He’s considered “the poster boy for the Sundance generation” and is among the most successful indie directors of his time. This weekend Steven Soderbergh returns to a the comedy heist genre that made him a household name with his latest film “Logan Lucky” and to celebrate I took a look at this popular director, producer, and writer’s filmography and picked out the best of the best of his directorial efforts. Also to honor the legacy of his famed “Ocean’s Eleven” franchise, I decided to add a little gimmick to this countdown…these are the Top 11 Steven Soderbergh Directed Films…see I told you it was a gimmick…ok here we go…
For this list, as the title implies, I only looked at films Soderbergh directed. He can be a part of any other aspect of the film’s production as well, but I wanted to put a specific focus on his ability as a director seeing as “Logan Lucky” is his first such effort since 2013. So any film where Soderbergh was the director counted for this list.
For the ranking I took a lot of factors into consideration including Rotten Tomato scores (both critics and audiences), their popularity with fans overall, the film’s general overall quality, and, of course, a bit of my own personal bias as well. ALSO only one film per series…yeah, yeah he only has one series, “the Ocean’s Trilogy”, so my point is for the save of diversity in this list only one “Ocean’s” film will be here.
If you enjoy this list be sure to check out Soderbergh’s latest film, “Logan Lucky”, in theaters this weekend. Judging by early reviews it could be a fitting entry to the director’s greatest hits. Look for my review this weekend.
11. “The Informant”
Based on the real-life story of whistleblower Mark Whitacre this biographical comedy film may have divided fans, but was a hit with critics as a strangely amusing film that melded satire and real-world drama to create one of Soderbergh’s more unique projects. “The Informant” is an odd film to be sure, but that’s part of its charm as it takes on an undercover whistle-blowing operation and the consequences of said operation presenting multiple layers to a very complex story. It also features a massively entertaining performance by Matt Damon and is highly quotable in its writing and dialogue. While some may see it as too unique or messy for their liking, there’s no denying that in terms of originality and creative filmmaking this is one of Soderbergh’s most intriguing and harkens back to his indy film roots with a bit of Hollywood flare mixed in for substance.
10. “Magic Mike”
The bane of many boyfriends existences and a massive hit with the ladies, “Magic Mike” was a smash success in 2012 spawning a devoted fan base and an eventual sequel, which Soderbergh also worked on. A dramedy that focuses on a male stripper the film earned $167 million at the box office on a $7 million budget and received an 81% Rotten Tomatoes score, earning an interesting amount of legitimacy despite its oddball subject matter that allowed the world to learn the origins of Channing Tatum. Even as a straight guy (yes I happen to know a gay man who loved this movie, I don’t judge) I can admit the film handled its sexually driven imagery and plot with class and dignity, portraying male stripping as more of an artform than simply pure rated X entertainment and it even involved some great backstories and underlying themes of identity and maturity. It has a little bit of everything and was quite the departure from Soderbergh’s other works in terms of content and style which helped make it the surprise hit of 2012 and one of the biggest financial returns of any film that year when comparing gross to production costs.
9. Che (Parts I and II)
While “Che” might have been released to the masses in two different films, originally, and for the sake of this list I focusing on them as their proper single film focusing on Ernesto “Che” Guevara, the famed Marxist revolutionary you’re probably familiar with if you’ve seen an abundance of Nazi propaganda. The film was considered an awards season contender in 2008 and walked away with the Best Actor Award at the Cannes Film Festival for Benicio Del Toro’s portrayal of Che himself although overall the film was criminally under-appreciated at the Academy Awards. What makes “Che” such a celebrated film by critics and fans is it’s handling of a real-life story of one of the more controversial figureheads of his time and a representative of ideologies today considered taboo. While stricken with protests and accusations of celebrating a figure better left forgotten in time, the film served as an interesting and well presented, albeit lengthy, look at this controversial Che and his rise to power alongside Fidel Castro during the Cuban Revolution. The film also embraced the cinema vérité approach, allowing insight into many real-life aspects of Che’s life and, somehow, played out as a respectable biopic that neither crucified nor outright celebrated its subject making for a well-balanced and top notch biopic that, in all honesty, is probably one of the most “Hollywood-esqe” directorial efforts from Soderbergh.
While not a new concept, the virus epidemic trope can still come off as a fresh and entertaining concept in the right hands. “Contagion” was really nothing knew upon its release, but it rose above its clichéd plot with a committed cast and expert pacing that proved Soderbergh could handle science fiction. The movie also includes a multi-layered narrative, telling numerous different stories that don’t necessarily intertwine to drive home the wider impact of its titular viral outbreak, one of many styles within films on this list that have become trademarks of the modern cinematic icon behind the camera. Making $135 million on a $60 million budget, “Contagion” was a minor, but significant, success for Soderbergh who was riding the high of numerous yearly critical successes at the time. Described by critics as “smart and scary”, “Contagion” is an example of the depth a film can reach as a project that was both art and entertainment, serving as a critical look at real-world issues and possibilities while providing a series of tense stories that kept viewers entertained. For all intents and purposes, it was the complete package.
7. “Erin Brockovich”
Soderbergh seems to have somewhat of an affinity for biopics as some of his best works focused on real life figures. Among the most culturally relevant of those however is the much loved “Erin Brockovich”, a 2000 biographical film depicting the true story of its namesake who fought against energy corporation PG&E. The film made quite a bit of cash at the box office, won over audiences with its charm and now-iconic performances, and was a critical darling that made it an awards season contender and one of TWO films that Soderburgh directed that year, both awards season successes. The other we’ll touch on later. “Erin Brockovich” earned star Julia Roberts several awards, including a Golden Globe, a BAFTA, and an Academy Award all for best actress, and brought a best director nomination in a career year for Soderbergh. Ironically he lost to himself, again we’ll get to that film later. Today it remains an iconic film of its time with massive mainstream staying power, even beyond the Soderbergh film that topped it at the awards ceremonies.
6. “The Limey”
One of Soderbergh’s most celebrated films critically, “The Limey” is a neo-noir tale that follows Terence Stamp as a British ex-con seeking revenge for his daughter’s death. Showcasing Soderbergh’s modern cinematic style, “The Limey” was one of the best reviewed films of 1999 and kicked off a decade filled with critical and commercial successes for the director after the world first got to see his talent in the early 90s. While not commercially successful, “The Limey” has since gone on to become one of Soderbergh’s most appreciated works in hindsight by modern fans for its gritty tone and previously under-appreciated quality. Today “The Limey” is still among Soderbergh’s best even if it remains an overlooked gem but it is one fans should watch to fully appreciate the unique approach the director took to presenting what is in essence as very “traditionalist” genre in neo-noir. This film also helped establish Stamp as a truly captivating lead actor, helping spark a resurgence in his own film career as a result.
5. King of the Hill
With an astounding 97% by critics and 83% by fans on Rotten Tomatoes, this little known gem from Soderbergh is the second most consistently praised film by viewers and reviewers combined when you consider the review aggregator site’s data, although it was a massive box office bomb. “King of the Hill” was the first of two 1993 releases by a still relatively unknown Soderbergh and only made $1.2 million on a meager $8 million budget. A Cannes Film Festival favorite that year, “King of the Hill” followed a young depression-era teen struggling with his mother’s illness, his father’s work that keeps him away from home, and the ups and downs of the Depression utilizing his youthful imagination and his more mature understanding of the world around him to get by. Not exactly the most uplifting film in Soderbergh’s library, but the premise and the quality of the work had critics swooning over the film upon its release and it’s only since Soderbergh rose to more mainstream fame that fans have been introduced to this project, and they have agreed with critics in hindsight with one five-star viewer review calling it “sad and yet uplifting”.
4. Out of Sight
The first film in what would become a legendary partnership between George Clooney and Soderbergh, “Out of Sight” was also a rare occurrence where Soderbergh directed a film based on outside fictional material, in this case a well-known novel. One of Soderbergh’s numerous heist flicks, this film helped legitimize Clooney, who had to that point been better known for television than the big screen, making him a true Hollywood star and leading man. Carrying a 93% from critics and a 74% from viewers on Rotten Tomatoes, “Out of Sight” was only a minor hit in 1998, making $77.7 million against a $48 million budget. Still is proved to be a popular film for its time and showcased Soderbergh’s quirky and unique filming style that some critics called a more “hip” approach than other similar films predating it. In 2013 one critics even called it a “now-classic romantic comedy – with plenty of action and suspense” as a testament to the film’s cult legacy and staying power.
While “Erin Brockovich” made Soderbergh a household name, “Traffic” made him and award winning one as this film beat out Soderbergh’s other 2000 hit to give him the Oscar for Best Director. The closest film in terms of critic and audience scores on Rotten Tomatoes in Soderbergh’s library, at a 92% and 85% respectively, the film employed a style that would become a normal part of the director’s art, presenting numerous different stories that don’t necessarily intertwine as it depicted the many different aspects of the drug trade and trafficking. Utilizing different color pallets for each story and including an ensemble cast that each experience a controversial crime from a different angle, “Traffic” was considered too ambitious and “political” for many studios at the time. Soderbergh eventually found a home for the film and it went on to be a big worldwide hit making over $200 million dollars against a $48 million budget, only $56 million less than “Erin Brockovich” which embraced a more direct and widespread marketing campaign and a slightly larger budget. This was the second half of a breakout year for Soderbergh and while the film’s mainstream popularity may have ended with its original run and awards season buzz, “Traffic” is still one of Soderbergh’s best films and will always be the one that shut down all deniers by making him and his unique filmmaking style Oscar worthy.
2. “Ocean’s Eleven”
Other films on this list may be more critically loved or received more awards, but nothing can beat “Ocean’s Eleven” in terms of sheer popularity and iconic status. The “Ocean’s” trilogy is as iconic as it gets in the film industry, sparked when Soderbergh took a classic rat pack story and turned it into one of the greatest heist films ever. With an all-star cast, an intriguing and fun plot, and a great mix of comedy, style, and suspense, “Ocean’s Eleven” was a rare remake that not only topped its predecessor, but forced the previous adaptation into relative obscurity by comparison. The film was a critical success and a hit among fans who brought it $450 million over the course of its run making it one of the year’s highest grossing pictures in 2001. While it’s sequels were good, the original film is still the best. Following Soderbergh’s breakout year in 2000, “Ocean’s Eleven” is the director’s most celebrated film by the masses in terms of popularity and staying power and established Soderbergh as a king in terms of the creation and execution of heist stories to this day. Many have tried, but few have ever been able to capture the same charm, wit, and fun that defined this pop culture masterpiece.
1. “Sex, Lies, and Videotape”
This is the film that started it all, for the most part. “Sex, Lies, and Videotape” was Soderbergh’s first mainstream success story and the film that established him as royalty in the world of indie filmmaking. It also helped spark the indie film craze of the early 90s and is to date the director’s most critically acclaimed film with a 98% on Rotten Tomatoes. A Cannes darling, the film that made Miramax a legitimate studio as well. It portrays a series of individuals simply talking about their love lives which, at the time, was seen as a surreal and unique experience fir viewers used to more intense films that challenged other senses on the big screen. Maybe a little dated by today’s standards, this film showed that simplicity can accomplish a lot in terms of plot and quality. A dialogue heavy film, “Sex, Lies, and Videotape” was the origin for many of Soderbergh’s signature styles as it presented several stories that didn’t necessarily intertwine, included a relatively unique and fresh visual style, and leaned heavily on a well written script and solid acting rather than forcing aspects of the film down the viewers throat. Most of all it’s a film that requires an open mind and viewer dedication to enjoy as Soderbergh sent a message that his films weren’t made to pander to an easily entertained audience. He wanted his viewers to pay attention and connect with the film, an approach that, while relevant to some of the best films leading up to that time, had been lost and forgotten in the cloud of the rising Hollywood machine and would become the basic goal of almost every indie filmmaker since, thanks in no small part to this director’s fearless approach to this film alone.