Okay. It's time to get down to brass tacks. I'm going to get up on my soapbox and hope that the right Academy members read the column this week, because it's time to re-do the rules of the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar category. Do you know how long it has been since a great film, a truly great film, won in this category? I'm talking about a film made by a genuinely great artist of the cinema, a film for the ages, and not just a perfectly good film, or a film about one of the great world wars. Here's your answer: twenty-five years ago. Ingmar Bergman's Fanny and Alexander (1983) was the last great one. That leaves 25 years of pretty good, just OK, forgettable, or flat-out awful winners (mostly forgettable). This year's winner, The Counterfeiters (41 screens) had to be one of the worst movies I saw all year; at it's center is a perfectly good (true) WWII concentration camp story, but it's warped by an entirely inept director, responsible for one of the worst movies I've ever seen, All the Queen's Men (2001). How did it win? How did it get past all the truly great films of 2007?



First of all, any country with a film industry is invited to choose one film to submit to the foreign film committee. This already eliminates some great films, as in 2000 when Taiwan chose the middling, but moneymaking Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon over the masterpiece Yi Yi. It also disqualifies films whose country of origin is rather mixed, such as this year's amazing The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (103 screens), a French film directed by an American. Another terrific film, The Band's Visit (88 screens), gets disqualified because the dialogue -- spoken between Egyptians and Israelis -- is mostly in English. (Set in Israel, it's still a "foreign" film in my book.) In addition all this year's nominees must have an official release date of 2007. This disqualifies my top foreign language film, Jafar Panahi's Offside, which opened elsewhere in 2006, but debuted in the United States in 2007. Likewise, Offside was banned in Iran, so it could hardly be an "official submission" from there. (The same goes for Lou Ye's Summer Palace, from China.)

The committee -- a small group of people, rather than the entire body of voters -- goes through the submissions. We can probably assume that each member does not watch each film all the way through. Imagine you're a lazy voter. You've never heard of 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (44 screens), and you have no idea what it's about, but you watch the first ten minutes. Nothing much happens, so you shut it off. Then it's time for Persepolis (77 screens). It seems good, but it's a cartoon, so it can't be very serious. Off it goes. (These two movies were actually officially submitted, but weren't nominated, and this could be the reason why.) Imagine that The Orphanage (35 screens) is another option. It's a scary movie, so, again, it's not serious. Then, even though Jacques Rivette is an established world master, his new film The Duchess of Langeais (4 screens) is a bit slow and boring. Shut it off.

The Counterfeiters goes on. Ah. At last. Here's a film about the Holocaust and World War II and concentration camps. It's easy to understand. You don't even need to finish watching it. It's about something important, so it gets your vote. Beaufort goes on. It's set in the year 2000, but it's about war, so it gets another vote. Now you're done, and you can go back to watching "American Idol." And so we end up with five nominees that no one has heard of, which never received any kind of U.S. theatrical distribution in 2007. Now distributors have about a month to scramble to pick up the nominated films and get them screened for press and Academy members. I don't know about Los Angeles screenings or Academy member screenings, but The Counterfeiters was the first of the five films I saw here in the Bay Area. Again, if I were a lazy voter, I wouldn't have bothered with the rest. I also saw Beaufort, which I liked a great deal more, but as of today, the other three films have yet to be screened.

In the sixty years of this category's history, several great films and filmmakers have won. Bergman won three times in all, including awards for The Virgin Spring and Through a Glass Darkly. Akira Kurosawa won twice, for Rashomon and Dersu Uzala. (He even received a Best Director nomination once, though he lost to Sidney Pollack.) Federico Fellini won a whopping four times, for La Strada, Nights of Cabiria, 8 ½ and Amarcord. Jacques Tati (Mon Oncle), Francois Truffaut (Day for Night) and Luis Bunuel (The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie) won once each. New generations will re-discover these films again and again. Then there are more marginal, fairly lightweight, but enjoyable winners, like Pedro Almodovar's All About My Mother and Giuseppe Tornatore's Cinema Paradiso. And then there's the problem of Vittorio de Sica, who won for his one great film Bicycle Thieves, but also won three other times for more questionable works. (Is he a great filmmaker, or just a guy who made a great film?)

I could go on dissecting the entire list, but that wouldn't get to the root of the problem, especially in those 25 recent years. The solution is simple: do away with the one-country, one-film submission process. Do away with the committee. Let the entire body of voters choose from any foreign language film released in the United States between January 1 and December 31. This would qualify the five films I voted for in my critics' group: Offside, Private Fears in Public Places (France), The Host (South Korea), 12:08 East of Bucharest (Romania) and Exiled (Hong Kong). That's how every critics' organization does it. According to the many critics groups across North America, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly was the best foreign language film of 2007, with 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days running a close second. There's no more excuse for such drooling incompetence on the part of the Academy, and there's definitely no more excuse for immortalizing terrible films.