As you might recall if you listen to our exhaustive recent podcast episode on Steven Soderbergh, we here at SportsAlcohol.com are, by and large, pretty big fans of his work. On the occasion of that podcast and the release of Logan Lucky, his first new feature in four years, here are Soderbergh’s 25 fiction films ranked from worst all the way up to best. The rankings were determined only by me, Jesse, but I enlisted some help in talking about certain entries. Cue the David Holmes music:
Every Steven Soderbergh Movie, Ranked
25. Erin Brockovich (2000)
I know it’s one of two movies that got Soderbergh nominated for a Best Director Oscar in the same year, that it got Julia Roberts a long-awaited-by-some Oscar of her own, it’s one of Soderbergh’s biggest hits, and it showed once and for all that he could play the big-studio game with mainstream aplomb. AND YET: Watching it now, in the wake of so many successful genre experiments, the most genre-experimental thing about Erin Brockovich is just how plodding it is. Soderbergh digs into the procedural aspect of this true story of a tough lady without a law degree spearheading a major case against a chemical polluter, but in a workmanlike way, heavy on repetitive scenes on the job (interviewing people struck ill by the contamination) and at home (getting harangued by biker-next-door Aaron Eckhart about never being around). The actors playing the many and varied victims of the gas company that let chemicals seep into groundwater are wonderfully unaffected, but that only highlights what a showy star turn this is for Roberts; approximately every other scene seems calibrated for maximum Oscar cheers, be it for her profane outbursts or tearful breakdowns about her kids. In most of his movies, Soderbergh uses his exacting sense of control to make a genre his own. Here, he makes a respectable effort, but ultimately surrenders to the boilerplate.
24. Schizopolis (1996)
I wish I liked this more. It’s really only ranked above Erin Brockovich for spite and, secondarily, out of respect for a movie written and directed by Steven Soderbergh, starring Steven Soderbergh, in multiple roles. It’s a surreal, satirical comedy with sketch-like elements (I swear I thought of Richard Lester 15 minutes into my first viewing, and only found out later that Lester is a hero of Soderbergh’s; this made me feel smart in the moment, but it could double as a criticism that Soderbergh is wearing his influences so heavily on his sleeve that even someone who has only seen a few Richard Lester movies could spot it immediately), and it has as many corny, cutesy jokes as good ones. Yet it is genuinely bizarre in a way that so few American movies, even indies, have even the slightest interest in achieving. This sounds antithetical to the whole enterprise, but it might have worked with a different actor; I kept thinking of what a big-at-the-time Jim Carrey could have done within Soderbergh’s lunatic (but still quite controlled) framework.
23. Kafka (1991)
Similarly, I wish I were the type of Soderbergh fan that could really go hard for Kafka as an underappreciated gem, and it probably is better than its reputation, but like Schizopolis, I was pretty into it for half an hour and it doesn’t really sustain itself beyond the halfway mark. It doesn’t help that I was only able to watch a DVD rip on YouTube. But Nathaniel has some more to say about it:
The works of Franz Kafka hold an obvious appeal to a certain breed of filmmaker. He has a clear influence on idiosyncratic guys like Terry Gilliam and the Coen brothers, and King of the Cinematic Iconoclasts Orson Welles apparently held his own adaptation of The Trial as his favorite of his movies. So it makes a lot of sense that a beat-of-his-own-drum experimenter like Soderbergh would take a crack at Kafka. And the result is, appropriately, strange and compromised and also enthralling. A blurry combination of (slight) biography and (sorta) adaptation, the film follows Jeremy Irons’s Franz Kafka as he gets mixed up with an underground group of radicals and attempts to learn the secrets of a vast conspiracy that controls his city. A disappointment on release, it hasn’t really garnered much of a cult audience or been rediscovered by the internet (and Soderbergh himself seems to hold it in kind of nebulous regard, as the last time he’s discussed it publicly was to mention his intention to recut it). But fans should definitely check it out. Atmospheric black-and-white photography, a clever (too clever, or not clever enough? who’s to say?) approach to Kafka’s life and work, and a rad cast of character actors (Joel Grey, Ian Holm, and Alec Guinness) supporting a perfectly cast Jeremy Irons (who begs to be shot in black-and-white, and thank goodness it happened here). It’s an experiment with mixed results, but it’s a worthy one.
22. The Good German (2006)
One of Soderbergh’s greatest formal gambits, shot in black and white and the boxy Academy aspect ratio to emulate movies of the ’30s and ’40s. The mix of retro style and more contemporary sensibilities (the Tobey Magure character does and says stuff that no Code-approved movie of the time could deal with) is fascinating and often gorgeous, especially in the opening 30 to 40 minutes. But the movie goes unexpectedly slack before it gets to its final Casablanca homage. It’s something I’ve revisited repeatedly, trying to figure out why it doesn’t work better, and I’ve never quite cracked it. I’m not sure if Soderbergh did, either.
21. Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989)
I wonder what Soderbergh thinks of this movie now. It’s hard to imagine him making a movie like this in 2017, and that’s usually the mark of an evolving artist. It may also be a mark of Sex, Lies, and Videotape not being quite as good as its reputation as a scintillating groundbreaker. It plays to me a lot like a play, right down to the four characters who mostly interact with each other. Soderbergh doesn’t film it like one, of course, but he does write it that way – and by “that way,” I mean sort of schematic and conceptual, without a lot of inner life. Watching it again for the first time in years, I was struck by how unconvincing most of the relationships in it are. Soderbergh supposedly wrote the screenplay in eight days, and while it’s treated (rightfully) as ground zero of his career, it has just as much in common with his later experiments as it does with his “major” films, only without the fun he has playing around with action movies, disaster thrillers, and so on.
20. Che (2008)
One more set of wishes: I wish I loved this movie more; I wish I excitedly bought the Criterion Blu-ray in anticipation of multiple rewatches. But as smart and immersive and wildly ambitious as this two-part project is, not even seeing the roadshow version at the Ziegfeld theater in Manhattan with Nicky Katt somewhere in the audience could make this feel totally unlike a slog. There’s something punishing about this movie, and while it got great reviews, I feel like it provided Soderbergh with another, less heralded hard reset. His movies since Che have been fleeter, faster, and lighter on their feet – and not to sound like a philistine, but they’re better for it.
19. The Underneath (1995)
Here we go with a contrarian version: Poorly regarded by many, including Soderbergh himself, but you know what? It’s a little tepid, but as a low-key, sometimes color-coordinated neo-noir, it’s not bad, and more satisfying within its genre than Kafka or Schizopolis are outside of theirs.
18. Full Frontal (2002)
A baggy screw-around comedy that gets a lot of mileage out of its best bits – specifically, Nicky Katt’s brief monologue about the merits of drinking blood.
17. Behind the Candelabra (2013)
Soderbergh doesn’t seem like the type of guy to tamp down his style for television; indeed, The Knick (which I’ve been meaning to watch for years) is much-lauded for feeling more cinematic and composed than a lot of its prestige-TV competition. Yet there is something a little bit stylistically functional about Soderbergh’s Liberace biopic for HBO, even though it looks great and actually got a theatrical release in plenty of other countries. The focus is more on the performances, and give the director a lot of credit for prodding a big stretch from oft-coasting yuppie extraordinaire Michael Douglas, alongside a typically wonderful, game Matt Damon.
16. Ocean’s 12 (2004)
The Full Frontal of Ocean’s movies: self-indulgent, silly, self-referential, and both superior to its reputation and inferior to some other, similar movies Soderbergh has made. But you know who loves this movie? SportsAlcohol.com founder Rob. Take it away, Rob:
Generally, people don’t like Ocean’s 12 (and the people who don’t like it really don’t like it). It defies our modern, statistically compiled definition of “mixed reviews” as the negative reviews were extremely virulent. In addition to critics, regular fans of Ocean’s 11 hated it. In the press tour for his next film, journalists asked Soderbergh what was wrong with him that he made it. The whole world was against this movie, but as far as I can tell its only only sin is that it wasn’t the film people were expecting.
I can see why people were tricked into thinking this would be a more conventional when it has all aesthetic trappings of the other Ocean’s films. The colorful band of thieves (who object to being called “Ocean’s Eleven” by the way, as it was a group effort) is back and everyone is still sharp and sharp dressed. David Holmes supplements his own funk-inspired score with obscure music from the record crates of Europe. It looks and sounds like another Ocean’s movie, but it’s not.
Gone is the One Big Score. Instead of an intricately plotted single job, the movie starts with the team already behind the eight ball, getting visited by a revenge-fueled Terry Benedict looking for the money they stole in the last movie. This collection of short scenes is funny and tight (come for the strung out Topher Grace cameo, stay for Livingston’s transgressive anti-comedy stand-up). I point out this part because it’s emblematic of the whole film. Things go from bad to worse as plan after plan falls apart, stymied at every turn by a very French Vincent Cassel playing The Nightfox (who is basically an unreconstructed Bond Villain). This leaves us to hang out with the gang as they reveal their true selves.
These are the scenes that really make the movie: the downtime and regrouping. The dialogue is the best of the series as rapid-fire one-liners pour out the cast from left field as Soderbergh’s camera finds new ways to group his large ensemble. It is sneakily Soderbergh’s funniest film: an absurdist, loose indie comedy disguised as a star studded blockbuster.
I should probably mention Catherine Zeta-Jones as she is the highest profile new addition to the sequel and (according to the Soderbergh and screenwriter George Nolfi) she plays the true protagonist of the film. I will say the oft-repeated cliche about Soderbergh that has the benefit of also being the truth: she is a much better actor in this film than she is in other films. Look around this cast and you see career-best performances all over the place. Even when that’s not the case, Soderbergh gets joyful work like Matt Damon playing against his entire career as the hilariously insecure Linus, whose self-help approach to professional development is a real mismatch for the context criminal enterprise.
All of the joys of this film are lost on the people who hate the story with a passion, especially the third act. While it doesn’t have the massive plot hole of Ocean’s 11, the resolution of Ocean’s 12 is still thought to stretch credulity farther with how it is wrapped up. As someone who has watched this movie more times than you, I think the real solution is you need to watch it more times to really get what happened. I know this is a tough sell, so I might concede that Soderbergh and Nolfi cheated. But they looked damn good doing it, so they’d fit right in with Ocean’s crew.
15. Bubble (2006)
Three times now, Soderbergh has done a two-movie year where he would release a micro-budget experiment followed by something with a big movie star – usually George Clooney or Matt Damon (he’s had several other two-movie years, but not with such dramatically different budgets). Hardly anyone’s favorite pair is the 2006 match-up of Bubble and The Good German, but it does feature one of the director’s wildest swings, from a 70-minute movie with nonpro actors playing factory workers, released day-and-date way before Netflix had made a single acquisition, to the aforementioned black-and-white George Clooney romance paying homage to World War II-era Hollywood productions. As it turns out, the micro-budget experiment pays greater emotional dividends as a study of small-town loneliness showcasing the kinds of characters Hollywood takes great pains to ignore.
14. Side Effects (2013)
Soderbergh’s final theatrical release before his hibernation is almost an ’80s/’90s-style erotic thriller crossed with their Hitchcock originators. If it’s not quite as satisfying as the genre workouts that led up to it (Contagion, Haywire, and Magic Mike), it’s because it lacks an element as memorable as, say, a gyrating Channing Tatum (he’s here, but lower-key than usual), or Michael Fassbender tussling with Gina Carano. Instead, it’s “only” an example of how Soderbergh makes livelier riffs on familiar genres than almost anyone in the business.
13. Ocean’s 13 (2007)
Read at the time as an atonement of sorts for Ocean’s 12, the final film in Soderbergh’s heist trilogy goes go back to basics – perhaps a little too far back, returning to Vegas and a big vengeful casino heist. But the ensemble remains in fine form, especially Matt Damon (“the nose plays!”), and this is a worthy conclusion to the series.
12. Traffic (2000)
When Soderbergh did prestige, he did it with characteristic efficiency: In 2000, his ensemble drama Traffic made a bunch of money, won several Oscars including his Best Director prize, and seemingly closed the book on Soderbergh’s prestige phase (which began earlier that year with Erin Brockovich, another Oscar winner and multiple nominee). Along with kickstarting his collaborations with Benicio Del Toro and Michael Douglas (and continuing his excellent use of Luis Guzman and Viola Davis, among others), this movie also features the debut of Soderbergh Yellow, a color that would go on to co-star in many of his best films, only looking yellower and sicklier as their collaboration grew. It’s telling that the color coding connects Traffic more closely to Soderbergh’s later work than almost any other aspect of it – and that Soderbergh’s lack of any Academy Awards attention since this one feels almost intentional.
Here’s Marisa with more:
Fairly or unfairly, many directors with an abundance of style are often bestowed with the label of “chilly.” My fellow SportsAlcohol.com cohorts may disagree with me, but I think the accusation has some merit when it comes to Soderbergh—but he puts that sense of remove to the best use with Traffic. I’m not saying the movie is a clinical, procedural look at all sides of the ongoing drug war at the turn of this century. It easily could have been that way, too, following Michael Douglas’s Drug Czar character as he investigates the ins and outs of the narcotics trade. Instead, the movie is far more melodramatic—the Czar’s daughter races down a slippery slope from privileged honor student to selling her body for fixes! A six-months-pregnant housewife steps in to become the Drug Kingpin of San Diego while her husband is incarcerated!—and Soderbergh’s detachment keeps it from becoming hysterical, so it has the right mix of drama and gravitas. (Remember: The doll is cocaine.) And the style is laid on thick, with each thread of the multi-pronged story saturated with a different color: cool blues for the level-headed drug czar, fiery yellows for his counterparts south of the border. Plus, it has the best cast Soderbergh has ever assembled—and most vast, too, since everyone from Don Cheadle to Dianne Feinstein is in it—which carries what’s ultimately a nihilistic conclusion. (Spoiler alert: The War on Drugs is ineffective!)
11. Solaris (2002)
A stripped-down remake of the Tarkovsky classic is one of Soderbergh’s biggest wide-release bombs – and one of Clooney’s, too! But it’s well worth seeking out for its quiet, slow-burning approach to the genre (Soderbergh’s only real foray into that area so far) and the terrific performances from Clooney, Viola Davis, and a bonkers Jeremy Davies. I hope he makes another movie set in space, but knowing his genre-hopping restlessness, I won’t hold my breath.
10. Contagion (2011)
A decade-plus after Traffic, Soderbergh returns to starry ensemble storytelling for an appropriately clinical look at a pandemic. My appreciation for it may be enhanced by the fact that Warner Bros. was so kind as to produce IMAX prints of it, which means I saw a supersized version of SICKLY SODERBERGH YELLOWS, plus Gwyneth Paltrow’s skin getting peeled back on a very large screen (no offense to Gwyneth, a very good actor; I just appreciated the matter-of-fact squickiness of the moment).
9. The Girlfriend Experience (2009)
One of Soderbergh’s most fully formed experiments may have had both bad fortune and good luck on its side, as it happened to be filming right around the time of the 2008 financial collapse, rendering the Sasha Grey starrer an instant time capsule as well as something of a gimmick movie. It’s very good on both counts, exploiting both Grey’s placid reserve and the story’s bustling topicality, often placing them in striking contrast. It’s like a fashion shoot on the brink of collapse.
8. King of the Hill (1993)
Soderbergh’s only movie that’s really about kids, and it turns out he’s a natural, telling a Depression-era coming-of-age story (adapted from a memoir by A.E. Hotchner) with just the right mix of youthful energy and heartbreaking sadness. His lack of sentimentality serves him well, and King of the Hill, even more so than many of his more formalized experiments, is unlike anything else in his filmography. This is also the first movie I’ve ever watched that made me think: Hey, what’s Jesse Bradford up to lately?
7. The Informant! (2009)
I have an A.V. Club column called Together Again where I examine actor/director relationships that have lasted for three movies or more. The number of actors who qualify for consideration with Soderbergh is dizzying: George Clooney (6), Catherine Zeta-Jones (3), Michael Douglas (3), Channing Tatum (4), Luis Guzman (3), Don Cheadle (5), Julia Roberts (4), and Viola Davis (3), among others. But it’s not a Soderbergh-only column, so when I decided I wanted to cover him, I chose his work with Matt Damon. The Informant! is a big part of why. Not only does it twist around typical whistleblower stories, it doubles as a clever deconstruction of a certain kind of glorifying star vehicle, brought off by Damon’s hilarious, weirdly poignant, and utterly vanity-free performance.
6. Magic Mike (2012)
Or, The Boyfriend Experience. After turning Sasha Grey and Gina Carano into first-time movie stars, it must have been relatively easy to unlock the charisma of a relatively experienced actor like Channing Tatum. And yet it’s difficult to stress now just how much Soderbergh upped Tatum’s game in this surprising vehicle. Magic Mike XXL gave the people what they wanted and won a Film Twitter appreciation society in the bargain, but Soderbergh’s original is still better, mixing male-stripper showmanship with economic desperation.
5. Logan Lucky (2017)
My thoughts on this brand-new Soderbergh treat are available here and here. If this seems high, just wait; I suspect it might get even higher down the road.
4. Ocean’s 11 (2001)
After Erin Brockovich and Traffic, Ocean’s 11 felt like a victory lap – maybe more of a light jog, given the little-to-no-sweat ease with which it’s carried off. But as the years pass, it also feels like the superior film of Soderbergh’s three big turn-of-the-century hits: funny, stylish, and unburdened with prestige-picture seriousness. I’m loathe to use unplanned Sunday afternoon cable rewatches as the ultimate metric of a movie’s success, but Ocean’s 11 is like what if one of those TNT staples was directed by a genius.
3. The Limey (1999)
As elegiac and mournful as this time-scrambled story of a broken old cockney man seeking vengeance over his daughter, it’s also one of Soderbergh’s funniest movies, with hilarious moments for Luis Guzman, Nicky Katt, and even leading man Terence Stamp, whose previous cinematic image gets reflected back to himself as he stews in the life choices that brought him on a plane to track down and murder Peter Fonda. Also: That fucking warehouse scene, man.
2. Haywire (2012)
The reunion with screenwriter Lem Dobbs, the slight chronological scrambling, and the righteous violence all make Haywire seem like a companion piece to The Limey, but my former Brooklyn Magazine editor Mark Asch set me straight when I pined for the completion of Soderbergh’s sex-work trilogy: It’s Haywire, actually, that fits in with The Girlfriend Experience and Magic Mike, forming a Body Commodification Trilogy that represents, to me, some of his very best work. Gina Carano isn’t selling sex in Haywire, but she is pimping out her athleticism as an unstoppable private contractor who gets double-crossed by, well, it’s complicated so let’s just say everyone. She beats her way through some of the best and handsomest actors in the business, in some of most gorgeous-looking action scenes ever digitally captured. Haywire isn’t one of the most the dramatically rich movies of Soderbergh’s career, but it gains resonance every time it captures Carano’s laser-focused face in action. For lots of actors, seeing their effort is distractingly theatrical. With Carano’s running, jumping, and punching (plus effectively minimalist emoting), it makes the movie something special.
1. Out of Sight (1998)
In a lot of ways, Out of Sight does what Ocean’s 11 does: It applies Soderbergh’s no-sweat and highly professional sense of cool to a story light on portent but insanely heavy on entertainment value. But whether it’s because Out of Sight came first, or whether Soderbergh is working from a Scott Frank screenplay based on an Elmore Leonard novel, or whether it has accumulated additional bittersweet notes as it still stands as the best Jennifer Lopez has been in nearly 20 years, this one has something extra – so much extra that I never really considered anything else for this top spot among a whole lot of terrific movies. Clooney and Lopez do so much with so relatively little here – not little in the sense that movie doesn’t give them the right material (it absolutely does), but in the sense that they don’t really share the screen for that much time. There’s the trunk scene, and the hotel-bar scene, and a few other moments, but they define so much of their characters’ relationships in that trunk and at that hotel bar – a relationship that’s sexy, funny, and bittersweet all at once, almost immediately. Soderbergh shoots this stuff beautifully, too – unfussy but unfailingly gorgeous. He would go on later to become a big-time supporter of digital cinematography, and he’s a whiz at it, but the warmth of film really comes across here, especially in the Miami sections, giving way to a blue-grey chill in the Detroit scenes (it’s an early version of his color-coding, too, and perhaps less rigorously fastidious about it). Even as Soderbergh makes one of his most conventionally delightful movies, he skips around in time and frequently breaks the 180-degree rule, coloring in and out of the lines with equal aplomb. Out of Sight‘s greatest novelty in a filmography full of ’em: It’s basically perfect. What’s more unusual than that?