Every Steven Soderbergh Movie, Ranked
For the past 30 years, one name has dominated American independent cinema like no other: Steven Soderbergh. Thanks to his omnivorous appetite when it comes to stories and his chameleonic style, he has remained as vital and essential as ever. This weekend sees the release of his first Netflix film, "High Flying Bird," which is deeply brilliant and very much worth your valuable binge-time. It's in honor of this film that we look back at his entire filmography. Ready to go for a wild ride?
30. ‘Full Frontal’ (2002)
Advertised (and this is true) as the “unauthorized companion piece to ‘sex, lies, and videotape,” “Full Frontal” tried to make a splash thanks to its starry cast (led by Julia Roberts, David Duchovney and Catherine Keener) and innuendo-laced title, but “Full Frontal” was the rare Soderbergh dud, a movie so muddled that even on a conceptual level you can’t quite tack it. After an unprecedented string of commercial and critical hits, it’s understandable why the director would want to do something looser and more unfocused. But the cost of this freewheeling experimentation (supposedly modeled after the French New Wave) was any kind of emotional connection between the audience and the narrative. C'est la vie.
29. ‘Schizopolis’ (1996)
Arguably the weirdest movie Soderbergh ever made, “Schizopolis” feels so rebellious that you can practically watch the movie tear itself apart right in front of your eyes. A single story told from three different points of view, with Soderbergh playing dual leading roles, as well as composing some of the music for the movie (alongside his more reasonable duties as editor, director, screenwriter and cinematographer). The whole thing has a gonzo, freewheeling charm and his ability to lampoon Scientology without any lasting litigious harm should be commended, but ultimately it’s too much of a weirdo mess to really love.
28. ‘The Underneath’ (1995)
"The Underneath" is a failure, for sure, but it's a fascinating failure, and features many of the stylistic tics Soderbergh would employ (to much better effect) later in his career. Ostensibly a remake of a 1949 film called "Criss Cross" (adapted from a Don Tracy novel), this is Soderbergh's hard-boiled, Texas-set film noir, featuring a cast of appropriately character-y character actors (I see you Joe Don Baker). It's not very sexy or exciting, but it does contain a couple of things that would become staples of the filmmaker's later work: a twisty-turn-y shuffled narrative structure and extreme lighting cues that keep you informed as to which timeline you're actually looking at (as seen later in "Traffic"). If you're curious about it, Criterion included a re-mastered version as part of the Blu-ray for "King of the Hill." If you're a Soderbergh die hard and have never seen it, now's your chance.
27. ‘Eros’ (2004)
Soderbergh directed a third of this erotically-charged anthology, subbing at the last minute for Pedro Almodovar, who left the project in preproduction and because, by his own admission, he wanted to “have his name on a poster with Michelangelo Antonioni.” His segment, “Equilibrium,” follows an anxious ad executive (Robert Downey, Jr.), who visits a psychiatrist (Alan Arkin) about a dream he keeps having about a naked woman in his apartment. The piece is formally sumptuous (the dream sequences are shot in dazzling technicolor while the therapy stuff is rendered in inky black-and-white) and has moments of sublime physical comedy. But the segment is also emotionally vacant and not in the least bit sexy.
26. ‘The Good German’ (2006)
It probably seemed like a good idea on paper: Soderbergh recruited a bunch of movie stars (including his frequent confederate George Clooney) to make a postwar-style thriller, something along the lines of "Casablanca" or "The Third Man." But the resulting film, which was mired in production hiccups (most notably with composer David Holmes being fired right before release and replaced with a much stodgier score by Thomas Newman), comes off as too winking and stilted, from the borderline wooden performances (with the exception of a powerhouse Tobey Maguire) and suffocating "it's just like the 40s!" aesthetic, from its boxy aspect ratio to purposefully phony-looking sets. It's a fascinating failure but a failure just the same.
25. ‘The Girlfriend Experience’ (2009)
Part of Soderbergh's short-lived attempt to make a series of ultra-low-budget films that would be shot in different American cities with mostly non-professional actors, "The Girlfriend Experience" was the filmmaker's attempt to put the financial crisis through the lens of a put-upon sex worker (porn actress Sasha Grey). The problem is that Grey isn't much of an actress and the movie's more intellectual aspirations get lost in a series of endless, super-talky sequences (one of the conceits is that a journalist is also interviewing her about her life and work). It feels like a rough draft of something he'd more fully realize with "Magic Mike."
24. ‘Kafka’ (1991)
One of the most mysterious and sought-after films of Soderbergh's so called "dark period" (the ten years in between "sex, lies, and videotape" and "Out of Sight"), mostly because it's been so hard to track down, "Kafka" is a historical thriller (combining a number of elements from the author's work) in the guise of a biopic (Jeremy Irons plays "Mr. Kafka"). It's really captivating, with fine performances and luxurious black-and-white photography. (It also had a totally unforgettable ad campaign.) But Soderbergh has expressed displeasure with the final product over the years and recently revealed he had obtained the rights and added additional material. When we'll see that, though, remains a mystery.
23. ‘Unsane’ (2018)
"Unsane" is underrated. It's a micro-budgeted indie thriller about a woman (Claire Foy) who finds herself mistakenly imprisoned in a mental institution, potentially with a stalker ex-boyfriend who triggered her breakdown in the first place. With its simple premise came an even simpler, technologically minded execution: it was all shot on an iPhone 7 Plus. (Yes, really.) While it might have seemed gimmicky, it actually adds a layer of creeping uneasiness to a movie already stuffed full of creeping uneasiness. It a way, it also feels like the twisted conclusion to his hypochondriac trilogy, which started with "Contagion," continued with "Side Effects" and winds up in the loony bin here. It's a slight film in his broader filmography but still a blast.
22. ‘Ocean’s Twelve’ (2004)
It was bound to happen at some point, but "Ocean's Twelve" feels like a movie that was much more fun to make than it was to watch. Lots of movie stars! We're in Europe! Oh are we hanging at Clooney's Italian villa? We are! The actual movie though, which was based on a previously developed script and reworked to incorporate the characters from the first movie, can sometimes feel like a slog; a beautifully photographed travelogue, maybe, but a slog none-the-less. Never is this more apparent than the divisive conclusion, in which Soderbergh's meta-leaning tendencies get the better of him and threaten to sink the movie altogether (nice Bruce Willis cameo though).
21. ‘The Informant!’ (2009)
"The Informant!" could have been your standard whistleblower thriller, something like what Michael Mann did with "The Insider." But Soderbergh, seizing on an opportunity to do something different, instead turned it into a crackpot farce, complete with broad performances (led by Matt Damon), an incessantly spoofy tone and an overbearing, almost melodramatic score by Marvin Hamlisch (Hamlisch's last two scores would be for Soderbergh). For the most part, it works, with Damon giving a committed performance as a dim bulb at an agricultural company who blows the whistle on a price-fixing scandal. The only problem is that its oversized personality means that it never really finds an emotional groove, which ends up being sort of crippling in the end.
20. ‘King of the Hill’ (1993)
A charming coming-of-age story, "King of the Hill" has been rescued from relative obscurity thanks to the Criterion Collection, who released a features-loaded edition a few years ago. Soderbergh's first studio film, the filmmaker adapted A.E. Hotchner's memoir, about a young boy (Jesse Bradford) who lives in a ramshackle hotel in Depression-era St. Louis while his mother is treated for tuberculosis at a near by sanitarium. While that makes the movie seem like it is awfully depressing, in fact, it is not, it is actually a sensitive, emotional little drama that will have you laughing and reaching for the Kleenex in equal measure.
19. ‘Gray’s Anatomy’ (1996)
One of two pseudo-documentaries made with or about the great monologist Spalding Gray, "Gray's Anatomy" is more of what you'd expect from a Gray film at the time. (It's fascinating to think that Gray really had a life on camera, beginning with Jonathan Demme's terrific "Swimming to Cambodia.") As in all things related to Gray, Soderbergh's film is both funny and acerbic, dealing with his diagnosis of a rare ocular disease and his search for answers. (Does the medical textbook reference of the title make more sense now?) This was Gray's last theatrical monologue, but not Soderbergh's last film on the subject.
18. ‘Bubble’ (2005)
"Bubble" is unbelievable. Another one of Soderbergh's non-actor, city-specific projects (this also birthed "The Girlfriend Experience"), "Bubble" is an uncanny little thriller, which is even more miraculous when you consider that it didn't utilize a traditional script and the lead actress was discovered working the drive-through window at a KFC in Parkersburg, West Virginia. A weird love triangle at a doll factory that quickly descends into violence, "Bubble" is just so, so good. You could imagine John Waters getting behind this film, with its attention to small-town American life and beautifully gonzo nonprofessional cast. One of the filmmaker's more overlooked gems (gee, I wonder why?), it's very much work tracking down. Bucket of KFC optional.
17. ‘Haywire’ (2012)
In what sort-of feels like an extension of the ethos that gave us "Bubble" and "The Girlfriend Experience," Soderbergh set his sites on using Gina Carano as the lead after catching one of her MMA matches on TV late at night. It was a bet that paid off; Carano is electric. (Interestingly, he used technology to pitch down her voice into something gruffer.) His goal, he said, was to make a Blaxpoitation James Bond movie with a kick-ass female lead and he did just that. Carano plays a special agent, double-crossed and left for dead. But she gets her just deserts, and watching her alongside tough guy actors like Michael Fassbender, Ewan McGregor, Bill Paxton and Michael Douglas is part of the charm. The action sequences, directed with an emphasis on clarity and geography, are stunningly realized.
16. ‘Side Effects’ (2013)
A spiritual successor to "Contagion," "Side Effects" is a nifty erotic thriller set in the world of pharmaceutical drugs. In other words, it's the kind of movie that people like to claim "they don't make anymore," but they do. Rooney Mara is a young wife whose husband (Channing Tatum) has recently been released from prison and who falls under the care of a shady physiatrist (Jude Law). But what seems like a fairly straightforward tale gets more and more twisted, ending with a great dénouement. Saying anything more about the plot would be criminal, especially considering how few people saw it. But it's one of Soderbergh's slickest, most ruthlessly entertaining films.
15. ‘Ocean’s Thirteen’ (2007)
"Ocean's Thirteen" is arguably the jazziest entry in the franchise, with a nimble revenge plot (Al Pacino, you had it coming) and a deft ability to juggle all of the previously established actors while also adding some new additions (along with Pacino, Ellen Barkin and Julian Sands are wonderful). But its frothiness comes at a cost; nothing really means anything, especially with the exclusion of both Julia Roberts and Catherine Zeta-Jones. It is not in any stretch of the word bad and in fact makes for a great conclusion of the trilogy (spinoff be damned); in fact there are some of the best elements of any of the movies contained within this film (Casey Affleck's Mexican wage dispute subplot might be the best). It felt like this could return to the elegant style/substance ratio of the first film; instead it's all sizzle and not that much steak.
14. ‘The Limey’ (1999)
Of course Soderbergh would take a straightforward revenge thriller and turn it into a cubist treatise on the the nature of violence and, of course, lacquer on some metatextuality for good measure. Terence Stamp, in a performance that should have earned him an Oscar, plays an Englishman who travels to Los Angeles to investigate the suspicious death of his daughter. (She was involved with another counterculture titan, Peter Fonda.) Instead of a straight linear narrative, Soderbergh chops it up, displacing our protagonist in a fugue of violence and confusion. (Sequences where Stamp is portrayed as a young man are taken from Ken Loach’s 1967 debut “Poor Cow.”) Post-production on the thriller wore on Soderbergh, not that it would stop his wily experimentation.
13. ‘Contagion’ (2011)
With "Contagion," Soderbergh (a noted hypochondriac) set out to do a big scale, international disaster thriller in the style of Irwin Allen (who got a shout-out in "Ocean's Thirteen"). And you know what? It's kind of amazing. Brainier than most projects of this scale, it turns out to be something of a humanist horror epic; as a killer virus goes unchecked circling the globe, it's up to a group of very determined individuals to maintain their dignity and make sure that life on earth survives. It's stunning and multifaceted, from the subplot with Marion Cotillard in China to Jude Law's Alex Jones-style conspiracy theorist, and is neatly tied together by Soderbergh's no-nonsense editorial style and Cliff Martinez's jaw-dropping electronic score. It's enough to make you wish he'd return to something of this scope and scale. Even at this size, his filmmaking feels intimate and immediate.
12. ‘Solaris’ (2002)
"Solaris" was, ostensibly a remake of the Andrei Tarkovsky classic and an entirely new adaptation of Stanislaw Lem's 1961 novel. When he was putting the movie together alongside producer James Cameron, he said his idea was to do a heady sci-fi film along the lines of "2001: A Space Odyssey" that would also contain the sexual frankness of "Last Tango in Paris." That didn't happen, exactly, although you do get to see George Clooney's butt (something that, ironically, almost landed it an R-rating anyway). And while the filmmaker's ambitious might not have been seen through, "Solaris" is still an utterly mesmerizing and heartbreaking work, and stands alongside the original proudly.
11. ‘And Everything is Going Fine’ (2010)
Soderbergh's second Spalding Gray-related film is much stranger and ultimately more affecting. Pieced together after his apparent suicide (which the movie goes into in excruciating detail), it's a documentary that doesn't feature any new interviews or additional narration, instead it was pieced together from tons of old footage, archival interviews, and monologues that Gray conducted. (Recently the filmmaker talked about how hard the process of putting the movie together was, since Gray was his friend.) It might be Soderbergh's most heartbreaking work. It's also one of his most brilliant.
10. ‘High Flying Bird’ (2019)
Soderbergh’s latest (and his first for streaming giant Netflix) has been described as the “most radical sports movie ever.” And honestly, it’s hard to argue. Andre Holland, late of Soderbergh’s brilliant, all-too-brief television series “The Knick,” stars as an agent trying to outfox both the players association and the NBA during a league-wide shutout. In a way, “High Flying Bird” is like any of Soderbergh’s other trapdoor heist movies, but it has an entirely different energy, as well, featuring the rapid fire dialogue of an ace Broadway play and a contained scale that the director himself has likened to “sex, lies, and videotape.” Overall, it’s a galvanizing experience and, yeah, probably the most radical sports movie ever made.
9. ‘Behind the Candelabra’ (2013)
For years Soderbergh toiled to get his biography of Las Vegas staple Liberace off the ground, first bringing the concept to Michael Douglas while the two were shooting "Traffic." Problems with financing and Douglas' health concerns waylaid production further, until HBO finally delivered the funds and a budget that barely covers two episodes of "Game of Thrones." But the end result was absolutely enchanting. Douglas is outstanding as Liberace, and Matt Damon, as his young beau, is at turns hilarious and heartbreaking. The shoestring budget hampered things slightly (most of the movie takes place inside the gilded halls of Liberace's house) but it's a totally gripping, emotionally stirring tale of love, redemption, and never hiding who you really are.
8. ‘Magic Mike’ (2012)
If "The Girlfriend Experience" was the trial run for Soderbergh's exploration of the financial crash through the lens of sex work, then "Magic Mike" is his final statement. It's brilliantly laced through the film, and reaches its apex when Channing Tatum's Magic Mike applies for a loan to start his small business. And it's just the kind of edge that takes "Magic Mike" from hunky strip club fun to deeply brilliant masterpiece. (Seriously, it is.) Flanked by fine performances by Matthew McConaughey, Olivia Munn and Cody Horn, "Magic Mike" managed to capture a very specific socioeconomic situation, brilliantly and without embellishment (it helps that it was based in part on Tatum's life). It's like "Saturday Night Fever" for a new generation. And it totally rules.
7. ‘Logan Lucky’ (2017)
After he made a very big production about quitting filmmaking, Soderbergh was back, less than five years later, with "Logan Lucky," a heist comedy that is just as energetic, stylish, and thoughtful as any of the 'Ocean's' movies. Instead of glitzy Las Vegas, though, the setting is the deep south, where a couple of unlucky hillbillies (Channing Tatum and Adam Driver) decide to rob a NASCAR game with the help of a wild card con (Daniel Craig, in perhaps his greatest performance ever) and their sassy sister (Riley Keough). It says something that the movie came out after the formation of Trump presidency and concerns lower income families striking back at the powers that be after being promised something and given a raw deal; it's post-election wish fulfillment at its most cathartic and lovable.
6. ‘Erin Brokovich’ (2000)
Soderbergh went up against himself at the 73rd Academy Awards for directing both "Traffic" and "Erin Brokovich." He won for "Traffic" but could have just as easily taken it for "Erin Brokovich." A warmer version of the whistleblower drama that he would later goof on in "The Informant!," Julia Roberts (in an Academy Award-winning performance) played a real-life paralegal who took on an energy company that was covering up a grave misdeed. It could have been preachy and dull, but in Soderbergh's capable hands, it becomes electrically alive, a giant conspiracy boiled down to its fundamental parts and most delicately human moments. It's easy to take just how good this movie is for granted. But that'd be foolish. Just ask Erin.
5. ‘Ocean’s Eleven’ (2001)
The idea was a great one, to remake the original Rat Pack-led "Ocean's Eleven" but with the biggest stars of today, in a Las Vegas that hardly resembles what was around in the 1960s. But the stroke of genius was hiring Soderbergh to orchestrate it all. Using every trick in his arsenal, when it came to putting the movie together and the accompanying stylistic flourishes, and got some genuinely wonderful performances out of superstar actors who, in the wrong hands, could have felt too cool and aloof. (It's saying something that the franchise is still going, albeit with the lackluster "Ocean's 8.") Watching the movie, with David Holmes' jazzy electronic score, was like being invited to the greatest party ever and then being told the most ingenious story about a casino that got robbed. It still towers.
4. ‘sex, lies and videotape’ (1989)
The filmmaker's debut also kicked off the independent film boom in the United States and changed the course of cinema as we know it, forever. It also cast such a tall shadow that the director would whittle away, in relative obscurity, for the next ten years, honing his craft while blowing his cache. But re-watching "sex, lies and videotape" (Criterion just put out a terrific new Blu-ray release), it's all worth it. The movie is creepy and probing and surreal, investigating relationship dynamics and sexuality in ways that might seem tame today but were, at the time, positively taboo shattering. The whole thing is put together with such love and care and precision, as an artifact it's untouchable. But as a living, breathing piece of filmmaking that changed the entire game, it stands even taller. It's ultimate gift was that it was the movie that gave the world Steven Soderbergh. We are forever in its debt.
3. ‘Che’ (2008)
This is the movie that broke Soderbergh. And it's easy to see why. A two-part biopic of guerrilla leader Che Guevara (played by Benicio del Toro), it was an incredibly difficult shoot, with the filmmaker using prototypical digital cameras and shooting on a super-condensed schedule. When the movie was finally done, it was unclear how they were going to exhibit it, and few people actually watched it. That is a shame, of course, because it is a brilliant epic, beautifully told and expertly acted, that stubbornly refuses to give a simplistic point of view of the warrior hero. (The first half is a more traditional Soderberghian joint, with multiple timelines and styles; the second half is a gripping, grueling trudge through the jungle with the icon at the end of his life.) Fascinating, uncompromising and deeply felt, its difficulty led the filmmaker to his "fun run" of movies that weren't as morally, politically, or aesthetically thorny. It was the end of an era for the filmmaker's career, a piece filmmaking that nobody could mistake as being anybody's besides Soderbergh's.
2. ‘Traffic’ (2000)
An American epic along the lines of "The Godfather" (it's just as good and just as often imitated), "Traffic" looked to investigate America's drug epidemic from every societal strata, and in doing so, is just as prescient now as it was in 2000 (!) With a storyline divided into three distinct sections (each employing a different color scheme/photographic bypass process, much like the director tried with "The Underneath"), it allowed the audience to see the price of the war on drugs from different angles (and different socioeconomic brackets). From a judge who discovers that his daughter is a junkie to a Mexican police officer trying to keep drugs off the streets (that final shot, whew boy), everyone is represented. Many movies in the years that followed would try and copy this formula but few would succeed. It was Soderbergh's deft touch and allergy to saccharine sentimentality that kept "Traffic" in its lane.
1. ‘Out of Sight’ (1998)
The ten years following Soderbergh's splashy debut with "sex, lies and videotape," the filmmaker was pretty much in the wilderness. He made movies that people didn't pay attention to and fewer people saw. This was a period of time essential to his creative development but he knew that if he stayed out in the weeds for much longer, he'd never come back. So he made "Out of Sight," a move as calculated as it was creative, designed to get him back in the big leagues. He worked with a major studio (Universal) and a major star (George Clooney, who wound up becoming his creative soul mate, and Jennifer Lopez), adapting a popular novel (by Elmore Leonard) in a way that was fun and springy (much of the grit of the book had been shaved away) but also thrilling and soulful. "Out of Sight" is a miraculous movie, one of those films that only exists because the planets aligned just so. He fractured his love of art house films and esoteric cinema into something that people had never seen before, as neat as it was new.