The Films of Steven Soderbergh, Ranked

Steven Soderbergh (Photo courtesy nicolas genin on Flickr)

‘Unsane’ is the latest addition to a long and diverse list of Steven Soderbergh films. And guess what, we ranked ’em all.

In 1989, at the age of 26, Steven Soderbergh won a Palme d’Or for his feature debut Sex, Lies and Videotape. When he accepted the award, he quipped “I guess it’s all downhill from here.” Though for the next decade his investors and some of his fans might’ve thought so, Soderbergh has done nothing but innovate and challenge himself as a filmmaker: whether it’s in the process of filmmaking itself, by way of editing and operating the camera on his own films, or in his constant desire to push the boundaries of film through formal play and innovation. He’s resisted the title of both ‘Indie Darling’ and ‘Industry Insider’, but keeps a foot in each camp. Indeed, Soderbergh weaves with seeming ease across genre, medium, and platform. For me, the mystery and the delight of Soderbergh is that he’s an auteur without a signature style, something which seems to contradict the very idea of auteurism. And yet, despite not using possessory credits like some of his contemporaries, Soderbergh is one. He’s an auteur, but he’s not a brand.

So, in celebration of Soderbergh’s expansive films, here’s a ranking of all the creations to have come out of his filmmaking factory:

28. The Underneath (1995)

The Underneath is a neo-noir starring Peter Gallagher, six years after Sex, Lies and Videotape. But sadly it does not deliver the goods. It’s beautifully shot and has all the makings of a great film, but it just doesn’t work. It’s too slow and meandering. And Soderbergh doesn’t do slow cinema very well. In an interview featured on the Criterion DVD for King of the Hill, Soderbergh addresses his disappointment with the film. He explains that his heart wasn’t in it and he was already hatching up a plan to direct Schizopolis when he should’ve been focussing on the film he was making right then and there. Apologizing to everyone who worked on the film, he simply says that he ‘didn’t show up’ for the film. – Sarah Foulkes

27. The Good German (2006)

Almost as much as he likes heists, Soderbergh likes twists. Real juicy, M. Night-style whoppers, but baked deep inside loaves of angst or soufflés of comic action. The tape footage fake-out in Ocean’s 11, the antidepressant scheming in Side Effects. In The Good German, we find out that all the of the Germans presented to us as good people are, in fact, bad people. Even Cate Blanchett! His fifth collaboration with George Clooney and, with the exception of the last Oceans movie, his last, Soderbergh pitches the black-and-white period piece as a take on Casablanca with Clooney as our generation’s cynical five o’clock shadow and the posters signified as much. Quickly, however, Soderbergh’s Casablanca dovetails into his The Third Man, complete with end-of-war rubble and men thought dead found hiding in the sewer. The criticism of Soderbergh movies that don’t make a lot of money, which is most of them, is that, as expressed by Manohla Dargis, they feel “made more for Mr. Soderbergh’s pleasure than for ours” and The Good German is burdened by being such a bummer but also looking like a lot of nerdy fun to make, from the pre-Method acting he elicits from Clooney, Blanchett and Tobey Maguire to the 32 millimeter wide-angle lenses he captures it in. But everyone’s done bad things and feels bad about them. This is probably why there aren’t any bad guys in La La Land– Andrew Karpan

26. Gray’s Anatomy (1996)

This film consists of an 80 minute monologue told by Spalding Gray, preceded by a series of anecdotes about different people’s eye injuries. It’s a film preoccupied with the essence of cinema: sight. And, in keeping with Soderbergh’s recurrent themes, it’s interested in the way people narrativize both their pain and their secrets. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t experiment enough with Gray’s monologue, which in and of itself, isn’t that great of a listen. – Sarah Foulkes

25. And Everything Is Going Fine (2010)

Soderbergh’s fascination towards Spalding Gray really comes alive in what’s essentially his ultimate fan edit. Despite using no new footage of his own, his choice of interview and monologue pieces create a vibrant portrait of Gray that highlights his talents as a storyteller. And Everything Is Going Fine actually tells us a little bit about Gray’s life from his own perspective, and that on its own makes it feel more authentic. It’s a loving portrait of an artist with enough cracks in the veneer to see into his vulnerabilities and motivations; pretty much a perfect kind of (auto)biographical film. -Sheryl Oh

24. Ocean’s Thirteen (2007)

By now Danny Ocean (George Clooney) and his pack of intelligent men and accompanying failson (Matt Damon) have stolen the $160 million (Ocean’s Eleven), got caught, and then got some other dude to pay the first dude (Ocean’s Twelve). What do they do now? Not a whole lot! Handed a script with a barely patched together plot involving the gang crashing a slightly different casino’s opening day out of spite or revenge or something, Soderbergh does what he can. Visibly working as hard behind the camera as directing it, he fills the whole thing with dark impressionistic colors, a warbling hue against which Clooney, Damon, Brad Pitt and Don Cheadle’s hideous cockney accent (etcetera, etcetera) struggle in the twilight. – Andrew Karpan

23. Full Frontal (2002)

Soderbergh was among the many 90s indie filmmakers who owed some of the success of their careers to the interest of Harvey Weinstein’s Miramax but he also wasn’t that big of a fan of all its founder’s creepiness. This is buried, somewhat, in Soderbergh’s most-often maligned work, 2002’s Full Frontal. The movie features a pervy producer named Gus (played by David Duchovny) who coerces a masseuse into giving him an “ending.” Her devastation at this incidence of everyday dehumanization, he pays her and she steals from him as well, feels like a stark echo of the current negotiation between power and sexuality in a free and idealistic society. And while the movie’s whole film-within-a-film-within-a-film gambit, I think, drew scorn from many, there’s totally this library in Queens that once transcribed the name of the movie (inside the movie) for their records. How about that! – Andrew Karpan

22. Haywire (2012)

Soderbergh’s attempt at a slick, arty crime thriller is ultimately rather hit or miss. Gina Carano’s acting debut showcases her skill and history as a mixed martial artist first and foremost but lacked a spark whenever she had to deliver some lines. With such a thin overall plot, there’s no wonder that experienced actors like Ewan McGregor or Michael Fassbender didn’t have much to work with either. Even at a relatively short run time, the film is more a formalistic treat than anything of much substance, which lessens the thrills and overall impact of an otherwise stylistic dream. – Sheryl Oh

21. Schizopolis (1996)

Divisive even among fans of Soderbergh’s independent films, Schizopolis is a wild, funny and playful work. Feeling more like a collection of ideas and images that he couldn’t fit into his narrative features, the film is a rollercoaster of corporate intrigue and bemusing fun. It’s a rush of ingenuity and, like many of Soderbergh’s most fast-paced films, it feels like a race towards something. Perhaps, a race towards the film itself. Indeed, Soderbergh isn’t one for slow, patient films, as seen by the his rejection of The Underneath. When he’s excited about his films, you can see it on the screen.

It’s also the only film starring Soderbergh himself. – Sarah Foulkes

20. The Informant! (2009)

Before he became an internet joke, Kurt Eichenwald wrote the kind of gritty journalism tales that excited Hollywood executives still chasing the coattails of 90s bad boy cynicism. The most successful of these landed on Soderbergh’s desk after he did Traffic and he eventually got around to turning it into a fake-Coen caper starring Matt Damon at the end of the next decade. Reprising his Ocean’s-role of not looking like he knows what he’s talking about, Damon tries very hard to turn this into looking ordinary. Soderbergh even helps out by giving him an atrocious mustache and pair of glasses to boot. But why not just watch Michael Stuhlbarg in A Serious Man? (which came out that same year.) Or Clooney in Michael Clayton, which also had to do with getting mixed up in an agri-scandal but was sexy about it? (which Soderbergh happened to produce.) – Andrew Karpan

19. Contagion (2011)

Disaster films are constantly revisited for their potentially grand scale nature – think anything from a ridiculous natural disaster to the zombie apocalypse. But Soderbergh’s take on disease and the terrifying nature of it in context of intercontinental travel is subtler and way more effective. Contagion actually instills very real feelings of anxiety and worry in viewers, possibly because it’s a rather timely experience in the 21st century. Furthermore, the powerhouse cast full of big names gels the various threads in the overall storyline together. That said, the ending lessens the impact of the plot considerably in that it could result in a kind of blame game. The final act is the one thing is about the only thing I’d change about Contagion though because otherwise, Soderbergh – as he always does – absolutely nailed the tautness of the genre he’s trying to replicate. – Sheryl Oh

18. Bubble (2005)

I was once producing this small joint when I was in college and we had hired, by which I mean paid nothing, these struggling actors and the hardest thing I remember was getting this guy, some pompous amateur playwright who was playing a diner manager, to mop up the floor, in-character. He attacked the mop like a Shakespearian orator and it took half an hour to get the required five silent seconds the script demanded. In Bubble, Soderbergh went straight to the sauce, hiring police chiefs to play police chiefs, fast-food managers to manager fast food operations. These total randos, plucked from small towns in Ohio and West Virginia, populate the most openly likable of Soderbergh’s “experimental” movies, a murder mystery that manages to feel tragic, as you imagine it would, and not weird and Bates Motel-y as it does on expanded cable. Amateurs, what do they know? – Andrew Karpan

17. Ocean’s Twelve (2004)

Soderbergh’s favorite, and mine, of the Ocean movies, Twelve flirts with some serious crit of the overindulgence of the decade. The long pans of ill-got wealth that he uses to welcome us back into its world, burst with agitation and, we quickly learn, debt. How many heist movies let you know of the bad investments that even stolen funds accrue? By the time it explodes in a fit of meta-comedy, with Julia Roberts literally returning to play someone impersonating Julia Roberts, Ocean (Clooney) is unmasked as human, after all, regulated to a bit part in a longer con. The ceaseless hoodwinkery exhausted many—Why Europe? Why a fabergé egg? But its ridiculousness also refused to make things feel as luxuriously easy as Ocean’s 11 sold them. – Andrew Karpan

16. Behind the Candelabra (2013)

Equal parts biopic of a camp icon and character study of performance and celebrity, Behind the Candelabra points a calculated eye at the last ten years of Liberace’s life with the added accessibility of having big-name actors on board. The film is exactly what it says on the tin – a less glitzy look into the life and motivations of a man who is very different from his public persona. It’s a top-notch biographical drama that amps up the drama as much as possible without losing the heart that drives the primary love story forward. Behind the Candelabra does a good job in juxtaposing the luxury and garishness of outward glamor and the inward decay that follows. Soderbergh is good at making us care, even if it’s about a performer that’s long past their prime. – Sheryl Oh

15. Side Effects (2013)

The third collaboration between Soderbergh and writer Scott Z. Burns is my personal favorite in that it feels like the most stylish, most thrilling yet most contained piece of all. The initial draw of the fantastic cast in Side Effects absolutely lives up to expectations, with this being one of Rooney Mara’s best performances to date. She’s the standout propping up the narrative of the movie, being fantastic at playing both vulnerable and defiant. And once again, Soderbergh taps into anxieties about illness and medication in this film, which adds to the tension in a cat-and-mouse chase that showcases the value of understatement when it comes to a cinematic twist. – Sheryl Oh

The list continues on the next page >>

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