'The Deep'
'The Deep'

Something funny happened on the way to the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar shortlist. Unusually, all nine contenders announced Friday morning have either already been released in the US or will be during the first quarter of 2013.

Because of separate eligibility rules for this category -- determined by their release dates in the country submitting a film rather than in the US, unlike all other awards -- the nominees are often films virtually unknown to most American moviegoers, even those who follow foreign film. In some years -- including 2008, 2009 and 2010 -- the winner did not open theatrically until after the Oscar ceremony.

Although plans are in flux for at least two of the unreleased films on the list ("Kon-Tiki" and "The Deep"), and at least one other ("Beyond the Hills") might move up its date before the awards, it is likely that at least three and possibly all five of the eventual nominees will open in theaters before awards night -- at least in NY and LA. And the competition might be between two or more films already widely seen in major US cities ("Amour" and "Intouchables"), which in itself would be rare indeed.


Here are the nine films and their distribution history:

In release

"Amour" (Austria - 3 previous nominees, 1 win)

Distributor - Sony Pictures Classics

US release date - 12/19/12

Gross to date - $30,000 (only 2 days in 3 theaters)

Film festivals include - Cannes, Telluride, Toronto, New York

Metacritic score: 92

Awards include - Palme d'or/Cannes; Best Film, Actor, Actress, Director/European Film Awards; Best Film, Best Actress/Los Angeles Film Critics; Best Foreign Language Film/New York Film Critics, National Board of Review; Best Foreign Language Film (nominee) - Golden Globes, Broadcast Film Critics

Director Michael Haneke is the only one here to have been a previous nominee ("The White Ribbon") and his film (actually French, but Academy rules allow it to be submitted from Austria because of his citizenship and local production financing) has easily been the most honored film of 2012 internationally as well as the top choice among foreign language films from US critics' groups so far.

Amour, still

Just opened in NY/LA, Sony Pictures Classics will be expanding this to major cities in January (similar to their pattern for last year's winning film "A Separation"). With hopes for additional nominations, including best actress, director and original screenplay, this could be the highest profile among the nominees in theaters during the voting if it becomes a nominee.

"A Royal Affair" (Denmark - 8 previous nominees, 3 wins)

Distributor - Magnolia

US release date - 11/9/2012

Gross to date - $559,000

Film festivals include - Berlin, Telluride, Toronto

Metacritic score: 73

"A Royal Affair"
"A Royal Affair"

Awards include - Best Actor, Screenplay/Berlin; Best Foreign Language Film (nominee), Golden Globes, Broadcast Critics

A widely anticipated release since its Berlin premiere, Nikolaj Arcel's period romantic drama was an expected inclusion on the list. Opening in the face of fierce competition for the core older adult audience since its release last month, the historic bodice-ripper has opened already in most major cities (56 theaters last week). A nomination next month would likely reinvigorate the film, which so far hasn't lived up to its expected potential, mainly because of the near-record number of significant films drawing from the same audience.

"Intouchables" (France - 40 previous nominees, 12 wins)

Distributor - Weinstein

US release date - 5/25/2012

Gross to date - $13,082,000

Film festivals include - San Sebastian, Tokyo

Metacritic score: 57

Awards include - Best Actor/Cesar Awards; Audience Award/European Film Awards; Best Foreign Language Film (nominee) Golden Globes, Broadcast Critics

The rare contender that has already been a major hit in the US as well as one that did so without film festival or strong critical backing. "Intouchables" has been a world-wide phenomenon, grossing a staggering $420 million so far, making it one of 2012's biggest hits. It could easily be better known outside the US than any of the films that will be nominated for Best Picture or any of the acting categories - unprecendented for this category.

Despite a spring release date, this is still playing in theaters, and has not yet come out on DVD. A nomination would allow Weinstein to re-release the film and go even wider than they did on its initial release. It already has grossed nearly twice what last year's winner ("A Separation") did - which itself was an unusually good total for a winning film.

Although France with Italy has been the dominant country in this category historically, they have only won once in the last 34 years - a source of great frustration for an industry which provides more non-English language hits to US arthouses than any other country. Ironically, with Austria's "Amour" being a strong contender, their biggest competition may be a film of theirs submitted by another country.