And Soderbergh's first feature, Sex, Lies and Videotape, might feel (22 years later) a little bit familiar—mostly because of the legions of soft-spoken, lower-case Sundance Specials it foretold. But at its heart, it's still a lovely relationship drama, a string quartet of arousal, betrayal, and difficult truths.
Six Worthwhile Divertissements
They might no longer feel particularly fresh; they may seem as though they were directed on autopilot. But these six pictures still have the snap and pop that's Soderbergh's trademark, and you'd never turn one of them off if you ran across it on TBS.
First among them, of course, are the three Ocean's movies that proved Soderbergh's hit-maker credentials. Star-studded, deadpan, insouciant "thrillers" that are out to amuse far more than thrill, they're all eminently watchable. I give the edge to Ocean's Twelve (2004) for its foolish and wonderful twist of Julia Roberts playing Tess playing Julia Roberts.
Similarly star-studded but far more dour, this week's Contagionis a perfectly smart disaster flick with relatively few tricks up its sleeve. Nonetheless, it's brutally effective, and offers small grace notes of complex emotion that seem very much like Soderbergh's influence—the collegial relationship between researchers Jennifer Ehle and Demetri Martin, or the sight of Matt Damon's high-school daughter making snow angels with her boyfriend as he tries to pressure her into a single dangerous kiss.
Soderbergh didn't wind up caring much for his fourth movie, The Underneath—frustrations with it led him to his Schizopolis experiment—but it's a sharp-edged artifact of the mid-'90s neo-noir movement, with an appealing performance from Peter Gallagher at its center. (It's on Netflix Instant.)
Finally, Soderbergh won an Oscar for directing 2000's Traffic, one of his fussiest, most strenuous movies. (It's a helpful reminder that, to the Academy, "best directing" usually means "most directing.") Frustratingly uneven, Traffic plays now as an uneasy mix of gripping drama (in every scene starring Benicio Del Toro), enjoyable soap opera (in every scene starring Catherine Zeta-Jones), and laughable after-school special (in every scene starring Erika Christensen)—each color-coded (thanks to Soderbergh's on-the-nose cinematography) for ease of fast-forwarding.
Four Really Fascinating Films That Get Better With Age
"The time to do the trickiest shit is when you're sitting pretty," Soderbergh once said in an interview, and most of his RFFs, as I'll call them, are movies he made immediately after career high points. After the stunning success of Sex, Lies, for example, Soderbergh spent all his accumulated capital on one gloriously weird Jeremy Irons-starring art film, 1991's Kafka, which was a terrible flop and isn't even available for legal viewing anywhere. (I had to download it from a torrent site.) As it happens, though, Kafka is terrific—a mix of political allegory, literary conjecture, slapstick comedy, and murder mystery that hides surprises around every corner. It's an Expressionist Wizard of Oz that deserves wider notice; perhaps it will soon get the Criterion Collection release that's long been rumored to be in the works.
The Informant! (2007), Soderbergh's fantasia on corporate fraud and mental illness, is a similarly bizarre artifact, shot right around the time Ocean's Thirteen was giving the director what he may have assumed would be his last big hit in a while. Like Kafka, it's got a respected star (Matt Damon, in this case) exploring unlikely aspects of his actorly persona; his nervous, nerdy, deluded Archer-Daniels-Midland executive is at the center of a swirling, dissociative story of mistaken identities, accompanied by the lush strains of a zingy Marvin Hamlisch score.
Shortly after Ocean's Eleven (and his Oscar win), Soderbergh shot Solaris; shortly after Ocean's Twelve, he shot Bubble. They're very different movies—one a sleek sci-fi drama starring Clooney, the other a minimalist rural drama populated by nonactors—but they share an infatuation with slowness and tedium. Solaris, a remake of Andrei Tarkovsky's seminal 1972 epic of interiors, is shorter and punchier than its precedent but still glacially paced by Hollywood standards. (Nonetheless, it's quite moving and beautifully shot.) In Bubble, basically nothing happens, and then there's a murder, and then nothing continues to happen. But it's a movie filled with unease and strange moments of grace, and you may find yourself wrapped up in its atmosphere.
Four Interesting Failures
Steven Soderbergh's willingness to try anything doesn't always pay off. But he's a clever enough filmmaker that even his duds are worth talking about. His film of Spalding Gray's monologue, Gray's Anatomy (1996), is a textbook example of how to bring a solo show to life on-screen without overwhelming it; unfortunately, it's one of Gray's least-interesting monologues, 80 minutes of kvetching about his eye problems. His shot-on-digital exploration of economic anxiety and high-end prostitution, The Girlfriend Experience (2009), is a thesis statement in the guise of a feature film, but the style and assuredness of Soderbergh and his star, porn actress Sasha Grey, show through.
The Good German, Soderbergh's 2006 experiment in 1940s-style moviemaking, is at times lifeless and bland, but Tobey Maguire, of all people, gives a great performance as a brutal, duplicitous grunt in postwar Berlin. And even Soderbergh's worst film, the 2002 Hollywood satire Full Frontal, isn't worthless. A Russian dolls' trick of nesting movies within movies, silly and faux-profound at once, it's almost redeemed by Nicky Katt as Hitler and Jeff Garlin playing, according to the credits, Harvey Weinstein, "probably."