When I created a Top 5 Steven Soderbegh Films list back in December 2011, it was extremely difficult to narrow the choices down to such a small number. That challenge would be even greater today after seeing even more of his work. Soderbergh has directed 27 features since his debut in 1989, and there have been very few misfires. Amazingly, he’s announced his retirement from directing films, but that’s hard to believe. I’m hoping that it’s just a temporary absence and he’ll be returning to the field in the future. My viewing background includes all but five Soderbergh movies, and none are considered among his best work. I didn’t list honorable mentions, but the choices that just missed the cut were Haywire, The Informant!, and Erin Brockovich. There’s also a special case of a film that I really need to revisit before giving it a fair shake.
Special Mention: Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989)
Soderbergh’s feature debut is the most glaring omission from this list, but I didn’t enjoy it that much. I’m giving it a special mention because it has been a long time since that viewing. It’s possible that I might have a more positive reaction on a second visit. Also, I recognize this film’s importance to both Soderbergh’s career and indie film in general. It was a huge hit and played a major role in the rise of smaller films to prominence during the ‘90s.
10. Side Effects (2013)
This brilliant thriller subverts our expectations at every turn and challenges any who try to rope it into a genre. Soderbergh uses the unreliable narrator to great effect and changes perspectives right in the middle of the story. He takes serious aim at the pharmaceutical industry but places the criticism in the context of a thriller. Rooney Mara gives another intriguing performance that is the key factor in disguising what’s actually happening. It’s one of my favorite films of 2013 and succeeds because Soderbergh understands how the audience thinks. It’s manipulative and trashy, but in the best way possible.
9. Magic Mike (2012)
When the promos appeared for this film last year, I never would have anticipated it making this list. The story of a male stripper trying to figure out his life works because we’re drawn in by the characters. Soderbergh mixes the glitzy stage performances with strong dramatic work from the solid cast. I just watched this movie for the first time this week, and it was one of the bigger surprises of the year.
8. Solaris (2002)
The original Solaris was a nearly three-hour art film about love and loss set within a sci-fi universe. Soderbergh’s remake maintains the tone while making something unique (and much shorter). It’s a challenging film that grows in your mind the more you think about it. George Clooney’s barely expressive face says enough to sell what Chris Kelvin is feeling when his dead wife (Natascha McElhone) reappears. There are intense moments because the emotional stakes are high. When you add in a crazed Jeremy Davies, it’s hard to go wrong.
7. Contagion (2011)
Soderbergh excels at taking a standard genre and turning it on its head. With Contagion, he takes a clinical approach to an outbreak and follows the CDC as they struggle to stop the disease. Major actors are brutally killed with little warning, and there’s a feeling that humanity may reach its end. There have been plenty of disaster films in recent years, but few stay as grounded in reality as this film. Soderbergh keeps toying with our expectations yet delivers a believable movie that sticks with you for a long time.
6. King of the Hill (1993)
I watched this charming adaptation of A.E. Hotchner's memoir during my original Soderbergh marathon. 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. 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. 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 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 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 a stunning narrative.
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 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 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.