It's rare enough for a foreigner to earn an Oscar nomination for best actor. But two at once? It's a historical first, marked by Mexico's Demián Bichir and France's Jean Dujardin. Still, this high-profile category has always been dominated by Americans (and the occasional British Empire type), a pattern that probably isn't about to change.

THE ACTOR Demián Bichir, "A Better Life"

THE DEAL He's deeply sympathetic as a Mexican father illegally working in America, but the film has little awards traction; the Golden Globes overlooked it entirely.

THE ACTOR Gary Oldman, "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy"

THE DEAL As taciturn British agent George Smiley, Oldman received his best reviews in years. Still, it's a reserved role in a cerebral film that doesn't seem to shout "Oscar."

THE ACTOR Jean Dujardin, "The Artist"

THE DEAL He plays a silent star in a silent film -- itself a front-runner for the best picture award. Dujardin's old-fashioned performance is wonderful, but can it earn a modern-day Academy Award?

THE ACTOR George Clooney, "The Descendants"

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THE DEAL As a man grieving for a disloyal wife while caring for two difficult daughters, Clooney gets to run a gamut of emotions and admirably downplays his glamorous persona. Humility plus sensitivity -- sounds like Oscar time!

THE ACTOR Brad Pitt, "Moneyball"

THE DEAL Critics noticed Pitt's performance as a hard-charging baseball manager, while Oscar voters may notice that he's never won the gold. There's an outside chance this could be Pitt's year.