“I’m a grinder. I’ll beat you because I will not sleep.” – Steven Soderbergh
An influential workhorse of cinema, writer, director and cinematographer Steven Soderbergh has created 34 films in his relatively short career that started in 1989 with the release of his Palme d’Or-winning drama, Sex, Lies and Videotape. Since then, Soderbergh has worked with the likes of George Clooney, Matt Damon, Brad Pitt, Gary Oldman, Daniel Craig, Adam Driver and Channing Tatum.
Having told the media multiple times of his retirement from the film industry, Soderbergh has gone through several creative identities, embracing everything from low-budget independent drama to frenetic action cinema. Experiencing artistic high points, creative troughs and commercial success, Steven Soderbergh is an ever-adaptive filmmaker with an eclectic range of skills and abilities.
Capable of being among the very finest working directors of the 21st century, alongside the likes of Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Denis Villeneuve and Barry Jenkins, Steven Soderbergh often suffers from inconsistency, even if he rears his head for the odd glimmer of mastery every now and then.
Having enjoyed 33 years of periodical success, Soderbergh has no doubt proven time and time again that he is a purveyor of quality cinema, providing audiences with interesting and innovative projects no matter their critical acclaim. Let’s take a look back at six of his most definitive films.
Steven Soderbergh’s six definitive films:
Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989)
Moving to Hollywood at an early age to pursue a career in filmmaking, Steven Soderbergh worked as a freelance film editor whilst seeking directorial opportunities, creating the concert video 9012Live for the band Yes in 1985 for which he won a Grammy.
Following this and two other video shorts, Soderbergh’s career sparked in extraordinary fashion as his debut feature film Sex, Lies, and Videotape won the Palme d’Or at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival. As well as the festival’s main prize, actor James Spader picked up the award for Best Performance By a Male Lead and the film became an international success. Establishing the director’s initial stark, character-driven style, Sex, Lies, and Videotape remains one of his most defining films.
Erin Brockovich (2000)
With cinema’s most acclaimed prize under his belt at the very first hurdle of his career, Soderbergh went somewhat mad with creative power, creating several experimental, eccentric films including Kafka and Schizopolis, before moving to the somewhat safer release of Out of Sight in 1998, starring George Clooney.
Grabbing the cultural zeitgeist, it was Erin Brockovich from 2000 that would truly help the director enter mainstream cinema, with Julia Roberts elevating the film with her Oscar-winning performance. Detailing the story of a single mother and legal assistant who brings down a Californian power company, Soderbergh’s film hit a cultural nerve and became a critical and commercial success.
Ocean’s Eleven (2001)
Erin Brockovich would spark a string of successes for Steven Soderbergh, with the filmmaker following the 2000 film with the Oscar-winner Traffic as well the blockbuster commercial hit Ocean’s Eleven.
A remake of the 1960’s film of the same name starring Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr, the updated Ocean’s Eleven featured an equally star-studded cast as well as a snappy, frenetic heist story to match. With Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, George Clooney and Andy Garcia among others, Ocean’s Eleven became an enormous hit for Soderbergh, who proved for the very first time that he was capable of handling a major Hollywood release.
Soderbergh was no industry mule, however, refusing to be limited to the realms of mainstream, linear popular cinema. Such has been demonstrated earlier in his career and was further proven with the release of Bubble in 2005.
Having directed a science fiction remake in Solaris and the sequel to Ocean’s Eleven, Soderbergh turned his interest to more personal affairs, releasing the small, strange independent film, Bubble in 2005. Letting audiences know that he still operated on the fringes of the industry, Bubble featured a cast of non-professional and followed a murder in a rural eccentric town. A sign of more eclectic things to come from Soderbergh, Bubble cleansed the director’s palette and invited change.
Carrying more cultural pertinence in a mid-pandemic world than it ever did in 2011, Steven Soderbergh’s drama about the fictional spread of a virus makes for truly uncomfortable viewing in 2022.
The film came after a sustained period of experimentation for the director, turning from his time making heist movies to focus on small dramas and psychological thrillers, including The Good German, Che: Part One and The Girlfriend Experience. As he told Interview Magazine in 2008, “The reason my career took such a left turn at a certain point was because I realised I was in danger of becoming a formalist”.
As a result, his career became entirely unpredictable, with Contagion marking the first visible switch of tone and genre.
Magic Mike (2012)
Making the world of striptease into a peculiar amalgamation of commercial fun and critical brilliance, Magic Mike in many ways defines the modern career of Steven Soderbergh, illustrating that nothing is out of the realms of possibility for the director.
Starring Channing Tatum, Matthew McConaughey, Alex Pettyfer and Riley Keough, the film tells the story of an up and coming dancer who is trying to navigate his young life whilst earning enough money to survive. A cinematic treat, Magic Mike is a frenetic joy that amalgamates Soderbergh’s brilliance for character-led dramatic stories as well as his joyous, hyperactive side that stimulates the senses.
Though the director would go on to release several other films since the release of Magic Mike, no film has since matched its poignancy and critical might.