A look at the contenders for BBC4's foreign cinema award

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With the Golden Globes on 16 January, the Baftas on 19 February and the Oscars on 5 March, the coming months are a whirl of red carpets and tearful acceptance speeches. Joining these staples of the cinematic calendar is the BBC4 World Cinema Award, now in its third year, which will be held on 26 January at the National Film Theatre. The award, of which The Independent is a media sponsor, is unusual in devoting an entire ceremony to foreign-language films.

The shortlist will be announced on BBC4. It has been whittled down from the 180 foreign-language films released in the UK last year. Film critics, heads of film schools and leading festival directors were asked to name their favourite foreign-language film and the six most popular titles have formed an eclectic shortlist.

"Where else would you find Adolf Hitler [Downfall], a charismatic quadriplegic [The Sea Inside] and a revolutionary warrior from Tang Dynasty China [House of Flying Daggers] all rubbing shoulders?" asks Jonathan Ross of the top six, which also includes 2046, Look at Me and Tropical Malady.

Ross will host the live award programme, as he has done for the last two years. Allan Campbell, the producer of the show, sees it as cementing the digital channel's commitment to world cinema and also as introducing audiences to "another side" of the live-wire television presenter. "He's an expert on Asian movies and is learning Japanese," he says. "He's genuinely knowledgeable."

Credibility is important to the awards. Having polled film buffs nationwide, the six films will be put before a panel of experts whose debates and arguments will be filmed and replayed at the award ceremony. Their identities are secret until the week before the ceremony but the jury is often as diverse as the shortlist, with previous judges having included Björk, Robert Carlyle, Gillian Anderson and the director of Touching the Void, Kevin MacDonald.

The burgeoning success of the award is evident from the upgrading of venue this year from the bijou Electric Cinema in London's Notting Hill to the roomier NFT, where the winner will be announced. World cinema is finding an increasingly wide audience.

The shortlist also reflects the growing status of world cinema as a box-office force to be reckoned with. It would be difficult to find someone who has never heard of Zhang Yimou's smash-hit follow-up to Hero, the breathtakingly beautiful martial-arts movie House of Flying Daggers, or has not seen a news story about Bruno Ganz's controversial portrayal of Hitler's final days in Downfall.

Less well known, but no less celebrated, is Alejandro Amenabar's The Sea Inside. The true story of Ramon Sampedro, paralysed from the neck down, who fights a court battle for his right to choose to die, won an Oscar and a Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film last year.

Look at Me, a more light-hearted European film, directed by Agnès Jaoui and starring Marilou Berry, won Best Screenplay at Cannes and tells the "story of human beings who know exactly what they'd do if they were somebody else, but can't handle being themselves very well."

Wong Kar Wai's follow-up to In the Mood for Love, 2046, is a sensuous blend of nostalgia and science fiction, set in Hong Kong, while Tropical Malady, which is directed by the Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, takes viewers on a hallucinogenic journey through the jungle.

Campbell agrees that there is an increased appetite for foreign cinema: "There's a certain fashion at the moment to bash Hollywood cinema and talk up foreign movies. Hollywood still produces great movies, but... sometimes there's an over-reliance on formula. When you sit down and look at this shortlist, there's no formula. You can sit down and watch The Sea Inside or Look at Me or Tropical Malady and not be entirely sure where the movie is going. The only exception, of course, is that you know that Hitler is going to die."

For the last two years, the judges have defied expectations, giving Sylvain Chomet's whimsical animated comedy Belleville Rendez-Vous the nod over Fernando Meirelles's blood-soaked portrayal of Rio de Janeiro in City of God, and putting The Return in first place instead of the box-office hits of Hero and The Motorcycle Diaries last year.

Campbell puts this down to the nature of the jury discussions, which "put things up in the air a lot more". A betting man might say that this year will see the turn of Asian cinema. But will it?

The BBC4 World Cinema Award will be shown on 26 January at 9pm on BBC4