Steven Soderbergh operates so far under the radar that, for all his auteurist tics and varied filmography, I never thought to rate him among my favorite filmmakers until I took a step back one day and realized how many great films bore his credit. Sometimes it seems as if the film industry looks at him the same way. Soderbergh primarily operates as a workman, though he balances out commercial properties with a series of experimental works that often get folded back into his mainstream gigs, making him ever more idiosyncratic even as he gets trusted with bigger projects.
Soderbergh jump-started the Miramax era of the American indie with his Palme D’Or-winning feature debut sex, lies, and videotape, a film about a man who can only achieve any kind of arousal by watching recorded tapes of others detailing their own sexual desires and experiences. In a way, it is prophetic of his entire canon, in which action unfolds only through its own deconstruction and process becomes the driving force and the principal agent of subverted expectations. This fixation has made the director a member of the digital vanguard, the literal programming of visual information well-suited to his entire approach to storytelling.
Amazingly, he has applied this anti-narrative style to commercially successful properties. What other director in Hollywood today can so routinely boast massive casts populated entirely by A-listers without reducing them to wan rom-com drivel à la New Year’s Eve? And if anyone else could compare to Soderbergh in that respect, how many of them could turn around and make something like Bubble? A studio hand for the postmodern era, Soderbergh has made many fine works, but none better than these 10:
I gave Contagion a mixed review on its original release last fall, infatuated with its editing and cinematography but disconnected from its flow by poor plot threads, particularly the borderline offensive handling of Hong Kong, the caricatured blogger played by Jude Law and Matt Damon's awkward, mourning cuckold (a shoehorned bit of sentiment for an otherwise deliberately cold film). Those issues still irk me, but the overall effect of the movie only gets more powerful with a rewatch. Barring those distracting subplots, the general connection of shots, be it the progression of unsettling extreme close-ups or the broader patchwork of globe-trotting leaps, never fails to create a mood of invisible, unpredictable death. I still get goosebumps when I hear a cough right after watching.
9. Magic Mike
Come for the waxed asses, stay for unexpectedly intelligent overview of post-recession life, where millennials work whatever jobs they can, motivated by insipid, futile dreams that seem a sad, wistful relic of Generation X and its slacker luxury. Soderbergh finds unorthodox framings for the strip numbers even as he cuts against the grain of contemporary dance filming and actually lets the audience see the actors move. And for a male stripper movie that features more topless women than pants-less men, Magic Mike still offers the rare glimpse at the objectified male, which has caused a hysterical amount of hand-wringing among men with no grasp of irony.
A two-part epic about one of the most controversial figures of the 20th century, Che’s very construction reflects its subjects revolutionary zeal. A pioneering showcase for the Red digital camera, Che used guerilla filmmaking to depict the world’s most notorious guerilla. Likewise, the two aesthetically distinct halves of the film reflect the state of the protagonist: the first uses wide, populated panoramas that suggest Che even thought in Communist propaganda, while the paranoid second half crushes and dims the frame to show his support and resolve crumbling. Process, as ever, is key, and Soderbergh avoids commentary on the man by way of focusing solely on how he led one revolution to success and ended another in failure both literal and (judging from his lavish watch) ideological. It is troubling that Soderbergh completely omits Che’s ruthless side, his death panels and savagery, but in the broader context of the director’s elliptical style, these omissions work. Besides, such absences do not make for a lionized portrait of Che: consider the black and white sequence when Che visits New York and the UN, celebrated by the bourgeois scum he despises and revealing contradictions and inanities in his admirers and himself. So many biopics about symbolic figures attempt to reach the person beneath the image; Che brilliantly focuses only on the image, ironically saying more about its subject than most “tell-all” biographies.
Soderbergh wasted no time playing against any and all expectations, following up the oddity of his debut with a series of thematically and stylistically disparate films that shared one basic trait: their unprofitability. This stage of Soderbergh’s career reached a head with 1996’s Schizopolis, a work so resolutely weird and self-absorbed it instantly gives off the impression of having been meant to serve as a farewell for a filmmaker depleting the last of his backers’ goodwill. This three-act act of mass deconstruction breaks apart communication through blunt statements (such as a character saying “Hello” as “Generic greeting”), colliding foreign tongues and finally, gibberish code. God only knows how Soderbergh managed to get himself Out of Sight after this. But if this movie has nothing in common with the string of mainstream successes that would follow over the next few years, it nevertheless proved that Soderbergh had vast reserves of talent begging to be used.
6. Ocean’s 12
If every mainstream Soderbergh film upends convention in some manner, Ocean’s 12 comes off as downright confrontational. As much a middle finger as Schizopolis, this openly glib sequel games the studio system into paying for the director and his cast to take an extended vacation at George Clooney’s villa. That the film does everything in its power to make this obvious does not make the joke any easier to swallow for some, but I just cannot help but love this epic piss-take of a movie, right down to the inclusion of corpsed takes and the hilariously self-involved meta-joke with Julia Roberts.
5. The Girlfriend Experience
Soderbergh’s best experimental feature prefaced Magic Mike’s social situation with a visceral plunge into the heart of the financial collapse. Sasha Grey’s stilted performance has been the butt of many a joke, but it is, in fact, she who gets the last laugh, portraying the wry simplicity of her supposedly elaborate services. She advertises the ability to be more than just a sex toy, but all her clients need out of her before they get her out of her clothes is a shoulder to cry on and someone just smart enough to agree with them without seeming vacant. In other words, it is not her own lack of depth being projected, it is the men’s. An ingenious breakdown of objectification, one made funnier by the lingering objections of many viewers (even professional critics), that Soderbergh never shows the former adult star having sex. And it will never cease to be amusing that the film depicts the architects of our financial ruin needing some level of capitalistic comfort so badly that they retreat into the arms of the world’s oldest, stablest profession.
One might have expected Soderbergh to dismantle the notion of a remake as he used Ocean’s Twelve to mock the sequel as a concept. On the contrary, he uses his Solaris movie to refine a specific strand of Lem’s source novel while also projecting his own imagistic themes onto their broadest canvas. The corporeal projection of the protagonist’s dead wife allows Soderbergh to probe the philosophical underpinnings over how one processes the Other as an image. Furthermore, if Soderbergh offers any deconstructive angle, it is of the patriarchy of the previous iterations of this story by giving more weight to the significance that Natasha McElhone’s specter is defined completely by the memories George Clooney’s character has of the real Rheya. When McElhone despairs of this fact and Clooney can only carry on about using this copy to get a do-over with his lost love, not even the ending can match its haunting, revealing irony.
3. Out of Sight
Oh, Out of Sight, you exquisite gem, you. A romantic-comic thriller so light on its feet that its various stylistic quirks hardly even register the first few viewings. Featuring George Clooney at his most effortlessly charming (that is saying something) and Jennifer Lopez in a surprisingly beautiful performance, Out of Sight manages to throw about three different kinds of film together and make the result more fluid than the most straightforward of genre movies. Add to that montages of asynchronous sound and image, giddy freeze frames and immaculate cinematography and you get the first American film to expand upon and deepen Pulp Fiction’s sense of tossed-off New Wave cool. And Soderbergh doesn’t even need the parade of hip references.
2. King of the Hill
Shot by Elliot Davis in golden, gorgeous tones and boasting production design seemingly impossible under the budgetary and time restraints of the shoot, King of the Hill suffers inexplicably from neglect. Adapted from A.E. Hotchner’s Depression-era memoir, Soderbergh’s third feature lacks the postmodern tics of his other work, yet it makes up for this by routinely contrasting the sumptuous, warm beauty of the frame with the horrific conditions that weigh down Aaron (Jesse Bradford, giving a child performance beyond reproach). This is an overplayed trick, but Soderbergh does not play the juxtaposition for easy irony, instead letting each scene convey all its tiny joys, heartbreaks and bits of mordant humor. It is one of the best films of its kind (both as a Depression drama and a coming-of-age tale), and if Soderbergh does not break the movie down as he does elsewhere, he settles for doing the real thing better than just about anyone.
1. The Limey
Many of Soderbergh’s films work as companion pieces to others, but it is admittedly a stretch to link Out of Sight and The Limey. Their shared elliptical un-thriller structures provide a starting point, but what truly distinguishes Soderbergh’s back-to-back, end-of-the-‘90s works as a linked pair for the way in which they use similar stylistic tics to opposite effect. The former’s lilting delicacy and celebration of cool is matched here by fragmented agony and a breakdown of the charming anti-hero. Using everything from jumbled flashbacks to clips of Terence Stamp at the start of his career, Soderbergh gradually strips away the protagonist’s righteous fury and hard slang until all that’s left is a cracked shell. Soderbergh typically breaks down a situation or genre: the heist film, the martial arts movie, even the extended monologue. The Limey uses all of his techniques and flourishes to deconstruct a person.