a while there, it looked as though 2007 was gearing up to be one of the worst movie years in film history. Typically, a couple of difficult-to-market gems turn up in February or March, but, this year, it was all dross: the studio stuff (Ghost Rider, Wild Hogs, Norbit, Epic Movie, etc.) was wretched even by the studios’ low standards, while the first quarter indie/studio boutique releases failed to cough up anything close to the level of Brick, Dave Chappelle’s Block Party, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or Raising Victor Vargas. By the end of March, the best official releases* of 2007 were Zodiac, Black Snake Moan, 300, I Think I Love My Wife and Reno 911!: Miami – and those last two are objectively bad movies.

Then came Grindhouse and Hot Fuzz, two films that would be top ten contenders in any year. A month later, there was Once, Away from Her and, at the beginning of June, Knocked Up. Now, I’m beginning to think we’re enjoying a watershed year at least as good as 2004; looking over the rest of the schedule, there’s a chance this year could finish out strong. Real strong. Like 1999 strong.

We all know 1999 as ground zero for… nothing, really. The celebrated "mavericks" of that year are still struggling to get their films made, while the industry has grown more hostile to the notion of creative autonomy overall. Hell, "Greenlighting Fight Club" is now a euphemism for committing professional hari-kari. And no one is writing odes for Bill Mechanic.

But, oh, what a year it was. To wit, here’s my top twenty:

1. Toy Story 2 (John Lasseter)
2. Eyes Wide Shut (Stanley Kubrick)
3. Ride with the Devil (d. Ang Lee)
4. Rosetta (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne)
5. The Talented Mr. Ripley (Anthony Minghella)
6. The Winslow Boy (David Mamet)
7. Topsy-Turvy (Mike Leigh)
8. The End of the Affair (Neil Jordan)
9. The Insider (Michael Mann)
10. The Iron Giant (Brad Bird)
11. Being John Malkovich (Spike Jonze)
12. South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut (Trey Parker)
13. Fight Club (David Fincher)
14. Three Kings (David O. Russell)
15. American Movie (Chris Smith)
16. eXistenZ (David Cronenberg)
17. Election (Alexander Payne)
18. The Limey (Steven Soderbergh)
19. Magnolia (Paul Thomas Anderson)
20. L’ Humanite (Bruno Dumot)

Those are twenty movies I’d stack up against any other year’s top five. And keep in mind I’ve left off Beau Travail, Bowfinger, Bringing Out the Dead, Office Space, Ratcatcher, The Matrix and the eventual Best Picture winner American Beauty. Audition, Jesus’ Son, The Virgin Suicides, Time Regained and Human Resources also technically count as 1999 films, but they weren’t released in the U.S. until a year or two later. And I should probably throw The Phantom Menace out there if only to halve the number of vituperative emails.

So how could 2007 possibly hope to match 1999 when it’s basically spotted the latter half a year of quality? It might not be as improbable as you think. Of the above twenty films, only The Winslow Boy, eXistenZ and Election were in theaters before May; picture for picture, I much prefer the trio of Grindhouse, Zodiac and Hot Fuzz. By the halfway point of 1999, the above list had only acquired one more title, South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut; much as I love Knocked Up, I’m going to give 1999 the slight edge here.

Though 1999 boasted a greater number of above-average titles in its first half (Office Space, The Matrix, Go, October Sky, The Dreamlife of Angels, Payback, Run Lola Run, Limbo and the eight-years-late domestic release of Leos Carax’s The Lovers on the Bridge), it’s the great films that make the year; after all, if it weren’t for
The Matrix sequels, I could honestly say that I haven’t watched any of those very good ’99 movies since their initial release. So who cares if they’re twenty times better than Ghost Rider and its ilk? As ever, we’re seeking transcendent experiences, the breaking down of boundaries, an end to the commonplace.

Does the second half of 2007 possess that kind of potential? Uh, hell yeah.

Disclaimer: entertaining this notion does require a maniacal degree of optimism, and, most precariously, greatness from a number of directors who have been either in steady decline or completely MIA over the last several years. So let’s break the rest of the year down into easily digestible categories followed by reliably airtight defenses. (It’s at this point he realized the column he was going to write had gotten away from him and turned into a droning set of lists. But Andrew Sarris would’ve merely been Pauline Kael’s bitch were it not for excess categorization, so onward!)

The Sure Things Gangster (d. Ridley Scott)
Eastern Promises (d. David Cronenberg)
Lake of Fire (d. Tony Kaye)
Sweeney Todd (d. Tim Burton)
No Country for Old Men (d. Joel Coen)

"Sure Things?" "Have you seen these movies?" Only one of them. And if Lake of Fire doesn’t win the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature this year it’s only because no one likes to be challenged on the abortion issue – especially the pro-choice crowd (to which I reluctantly belong, and only because it can never be my decision). Kaye’s been filming at the front lines of this contentious and ofttimes violent debate since the early 1990s, but if he has an opinion on the subject, he keeps it to himself. This is probing, vexing and ultimately unbiased stuff. It’s a masterpiece.

American Gangster might seem like a stretch for this category what with Scott coming off the creative and financial failure of A Good Year, but the Steven Zaillian screenplay for AG is too textured and too intelligent to elude the grasp of a master. Add in the De Niro and Pacino of our day (Russell Crowe and Denzel Washington) and multiple supporting performances from top-tier character actors (Armand Assante and Josh Brolin are said to be stand-outs), and the potential for brilliance alone gets you to "very good". I am nothing but giddy about this film.

Eastern Promises might seem an odd entry, too, but David Cronenberg doesn’t know how to make a bad movie. It’s just not in his DNA. After nearly crossing over with A History of Violence, it feels like Cronenberg’s closing in on some kind of coronation.

I’ll admit that Sweeney Todd is a total reach considering Burton’s uneven track record, but the grand guignol material is perfectly tailored to his gothic sensibility. This is also one of Stephen Sondheim’s most accessible musicals (second only to Into the Woods). It may also be his best. And Johnny Depp as "The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" is dream casting. Burton would have to pull a Jess Franco to fuck this up.

Everyone’s calling No Country for Old Men a "return to form" for the Coens. I take it you’re familiar with their "form". Let’s move on.

The Thoroughbreds Without Youth (d. Francis Ford Coppola)
Lust, Caution (d. Ang Lee)
The Brave One (d. Neil Jordan)
There Will Be Blood (d. Paul Thomas Anderson)
Leatherheads (d. George Clooney)
Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (d. Jake Kasdan)
Cassandra’s Dream (d. Woody Allen)
Be Kind, Rewind (d. Michel Gondry)
I’m Not There (d. Todd Haynes)
Silk (d. Francois Girard)
The Kingdom (d. Peter Berg)

I mixing metaphors with my categories already (and it’s only going to get worse), but this is a list of directors who are either a) at the top of their game, b) so great that you can never count them out, or c) working within a can’t-miss system.

Let’s dispense with the latter first: Jake Kasdan. Nine years after his idiosyncratic take on the private eye genre, Zero Effect (a very smart movie I’ve been meaning to revisit for the last… nine years!), Kasdan has struggled to find his way as a director. This is actually to his credit. Kasdan could’ve easily invoked dad’s name at every turn and wound up with a lucrative career as a director of formula romantic comedies. Instead, he apprenticed himself to Judd Apatow, failed honorably with quirkier-than-average mainstream pictures (Orange County and The TV Set), and was finally rewarded with a choice gig in Walk Hard. In my estimation, he landed the primo project on Apatow’s slate: a parody of the shopworn biopic genre is long overdue, particularly as it’s molded to fit (and gloss over) the less-than-admirable-lives of music legends. With John C. Reilly as the "great man" lead, Walk Hard has silly potential**.

Coming off of Far From Heaven, Breakfast on Pluto, Good Night, and Good Luck, Friday Night Lights and Brokeback Mountain, I would consider Messrs. Haynes, Jordan, Clooney, Berg and Lee to be peaking. Of this group, Haynes is the filmmaker to watch: the semiotics scholar is investigating the life of the great twentieth century enigma, Bob Dylan, via seven different actors. Had Velvet Goldmine been more than a production design orgy, I’d have Haynes in the "sure thing" category. If he somehow nails Dylan with this unconventional approach (as he captured the tragedy of Karen Carpenter with Barbie dolls in Superstar), he’ll sweep the critics’ awards and finally be recognized as one of the finest American filmmakers working today.

I hesitate to place Jordan in this group because the trailer for The Brave One emits the scent of another studio debacle for the great Irish filmmaker (his pure "Hollywood" movies: High Spirits, We’re No Angels, Interview with the Vampire, Michael Collins and In Dreams). But Breakfast on Pluto was an endearing character study, and I love the idea of Jordan collaborating with Jodie Foster on a hardcore vigilante flick. This ain’t science. He’s off my shit list until he’s back on it.

Leatherheads is unabashedly commercial (it’s a long-in-gestation comedy about 1920s pro football), but Clooney’s period fetish has produced some great cinema. Stunningly, he’s currently a much more relevant director than his former Section Eight partner Steven Soderbergh, who, by the way, was set to direct Leatherheads a decade ago.

Speaking of football, Peter Berg’s Friday Night Lights is an American classic. It’s a great small town film on par with The Last Picture Show; the subtle class dynamics of a tiny community, as dictated and sometimes flouted by sexual and athletic prowess, have never been so distinctively dramatized. The Kingdom takes place in another, albeit far more vast microcosm: the Middle East. It’s supposed to be a superior action film with some smartly smuggled-in subtext. If it’s just as good as The Rundown, I won’t be disappointed.

Ang Lee requires no defense. He just deservedly won the Best Director Oscar for Brokeback Mountain, and is returning to China for the first time since Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. How’d that work out last time?

Now the "so great you can never count them out" contingent. I’ll start with Francois Girard, who directed one of my very favorite films of the 1990s: Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould. The Red Violin was a respectable follow-up, but the fact that I can barely recall a second of it designates it as a failure of some type (this isn’t a frivolous dismissal: I haven’t seen Glenn Gould since college, but I can still cycle shot-by-shot through the revelatory diner segment in which the mercurial pianist conducts random conversations). Silk, which concerns a 19th silkworm merchant who falls in love with a Japanese baron’s concubine, doesn’t sound too thrilling, but Girard’s got a surplus of goodwill to squander before I’m through with him.

The same is true of Paul Thomas Anderson, who I believe is, technically, the most gifted filmmaker living today. The prologue to Magnolia is a triumph of composition, montage, scoring, visual storytelling, etc. – if you want to see the medium completely mastered, throw on Magnolia and watch it until the end of Aimee Mann’s rendition of "One". "That’s possible?" Yep. And such fluid command of form and content remains beyond the grasp of mere mortals. Sadly, P.T. is mortal, too; he’s an erratic, sometimes fucking awful writer. As with M. Night Shyamalan, you want him to be humbled into collaboration. But if he’s humbled, he might lose what makes him special. Ah, quandary. As an adaptation (of Upton Sinclair’s anything-but-terse tribute to the exclamation point, Oil!),
There Will Be Blood offers hope. But it sounds like he’s drastically departed from the text, so expect the worst (i.e. Julianne Moore’s dual breakdowns in Magnolia).

Cassandra’s Dream is serious as September Woody Allen, which was a sure sign of trouble until 2005’s Match Point. Some believe the change of scenery (from New York City to England) is the difference; I think it’s the muse – and I’m not talking about Tits Magee. Theodore Dreiser’s deliberate dramas of regular men going "bad" by degrees clearly influenced Match Point, and, if the IMDb plot summary is to be trusted, Cassandra’s Dream as well. "The tale of two brothers with serious financial woes. When a third party proposes they turn to crime, things go bad and the two become enemies." I suppose you could call that Dostoevsky-ian, too, and if you’re hot to split those hairs, you could just as easily wedge yourself under my desk and suck my dick. The brothers are Colin Farrell and Ewan McGregor – an adroit pairing of two charismatic actors uncomfortable with, and unable to fully capitalize on, their movie star stature. Tom Wilkinson is in this, too. The day he isn’t brilliant in a movie, I’ll stock up on canned goods, bottled water and whores and disappear to the Galapagos Islands.

Michel Gondry has a touch of P.T. Anderson-itis. He’s an audaciously talented filmmaker hampered by his huge deficiencies as a screenwriter. Gondry’s problem is focus; left to his own devices, he is gone. Though I was very happy to see a film as freewheeling as The Science of Sleep, I also know that I won’t be watching it again. Ever. It’s a movie built on dream logic with scant regard to thematic coherence; I bet it makes as little sense to us as it does the director. Absent someone to challenge him (as Charlie Kaufman bravely did on Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), Gondry is adrift, at which point he is just a genius music video director floundering in a medium incompatible to his attention span. The difficulty with artists like Gondry and P.T. Anderson is that, visually, no one can do what they do; ergo, they’d rather not listen to your stupid, conventional worries about narrative. But the difference between the two filmmakers is that Gondry has faced creative resistance, and, in response to this, turned out one of the best pictures of this decade. Focus Features and Partizan bankrolled Be Kind, Rewind, and I can assure you that no one at either company dared to get in Gondry’s way. This means the only possible person who could keep the director in check was its star, Jack Black. I love the concept of this movie, but I fear the results.

Francis Ford Coppola has been batting around the "experimental" label to explain his first film in ten years, Youth Without Youth. He also toured several U.S. universities to lecture and, essentially, dine out on his reputation as one of our greatest living directors. Talent doesn’t just vanish, nor does intelligence, but the acuity of both dull over time, and that’s why the notion of Coppola attempting a "student film" at the age of sixty-eight fails to elicit much enthusiasm. Coppola is not an experimental filmmaker; at his best, he is the modern paradigm of a commercial auteur. Coppola has a tremendous facility for epic and intimate narrative (as evinced by The Godfather saga and The Conversation respectively), but I’ve yet to see him succeed outside of the classical realm (for all its technical audacity, the lovable One from the Heart is fiercely conventional). Still, anything directed by Francis Ford Coppola is an event. Even Godard loved Hatari!

This got long. Look for Part II this weekend.

*This excludes such fine films as The Host, Black Book and Breaking and Entering.

**In a year, we’ll know whether talented directors like Kasdan, Greg Mottola, David Gordon Green and, possibly, Harold Ramis can apply their personal aesthetics to the improvisational Apatow manner.