A whopping 71 countries have submitted films for this year's foreign film Oscar. Kenya submitted for the first time, while last year's Oscar-winning Iran boycotted this year.

Many of the films listed below have played film festivals and gained stateside distribution, but the voting rules for the Academy's foreign films require that Academy members, who come from all branches of the Academy, see a certain number of films--only in theaters. No screeners allowed. Surprises are always in store in this category, which is remarkably free from media influence, although members do get invited to screenings and after-parties with filmmakers in attendance.

Amour, still

The voting process is arcane and occurs in stages. In the first round, eligible voters pick six films. Then the foreign branch executive committee will add three films to wind up with a shortlist of nine. After that another committee of 30 eligible New York and Los Angeles voters hand-picked by producer Ron Yerxa and ex-Academy executive director Bruce Davis-- rather than outgoing foreign czar Mark Johnson, who has ended his term on the Board of Governors--narrow the list down to the final five nominees. When I spoke to Yerxa in Telluride, he promised no radical changes in the foreign film voting rules, at least this year.

Based on fest profiles and the films I have seen, of the 71 films below the following are the front runners, in alphabetical order:

"A Royal Affair"
"A Royal Affair"
  • "Amour," Michael Haneke, Austria, Cannes Palme d'Or (SPC)
  • "Barbara," Christian Petzold, Germany (Adopt)
  • "Beyond the Hills," Cristian Mungiu, Romania, two non-pro leads shared Cannes actress prize (IFC)
  • "Fill the Void," Rama Burshtein, Israel's Ophir-winner (SPC)
  • "The Intouchables," Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano, hit in France and US, Omar Sy beat Jean Dujardin for Cesar (TWC)
  • "Kon-Tiki," Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg, hit in Norway
  • "Pieta," Kim Ki-duk, South Korea (Golden Lion, Venice)
  • "A Royal Affair," Nicolaj Arcel, hit in Denmark, best actor and screenplay in Berlin (Magnolia)
  • "Sister," Ursula Meier, special mention Silver Bear Berlin, Switzerland (Adopt)

The 2012 submissions are: