Ranking the Films of Steven Soderbergh
Three masterpieces, six worthwhile divertissements, three really fascinating films that get better with age, four interesting failures, and one movie that's all of the above.
In the conclusion to his book Getting Away With It, Steven Soderbergh sorts the filmography of his subject and hero, A Hard Day's Night director Richard Lester, into clever categories: three masterpieces, four classics, six worthwhile divertissements, and three really fascinating films that get better with age. "I hope to do as well with my career," Soderbergh wrote, way back in 1998. Thirteen years later, with (maybe) only four films left in that career, Soderbergh matches those numbers almost precisely—except that his relentless schedule and willingness to indulge his directorial whims have also resulted in a handful of interesting failures, and one unclassifiable movie that might best be described as all of the above.
The two finest movies of Steven Soderbergh's career—Out of Sightand The Limey—were shot back-to-back in 1997 and 1998, and together serve as a portrait in miniature of his whole career. Smart and stylish, one for a studio and one for an indie, both taking familiar movie tropes (one last heist, revenge flick) and making them snappier, funnier, weirder, more artful than even their screenwriters might have expected. (Certainly that's true of Lem Dobbs, disgruntled screenwriter of The Limey, who recorded a wonderfully argumentative commentary track with Soderbergh on that film's DVD.)
Like nearly all of Soderbergh's films, they're expertly cast—not only because they're full of great actors, but because many of the actors in them give performances they've never matched since. George Clooney's never been such a perfect mix of cool and hot as he is in Out of Sight. Luis Guzman's rarely shown the delicacy and care he does in The Limey. If not for her tough, sexy performance as Karen Sisco, Jennifer Lopez's entire movie career would be a wash.
Each film features an indelible sequence that's among Soderbergh's best ever; the differences between them point out how well Soderbergh can work in entirely different modes. Out of Sight's love scene is all rhythm and motion, a skein of soundless romance elegantly woven together with Jack and Karen's charged conversation at the hotel bar a few minutes before. The Limey's warehouse massacre is a single unedited shot: Terence Stamp, beaten bloody, rises from the pavement and shambles through the loading dock like the walking dead; we hear off-screen screams and gunshots; one survivor runs away, pursued by a blood-spattered Stamp, who shouts a message for his ultimate quarry—Peter Fonda's slick music exec—"TELL HIM I'M FUCKING COMIIIIINGGGGGG."
What makes both films masterpieces, though, is their unabashed emotionalism—the hearts that beat underneath their polished surfaces. In The Limey, it's the grief Stamp's character Wilson feels for the daughter he lost long before she died halfway around the world. In Out of Sight, it's the human connection—a little lust and a little love and a lot of mutual respect—that sparks between Jack Foley and Karen Sisco when he snaps his fingers against her thigh in the trunk of her car. What are they talking about? Movies, of course.
Soderbergh's third masterpiece is a minor one to most filmgoers but a major achievement to the tiny audience to whom it mattered: And Everything Is Going Fine, his 2010 elegy for the monologuist Spalding Gray. The director shot no footage for the film; instead, along with the editor Susan Littenberg, he built And Everything out of 120 hours of footage from Gray's life and performances. It's a remarkably ego-free and empathetic work of documentary, and it makes for a near-perfect portrait of an artist.
Four films, spanning Soderbergh's career, each of which aims squarely at a certain kind of classic-moviemaking target and hits it precisely. These classics don't break new ground but are examples of filmmaking at its highest level.
King of the Hill, a 1993 adaptation of A.E. Hotchner's memoir, is among Soderbergh's warmest movies—a coming-of-age story that puts us in the head of its pint-sized hero (Jesse Bradford) as he struggles to keep his family together in Depression-era St. Louis. It's beautifully realized and impeccably cast, right down to the smallest roles—where close viewers might notice Katherine Heigl, Amber Benson, and Lauryn Hill, years before you saw them anywhere else. (It's out of print on DVD, but available on Amazon streaming video.)
Che(2008) is as confident and well-directed a biopic as I can imagine, focusing on two revolutionary campaigns in the career of Che Guevara: the one in Cuba, which made his name, and the one in Bolivia, which killed him. It's a bravura, bladder-taxing work, a worthy companion to last year's Olivier Assayas-directed Carlos as ground-level, microscopic investigations of lives lived in extremis.
Soderbergh's muckraking crowd-pleaser from 2000, Erin Brockovich, might have been the most pleasant surprise of my re-viewing marathon over the past few weeks. I remembered it as sort of square and dull, but it holds up very well—a funny, funky story told with visual flair. Yes, Roberts is terrific, but so are Albert Finney and Aaron Eckhart, and nearly every scene is bright and sun-drenched, mirroring the harsh light Erin's investigation brings on PG&E—but also on her own character flaws.
Dan Kois is a senior editor at Slate and a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine.
Still of George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez in Out of Sight © MCA/Universal Pictures 1998. All rights reserved.