroy it," Farhadi says of A Separation, "but The Past does have the same Iranian gaze at the family. It's a gaze that allows people to state their reasons and doesn't see the world in black and white." Playing a passionate Parisienne caught up in the middle of a divorce from a compassionate Iranian man, Berenice Bejo captured the best actress prize in Cannes.

The Broken Circle Breakdown (BELGIUM)

Van Groeningen's last movie, 2009's The Misfortunates, also was an Oscar submission from Belgium, but his The Broken Circle Breakdown was a more challenging production, thanks to its multiple themes: bluegrass music (it shares one tune with O Brother, Where Art Thou?), romance between performers, a dying child and a battle between science and religion. "I freaked out at every step -- writing, shooting and editing," says the director. "We rehearsed music for six months and scenes for three weeks, to get a combination of perfection and spontaneity." It paid off at the European Film Awards, where star Veerle Baetens won best actress.