By Solvej Schou
Updated December 21, 2012 at 12:00 PM EST

What makes the Oscar foreign language film category so special, though unfortunately less publicized than big ticket acting, directing, and best picture categories, is its gloriously wide range and inclusion of stories American moviegoers don’t usually get to see.

Whittled down from 71 films that qualified as official entries from countries all over the globe, the Oscar foreign film shortlist of nine movies announced by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences on Friday showcases different cultures, approaches and people, albeit with a general focus on Europeans.

Ranging from an already award-winning drama about an aging couple (Amour) to a man’s struggle to survive a brutal boat crash (The Deep), the secretive relationship between a Danish queen and a palace doctor (A Royal Affair), and Romanian nuns in an isolated convent (Beyond the Hills), these films are as beautifully distinct as the countries they come from: Austria, Canada, Chile, Denmark, France, Iceland, Norway, Romania, and Switzerland.

Over the past several weeks, EW spoke with directors for features on four of the films, who all have made the shortlist. Check out a more detailed look at the shortlisted movies, listed in alphabetical order, below:

Austria, Amour, Michael Haneke, director – Haneke’s intense, fearless French-language look at aging revolves around the story of elderly husband Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) dealing with the deterioration of his wife Anne (Emmanuelle Riva). The movie not only snagged the Palme d’Or at May’s Cannes Film Festival, but has nabbed a litany of other awards, including best film, best director, best actor, and best actress honors at this year’s 25th European Film Awards. It was named best film by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, and garnered a 2013 Golden Globe nod for best foreign film.

Canada, War Witch, Kim Nguyen, director – Another French-language drama, War Witch (or Rebelle, its title in French) follows the story of a teenage Congolese girl (newcomer Rachel Mwanza) abducted by a rebel army at age 12 to fight for their cause. Montreal-based Nguyen plucked Mwanza as the movie’s star from a casting call in Kinshasa, Congo. The actress won the Silver Bear for best actress at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival, and the best actress award at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

Chile, No, Pablo Larraín, director – Gael Garcia Bernal stars in No, another dramatic pick, as a fictionalized ad man responsible for conceptualizing the real-life “NO” ad campaign that aired on TV head-to-head with the dueling “YES” campaign when dictator Augusto Pinochet scheduled a referendum in 1988 for people to vote “yes” or “no” to keep him as president another eight years. Larraín told EW, “Being about this dramatic bastard Pinochet, the movie looks wider than what we thought.” The film won the Art Cinema Award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, and the 1st Choral Award for Fiction Films at the Havana New Latin American Film Festival.

Denmark, A Royal Affair, Nikolaj Arcel, director – Also based on a true-life story, period drama A Royal Affair stars Danish heartthrob and former Bond villain Mads Mikkelsen as 18th century palace doctor Johann Friedrich Struensee, who falls for Danish Queen Caroline Mathilde (Anna Karenina‘s Alicia Vikander). The buzzed about movie, a mix of swooning romance, petticoats and politics, landed a 2013 best foreign film Golden Globe nod. When it comes to accolades and nominations, though, Danish director Arcel told EW, “We’re brought up to very modest, and that’s a funny mix when you come to Hollywood. People here certainly don’t hesitate to tell you about their success.”

France, The Intouchables, Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano, directors – A huge hit in France, and also based on a true story, the French-language comedy has had a complex reception in the U.S. with its nuanced, culturally specific look at race and relationships. White, middle-aged, quadriplegic Philippe (François Cluzet) strikes up a friendship with his lower income, black caretaker Driss (comic Omar Sy). Sy landed a best actor trophy at this year’s France’s César Awards. The movie also nabbed a Golden Globe nomination for best foreign film.

Iceland, The Deep, Baltasar Kormákur, director – Telling the true life story of a fishing boat that capsized off the Icelandic coast in 1984, leaving only one survivor, played by oaf-ish Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, The Deep is steeped in crisp, brutally realistic imagery. Two Guns and Contraband director Kormákur, who works with the likes of Mark Wahlberg, wanted to keep the film purposefully gritty and bleak. “I didn’t want to Hollywood-ize it too much. I wanted to not make a documentary, but be poetic. Nature and man, when you’re alone at sea,” he told EW.

Norway, Kon-Tiki, Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg, directors – Another water-soaked northern European drama, Kon-Tiki is a fictionalized account of the 1947 Kon-Tiki expedition that Norwegian explorer and anthropologist Thor Heyerdahl (played by handsome Pål Sverre Valheim Hagen) and five others took, sailing 4,300 miles on a wooden raft across the Pacific Ocean to the Polynesian Islands to prove that early South Americans could have done the same. The movie also landed a best foreign film Golden Globe nomination. A documentary by Heyerdahl about the trip nabbed an Oscar in 1952.

Romania, Beyond the Hills, Cristian Mungiu, director – Mungiu’s beautiful and direct abortion drama 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days controversially failed to get an Oscar nomination in 2007, and Beyond the Hills is equally dark and frank. Set at a snow-bound Orthodox convent, the movie centers on a woman named Alina (Cristina Flutur) who reunites with her childhood friend Voichita (Cosmina Stratan), a nun. Alina lashes out, and is subjected to a modern-day form of exorcism. “In a very strange way, 4 Months‘ failure to be nominated in 2007 brought us a lot of notoriety. What we learned from that experience is that the cinema that we do might be very appreciated by the press and festivals, but it won’t necessarily be the kind of cinema appreciated by the voters for the foreign Oscar,” Mungiu told EW. Beyond the Hills won best screenplay and best actress honors at this year’s Cannes, and was also named best film at Argentina’s Mar del Plata International Film Festival.

Switzerland, Sister, Ursula Meier, director – This quiet Swiss drama, set at a ski resort, looks at the complicated nature of family, the kind of subject matter universal to all of us. Young teen thief Simon (Kacey Mottet Klein) lives with his pretty older sister Louise (Léa Seydoux), sans parents, and on a daily basis deals with the crushing reality of absence, and tries to make do. Gillian Anderson (X-Files) even makes an appearance. The movie won the Special Award Silver Bear at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival.

The 85th annual Academy Awards nominations will be announced live on Thursday, Jan. 10, 2013.

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