spike lee*It’s time we recognize Spike Lee as exactly what he is – a truly great American filmmaker who, in all likelihood, is transitioning into one of the most vibrant patches in his career.

With the exception of the supremely flawed war film “Miracle at St. Anna” in 2008 and the mess that was “She Hate Me” in 2004, Lee’s work in the 21st century has been just as great as his arresting early work – films and documentaries the equivalent of his masterpieces “Malcolm X,” “Do the Right Thing” and “Crooklyn.”

“25th Hour” remains one of the truly under appreciated American films of the last decade (Roger Ebert agrees; check out his Great Movies entry for it here) and “Inside Man” is a crackling, winking throwback to the great crime films of the 1970s, with Lee again making great use of his longtime collaborator Denzel Washington alongside some welcome new additions to his acting stable (we’d love to see him develop something for the great Chiwetel Ejiofor).

Even more accomplished than his film work, though, has been his work in documentary features. Lee has used the medium to chronicle the natural disaster of Hurricane Katrina (“When the Levees Broke” and “If God is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise”) one day in the life of basketball’s greatest modern superstar (“Kobe: Doin’ Work”) and the career of a true sports icon (“Jim Brown: All-American”), all in his trademark style. They’ve been worthy additions to a rather spectacular career.

There couldn’t be a better follow-up to his great recent work than “Red Hook Summer” – a return to the Brooklyn streets explored in “Right Thing,” with a screenplay by Lee and the great James McBride (the author of “The Color of Water”) an appearance by Lee’s character Mookie and, best of all, starring the amazing Clarke Peters, who provided the soul for “The Wire” as Det. Lester Freamon. What a combination.

In a year that will see new films from other A-list American directors – including Steven Spielberg and Paul Thomas Anderson – Spike Lee’s newest joint should be right up there in the Oscar race.