The Lists: Top 10 performances in Steven Soderbergh films

Posted by · 11:00 am · June 26th, 2012

If it feels like just the other day that Steven Soderbergh released a new movie — well, it pretty much was. Ahead of the supposed sabbatical from filmmaking he’s threatening to make at the end of this year, the Oscar-winning director has been on a tear, perhaps hoping to churn out enough films in a short space of time that audiences won’t miss him for a while. In the last 10 months, he’s given us a double-shot of nifty genre action in “Contagion” and “Haywire,” while this Friday sees the release of male-stripper comedy “Magic Mike” — an unapologetically fizzy entertainment that is nonetheless scoring the director his strongest reviews in some time.

With 24 features now in the can for Soderbergh, it seemed appropriate to devote this week’s edition of The Lists to his decidedly catholic, even eccentric, filmography, which runs the gamut from bright studio popcorners like “Ocean’s Eleven” to classy prestige drama like “Traffic” to square-peg experiments like “The Girlfriend Experience” to such outright esoterica as “Schizopolis” — but since I already offered a Top 10 Soderbergh films list a few years ago, I decided to shift focus to his equally wide-ranging work with actors.

Soderbergh’s films often aren’t expressly designed as performance showcases, but very few of them don’t feature interesting thespian work — largely because his approach to casting is as restless and open-minded as his choice in scripts. There aren’t many filmmakers who are as happy working with A-list Hollywood royalty — George Clooney, say, or Julia Roberts — as the wholly non-pro cast of “Bubble,” or performers from alternative backgrounds like pornographic actress Sasha Grey or MMA fighter Gina Carano.

Soderbergh doesn’t appear to make much of a distinction between these categories — once on camera, an actor is an actor is an actor. As a result, his work with major stars can be as surprising and revelatory as his more off-the-beaten-track discoveries: witness Clooney in “Solaris,” for example, deprived of his default charisma, forced to be alone, grayer, graver and more human as a result.

Indeed, Soderbergh seems often to fare best with actors whose ranges are ostensibly limited. As I drew up the shortlist for this Top 10, I was struck how many of the names I was considering — Jennifer Lopez, for example, or Andie MacDowell — are not necessarily powerhouse (or even especially good) actors, yet were on uncharacteristically vital or nervy form under Soderbergh’s hand. Alex Pettyfer, widely dismissed by critics as a mannequin prior to “Magic Mike,” appears to be the latest beneficiary. Of course, Soderbergh does right by gifted actors, too — you won’t be surprised to find two entries for Benicio Del Toro in the list below.

With such a range of actors and approaches across 24 films, I wound up with a longer shortlist than I expected to have, but these, finally, are the 10 I kept coming back to. Check out the list in the gallery below, and be sure to share your own thoughts and favorites in the comments section.

“Magic Mike” opens in theaters nationwide on June 29.

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