Foreign-language front-runners


"The Secret of Her Eyes"
"The Secret of Her Eyes" (Juan Jose Campanella)

Argentine director Campanella has successfully managed to balance two parallel careers: back home as a helmer of local-language features (Oscar nominee "Son of the Bride") and in the U.S. as a TV director ("House," "30 Rock," "Law & Order: Criminal Intent.") His latest feature fits into both worlds. This procedural with a twist follows a secretary at a court in Buenos Aires who, facing retirement, tries to solve a case that has haunted him for 30 years.

"Samson and Delilah" (Warwick Thornton)

Thornton shot his low-budget debut under grueling, 115-degree conditions in the outback. The autobiographical tale of growing up native in an Australian township was filmed mainly in the Warlpiri language with an almost entirely Aboriginal cast and crew. "Samson and Delilah" won Cannes' Camera d'Or for best first feature and swept Australia's AFI awards, before picking up a Golden Globes nomination.

"For a Moment, Freedom"
"For a Moment, Freedom" (Arash T. Riahi)

Riahi sees his feature debut as a natural extension of his acclaimed documentary "Exile Family Movie" (2006). Both explore the lives of Iranian refugees who, like the director and his family, fled political persecution in Tehran. Riahi picked his cast mainly from refugees and the children of refugees in order to better reflect the experiences of his characters -- all exiles waiting in Turkey for permission to enter Europe.

"I Killed My Mother" (Xavier Dolan)

Dolan, a 20-year-old writer-actor-director, sank $150,000 of his own savings to make this semi-autobiographical film about the troubled, unbreakable bond between a single mother and her homosexual son. "I Killed My Mother" is already being hyped as Canada's best Oscar chance since Denys Arcand's "The Barbarian Invasions" (2003), the first and only Canuck foreign-language winner.

"The Wind Journeys" (Ciro Guerra)

Guerra explores Colombia's musical and cultural heritage in this sweeping road movie, shot in 80 locations and four languages (Spanish, Wayuuaiki, Ikun and Bantu). An accordion player, depressed after his wife's death, sets off on a journey to return his instrument to his one-time mentor. Accompanying him is a boy determined to become his apprentice.

"A Prophet"
"A Prophet" (Jacques Audiard)

A screening of one of his films in a French prison left director Audiard so shocked by the conditions there that he decided to set his next project behind bars. Audiard cast mainly unknowns and first-timers to give his criminal-to-gangster tale an authentic edge. Unlike most in the genre, Audiard's film eschews moralizing or message cinema in favor of high-energy, graphic filmmaking.

"The White Ribbon" (Michael Haneke)

Haneke auditioned nearly 7,000 children before casting the handful that form the dramatic core of his Palme d'Or- and European Film Prize-winning epic. "Ribbon" could be the feature to break Haneke's Oscar curse: The acclaimed Austrian director has won virtually every European honor but has yet to be nominated for an Academy Award.

"Prince of Tears"
Hong Kong
"Prince of Tears" (Yonfan)

Taiwanese director Yonfan uses his trademark lush cinematography and melodramatic storytelling to shed light on the almost forgotten story of the white terror: the brutal communist witch hunts in Taiwan from 1950-54. The director financed the film himself and provides the nostalgic but ironic voice-over.

"Reykjavik-Rotterdam" (Oskar Jonasson)

This action-packed thriller was the only film to qualify for the Oscars from tiny Iceland, a result both of the country's recent economic troubles and an excess of English dialogue in other locally made features. Working Title has already picked up the remake rights for the story -- about a retired smuggler who returns for one last job -- with Mark Wahlberg attached to star.

"About Elly" (Asghar Farhadi)

This ensemble piece about a group of middle-class Iranians and their beach holiday that goes horribly wrong enters the Oscar race with a strong pedigree. The drama has already picked up several prizes, including a Silver Bear in Berlin and Tribeca's Founders' Award. But "About Elly" hasn't been helped by the Iranian government. After nominating the feature for Oscar consideration, Tehran's cultural ministry publicly denounced the Academy Awards for discrimination against Iranian cinema.

"Ajami" (Yaron Shani & Scandar Copti)

Co-directors Shani (Jewish Israeli) and Copti (Christian Arab) spent nine years developing their look at life on the rough streets of a Jaffa neighborhood, where Arabs and Jews live side-by-side but are segregated by class, religion and suspicion. Ten months of on-site prep with mainly non-professional actors helped lend an authenticity to the low-budget drama, Israel's top boxoffice performer of 2009.

"Baaria" (Giuseppe Tornatore)

Budgeted at close to $40 million, Tornatore's Sicilian epic is the biggest film in the running. The director of Oscar-winning "Cinema Paradiso" used tens of thousands of extras to re-create his childhood hometown of Bagheria (or "Baaria") and Italy's turbulent history from the 1930s to the 1980s.

"Nobody to Watch Over Me" (Ryoichi Kimizuka)

This year's surprise Oscar winner "Departures" reminded Academy voters that there's more to modern Japanese cinema than horror shockers and samurai swords. The island's 2010 contender tackles media sensationalism in the Internet age. In Kimizuka's tightly told drama, the family of a minor accused of stabbing his two sisters is tried and found guilty in the court of public opinion.

"Mother" (Joon-ho Bong)

After wowing international audiences with his breakout monster movie "The Host," Korea's Bong throws critics a curve ball in this genre-bending mix of Pedro Almodovar-style melodrama and Hitchcockian murder mystery. The powerful lead performance by Kim Hye-ja was a revelation to Korean audiences, who know the 68-year-old actress as a loving mom in long-running TV serial "The Rustic Diary."

"Backyard" (Carlos Carrera)

Two police officers assigned to security were killed during the production of Carrera's bloody crime drama, which explores the real-life rape and murder of hundreds of women in the Mexican border town of Ciudad Juarez. The crew persevered to make "Backyard," providing a disturbing look at violence and corruption a stone throw's south of El Paso.

"The Milk of Sorrow" (Claudia Llosa)

A festival favorite since its Golden Bear win at this year's Berlin festival, Llosa's "Sorrow" combines stunning visual imagery with political allegory to tell a magical-realist tale of Peru's legacy of violence and terror. The drama was recently named one of the 20 best Latin American films of the decade in a poll by regional promotional body Cinema Tropical.

"Police, Adjective" (Corneliu Porumboiu)

Any Academy voters racked by guilt for failing to nominate Romanian abortion drama "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" three years ago can check out the country's 2010 contender: an anti-thriller from the director of "12:08, East of Bucharest." Probably the only entry ever to link lexicography with crime and punishment, Porumboiu's procedural follows a drug cop struggling with his conscience after being told to arrest and imprison a 16-year-old boy for smoking pot.

"Ward No. 6" (Karen Shakhnazarov)

The script to Russia's Oscar entry -- a modern-day retelling of Anton Chekhov's short story -- took decades to reach the screen; indeed, late Italian actor Marcello Mastroianni was originally attached to star. As it happened, Russian veteran Vladimir Ilyin plays the lead alongside several real-life asylum inmates, part of a pseudo-documentary style that lends "Ward No. 6" its creepy authenticity.

"Broken Promise" (Jiri Chlumsky)

First-timer Samuel Spisak was just 14 when he played Martin Friedmann-Petrasek, a Slovak Jew who survived the concentration camps in part though his soccer skills. A combination resistance drama, coming-of-age tale and sports film, "Broken Promise" proves there are still new stories to be told about the Holocaust.

"Afghan Star"
United Kingdom:
"Afghan Star" (Havana Marking)

Afghan contestants in the popular local version of "American Idol" have to deal with voter fraud, death threats and the occasional bomb attack. As the only documentary in the running, Marking's film could suffer from comparison with bigger-budget foreign dramas, but as the U.S. sends in more troops, few Oscar contenders can match this for relevance and topicality.
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