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Ranked: Steven Soderbergh Films From Worst to Best

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With Contagion out this week, we reassess everything from Sex, Lies, and Videotape to Erin Brockovich.

Steven Soderbergh kickstarted the '90s indie boom with Sex, Lies, and Videotape, emerged as a commercial powerhouse around the turn of the millenium, and has alternated between smart mainstream fare and cerebral experiments ever since. With his twenty-first feature, Contagion, out this week, we've ranked his entire filmography from worst to best.

20. The Good German (2006)

If top honors were given solely for visual imitation, The Good German could be considered a successful throwback to film noir of the 1940s. But in the end, aesthetic appeal doesn't make up for the flat plot and character development in this nostalgia piece. Even the A-list cast brings little to the film, with Tobey Maguire and Cate Blanchett giving forced performances and George Clooney serving as nothing more than a Cary Grant stand-in. The final scene, in which Clooney says goodbye to Blanchett on an airstrip (á la Casablanca) crystallizes what's wrong with this picture: you've seen it done before, and you've seen it done better.

 

19. The Girlfriend Experience (2009)

Focusing on the trials and tribulations of a high-end prostitute in Manhattan, The Girlfriend Experience seems like a perfect vehicle for porn star Sasha Gray. But the failure of this low-budget experiment falls largely on Gray's shoulders — "the girlfriend experience" Gray's character offers seems to consist largely of staring at her wealthy clients with glazed, mannequin eyes. These scenes pile up while a more interesting plotline about the troubled open relationship between Gray's character and her boyfriend goes unattended.
 


18. Solaris (2002)

Fittingly, given Soderbergh's interest in psychology, his first foray into science fiction is a remake of Andrei Tarkovsky's film about a psychologist sent into space. Since it's a remake, it gets no points for innovation; what's left feels cold and ambivalent. Critics who viewed Solaris favorably have defended it as a visual tone-poem about love and loss. To me, it's too vague to have much impact.

 

17. Kafka (1991)

Following the breakout success of Sex, Lies, and Videotape, Soderbergh stumbled with his sophomore effort. A muddled take on Franz Kafka's life and work, the film could stand to be more Kafkaesque. It's a straight-forward narrative that hits you in the face rather than slowly creeping under your skin. Jeremy Irons gives a lukewarm performance as the title character, and there are too many moments in the film that make you laugh for the wrong reasons. Some consider it a classic for its visuals, but most view it as the beginning of a cold streak in the inventive director's career.

 

16. The Underneath (1995)

Loosely based off the 1949 noir classic Criss Cross, about an armored car heist gone wrong, The Underneath exhibits all the stylistic flourishes that Soderbergh would go on to perfect later in his career (creative framing, multi-layered editing, color tinting scenes to express different periods of time and emotion, etc.). But The Underneath suffers from Soderbergh's early tendency to start his films slowly, and the turtle's pace of the plot detracts from the excellent performances of its stars, Peter Gallagher and Allison Elliott. As Soderbergh later admitted in an interview about the film, "There's something somnambulant about it. I was sleepwalking in my life and my work and it shows." Also cringe-worthy is the "trick ending," which tries to pull the rug out from under you and only trips over its own feet.

 

15. Full Frontal (2002)

After receiving his biggest box-office success to date with Ocean's Eleven, Soderbergh made Full Frontal seemingly as a self-conscious attempt to reaffirm his indie cred. Shot in a contrasting mix of digital video and 35 mm, this film within a film about disenchanted Hollywood types was an experiment in aesthetics, meant to show the inherent falsity of motion pictures. The experimentation is commendable, and while Full Frontal is provocative and challenging, it's also pretty entertaining. But the winking quality of the film makes me wonder if it was nothing more than an act of creative masturbation on Soderbergh's part. (Need further proof? The tagline on the film's poster reads: "Everybody needs a release.")

 

14. Bubble (2005)

While passable as a thriller about the employees of a small-town doll factory, Bubble is interesting more for the details of its production than for the film itself. Shot in high-definition video on a budget of $1.6 million dollars, it features non-actors from the shooting areas of West Virginia and Ohio, improvising on an outline penned by screenwriter Coleman Hough. The results are eerie, as the scenes play out with a sense of unpolished reality that climaxes with the death of one of the employees. But this attempt at realism also drags the film down — the characters are so affectless and the dialogue so mind-numbingly "real" that for much of the film you feel as if you're eavesdropping on one long, boring conversation.

 

13. King of the Hill (1993)

When discussing his films in The Believer, Soderbergh said, "There's a difference between failures and things that are bad. I'd like to think I've made movies that were failures, creatively and otherwise." By his own admission, King of the Hill is one of these failures. The struggle of the adolescent protagonist to survive alone in a hotel is so understated and dull it takes some effort to remind yourself that you're not watching a movie on Nickelodeon. (Play the movie with your eyes closed and tell me the music doesn't sound like something from The Secret World of Alex Mack.) 

 

12. Ocean's Twelve (2004)

Aiming to be nothing more than an entertaining vehicle banking on the success of its predecessor, Ocean's Twelve throws in high-tech gadgets, mindless banter, and Catherine Zeta-Jones, to distract you from the fact that the plot itself is half-baked. Most symptomatic of this fluffiness is a scene where Julia Roberts' character must pose as the real Julia Roberts to help the gang steal a priceless egg, while Bruce Willis (played by Bruce Willis) nags her about his daughter's SpongeBob blanket. Vincent Cassel's excellent performance as a smug master thief is the only thing that keeps your eyes from completely rolling out of your head. 
 


11. Ocean's Thirteen (2007)

The third and final installment of the Ocean's series returns to the glitz and glamor of its Vegas roots, with Soderbergh and co. pulling a wild card and delivering more of a revenge film than a heist film. After their benefactor, Reuben Tishkoff (Elliott Gould), is betrayed by his partner, Willy Bank (Al Pacino), Ocean and his crew develop a scheme to ruin Bank's new casino by rigging its games so the house always loses, implicating every casino player in the process. Shot and edited in a flashy, over-the-top style, the film works as a nice capstone to a series about criminal swagger. But its success is more about its cast and larger-than-life budget than any real craft.

 


10. The Informant! (2009)

This biographical comedy is carried by Matt Damon's brilliant performance as Mark Whitacre, who blew the whistle on a mid-'90s corporate price-fixing conspiracy. Damon's performance, against a solid story of bureaucratic shenanigans, is more than enough to keep the film moving. His squirming take on the duplicitous Whitacre is both hilarious and sad; he reminds you of a child continuously juggling a lie. Also hilarious is his recurring interior monologue of random facts. Bottom line: watching a man drown in his own dishonesty has never been so much fun.


9. Gray's Anatomy (1996) / And Everything is Going Fine (2010)

It'd be disingenuous to rank one of these two portraits of monologist Spalding Gray over the other, since both are less about filmmaking than about the talents of one of history's greatest raconteurs. Viewed together, the two films are a testament to the art of storytelling, and a visual record of what one man was able to achieve with only his voice (and the occasional glass of water).

 

8. The Limey (1999)

A Kill Bill for geriatrics, The Limey tells the story of a father (played by the brilliant Terence Stamp) fresh out of British prison who travels to Los Angeles to investigate the death of his daughter. Learning from his mistakes with The Underneath, Soderbergh successfully begins the film in medias res, using an experimental, fragmented editing scheme that cuts the fat from the story. Meanwhile, Stamp carries the film's emotion, with a meditative stare that tells you everything you need to know about the stewing anger and remorse of a failed father. In The Limey, Soderbergh delivered a successful (albeit slim) crime film about revenge and the possibility of redemption.


7. Ocean's Eleven (2001)

With an all-star ensemble cast that both pays homage to and in many ways surpasses the glamor of its Rat Pack predecessors, this remake of the 1960 caper film achieves what every Hollywood film should strive for: a sense of fun with the intelligence to back it up. Soderbergh delivered a stylish heist film that might have toppled under its own weight in the the hands of a lesser director. And while the characters themselves may be more "types" than fleshed-out personalities, the light-hearted humor and wit of the film more than makes up for it. Although Soderbergh made several more interesting films, Ocean's Eleven is nearly perfect in its execution.


6. Out of Sight (1998)

Adapted from Elmore Leonard's novel, Out of Sight was at the time Soderbergh's most accessible film, a light-hearted romantic comedy with attitude that, unlike his previous films, didn't leave you feeling sad or confused. The film's likeable characters can be attributed to Leonard's original text, but its overall success is owed to two things: one, the chemistry between Jennifer Lopez and George Clooney is very real; and two, Soderbergh was able to tone down his experimental streak just enough to appeal to cinephiles and average moviegoers alike. At a moment when the director had delivered enough willfully oblique critical and box-office disasters to have him nearly ousted from Hollywood, Out of Sight seems to have shown him a new path, making him realize that commercial success didn't have to mean dumbing things down.


5. Schizopolis (1996)

In what he would later admit "probably crossed the line from personal into private film making," Schizopolis is both Soderbergh's most bizarre film and most personal. The auteur shot, wrote, directed, and starred in this thinly veiled exploration of his failed marriage with actress Betsy Brantley. Schizopolis is an explosion of creative energy and hilarious ingenuity, featuring invented languages, a schizophrenic aesthetic, and nearly every film trick ever conceived. Unsurprisingly, it's not very coherent, but Soderbergh doesn't seem to have worried about that, so why should we? Love it or hate it, Schizopolis has a freedom and spontaneity that place it among the director's best experimental works.


4. Che (2008)

Like the guerilla leader himself, Che is divisive. While many praised Benicio del Toro's portrayal of Ernesto "Che" Guevara, others thought Soderbergh failed to explore the character thoroughly, arguing that the figure of Che was as enigmatic at the end of the film as he was at the beginning. I'll offer a third angle: Che is more concerned with Guevara as a totem of war and its process than as a man of flesh and blood. Viewed in this light, Che is one of cinema's most in-depth studies of war. Acting as his own director of photography, Soderbergh delivered a controlled epic about the bloody inches traveled in pursuit of a revolutionary ideal.


3. Erin Brockovich (2000)

2000 was a good year for Soderbergh, in large part due to the success of Erin Brockovich, an independent drama with a hefty financial backing and a star-studded cast. Julia Roberts gives a great performance as the title character; a startling departure from her persona as America's sweetheart. She went on to win a Best Actress Oscar later that year, with co-star Albert Finney receiving a nomination for Best Supporting Actor; Soderbergh was also nominated for Best Director. What ultimately makes this film a highlight of Soderbergh's career is the empathy in which he treats the subject matter, giving the film a depth of emotion beyond the detached intellectualism of some of his earlier work.


2. Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989)

At the tender age of twenty-six, Soderbergh kicked in the doors for independent filmmakers everywhere with the success of his low-budget, psychological debut. Written in a frenzied eight days, the film depicts the sexual neuroses of a group of acquaintances and the lies they tell to keep each other at arm's length. Though Videotape is staged in a deceptively low-key way, each frame feels like like you're spying on a group psychiatry session. Among its many honors, the film received the Palme d'Or at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival (making Soderbergh the youngest director to ever receive the prestigious award), and in 2006 was added to the Library of Congress's Film Registry for being "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant."


1. Traffic (2000)

With Traffic, Soderbergh synthesized a decade of experimentation to produce an in-depth analysis of our nation's war on drugs. Set on a grand scale, the film interweaves three complex narratives to show the interconnectedness between drug lords, dealers, politicians, and addicts. To keep his intricate story clear, Soderbergh employed a distinctive look for each of the three main threads, experimenting with filters, lenses, and even a "flashing" technique where film negatives were overexposed (at the potential risk of losing a day's footage) to give the picture an acidic, grainy quality. Along with Erin Brockovich, Traffic earned Soderbergh another Best Director nomination for the year 2000, making him only the second director in sixty years to achieve a double nomination. Traffic works on every level.