My interest in Steven Soderbergh is strongly rooted in his general lack of commonality within his oeuvre. With the notable exception of the Ocean’s series, no two films share an overwhelming vibe that screams “Soderbergh,” despite his fondness for working with certain actors … and that strikes me as an unusually rare quality. Werner Herzog’s films are distinguished by the protagonist battling personal demons. The majority of David Lynch’s films are defined (or undefined) by the surreal. Clint Eastwood is a paradigm of simplicity. Terrance Malick aims to characterize nature. Great directors all, yet all with a clearly defined comfort zone.
To be fair, there is absolutely nothing wrong with a distinguishing characteristic. In fact, Herzog and Lynch are likely my favorite directors, and my least favorite of their works are those that stray too far from their respective wheelhouses. It is for this reason that I became intrigued with Soderbergh’s filmography – I have no natural biases created by a want for a specific theme or philosophy.
Without further ado:
21. Ocean’s 13 (2007)
I wouldn’t call this a poor film per se, but it replace the style and flash of the first two installments of the trilogy with … well, I’m not sure, exactly. It’s entertaining, perhaps even as entertaining as the first two films, but it felt the shallowest and it didn’t bring anything new to the table.
20. Bubble (2005)
A paragon of minimalist filmmaking, insofar as what goes on behind the camera. In front of the camera, the characters were incredibly stilted and oddly unconvincing, giving the fine environments and pacing.
19. Underneath (1995)
An incredibly complex film, I almost felt as if Soderbergh did not want the viewer to follow the twists and turns therein. At times, it felt as if the shifts in tone and pacing occurred for no reason at all. Underneath is an interesting about-face from Bubble, in that it utilizes fairly complex editing work and rich textures throughout. Well-known character William Fichtner provides a noteworthy turn, as well.
18. Full Frontal (2002)
Most would argue that Full Frontal is Soderbergh’s worst film … and there’s a fairly compelling argument to be made. While I cannot entirely overlook its faults, particularly in the realm of characterization, I appreciate the ambitious effort. The film is hypnotic in a semi-surreal sense, and the characters, while one-dimensional, are completely engrossing.
17. Erin Brockovich (2000)
I expect a bit of flack for this, but I must say that this placement is not a knock on the film itself – rather, it is a testament to Soderbergh’s strength as a director. Roberts and Finney are at their very best, and the film is charming from start to finish.
16. The Informant! (2009)
Most would argue that the lack of a clear, consistent tone and up-and-down pacing hurt the film; I feel that that fits perfectly with Matt Damon’s character, creating a wonderfully engrossing romp. For my money, it’s also Damon’s best performance.
15. Gray’s Anatomy (1996)
A fantastic documentary, drawing much of its greatness from Spalding Gray’s verbalizations. The staging of the discourse itself is quite unique, as well, lending a very intriguing feel to the conversation.
14. Ocean’s 12 (2004)
I almost placed this above Ocean’s 11, but far too much of its success is predicated upon its predecessor to do so. It serves as almost a parody of the sensationalism of the first film, and I cannot imagine a flashier film that didn’t stumble into obnoxiousness.
13. Contagion (2011)
A gripping and disturbing film, to be sure, Contagion suffers a bit from a lack of compelling characters. That isn’t to say that the performances weren’t strong – they were. Rather, that the multiple storylines and inconsistent sense of a true protagonist took a great deal away from most everyone.
12. Ocean’s 11 (2001)
This rises above the rest as the most well-acted film of the trilogy, while also creating the greatest sense of having something at stake. I also, perhaps unjustly, give this a great deal of credit for being the rare remake that improves upon the original while also tipping its hat.
11. Traffic (2000)
Copy and paste my take on Contagion, with superior acting and a greater sense of believability.
10. The Girlfriend Experience (2009)
Despite its flaws (e.g. the acting aside from Sasha Grey), I cannnot help but absolutely adore Soderbergh’s efforts. The visual aesthetic is breathtaking, particularly considering its limited budget and digital filming, and the soundtrack creates an ubiquitous sense of vibrancy from start to finish. I view The Girlfriend Experience as an homage of sorts to Godard, which (fair or unfair) makes it all the more intriguing.
09. King of the Hill (1993)
Jesse Bradford makes this film, with one of the very best performances of the 1990s – I’m actually quite shocked that he remained a veritable unknown on the heels of such a tremendous turn. The film itself was fairly simplistic, and it remains emotionally honest despite its jarring nature.
08. The Good German (2006)
I would be shocked if this placement wasn’t derided, at least to some degree. The black and white cinematography is incredibly rich and vivid, and Clooney and Blanchett do a fine job of kindling memories of film noir. I would also argue that the score is one of the best of this past decade, though that likely bears discussing in a greater venue. Having seen this on the heels of some incredibly negative reviews, I suppose I may be artificially inflating the rating – but it’s held up over the course of three viewings.
07. Kafka (1991)
From this point forward, the films are all but interchangeable. In drafting this post I actually reordered the top-seven three times, with Kafka placing as high as third. The bizarre, almost visceral visuals are wonderful, and Jeremy Irons has never been better … but the remainder of the cast failed to impress, and the film tended to meander when Irons was not its focus.
06. Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989)
At face value, this film may be about sex, or perhaps voyeurism. For that, Sex, Lies, and Videotape has likely turned off many a viewer unwilling to delve into deeper sensibilities. At its core, this is a film about the impact of sex on one’s emotions and livelihood – a film about honesty, I suppose. James Spader and Andie MacDowell are nothing short of fantastic, and Peter Gallagher gives what is without question his best performance.
05. The Limey (1999)
There is no amount of praise that I could heap on the breakneck editing of this film that would be unjustified. However, that appears to be the norm with The Limey, with Soderbergh garnering all of the credit for its brilliance. While I cannot take anything away from Soderbergh’s mastery, my love of this film stems mostly from Terence Stamp’s performance, which is one of the very best of the 1990s. Luis Guzman also shines, stealing scene after scene with his charisma and charm.
04. Solaris (2002)
Solaris was actually first in the first two drafts of this list, and its drop is entirely dependent on two relatively minor factors – the slow and something meandering opening, and the abrupt ending. In between, this may very well be Soderbergh’s best film. It is a nuanced, thought-provoking film, beautifully shot and meticulously scored. Either this or the second-ranked film is Clooney’s best performance, and Natascha McElhone may have outshone him. I’m already second-guessing myself.
03. Schizopolis (1996)
A tremendous satire in the vein of Dr. Strangelove … and one that I refuse to comment on further. If you have yet to see Schizopolis, do so immediately – you won’t be disappointed (unless you don’t like satire, I suppose).
02. Out of Sight (1998)
Out of Sight is the only top-dozen or so film on this list that never shifted, standing fast as Soderbergh’s second-best film. Perhaps that means I’ve been lying to myself about his best film all this time. As I mentioned earlier, this may very well be Clooney’s best performance, as he oozes charm, charisma, suaveness, and most everything else that has been associated with him throughout his career. What sets this apart from the films preceding it, however, is the fantastic work of Jennifer Lopez, who manages to go toe-to-toe with Clooney throughout – a difficult task, to say the least. Ving Rhames and Don Cheadle deliver, as well, often stealing the scene.
01. Che (2008)
This may be a misplacement, predicated upon one thing – Benicio Del Toro’s performance. In my mind, no other Soderbergh film featured such a riveting lead performance, and for that Che stands alone. Soderbergh’s use of natural scenery creates an almost chaotic beauty, and the interwoven use of Che’s speeches and interviews in New York worked wonderfully. Atmospheric and fascinating, this is certainly a two-man show … and I’m not sure that anyone could have pulled that off besides Soderbergh and Del Toro.