One of our most idiosyncratic, unpredictable, and multifaceted directors is back this Friday, the latest big-time auteur to make the move to Netflix. Steven Soderbergh’s been busy since coming out of feature-film retirement with Logan Lucky in 2017—he drove Claire Foy up a wall in Unsane, he helmed the form-breaking HBO series Mosaic, and now he’s taking a look at the business of basketball with High Flying Bird. The Ringer staff updated our ranking of all his movies—from the star-packed Ocean’s films to this most recent release—in an official ranking. Pour yourself a glass of Singani 63 and enjoy.
Adam Nayman: The original lineup for this internationally financed triptych of short art films was Wong Kar-wai, Pedro Almodóvar, and Michelangelo Antonioni. After Almodóvar backed out, Soderbergh climbed onboard. The director joked that he did it only to “get his name on a poster with [Antonioni],” but his placement in Eros, sandwiched between two authentic world-cinema titans, was suggestive; in the mid-2000s, coming off an Oscar for directing Traffic and yet still pushing an experimental agenda in films like Full Frontal and Bubble, Soderbergh was as good a choice as any to represent America in what was basically a miniature auteur Olympics. His segment, “Equilibrium,” starring Robert Downey Jr. as an ad executive relating strange erotic dreams to psychoanalyst Alan Arkin – who is himself distracted by his own, waking voyeurism –is minor, throwaway stuff, but it has a nicely nervy comic atmosphere thanks to the actors (a pre–Iron Man Downey was still on the comeback trail), and it’s heightened by noirish black-and-white cinematography.
30. Full Frontal
K. Austin Collins: Sometimes, Soderbergh has gotten too cute for his own good—or, at least, that’s how it seemed at the time. Case in point: Full Frontal. You watch it and you immediately understand why it wasn’t popular in its time; why its overbearing nods to postmodernism and the French New Wave, paired with unlikable and anxiously unpredictable characters played by top actors (Julia Roberts, David Hyde Pierce, Catherine Keener, Blair Underwood, David Duchovny) was a tough sell. People walked in craving an edgy, smart, early-2000s movie with Hollywood stars; what they got was Soderbergh doing a Mamet impression.
Today, that’s still true—sort of. Full Frontal is still an oddly complicated movie, a very self-aware way to study a day in the life of a group of disparate but connected people. It’s still all over the place, at times erratic without justification. But I also … can't take my eyes off of it? I don’t love it or hate it as I watch; I’m mostly just amazed that it exists.
29. The Good German
Amanda Dobbins: “Soderbergh remakes Casablanca, but with George Clooney and bad words” gets a green light 10 out of 10 times; 50 bucks says it would get a green light again, right now, even though The Good German exists. Genre films are Soderbergh’s specialty: He has a preternatural ability to find the fun and energy in any given film, and to improve the rest. Which is to say that The Good German was doomed from the start—’40s melodrama and Holocaust themes don’t lend themselves to the wry style that sells Magic Mike or Out of Sight or the Ocean’s trilogy. (Also, this story is too confusing.) There are other miscalculations: The fake Old Hollywood overexposure, the rat-a-tat dialogue, Clooney’s entire performance. (He’s Cary Grant, not Bogart. Read a Vanity Fair.) You can’t expect Tobey Maguire to sell a retro black-and-white movie twice. This is a failed movie from the very first scene, but somehow it’s not an embarrassment, mostly because you can see the experimentation behind every weird choice. He tried something; it didn’t work. I bet the remake would be fantastic.
Collins: When it comes to Bubble, a film involving a small-town murder, people most commonly mention two things: the pile of creepy baby-doll heads on the poster (it’s a great poster), and the fact that almost none of us have seen it.
It’s worth remembering, though. For one, it’s a rare modern Soderbergh film that avoids Hollywood stars, instead using nonprofessional actors who work through an almost nonexistent script. More importantly, though, Bubble was Soderbergh’s first stab at trying to break the business. The movie opened in theaters the same day it was broadcast on TV; some theaters refused to show it, accordingly. Whether it’s a good movie is almost secondary to its being evidence of Soderbergh’s longstanding efforts to shake things up in the film industry—that theme in the director’s career didn’t begin with his fake retirement, but rather, had its germ in movies like this.
27. [See below]
26. The Underneath
Sean Fennessey: Here’s how the studio sold The Underneath, the follow-up to Soderbergh’s culture-changing debut Sex, Lies, and Videotape, the eminently strange Kafka, and the well-regarded King of the Hill.
Did you know that While You Were Sleeping grossed $75 million in 1995, and that Peter Gallagher was the third lead of that film? The marketing team at Universal did, and they worked hard to leverage that obtuse factoid into the campaign for The Underneath, a somewhat convoluted (aren’t they all?) noir that may be Soderbergh’s most forgotten/overlooked film, depending on your point of view. Gallagher and his $75 million bona fides bring to this movie—which could be uncharitably described as Ocean’s Eleven for Losers—a tense and opaque performance. But this is a clear mistake in Soderbergh’s artfully managed filmography. It was a classical swing on a studio budget—formally impressive and lush at times and also damned dull. “I think it’s a beautiful film to look at …” Soderbergh himself says today, before deconstructing its flaws. “It’s totally … sleepy.” He’s right.
Fennessey: A fascinating movie to think about, not so much to watch. (Though if you want to, the famously out-of-print second feature from Soderbergh is right here, for free.) Blending the biographical details of the author Franz Kafka’s life with the reality-bending literary touches of his fiction, Soderbergh reaches deep into the bowels of oddity for this skittering portrait of a man unglued. A superlative cast at their tensile best and a palette of inky blacks and whites can’t save this from what it ultimately is: a brilliant scientist’s experiment gone awry.
Miles Surrey: A taut psychological thriller, Unsane is at its best when you feel the walls closing in on Sawyer Valentini (a great Claire Foy), a woman who’s moved to a new city in hopes of evading a man who’s been stalking her for two years. Sawyer’s convinced this person has resurfaced—though when she shares these concerns with a therapist, she unwittingly and involuntarily admits herself into a mental hospital.
Is Sawyer right? Is her stalker somewhere in the facility? Is this all in her head? Soderbergh, working with a clever script, keeps everything close to the vest for the majority of Unsane, while his penchant for iPhone cameras comes in handy. Unsane sticks tightly to Sawyer; uncomfortably, claustrophobically, as we’re treated to several paranoiac closeups of Foy’s increasingly distressed face. It’s easy to empathize with Sawyer’s fear, even if we don’t initially know what’s real and what isn’t. The creepy corridors of the hospital, with its antagonizing patients (Juno Temple is particularly terrifying), oft-condescending workers, and maybe-stalker present, is a true Hitchcockian hellscape. With its B-movie pretensions and quiet box office run in early 2018, Unsane already feels like a criminally underrated Soderbergh film that’s slipped through the cracks. It’s not breaking the wheel, but it’s an undeniably satisfying indie thriller.
Chris Ryan: Soderbergh often tests himself, and in turn the audience. Sometimes those tests are labeled properly—little experiments like Bubble or even The Girlfriend Experience—sometimes they feel like a false bill of goods. Solaris is not without merit, and part of its somewhat-maligned reputation comes from its place in Soderbergh’s filmography—released at the end of one of the great three-year runs in movie history, which saw him put out Out of Sight, The Limey, Erin Brockovich, and Ocean’s Eleven, from 1998 to 2001.
Everything about Solaris screamed that it would be continuation of the streak—probing, deeply philosophical sci-fi, produced by James Cameron, starring George Clooney—except for the director. He was candid about being mostly disinterested in what makes most movie sci-fi tick (the action, the tech), and openly admitted that he would not be able to improve upon the original Solaris, directed by Andrei Tarkovsky.
It was advertised as an epic space adventure, but is a profoundly lonely and sad movie about a shrink stuck on a space station with Jeremy Davies and some ghosts? Maybe? What an interesting waste of talent and resources. Soderbergh called Solaris a “very convenient and wonderful metaphor for anything that you don't understand.” I could not have said it better myself.
22. Che: Part Two
Nayman: In Part Two (subtitled The Argentine), Soderbergh kinetically depicted Che Guevara’s rise to prominence; in Part One, the style is more ponderous, with an emphasis on his subsequent struggles. Where its predecessor jumped around in history, Part Two adopts a straightforward structure, slogging inexorably forward through the 300 days that Guevara spent lurking in the Bolivian jungle before being captured and executed by the country’s armed forces. While he pretty much carries the whole epic on his shoulders (and was justly rewarded with a Best Actor prize at Cannes), Benicio Del Toro has his best, most affecting moments in the home stretch. Worn and spent emotionally after his early successes, his Che palpably sags under the weight of his socialist-savior status; unfortunately, the actor’s evocation of exhaustion also works as a mirror for any audience members who choose to consume Soderbergh’s epic in a single sitting.
Fennessey: An experiment more than a movie, this palate-cleansing, nonlinear exercise in seriocomic absurdism is Soderbergh (playing the lead role) at his too-smart-for-his-own-good best.
20. Ocean’s Thirteen
Michael Baumann: There’s a reason we shouldn’t automatically make sequels: because even a near-perfect creation like Ocean's Eleven, a beautiful, clever, glamorous, laugh-out-loud-funny heist film with a script that reveals new wonders of banter with every rewatch, couldn’t sustain momentum forever.
But so what? Ocean’s Eleven’s second sequel, Ocean's Thirteen, is funny and colorful, and Ellen Barkin is great, and Al Pacino is in it and totally bug-eyed, and it features great lines like, “Hell yeah! We just gotta break management!,” and, “Are you watching Oprah?" Does it “make sense” in the strictest sense of the phrase? No, but it gets all your buddies back together again, and it reminds you why you liked them in the first place, which was all it really aspired to do.
19. Che: Part One
Nayman: Some films nearly break their directors. In an interview with The Guardian in 2009, Soderbergh got twisted into admitting that he sort of wished that he hadn’t made Che. “For a year … I would still wake up in the morning thinking, “thank God I'm not shooting that film,’” he said ruefully, acknowledging the physical and mental rigors of cramming a four-hour, $60 million historical drama into a 78-day production schedule and Che’s decidedly mixed critical and commercial reception. Shown in its 257-minute entirety at Cannes but split into two parts for theatrical release, Che is, ultimately, a self-divided movie, privileging dry, microscopic realism over ideological or psychological analysis. Part One, subtitled The Argentine, is fleeter and more urgent than its follow-up, flashing back and forth in time (and between different film stocks), climaxing with a frantic, street-level uprising in Las Villas, Cuba, that ranks among the great battle sequences of recent years.
18. Logan Lucky
Alison Herman: Logan Lucky is the kind of film that makes you forget Soderbergh ever retired. The director remains dedicated to experimentation in the form of iPhones, streaming platforms, and interactive apps; Logan Lucky itself was a daring attempt at self-distribution, and not an especially successful one, at least where box office is concerned. The movie itself, however, is as assured and masterful an exercise in old-school Hollywood as you’re likely to find at the 21st-century multiplex. A shrink-wrap-tight heist movie that still leaves room for a riotously silly Game of Thrones gag, Logan Lucky is a veritable playground for movie stars—especially Daniel Craig, rocking an eye-popping dye job and a ludicrous accent. Soderbergh is admirably committed to keeping up with the times, but Logan Lucky reminds us there’s always a throwback somewhere in his arsenal.
17. Behind the Candelabra
Rob Harvilla: In 2013, it was still big news that a major film from a major director would bypass American theaters entirely, even for a destination as prestigious as HBO. But that was a relatively minor shock given that Behind the Candelabra starred Michael Douglas as Liberace and Matt Damon as his young lover, Scott Thorson. More amazing still, the result isn’t played for cheap, kitschy laughs. There is glitz, and garishness, and Rob Lowe as the world’s scariest-looking plastic surgeon, but Soderbergh’s warmth and command of every spangly detail—and Douglas’s sublimely adenoidal voice and sure-handedness even when he’s playing boogie-woogie piano in double time—ensures that you’re laughing with this movie, not at it, even when it’s not funny in the slightest. (Soderbergh and Douglas won Emmys, and critics got an early sense of how the Big Screen and the Small Screen might effectively blur together.) It’s a disarming and legitimately affecting love story, a farcical high-camp melodrama that reaches so high it gets to heaven.
16. Gray’s Anatomy / 27. And Everything Is Going Fine
Fennessey: In Gray’s Anatomy, the third and arguably best filmed iteration of a Spalding Gray performance, Soderbergh captures the late monologuist in shifting visual environments as he tells the tale of a disastrous eye surgery. On the one hand, this is a man on film talking incessantly about a bad medical experience. On the other, it’s a transportive, meditative exposure to a mind on fire. We can feel Soderbergh flashing on the brilliance in Gray’s brain in real time.
So it’s no surprise that after Gray committed suicide in 2004, the director commemorated his life with an archival documentary capturing performance, personal expression, and family history in And Everything Is Going Fine. Sometimes a good protagonist is hard to find—and when you find him, protect him.
15. King of the Hill
Nayman: The first true curveball of Soderbergh’s consistently side-armed career, King of the Hill switched out the millennial paranoia of Sex, Lies, and Videotape and Kafka for old-fashioned uplift. Adapting A.E. Hotchner’s 1972 memoir about growing up impoverished in Depression-era St. Louis, Soderbergh crafted a hardscrabble coming-of-age fable with traces of Charles Dickens, Budd Schulberg, and Mordecai Richler. Largely left to his own devices after the death of his mother from tuberculosis (his father is a traveling salesman), 12-year-old Aaron (Jesse Bradford) figures out how to survive – and stay entertained – in a city whose streets are teeming with similarly marginal figures. It’s possible to intuit a bit of directorial self-portraiture in the story of a brainy, resourceful kid who can adapt his shtick and spiel to any situation, but for the most part, King of the Hill shows Soderbergh holstering his stylistic tics and dutifully serving his source material. The result is an absorbing, straight-ahead drama etched with self-effacing skill.
Baumann: I watched this movie on cable in a shitty motel in the Midwest while I was sick, and after watching Kate Winslet get sick and die in a shitty motel in the Midwest, I was convinced that I myself had contracted MEV-1 and was going to die. They ought to show this movie to little kids to convince them to wash their hands.
13. Side Effects
Kate Knibbs: A lot of Soderbergh movies look like they might be kinda stupid, but then you go and watch and see something smart and alive and interesting. Side Effects, on the other hand, is a twisty thriller about pharmaceuticals and ennui and greed that seems, while you're watching it, like just another Smart Soderbergh Movie. In actuality, it is his frothiest film, a potboiler more clever than profound. That said: Side Effects is a good movie, and the world needs more psychological thrillers featuring Catherine Zeta-Jones.
12. The Girlfriend Experience
Knibbs: In 2009, Sasha Grey was best known as a porn star and not yet known as the porn star who was also on Entourage, and it seemed like titillating stunt casting when Soderbergh enlisted her as the lead role in his film about a "sophisticated" escort navigating pre-Recession-era Manhattan. But Grey's melancholy, low-key turn doesn't include explicit sex, and the film is more interested in other desires: for money, for companionship, for beauty. It's a short film with a narrow scope, following Grey's Christine through her sleek, brand-name-fixated life. When I first watched The Girlfriend Experience shortly after it was released, I found it disappointingly antiseptic; even when Christine's emotionally detached stance showed cracks, the film seemed content to remain on the surface of her life.
Rewatching the film this year, though, I found myself thinking that The Girlfriend Experience’s gaze is not as soulless as it initially seems. The Girlfriend Experience is about simulating intimacy, but it's also about the impossibility of simulating intimacy. Christine isn't as obviously dissatisfied or melancholic as Channing Tatum's Mike in Magic Mike, but her insistence on appearing satisfied makes it all the more touching when she does slip up and acknowledge her own wants.
11. Ocean’s Twelve
Dobbins: Ocean’s Eleven is the greatest modern film about movie stars, but Ocean’s Twelve has the single best scene. “I. I wasn’t in Four Weddings and a Funeral.” Let’s do this:
The Ocean’s trilogy is about hanging out with cool people and doing cool shit, and Ocean’s Twelve is its thesis statement. Want to watch Brad Pitt wear fashionable trench coats and charm his way through Rome? Sure, me too. Want to recite Led Zeppelin and weird, made-up crime names with a confused Matt Damon? Great. Want to put an extended Who’s on First routine that is also a parody of 2000s celebrity, featuring three of the world’s biggest actors and a SpongeBob reference, into the middle of a heist film? Why not, we’ve got the time.
“There was no scenario in which I was going to un-retire and make a movie that wasn’t fun,” Soderbergh told GQ recently. Replace “un-retire” for “make a sequel” in there and you’ve got the Ocean’s Twelve ethos; it is a doing-it-because-we-can movie from beginning to end. Don’t worry your pretty little head about the plot, or Catherine Zeta-Jones’s involvement, or what the hell a “lookie-loo with a bundle of joy” might actually be. A bunch of famous attractive people are having a good time, and you can, too.
10. High Flying Bird
Nayman: Always fascinated by the relationship between individuals and institutions—and heroes who try to do end runs around the system— Soderbergh uses High Flying Bird’s NBA lockout backdrop to subvert sports-movie expectations and comment instead on athletics as a form of labor relations. By daring to suggest his star client could go freelance and live-stream some one-on-one games while the NBA’s owners and players haggle over revenue sharing, veteran agent Ray (André Holland) provides a shock to the system that’s part heroic, part self-serving, and fully fascinating; through his interactions with various athletes, lawyers, hangers-on, and old-time hoop heads, Soderbergh and screenwriter Tarell Alvin McCraney sketch a tetchy, complex, behind-the-scenes story with its own set of personal and flagrant fouls—what one character memorably calls “the game on top of the game.” High Flying Bird is Soderbergh at the top of his game.
9. Erin Brockovich
Lindsay Zoladz: There’s something both gorgeous and eerie about the sunny sepia tone that drenches every frame of Erin Brockovich. It gives the whole film a hazy SoCal glow, but it’s also a constant reminder of the invisible impurities in the air and water of Hinkley, California—the toxic chromium that Erin and her boss Ed Masry are trying to prove was dumped there knowingly by the Pacific Gas and Electric Company. Soderbergh directs Julia Roberts toward one of the most inevitable Best Actress wins in Oscar history, and he himself pulled off an historic feat at that year’s ceremony, when he was nominated for two different films in the Best Director category (this one and Traffic, for which he won). Seventeen years on, Erin Brockovich is remembered more as a cultural phenomenon than a film (who among us cannot quote, “They’re called boobs, Ed”) but it holds up surprisingly well as a slice of turn-of-the-millennium American neorealism. Soderbergh brings to life Brockovich’s harried days as a single parent of three, neither sentimentalizing her motherhood nor ignoring the banal realities she must consider—paying the nanny, finding a man who isn’t intimidated by her hustle—in making a meaningful life.
Harvilla: “I’ve really lost my interest as a director—not as a producer or viewer—in anything that smells important,” Soderbergh told The New York Times in early August. “It just doesn’t appeal to me at all anymore. I left that in the jungle somewhere.” Nothing he has made has smelled more important than Traffic, the hard-nosed, clear-eyed war on drugs epic that won him the Oscar for Best Director and came closest to bringing the lush, skeptical scope of The Wire to a multiplex. This is as big, as serious, and as industry-feted as Soderbergh was willing to get.
Traffic is loaded with prestige command performances: Michael Douglas as a tough-talking drug czar scrambling to save his daughter, Catherine Zeta-Jones as a cartel wife who breaks bad and then breaks worse, Benicio Del Toro as a cop with enough moral ambiguity to net him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar of his own. But the triumph for devout Soderbergh fans is that he delivers all the required seriousness but never loses himself or his sense of caper-flick irreverence. Which means he can stage the requisite chaotic shootout, but end it with a lone shoe sticking up out of a children’s Funzone ball pit—and then cast Don Cheadle, Luis Guzmán, and Miguel Ferrer for it. The result is heavy but never overpowering, offering no easy answers in as satisfying a manner as possible.
Collins: In Haywire, mixed martial artist Gina Carano plays Mallory Kane, a kickass former Marine working black ops for a government subcontractor. All you really need to know up front is this: She gets betrayed. The who/what/where/etc. is, honestly, too complicated to recount—and one of the joys of this movie is watching Soderbergh make sense of it all. This is a movie with a broader narrative, elaborate flashbacks, precise color grading to separate multiple strands of plot, and almost every other trick in the book. Yet, like Mallory Kane herself, the movie is swift, smooth, precise, and, ultimately, devastatingly effective. This is my Bourne.
But maybe the better way to sell it—and the reason I keep begging for a sequel—is this: It’s a movie premised on watching Big Hollywood Actors get their asses beat. I adore Channing Tatum—and yet I’ll happily watch his face get smashed in. The great fun of Haywire is that it’s a movie about Hollywood stars being put in their place, directed by a guy who’s made a career out of revitalizing the charm of Hollywood stars—your Julia Roberts, your George Clooneys. It feels somehow meta, without quite selling itself as such, which you could say about a lot of Soderbergh movies. As filmmaking, this is peak efficient Soderbergh: Exposition gets sanded down into beauteously precise montages and clever conversations, and fight scenes flit and flicker with as much energy and invention as the master killers fighting therein. It’s one of Soderbergh’s great recent movies—one that feels so much slighter than it is.
6. The Informant!
Andrew Gruttadaro: The strength of Soderbergh’s biopic of a man who went from corporate whistleblower to self-dubbed de facto FBI agent to scam artist lies in its tone. In truth, the story of Mark Whitacre and the price-fixing corporation he worked for, Archer Daniels Midland, is extremely serious—Whitacre had bipolar disorder and eventually committed egregious crimes that landed him in prison for three times as many years as the ADM execs were sentenced to—but Soderbergh is able to find the humor at the heart of this convoluted mess. Frequent collaborator Matt Damon delivers a nuanced, commanding performance as Whitacre, and the movie itself is surprising on a minute-by-minute basis. But most impressively, when you watch The Informant!—even as Soderbergh draws Whitacre as a caricature, even as he finds comedy in a corporation bilking the American economy out of billions of dollars—you get the sense that the director has true empathy for his subject. That sort of thing is rare to find.
5. Sex, Lies, and Videotape
Herman: On the long, long list of "movies they don't make enough of anymore," romantic comedies and '90s erotic thrillers both rank high. Sex, Lies, and Videotape isn't a pure example of either, but it contains some of the best elements of both: an unflinching treatment of human sexuality and the deeply human connection between two people lost in different yet complementary ways. Of course, SLVT is also the canonical example of another kind of movie that's all too rare to find at the box office: the kind that may not make a stupendous amount of money (less than $50 million domestic, even adjusted for inflation), but still earns back more than 20 times its budget, because it's a debut feature made on a shoestring from a script written in eight days on a yellow legal pad.
Soderbergh's Palme d'Or–winning first feature is remembered as much for its impact on the next decade's independent film boom as its contents. But Sex, Lies, and Videotape is a warped, unorthodox love story in its own right, anchored by a performance from James Spader that sells Graham's creepiness and fragility in equal measure (a perfect warm-up for Secretary) and Andie MacDowell's turn as a frustrated, isolated housewife. The movie's small budget works in its favor, stripping the ensemble down to just four characters of real substance and even fewer locations. The messy emotional bonds between a woman, her sister, her asshole husband, and his oddball, estranged college friend are all this movie needs — and all Soderbergh needed to build a multi-decade career that's seen bigger and pricier movies but never lost its independent streak.
4. Magic Mike
Zoladz: I am not sure there is such a thing as the female gaze, especially in mainstream Hollywood cinema, but I know for certain that I never expected to experience the closest possible thing to it during a Soderbergh movie. “WE DON’T CARE, TAKE OFF YOUR CLOTHES!” a woman near the screen yelled out when I saw Magic Mike in the theater.
Magic Mike, of course, is so much more than just a male stripper flick. (On the other hand, the brilliance of Magic Mike XXL, on which Soderbergh served as a cinematographer under a pseudonym, is that it is absolutely nothing more than just a male stripper flick—pure, uncut fan service for viewers like that woman yelling at the screen.) Magic Mike is actually a sad, sweet, artfully photographed movie about trying to make ends meet—and maybe even find meaning in work—in the grips of a lousy economy. Perhaps second only to Scarface, it is the greatest movie ever made about Florida. Perhaps second only to The Big Short, it is the greatest movie made about the financial crisis.
Perhaps second only to the first season of True Detective, it is Matthew McConaughey’s finest hour. The genius of Soderbergh has always been his unparalleled ability to smuggle poetry into the strangest places, to Trojan-horse art into the world of popular entertainment. Magic Mike is one of his greatest achievements because it works almost equally on both levels: Come for Channing Tatum’s torso; stay for the melancholy but ultimately hopeful meditation on nothing less grand than the goddamn American dream.
3. The Limey
Collins: Is there a rule that says a Los Angeles noir has to play out like a long, slow, hazy dream? There must be. So many of the greats—Chinatown, Mulholland Drive, The Big Sleep—satisfy this expectation, sometimes to the point of not making sense (and often, in that regard, on purpose). The Limey—one of Soderbergh’s very best—more than earns its place among the greatest L.A. noirs for precisely that reason. It’s about an ex-con named Wilson, played with a dark, devastating sense of humor by Terence Stamp, whose estranged daughter dies suddenly in the hills of L.A., and whose mission becomes to figure out why.
The movie takes on his state of mind, moving between memory and the present, and collapsing action and interaction, until the result is free-flowing, unpredictable, sad, funny, and, yes, sort of dreamy. In a way, it’s Soderbergh’s Memento: a disjointed L.A. noir premised on loss and memory. But it does one better by refusing to lean on a clean gimmick. The supporting cast rocks it, too: As ever, Soderbergh is at his best when working with friends. Folks like Luis Guzmán, Nicky Katt, and most especially Peter Fonda lend a flavor that, while not unusual to Soderbergh’s universe, has never felt as raw, or as sad, as it does here.
2. Ocean’s Eleven
Gruttadaro: You could put peak George Clooney, peak Brad Pitt, peak Julia Roberts, Matt Damon—takes deep breath—Casey Affleck, Don Cheadle, Andy Garcia, Bernie Mac, Scott Caan, and Elliott Gould into anything and it’d be at least good. Put that group in a reboot of Ocean’s Eleven, the Rat Pack flick about a casino heist, and you’ve got a truly classic, eternally rewatchable movie.
More than 15 years later, Hollywood is jamming big-name stars into movies with more and more regularity, but they haven’t been able to recapture the magic of Ocean’s. Through Soderbergh’s lens, the caper movie about a guy who wants to rob the three most impregnable casinos in Las Vegas—mostly because the owner of those casinos is dating his ex-wife—is breezy, fast-paced fun with unbeatable banter. It’s The Avengers if The Avengers had better chemistry and a compelling villain. And it has a twist that actually lands and holds up. Plus, there’s nothing more enjoyable than watching a bunch of celebrities hang out and have fun together, which—when you strip away the bank vaults and poker chips—is what Ocean’s Eleven is all about. I’m going to go rewatch it for the thousandth time right now.
1. Out of Sight
Ryan: Out of Sight can be atomized and overanalyzed or passively gazed upon. It works as an art film or as a love letter to Hollywood exceptionalism. Its fractured timeline features chronological shenanigans as deft as anything in Christopher Nolan’s filmography, but it can be easily read as a narrative that goes from A to Z with little fuss. It’s a love story, a crime story, a caper, a thriller, a Detroit movie, a Miami movie, a movie star movie, a character actor movie, a Universal picture, and, most of all, a Steven Soderbergh film. And it’s his best one.
The perfect marriage of Hollywood and the outsider, Out of Sight is Soderbergh’s best movie because it is impossible to say what the best part of Out of Sight is. Onscreen, George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez give the most relatable performances of their careers while also causing more sparks to fly than the exploding stadium lights at the end of The Natural. And their relationship is built out of terse exchanges in car trunks, half-waves across apartment building lobbies, and in the reflection of a hotel bar window.
Screenwriter Scott Frank goes yard in that scene (“What if …”); Elliot Davis shoots it like it is the last time anyone will ever drink bourbon in a turtleneck and it needs to be preserved for the rest of time; Anne V. Coates cuts around the tension and the looks and the lines like an omnipotent god; and then there’s David Holmes’s beat drop that takes things upstairs to get more comfortable. Over the years, Soderbergh has taken on more and more filmmaking responsibility, but to watch Out of Sight is to see a director orchestrating a symphony of brilliant collaborators.
And he’s not so shabby himself. Soderbergh used Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now as a template for Clooney and Lopez’s intimate scenes, because why not? The intense intimacy of this relationship drives the film, but it is hardly the only reason it is beloved. Ask 20 people for their favorite line and you’ll get 20 different answers. Ask for your favorite scene and you’ll probably start talking about Don Cheadle crushing a bag of goldfish in his hand, or Dennis Farina interrogating Michael Keaton, while Lopez talks to Clooney on the phone, wearing a Dan Marino T-shirt. Ask someone what their low-key favorite performance is and you get the murderers’ row of character actors—Steve Zahn, Catherine Keener, Ving Rhames, Albert Brooks.
“If you don’t do this movie, it means you don’t want to direct movies.” This is what Universal head Casey Silver told Steven Soderbergh when the latter was trying to decide whether or not to helm this adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s wonderful novel. Nineteen years later, I’d take it even further: If you don’t love Out of Sight, you don’t love movies.