Call me an optimist, but I'm always hoping for Oscar reform. I've been rather excited about recent rumblings that the Academy is finally, finally considering changing its rules regarding foreign film consideration. I saw one of the new nominees last week, The Counterfeiters, and I have to say that there were at least 20 or 30 other, better foreign language films last year. In fact, I'd have to say that The Counterfeiters is a contender for my worst list of 2008; it takes on an interesting story, but cinematically it's sheer amateur hour. The only reason it got nominated is because it takes place in a concentration camp. I also need to mention that the director, Stefan Ruzowitzky, made one of the worst films I have ever seen, All the Queen's Men (2002), starring Matt LeBlanc and Eddie Izzard as soldiers who go undercover as drag queens in WWII.

Did anyone notice that though La vie en rose earned three nominations (Best Actress, Costume, Makeup) it didn't get nominated for Foreign Language Film? Likewise, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (205 screens) -- filmed almost entirely in French -- was nominated for four awards (Best Director, Editing, Screenplay, Cinematography), but not Best Foreign Film. Why? Diving Bell doesn't count as foreign because it has an American director. Not to mention that each country is only allowed to submit one film, and France's choice, Persepolis (100 screens) was not nominated either. Instead, it was nominated for Best Animated Film! This type of thing happens all the time. In 2002, the foreign film committee rejected the Brazilian film City of God. It was released in 2003 to great critical acclaim and success, and was nominated the following year for four Oscars in other categories. In 2000, Taiwan chose to submit the hit Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, rather than arguably the greatest film of the past decade, Edward Yang's Yi Yi. Why couldn't both be nominated?


It would make your head swim to think of all the good stuff that didn't get nominated under the Academy's silly rules. Krzysztof Kieslowski's Three Colors trilogy was disqualified in 1994 because it came from both France and Poland, but Kieslowski was nominated for Best Director. In addition, these filmmakers have never been nominated. Let me repeat that. Never even nominated: Yasujiro Ozu, Wong Kar-wai, Werner Herzog, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Kenji Mizoguchi, Satyajit Ray, Carl Theodor Dreyer, Robert Bresson, Ousmane Sembene, Abbas Kiarostami, Andrei Tarkovsky, Jacques Rivette, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, Alexander Sokurov, Luchino Visconti, Roberto Rossellini, Michelangelo Antonioni, Alain Resnais, and -- get this -- Jean Renoir. And there's many more. But at least Roberto Benigni won.

The current box office chart shows quite a few more really good movies that didn't get any props from the Academy. The wonderful The Band's Visit opens this week in a limited engagement. It's about an Egyptian police band that visits Israel and converses with the natives mainly in English; it was disqualified for not sticking with one country or one language. Everyone already knows about Cristian Mungiu's great 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (17 screens); it was Romania's "official selection," but the foreign film committee aced it in favor of The Counterfeiters. I guess it didn't have enough war in it. On the other hand, the current nominee Beaufort (1 screen) has begun to make the rounds, and it has plenty of war in it.

The immensely skilled and satisfying The Orphanage (155 screens) seemed poised for lots of awards, but has gone largely unheralded in this country. I personally voted for Belén Rueda for a Best Actress award. Her performance as a grieving, obsessed mom, dealing with the disappearance of her own son as well as the ghosts of a creepy old orphanage, could have been pouty, hysterical or withdrawn, but she infuses it with tons of heartbreaking soul. Or how about Hao Lei in Summer Palace (2 screens)? She goes all out with her performance of a small town girl heading off to college in the midst of political, social and sexual turmoil. For that matter, what about Emmauelle Beart in The Witnesses (3 screens)? Beart is one of the most ridiculously beautiful women on the planet, but that doesn't mean she can't act. The dialogue throughout most of that film is fairly overwritten and awkward, and Beart is the only cast member to make it sound good.

Francisco Vargas' beautiful, black-and-white debut feature The Violin (1 screen) is a worthy addition to the current Mexican New Wave, though it took a couple of years to find distribution here; if the Academy changed its rules, they could consider films like this. An 81 year-old violinist (with one hand missing) helps his Guerrilla son by distracting a military Captain of the opposition. As the old man, Don Angel Tavira makes his acting debut and it's another performance worthy of recognition. Finally, one of the world's great young master filmmakers, Jia Zhang-ke returns with his fifth feature, Still Life (1 screen). I haven't seen it yet, but I expect great things from it -- far greater than anything the Academy's committee has come up with lately.