By Eric Kelsey
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Austrian film "Amour" scored a surprising five Oscar nominations on Thursday, positioning the drama as the front-runner to seize Best Foreign Language Film, if not more of the movie industry's most coveted prizes.
"Amour," directed by Michael Haneke, was also nominated for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay, while star Emmanuelle Riva, 85, was nominated for Best Actress.
The French-language film painstakingly details the day-to-day struggles and indignities of elderly Parisian couple Georges and Anne, who must confront Anne's slide toward death as her health fails.
"Amour" joins "Kon-Tiki," the Norwegian drama chronicling Thor Heyerdahl's 1947 trans-Pacific expedition on a raft; Chilean political drama "No," starring Gael Garcia Bernal; Danish period drama "A Royal Affair"; and "War Witch," a Canadian drama about an African child soldier as nominees for Best Foreign Language Film.
Riva, best known for her role in the 1959 French New Wave classic "Hiroshima, Mon Amour," is the oldest nominee for Best Actress in Oscar history.
"I never thought, while working throughout the years in Europe and France, that one day, I would cross the Atlantic Ocean, come to the United States and be nominated," Riva said in a statement. "It is quite surreal for me."
"Amour," which netted Haneke his first Oscar nomination, could end up a big winner on Oscar night on February 24 if early favorites such as "Lincoln" and "Life of Pi" split votes, said Pete Hammond, awards columnist for Deadline.com.
"'Amour'...has a very passionate following among people. They feel very emotional about that film," Hammond said.
NOT FOR 'SISSIES'
Bagging Best Picture would be quite a feat for the film, which is currently released to only three theaters in the United States, according to box-office tracker Boxofficemojo.com.
Critics have applauded "Amour," which last year won the Palm d'Or, the highest honor given at France's Cannes Film Festival. But they have cautioned audiences about its icy realism and unrelentingly bleak storyline.
"Old age isn't for sissies, and neither is this film," movie critic Roger Ebert wrote in the Chicago Sun-Times.
The New York Review of Books' Francine Prose called the drama the "ultimate horror film ... far scarier and more disturbing" than classics such as "Psycho" and "The Shining."
"War Witch" director Kim Nguyen recognized the long odds his film would have to overcome to upset "Amour."
"We are absolutely working to get the award," Nguyen said. "But we're aware that we're David vs. Goliath - and hopefully America likes an underdog story."
One film notably absent from the running was France's "The Intouchables," a box-office hit in Europe and a Golden Globe nominee that tells the true story of an immigrant ex-convict who forges a close relationship with a rich quadriplegic while serving as his caretaker.
"No" was the only foreign-language Oscar nominee on Thursday that was not nominated for a Golden Globe. The Golden Globes will be awarded on Sunday in Beverly Hills.
(Reporting by Eric Kelsey; Editing by Jill Serjeant and Ciro Scotti)