HDD Study Hall: Steven Soderbergh

Posted Thu Sep 8, 2011 at 04:50 PM PDT by

by Luke Hickman

Although his name is not as widely known amongst average moviegoers, every cinephile knows director Steven Soderbergh very, very well. Each year, the Sundance Film Festival somehow finds a way to stick him in the unique pre-show reel. Exploding onto the film scene at the 1989 Sundance Film Festival with 'Sex, Lies, and Videotape,' Soderbergh is one of the biggest directors to come from the then-small festival.

Since then, Soderbergh has been all over the place, never sticking to just one studio, one genre, or one style. He's made both big budget studio flicks and small unconventional indies – sometimes back to back. Long before films began debuting on video on demand services, Soderbergh took a chance playing with different mediums. His small film 'Bubble' was released in theaters, on DVD, and on pay-per-view services on the same day.

Currently, Soderbergh is working as the second-unit director on 'The Hunger Games,' a highly-anticipated film series based on a trilogy of wildly popular teen novels. What Academy Award-winning director takes a measly second-unit director job by choice?! Needless to say, Soderbergh is innovative, creative, more than willing to take risks and not above anything.

With his latest film 'Contagion,' a biological thriller with an enormous ensemble cast, opening this week, here is a look at five noteworthy films from Soderbergh's credits. Some are iconic Soderbergh films, some passed under the radar.

'Out of Sight'

George Clooney stars in this comedic and romantic heist flick based on Elmore Leonard's novel of the same title, playing a convicted bank robber who escapes from prison, sparks a romance with the female U.S. Marshal (Jennifer Lopez) hot on his trail, and plots a climactic final act robbery.

A fun fact about 'Out of Sight' is that it takes place in the same world as 'Jackie Brown,' Quentin Tarantino's adaptation of Leonard's novel 'Rum Punch.' Michael Keaton appears as the same cocky FBI agent in both films. This is one of the absolute best Elmore Leonard adaptations, and its success is largely due to Soderbergh's skillful work behind the camera.

Soderbergh earns bonus brownie points for bringing a strong and completely unannoying performance out of always-annoying Jennifer Lopez. In every other Lopez film, I've pitied the poor sap who ends up with her. But in 'Out of Sight,' she is so likable that you actually want Clooney's character to end up with her.


Soderbergh was nominated twice for Best Directing at the 2001 Academy Awards with two different films. Both 'Erin Brockovich' and 'Traffic' earned him the prestigious nominations, 'Traffic' being the one that finally earned him a directing Oscar. 'Traffic' also went on to win Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Benicio Del Toro), Best Film Editing and Best Adapted Screenplay.

Looking at 'Traffic' and 'Contagion,' it's obvious that Soderbergh enjoys making complex films with many great actors playing key characters. 'Traffic' dives into America's gritty war on drugs, covering the story from four angles on both sides of the border.

For 'Traffic,' Soderbergh rounded up a huge cast, including Michael Douglas, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Benicio Del Toro, Don Cheadle, Albert Finney, James Brolin, Dennis Quaid, Clifton Collins Jr., Viola Davis, Benjamin Bratt, Luis Guzman, Topher Grace, Erika Christensen, and Salma Hayek.

Although heavy-handed, 'Traffic' never comes across as preachy. Soderbergh tells the complicated tale through genuine characters whose lives naturally intertwine. If you haven't seen 'Traffic,' it's definitely worth looking at. If you saw it once and didn't care much for it – like I did after my first viewing – give it another go. As it did with me, a second viewing completely changed my outlook on it.

'Ocean's Eleven'

Just like the original Rat Pack film, Soderbergh's 'Ocean's Eleven' cast features some of the hottest actors of it's day. Were there any more popular male actors in 2001 than Brad Pitt, George Clooney, and Matt Damon? Adding Bernie Mac, Casey Affleck, Scott Caan, Elliot Gould, Andy Garcia, and Don Cheadle to the mix only made it better. Oh, and did I mention Julia Roberts? Again, Soderbergh likes his ensemble casts.

Without a doubt, 'Ocean's Eleven' is Soderbergh's biggest mainstream studio film. Sitting fresh at 82 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, 'Ocean's Eleven' won over both the critics and the general audiences with it's superb cast, witty script, unpredictable story and all-out fun.

Although the successful remake spawned two sequels, neither made it to the level of quality as Soderbergh's first. 'Twelve' received a rotten rating – probably for being the first heist-less heist film and featuring Julia Roberts' character being told that she looks like Julia Roberts – so 'Thirteen' tried to return the series to it's witty roots. Not nearly as good as the first, 'Thirteen' was still leaps and bounds above 'Twelve.'

Audiences may not have had as much fun with 'Twelve' or 'Thirteen,' but neither did enough damage to ruin the memorable nature of 'Eleven.' Perhaps the best thing about the two sequels is that it's obvious Soderbergh and company had a great time making the trilogy. Too bad we couldn't be brought along with them.

'Che: Part One'

Awards season takes place at the worst time of the year. Most deadlines for end-of-year voting in critics circles are just days before Christmas. The month leading up to the busiest holiday of the year is always crammed with last minute screenings and ton of screeners – meaning it's time to play catch up. Both of Soderbergh's 'Che' screeners weren't available to me until two days before voting for the Utah Film Critics Association, so I had to fly through them – all 269 minutes of it. Even with a rushed viewing, 'Che' was boldly intriguing.

It's no wonder why Soderbergh decided to make a film (or two) depicting the revolutionary leader's life and death – the details are extremely interesting. Benicio Del Toro plays Argentinian Che Guevara, the man who became the leader of Fidel Castro's rebel forces in Cuba during the 1950s. 'Part One' is absolutely enthralling. It shows Che's role in overthrowing Cuba's dictator. 'Part Two,' not nearly as interesting as 'Part One,' relocates to Bolivia ten years later as Che tried to spark a revolution in South America. Watching 'The Motorcycle Diaries' followed by both of Soderbergh's 'Che' films will give you a full biography of one of the most notorious revolutionists in the history of the world.

Just like 'The Motorcycle Diaries,' Soderbergh's 'Che' films intimately reel you into his life. You see life through his eyes. You understand the cause and watch your friends die trying to fight for it. The political rationale behind the Cuban revolution is invalid here. You're watching an intimate character story that takes place during the revolution, not a film about the revolution itself. Had Soderbergh flipped it the other way, 'Che' would be nothing more than another war film. But as is, it's a very strong character piece.

'The Informant!'

For some reason, 'The Informant!' didn't receive much love. The story told is wildly entertaining – and not knowing the true story that the film is based upon makes it even better. Anyone who didn't follow the true story on the news prior to see the film will be shocked once the whole story is unfolds. You walk away thinking, 'I didn't know I was about to watch a film about that.'

Matt Damon plays a whistle-blower giving away a lot of company secrets to the feds. The agents working with him eat up all of the information, knowing that they've got a major case on their hands. But the agents stumble across a problem when they realize that their whistle-blower is a total idiot completely incapable of collecting the evidence necessary to launch their official investigation.

Showing how much of an idiot Damon's character really is, during different scenes that should be important to his character, we hear his random thoughts as his mind drifts off in boredom. Some of the lines delivered during these A.D.D. moments are priceless.

Not only is it obvious that Soderbergh enjoys complex scripts requiring large casts, but he also enjoys certain flavors of witty scripts. He isn't bound to just one genre. Au contraire, he enjoys blending genres. He can tell major, all-engulfing stories as well as quiet simple character studies. Like every director, he doesn't have a perfect track record, but at least he's always trying to branch out and attempt something new. He passionately puts all of his effort into his work – and it shows.

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Tags: HDD Study Hall, Luke Hickman, Steven Soderbergh, Fun Stuff (all tags)