01/24/2012 02:20 EST | Updated 03/25/2012 05:12 EDT

Oscars race led by Hugo, The Artist

"Indescribable and unbelievable," is how Philippe Falardeau felt Tuesday morning after learning that his moving Canadian drama Monsieur Lazhar is one of five foreign film finalists for the Academy Awards.

The Quebec filmmaker said he was thrilled "that a film, an intimate film like Monsieur Lazhar, can exist in Hollywood alongside the biggest films in the world. I think it says a lot about the fact that we have to make the movies that we have inside of us and not try to imitate any kind of recipe," he told reporters by phone from the Sundance Film Festival, where his acclaimed elementary school drama is screening.

"This is a dream that I never imagined I would have, that is realizing itself."

Falardeau's Monsieur Lazhar tells the tale of an Algerian immigrant and substitute instructor who helps students grieve the tragic death of their teacher. It has already earned a raft of honours on the past year's film festival circuit.

"The timing for us is incredible. Monsieur Lazhar is coming out [in theatres] in some cities in Canada this Friday," Falardeau noted.

"This is the best marketing campaign we can hope for in English Canada," he said, adding however, that "I hope we can come to a point where we don't need an Oscar nomination to release [a Quebec film] in English Canada."

Monsieur Lazhar is the second consecutive Quebec film to make the Oscar foreign film short list, after Denis Villeneuve's Incendies was nominated in 2011. Both films had the same producers — Luc Dery and Kim McCraw — and, Falardeau noted, Villeneuve had sent the team a short text message Monday night: "Good night and good luck."

The director added that he'll be asking Villeneuve if he can borrow the tuxedo he wore at last year's glitzy Oscar bash.

"I'm going to have to ask him how [tall] he is and what's his measurement, because I don't have a tux and I don't really like tuxes," he quipped.

Hugo, The Artist top nominees

Martin Scorsese's 3D children's adventure Hugo and the silent film tribute The Artist lead the nominees for the 2012 Academy Awards, unveiled in Los Angeles early Tuesday.

The Paris-set Hugo earned a leading 11 nominations, including for best picture and for Scorsese's direction, while the French-made The Artist — a black-and-white ode to early Hollywood — ran a close second, picking up 10 nominations.

Unlike in previous years, a single film has not dominated the film awards season, though The Artist and Hawaii-set family drama The Descendants have emerged as the front-runners at prior prize galas such as the Golden Globes.

All three — Hugo, The Artist and The Descendants — are in the running for the best picture prize. Their competition includes:

- Steven Spielberg's First World War epic War Horse.

- Inspired by real-life baseball tale Moneyball.

- Cannes film festival Palme d'Or-winner The Tree of Life.

- Woody Allen's romantic fantasy Midnight in Paris.

- Civil Rights-era, Deep South story The Help.

- Sept. 11 drama Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.

Noted performances

The charismatic leads of The Artist and The Descendants — Jean Dujardin and George Clooney, respectively — will compete for the best actor Oscar. Clooney's friend and fellow Hollywood heavyweight Brad Pitt is also nominated for Moneyball.

British stalwart Gary Oldman earned a nod for the period espionage thriller Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. The final nominee in the category is Demian Bashir, hailed for his performance in the immigrant story A Better Life.

Meryl Streep — the most-nominated actor in academy history — earned her record 17th nomination for playing Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady. She faces another portrayal of a real-life icon — Michelle Williams's turn as screen siren Marilyn Monroe in My Week with Marilyn — as well as several performances inspired by characters in bestselling novels: Viola Davis as a stoic, devoted house maid in The Help and Rooney Mara's social outcast hacker in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

Glenn Close's gender-bending turn as a woman who disguises herself as a man in Albert Nobbs — a role she first played on stage in 1982 — rounds out the category.

Canadians in the running include esteemed veteran Christopher Plummer, who has a supporting actor nomination for his performance as an ailing senior who comes out of the closet in Beginners — a role that has already earned him widespread kudos during award season. A strong contender, Plummer's nomination marks the 82-year-old Canadian acting legend's second-ever bid for an Oscar, coming two years after he was nominated for playing Leo Tolstoy in The Last Station.

His rivals for the prize include Kenneth Branagh's portrayal of Laurence Olivier in My Week with Marilyn, Jonah Hill's quirky assistant baseball GM in Moneyball, Nick Nolte as a former boxer in Warrior and Max von Sydow's non-speaking "renter" in Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close.

Comedies rarely get much love from the academy, but blockbuster, gross-out comedy Bridesmaids nabbed a few nominations on Tuesday, including for actress Melissa McCarthy. Her rivals in the best supporting actress category are The Help co-stars Jessica Chastain and Octavia Spencer, Bérénice Bejo's rising star in The Artist and Janet McTeer's cross-dressing role in Albert Nobbs.

Cancon at the Oscars

Canada's Monsieur Lazhar faces stiff competition for the best foreign film Oscar. Its competitors include the acclaimed Iranian drama A Separation, Israel's Footnote, the Belgian film Bullhead and In Darkness — officially submitted by Poland, but actually a Polish-Canadian co-production.

"It's almost beyond our expectation," Toronto screenwriter David Shamoon said of the nomination for In Darkness. "It's like a fairy tale."

The film set in Nazi-occupied Poland is based on a true story about a worker who hides a group of Jewish men, women and children in the sewers. It was produced by Canadians Eric Jordan and Paul Stephens and hits select Canadian theatres Feb. 17.

A pair of National Film Board of Canada productions are also nominated in the category of animated short film — Dimanche/Sunday (directed by Patrick Doyon) and Wild Life (directed by Amanda Forbis and Wendy Tilby) — while celebrated Canadian composer Howard Shore is a best original score finalist for his work in Hugo.

"It's always a thrill to work with Marty [Scorsese] and Thelma [Schoonmaker] and collaborating with them was a labour of love. It was inspiring to compose within the world of Hugo. It's a great honour to be nominated by the academy," Shore, who is enroute to New Zealand to work on The Hobbit, said in a statement.

Dave Giammarco of Welland, Ont., is up for best sound mixing for Moneyball.

Actress Jennifer Lawrence, the Winter's Bone star who will appear in the anticipated film The Hunger Games this spring, joined U.S. Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences president Tom Sherak to announce the contenders at a pre-dawn ceremony held at the academy headquarters on Tuesday.

By midday and after the initial reactions, industry watchers were already noting the academy's snubs. Several favoured, heavyweight performances failed to make the cut, including Leonardo DiCaprio (J. Edgar), Michael Fassbender (Shame)Michael Shannon (Take Shelter), Ryan Gosling (The Ides of March), Tilda Swinton (We Need to Talk About Kevin) and Charlize Theron (Young Adult).

Though The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo earned nine nominations overall, it didn't make the best picture list and its director, David Fincher, failed to earn recognition for his direction.

Canadian David Cronenberg's psychoanalysis drama A Dangerous Method and Take Shelter (starring the aforementioned Shannon as a paranoid man fearing the end of the world) were also missing from the Oscar contenders.

Hosted by Billy Crystal, the 84th Academy Awards will be presented in Los Angeles on Feb. 26.