December 23, 2011

Top 5 Steven Soderbergh Films


This marathon through Steven Soderbergh's films has been my first that focuses specifically on a director. It's been intriguing to check out some of his smaller movies that I hadn't watched previously. While they weren't all classics, none of them were dull or uninteresting. Two will be making well-deserved appearances in this list. Soderbergh continues to prove his diverse talents as a filmmaker, and I can't wait to catch his next work. I also still need to see Contagion, which received good reviews this past fall. Creating this Top 5 list was very difficult, especially with choosing the slots for some great movies. I'm guessing that your opinions will vary dramatically because of his strong career. Let's get to the picks!


Honorable mention: King of the Hill (1993)
I watched this excellent adaptation of A.E. Hotchner's memoir during this marathon, and it's a charming film. The story depicts the difficulties of a boy growing up in Depression-era St. Louis with little help from his parents or other adults. He finds ingenious ways to survive and maintain a fake lifestyle for his well-off classmates. It's an intriguing drama that warmly depicts both the fun and obstacles without laying on the melodrama. Soderbergh strikes just the right balance of involving our emotions without manipulating us to feel a certain way. It's a difficult combination but works surprisingly well in this touching film. 


5. Ocean's Eleven (2001)
Possibly the most pure fun of any of Soderbergh's films, this star-studded caper uses a ridiculous premise but finds a way to make it seem plausible. It's clear that George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Don Cheadle, and many others are having a great time in this light-hearted movie. However, this fun doesn't come at the expense of an interesting story like with the inferior sequels. The streamlined plot maintains the necessary focus that keeps us engaged while we're following their daring exploits. Soderbergh shows his ability to deliver a crowd-pleasing mainstream film without pandering to the lowest common denominator. 


4. Traffic (2000)
Soderbergh's most ambitious film to that point, Traffic pares down the sprawling narrative of the 1989 miniseries into an excellent movie. Focusing on three stories that offer different perspectives on the drug trade, the award-winning Stephen Gaghan screenplay makes each an interesting tale. Soderbergh uses a different color palette for each one, exemplified by the cold blues of the picture above with Michael Douglas. My favorite is the Mexico story, which involves a corrupt cop played by Benicio Del Toro struggling to do the right thing. Douglas plays a drug czar who fails to realize his daughter's becoming a junkie at home. Soderbergh received a well-deserved Best Director Oscar for this stunning movie.


3. Che (2008)
While I'm tempted to separate the two films and list just the first part here, they really function best as a single epic. Benicio Del Toro has never been better and makes Che a compelling figure. Soderbergh presents the famous revolutionary's intelligence and skills, but he wisely avoids making him a perfect hero. Instead, he lets us decide on our own if Che's actions served the right purpose. The success in Cuba contrasts effectively with his difficulties in Bolivia during the darker second part. Although they offer very different resolutions, both films combine to deliver one of my big surprises of the year.


2. The Limey (1999)
This clever thriller includes a great performance from Terrence Stamp as Wilson, a career criminal who gets out of prison and heads to the United States to investigate his daughter's murder. Soderbergh uses inventive devices to bring energy to a fairly straightforward story. Stunning L.A. sets like the shore-side house of Record Producer Terry Valentine (Peter Fonda) add to the excitement. There also are several classic set pieces, especially Wilson's "You tell him I'm coming!" take-down of some hoodlums. Strong character actors like Luis Guzman, Nicky Katt, Bill Duke and others join the fun in this underrated movie.


1. Out of Sight (1998)
Soderbergh finds just the right tone for Elmore Leonard's colorful characters in this wonderful crime movie that works as both a heist film and a love story. The dialogue crackles from the entire cast, even Jennifer Lopez in her best role. Back in 1998, Clooney wasn't a proven leading man, and his role as bank robber Jack Foley showed that he could succeed on the big screen. Soderbergh is at the top of his game here and switches up the narrative to create a stronger film. The nonlinear approach has rarely worked better, and there are too many classic scenes to mention. It's one of my favorites beyond its place in Soderbergh's career and is one of the best Leonard adaptations.

8 comments:

  1. I've not seen Che, but I can't argue with the top two at all. They're actually quite similar in style, I reckon, the way times sort of melt into each other.
    What a good series of articles this was.

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  2. Thanks Colin! I agree that the top two do have similarities, though the dialogue in The Limey has a different style. Those were easily my top two; deciding between Che and Traffic for #3 was tougher.

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  3. I haven't seen The Limey or Che. Of the Soderbergh movies I have seen, sex, lies and videotape would be in my top 5, as well as Erin Brockovich. Traffic would not (I thought it was well acted, but it seemed like it was aimed at people who had no idea drugs had bad effects on people. Throw in the shakycam and it tipped the movie to the dislike side for me.)

    I love Out of Sight (reviewed it here: http://tipsfromchip.blogspot.com/2011/08/movie-out-of-sight-1998.html) and I have seen it multiple times. I also enjoyed Oceans Eleven and agree the sequels were not as good.

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  4. Chip, I thought sex, lies, and videotape was okay, but I think the hype was so great that I was disappointed by it. Erin Brockovich is a good movie with decent performances, but I wouldn't put it on his top tier. You should definitely check out The Limey if you get the chance. Thanks!

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  5. The Limey doesn't always get the credit it deserves so its great to see it featured in this top 5 Dan. It is one of my favourites' from Soderberg but, like you, perhaps Out of Sight just pips it to the winning post.

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  6. Dan, I agree that The Limey has slipped through the cracks for a lot of film lovers. It was close, but I still think that Out of Sight's dialogue and Elmore Leonard characters give it a slight edge. You can't go wrong with either one. Thanks!

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  7. Great write-up of one of my favorite directors. I called Traffic the best film of the 2000s, so it's easily my favorite Soderbergh flick. Glad it made your top 5!

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  8. Thanks Alex! It says a lot that I'm a big fan of Traffic, but it only ended up at #4. He's made some good movies that weren't even close to the Top 5.

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