Perhaps the Robert Altman of our era due to his large ensembles, prolific filmography, and his terrain into a wide variety of genres like the late maverick–American filmmaker Steven Soderbergh has now been making films for over 30 years now. First rising to the occasion in his debut feature with the 1989 film Sex, Lies, and Videotape as well to winning the Best Director Oscar for his 2000 masterpiece Traffic. Soderbergh has proven time and time again that he is one of most formally daring and innovative filmmakers of our time. Bouncing between big-budget movies to unique indies where he’s allowed to experiment aesthetically with different cameras and lenses, Soderbergh is that rare case where he never sells out or loses his creative vision. Formally daring, experimental, cerebral, and audacious, Soderbergh remains a very distinctive voice where most of his films are going to stand the test of time in many more years and decades to come. With the recent release of his latest crime thriller, No Sudden Move, I decided to revisit, rate, and rank each of Soderbergh’s offerings as a tribute to his fascinating body of work. Please enjoy the list.
33. The Laundromat (2019)
Soderbergh’s exploration of the true-life, largely reported Panama Papers scandal with his second feature released in 2019, The Laundromat, though with a first-rate cast, the end results are very dull and never cohesive. It’s a groggy and scattershot experience by design, that is certainly a difficult challenge for Soderbergh and Burns to take such important and intransigent material that was probably better suited for an engrossing documentary than a Netflix home viewing experience. Nevertheless, The Laundromat ends with an astonishing tracking shot, yet the pre-credit finale comes off so preachy and unrestrained that it will leave you laughing in just how heavy-handed it is as the a character from the film (who I’m not spoiling) begins reading the riot act. “Everybody’s hands are dirty, and it’s time we hold folks accountable and clean up our act” once the fourth wall is broken and Soderbergh’s new film comes off as a political campaign video on income inequality rather than something artful or gripping. All around the film feels like a lecture, and even worse it comes across more like an assignment, and hasn’t that always been Soderbergh’s forte? This one isn’t as remarkable or as sophisticated as something like The Girlfriend Experience, which also had a lot on its mind about wealth and economics.
32. Full Frontal (2002)
You would think coming after a huge streak with such monumental artistic and commercial achievements with Traffic, Erin Brockovich, and Ocean”s 11 Steven Soderbergh would continue the streak with Full Frontal. With a great ensemble cast, experimental aesthetics, and a nod to French New Wave, the film was a huge disaster mostly do it’s aesthetically messy nature and irritating characters that consists of a first-rate cast (Julia Roberts, Blair Underwood, David Hyde Pierce, Catherine Keener, and David Duchovny). Looking back for some revisionist hope, Full Frontal is formally daring but still painful that plays off more like a bonus feature from a early 2000s DVD to Soderbergh’s other films. The film holds some fascinating aesthetics as it bounces between grainy dv to beautiful 35mm and it’s another attempt at Soderbergh going the Godardian route, but he never reaches those endeavors.
31. The Good German (2006)
Soderbergh’s tribute or rather remake of Casablanca never reached the artistic heights he set out to do. It’s a genre film, and Soderbergh is mainly a genre filmmaker, yet the mix of 40s film-noir melodrama merged with Holocaust themes and Nazi’s didn’t quite make the exuberant caper fun like Out of Sight or Ocean’s films. The end result was rather just a pale imitation of 40s noir that had a deliberate convoluted plot where everything felt like bad parody. The entire film feels synthetic and miscounted that falls flat where the leads George Clooney, Cate Blanchett, and Tobey Maguire all feel like caricatures and walking parodies where the actors nor Soderbergh never transcend genre here. However, the film isn’t a complete failure, it’s actually quite watchable thanks mainly to Soderbergh’s gloss and style that leaves you commending his artistic endeavors, but sadly it never quite reaches the quality Soderbergh was going for.
30 and 29. And Everything is Going Fine (2010) Gray’s Anatomy (1996)
I decided to just combine these two films here since I somewhat enjoy and appreciate them about the same. Monologist and actor Spalding Gray is no stranger to cinema, after appearing in concert films just as Jonathan Demme’s Swimming to Cambodia and Nick Broomfield’s Monster in the Box, Steven Soderbergh did more of a sit-down documentary in Gray’s Anatomy where in And Everything is Going Fine is more a reflection that consists mainly of archival footage and older interviews of Gray. Gray’s Anatomy focuses primarily of Spalding discussing his eye infection that led him down treatments that involved Christian Science, Native American sweat lodges, holistic treatments, and the risks of a modern eye surgery, he shares his experiences in a rather witty, amusing, and engaging matter. While certainly someone who hinges between fascinating and annoying, Soderbergh elevates his collection of interviews through different settings, aesthetics, and camera movements that make it visually slick. Soderbergh also intercuts away from Gray and interviews complete strangers as they share their experiences of eye infections. What could certainly grow tedious in both works, is certainly anchored by Sodebergh’s playful camera along with perfect running time in which both films are just under 90 mins These are certainly must watches if you want to become a Soderbergh completist.
28. Ocean’s 12 (2004)
The Ocean’s trilogy all around are just hangout films where you watch with your friends as you watch hip characters doing crazy things. Ocean’s 12 is perhaps the weakest, though it has its circle of lovers mainly due to its spontaneous and avant-garde style where Soderbergh truly felt bored and just decided to have fun with it. If anything, it’s like the Full Frontal of the Ocean’s films and it plays out like a bunch of deleted scenes that didn’t quite make the final cut of the Ocean’s 11 and Ocean’s 13 films. Although, the faberge egg dance scene of Vincent Cassel is a highlight of the franchise, and Ocean’s 12 all around is watchable, just very forgettable.
27. High Flying Bird (2019)
Soderbergh delivers an expertly crafted and visually pleasing sports drama that is undermined by a muddled screenplay that keeps the material very distant and remote. In many ways the film is very observational of how the sports industry exploits players for profits, it takes the eavesdropping approach of The Girlfriend Experience, but unlike the material in that, it’s indeed hard to find fascinating or engaging. Overall, Soderbergh’s direction, craftsmanship, and impressive aesthetics here is what truly anchors the film from a complete bore.
26. Che Part 2 (2008)
In Part One (subtitled The Argentine), Soderbergh made an involving and kinetic first half that left you eager how it was going to end. While the film structurally jumps around a lot, it at least had some life to it along with some playful aesthetics that echoed Oliver Stone. Part 2 is more straightforward, also exquisitely shot, but it also feels more dry and meandering. It spends the last year of Che Guevara in the Bolivian jungle before he was executed by the US backed Bolivia Army. While it has its moments, the second part feels almost draining by design, and you can see just how drained Del Toro was from it. While it has some great moments as well, the second chapter unfolds on a very dry note, considering the film had so much potential for being more explosive on such a historical figure in which Soderbergh failed to deliver in an engrossing fashion. Still you can’t deny the visual grandeur and astonishing vision Soderbergh has on display here.
25. Logan Lucky (2017)
The caper heist genre is certainly Soderbergh’s forte, he has crafted a large number of them (Ocean’s movies, Out of Sight, The Underneath) and Logan Lucky was the film that Soderbergh came out of his short 3 year retirement from. Certainly a different variant in the crime genre, the film’s heartland setting and southern characters are cartoonish, but still memorable. The film stars Channing Tatum, a West Virginia singler father who’s recently divorced and is hard up for money. He ends up banding with his one-armed brother (Adam Driver) and hair stylist sister Mellie (Riley Keough) to use an elaborate plot to steal money from a Nascar’s underground cash handling structure. They end up getting assistance from demolition expert Joe Band (Daniel Craig is a hoot) who’s locked up in a state penitentiary. Meanwhile, an FBI agent (Hilary Swank, also a hoot) is quickly on their trail. If anything, Logan Lucky wasn’t quite the comeback splash for Soderberg as many were hoping for, but it was still an exciting and exuberant caper that plays out like a Southern Fried version of the Ocean’s movies, and I’ll take this over Ocean’s 12 and 13. The film actually works really really well with memorable characters, sharp laughs, swift pacing, and expertly staged set-pieces.
24. The Underneath (1995)
A film that unfairly gets beat up from time to time, sure it’s not as celebrated as other Soderbergh genre films, but the film is so well-crafted and overlooked and delivers all the expectations and gloss as you would expect from a neo-noir caper thriller. Soderbergh at his most derivative, the craft and narrative is actually conveyed well that feels like a precursor to the structure that was utilized so well in his other neo-noir thriller, The Limey. Soderbergh edits the film using flashbacks that tie into the present that normally would feel gimmicky, but here it never feels muddled or convoluted. It’s actually a very well-paced and suspenseful film that some find dull, yet the craft brings a lot of awe with blue color hues. Peter Gallagher is also solid as Michael Chambers, a gambling addict who gets into debt and returns home for a wedding and gets sucked back into his past. He ends up having an affair with ex-wife, who is engaged to a thug criminal Tommy (William Fletcher). After finding out about the affair, Michael ends up in a heist with an old girlfriend (Elisabeth Chew) and his mom’s new husband (Paul Dooley). Far from perfect, the film’s pacing and craft truly exhilarates the film away from a generic genre film.
23. Unsane (2018)
Once Sean Baker made head waves for crafting a feature film on an iPhone with his Sundance darling Tangerine, leave it to Steven Soderbergh to experiment with such equipment. Shot on a very low-budget like his underrated Bubble, the cell phone film low grain aesthetics in his 2018 psychological horror thriller are quite creepy and atmospheric. Starring Claire Foy as a cubicle desk worker named Sawyer who is traumatized by the harassments of her stalker, and she insists that she has to move away before he murders her. She avoids contact with many people and lives a very spontaneous life to throw off her stalkers comment. She ends up seeing a therapist only to discover she is very depressed and even suicidal. The grainy effect of Soderbergh’s camera lens captures a very eerie effect and a claustrophobic hysteria that echoes the work of Dario Argento and the horror films of Roman Polanski.
22. Kafka (1991)
A film that was unfairly panned at its time is in dire need of some restoration from either Criterion or Kino Lorber. There still isn’t a good Blu-Ray or DVD of the film, I actually had the honor of watching this film in my literature to film class in college as my film instructor was a major Soderbergh fanatic. Based between Kafka’s own “The Book of Metamorphosis” and the Lem Dobbs story based on Kafka. As expected, Franz Kafka’s fictional life was, well, Kafakesque. The film is about a drained man, Kafka (Jeremy Irons) who works endlessly at a dead end job for a bureaucracy in the day, and who writes novels at night. Kafka ends up getting caught between an anarchist revolutionary who’s group is responsible for terrorizing the city. This puts Kafka in a web of espionage from a spy and his cruel boss who just wants Kafka to conform to his job. This was Soderbergh’s sophomore offering, fresh off his triumphant success of Sex, Lies, and Videotape, this was Soderergh still trying to find his style and voice. We see elements in here from Cronenberg, Lynch, and Polanski, yet looking back at it the film remains a highly artful and fascinating exercise of Soderbergh at his most surreal.
21. Contagion (2011)
A film that now hits too close to home due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion was released during the era of H1-N1 which all feels quaint compared to now. Revisiting this film now makes me appreciate it even more as just how accurate Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Burns had all the details about about how a virus would impact the globe and economy, and they even predicted how humans, society, and governments would react to a global virus as the film in 2011 examines how a virus would disrupt food chains, create division, curfews, and how people stockpiled guns out of fear which we see neighbor pit against neighbor for supply chain. While some of the story yarns work more dramatically than others–yet in this current Covid-19 era, Contagion remains timeless.
20. Magic Mike (2012)
With the release of Magic Mike, the film proved even more just how versatile and functional of a director Soderbergh is. This is a director that is capable of doing heist films, political dramas, blockbusters, and small indies. In 2011 he went from crafting the astonishing Haywire, an action thriller with a dominant female protagonist, to crafting a highly compelling chronicle of male strippers Magic Mike that also had a lot of vulnerabilities and commentary on one’s pursuit of prosperity. Reflecting back, it’s also quite revelatory what Soderergh was doing with his commentary on sexuality. Of course no stranger to this theme that he has dived in before with Sex, Lies, and Videotape, with Magic Mike Soderbergh was one of the few directors that showcased women’s lust of the male body, in which so often we see the male gaze with female strippers in countless other films. He examines female’s urges and attractions to the male body, which seems taboo for cinema unless it’s delivered for mockery or laughs. Channing Tatum is quite convincing as Magic Mike. A Tampa Bay construction worker by day, stripper at night who’s trying to save money for a small business he wants to launch. He ends up mentoring a young man named Adam (Alex Pefffyler), who ends up becoming a close friend and fellow stripper with Mike. While not great Soderbergh, Magic Mike is a funny, at times stark and sad look at why woeful men resort to such a profession.
19. Schizopolis (1996)
Soderbergh at his most audacious, which is very avant-garde and equally hysterical, is actually one of his most clever films he’s made. Shot with a very low-budget, in which Soderberg wrote, directed, and stars as the lead in is a perplexing, but equally amusing and unforgettable experience. Soderbergh stars as Fletcher Munson, who works as a speech writer in which he finds out he has a doppelganger who’s a dentist named Dr. Jeffrey Korcheck This is Soderbergh’s only starring role to date in which he plays both roles to comical perfection. The film opens up very playful, in which Soderbergh is on a stage shot in 16mm grainy film who announces his film “Schizopolis” is the most important movie of our time, and if you don’t understand, well that’s the audience’s fault. From there we see Soderbergh as Fletcher confined in his desk job like his Kafka character with a cruel boss who demands he writes a speech for a scientologist style of philosopher who cross-cuts in scenes that in a Godardian style on his views on “Eventulism”. The rest of the film is quite zany and involves very comical subplots that all involve linguistics, language, and how humans communicate with each other as Soderbergh observes communication through imagery. What really distorts our perception? Is it words or images? Soderbergh examines all of this in a very fascinating way. One can easily dismiss this film as “pretentious” or “self-indulgent,” but it generates hard belly laughs, and the scene of Soderbergh looking at himself in the mirror with numerous different funny faces is worth the experience alone.
18. Ocean’s 13 (2007)
Soderbergh’s third and final Ocean film moves even further away from the 1960 Rat Pack classic as its more aligned with his Ocean’s Eleven than the messy Ocean’s Twelve (2004). The film also highlights Al Pacino as the villain Willy Bank, in which Danny Ocean (George Clooney) and his comrades (Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Don Cheadle, Bernie Mac, Casey Affleck, Scott Caan) end up exacting revenge on Willy after he harms Reuben (Elliot Gould). The film is very visually slick, and the use of the casino and hotel are some of the best staged sequences in the Ocean’s trilogy, although the gag with David Paymer with skin rashes grows tiresome quite quickly. Soderbergh ends the trilogy on a very polished note that’s filed with a lot of glossy production value and glistering fun. You can sense the all-star ensemble cast truly has a blast doing these films with Soderbergh.
17. No Sudden Move (2021)
Prolific auteur Steven Soderbergh always takes great liberties stylistically and visually, no matter what film he’s crafting, or what genre he dives into. His latest film to hit HBO Max, No Sudden Move is a convoluted period piece, married by a muddled but mostly involving narrative, despite its near 2 hour running time (115 mins), the film overall is an exuberant experience to behold with it’s flashy energy and radiant style. Stylistically, as always, there is always something to admire in Soderergh’s craftsmanship, largely confined to a limited setting of events that take place nearly in 24 hours in Motor City Detroit circa 1950s. The opening act of the film, which is the strongest, takes place mostly during a home invasion that builds up great anticipation and tension, and we’re eventually introduced to a large ensemble of characters along the way, which is a trait in Soderbergh’s work. At the center of this heist is a mystery to a loot that involves an important document, money laundering, gangsters, housewives, children, mistresses, the FBI, and even white collar executives who are covering up for the big 4 (at the time-American Motors, General Motors, Daimler Chrysler, and Ford) car companies. Featuring a bolstering ensemble cast led by Don Cheadle, Benecio del Toro, and many more, No Sudden Move is a solid feature in terms of writing, plot and characterization, that is elevated by its period detail, sense of history, effective performances by Cheadle and Del Toro, and of course Soderbergh’s impressive visual techniques.
16. Let Them All Talk (2020)
Being shot on an actual cruise line of the Queen Mary 2 and compromised with some improvisational scenes that never undermines the writing of the screenplay by Deborah Eisenberg, Soderbergh’s Let Them All Talk is an intimately inviting story centers on three estranged friends (Meryl Streep, Diane Weist,Candice Bergen) reuniting on a cruise line, whose lives have taken unpredictable paths through time. As expected, the film triumphs on a technical and visual level. While many of the character exchanges and conversations are impressive, Soderbergh elevates these scenes with the ravishing backdrop of the Queen Mary ship with the Atlantic Ocean in the background, along with some innovative angles and lenses that further implement the psychology of what these characters are enduring. As he always does, Soderbergh uses the pseudonym of Peter Andrews, and he lenses the cinematic beauty of the massive sail ship, and finds great joy as these characters navigate around the ship ashe follows them through bars, corridors, dance floors, decks, restaurants, and even a comical moment where Alice (Streep) wonders off towards uncharted areas of the ship that are closed off to the public. Soderbergh also edited the film and used the pseudonym of Mary Ann Bernard. Soderbergh truly is a jack of all trades.
15. Che Part 1 (2008)
By far the stronger of the two parts, and you will find Soderbergh at his most ambitious here. While the film hints more at greatness than overall being great, it’s still a commanding effort. There are so many great moments and Benecio Del Toro’s performance truly shines as Che Guerverra. The film jumps back and forth, which involves Che giving an interview about politics, giving speeches in front of the UN, and it cuts back to the Cuban Revolution with Fidel Castro (Damien Bachir) , and the exchanges and disagreements between Del Toro and Bachir as such historical icons are nothing short of riveting. While flawed, one can’t deny just how bold Soderbergh’s saga is that explores a man fighting for the underprivileged, who ended up becoming a historical figure of controversy and hypocrisy. By design the first chapter feels more triumphant, as Che led a revolution that overthrew Batista and the capitalistic influences from the West. The second chapter is more draining as we see Che’s demise in Bolivia. All around, both chapters are very uncompromising and visionary, just the first one offers more enormity.
14. Side Effects (2013)
At the time, the film was billed as Soderbergh’s “Final film” and while the film is enjoyable and stylish, I knew at the time this would not be his swan song. Soon after Soderbergh did the first season of HBO’s The Knick and that was supposed to be it, until he returned with Logan Lucky in 2017. While certainly flashy, Side Effects does have a trashy and preposterous side to it that borders between erotic thriller and science fiction. The film is about Emily (Rooney Mara) who’s husband Martin (Channing Tatum) returns home from prison after financial fraud. Instead of feeling relieved that Martin is back in her life, her depression worsens which leads her to seeing a therapist Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law). Who puts her on antidepressants that make her feel even more ill. Emily ends up going back to her old shrink, Dr. Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who prescribes a different medication, called Ablixa. The medication ends up having even more severe side effects which leads to her sleepwalking, having severe memory loss, and a plot twist that is quite illogical. Despite the problems with Scott Z Burns (Contagion) script, the film works mainly due to the tension building and the acting by Tatum and Mara are deeply compelling. Soderbergh turns his “Big Pharma ” cautionary tale, ripped from the headlines news tale into an impressive suspense drawer that is well-paced, unpredictable, and edgy.
13. The Informant! (2009)
A peculiar story that is blended with deadpan hilarity and equal tragedy, with an outstanding lead performance by Matt Damon (at his best) who comes off like a goofy caricature with a bad mustache and quirky traits–who props himself up as someone more important. Damon’s performance as Mark Whitacre is quite memorable and one of his best. He plays a scientist who studies corn at a giant corporation in Iowa. His job is to make the food tastier and more profitable, which leads to a lot of crony corporate dealings that leads Mike down a rabbit hole of price fixing, spies, corporate moles and double crossings. After encountering FBI agent Brian Shepard (Scott Bakula), Mark ends up deciding to cooperate with the FIB and becomes an Informant to gather information on the corporate mishandlings and corruption that exists within the corporation he works for. Yet, Mark finds himself in deep turmoil once he can’t keep up with his own pathological dishonesty that leads to his own self-destruction. Soderbergh gives us a impactful and fun character study here. He keeps his focus on Mark Whitacre’s eccentrics that feels straight out of a Coen’s film, a dreamer and deceiver, who seized an opportunity that leads to a demise.
12. Haywire (2012)
Another undervalue film that should have done better, almost like a female James Bond or Jason Bourne film that is absolutely exhilarating, Soderbergh elevates the spy actioner with a crisis of betrayal and revenge. Narratively it might be a little muddled to follow all the plot threads and characters, but the film works best with its supremely choreographed and expertly staged combat sequences that are perhaps the best action sequences Soderbergh has ever staged. Starring defamed and controversial actress Gina Carano, as a spy who’s voice is altered and dubbed in the film, was something I never noticed until I looked deeper into it. Despite some of the now problematic issues with the film, the film awes with stellar action and impressive set-pieces. While the story does tend back to spy movie cliches, convoluted plotting, double-crosses, and plenty of twists and turns. But here it still feels fresh and unique, given the film’s glossy, meticulously framed quality that stays away from the handheld realism that we saw abused to death that was inspired by Paul Greengrass. Using rich color palette of reds, blues, and yellows that is shot with Soderbergh’s masterful wide lenses, the craft and action impresses as the story eventually unfolds with a first-rate supporting cast that consists of Michael Douglas, Michael Fassbender, Ewan McGregor, Bill Paxton, Channing Tatum, and a deceptive Antonio Banderas.
11. Erin Brockovich (2000)
Often a film like Erin Brockovich is a film I can’t stand. A self-righteous, true story message movie that preaches instead of telling a complex or nuance narrative. We have seen many films like this before and after the release of Erin Brockovich. Nonetheless, Soderbergh actually triumphs here because he makes the material feel alive and you can’t help but not be involved with Julia Roberts in the title role. It’s rather a highly gripping film about corporate corruption and how the horrors can destroy livelihoods and families’ health. To this date, Julia Roberts hasn’t been better. Known more at the time for doing more Hollywood romantic comedies, she plays the role with precise perfection. A strong independent woman who’s flawed, but stern at the same time. In any lesser hands, this film probably would have been forgettable and Soderbergh was able to bring out some emotional truths out of Roberts that were outside of her comfort zone at the time.
10. Ocean’s Eleven (2001)
Released a year after his monumental year of the double bill of Traffic and Erin Brokovich that won the Oscars that year (including Best Director Oscar for Traffic), Soderberg was ready to go back to have some fun again with Ocean’s Eleven, his 2001 remake of the Rat Pack crime caper of 1960. While the original was very dull and hit-or-miss, Soderbergh and screenwriter Ted Griffin actually transcended the material and made it flashy, hip, and wholly exciting. By putting together a first-rate ensemble that consists of many A-List actors (George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Don Cheadle, Bernie Mac, Carl Reiner, Elliout Gould, Casey Affleck, Scott Caan, and Julia Roberts. Andy Garcia is a dynamic villain as a very powerful casino owner. The success of Ocean’s Eleven is that you can tell how much the cast enjoys the material, and Soderergh is also having a playful time with this visually slick comedic heist romp, and the sequences in the film are of course elaborate. Every cast member never loses their momentum, and you can’t help but root for Danny Ocean (Clooney) and his clique to seize the large sums of money. Soderbergh knows how to craft prestige films, small films, and pure escapist films like this where he can truly elevate his talent. Ocean’s 11 is a prime example of his dynamic skill.
9. Behind the Candelabra (2013)
A spectacular biopic about showbiz that has a lot on its mind with deep layers and themes about stardom, control, power, duality, and repressed emotions. Soderbergh’s HBO original film is every bit as cinematic and flashy as the rest of his impressive filmography. Of course, serving not only as director but as cinematographer and editor in screenwriter Richard LaGravenese’s (The Fisher King, The Ref) adaptation from Scott Thorson’s best-selling autobiography that chronicles Scott’s secretive love affair with iconic American pianist and performer Liberace, who did endless shows in Vegas nightclubs. With Michael Douglass and Matt Damon delivering some of their finest performances of their careers as well, they truly make natural transitions with their roles that never feels false. The film is balanced in so many impressive ways in which Soderbergh keeps it away from biopic detours. So many biopics, especially about musicians rely heavily on the rise and demise that is anchored by a great central performance with basic storytelling and dullness. But the end result with Behind the Candelabra is different, it’s a sensational and highly rewarding experience that feels more vigorous than maudlin. Essentially, Soderbergh captures a certain time and era of two human beings who were deeply in love in which outside forces of public perception and insecurities truly undermined Liberace and Scott Thorson’s love for each other. Here, life, showbusiness, and stardom flow together in one heart-wrenching pulse.
8. King of the Hill (1993)
Another overlooked Soderergh gem!! Now on Criterion Blu-ray, Soderbergh’s third feature is a near perfect adaptation of the memoir by the late A. E. Hotchner. The deeply moving saga is filled with luminous period detail and like The Girlfriend Experience, Kafka, Bubble, and Solaris is one of Soderbergh’s most overlooked gems. It would be a huge Oscar contender if Soderbergh crafted this today with the right campaign. With poor marketing and an inappropriate release date at the time from Gramercy Pictures, King of the Hill never found a reputation or the audience it properly deserved. Moreover, Hotchner’s autobiographical memoir feels almost like an American variation of a Charles Dicken’s novel Oliver Twist, with its setting during the Great Depression. On nearly level, King of the Hills sweeps you with emotion. The story, with main protagonist Aaron (Jesse Bradford in a superb performance), a boy trying to survive on his own in a hotel in St. Louis once his mom goes into a sanatorium with a whooping cough and his younger son is sent to live with their uncle. His father, a German immigrant and traveling watch salesman, must go off on the road to sustain their standard of living, leaving young Aaron lonely and surviving on his own. Alluring and gripping, with a brisk pace of 100 mins, the film’s third act is the most heartbreaking as Aaron is on the verge of eviction from the hotel and cuts out pictures of food as he imagines eating in a full course meal. Aaron is the full focus, and his journey is one of Soderbergh’s most rewarding journeys he has delivered yet. Both Adrian Brody and Spalding Gray deliver great supporting characters that bring some encouragement and wisdom into Aaron’s life.
7. The Limey (1999)
Immediately after the critical and commercial success of Out of Sight, Soderergh dived right back into more indie routes that proved Soderbergh is a master at the crime genre. The Limey is steeped in movie references, a neo-noir thriller intertwined as a revenge saga that has a richly moody atmosphere that echoes the work of Michael Mann, Ridley Scott, William Frenkin, and Dog Siegal-who also created revenge films about tough, stoic men embarking on revenge-but Soderbergh still allows the material to feel fresh and live thanks mainly his unique editing style and playful structure. Terrence Stamp is a superb performance who plays Wilson, a British father who is just released from prison who embarks on a journey to find answers on the recent death of his daughter who is involved in a mysterious car accident on Mulholland Drive. Wilson works with his late daughter’s friend Eduardo (Luis Guzman) in finding out what kind of company she had. Wilson is incredibly talented at getting cancers, a former criminal who now works like a detective in a hard boiled detective that leads him to a sinister entertainment music producer named Terry Valentine (Peter Fonda). Between The Underneath, Out of Sight, and The Limey Soderergh proved his a filmmaker of style and like Tarantino a lover of genre. Soderbergh also proves he adores his characters and actors, and he finds great character depth along the way that brings a greater amount of surface than just being a routine genre work. The Limey is truly a visually sublime piece of filmmaking.
6. Bubble (2006)
Sadly, it’s almost like this film is non-existent for modern film buffs when discussing Soderbergh’s oeuvre, which is tragic because his 2006 Bubble remains an unusual framework in his filmography. Using all unprofessional actors, a more stripped down indie filmmaking style that still astonishes visually, Soderbergh was at a comfortable point in his career now that he can return back to his roots and experiment on a technical level. For its time, the marketing of the film was way ahead of its time as it was released theatrically, ON DVD, and On Demand the same day way back in 2006. Of course I saw it at the theater opening weekend, only to find myself buying the DVD on the way out of the theater. With breathtaking imagery with meticulous framing, Soderergh used Cinemascope lenses and cameras that brought out very impressive wide-shots. Centering on two workers at a doll factory: a young man in his 20s Kyle (Dustin James Ashley) and a middle aged woman Martha (Debie Doeereiner). Martha is a very lonely woman who finds satisfaction in having lunches with Kyle while they work. Martha’s routine is altered once Rose (Misty Dawn Wilkins) gets hired in their work force and begins to start flirting with Kyle which leads everyone down a tragedy as Martha watches Rose’s kids as Kyle and Rose go on a date. Hands down, this is one of Soderbergh’s most creative and visually pleasing films of his career. Soderbergh builds a fascinating world that feels very raw and natural, yet almost like a fever dream as well. Soderbergh uses surreal imagery of the dolls at the factory. Soderergh utilizes these aesthetics and symbolism to show just how hazy and hypnagogic life can really be. Bubble truly is an extraordinary feat that more film buffs need to watch.
5. Solaris (2002)
It is baffling to me how Steven Soderbergh’s 2002 “Solaris” isn’t as celebrated as it should be. For starters, the film is not a remake of Tarkovsky’s 1972 masterpiece, it’s just Soderbergh’s (that he also served as writer) retelling of Stanisław Lem’s novel. Upon its release in the fall of 2002, the film was very polarized by critics and audiences, mainly because it wasn’t a spectacle piece like “The Martin,” or “Aliens,” and it’s more of a mood piece. and to this date I still feel the film has never received the proper care or attention that it deserves. The film is so ethereal, solemn, and metaphysical on so many deep levels. The editing, production design, directing, and performances are all impeccable. Especially George Clooney who truly delivers a sophisticated, tormented, and vulnerable performance as Kris Kelvin, a psychiatrist who is sent on a space mission to find answers on a stranded spacecraft, only to find a bizarre encounter with Rheya (Natasha McElhone), who happens to either be a spirit or some other supernatural variation of his dead ex-wife. Artistically and spiritually, “Solaris” astonishes on nearly every level. It’s easily one of Soderbergh’s most criminally undervalued and beauteous films he’s ever crafted. Just like almost all of his films, Solaris becomes a highly personal and noble labor of love. If you prefer high-minded and intellectual sci-fi, then this one’s for you. Cliff Martinez’s woozy score is a highlight of the decade. Co-Starring Viola Davis and Jeremy Davies.
4. Out of Sight (1998)
Soderbergh’s impressive adaptation of the Elmore Leonard Leonard novel is a vivid, richly stylized heist caper, bathed in vibrant colors is indeed an exuberant experience. In Out of Sight, career bank robber Jack Foley (George Clooney) robs a bank with no gun, he walks out with a bag of money, but his vehicle won’t start, which leads to police officers pulling their guns on them, and he finds himself back in state prison. After discovering a fellow inmate (Luis Guzman) plotting to escape prison through an underground tunnel, Jack plots his escape with right-hand man Buddy (Ving Rhames), as he attempts to escape they encounter Karen Cisco (a terrific Jennifer Lopez), a U.S. Marshall which leads to her being trapped in a car trunk as Foley escapes from the prison. Eventually they all leave the scene of the crime and Karen and Jack go separate ways, but it’s clear they have a romantic spark as well. During an era of pulpy crime films due to the success of Pulp Fiction, like Tarantino did, Soderbergh along with Scott Frank’s script was able to elevate the material with memorable characters, wonderful performances, and sharp Leonard Maltin characterizations along with energetic style and pacing.
3. Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989)
Soderbergh’s debut feature still remains one of the most impressive directorial debuts to ever be released. Crafting the film in just his 20s, over 30 years ago, has actually aged very well since due to how sophisticated, layered, and artistic the film is. It was a film that helped generate great enthusiasm for independent cinema at the time. A playful and daring film in which Soderbergh chronicles the life of four characters. Ann (Andie MacDowell) is more concerned with all the garbage and waste will eventually go than having sex with her husband John (Peter Gallagher). John finds his physical needs maintained though through Ann’s sexy sister Cynthia (Laura San Giamcomo). Meanwhile, an old college friend of John’s Graham (James Graham), moves into town, and gets his own place. Ann and Graham have an interesting friendship where they open up some of their deep secrets, in which Graham informs Ann that he enjoys videotaping women discussing their sexual experiences and fantasies, and that it’s the only way he finds sexual pleasure. This leads all the characters to a journey of neurosis, discoveries, and secret desires that eventually come out. Soderbergh brilliantly examines human sexuality and how so many of us shamefully hide away our pleasures and desires from others out of embarrassment and judgement. Sex, Lies, and Videotape is a very artful and sophisticated watch, but it also brings a lot of layers to its characters, narrative, and themes.
2. The Girlfriend Experience (2009)
Though not many first think of this highly artful gem when they think of Soderbergh’s filmography, it should. Later made into a successful television mini-series on Starz (That Soderbergh served as Executive Produce on). This experimental and freshly innovative work by Soderbergh and screenwriting duo Brian Koppelman and David Levien (Rounders) is nothing short of a masterpiece. Starring former adult movie actress Sasha Gray in a very natural and comfortable performance, a likable high end escort in which Soderbergh observes in a fragmented glossy, cinema veritas style where you feel like your eavesdropping due to its natural realism during the leadup to the historical 2008 election between Barack Obama and John McCain. Tastefully done, vulnerable, highly sophisticated, and artistically savvy–Soderbergh takes the lifestyle of an upper Manhattan escort and makes a truly distinctive vision out of the material that is unlike anything he has ever crafted. More importantly, Soderbergh never sensationalizes the escort service, in fact the film cuts away from sex scenes and has no nudity. The brilliance is that the fetishization of escorts, sex, or the female body. It of course dives into sexuality, and how men unease their stress from career and family to unleased tension that is building besides them. Soderbergh and writers examine the economic uncertainties of the 2008 era and works indirectly with the themes of human nature and desire, which makes it even more effective. Soderbergh examines the routines of escort lifestyle, listening to her clients, sharing dinners, listening to their worries right before they have sex. All of these moments should be dull, however, Soderbergh’s camera is observational and he gets right to the emotional core and subtext with his astonishing framing and wide shots (Soderbergh lensing again as Peter Andrews). The film also shows the competitiveness of escorting and the desperation Christine, alias Chelsea (Gray) would go in getting her name out there which involves a icky scene involving an escort critic (Played creepily effective by film critic Glenn Kenny) who tries to sway Chelsea into bartering her escort services for a glowing review on his blog. All around, The Girlfriend Experience is a great piece of cinema, surely to be on my list for the best of the 2000’s when I later reveal that. The final moments of the film are absolutely unforgettable and unforgettable, reflecting back now right before 2008 that life is truly a cycle of uncertainty that eventually gravitates us towards a shimmer of hope.
1. Traffic (2000)
Steven Soderbergh’s most accomplished and impressive picture of his career, a film of such rich visual grandeur and epic scope, the film used the Robert Altman approach of using intersecting storylines in different locales to explore the failing drug war that sadly still continues twenty years later. The artistic success of Soderbergh’s vision not only lies in Stephan Gaghan’s engrossing script that is deeply layered and brilliantly structured, but Soderbergh’s aesthetic shifts that change depending on the locale remain innovative today. The success of “Traffic” would lead an array of many other great films in the 2000s that include Gaghan’s own “Syriana,” “Babel,” and “Crash.” On the surface, Soderbergh’s Traffic remains a unique and extraordinary film on all levels. For instance, The final images of “Traffic” are the most humane and poignant moments he has ever staged. As Brian Enos “An Ending” beautifully plays over the images of a Mexican drug enforcement agent (Benecio Del Toro) watching his son’s baseball game in Mexico. The whole is quite a shattering experience. 21 years after the film, the endless cycle of the drug war still wages on, yet all we can all do with the unstoppable chaos, greed, and power that stems from corruption is to find peace and appreciate some of the smaller things in life as our life passes us by from things outside of our control. With a first-rate ensemble cast, Soderbergh’s film remains an imperative study on failed drug war policies and his most triumphant work of art to date.