“To me the director’s job is to leave it in better shape than you found it, literally.” – Steven Soderbergh
American filmmaker Steven Soderbergh has been making films for more than three decades now, rising to the top of the industry with critical successes like his 1989 directorial debut Sex, Lies, and Videotape as well as commercial hits like the Ocean’s trilogy. He has been the recipient of several accolades, including the prestigious Palme d’Or and his films have won seven Academy Awards as he cements his legacy on the art form.
Soderbergh has clearly established that he is a creative force to be reckoned with, a fresh voice who uses his films to ask sweeping questions about individual identity and the human condition while also employing many conventional big-budget methods. In this intersection of the avant-garde and the formulaic, the filmmaker has managed to reach audiences around the world while also staying true to his own artistic integrity,
In an interview, Soderbergh said, “I got the movie bug from my father, who was a huge fan. But it wasn’t until the summer of 1975, when I was 12 and saw Jaws for the first time, that I began to look at films differently. I came out of the theatre and suddenly my relationship to movies had completely changed. I wanted to know what ‘directed by’ meant.”
He added, “One of the things I realised was, I’m not a writer, and I needed to stop doing that. It was a huge thing for me to let go of that and realise I have the ability to talk about story and character and to suggest how something should be laid out in narrative terms—but in terms of pure writing, I’m so far behind what I know about directing that it’s really better for me to work with writers who know as much about writing as I know about directing.”
On his 58th birthday, we revisit Steven Soderbergh’s illustrious filmography as a tribute to one of the top directorial talents of his time.
Steven Soderbergh’s 10 best films ranked from worst to best:
10. Logan Lucky (2017)
The most recent work by Soderbergh on this list, Logan Lucky, is a heist comedy film that forced the filmmaker to come out of retirement to direct it and then to distribute it through his company. Starring Adam Driver and Channing Tatum as the Logan brothers, the film focuses on their plans to dodge the FBI and rob the Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Soderbergh said, “I thought this movie is just a giant candy store, and everybody likes candy. The trick for me, in the midst of this larger experiment with distribution, was trying to stay focused on making a good movie. Or this whole experiment would be pointless. But the moving parts to get this thing set up the way we wanted to send it out were significant. We’d spend a lot of time on the phone about how we’d get this done.”
9. The Ocean’s Series (2001, 2004, 2007)
Featuring an ensemble cast including the likes of George Clooney and Brad Pitt, many critics have claimed that the Ocean’s series has set the gold standard for heist films. Its huge success has definitely contributed to the fact that so many heist films have been made since then. Inspired by Lewis Milestone’s 1960 film Ocean’s 11, the Ocean’s series is a great example of how Soderbergh managed to combine the spectacle of an entertaining film with the intellectual elements of art.
The filmmaker once explained, “I wanted to see if I could combine two types of films, one that had this elegant, elaborate, technical side but also this casual off-hand quality to the performances – a film that wasn’t aggressive.
“That was the trick, to see if we could find that balance to have it deliver on the big movie side, but make sure that it wasn’t mean, that it didn’t have male characters that were insulting each other. That it wasn’t profane or violent. To my mind that was going to be tricky.”
8. Schizopolis (1996)
A highly experimental, surreal comedy by Soderbergh, Schizopolis is a testament to his talents as a pioneer of bold cinema. Using a non-linear narrative, it follows the story of a man (played by Soderbergh) who works for an unpleasant cult leader of a movement which resembles Scientology. Influenced by Godard, Soderbergh manifests his artistic sensibilities through unconventional humour and subversive visual narrative.
“I think in order to continue to evolve you have to keep annihilating things that came before,” the director said. “I needed to bottom out, to borrow a phrase, in order to rebuild…I had everything else I needed, I’m the one that didn’t show up. I’m sorry that Universal had to write a check for $6 million for me to figure out that I needed to make Schizopolis, but that’s kinda what happened.”
7. The Limey (1999)
Although it wasn’t a financial success when it was released, Soderbergh’s 1999 crime drama has become a cult-classic in subsequent years. The film is about an English criminal (Terence Stamp) who ends up in Los Angeles in order to make sense of his daughter’s mysterious death.
Soderbergh reflected, “It’s strange to see it now and have some distance from the experience of it because it was such a fraught post-production. It was, for me, a really terrifying edit. It wasn’t written or shot to be put together the way it ended up being put together.
“The screening of the first cut, what we call our friends-and-family screening, was really upsetting because it was clear that that version was not working at all and that we would have to really re-conceive the movie completely. Doing that involved some additional shooting and then, most importantly, rebuilding the movie from scratch, essentially, which Sara Flack, the editor, and I did over the course of several months.”
6. Erin Brockovich (2000)
A biographical drama about the true events in Erin Brockovich’s (played by Julia Roberts) life, Soderbergh’s film focuses on a woman’s triumph against all odds. It depicts her fight to ensure that corporations are accountable for their crimes against the environment and humans. The film received five Oscar nominations as well as several other awards.
Soderbergh was initially hesitant about taking the project, “They were just pitching it to me, and my first thought was, ‘This is a cable movie at best. I don’t see how to turn this into a piece of cinema.’ Based on what was being described to me, I think I leapt to conclusions about what the end product would look like – very, very un-hip and not cool.”
He added, “Flashing forward, with Out of Sight finished a year and a half, and having The Limey happen in the interim, suddenly the simplicity of it, which I had viewed as a negative, felt very much like a positive. And then I actually read what they had, and felt, ‘Oh, there’s definitely something here.'”
5. Out of Sight (1998)
Based on Elmore Leonard’s eponymous 1996 novel, Out of Sight stars George Clooney as one of the most successful bank robbers in the country who gets into a dangerous relationship with a deputy federal marshal (played by Jennifer Lopez) after busting out of jail. The director saw the project as his gateway to the realm of blockbuster films, moving out of the relatively small arthouse circles.
Soderbergh said in a 1998 interview, “Early on I made a conscious decision not to involve myself in any publicity that wasn’t tied to a film. Nobody goes to see [Out of Sight] because of me; they’re going because of George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez. The more you put yourself in front of the public, the more you risk them hating you. It’s inevitable: It can’t move in one direction forever. As a filmmaker, [publicity] doesn’t make any sense. The relative anonymity I have is great.”
4. Che (2008)
Steven Soderbergh’s most ambitious project to date, Che is a two-part biographical film series about the revolutionary icon Ernesto “Che” Guevara (Benicio del Toro). The script was so long that Soderbergh was forced to divide it into two different parts, focusing on Cuba and Bolivia separately. For his fantastic performance as the legendary man, del Toro won the Best Actor Award at the Cannes Film Festival.
The filmmaker revealed, “Writing’s the worst. I feel much better about my ability to talk within a room about what I think we need to do. Che was such an unusual experience. It enabled me to shed some things that I needed to. It forced me to simplify my process, and that was really helpful. It wasn’t pleasant, but I came out the other side of it with a different approach to everything.”
3. King of the Hill (1993)
Based on A. E. Hotchner’s Depression-era memoir, King of the Hill is a beautiful coming-of-age film which follows Aaron (Jesse Bradford) who has to survive on his own after being separate from his family. It is a poignant look at the life of a young boy who has to make sense of the world all on his own, with all its absurdities and horrors.
In a 2013 interview conducted by The Criterion Collection for the release of the film on Blu-ray, Soderbergh said, “It’s one of those films that other people seem to think of more fondly than I do. In terms of the result, I don’t think it’s a failure…[but] I look at it now and the stylistic choices I’m not happy with.
“I think it’s too beautiful. And that’s sort of on me. I mean, Elliot Davis…is a very gifted D.P. and I got very much what I was asking for at the time and it’s a beautiful film to look at. I just think in retrospect that was kind of the wrong approach [and] that the film should’ve had a much rougher, grittier feel to it.”
2. Traffic (2000)
One of Soderbergh’s most successful films, Traffic explored the volatile world of drug trafficking from varying perspectives, ranging from that of a user to a traffickers’ viewpoints. The film was a critical and commercial hit, winning four Oscars including a Best Director award for Soderbergh.
The filmmaker said, “For this film, I spent a lot of time analysing Battle of Algiers and Z — both of which have that great feeling of things that are caught, instead of staged, which is what we were after. I just wanted that sensation of chasing the story, this sense that it may outrun us if we don’t move quickly enough.”
1. Sex, Lies and Videotape (1989)
It is no coincidence that Soderbergh’s directorial debut is his most interesting work. This was the film that made Soderbergh (who was 26 at the time) the youngest solo filmmaker to win the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Sex, Lies and Videotape is a brilliantly insightful look at the troubling personal lives of characters who have all been crippled by modernity. Soderbergh intelligently indulges in meta-commentary about voyeurism while exploring the intricacies of sexuality.
In an interview, Soderbergh commented on the autobiographical elements of the film, “I drove the most important woman in my life to leave because I didn’t want to be in the relationship but couldn’t just say, ‘I don’t want to be in this. I want to be out of it.’ There was nothing wrong with the person that made my life uncomfortable, I just wasn’t ready to deal with the responsibility.
“So I was very deceptive about how I got out of it. And then once I was out of it I couldn’t even allow it the dignity to die properly. I kept stringing it out and not letting it go and then I got involved with some other people and—it was just a mess. I look back on it and I’m stunned that I had turned into the kind of person I despise.”