This year, 71 countries submitted entries to compete for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar at the 85th Academy Awards. Each film was previously chosen by its nation of origin as the official selection, which means that even if another, or better, film from the same country is released, it cannot participate as it was not officially selected to represent said territory. From the pool of possible nominees a shortlist of 9 finalists is picked, then these films become the real contenders from which the final 5 will be selected.

The category is blind to favoritism; unexpected nominees and under-the-radar winners are typical sightings Back in 2010 many jaws dropped when the strange yet engaging Greek film Dogtooth landed a nomination, or when Japan’s Departures took the award in a surprising turn. Proof that being a favorite is irrelevant for the Academy. Even if the film has multiple other nominations (e.g. Amelie, Pan’s Labyrinth, Biutiful) it doesn’t mean the possibilities increase.

However, this year it appears that voters are playing it safe, maybe too safe. The 9 semifinalists include all of the high profile films that have been front-runners from the beginning, rising suspicions about the selection process. Do all 71 films get a chance? Or are they even watched by most members? With no big surprises in the list the field seems extremely Eurocentric and effortlessly filled with the festival favorites of the year.  Although unadventurous, the chosen films by no means lack quality; indeed they represent some of the finest achievements in cinema released this year. Here is a look at each of the 9 shortlisted films and their possibilities:

Amour (Austria)
amourMichael Haneke’s minimalist exploration of love at the end of life has been the frontrunner and predicted winner since its triumph at Cannes. French acting legends Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant are a couple struggling to take care of each other, while trying to hold on to their dignity and everlasting affection. The performances speak of the superb and obsessive direction by Haneke, who delivers a story that observes the decay but exalts the mutual devotion of the characters. Amour has swept awards across the globe and is definitely the film to beat for this award.

Last year’s favorite A Separation won the award without much trouble, a similar scenario is expected for Haneke’s film. Unless the Academy decides to go against the rest of the world, Amour will win with great possibilities of nominations for Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Original Screenplay, and even Best Picture. Talk about a favorite by a landslide.

 The Intouchables (France)
the-intouchablesFrance, always a strong contender at the Oscars, made the decision this year to favor popularity over artistic quality for their official selection. Grossing over $300 million the buddy comedy starring Omar Sy and Francois Cluzet became the most profitable film in the history of French cinema. The overwhelming response is sort of unexplainable since the film was not well received by critics. Based on a true story, the film chronicles the unlikely, yet clichéd, friendship between a wealthy quadriplegic and his caregiver, an African immigrant who lives in a crime-plagued neighborhood of Paris. Certainly helped by charming performances by the two leads, the film offers nothing new or particularly relevant.

A much wiser choice would have been Jacques Audiard’s Rust and Bone, a drama also involving a handicapped character, played by Oscar winner Marion Cotillard, but with much more cinematic vision. Banking on its “blockbuster” status The Intouchables will most likely earn a nomination next month, pretty big for a late French remake of 1989’s Driving Miss Daisy.

A Royal Affair (Denmark)
Danish cinema tasted victory for the first time since 1988, when In a Better World took home the Oscar in 2011. This year their bet is on a costume drama about an unfaithful queen, and a deranged monarch in 18th century Denmark. An expensive historical piece that exudes opulence and lavish settings, definitely something to catch the eye of the Academy.

Besides its impeccable production the performances are on point, especially that of Danish star Mads Mikkelsen as the physician who disrupts the sanctity of the royal marriage. Milkkelsen also stars in The Hunt, which was the runner-up during the country’s selection process. A film about an innocent teacher accused of pedophilia, The Hunt was probably too controversial to be considered, in the end A Royal Affair proved to be a safer submission. Unlikely to become a winner, the film is still a beautiful portrayal of royal luxurious living mixed with family intrigue on pair with Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.

NO (Chile)
NOOne of the only two non-European shortlisted films, Pablo Larrain’s NO is as much an homage to 80’s consumerism and pop culture as it is a patriotic story of change and hope for the Chilean people. Visually it is a collage of colors and motifs that speak of an era in Chile marked by the influence of American artificial freedom and the tangible repression by   Pinochet’s regime. Starring Mexican star Gael Garcia Bernal, who is fantistic here, the film tells the incredible story of a advertising executive that must create a hopeful campaign to win corrupt plebiscite and with this destitute the vicious leader.

This could certainly become Chile’s first Oscar nominated film and, if it wasn’t for Amour almost unbreakable streak, possible winner. Yet, if the Academy decides that they want to set themselves apart Larrain’s film would definitely be a wise choice. Even though structurally conventional, NO is the story of a nation looking for identity, for unity encouraged by individuality, and most importantly for hope. Would the Academy say YES to NO?

Kon-Tiki (Norway)
The most expensive film ever made in Norway, and all of Scandinavia for that matter, is about the most incredible Norwegian character of the past century: Thor Heyerdahl. Played by Pal Sverre Valheim Hagen, Heyerdahl was an ethnographer who sailed from Peru to Polynesia in a raft only using the same ancient techniques as the South Pacific natives of the past. His real life experiment aimed to prove the connection between the civilizations of South America and the far away islands.

Visually astonishing and nothing short of Hollywood-esque Kon-Tiki is a joyful film about a man on a mission against all odds. Yes, we’ve heard this story before, but never as authentic as this. Directed by Norwegians Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg, the film feels like a lovable tribute to the man who became a legend. The real Heyerdahl himself was nominated for an Academy Award in 1972 for his documentary Ra, this could be, sort of, his second.Overall, a great adventure film that deserves a nomination at least to get more people to see it. Check out the amazing shark scenes, you wouldn’t believe Spielberg had nothing to do with them.

Beyond The Hills (Romania)
BeyondTheHillsSnubbed of a nomination in 2008 for 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Christian Mungiu returns with Beyond The Hills, another drama centered on extraordinary female characters. Inspired by a real case in Moldavia, the story is perhaps the most audacious choice by the Academy this year. The film deals with a mysterious relationship between a nun and a woman of her past. The subtle homoerotic relationship disrupts the nun and the rest of the monastery, as the obsession of the non-religious woman is mistaken for demonic possession that must treated using extreme measures.

Mungiu delivers the same psychological intensity in a seemingly peaceful setting, questioning faith and skepticism alike. Risky choice, but not unlikely since they should try to make up for the shameful omission of the past. Hard to think of it as a winner, but undoubtedly Romania’s best chance at a first nomination.

Sister (Switzerland)
sisterUrsula Meier’s beautiful drama condenses abandonment in the eyes of a young boy who must survive on its own as his “sister” shows little interest in him. The film is set against a rich-friendly ski resort from where the boy, Simon, steals skiing gear to resale, and provide for him and his sister. Lea Seydoux is superb as the indifferent sister who refuses to provide Simon with a little consolation in the tough world he is forced to face. Even with its amazing cast and endearing story Sister seems like a longer shot for a nomination, much less a win.

The film faces critically acclaimed favorites and other festival winners that will make it difficult to land a nomination. For what is worth, it is a small gem both for its visual style and subject matter that should be praised in its own right. Switzerland has been successful several times in this category, and even if Meier’s film doesn’t add to the statue count, it is a deserving representative of the cinematic sensitivities of the European nation.

War Witch (Canada)
war-witch01The Canadian submission is a tale of child soldiers in war torn Africa, a film full of esoteric imagery and brutal third world reality. A young girl named Komona is taken by rebels and forced to become a soldier, and a spiritual guide for the maniac leader of the group. The story is heartbreaking and definitely hard to watch, the images feel vivid and unfiltered, almost documentary-like, but still cinematic enough to comfort the audience.

Rachel Mwanza, the young actress that plays Komona, is pure acting bliss, broken, fierce, and yet just a kid. War Witch hashad success in many international festivals, and its now contending for a slot among the 5 final nominees. The task is difficult, but not impossible since the Academy has been known to recognize similar stories. In a year in which most films are set in European lands, the authenticity achieved by director Kim Nguyen might be its lucky charm.

The Deep (Iceland)
DeepThe wild card among the 9 chosen films is Iceland’s The Deep. The only surprise in the list is a story about a man trying to survive the cold Icelandic’s water after his boat capsizes. The film received praise for its underwater sequences in the few festivals where it screened. Its disadvantage is that since only a few critics have seen the film, its chances cant’ be determined with certainty.

However, it is safe to say its possibilities are slim as another ocean related Scandinavian film is in competition. Norway’s Kon-Tiki has the upper hand here, if a film about a man lost at sea is going to get nominated this will most likely be it. On the other hand, a surprise nomination for a small film like this is not unheard of, and it would only be Iceland’s second ever nominations at the Oscars. You never know, in a few weeks The Deep might start screening and get some buzz to push it forward to a nomination. If not, being 1 in 9 out of 71 is not at all a shabby outcome.