The Films of Steven Soderbergh, Ranked

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

Steven Soderbergh (Photo courtesy nicolas genin on Flickr)

14. Kafka (1991)

On the tails of the massive critical success of Sex, Lies and Videotape, Soderbergh took a 180 and made a formally audacious biopic of Kafka. Evocatively shot in black and white (with the exception of a notable middle section of the film), the film combines themes and plot lines from The Trial and The Castle. Rather than telling a straight-forward biopic, Soderbergh enacts the work of Kafka, with German Expressionism overtones and an Eastern European score by Cliff Martinez to boot. Ans yet, neither an epic, sprawling biopic nor an intimate portrait, Kafka was a big commercial disappointment and received mixed reviews. But if you’re a fan of the film, or at least of the film it could be, Soderbergh is remaking it. – Sarah Foulkes

13. Traffic (2000)

Soderbergh teamed up with screenwriter (and former addict) Stephen Gaghan to make a sprawling, complex film about the futile War on Drugs. Once again showcasing his disdain for bureaucracy and governmental authority, Soderbergh chronicles the many, overlapping lives of the people affected by the illegal drug trade. It won Benicio Del Toro an Oscar and as well as Soderbergh (nominated against himself). Though it might seem dated now, it paved the way for contemporary classics like Sicario and Narcos. – Sarah Foulkes

12. Solaris (2002)

Jeremy Davies’s line, “I could tell you what’s happening, but I don’t know if it would really tell you what’s happening” defines the kind of confusing zen that Soderbergh tries to accomplish on what I’ve taken to calling his “mind dramas,” a genre that stretches from Schizopolis to, most literally, the title of Unsane. Another remake, it came one year after Ocean’s 11, it revealed a Soderbergh suddenly insistent on pursuing the values of independent, emotional cinema at any budget. Arriving a few months after the grand and opulently populated space of Attack of the Clones cleared a few hundred million, Soderbergh’s intimate, yet bare, portrayal of a clinical psychologist (Clooney) and his long-lost wife (Natascha McElhone) would burn slowly. Yet, the current generation of intimate sci-fi, most recently represented by spouse/child-chasing movies like Arrival and Annihilation, feels indebted to it. – Andrew Karpan

11. Erin Brokovich (2000)

Perhaps the most conventional film on the list, Erin Brockovich received much acclaim and was a big box-office success. Certainly a more straight-forward and accessible biopic than Kafka, it tells the story of a single mother and environment activist Erin Brockovich (Julia Roberts). Despite it’s linear narrative and formal simplicity, the film still feels like a Soderbergh film. Most notably in its confidence.  It’s also similar in theme to Side Effects and Kafka in that it shows a deep mistrust of corporations and bureaucracy. It’s an unsentimental tale about working-class strife and ultimate triumph, something which Soderbergh does very well. – Sarah Foulkes

10. Logan Lucky (2016)

Heist movies are in Soderbergh’s blood; they’re some of his best work because he knows how to include both humor and hijinks with some key character beats. Logan Lucky feels like a direct if incredibly off-beat answer to the glossy Ocean franchise. It takes the best parts about that series and successfully overturns them at every corner. Quirky characters define the film, but the acting is so over-the-top, resulting in a more unpredictable film. The Logan family carry out a ridiculously complicated scheme but the stakes are higher in a way, because they come from personal investment. Finally, the film’s ending proves that success will always be conditional; a much more sobering approach to the trope of the unflappable heist crew. Logan Lucky is quite simply not your typical heist film and succeeds in every sense of that description. Now it’s up to you to decide if that surprise is what you signed up for. – Sheryl Oh

9. Che Part 2 (2008)

Critics, one discovers, liked Che Part 2 more than Che Part 1 and you wonder if it had something to do with the visible suffering of that most anti-American of screen icons, a two-hour opus of failed revolution, the dark side of Part 1’s moon. But it’s a bummer that Soderbergh commits to, intimately following Che (Benicio del Toro) around the Bolivian jungle as the days ominously tick. The flipside of the Ocean trilogy, a celebration of Western capitalism’s abundance that, nonetheless, also celebrated its subversion, Che made the agitation of a revolution feel like something real. And real things, more often than not, fail. – Andrew Karpan

8. The Limey (1999)

If you haven’t sat down and listened to the DVD commentary for The Limey, I highly recommend you do so now. It features a number of insights from Soderbergh on the making of the film, as well as an ongoing tirade from the screenwriter Lem Dobbs. The Limey is a smart thriller, with a meditative (and also, f*cking terrifying) performance from Terrence Stamp. In the commentary, Soderbergh talks about his choice to jump around and offer a fragmented perspective. This decision speaks to his motivation for every one of his films: it’s “a desire to just find a new way to give the audience information about the story and the character. There has to be a better way to lay this out for people or at least you can be more adventurous and release information in a way that’s less traditional.” – Sarah Foulkes

7. The Girlfriend Experience (2009)

Seemingly by accident, Soderbergh stumbles into mumblecore and creates a work as important to “film history” as Sex, Lies, and Videotape. The incidental life of a sex worker (Sasha Grey) is territory as cinematically old as Godard but Soderbergh injects it with the fear and anxiety of our own modernity. Where Dunham, Duplass, and Swanberg targeted their shaky lens at people who looked like or were themselves—existentially-curious creatives—Soderbergh lowered it to the streets, scooping up the fictions of the late Bush-era by the pound. “These men don’t want a girlfriend experience. They want a boyfriend experience,” Roger Ebert wrote at the time and we were all so lonely, even before Tinder and Twitter arose to become collective repositories for thirst.  Other critics were harsher—it holds 66% on RT— and underpinning most complaints was that Grey, an erstwhile adult film star, keeps her clothes on and the critical establishment still held Last Tango in Paris in high regard. That it was penned by the same crew (Brian Koppelman and David Levien) who wrote Ocean’s Thirteen suggested that Clooney’s aged-out loneliness were not only the domain of casino criminals. And this, ultimately, may be why the esteem of GFE seems to increase by the year, as its acclaimed Showtime adaptation diligently proves. The movie was also the last of the intermittent lo-fi experiments that ran as a pleasing counterpoint throughout Soderbergh’s Hollywood career—though the iPhone-shot Unsane may mark a return. – Andrew Karpan

6. Ocean’s Eleven (2001)

The big kahuna of the money-making parts of his career, Soderbergh took on a forgotten 60s heist movie that even George Clooney didn’t have any strong feelings for. While Soderbergh would repeatedly partner with two of its stars, Clooney and Matt Damon, again, the opulent appeal of Danny Ocean would never replicate in any of the pristine jaw-lines that followed. Maybe it was because, when the credits rolled, they got away with it. In this way, Ocean’s Eleven is the ultimate entertainment of the ‘00s, a thesis proof of the conviction that if you had the right names (in addition to Clooney and Damon, there was Brad Pitt, Don Cheadle, Bernie Mac, Casey Affleck, Elliott Gould, etcetera), you could get away with anything. Could Colin Powell and NYT editorial board really give us an unjust and impossible war? Nowadays, the ensemble casts have superpowers and feel sad about them. Infinity War is right there in the title. So it goes. – Andrew Karpan

5. Che Part 1 (2008)

The idea of someone like Che Guevara being given a proper benediction from Hollywood feels as wryly ironic as, I dunno, Justin Bieber in a Che t-shirt. But maybe not. Soderbergh’s decision was not only to make two movies out of the Communist iconoclast’s life but two very different movies. The first was the Che we knew, the face from the t-shirt speaking to the UN and back-talking journos. It’s spliced-up narrative, distilling his life into small anecdotes and then spreading them across a canvas felt startling, a different way of conveying the great lives that the big screen yearned to depict. Movies celebrating other revolutionary figures, like Selma,  would take after this, somewhat; making smaller projects with smaller splices of the great lives. – Andrew Karpan

4. King of the Hill (1993)

An earnest depiction of Depression Era St. Louis, King of the Hill is a story about an eerily precocious and resourceful boy who’s been left to fend for himself in his parent’s hotel room-turned-home. Adapted from A. E. Hotchner’s memoir, it’s told in a fairly straightforward and conventional way. It does a careful job of  portraying Aaron’s (Jesse Bradford) struggle while also not veering into regressive sentimentality. Though very unlike the rest of Soderbergh’s film (notably for the fact that it holds a child as the protagonist), the film does carry a through-line which links many Soderbergh films: storytelling. He is a filmmaker fascinated with how and why people tell each story. Aaron makes up stories and inventive lies to get himself out of trouble, but also to inhabit another world for a brief moment. As Joan Didion wrote, “we tell ourselves stories in order to live.” – Sarah Foulkes

3. Magic Mike (2012)

Soderbergh’s ultimate career reinvention gives us a brand-new take on a beefcake movie in the same way he approached erotic cinema with Sex, Lies and Videotape and The Girlfriend Experience. Magic Mike is atypical in the way it focuses on men’s bodies as both physically magnetic yet internally self-destructive. The film has to balance the pathos and fun in tracking the journey of the e”Pony”mous Magic Mike (I’d apologize, but I’m not that sorry). This movie explicates yet again that within Soderbergh’s film universe, sex as commodity is as normalized as they come, and can be affected by the greed of others exploiting that commodity. Of course, Soderbergh’s approach to this isn’t perfect – Mike has to leave the business in order to be happy – but Magic Mike XXL picks up where we leave off in a spectacular, celebratory fashion. – Sheryl Oh

2. Out of Sight (1998)

It’s film that ended his string of commercial failures and reinstated him as a hot commodity in Hollywood. With star-making performances by Jennifer Lopez and George Clooney, this film oozes style, sex and wit. Soderbergh makes it all look easy. And that hotel room montage is fated to be studied in film schools until the end of time. It’s a near perfect film. – Sarah Foulkes

1. Sex, Lies and Videotape (1989)

I rented the VHS from my local library purely because of the title. I probably wasn’t even a teenager yet, so the promise of sex in the title excited me beyond my own understanding. I had seen plenty of sex scenes in films before, but I had never seen a film with ‘sex’ in the title. When I watched it, I was surprised by the eroticism not of the sex scenes but of the scenes between James Spader and Andie Macdowell. I was transfixed by the way he looked at her when she spoke about sex, and the way she talked about it. This film introduced me to the intimacy of cinema, and the intimacy of talking on-screen. To this day, it still feels like a richer American Beauty, that’s to say: more reflective and more kinetic. And there’s an entire movement of 90s cinema indebted to it. – Sarah Foulkes

Writer/Director/Actor/FKA the girl at the party who'd ask, "does anyone wanna watch a movie?"