Perhaps the most fascinating thing about Steven Soderbergh’s nearly 30-year film career is that he’s a genius without a masterpiece. He’s made some fantastic movies, and he’s never made anything dull, but he’s also always so concerned with reinvention and experimentation that he’s never made the sort of go-for-broke, career-defining work you’d expect from such an ambitious filmmaker. He’s a director who never makes anything terrible – he could shoot a coffee table for two hours and make it interesting – but always seems to hold a little bit of himself in remove. He’s brilliant, but contained.
He’s still one of the most fascinating filmmakers on the planet, and every new movie is an instant must-watch. Even though we never really believed he was retired, we’re elated that he’s back. With the release of Friday’s Unsane, we took a look back at all 27 of his theatrical releases (sorry, Behind the Candelabra) and, of course, ranked them. But ranking Soderbergh movies is particularly difficult. Not only are they wildly different — they even vary in terms of Soderbergh’s intent. Some of them are big studio tentpoles; some of them are micro-budget doodles; some of them seem to alienate on purpose. But every single one of them is fascinating. We’d watch all of these again, even the bad ones.
27. The Good German (2006)
You want proof of Soderbergh’s commercial clout around the time of the Ocean’s sequels? He was able to get Warner Bros. to make this knowingly old-fashioned World War II drama, which didn’t just ape film noir and Casablanca, but also utilized some of the same tools of the era. (The film was shot in the period’s boxier aspect ratio, and incorporated boom mics and other 1940s-appropriate technology, including intentionally cheesy rear projection.) But the ideas behind the design of The Good German end up being a lot more satisfying than the story, which follows American journalist Jake Geismer (Clooney) as he enters postwar Berlin to cover a conference hosted by the victorious Allied leaders. But once Tobey Maguire’s scheming soldier Tully is murdered, Jake uncovers a plan that involves high-tech weapons and a stormy prostitute (Cate Blanchett) whose husband may or may not be dead. As former lovers still hung up on one another, Clooney and Blanchett exhibit some chemistry, but The Good German feels like it should be called Studio System War Drama: The Movie — everything about it is meant to reference back to an earlier, better film. As such, it’s a waxworks, failing to generate much passion beyond a mild intellectual engagement in Soderbergh’s subversion of the earlier cinematic period’s tamer attitudes toward sex, violence, and cursing. People complain the man’s work is chilly — but this film is practically embalmed.
26. Full Frontal (2002)
True to form, Soderbergh followed up the hottest stretch of his career (Out of Sight/The Limey/Erin Brockovich/Traffic/Ocean’s Eleven) with a self-sabotaging, almost purposeful misfire. A narrative-free screw-around that’s loosely about Hollywood but is really about Soderbergh pulling the rug out from under himself to make sure he doesn’t become One Of Them, Full Frontal is oftentimes unwatchable; Soderbergh is too busy doodling around to remember to entertain anyone other than himself. We will give points to Nicky Katt for being the funniest Hitler since Chaplin, though.
25. The Underneath (1995)
“It’s just totally sleepy … This thing is just dead-on-arrival … I can’t say that I would recommend it to anyone.” Never let it be said that Soderbergh is deluded about the quality of his misfires: Those quotes were all comments he made about The Underneath, his deeply meh exercise in modern film noir. Peter Gallagher plays a gambling addict who comes home, only to fall back in love with his ex-wife (Alison Elliott) who’s now involved with a dangerous club owner (William Fichtner). Based on the Burt Lancaster thriller Criss Cross, The Underneath is the training-wheels version of a modern Soderbergh picture: We get the dynamic use of color, the innovative jumble of chronology, and the impish tinkering with genre tenets. But the man’s harsh assessment of the finished product is accurate. The Underneath may be, as Soderbergh puts it, where he hit rock bottom, but it also inspired him to reinvent his aesthetic, which would soon lead to his most fecund period.
24. Kafka (1991)
Soderbergh’s follow-up to Sex, Lies, and Videotape is, in retrospect, predictably challenging and difficult and doomed from the get-go, probably on purpose. Forever quixotic, Soderbergh decided to do a movie about Franz Kafka that turns Kafka himself (a miscast Jeremy Irons) into a character in a story that seems like it would be written by Kafka but more feels like it’s written by someone trying to be self-consciously “Kafka-esque.” The result is a frustrating art project that’s intentionally off-putting. All that said: The movie is not without its charms — it looks great, it has Soderbergh’s famously cracked sense of humor and it is never, ever dull — and it certainly has value for the Soderbergh completist, particularly for those fascinated by his early, enfant terrible period. Good luck finding it, though: The film was never released on DVD in the United States and the rights themselves have reverted back to Soderbergh, who vows he’ll someday recut and re-release it. For now, though: The best you can do are old grainy YouTube videos.
23. Side Effects (2013)
Even at the time, no one really bought Soderbergh’s insistence that he would retire from filmmaking after Side Effects. Nevertheless, this twisty thriller certainly suggested a director who needed to recharge his batteries. There’s no questioning his confidence behind the camera as he tells the story (we think) of a dangerously depressed Manhattan wife (Rooney Mara) — a setup that soon gets thrown out the window after a violent act recalibrates what genre of film we’re watching. Side Effects brazenly pushes plausibility to its breaking point, making room for lesbian subplots and characters who are so diabolically ruthless that they barely seem human. A game ensemble, including Channing Tatum, Jude Law, and Catherine Zeta-Jones, is clearly up for anything Soderbergh dishes out. But ultimately, Side Effects feels a bit too mechanical, a bit too amused with its own intrigue, to feel like the proper sendoff. Thank goodness it wasn’t.
22. Solaris (2002)
To those who accuse Soderbergh of just being a cold-hearted technician, his remake of Solaris stands as a strong rebuke. Outwardly glassy but mournful on the inside, the film is a fairly overt expression of grief — one that’s even more acute coming out just a year after 9/11. Based on the Stanislaw Lem novel that also inspired Andrei Tarkovsky’s towering 1972 film, this new Solaris starred George Clooney as Chris Kelvin, a psychiatrist who travels to a remote space station orbiting the planet Solaris. Once he arrives, however, he’s greeted by Rheya (Natascha McElhone), his dead wife who suddenly seems very much alive. Those familiar with the source material or Tarkovsky’s film know where Soderbergh’s reinterpretation is going. Still, the director’s focus on Kelvin’s emotional struggle — how can he let go of a woman who killed herself when she literally won’t leave him alone? — gives the film a haunting elegance. A commercial dud that’s ripe for reappraisal — Moonlight filmmaker Barry Jenkins is a big fan — Solaris remains an interesting digression in the Soderbergh oeuvre that’s worth a second look, even if it’s trapped in the shadow of Tarkovsky’s grander, greater film.
21. Bubble (2006)
Another of Soderbergh’s experiments you admire and respect more than you actually enjoy watching, Bubble drew most of its headlines for its insane-for-2006 release strategy, opening in theaters and on DVD and on-demand simultaneously. A decade away from that, it’s a moderately interesting exercise — that word again — that gives Soderbergh a chance to cobble together a story about the working class and the rage that lurks beneath, using non-professional actors and mostly improvised dialogue. There are some standout moments, and Soderbergh, curiously, shoots the movie in as straightforward and linear a fashion as he’s ever shot anything. But for all the “authenticity” the non-actor cast brings, they (and the dialogue) are so stilted that it can’t help but leave you on the outside looking in. Still, Soderbergh’s inherent empathy with his characters, and this setting, sticks with you, even if this still ranks as yet another Soderbergh doodle.
20. Schizopolis (1996)
Soderbergh’s big reset — the whacked-out, crazy-ass indie that he made so weird and self-referential that it seemed to make sense only to him — Schizopolis is still pleasantly incomprehensible today, the gonzo button Soderbergh needed to push to get himself back on track after his struggles following the Sex, Lies, and Videotape breakthrough. Soderbergh himself plays a man named Fletcher Munson, while his then-wife Betsy Brantley plays his wife. They appear to be going through a protracted breakup on screen through empty, flat dialogue and relentless monotony. The film is so strange that it’s sort of irresistible, if impenetrable. If Soderbergh needed to make it to get on with his life, good for him, and good for us. Plus: If Soderbergh ever decides to retire again, he definitely has a career in Funny Mirror Faces.
19. Gray’s Anatomy (1996)
The final Spalding Gray monologue film is the most visually interesting of any of them — Soderbergh seems to have a mindmeld with Gray, and Soderbergh would later work on another documentary about him after he died — but, unfortunately, it’s perhaps the least interesting of all of Gray’s works. It’s still smart and funny and sad in the way that Gray was, but it feels more peripheral: An entertaining work, but a minor one. This was still Soderbergh in Schizopolis mode, trying out a bunch of strange things and seeing how they turn out. In a way, he brought his A-game more than Gray did.
18. Contagion (2011)
Traffic for the Outbreak crowd, Contagion is uniquely suited to Soderbergh’s sober, meticulous approach. A straightforward study of how a killer virus would eradicate the human race, the movie has little of the hysteria or cheesy emotional moments of other disaster films. Instead, Contagion is a fascinating examination of process — how health officials try to combat the disease and how civilization starts to implode once it becomes clear that all hope is lost. Goosed along by Cliff Martinez’s ghostly electronic score, Soderbergh taps into our collective inner hypochondriac, making every character’s sniffle or rubbed eye bristle with potential danger. What keeps the film from placing higher on our list, however, is that for all its queasy atmosphere, Contagion suffers when it tries to flesh out its characters. Jude Law’s truther journalist is a drip, and Matt Damon’s uber-decent family man doesn’t have enough dimension to be the emotional center of this globe-trotting ensemble thriller.
17. Unsane (2018)
Soderbergh’s second post-retirement film is, like Logan Lucky, a fun little exercise made by a guy who hasn’t just said goodbye to the studio system but also the demands of living up to anyone’s lofty expectations of him being a revered, world-class auteur. With its nods to Shock Corridor and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Unsane is a punkish thriller about a young woman named Sawyer (Claire Foy) held against her will in a mental institution, confronting the fact that her stalker (a wonderfully creepy Joshua Leonard) may or may not be one of the nurses. Soderbergh nods to the #MeToo movement — Sawyer just wants to be believed, but no one will listen to her — while underlining the claustrophobic dread by shooting on an iPhone 7 Plus, which gives the images a sickly distortion. The movie may be a bit cavalier in its expert execution and pulpy plot twists, but Unsane’s brazen disreputability ends up being a feature, not a bug. Like Sawyer, we’re never quite sure what’s coming at us next.
16. Ocean’s Twelve (2004)
Everyone’s least favorite Ocean’s movie is better than it’s given credit for, and it might just be the most Soderbergh-playful: The scene where Bruce Willis thinks the character Julia Roberts is playing is actually Julia Roberts is straight out of the Soderbergh meta playbook. (Not surprisingly, Soderbergh considers this his favorite Ocean’s film.) The plot’s a little too twisty, though, particularly with a final act turn that sort of makes the rest of the movie pointless. Still: These movies, all three of them, remain compulsively watchable.
15. Ocean’s Thirteen (2007)
Soderbergh squeezes out one last ounce of fun from the series in this finale, which drops Julia Roberts but adds a gloriously sleazy Al Pacino as a Steve Wynn-type who might actually be the best villain of the entire series. (Inevitably, Andy Garcia’s Terry Benedict is now on their side.) The movie is tighter, and a little less meta than the last film, to its credit, as if Soderbergh heard the criticisms and decided to just go pure popcorn. The Ellen Barkin/Rusty Ryan story still doesn’t work, but it’s a fitting, pleasant conclusion.
14. And Everything Is Going Fine (2010)
Soderbergh’s posthumous tribute to Spalding Gray, made six years after his death, is another Soderbergh experiment, a documentary that has no narration or interviews. Instead, Soderbergh just worked with existing footage — Gray’s footage — to try and cobble together the life story of one of his heroes. The whole thing works magnificently, allowing Gray to essentially be his own eulogist. In a way, it feels like more of a Spalding Gray movie than the Spalding Gray movie Soderbergh actually made.
13. Haywire (2011)
A movie about a seemingly unstoppable government operative, Haywire was actually born out of defeat. Soderbergh had just parted ways with Sony over its adaptation of Moneyball, and in the midst of his funk, the dejected director happened to catch MMA fighter Gina Carano on TV. “She had just lost her last [most recent] fight,” he later explained, “so it seemed like a good time for the two of us to get into a room, me having been fired and her having been beaten.” Out of that came a delightfully intense, stripped-down action-thriller in which Carano’s Mallory Kane gets double-crossed in Dublin, barely makes it out alive, and then spends the rest of the movie finding out who betrayed her. Haywire is quintessential Soderbergh during his “Wouldn’t it be fun if I tried this?” period, picking a non-professional as his lead — Carano did her own stunts — and bringing his considered, brainy tone to the action genre. The result is a movie that goes off like a firecracker and has as little lasting impact. But, c’mon, the plot and emotional oomph don’t much matter: It’s the sheer thrill of expertly choreographed up-close-and-personal fight scenes that goose the viewer along from sequence to sequence.
12. King of the Hill (1993)
At the time, this Depression-era coming-of-age tale, based on A. E. Hotchner’s memoir, was greeted with acclaim — but, also, a huge sigh of relief. After the promise of Sex, Lies, and Videotape — and the subsequent debacle of Kafka — Soderbergh fans were just grateful that their faith hadn’t been misplaced and that he wasn’t a one-hit wonder. Fairly conventional by his standards, King of the Hill is nonetheless a very affecting look at a young St. Louis boy (newcomer Jesse Bradford) who’s on his own after his mother is sent to the hospital for tuberculosis, his brother is shipped off to live with his aunt, and his father takes a job as a traveling salesman. Soderbergh and cinematographer Elliot Davis give this period drama a nostalgic glow, but that’s a bit of a feint: King of the Hill may look warm and wistful, but its story is actually rather unsentimental about the ways that the adult world can look positively frightening to kids — especially when it’s thrust upon them way too early in their lives. The movie was also a launching pad for Adrien Brody as our hero’s older buddy, and the cast includes future stars like Amber Benson, Katherine Heigl, and Lauryn Hill. King of the Hill was the first and only time Soderbergh would base a narrative around a child’s perspective — but it’s far too intelligent and nuanced to be thought of as just a kid’s movie.
11. Logan Lucky (2017)
Soderbergh’s first film since his “retirement” feels like an old ballplayer stepping into the batting cage just to take a few practice swings, then proceeding to knock every pitch out of the park. A newscast in this film refers to Logan Lucky’s heist as “Ocean’s 7-11,” and while you smile at the meta joke, the film earns the comparison. Soderbergh has fun with his West Virginia redneck characters, but the joke is never on them: They’re all smarter and more on top of everything than anyone — including, at times, the audience — might give them credit for. Soderbergh has said he no longer wants to make “prestige” pictures, and instead just wants as many people to see and enjoy his movies as possible. If that’s the next step in his career, he is off to a fantastic start.
10. Che (2008)
The movie that drove Soderbergh crazy — he still talks today about how much the film burned him out — turned out to be worth all the trouble. Shown often in two parts, but shown gloriously as a piece in festival screenings, Che features Benicio Del Toro’s most lived in, deeply felt, gimmick-free performance as the rebel who is neither lionized nor demonized by Soderbergh. The first half is maybe a little stronger than the second, but the whole thing holds up well. Soderbergh, for his own mental health, may never make another movie like it, but this is Soderbergh working on a vaster canvas with equal mastery.
9. The Limey (1999)
Soderbergh is in pure gritty crime mode with this almost-too-hip-for-any-room thriller about an English father (Terence Stamp) coming to America to track down the people who murdered his daughter. Soderbergh raises the level of difficulty here by having flashback sequences feature a young Stamp from the 1967 film Poor Cow, but the real star is 1999 Stamp, who is all snarl and righteous menace as the former hitman bent on revenge. The movie is more style than substance, but heavens, what style.
8. Magic Mike (2012)
In a career of left turns, Soderbergh’s interest in telling a fictionalized version of Channing Tatum’s pre-Hollywood life as a male stripper stands among his oddest digressions. And yet, Magic Mike is pure pleasure — albeit pleasure flecked with melancholy recognition that its aging main character can’t keep doing this forever. Tatum is Mike, the top draw at the Xquisite, a strip club run by the grandiose Dallas (Matthew McConaughey). Mike likes the attention he gets from the ladies — and he especially likes the money — but he dreams of walking away from the business and doing something respectable, like selling custom-made furniture. Magic Mike has the intoxicating rush of a Scorsese film as Mike and his cohorts live it up as the kings of Tampa but — like in a Scorsese film — eventually drugs, egos and money ruin everything. Soderbergh is amused by this quirky little subculture, but there’s also a lot of compassion for Mike, a hunky Peter Pan on the cusp of growing up. McConaughey has never been better, while Tatum demonstrated that he had the sex appeal, depth, and understated comic timing to be more than just the Step Up heartthrob. As an added bonus, Magic Mike ended up being one of Soderbergh’s biggest hits — maybe not as slick as the Ocean’s movies, but certainly more touching.
7. The Girlfriend Experience (2009)
A film shot during the build-up to the 2008 presidential election — not to mention the global financial meltdown — Soderbergh’s character study received a lot of attention initially because of its supposedly gimmicky casting of adult film star Sasha Grey as a high-class Manhattan escort. Seen now, though, The Girlfriend Experience is a perfect encapsulation of what life felt like as the fate of the world’s economy hung in the balance. The movie is all about transactions — mostly between Grey’s chilly Christine and her rich clients — and both the audience and the characters are keenly aware of how money impacts every decision, whether it’s in a romantic relationship or regarding career choices. Grey may be a limited dramatic actress, but she ably conveys a character who has learned to turn herself into an emptied-out plaything for her customers — it’s an apt metaphor for a culture in which everyone is either a buyer or a seller.
6. Erin Brockovich (2000)
The most rousing, most conventional crowd-pleaser Soderbergh will ever make. But it’s striking how much this still feels like a Soderbergh film. It has his smart, confident touch, it’s rousing without lapsing into sentimentality and, showing off perhaps Soderbergh’s most underrated trait, it points a camera at a movie star and lets them movie star their ass off. You’ve seen this sort of movie a thousand times, but Soderbergh makes it all seem new. And when it doubt, he just puts Julia Roberts and Albert Finney in a room and let’s them take over. For such an independently minded director, Soderbergh is sometimes at his best when he is in pure Hollywood mode.
5. The Informant! (2009)
For as much as Soderbergh has been credited with helping to elevate George Clooney’s film career — creating the right platform for his suave, slightly smirking silver-screen persona — not enough has been said about the rapport he’s had with Clooney’s Ocean’s costar. Matt Damon has done some of his funniest, most exciting work in Soderbergh’s films — let’s take a moment to recall how great he is as the kept man in Behind the Candelabra — but the apex of their partnership has to be The Informant! Lots of Soderbergh films involve cons, but the most intricate happens here: The true-life story of Central Illinois executive Mark Whitacre (Damon) is nothing less than the tale of a man whose entire life is an artful lie he’s constructing for the world — and for you, the audience. Brilliantly playing with the concept of the unreliable narrator, The Informant! could be Soderbergh’s The King of Comedy, as Mark’s friendly voiceover slowly starts to reveal the depth of the man’s mental deterioration — it’s an entire movie dedicated to probing the agony behind a liar’s peppy smile. Between its faux-cheery Marvin Hamlisch score and Soderbergh’s seemingly counterintuitive use of stand-up comics in serious supporting roles, The Informant! constantly flaunts its phoniness, which ends up being a perfect way to critique the story’s theme of the lengths ordinary people will go to construct new, better versions of themselves.
4. Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989)
It’s no insult to say that, in the years since Sex, Lies, and Videotape first hit theaters, Soderbergh has rarely topped it — even as his style has evolved and his technique only grown more dazzling and inventive. In truth, his debut is the very model of the Stunning First Feature, a groundbreaking planting of the flag that instantly cements a filmmaker’s name. The story behind Sex, Lies’ creation is now legend: A then-twentysomething unknown, Soderbergh wrote the script in eight days, inspired by the ugly end of a relationship. “I cut myself in quarters,” he would later say, meaning that the film’s four principal characters contained different parts of him. As such, Sex, Lies is an exquisite study of a married couple (Peter Gallagher and Andie MacDowell) whose sex life is on the blink. He’s having an affair with his wife’s sister (Laura San Giacomo) when his old college chum (James Spader) comes to town, advocating a belief that talking about sex is actually more satisfying than the physical act. Famously winning the Palme d’Or at Cannes over Spike Lee’s equally skilled Do the Right Thing, Soderbergh’s film now plays as a warning for a narcissistic society that soon would become more fascinated in documenting itself than in experiencing real life. In retrospect, Sex, Lies is one of the most straightforward things he’s ever done — and still one of the most insightful about people’s need to deceive and be deceived.
3. Ocean’s Eleven (2001)
Before he began production on his remake of the forgotten, Rat Pack-infused tale of some swingin’ Vegas crooks, Soderbergh referred to the project as “a wind-up toy.” There’s no more fitting description of this ace piece of star-powered studio moviemaking. No one had any right to expect much of this new Ocean’s Eleven, which on paper looked like a smug cavalcade of Hollywood royalty slumming their way through an ultra-stylish crime caper. And yet, the film stands as Soderbergh’s peak as a super-confident, give-‘em-a-show director. The man doesn’t entirely put away his auteurist idiosyncrasies, but here he allows his formidable skill with suspense, misdirection, and clockwork storytelling to take the lead. You don’t need a plot recap — the damn movie’s probably on cable right now — but let’s take a moment to remember how impossibly fun the whole enterprise was. Clooney finally wearing the Cary Grant comparisons as comfortably as he fills out that tux. Brad Pitt tapping into the goofball antics of his early career to play a cool guy who’s also a bit of a lovable dope. Matt Damon happily serving the Ringo Starr/younger brother role alongside his older costars. Andy Garcia at last getting the elegant villain role he’s always deserved. Revered icons Carl Reiner and Elliott Gould having an absolute ball. As for newcomer Julia Roberts, she shows a lot of promise — mark our words, she’s got “star” written all over her.
2. Traffic (2000)
Screenwriter Stephen Gaghan, a former addict, wanted to tell a story about the War on Drugs, but he was stuck after months of research and interviews. Then, he met Soderbergh, who was also interested in making something about the War on Drugs, suggesting the writer take a look at a British series called Traffik. From there came Traffic, which demonstrated the director’s talent for multi-pronged narratives that are both thrilling and thematically rich. This award-winning drama doesn’t pretend to have any answers, but it’s an exceedingly sober and intelligent look into how this unwinnable, maddening conflict ensnares so many lives and cuts across class and cultural barriers. Benicio Del Toro took home the Oscar for his role as a smart, savvy Mexican cop, but the film is the high-water mark for several of its actors, including Don Cheadle as a blasé DEA agent, Catherine Zeta-Jones as a kingpin’s wife suddenly thrust into a power position, and Michael Douglas as a judge who quickly learns how little he knows about America’s drug problem. The opposite of a message movie, Traffic is shot through with Soderbergh’s trademark detachment, which makes its chronicling of wasted lives and the endless hamster wheel of inefficient law enforcement all the more despairing.
1. Out of Sight (1999)
The film that announced Soderbergh as a top-shelf director of off-kilter-but-still-mainstream talent, and, notably, the first film that unlocked the cinematic charm of George Clooney (remember The Peacemaker?), Out of Sight manages to feel like a ‘70s crime flick, a hip citizen of Tarantino-land and a classic ‘50s dames-and-fellas fedora thriller all at once. Soderbergh minces and matches genre here, but does it effortlessly — so effortlessly you’ll never notice. And the hotel room scene remains a standard for movie sensuality still today. He’d swing bigger both before and after this movie, but this remains the one he got exactly right.