The contenders include Felix van Groeningen's "The Broken Circle Breakdown," about a music-loving couple facing the serious illness of their child, and Hany Abu-Assad's "Omar," the story of a love affair and its consequences against the backdrop of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
They're up against "The Hunt," from Denmark; "The Great Beauty," from Italy; and Cambodian drama "The Missing Picture." The winner will be announced at the 86th Oscars ceremony in Hollywood on March 2.
This is one of the Oscars' most unpredictable categories, in part because countries nominate just one feature each—leading to surprise omissions. The highly praised French lesbian drama "Blue is the Warmest Color," a Palme d'Or winner at Cannes, was not submitted by France because it opened too late for the Academy's rules.
But it can be a chance for highly personal films from small countries to gain big international audiences.
"If there's a message here, it's make the kind of movie you want, believe in yourself and don't copycat," a delighted van Groeningen told The Associated Press after learning of the nomination of "The Broken Circle Breakdown."
"It's been a wild ride to make this film," he said.
"There's something crazy about this movie. The Americans really love it. They respond really emotionally to it. But on the other hand, they wouldn't make that kind of movie."
Abu-Assad, an Israeli-born director of Palestinian descent, previously earned an Oscar nomination—and controversy—for his 2005 film "Paradise Now," about two young West Bank men planning to become suicide bombers.
"Omar" also touches on a sensitive subject, focusing on a Palestinian man who becomes an Israeli informer.
And it couldn't avoid political sensitivities even at Thursday's nomination announcement, where "Omar" was described as a film from Palestine, rather than the Palestinian territories, the designation used for his earlier film. Neither the Academy nor Israel had any immediate comment on the nomenclature.
Abu-Assad said he was anxious about the road to the Oscars but delighted by the nomination.
"I'm happy to get recognition from people in this business and to represent Palestine," he said. "It's not a country yet, it's not a state, it's a nation fighting for equality and freedom and justice and to represent that is an honor."
Paolo Sorrentino's bittersweet love letter to Rome, "The Great Beauty," won a Golden Globe on Sunday for best foreign film and looks like a strong contender for the Oscar.
Sorrentino's film follows a jaded journalist through the Italian city, from medieval squares and grand palazzi to hedonistic parties in modernist penthouses.
''I went to bed early and rose early, I had this beautiful sunrise with this exciting news," said Sorrentino, still in Los Angeles after his Globes triumph. "Let's say the morning produces perfection."
The poetic and sardonic film depicts Rome in all its decadent glory, contrasting the city's visual wonders with the malaise of some of its inhabitants—a mood that reflects Italy's economic and political paralysis. Still, Sorrentino said, "it is only incidental that it concentrates on Italy or Rome."
''It's about the miseries, splendors, joys of a city," he said.
In "The Missing Picture," Cambodia's Rithy Panh explores the legacy of Pol Pot's bloody dictatorship on his own family.
Based on his nightmarish memoir "The Elimination," Panh's film documents his family's experience under the Khmer Rouge, which resulted in the deaths of his parents and sisters. It won top prize in the "Un Certain Regard" sidebar competition at last year's Cannes festival.
"I am very, very happy for me, but also for my team and my country," the director told the AP, saying the nomination was an important recognition of a film that gives voice to the country's history.
He said it is "very important that this be recognized and give hope" to artists, writers, technicians and young Cambodians.
Love and tragedy mingle in "The Hunt," Thomas Vinterberg'stense drama about a teacher, played by Mads Mikkelsen, whose comfortable small-town life is destroyed when he is wrongly accused of child abuse.
"It's obviously a bit of a dark tale," said Vinterberg. "But I've seen people being profoundly moved by it. I think the love between the characters and the friendship of these people, speaks to the audience."
Vinterberg, whose previous films include "Festen" ("The Celebration"), said Academy Awards recognition is gratifying for any filmmaker, no matter where they come from.
"There is a very long distance from Denmark to Hollywood, in many ways," he said. "I think America is the frontier of western civilization, for good and for worse. And it's important that my film performs there."
Associated Press writers Tia Goldenberg in Jerusalem, Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen, Denmark, Cassandra Vinograd in London, John-Thor Dahlburg in Brussels and Colleen Barry in Milan, Italy contributed to this report.
Jill Lawless can be reached at http://Twitter.com/JillLawless