by Aaron Peck
It was the Sundance hit 'Sex, Lies, and Videotape' that put him on the map. The world of independent cinema would never be the same after his first feature-length film premiered at the festival in 1989.
Since then, Steven Soderbergh's work has spanned genres. He's careful not to pigeonhole himself. He's taken on comedies, thrillers, and is about to take on the action/espionage genre with his new movie 'Haywire.'
Every time he plans a new film, the ensemble cast seemingly appears out of nowhere. Actors and actresses who command leading roles are lining up just to play bit parts. He routinely gets casts that other directors would kill for.
This month has seen the Blu-ray release of his worldwide plague thriller 'Contagion' and the Criterion release of his masterpiece about the world of drug trafficking, 'Traffic.' So I'd like to take this time to rank what I believe are the top ten favorite Soderbergh films.
10. 'Erin Brockovich'
There's flat character issues here, along with a paper-thin plot, but this was the film where Soderbergh was able to wrangle Julia Roberts' ultra-star power and bring her down to earth in the role of Erin Brockovich. Squeaking in at number ten, this is my least favorite of his top films, but it's hard to deny the drama and humor injected into the story and the great directorial job done with one of the world's biggest (and sometimes most insufferable) stars.
The lovers and the haters of Soderbergh's remake of Andrei Tarkovsky's 1976 sci-fi masterpiece are pretty evenly split down the middle. Count me on the side that really enjoyed the minimalistic visual tone that he provided here. Yes, it's a slow, methodical movie, but Soderbergh does slow and methodical very well. Buoyed by a great Clooney performance, 'Solaris' had to make the top ten.
8. 'The Limey'
If you haven't been able to catch 'The Limey' you really should make time for this first-rate crime thriller starring Terrance Stamp in one of the best performances of his illustrious acting career. There's a decidedly visual aesthetic applied here by Soderbergh, like in many of his other films, that makes watching the movie an entrancing experience. When are we gonna get a Blu-ray release?
7. 'Ocean's Eleven'
It's the who's who of Hollywood. A gigantic ensemble cast that would make any director drool. Here superstars like George Clooney and Brad Pitt are working side by side, making Matt Damon look like he was called in to play a bit part. This is the only 'Ocean's' movie I enjoy watching. It's witty and clever, pure popcorn entertainment. It has that frenzied Soderbergh pace to it, bouncing around from character to character, but somehow we never get lost in the fray.
I still think 'Contagion' was one of the best thrillers of last year. It's not packed full of action or intrigue, but it's plenty suspenseful. It was a fresh take on the disease thriller. Soderbergh created a world of fear which was much scarier than the disease itself. Plus (spoiler!), Gwyneth Paltrow got scalped. Scalped! Only Soderbergh can amass this cast of A-list actors only to chop the top off the head of one of the biggest names on the bill.
Soderbergh's epic about Ernesto "Che" Guevara is long, and for that very reason you may have not ventured in to take a peek at it. However, once you start watching it you'll find it hard to stop. Benicio Del Toro is mesmerizing as the Cuban militant. There's something to be said for a director that can take a 270 minute epic and make it a compelling character study without veering off into snoozeville.
4. 'The Informant!'
People may disagree with my high ranking of 'The Informant!' but I stand by it. Here's a movie that I didn't ever expect much from and instead got everything I could have wanted and more. The key is that it contains the best performance of Matt Damon's career; It's also his most underrated. Damon plays Mark Whitacre, a top employee in the agricultural industry who turns informer to report to the feds about the illegal dealings of his company. He loves the cloak and dagger routines they put him through. The movie is genuinely funny, and never really got its due.
3. 'Out of Sight'
He had a good foundation. Any Elmore Leonard book is a good basis for a screenplay. However, from movies like 'Be Cool' we've learned that it's all too easy to screw up even some of the best fictional writing out there. 'Out of Sight' remains one of the great modern day crime thrillers. Soderbergh toned down the visual trickery and his at times oddball stylistic choices and was able to craft a very marketable caper film. The biggest story here though, isn't that 'Out of Sight' was when we kind of all took notice of Clooney and realized, "Hey maybe this guy can be a movie star." No, it was the fact that Soderbergh somehow got a borderline fantastic performance from one Jennifer Lopez. You know, the same woman who has starred in such hits as 'Maid in Manhattan,' 'The Wedding Planner,' and 'Monster In Law.' I don't know how he did it, but as director Soderbergh was able to squeeze out whatever acting ability Lopez has.
2. 'Sex, Lies and Videotape'
It's a classic now. There's no way around it. It's the movie that really jumpstarted the whole independent film craze. A movie that showed everyone that low-budgets weren't barriers that couldn't be overcome. Soderbergh wrote the movie in less than two weeks. A thrilling psychological study, it remains a masterpiece.
'Traffic' is to Soderbergh what 'Schindler's List' is to Spielberg. It's his magnum opus. It's the rare time where all the quintessential Soderbergh elements – dozens of characters; intersecting storylines; experimental filming techniques – all meshed into a grandm unified whole. In 2000 Soderbergh was nominated as Best Director twice. Once for 'Traffic' the other for 'Erin Brockovich.' The fun part is that if you didn't know Soderbergh directed both of them you'd swear they were directed by different people. However, 'Traffic' truly bears his mark as a filmmaker (he also acted as cinematographer using the name Peter Andrews). It's experimental, it's large in scope, and it has that trademark ensemble cast that everyone fawns over. With all those elements he was able to weave together numerous tales of the way drugs and the war on them affects everyday life here in America.
How would you rank Soderbergh's films? Are there some that were left off this list like 'King of the Hill,' 'The Underneath,' 'The Good German,' 'The Girlfriend Experience,' or 'Kafka,' that you would add to the list? Please let us know in the forums. Click on the link below and let us in on what movies would make your top ten list of Soderbergh films.