London: A disturbing modern Greek myth, an Algerian independence tale, a sibling journey from Canada and a Danish study of friendship and fate are up against gritty Mexican drama "Biutiful" for the Academy Award for best foreign language film.
The nominees, announced Tuesday, are "Dogtooth," by Greece`s Yorgos Lanthimos; "Algeria`s "Outside the Law," directed by Rachid Bouchareb; "Incendies," from Canada`s Denis Villeneuve; "In a Better World," by Denmark`s Susanne Bier; and "Biutiful," by Mexico`s Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu.
"Biutiful" must be considered the front-runner. The story of a dying Barcelona hustler preparing for his final reckoning, it boasts an intense central performance that has gained Javier Bardem a best actor Oscar nomination and seen Hollywood stars lining up to praise him.
Gonzalez Inarritu, whose 2006 film "Babel" received seven Oscar nominations, said he was delighted by the nominations for the film and for Bardem, who won a supporting actor Oscar for 2007`s "No Country For Old Men."
"After spending four years fighting for this movie ... this is a smile on the lips," he told The Associated Press. "We feel rewarded with the recognition, a beautiful love letter."
Tough and wrenching "Biutiful" has been championed by Hollywood heavyweights including Sean Penn and Julia Roberts, who hosted an industry screening to lobby for Bardem, her "Eat Pray Love" co-star.
Gonzalez Inarritu said that given the film`s "tough nature ... this recognition has double value for me."
Another uncompromising nominee is the disturbing, dystopian "Dogtooth." Described by some as a darker version of "The Truman Show," it is set within a villa where a domineering father and his acquiescent wife raise three children in an artificial universe in which the outside world takes on sinister dimensions.
Actor Christos Stergioglou, who plays the father, said he was "in a state of shock" at the nomination.
He said the film "shows what stupidity can lead to — when you want to control everything, even under the pretext of love and protection."
"It is both a very serious and ridiculous subject."
The story of three Algerian brothers swept up in the North African country`s fight for independence, "Outside the Law" has already sparked controversy in France, where some objected to its depiction of the brutal war that led to Algeria`s independence in 1962.
A conservative French lawmaker called the film anti-French, and its Cannes Film Festival screening in May was held amid tight security. Bouchareb has said he was surprised by the strong reaction and insisted he did not make the film to divide.
"The film is not a battleground and was not made to trigger a standoff," Bouchareb, a Frenchman of Algerian origin, said at Cannes.
Danish director Bier is Oscar-nominated for a second time for "In a Better World," the story of two families in gray, rural Denmark that become fatefully intertwined as their sons develop a risky friendship. Her 2006 movie "After the Wedding" also received a foreign language Oscar nomination.
Bier said the nomination "means a lot for a small Danish film because now it will get a whole lot of attention and will be seen by a lot more people."
She said being Oscar nominated is "being part of a very exclusive club."
"The fact that one gets nominated several times means that there`s some kind of solidity in what one does," Bier told the AP by phone from the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. "It is like being knighted."
That sentiment was echoed by Quebecois director Villeneuve, whose "Incendies" follows adult twins as they travel to the Middle East to uncover their mother`s war-ravaged past and a brother they never knew they had. The movie was named best Canadian film by critics in Toronto and Vancouver, but has been little seen outside its home country.
Speaking from Sundance, Villeneuve said he was "exhausted, overwhelmed and happier than ever" at the nomination.
"You just go back when you are 10-years old watching the Academy Awards and you see all the directors that you admire," he said. "I don`t believe actually that I`m talking about that."
Villeneuve said the film, based on a play by Lebanese-born Wajdi Mouawad, aims to show that "everything is linked. We are victims and everybody is responsible."
"I think we have to build bridges with other cultures. It`s a tiny small bridge and I think it`s important for filmmakers to build bridges," he said.
The foreign language film nominating process has been criticized in recent years as many critically acclaimed films and festival award winners have failed to be nominated. Part of the problem stems from a rule that limits each country to submitting only one film for consideration.
This year`s list, chosen by panels of Academy members, omits some of the most heralded foreign language films of the year. Snubbed movies include Cannes Film Festival prize-winners "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives," from Thailand, and France`s "Of Gods and Men."