With Steven Soderbergh's latest slice of cinematic greatness hitting theaters this week in The Informant!, we thought we'd take a look back at the amazing career of one of the most important filmmakers of the last two decades. With as impressive a range of films as anyone working today, what's remarkable about Soderbergh is his ability to go from completely mainstream blockbusters like the Ocean's franchise to much smaller films like Bubble to something in between like The Good German (cast was mainstream but concept was definitely not). He's completely unpredictable and his work ethic should be inspiring to everyone. The one thing his films have in common is that you can tell that Soderbergh loves making film. How else do you explain releasing Che, The Girlfriend Experience, and The Informant! in less than a year's time? He's passionate about his craft and inspiring in his refusal to deliver anything predictable.
Most directors don't have three films that diverse on their ENTIRE resume and the fact that all three are excellent is all-the-more amazing. Soderbergh has already had three periods of brilliance. The first came when he changed the face of independent cinema with Sex, Lies and Videotape and followed it up with an amazingly unique series of films including Kafka and King of the Hill. The independent film movement was decidedly different in the late 1990s as it was in the late 1980s when Soderbergh first came on the scene, so Steven went mainstream but brought his own energy and talent to a ridiculously good string of popular films like Out of Sight, Traffic, and Erin Brockovich. To this viewer, Soderbergh entered his darkest period in the mid-2000s by going too much "Inside Hollywood" with films like Full Frontal and the first Ocean's sequel. But in the last few years, Soderbergh has perhaps pulled off his greatest feat by blending all the different directorial personas of his past from the independent maverick who might have made a film like The Girlfriend Experience to the more mainstream filmmaker who puts Matt Damon in The Informant! And he's doing some of the best work of his career.
Skipping the TV work and his part of Eros, Steven Soderbergh has given us twenty complete films (viewing Che as one) to choose from and it was actually very difficult to whittle this list down to ten. Despite some respected critics who claim otherwise, Ocean's Twelve is Soderbergh's biggest misstep in my eyes. One man's "subversive" is another's "narcissistic, boring, and stupid." Full Frontal and Schizopolis can be immediately scrapped for most of the same reasons. But everything else should be seen and would be recommended. Gray's Anatomy doesn't have the impact that makes me remember it well enough to include (besides, Swimming to Cambodia is a better Spalding Gray film anyway) and The Good German was undeniably flawed, even if I think it got unjustly slammed by most people.
As for true runner-ups – Kafka was a daring choice for a second film; King of the Hill is perhaps the most underappreciated-by-the-public film in his career; Ocean's Thirteen was a lot more fun than it was given credit for being; Erin Brockovich probably would have made the list if I hadn't seen it recently and thought it looked extremely dated; and as much as I truly want to love Solaris, I just don't. Perhaps it is being too familiar with the original but there's something about Soderbergh's Solaris that strikes me much like Van Sant's Psycho – I'd rather see the original.
Probably the most straight-up popular film on this list (if you gauge popularity by being played on basic cable interminably), Ocean's Eleven represents Soderbergh playing with a classic representation of the essence of cool (in the rat pack) that clearly had an impact on him personally, but also just trying to deliver a film that will leave audiences smiling on their way out the door. After the incredibly serious one-two punch of Erin Brockovich and Traffic, which had both come out only the year before, could you blame a director for wanting to get together with an amazing ensemble and have some fun in the city of sin? When the Ocean's films work, which is in most of the first and third and some of the second film, that's what they do best, create an infection of the joy of the con and the beautiful men and women involved in the game.
God, I wish Soderbergh would make another noir (although he arguably would again in the neo-noir The Limey, which you'll find further up this list). 1995's The Underneath is an underrated attempt at the genre fueled by a great performance from the always-excellent William Fichtner and turns from Peter Gallagher and Elizabeth Shue before they became so predictable. The final act holds it back from greatness but The Underneath proved that Soderbergh could make movies for the masses. After Sex, Lies, and Videotape; Kafka; and King of the Hill, it looked like Soderbergh might always be a director who appealed more to the arthouse than the mainstream. The Underneath was when I realized that Soderbergh would eventually not be just a Sundance darling but someone who would probably take the stage at the Oscars (which he would just a few years later). It's not that The Underneath is Oscar-caliber filmmaking, but it's where I think Soderbergh really developed into the director who would make most of the films on the rest of this list, including the blockbusters, independent experiments, and award-winners.
Proof that Soderbergh isn't concerned about expectations and simply makes the films he WANTS to make can be seen in the excellent The Girlfriend Experience from earlier this year. This is evidence of Soderbergh telling the stories that interest him; ones he wants to tell by experimenting with the form. TGE is about the life of a high-priced escort (Sasha Grey) and is shot on digital video with almost entirely unbroken takes. It looks both amazingly refined and feels voyeuristic at the same time. The design of Girlfriend is subtle but remarkable and Soderbergh proves to have an eye for talent as Grey is simply great, bringing a genuine quality to the role that so many actresses would have turned into melodrama or missed entirely. I love Girlfriend because it shows Soderbergh taking chances with subject matter and style. Track it down on DVD on September 29th.
Probably the least seen film on this list, Bubble is disturbingly underrated. It's probably unlikely to become your favorite film but there's a mastery of craft on display in Bubble that's mind-blowing to this viewer and I think the reason I rank it so high is because I see it as the opening act to the latest chapter of Soderbergh's career, a step back from the mistakes I think he made in the mid-2000s. Made for under $2 million, shot on digital video, largely improvised, and released on DVD four days after being released in theaters, Bubble represents Soderbergh experimenting with the form in much the same way he did with his breakthrough Sex, Lies, and Videotape. He's not only playing with the delivery structure of film but he's playing with the expectations of what an audience brings to a film when they see a director's name above a title and driving home that you should have none when it comes to his films.
Oh, Che. The lengthy, heated debates I've gotten into about Soderbergh's epic about the failure of revolution are one of the reasons I love it. When someone tells me they hated Che, I smile. It's one of the few films of the last few years that I think is honestly worthy of discussion. You were bored during the second half of Che? What if you were supposed to be? It's a film about the fizzling out of the passion required for revolutionary action. I think Che is remarkable in its construct with each driven action of the first half matched by apathetic failure in the second half. With Benicio Del Toro giving arguably the best performance in all of the Soderbergh films (if it's not this one it's probably the one he gave in Traffic), I find Che mesmerizing. With critics and movie goers constantly telling me that they wish more filmmakers would take honest risks, I feel like we need to support experiments like Che. You say Che was a difficult film? What if it was supposed to be? Shouldn't the life of someone as complex as Che Guevara be more than disposable entertainment?
Soderbergh's newest is a wonderful comedy that gets richer in memory and discussion, as all great films do. Damon gives the performance of his career as Mark Whitacre, a man who is so delusional that he basically lives inside his own head. Like a lot of Midwesterners, Whitacre has read a few too many Crichton and Grisham novels and when he becomes involved in an international, billion-dollar investigation, he makes mistake after mistake. Damon is simply perfect in the role and Soderbergh's direction is masterful, making for a film that's almost jarringly unusual at first. But once you get on the wavelength of this nearly screwball story of a man who poisoned nearly everything around him with his own delusions, it is a wonderfully brilliant examination of high-level greed and stupidity. (Come back for more on The Informant! with our full-length review on Friday.)
Terence Stamp simply rocks in The Limey. Giving one of the most driven, remarkable performances of his career, Stamp stars as Wilson, a violent Englishman who heads to the city of angels to get revenge for the death of his daughter. Thrilling from beginning to end, The Limey transcends its genre by hinting at how Soderbergh would later experiment with the form through unusual editing and flashback techniques. The Limey is one of my personal favorites because it brilliantly displays Soderbergh's multi-faceted abilities as a director. A lot of directors can make a taut thriller but very few can make one with a performance as complex as Stamp's in the lead role and break so many of the traditional rules of the genre while still providing an intense, riveting experience.
Nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Editing, Out of Sight is an underrated classic, a film that turned George Clooney into the modern Cary Grant and a film that thoroughly entertains from first frame to last. I grew up on films like North by Northwest and Charade, films with charming leads, gorgeous women, and intriguing mysteries and those films defined my love for the medium. That love is there in Out of Sight. Out of Sight is a direct descendent of those films, a masterpiece of cool style and clever dialogue. It is one of Soderbergh's best-directed films by far, a movie that gets better every time I see it, feeling more like a modern classic with each passing year.
What more is there to say about Traffic? It's ambitious, flawless, and riveting filmmaking and probably Soderbergh's most universally-acclaimed film ... for good reason. Traffic worked different, related narratives into a full experience long before the narrative structure had reached the point of over-saturation. With a massive running time, huge ensemble, and daring subject matter, Traffic was a risk in every way and it paid off with four Academy Awards, including Best Director, Supporting Actor, Editing, and Adapted Screenplay. (And it should have won Best Picture over Gladiator.) Soderbergh had displayed incredible technical and storytelling ambition with small films like Kafka and The Limey but Traffic proved that the scope of the film wouldn't dictate his willingness to take risks. All directors should follow his lead.
What criteria should be used to pick a director's best film? If we're talking influence, nothing touches Sex, Lies, and Videotape, a movie that really changed the game when it came to the potential of independent film. If we're talking performance, no one in the cast was ever better than they were here. And if we're talking storytelling, Sex, Lies, and Videotape is as timelessly riveting as anything the man has made in the twenty years since. Yes, it looks a bit like a product of its time, but that's not as much of an issue as with other films because it's an essential part of the film. Sex, Lies, and Videotape put a stamp on the end of the selfish era of the 1980s and ushered in an era where technology, whether it be videotape, computers, or your damn Facebook page, would become a major part of the way men and women interact. Witty, clever, honest, and fascinating, Sex, Lies, and Videotape won several major awards, including the Palme D'Or, and became a cultural touchstone for the generation that would follow. Seeing Sex, Lies, and Videotape made me want to become a writer in the hope that I could somehow bring work this good to a wider audience. No film by one of my favorite directors was more personally motivating, and, so, I can't claim any was better.