Thursday, August 19, 2010

the Directors: Steven Soderbergh

Welcome to the wonderful world of Steven Soderbergh. The man has had one of the most varied careers in recent cinema. He began with a startling debut, then faded away for a decade behind little-seen oddities. Once he hit his stride in Hollywood via Ocean’s Eleven, he partly turned his back on Tinseltown, making many flicks for next to nothing, starring people we've never heard of.

Soderbergh is one of the rare filmmakers who can do just as much with $100 million as he can with $200,000. Because he directs, shoots, edits and camera operates the majority of his films, Soderbergh can selflessly be dubbed a true auteur. And with 12 flicks (and one TV show) under his belt in the 2000s alone, the dude is damn prolific, too. Basically, when I’m asked who my favorite current filmmaker is, Soderbergh is always one of the first names out of my mouth.

(Note: Soderbergh’s second film Kafka, made in 1991, is seemingly nonexistent. I’ve tried various outlets – Netflix, Amazon, used film stores – to no avail. Likewise his 1996 documentary, Gray’s Anatomy.)

sex, lies and videotape (1989)

An incredible debut film with the stamp of a true visionary. The audience immediately falls into Soderbergh’s unique world with the help of a bizarre story, and an intriguingly mysterious lead character. As the quick-witted banter flies off the screen, we slowly become all-consumed in Soderbergh’s psychological study on sexuality, lack of truth, and yes, videotapes. A

Interesting Fact: What do the titles 46:02Retinal Retention, Charged Coupling DeviceMode: Visual and Hidden Agendas all have in common? They were other possibilities for the title of this film.

King of the Hill (1993)
A moderately amusing tale of a young teen struggling to make it in the Depression-era Midwest. While the film looks good, the story and catchy gimmicks quickly grow old. There’s a reason you’ve probably never seen this movie. Not awful, but not among Soderbergh’s best. C+

Interesting Fact: Spalding Gray, the interest of Soderbergh’s little-seen documentary Gray’s Anatomy, has a brief cameo in this film.

The Underneath (1995)
A mediocre, yet highly stylized, crime caper. While the acting is good on all parts, namely William Fichtner as a psycho baddie, the story is weak and predictable. (Hint: if the first scene of a movie features an armored car, you can safely assume that it will be robbed by the film’s end.) B

Interesting Fact: Take notice of the use of different tint colors and canting camera angles, devices Soderbergh would soon perfect.

Shizopolis (1996)
When a movie opens with the director staring into the camera telling his audience that the film they are about to watch is the most important film of all time, you shouldn’t take it too seriously. At least that’s Soderbergh’s thought. This on-the-fly, cinema vérité experiment is great if viewed as a film with little-to-no meaning. Its satirical theme is amusing, but its gimmick runs dry pretty fast. B-

Interesting Fact: The movie was written, produced, directed, shot, and scored by Soderbergh himself. It cost $250,000 to make, and grossed just $10,580.

Out of Sight (1998)
Easily the most important film of Soderbergh’s career, as it put him on the mainstream map. George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez practically light the screen on fire, their chemistry is that hot.  It doesn’t get any better than Clooney and Lopez, thief and cop, stuck in the trunk of a car, talking the night away. Also, notice how the different narratives are fused together through seamless editing, a technique that would soon become Soderbergh’s trademark. A

Interesting Fact: Soderbergh shot the trunk scene 45 times, each time in one long take. In editing, he realized he didn’t like any of them, so they reshot it with multiple setups.

The Limey (1999)
An underrated, ferocious little gem of a film. Soderbergh takes his loopy editing device from Out of Sight and explodes it. The film, about an old British hood seeking revenge on his murdered daughter, plays out like a brutal jigsaw puzzle. Terence Stamp in the title role, and Peter Fonda as a Hollywood goon, are perfectly cast. A great, hidden film. Check it out. A-

Interesting Fact: The DVD commentary for this film, with Soderbergh and writer Lem Dobbs, is almost as well known as the movie itself. Much of the track plays out like the film, with weird sound effects and repetition. And, most notably, the constant arguing between the two subjects on how the film was produced.

Erin Brockovich (2000)
I’ve always thought that Julia Roberts got way more credit in this movie than she deserved. The film’s technique, as usual, is the star, with extended cross dissolves and over-exposed photography. Albert Finney is great, but Julia just doesn’t do it for me. B-

Interesting Fact: Roberts received an unprecedented salary for her role, making her the first woman to make $20 million for a movie.

Traffic (2000)
In January, I chose Traffic as the best film of the 2000s, a decision I proudly stand by. I have not one negative thing to say about this film, which is a flawlessly detailed examination of drugs in America. Not only Soderbergh’s finest achievement as a director, but as a cinematographer as well. Casting each story in a different colored hue was sheer genius. The final scene of this movie is one of the best captured moments in all of film. A perfect cinematic experience. A+

Interesting Fact: The first names of the four men who won Oscars for this film are Steven, Stephen, Stephen and Benicio.

Ocean’s Eleven (2001)
A dazzling throwback to the Rat Pack glory days of Hollywood. In a bit of perfect casting, George Clooney excels as the suave Danny Ocean. Equally good are his thieving counterparts Brad Pitt, Matt Damon and Elliot Gould. Honestly, have you ever talked to someone who flat-out hates this movie? It’s one of the most genuinely entertaining movies of the 2000s. A

Interesting Fact: If you’ve ever been tempted to watch a DVD with the commentary on, do it here with the Damon and Pitt track. It’s one of the funniest I’ve ever heard.

Full Frontal (2002)

Soderbergh’s first foray into indie mystery after achieving A-list status. Like his later tiny-budget films, you either like Full Frontal or you don’t. I’m not going to argue that it can be too Hollywood insider-y for the average viewer, but I didn’t see it as a complete failure. As an exercise in stripping movie powerhouses of their vanity, it definitely succeeds. But is the flimsy story enough to carry an entire film? You be the judge. B

Interesting Fact: Soderbergh attached a list of strict rules to the screenplay of this low budget film. The list included the fact that there would be no sets, no drivers, no hair and makeup, no trailers, no craft service, and a promise that the persons involved would have a great time.

Solaris (2002)

Hands down the most underrated film of Soderbergh’s career. Despite being produced by James Cameron, the film was released to dismal box office returns and harsh reviews. I’ve always thought Solaris was a patient, brilliantly realized story with convincing acting and a powerful conclusion. But not many would agree with me. A

Interesting FactSolaris was originally given an R rating due to two shots of George Clooney’s naked bottom. But in a landmark appeal, Soderbergh argued his case before the MPAA, citing that similar content (and worse) had appeared on network television. The movie was soon given a PG-13 rating.

K Street (2003)

This short-lived HBO series (it only lasted one season) was a ballsy, fly-on-the-wall approach to the inside working’s of the D.C. government infrastructure. Fusing together real people with fictional characters, Soderbergh, along with co-creator George Clooney, delivered an improvised, captivating work of modern television. Sure it only appealed to a select sect of people, but I have I feeling it would’ve grown into a superb show if given more time. A-

Interesting Fact: Soderbergh knew that in order to be current, he would have to discuss the most recent political news. For 10 weeks, he would film Monday-Wednesday, edit Thursday, complete sound editing and final touches on Friday, send to the studio on Saturday, and the show would air on Sunday.

Eros: "Equilibrium" segment (2004)
Soderbergh is one-third of this colossal disaster. With names like Wai Kar Wong and Michelangelo Antonioni, you’d expect something worthwhile. Such is not the case. The three short films of Eros each present their take on love and sex. The only remotely interesting one is Wong’s. Sadly, much like King of the Hill, there’s a reason you probably haven’t heard of this movie. D

Interesting Fact: I got nothing.

Ocean’s Twelve (2004)
Probably the most hated of Soderbergh’s better-known films. But, like Solaris, I think this sequel is great, and dare I say, possibly as good as the first Ocean's. Ditching his controlled filming style used in Ocean’s Eleven and opting for a more insider’s perspective (à la K Street), Ocean’s Twelve makes better use of its characters, but admittedly slacks on its story. The scene where the Ocean’s crew discuss their new plan in a cramped hotel room is one of the best of Soderbergh’s career; a great, improvised work of art. A-

Interesting Fact: Clint Eastwood was rumored to make a cameo as Linus’s (Matt Damon) father, but had to drop out. Peter Fonda shot a scene as Linus’s father, but it was cut. Linus’s father was eventually played by Bob Einstein in Ocean’s Thirteen. Einstein is best-known for playing Marty Funkhouser on Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Bubble (2006)
For this little wonder, about a murder that shakes up the lives of a few doll-factory workers, Soderbergh traveled to a barren Midwest town, cast all nonprofessional actors, used their houses as sets, improvised all their dialogue, shot only for a few days, and then released it simultaneously in theaters, on DVD and On Demand. The result is a revelatory 73 minutes of independent film. Roger Ebert called this the second-best movie of 2006 for a reason. A-

Interesting Fact: Honestly, the whole damn setup is interesting. Just rent it.

The Good German (2006)
You’d think that if anyone could nail a Berlin-set, post-WWII romance, it’d be Steven Soderbergh. Especially if his cast has names like Clooney and Blanchett. But sadly, this Casablanca-esque, lovers-in-peril film never fully delivers. Blanchett is perfectly cast as a femme fatale, as is Tobey Maguire as a psycho soldier  And although The Good German is nearly technically flawless, the story is unbearably weak. You need more than luscious cinematography to keep a flick afloat. B-

Interesting Fact: Soderbergh only used film equipment that was available during the ‘40s. Essentially, the film is shot as if it had been made in 1945.

Ocean’s Thirteen (2007)
The third and final Ocean’s flick plays out like a revenge film after one of the crew members is injured by a new Vegas pusher, played by Al Pacino. I suppose I enjoy these films because it seems like everyone involved enjoys them so damn much. Still, Thirteen is so clearly the weakest effort of the trio.  B

Interesting Fact: During the final scene in the airport, Pitt tells Clooney to “try and keep the weight off between jobs next time,” a reference to Clooney’s weight gain for his role in Syriana. Clooney retorts by telling Pitt he should “settle down and have a couple of kids,” which Pitt has, and then some, with partner Angelina Jolie.

Che (2008)
Broken into two segments, Soderbergh’s epic chronicling of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara is best viewed in one very long sitting (258 minutes to be exact). Not all of it is great: Soderbergh takes his time establishing the tiniest details with painstakingly long wide shots, expansive dialogue and seemingly endless subplots. For me, the reasons to appreciate it outweighs the reasons to bash it. Benicio Del Toro gives his best performance since Traffic as the dynamic Che. You believe his every gesture. The extended battle in the deserted town that concludes the first section of the film is the highlight of this expressive passion project. A-

Interesting Fact: Del Toro was Soderbergh’s first and only choice to play Che. But in the event of an emergency, Soderbergh’s Che back-up was none other than Val Kilmer.

The Girlfriend Experience (2009)
Only Steven Soderbergh would cast a real life porn star in a film about a high class escort, and not have a single sex scene. Which sums up this tiny indie pretty well: it’s all about the tease. Porn star Sasha Grey, beyond all reasonable doubt, turns out solid work as the confused Chelsea. Grey seems to adapt to Soderbergh’s come-what-may method rather well. Fans of the auteur in question will be delighted by this film’s loopy narrative, which is, of course, a return to form. A-

Interesting Fact: Much like Bubble, this film was shot in a matter of weeks with mostly unknowns and, while cheap, didn’t nearly make back its money.

The Informant! (2009)
Matt Damon gives one of the best, and by far most zany, performances of his career as real-life whistle blower Mark Whitacre. Initially portrayed as a complete nincompoop, Damon slowly gives Whitacre sincere depth, diving further down into his emotional despair. I was genuinely surprised that this film didn’t garner serious awards attention. From Damon’s revelatory performance to Soderbergh’s corn-colored cinematography, it’s a real delight.  A-

Interesting Fact: According to Damon, Soderbergh used “perfect direction” when he told Damon to issue Whitacre’s final apology to the judge as if he were accepting an Academy Award.


  1. Soderbergh has made a lot of good movies and a lot of fun movies. I don't think I realized that until seeing them all lined up like this. Dang.

    Love The Limey. It may be my favorite movie that no one has ever heard of. :)

    Also agree on Ocean's Twelve. The Julia as Tess as Julia sequence in the middle can drag (at this point, I FF through it), but I think the rest is gold. And two moments of Albert Finney never hurt anything.

    1. The Limey fuckin' rocks. Such a shame that one never found an audience. And Ocean's Twelve, I just adore it.

  2. Superb director- but original Solaris or his? Ik you don't like sci-fi, but if ya had to choose...

    1. I go with Soderbergh. Not a popular opinion (I do love Tarkovsky), but I can't deny that remake.