THE LISTS: Top 10 Steven Soderbergh films

Posted by · 11:08 am · September 15th, 2009

Steven SoderberghThis Friday sees the release in American theaters of “The Informant!,” the nimble Matt Damon-starring corporate caper which, depending on the format in which you saw last year’s “Che,” is either the 20th or the 21st feature from one Mr. Steven Soderbergh. (I say 21st, given that “Che” clearly comprises two films utterly distinct in tone and structure, but 20th does sound more momentous for the purposes of a list. Oh, well.)

This year also marks the 20-year anniversary of Soderbergh’s game-changing debut feature “sex, lies and videotape,” which made the then 26 year-old novice the toast of Cannes and the American indie scene alike, and set the course for one of the most (delete according to taste) fascinating/diverse/infuriating/rich/productive/exciting auteur careers of the last two decades. (It also earned Andie MacDowell a deserved, everlasting defense against an increasingly hostile barrage of criticism, but that’s neither here nor there.)

On balance — he started slower, after all — it’s a work rate that matches Woody Allen’s for consistency of output, and inconsistency of content. No filmmaker today better manages the track of juggling a “one for me, one for the studios” routine, and what keeps Soderbergh’s career so intriguing is that there’s no set law as two which of these two categories might house his stronger works.

So it seemed a suitable point to take stock of this most idiosyncratic career, bisecting his filmography to evaluate the ten Soderbergh films that have delighted and/or enriched me most over the years. As a child growing up with ambitions of working in this industry, Soderbergh was — and, to a large extent, still is — one of my heroes, so his is a filmography that I’ve grown and changed with over time.

Accordingly, my perspective on some of the films has altered too … as, say, “Erin Brockovich” continues to rise in my estimation, “The Good German,” of which I was initially a lone champion, proved disappointingly vacant on a recent revisit. “Ocean’s Eleven” struck me as a blast at the time, and probably still is, though the diminishing returns of the sequels have soured the taste slightly. More recently, the twin parts of “Che” still won’t settle in my mind a whole year on, and I’m beginning to suspect they never will.

But such is the pleasure of Soderbergh’s output: “Ocean’s” films aside, he never makes the same movie twice, leading almost everyone to have a different relationship to his work. Share yours in the comments.

Bubble10. “Bubble” (2005)
I’m either not sufficiently perverse or dedicated to hold Soderbergh’s more lo-fi experiments dear to my heart, but “Bubble” – which I scrabbled for years to see in the UK before an import DVD finally came my way – remains an exception. A terse, tight (at 73 minutes) and wholly star-free account of an oddly disassociated murder investigation in blue-collar Ohio, the film is less concerned with the sensational aspects of its story than the lonely everyday rhythms of the lives they disrupt. Filmed on HD and performed with wallflower modesty by its non-pro cast, it proved a humanistic medium between Soderbergh’s more esoteric and generic impulses.

Matt Damon in The Informant!9. “The Informant!” (2009)
Soderbergh’s latest is another that finds him fudging the line between aspects of his auteur persona that had previous been kept separate. “The Informant!” represents a fusion of the slick, sprightly, audience-minded Soderbergh of his “Ocean’s” trilogy, the eccentric, pastiche-driven stylist of, say, “The Good German” and the earnest, socially conscious storyteller of “Erin Brockovich.” If the mix sounds curious, so is the film, but it adds up to his most purely enjoyable romp in almost a decade. Meanwhile, Matt Damon’s award-level performance is his reward for serving his Soderbergh apprenticeship in the “Ocean’s” films with such good humor.

Terence Stamp in The Limey8. “The Limey” (1999)
Amid the admittedly spectacular cinematic vintage that was 1999, Soderbergh’s ultra-hard-boiled neo-noir still receives less credit than it deserves. Although a witty and inventive genre work in many respects, the film is still noted mainly for the dazzling architecture of its editing, which ingeniously integrates scenes of leading man Terence Stamp in Ken Loach’s 1967 “Poor Cow” in place of flashbacks. However, it’s another 1967 title – John Boorman’s “Point Blank” – that this film references most obviously with its icy revenge narrative and implacable senior badass. Soderbergh the movie-geek has rarely been more playful, or more polished, in his trickery.

Jeremy Irons in Kafka7. “Kafka” (1991)
Almost any choice of follow-up to a precocious debut as unimaginably successful as “sex, lies and videotape” would be liable to accusations of a sophomore slump, so Soderbergh evidently chose to throw all caution to the wind with a black-and-white hybrid of noir, biopic and literary adaptation, all steeped in rich expressionist imagery and heady existentialist theory. It had no right to work – and indeed, for many it didn’t – but it’s difficult to imagine a much more appropriate cinematic tribute to the eponymous author. With an obvious visual and aural debt to “The Third Man,” it might also be Soderbergh’s most purely gorgeous film to date.

Benicio Del Toro in Traffic6. “Traffic” (2000)
The film that won Soderbergh the Oscar – an achievement that I imagine few of his early devotees ever imagined he would accomplish – wasn’t his first to successfully marry his mainstream and arthouse leanings, but it did so with unprecedented Academy-baiting heft and muscularity. Its splintered, socially conscious narrative could have fallen prey to the maudlin schematics that marred so many subsequent imitators (I’d name “Crash” as an example), but it’s Soderbergh’s delicate feel for the smaller, interior moments (encapsulated by its quietly melancholic ending on a baseball field) that keep “Traffic” so fresh.

Julia Roberts and Aaron Eckhart in Erin Brockovich5. “Erin Brockovich” (2000)
I was a “Traffic” man myself back in the 2000 Oscar derby and, as you read a paragraph ago, I still am to a large extent. But the more I get to know “Erin Brockovich” – the film that seems the more elementary achievement on initial viewings – the more I find to love and admire in it. Soderbergh’s first crack at a star vehicle proved mutually beneficial for him and his lead actress: designing the film around Julia Roberts’s ball-of-fire performance gave Soderbergh the liberty to focus on smaller, slyer details of location and characterization. Everything a smart studio crowdpleaser should aspire to be.

George Clooney in Solaris4. “Solaris” (2002)
2002 was the year Soderbergh cashed in the studio goodwill accumulated over three successive mainstream hits. While “Full Frontal” was a throwaway indulgence easily forgotten by all, more was riding on “Solaris” — though given the pairing of Soderbergh with a Stanislaw Lem science-fiction novel previously filmed by Andrei Tarkovsky, you have to wonder what Fox was expecting in return for their $47 million investment, even with a top-form George Clooney on board. Anyway. What they got, like it or not, was a shimmering art film that traded in ideas over spectacle, though not at the expense of its considerable beauty.

Andie MacDowell in sex, lies and videotape3. “sex, lies and videotape” (1989)
So much has been written about Soderbergh’s Palme d’Or-winning debut in terms of its defining influence on the landscape of American indie cinema that the film itself tends to get a little bit lost in the discussion. But the film has aged remarkably well over twenty years, perhaps because it was even something of a throwback at the time: the imprint of conversation-driven French auteurs like Eric Rohmer is borne proudly by this sharp, sexy and nastily funny comedy of manners, whose dialogue crackles with such cutting truth and wit one wonders why Soderbergh doesn’t write more these days.

Jennifer Lopez and George Clooney in Out of Sight2. “Out of Sight” (1998)
The finest film to emerge from Hollywood’s odd mini-love affair with Elmore Leonard in the mid-to-late 90s, “Out of Sight” is a textbook example of how craft can elevate pulp to the status of art. Yes, the lightning-in-a-bottle chemistry between George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez (both finally making successful bids for movie stardom here) was invaluable. Yes, Scott Frank’s script was a diamond. But it was the thrilling structural games that Soderbergh and editor Anne V. Coates played – peaking with that exquisite, Roeg-referencing sex scene – that make this one for the ages.

Jesse Bradford (left) in King of the Hill1. “King of the Hill” (1993)
As a 10 year-old cinephile on a family trip to the movies, this was my first encounter with Soderbergh. I suppose, then, a touch of personal bias could be factoring in this ranking, but I don’t think so: Soderbergh’s adaptation of A.E. Hotchner’s Depression-era childhood memoirs remains his most satisfying feat of pure cinematic storytelling, with period detail so rich and tangible it practically peels off the screen. This is as emotive and wistful as the director has ever allowed himself to get, though the occasional cruelty of its child’s-eye gaze keeps sentimentality at bay. Not just Soderbergh’s most expansive achievement, but one of the great lost films of the 1990s.

→ 27 Comments Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Filed in: The Lists

27 responses so far

  • 1 9-15-2009 at 11:26 am

    Loyal said...

    I love love love The Limey. Without a question, the #1 film in his career (I just rewatched Point Blank for perhaps the 20th time this weekend, so kudos on the mention).

    Speaking of the Ocean films, I think the 2nd film in the trilogy is by far the best. I’m generally alone in that opinion. Something about the European setting and how loose and fast the story played.

  • 2 9-15-2009 at 11:27 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    I’m an Out of Sight guy, but I must say, so nice to see the absence of Che.

  • 3 9-15-2009 at 11:32 am

    McGuff said...

    I got to 10,9,8 and was just hoping “The Girlfriend Experience” wouldn’t be any higher. This list is solely validating for me because the film isn’t on there.

    But I also really agree with your perception that since 2000, we’ve sort of seen a shift in “Traffic” and “Erin Brokovich”. Both still great films, but his team with Julia is a better rounded product.

  • 4 9-15-2009 at 11:40 am

    Robert Hamer said...

    Gonna have to side with Traffic on the “Soderbergh films of 2000” debate. I always thought Roberts was tad overpraised for this film, since most of her performance consisted of either telling someone off or acting sympathetic.

    But Traffic still floors me, and it seems especially relevant in light of the Obama administration ceasing to use the term “War on Drugs.”

  • 5 9-15-2009 at 11:56 am

    Chad Hartigan said...

    Nicely thought out and written list Guy. But man, I hate Sex Lies and Videotape. I think I gotta go with The Limey and Solaris as his two finest achievements.

  • 6 9-15-2009 at 12:03 pm

    Matthew said...

    Great list. Though, I think I’m the only person in the world who thinks that “Ocean’s 12” was a solid absurdist-heist-comedy. I loved that movie.

  • 7 9-15-2009 at 12:09 pm

    Encore Entertainment said...

    It’s nice to see someone is giving love to Erin Brockovich…not a scene in that film is wasted.

  • 8 9-15-2009 at 12:36 pm

    RichardA said...

    Erin for me. But can he please save Jesse Bradford from doing another movie like “I Hope They Serve Beer In Hell”. He was so promising.

  • 9 9-15-2009 at 12:46 pm

    david said...

    King of the Hill is my favorite as well.

  • 10 9-15-2009 at 12:49 pm

    Derek said...

    I’m also of the Traffic in 2000, but now Erin variety.

    But Out of Sight is clearly the best overall.

  • 11 9-15-2009 at 12:52 pm

    Patryk said...

    sex, lies and videotape changed everything for me. That said, my fave is still “The Limey.”

  • 12 9-15-2009 at 1:17 pm

    James D. said...

    I can’t see how you skip Che. I just saw Part 1 for the first time this morning and I was very overwhelmed with it’s treatment of the character. As of now, I would put it slightly behind Traffic and Bubble (if Blockbuster delivers, I will see Part Two tomorrow).

  • 13 9-15-2009 at 1:20 pm

    Chase Kahn said...

    “Che” is #1 by a nautical mile. I’m Jeff Wells crazy about that film, the bright spot of a poor 2008.

  • 14 9-15-2009 at 1:36 pm

    Jeff said...

    I love Soderbergh. I think his best five are:

    1.) Out of Sight
    2.) Traffic
    3.) King of the Hill
    4.) sex, lies and videotape
    5.) Erin Brockovich

    I have not yet seen The Informant but am really looking forward to it!

  • 15 9-15-2009 at 2:04 pm

    Nick Davis said...

    So delicious to see the love for the bravely unsentimental but still incredibly dear King of the Hill. I recently got to see it again on a big screen at Chicago’s Siskel Film Center, and the two friends I took with me, both of them new to the movie, loved it as much as I still did. This seems IDEAL for a Criterion release.

  • 16 9-15-2009 at 2:21 pm

    tim r said...

    …particularly so that I can see it! I never have, and I’d love to. At present, think I’d have to have Solaris up top, with Erin bringing her water in special for you folks at #2.

  • 17 9-15-2009 at 2:36 pm

    Matthew said...

    This has nothing to do with Soderbergh, but apparently The Weinstein Company picked up “A Single Man” for distribution. Can’t wait to see it.

  • 18 9-15-2009 at 3:49 pm

    The Rake said...

    Oceans 11 should have made it somewhere on the list. The Limey is great, Traffic might be his best, but my personal favorite is Out of Sight. A beautiful movie. I appreciate someone showing love to Solaris. An overlooked film IMO.
    The Rake

  • 19 9-15-2009 at 5:22 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    I have to say, deciding between “King of the Hill” and “Out of Sight” was a virtual toss-up for me. Perhaps the fact that “Hill” got not a single serious awards citation anywhere (whaaaa?) swayed me. “Out of Sight” will always have that infinitely cool NSFC Best Picture award, at least.

  • 20 9-15-2009 at 7:08 pm

    Nick Davis said...

    Well, trying to fight through the teeny-tiny space between Schindler and Piano in that ’93 awards season was a task beyond almost anyone. Scorsese was lucky (for more reason than one) to nab that NBR Director prize, but I think Spielberg and Campion nabbed everything else.

  • 21 9-15-2009 at 8:59 pm

    Speaking English said...

    “Traffic” is his best, just for pure cinematic grandeur and breathtaking technique. That movie’s basically the definition of a ‘knockout.’

  • 22 9-16-2009 at 1:19 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Nick: So true. What a year 1993 was. Strongest Best Picture field of my lifetime, too.

    Still, the absence of any recognition even in the writing and/or craft categories still floors me. That said, I suppose that was just before the mid-90s explosion of precursor awards … these days, Jesse Bradford would probably have a ton of “young actor” nods from the likes of the BFCA.

  • 23 9-16-2009 at 7:38 am

    El Rocho said...

    Nice list. I was surprised with the absence of ‘Che’, which I felt was a masterwork. Thought the addition of ‘Kafka’ nulls it out. Such an underappreciated film. I am also happy you added ‘The Limey’, which is one of my all-time favorite films. A bit disappointed, though, with ‘Erin Brockovich’ being so high on the list. I felt it was too…basic for Soderbergh. And again props to ‘Bubble’, which I would have put higher. It’s a brilliant film. Soderbergh is a true artist.

  • 24 9-16-2009 at 2:25 pm

    Zan said...

    You’re a very adept writer, Guy. I really enjoy reading your stuff even if I don’t agree with placements on this list.

    Traffic, to me, is his crown jewel, followed by sex, lies, and videotape and, yes, Ocean’s 11.

  • 25 9-18-2009 at 9:43 am

    Chris R said...

    I had no idea he had made so many great movies. Thanks for putting together this list. I have a lot more respect for the guy.

  • 26 10-20-2009 at 3:38 pm

    Brian said...

    For me its traffic or out of sight, whichever one i saw last…and i recently rewatched traffic. Numbers 1-5 on m y list are terrific films…6-10 are good films. I’m glad you put down bubble, i would even put it higher. Im with you on che but i had to include it. I haven’t seen the informant yet.

    1. Traffic
    2. Out of Sight
    3. Erin Brockovich
    4. Sex, Lies and Videotape
    5. King of the Hill
    6. Limey
    7. Bubble
    8. Kafka
    9. Oceans 11
    10. Che

  • 27 11-29-2010 at 12:39 pm

    Keil Shults said...


    Glad to see someone out there unafraid to express their love and admiration for King of the Hill, which has long been my favorite Soderbergh film as well. I was also pleased to see Out of the Sight appear high on the list, since it’s one of his best and most enjoyable flicks, and one that too often gets dismissed, due in no small part to the presence of J-Lo (who has yet to do better).