Best movies: Friday (1995), Set It Off (1996), The Negotiator (1998), The Italian Job (2003)

F. Gary Gray certainly hasn’t done much to help his own cause in recent years. After an impressive eight-year streak of quality films, the veteran music video director—whose camera skills benefited recording artists like Ice Cube (“It Was a Good Day”), TLC (“Waterfalls”), and Outkast (“Ms. Jackson”)—kicked off a stretch of shocking ineptitude in 2005, with Be Cool, a mess of a comedy featuring Vince Vaughn in wigger mode, amongst other offenses. The less said about A Man Apart (2006) and Law Abiding Citizen (2009) here, the better.

Instead, let’s focus on the films that made Gray a perennial filmmaker to watch, and that give us hope that his next assignment, whatever that may be, will be completely up to snuff. His 1995 debut, Friday, is an undisputed stoner comedy classic, and its follow-up, the female-centric heist flick Set it Off, afforded Gray the chance to switch genres without abandoning his established audience.

So when 1998’s The Negotiator came around, with its high tension, mainstream thriller appeal, and tit-for-tat rapport shared between Samuel L. Jackson and Kevin Spacey, the fact that it was helmed by the same guy who popularized Chris Tucker’s Smokey wasn’t an issue.

Recently, Gray’s name was bandied about as a possible director for next year’s Captain America sequel; while he didn’t land the job, the news loudly hinted that he’s eyeing blockbuster material for his next gig. Yet, if you ask us, he’d be better served returning to his smaller, more character-driven, Friday roots.