Well, we're finally there. After three months of submissions, which we reported on at regular interviews, the Academy has lowered the boom and announced the official longlist of films in the running for this year's Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. And quite a list it is too: with 71 countries represented, including a first-time entry from Kenya, it's the longest in the category's history.

Last week, after glancing over the near-final list as it stood after the October 1 submissions deadline, I mentioned that a few additions, switches and/or disqualifications would take place before the Academy set it in stone. Happily, only the first of those modifications came to pass, with three last-minute entries joining the fray: Malaysia's "Bunohan,"  Kyrgysztan's "The Empty Home" and Singapore's "Already Famous." Contrary to the title of the latter film -- a showbiz satire about a TV soap addict trying to launch an acting career -- none of these latecomers have much of a profile, though reviews from last year's Toronto fest of the Malaysian entry make it sound like a hoot: Variety calls it "a fight film with echoes of 'King Lear,' and a ghost story about living people who occupy the edge of existence." It's remake-ready, apparently. Sign me up.

With the contenders finalized, the Academy will soon begin its series of official screenings of each of the 71 submissions, to be attended by blocs of volunteer voters from the branch. (The rules don't require all the voters to see all the films; rather, they're divvied up and vote on the group of films assigned to them.) In January, the six top vote-getters from this process will be joined by three extra titles chosen by an executive committee, making up a nine-film shortlist from the entire branch will then vote on the final five nominees.

It's a complicated process, and with more films than ever in the running this year, it's going to be a particularly brutal one. At this stage, I've only seen 18 (just over a quarter) of the hopefuls -- and am set to add several more to that tally at the London Film Festival -- yet I can still confidently say that the standard is inordinately high this year.

As I've remarked before, there were fewer selection scandals than usual this year: most countries chose the films they were expected to choose, and the result is field rich in critical favorites, festival hits and the odd commercial sensation. Unusually, all three champions from the major European festivals are in the mix: Austria's "Amour" (winner of the Palme d'Or at Cannes), Italy's "Caesar Must Die" (winner of the Golden Bear at Berlin) and South Korea's "Pieta" (winner of the Golden Lion at Venice). I'll leave it for someone else to do the legwork on this, but if that's ever happened before, it can't have been in a good long while.

However the shortlist shakes out, some superb films are going to be left on the sidelines: you can see how I'm currently ranking the field on our Contenders page, but I'm sure things will shift and slide as I see more of the entries. Right now, "The Intouchables" and "Amour" are the only titles I feel have secure spots on the shortlist: the former because it's already a crossover hit and plays extremely well to the Academy demographic, the latter because there's no chance in hell the executive committee would let it slip through the cracks, even if the general voters did.

Beyond that, well, it's going to be tough, but the voters would truly have to go out of their way not to come up with truly stellar lineup this year. (After "A Separation" broke a long run of oatmeal winners in the category, could the prize go to a major critical hit two years in a row?) Right now, with plenty yet to see, the five films that have my heart are Belgium's "Our Children," Germany's "Barbara," Switzerland's "Sister," Austria's "Amour" and Chile's "No," but I'm looking forward to digging deeper. Check out the full list here