As a part-time cineaste, the idea of assessing the commercial prospects of films and ranking them like college football teams represents the height of vulgarity. Though there is something undeniably cinematic about a great football game (see the Hoosiers-like 2007 Fiesta Bowl), great movies nourish the soul; they speak to our hopes and dreams, and tease out our primal urges. Whereas spectators might emerge from the annual Ohio State/Michigan contest desperate to ambush a lone fan of the other team and bash him into lifelong physical impairment, filmgoers stroll out of the theater with such violent desires sated. If movies could truly inspire aberrant behavior, more than Dar Robinson would’ve been hurled from Atlanta’s Westin Peachtree Plaza by now.

And yet we rank… order… dishonor. We reduce artistic achievement to a popularity contest, pitting Monet against Matisse, Bach against Brahms, Backdraft against Back to the Future III. It is trivial, tawdry, and wrong.

But it’s April, and it’s expected. Premiere‘s to blame; they made summer movie prognosticating glossy and fun. And so I’d like to dedicate the ensuing forecast to their 1991 preview, which called for Dying Young to outgross Terminator 2, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and the Julia Roberts co-starrer, Flatliners. To paraphrase Dabney Coleman’s smut peddler in Summer 1987’s #7 grosser, Dragnet*, that took balls as big as church bells. This one’s for you, our dear, not-entirely-departed “Movie Magazine”.

And what’s better than a Top Twenty? How ’bout a Top Twenty-One?

21. Get Smart (June 20, Warner Bros.) – $65 million

It looks like Peter Segal has delivered a faithful-in-tone transfer of the television show (augmented with the requisite, big-budget set-pieces), but Steve Carell singlehandedly squandered his Daily Show/40-Year-Old Virgin goodwill last summer with Evan Almighty (which collapsed in a sweat at $100 million domestic after eighty-seven days of release). Combine that audience weariness with the direct opening-day competition from Mike Myers’s The Love Guru, and this movie makes about $25 million less than it should.

20. Hellboy II: The Golden Army (July 13, Universal) – $80 million

I hope I’m $100 million short on this prediction. After an anemically-promoted theatrical release, the first Hellboy found a somewhat wider audience on DVD and cable, so I’ll be optimistic and give it the ol’ Chronicles of Riddick $20 million bump. As I stated in a previous column, Universal should sell Guillermo early and often, especially if/when The Hobbit gets its official greenlight.

19. The Happening (June 18, Tom Rothman’s House of Horrors) – $88 million

In which we find out if M. Night Shyamalan has been humbled enough to make an un-self-conscious horror film (is there precedent for a director losing his possessory title credit in mid-career)? Visually, Shyamalan is as talented as any commercial filmmaker working today (helps when you hop from Fujimoto to Deakins to Doyle), but his conceitedness finally overwhelmed his storytelling talents – and, it seems, scared off all but his most devoted fans. The Happening sounds a little silly (“Don’t you want to know what happened to the bees?”), but the last time Shyamalan got all end-of-the-world hysterical on us, he made Signs and a bundle of cash. This has serious sleeper (i.e. $100 million-plus) potential if Fox markets it competently – and this is a concern because quality flummoxes them.

18. Step Brothers (July 25, Columbia) – $100 million

Somewhere between Talladega Nights‘ $148 million and Anchorman‘s $85 million sounds about right. Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly are both coming off of major box office disasters (Semi-Pro and Walk Hard), both of which were aggressively marketed. If Sony can make clear that this is more of the quotable same from Ferrell’s excellence-pissing A-team, then the male demographic should turn out. Two major causes for concern: The Dark Knight‘s second weekend and the nearness of Pineapple Express. Also: meteors.

17. Pineapple Express (August 8, Columbia) – $105 million

The only thing keeping this from equaling Knocked Up‘s $148 million haul is its guy-ness; women may love Seth Rogen and James Franco, but they’re not likely to dig them as a sleazy process server and a shower-averse pot dealer. Then again, they loved Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow, blackened teeth and all, so maybe unkempt is the new dapper. (Because I want to see Jeffrey Wells do a double gainer over the high platform of insanity, I hope this comes to pass.) In the film’s favor: it’s insanely fucking funny.

16. The Incredible Hulk (June 13, Universal) – $110 million

Ang Lee’s Hulk did $62 million over its June 2003 opening weekend; if Universal can drown out the bad buzz between now and June, Louis Leterrier’s reboot should still fall well short of that number ($50 million would seem to be the ceiling). There’s just no novelty, and the new Hulk doesn’t look like a significant improvement on the previous one. One positive: the preview shown this past weekend at the New York Comic Con went over very well. And if a room full of screaming geeks meant anything to a film’s financial prospects, Serenity would’ve been the next Titanic!

15. Meet Dave (July 11, Tom Rothman’s S&M Dungeon of Deviant Delights) – $115 million

Looks wretched, but family-friendly Eddie Murphy is a lock for $100 million until he isn’t. If he could almost get the Bataan Death March of Fat Suit Comedy (i.e. Norbit) past the century mark, the kiddie admissions should make up the dispiriting difference and then some. If PETA protests the cat kicking scene, it does an extra $20 million out of spite.

14. The Love Guru (June 20, Paramount) – $118 million

New character, same old shtick, and I don’t get the sense that audiences are done with Myers just yet. Paramount sacrificed up to $20 million when they dropped The Love Guru on Get Smart‘s opening day, and I’m thinking it’s a little too late for either one to blink. I don’t know when Jessica Alba’s due to drop her calf, but the tabloid media coverage of that forthcoming blessed event could raise the film’s profile. The resulting rapture may eat into second week business.

13. You Don’t Mess with the Zohan (June 6, Columbia) – $120 million

“Commercial” Adam Sandler is automatic $100 million, and this is the first wide release comedy (not counting Sex and the City) of the season. The screenplay was co-written with Judd Apatow and Robert Smigel, and, as you might expect, it’s actually pretty funny. We’ll see if professional joke-killer Dennis Dugan can drain the film of laughs.

12. Speed Racer (May 9, Warner Bros.) – $125 million

Word from last week’s junket screening was very upbeat, but teenagers might still scoff that the film is kids’ stuff. This is the most brutal May in memory, and, as I’ve mentioned, families might take a weekend off from the megaplexes to gear up for Prince Caspian. Warner Brothers is selling Speed Racer hard; three weeks out, that aggression could wear audiences down (especially if they’re iffy on it already). Luckily, it’s not unheard of for four May releases to clear $100 million (e.g. the 2006 quartet of X-Men: The Last Stand, The Da Vinci Code, Over the Hedge and Mission: Impossible III).

11. The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (August 1, Universal) – $130 million

Factor in The Scorpion King, and the Mummy franchise has earned just short of $450 million domestically. Since quality of the finished product is irrelevant, Universal would be financially irresponsible to not revisit the series. With Brendan Fraser back on board and Stealth maestro Rob Cohen bringing along his special brand of stupid, there’s no reason this shouldn’t be louder and less coherent than the other installments. It’s also got the weekend of August 1 pretty much to itself (unless you think The Rocker or He’s Not That Into You pose a challenge), so don’t expect it to flee to October.

10. Sex and the City (May 30, New Line) – $140 million

Even a dead studio can open this. Though I’d like to think that women have moved on from this tramp-enabling affront to feminism (which many a feminist embraced), the looming media onslaught will be too deafening to ignore. Also, it’s the only movie overtly appealing to that audience in the entire month of May. Chick counter-programming doesn’t always work in the summer, but this is more The Devil Wears Prada than Georgia Rule. Also, as the trailer artlessly hints, there’s a shocking character development late in the first act – and it’s not just Carrie fleeing the altar – that should generate must-see buzz.

9. Wanted (June 27, Universal) – $145 million

Universal moved Timur Bekmambetov’s Wanted from the spring to the summer, thus giving it a vote of commercial confidence and placing it into direct competition with a bunch of other big movies. I get the feeling Wanted could’ve ruled March and April, but Unviersal evidently felt the comic book adaptation would work better as shoot-em-up counter-programming to the somewhat gentler Wall-E. Or, most likely, they saw the possibility of screens opening up during The Incredible Hulk‘s third weekend. Like The Mummy 3, this looks like the kind of dumb that makes bank. I just hope there’s not supposed to be any sexual chemistry between James McAvoy and Angelina Jolie.

8. Tropic Thunder (August 15, DreamWorks) – $150 million

It’s Robert Downey Jr.s Iron Man curtain call, Ben Stiller’s return to respectability and, once all the coin is counted, the top-grossing comedy of the summer (it’s just more of a straight sell than Pineapple Express). The “blackface” element will get obsessed over (and, perhaps, start a bit of controversy in certain, humorless quarters), but the racial component didn’t exactly hurt Blazing Saddles. I’m not suggesting Tropic Thunder is a classic-in-the-making, but Stiller seemed capable of greatness as a filmmaker before he took his get-rich break. Who knows?

7. Hancock (July 2, Sony) – $175 million

Though it’s not testing well, there’s still plenty of time to fix the tone issues before the July 4th holiday – which, as the star will most assuredly remind us time and again in the months leading up to opening day, belongs to Will Smith. Even if director Peter Berg fails to pull it all together, it’s not like Hancock is giving off the DOA stench of Wild Wild West (which still grossed $113 million). $175 million is just short of Hitch‘s domestic take, and, therefore, a conservative guess.

6. Kung Fu Panda (June 6, DreamWorks Animation) – $200 million

That early June date didn’t help last year’s Surf’s Up, but advance buzz says this is DreamWorks Animation’s most satisfying film to date. Could take a hit from family flick overkill, but I’m guessing that young kids will be more than happy to skip Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Marketing has been soft thus far, but the Cannes debut banishes thoughts of a move to the less competitive fall.

5. Iron Man (May 2, Paramount) – $210 million

I toyed with the idea of this being the third highest grossing flick of the summer, but that only happens if Robert Downey Jr. connects with the chick audience. I haven’t seen it yet, but it sounds like Iron Man is a little too wide-eyed and “Gee Whiz” to blow past Paramount’s expectations. Still, don’t underestimate the Downey charm, especially now that he actively wants to be a movie star. If the movie underperforms, it’s because the action is slightly underwhelming. But wasn’t that the major caveat with the first Spider-Man?

4. The Dark Knight (July 18, Warner Bros.) – $220 million

Poised to be the geek film of the summer, but the unremittingly dark tone will continue to hold the franchise back from Spider-Man-level success. Fans may not understand this, but the studio does, and they’ll be more than happy to bank a little extra in theatrical before making a killing on Blu-Ray. As long as Nolan doesn’t break three-hours, the run time shouldn’t be a concern (didn’t hurt the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels).

3. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (May 23, Paramount) – $260 million

The rest of the world just isn’t as excited about this movie as you are. The second weekend of Prince Caspian will siphon off part of the Memorial Day holiday family audience, and likely tepid-to-negative word-of-mouth will take its toll in subsequent weekends. If the film is better than I’ve heard (and this publicity spin ain’t encouraging), tack on another $100 million for repeat viewings and the like. I still feel like I’m going way too high with $260 million. Hope I’m wrong.

2. The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian (May 16, Disney) – $330 million

The real event of May. The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe fell just short of $300 million as a Christmas release; Prince Caspian will face more competition in the summer, but it’ll also be past $200 million by the end of Memorial Day weekend.  I get the feeling that this could blow up like Shrek 2 and rack up eight-figure three-days until Wall-E hits, but Kung Fu Panda should get in the way (though Shrek 2 co-existed with Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban in 2004 just fine). Look, I didn’t like TLTW&TW either, but that doesn’t change the fact that Narnia is a youth-skewing, faith-based Lord of the Rings juggernaut. Deal.

1. Wall-E (June 27, Pixar) – $400 million

Pixar’s E.T. Wall-E is already a hit with kids (I made the mistake of showing the trailer to my four-year-old nephew; ten replays later…), and Pixar is Pixar. They made $200 million with a film called Ratatouille. They’re good for double that with a cute, lonely robot who follows his true love to outer space.

How wrong am I? I’m sure you’re too shy to opine below.

(Programming Note: The Beijing Olympics might impact August business, especially if riots and worse break out.)

*#3 grosser of Summer 1987? Stakeout.