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Oscar’s foreign affairs

55 pics submitted for foreign-language film consideration

With 55 films submitted so far for Oscar foreign-language film consideration, the entry pool sports the usual range of local hits (China’s all-time B.O. champ, “Aftershock”), festival highlights (Thailand’s Palme d’Or winner “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives”) and surprise choices.

Chief among the surprises, at least to Stateside observers, was Italy’s decision to submit Paolo Virzi’s locally well-liked “The First Beautiful Thing” over Luca Guadagnino’s international arthouse hit “I Am Love” (one of 10 films on Italy’s shortlist). It’s hardly the first time an import has gotten a U.S. embrace but little love at home (Spain, for example, does not automatically default to Pedro Almodovar), and U.S. distrib Magnolia plans to push the Tilda

Swinton starrer in other categories.

One of the field’s higher-profile entries is Mexico’s “Biutiful,” directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (whose 2000 debut, “Amores perros,” was a nominee in this category). While the Javier Bardem starrer is a Mexico-Spain co-production set almost entirely in Barcelona, its selection is consistent with the Mexican Academy’s willingness to lay aside such considerations in favor of titles with the most buzz or acclaim, such as 2006 nominee “Pan’s Labyrinth” (set in Spain) or 2007’s “Silent Light” (shot entirely in the German Plautdietsch dialect).

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Spain, meanwhile, opted for Iciar Bollain’s Christopher Columbus pic “Even the Rain,” starring Luis Tosar and Gael Garcia Bernal.

Last year, Sony Pictures Classics released three of the five nominees (“A Prophet,” “The White Ribbon” and eventual winner “The Secret in Their Eyes”). The specialty distrib has been no less aggressive this year, taking U.S. rights to a number of submissions: France’s Cannes Grand Prix winner “Of Gods and Men,” from Xavier Beauvois; Canada’s “Incendies,” from Denis Villeneuve, which made a big splash at Venice, Telluride and Toronto; South Africa’s “Life, Above All,” from Oliver Schmitz, one of the highlights of Cannes’ Un Certain Regard sidebar; and Denmark’s “In a Better World,” from helmer Susanne Bier. (It’s Bier’s third Danish submission, after 2002’s “Open Hearts” and 2006’s “After the Wedding,” which received a nomination.)

Danis Tanovic, whose “No Man’s Land” (2002) won the foreign-language film Oscar, is back in contention with “Cirkus Columbia,” repping Bosnia-Herzegovina. And Czech helmer Jan Hrebejk, whose 2000 “Divided We Fall” cracked the final five, has another shot this year with “Kawasaki’s Rose.”

As usual, the year’s top festival prizewinners are well represented, including Thailand’s “Uncle Boonmee” and France’s “Of Gods and Men.” Greece submitted one of last year’s fest-circuit sensations, “Dogtooth,” winner of the 2009 Un Certain Regard prize.

Turkey submitted Berlin Golden Bear winner “Honey,” from Semih Kaplanoglu, while Romania entered Silver Bear winner “If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle,” from helmer Florin Serban, bypassing some of the year’s other lauded Romanian candidates, including Cristi Puiu’s “Aurora” and Radu Muntean’s “Tuesday, After Christmas.”

Festival awards don’t always give a film an advantage, however, as evidenced by Russia’s selection of Alexei Uchitel’s “The Edge,” which beat out Berlin prizewinner “How I Ended This Summer” (as well as Nikita Mikhalkov’s big-budget war epic “Burnt by the Sun 2: Exodus”). Similarly, South Korea’s jury opted for Kim Tae-kyun’s “A Barefoot Dream,” narrowly beating out Lee Chang-dong’s highly regarded “Poetry” and Im Sang-soo’s local hit “The Housemaid.”

Given that Feng Xiaogang’s “Aftershock” has become the highest-grossing Chinese film of all time, any other choice would have been a surprise. Japan submitted Tetsuya Nakashima’s edgy revenge drama “Confessions,” one of its more successful and talked-about local productions.

Finally, it wouldn’t be an Oscar race without some dispute over eligibility issues. This year, Taiwan wound up submitting the violent gangster drama “Monga,” replacing its original pick, “Hear Me,” which was released before the Academy’s qualified release dates (October 2009 to September 2010).

As of Thursday, Cuba, Lithuania and Luxembourg had decided not to submit films for Oscar consideration, while Georgia had yet to make a decision. The submission deadline is 5 p.m. PT today.

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