The Academy caught me off guard yesterday when it announced the nine finalists for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar -- I'm used to that news landing in January, and hadn't even thought to serve up any shortlist speculation or predictions. Which is just as well, since after a few years of sussing out most of their choices in advance, I'd probably have been far wide of the mark this time round. Already, three of the films I was predicting in the sidebar as eventual nominees -- Chilean crowdpleaser "Gloria," Canadian charmer "Gabrielle" and Saudi Arabian milestone "Wadjda" -- failed to make the cut.

Of course, reducing 76 films to nine in one fell swoop is always going to be a very unkind cut, and the high-profile omissions didn't end there. I was less surprised than most that Asghar Farhadi's "The Past" missed the cut: outmoded as the idea is, the Academy still likes to think of this as a national competition, and I always suspected that Iran submitting a wholly European production (despite Farhadi's insistence on its Iranian spirit) might prove a sticking point for some. (Of course, maybe it wasn't; perhaps voters simply weren't that jazzed about the film itself.)

Though they were always less certain prospects, I was disappointed for Romania's riveting Berlinale champ "Child's Pose" and Brazil's hypnotic, formally inventive "Neighboring Sounds," while two provocations from the Cannes competition -- The Netherlands' "Borgman" and Mexico's "Heli" -- were wildly long shots that would certainly have spiced up the shortlist. Australia, meanwhile, was foiled again, despite picking another contender (the whimsical child-led survival drama "The Rocket") that ticked any number of Academy boxes.

Still, the films that didn't get shortlisted this year are, on balance, more surprising than those that did. Looking at the shortlist the Academy has compiled, it's easy to see how most of the selections would have found devoted pockets of support in this branch -- while a film like Demark's "The Hunt" was a sure thing all along. (The surprising outliers, to me, are Bosnia's "An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker" and Cambodia's "The Missing Picture" -- both innovative semi-documentary contenders that I would bet were among the three titles added to the shortlist by the branch's more discerning executive committee.)

What, then, are the nine finalists, and where did they come from? Given that I'm in the unusual (for me) position of having already seen eight of the films -- Germany's very baity-sounding "Two Lives" is the exception -- I thought this a good opportunity to take a closer look at the contenders left standing, and roughly guesstimate their chances. Click through the gallery below, and share your own thoughts, favorites and predictions in the comments.