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Ranking the Films of Steven Soderbergh

The year is 1998 and I’m 20 years old. Cassie is my first serious girlfriend.1 I am in lust.

Not love. Lust.

That summer, the extremely sexy, sensual Cassie and I discovered something: The coolest film was not Armageddon, The Mask of Zorro, or any number of other summer blockbusters. It was a smaller crime film starring that TV guy who killed Batman and a leading lady coming off of a very successful music biopic. That movie was Out of Sight.

I kid you not, after that movie Cassie and I made out in the trunk of her car.  Yes, the trunk of her car!  I didn’t suggested it, she did.  How could a twenty year old kid with dubious goatee-growing ability ever say no?  Of course I was game.  So, we popped the trunk open and jumped in.  There isn’t more to this story.  We didn’t get locked in or anything, just made friendly for a few hours; talking, laughing, making out, maybe more…

After sixteen years have passed without speaking of this glorious evening, I think I can finally discuss it with a certain amount of laughter and fondness. For just one night, I was as cool as George Clooney and Cassie was as sexy as J-Lo. This was my first experience with a Soderbergh film…

Wait-wait-wait-wait-WAIT!

That’s not true…not in the least.  We’ve gotta back up. Rewind 7 years earlier with me.

The year is 1991.

It’s summertime.

I have a TV in my room.  With cable.  Well, with Showtime is what I mean.

Like all thirteen year olds with deviant minds, I take special notice of a film airing at 11:00pm entitled Sex, Lies, and Videotape. My young mind was instantly flooded with titillating visions of Lara Antonelli.2  Imagine my shock, surprise, sexual frustration, and anger when, fifteen minutes into this film, it was very apparent there were lots and lots of Lies (got that base covered), plenty of cheap looking videotape (staple of soft core, right?), but absolutely no SEX!  I turned off the film my addled mind had placed so much hope in immediately.  It wasn’t until AFTER I had my trunk make-out session with Cassie that I revisited this initially disappointing Soderbergh film.

Can you blame me, though?

Back to making out in the trunk. Yes, that happened. It was awesomely awesome, and a profoundly formative experience. A love of Soderbergh was ingrained in me that I maintain to this day—partially due to that heavenly experience, but mostly because Soderbergh has consistently been one of the greatest filmmakers of the 2000’s.  He’s like Albert Pujols when he was with St. Louis… unflappable, unstoppable.3  Even Soderbergh’s lesser works are more interesting than some of the biggest, Oscar Bait-y movies done by Tom Hooper and a host of other directors.

There are few current filmmakers as pragmatic and mysterious as Steven Soderbergh was in his career. While listening to him speak, you could tell the man was always to the point, never making too much of anything. He discussed his films in a manner everyone could understand, yet the films he made and the films he referenced were always esoteric. The mystery of his mind can be summed up by considering his range over the last several years: he directed one of the most underrated action films of the last five years (Haywire), one of the best star-making films (Magic Mike), and one of the best biopics (Behind the Candlelabra).

Soderbergh is one of the few to have truly toe the line between independent filmmaker (see Bubble and The Girlfriend Experience) and the big budget filmmaker (see The Ocean’s Trilogy and Contingent). He may define the 2000’s and early 2010’s more than any other director of the time.

To commemorate The Knick, Soderbergh’s TV series on Cinemax, we at Film Dispenser want to break down the best to worst of Soderbergh’s filmography.  I will be honest; calling a Soderbergh film bad is like saying Deathproof is Quentin Tarantino’s worst film.  Well, it is. But isn’t that a bit of a misnomer?  I think we’re on the same page. Let’s take a look at Soderbergh’s entire film career, ranking it from top to bottom.

Note: we are only looking at the Soderbergh narrative films, specifically. Any TV series (K Street) or documentary (Everything is Fine) he’s directed is out of bounds with the exception of his one film made for TV (Behind the Candlelabra).

In honor of this man, his love of Non-Linear story telling, and directors like Nic Roeg who influenced him, we’re going to rank these traditionally but in an order most honoring to the director: Non-Linear.

9. Haywire

Haywire

Gina Carano is a force of nature. Watching her hit dudes with her fists/elbows/knees/feet/whatever is as artful and beautiful as a Degas. Soderbergh appears to be having more fun staging great physical action in this film than he has in any other project.  You can almost hear him giggling as Carano works her way through dude after dude, laying waste to them until the fading moments with her final adversary.  This is the kind of film you would discover on HBO on a random Sunday afternoon or Saturday morning. But there’s a difference here: instead of Cynthia Rockrock, he has Carano; instead of Billy Drago, Eric Roberts; in place of Bill Paxton he has Ewan McGreggor and Channing Tatum. Impressively, he still includes BILL PAXTON.  Oh yeah, not to mention it’s also DIRECTED BY ONE OF THE MOST TALENTED DIRECTORS CURRENTLY WORKING.  And finally, it’s the second greatest collaboration he had with the infamously cantankerous writer Lem Dobbs.

8. Contagion 

Contagion

This is a Virus/Outbreak film in the same way Traffic is a drug film.  It’s anchored by an ensemble cast any director would give their first born to work with: Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Marion Collard, Gwenyth Paltrow, John Hawkes, Benedict Wong, Jude Law, and Kate Winslett.  He gives you the ground floor for a realistic look at what would happen if a devastating outbreak actually occurred. Films classically categorized as ‘horror’ never scare me and I love watching them for the visceral thrill.  But what really scares me is reality. A virus is reality. Soderbergh really takes you for a wild ride, treating the matter as coldly and calculatingly as a virus would with a particularly haunting U2 song in the closing scenes. If you’re viewing for the first time, take bets on who will make it to the end. It’s all part of the fun. Rumors are floating around about a 3D IMAX version that I would really love to see released, if it’s true.




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  1. Bric Barker

    Great job, Adam. Thank you for articulating so much about these films, some of which I had enjoyed not even knowing they belonged to Soderbergh. Now I have to go find the few I haven’t seen! Again, great job!

    • Adam Kautzer

      Huge thanks Bric! It was a lot of fun to write the article and revisiting some of the films that I haven’t seen in a while (Kafka and The Good German were both ones that I really loved this time around more than when initially seen). Stay tuned if you like this article. I’m working on some other stuff that’s similar for the site. I’m definitely glad you enjoyed the article.


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