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.
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."
All of the Above
Classic? Failure? Masterpiece? Divertissement? How about this: a really, really fascinating film that doesn't exactly get better with age—but that does get more and more crucial the closer Soderbergh comes to being the iconic American director of his generation: Schizopolis, of course.
The Final Ranking
Out of Sight: masterpiece
The Limey: masterpiece
And Everything Is Going Fine: masterpiece
King of the Hill: classic
The Informant!: RFF
Erin Brockovich: classic
Sex, Lies, and Videotape: classic
Ocean's 12: WD
Ocean's 11: WD
The Underneath: WD
Gray's Anatomy: IF
The Girlfriend Experience: IF
Ocean's 13: WD
The Good German: IF
Full Frontal: IF
Schizopolis: all of the above
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.