Finally made it out to see Zodiac this weekend, and it was terrific, althoug at first it was a little disappointing that David Fincher didn't do more to impose some definitive thematic meaning on this material. In the early going, the movie seems to be about the weird, wild ghost of the '60s, and how it haunted at a time when people didn't have the resources–the fax machines, the VCRs–to get ahead of it. (The key scene in that regard is a throwaway, as Gyllenhaal tries to escape the car radio reports about the Zodiac killings, and eventually lands on a seemingly innocuous report about an upcoming free Rolling Stones concert … you know, the one at Altamont.) But that theme disappears after an hour, replaced by a study of obsession that's not all that era-specific–though the background transformation of the Bay Area from seedyville to upscale is hardly incidental. But even without that clean, hard vision, Zodiac shines. Just watching this group of actors play off each other, each saddled with quirks and demons, was never less than absorbing. Good show, all.

Zodiac is the first great movie with a 2007 release date, but it's not likely to be the last. There've already been a handful of movies this year that at least qualify as "interesting," even if they're not masterpieces. In theaters right now, both Black Snake Moan and 300 are dividing audiences and critics in ways that–near as I can tell from a distance, having seen neither–seem born of distinct artistry and points of view. And consider these movies tentatively scheduled to be released by the end of the year (though some aren't in production yet):

*Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez's drive-in trash homage Grindhouse
*The Coen Brothers' adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's existential chase western No Country For Old Men
*Matthew Vaughn's adaptation of Neil Gaiman's fantastical Stardust
*Tim Burton's adaptation of Steven Sondheim's brilliant, chilly musical Sweeney Todd, with Johnny Depp in the lead
*Paul Thomas Anderson's adaptation of Upton Sinclair's oil epic There Will Be Blood
*Ridley Scott's '70s heroin trade epic American Gangster, starring Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe
*Wes Anderson's latest poignant whimsy-fest The Darjeeling Limited, with Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzmann and Adrien Brody as brothers on a train trip through India, mourning their father
*Noah Baumbach's Margot At The Wedding, his fist film since the breakthrough The Squid And The Whale
*Francis Ford Coppola's return to "personal filmmaking," Youth Without Youth
*Kimberly Peirce's return to filmmaking period, Stop Loss, an Iraq War-related domestic melodrama
*Kenneth Lonergan's return to the director's chair, Margaret, with Anna Paquin as a student who witnesses an accident and pesters everyone she knows what she thinks really happened
*Michel Gondry's Jack Black vehicle Be Kind Rewind, about a video store clerk who has to remake blockbusters in his backyard when his magnetic brain destroys all his rental tapes
*James Mangold's remake of 3:10 To Yuma
*Neil Jordan's Jodie Foster vehicle, the revenge thriller The Brave One
*David Cronenberg's Russian mafia thriller Eastern Promises
*Ang Lee's Chinese spy thriller Lust, Caution
*Andrew Dominik's reportedly artful and poetic The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford
*Screenwriter Scott Frank's reportedly corking directorial debut, the twisty neo-noir The Lookout
*Danny Boyle and Alex Garland's eco-minded sci-fi adventure Sunshine
*Brad Bird's latest Pixar project, Ratatouille
*Robert Zemeckis' take on Beowulf
*Steven Soderbergh's latest installment in the increasingly absurd Ocean's series (plus whatever else Soderbergh decides to knock out in a weekend, just for the exercise)

Plus Spider-Man 3, The Simpsons Movie, the surprisingly cool-looking CGI Disney feature Meet The Robinsons, the finale of the Pirates Of The Caribbean trilogy, all manner of prestige films (like Lions For Lambs and Charlie Wilson's War) that could turn out good, and a bunch of movies that aren't on anyone's radar yet (many of them from other countries, and thus harder to track in advance). Oh, and let's not forget some good-to-great movies that played the festival circuit in 2006, still working their way into theaters this year, like Offside, Black Book, The Host, and Syndromes And A Century.

We've got art, trash, drama, and all manner of potentially funny comedies that I didn't cite. Almost all of the most interesting American directors are prepping new work this year, and quite a few of the foreign ones as well. Yeah, it may be dismaying when something like Wild Hogs tops the box office. But movies–as art and entertainment–are alive and well in 2007. Now if only we could get the powers that be to start scheduling the release dates more fairly, so we don't have to suffer through months and months of mediocrity, with only the occasional Zodiac to remind us what likes in wait.