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Ranked: Steven Soderbergh Films From Worst to Best
With Contagion out this week, we reassess everything from Sex, Lies, and Videotape to Erin Brockovich.
By Austin Duerst
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.