Steven Soderbergh has spent more than two decades making all kinds of films. And yet, he comes up with something new that changes the norms. Not of cinema in general but the expectations of the viewers of his style. He has always strived to tell stories that are simple in themselves but cater to a collective vision the filmmaker has about cinema. His specificity stems from his belief that it is the job of a director to carve the path forward for a story wholeheartedly.
A lot of his features are low-budget indie movies that never look the part. Even when he has helmed big-budget films, Soderbergh has maintained an exclusiveness to his work that is his signature. One reviewer notes perfectly when he describes Soderbergh as being completely focused on “the process of presenting ideas through film rather than their actual realization. In line with this actual realization, he presents themes to critically evaluate political and corporate institutions such as money and capitalism.”
To honor the great auteur, we have decided to come up with a list of the 15 best movies of Steven Soderbergh. And to make matters interesting, it is ranked!
15. Let Them All Talk (2020)
How about a film that actually indicates its intentions correctly through its title? Let Them All Talk is one of those rare ones that does it. Soderbergh once again takes out all the technical wizardry out of filmmaking to go down to its most basic forms – sight and sound. And the result is perhaps a mixed one more than positive.
It is difficult not to appreciate the minimalism and true commitment to drama but also equally painful to sit through dialogue as if it is being thought of when spoken. That is how real life is, but maybe there are times in a person’s life when they want to escape from that mundane, ordinary feeling.
14. Unsane (2018)
Films like Unsane go on to show that even low-budget small-scale films can be successful. Apple’s flagship phones are good, but they are put to brilliant use by Soderbergh in this Claire Foy starrer. There are definitely B-movie vibes in the story, and it is channeled well without making it too obvious. Unsane’s tone is not spoiled by nonsensical plot innuendos or the trickery of the camera. The presentation is neat and straightforward, with more focus on refining the arrangement of the storytelling.
It is neither sedate nor too strong. The mystery does not wear off easily, but when it does, a survival cat-and-mouse game keeps you indulged. Soderbergh’s dexterous arsenal of ideas is on full display in how shapely the final product looks. There is nothing extraordinary about Unsane but the eye of its creator and his penchant for making a good film.
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13. Solaris (2002)
The director adapted the novel of the same name to make a sci-fi film that dared to have the heart of a brooding drama. Science is a small part of the significant story about human emotions like grief, pain, regret, and anxiousness in a changing world. Throughout his career, the impassioned ranctoeur had mastered the art of telling such intricate stories about human consciousness with admirable deft and panache.
Solaris tracks the journey of Kelvin, a celebrated psychologist, traveling to a planet to study its behavior. In the course of his journey, Kelvin encounters painful memories from the past and learns shocking truths about the planet that has deceptive “healing” powers to make you see what you want. The human conundrum is at Solaris’ core. For all that matters, it is Kelvin’s condition that is dearer to Soderbergh than the planet and its secrets. He even faced criticism from the writer of the book because of his decision to make these creative changes, despite planning to remain closer to the source than Tarkovsky did first. The climactic twist is an ingenious move that you never see coming. Even if it wasn’t featured on this list, you should watch it without excuses.
12. Contagion (2011)
When the COVID pandemic was at its peak, Contagion became one of the most watched and discussed films. The movie’s plot shares remarkable similarities to what actually happened during the pandemic. And hence it became a public favorite.
Every forum had widespread discussions about conspiracy theories on the film, and that is the time when I saw it too. In typical Steve Soderbergh style, we are given very little information about the film’s plot, and instead, we are thrown right into the action.
A disease that makes you cough and eventually dies if left untreated gradually spreads. Its proliferation is transient, but once the cause of all the strange deaths is discovered, the world must be brave enough to fight the invisible enemy. The most accurate thing about Contagion’s depiction of the pandemic is the blended feeling of confusion and terror that falls over the masses.
Institutions like the government fall silent, hopeless about what to do. There is chaos, intrinsic more than extrinsic, along the people who have no idea what they have to do. Without truly making it a psychological film, Soderbergh is able to bring out the paranoia that we see in the COVID pandemic as well that doesn’t let you sleep at night.
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11. Kafka (1991)
For those who have read Kafka’s work, watching Soderbergh’s visual interpretation is not too different. He preserves the sudden overwhelming and dizzying impression after you read a chapter.
Kafka is engrossing and deeply bureaucratic in how it unravels for the titular protagonist. The writer’s ability to recontextualize his own reality with nightmarish absurdism reflects in Soderbergh’s work as well. Jeremy Irons looks a million dollars and his astute physical features are suited by the garish use of black and white. It is not his most saturated performance but definitely with a shout to be counted as one of his best.
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10. Bubble (2005)
Soderbergh strips down all film essentials to make one with Bubble. Even though he had hits like Traffic and Erin Brockovich under his belt, this was still an experiment. The film is notable for its use of non-actors and for keeping things as akin to real life as possible. But more so.
Bubble represents the perfect opportunity to sink your teeth deep into the experience of living someone else’s life through them. The mercurial director sheds all his storytelling prowess to ground the film into just the mere existence of films to communicate.
9. Side Effects (2013)
Is there an antidote that Rooney Mara takes to reveal herself in front of the camera? Presently, is there an actress that can show vulnerability and still keep her cards close to her chest like Mara in the industry? The answer perhaps might be negative. That also describes the underlying conceit in Soderbergh’s Side Effects.
Narratively empowered, the story has many layers and shades that manage to keep you hooked. The tension is not palpable or cutting edge but gradually settles into the rhythm. That choice seems intentional on the director’s part, who is in full control throughout.
The practice of feigning interest and quietly disemboweling it is present in Side Effects in abundance. Ultimately, its most pressing issue is the subject matter and how it is showcased in the form of the plot. Its substance comes alive with hard-hitting realizations that definitely give some food for thought to industry veterans.
8. Logan Lucky (2017)
Steven Soderbergh’s pacy heist thriller is a treat for enthusiasts who enjoy an elaborate plan and watching it be executed with humorous pitfalls and obstacles. Because of the director’s penchant, be rest assured that everything will have an element of cleverness and melancholic dread. The film’s emotional quotient is strong as well and presents a compelling story of a dysfunctional family.
After his brief hiatus, Soderbergh comes with fresh ideas and a smartly managed narrative. Each of the three acts has its own uniqueness and flavour. One thing that Logan Lucky is not short on is the danger of things going wrong. It makes the experience a more urgent and engaged one, hardly losing your attention.
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7. Magic Mike (2012)
Well, this one might be mostly for the ladies, but like Hustlers, there is something for all in a story about strippers. Although Magic Mike is not exactly too sentimental about the various external factors driving such professions like the J-Lo starrer, Soderbergh includes shades of the same. The very unapparent thing that you almost pick up subconsciously while watching. But before that, Magic Mike is about entrainment and camaraderie among the strippers. It is like that behind-the-scenes documentary where you follow these performers around into their personal lives but with excitement and a drama of conflicts.
Matthew McCaugnahey and Channing Tatum’s iconic look has been immortalized as part of cinema’s history. What is even more endearing is that they have more to offer than their chiseled bodies. They bring their attentive instincts as actors to ground the characters in realism and keep the portrayal as authentic as possible.
6. Behind the Candelabra (2013)
Is there anything straightforward in a Steven Soderbergh film? It cannot be. That is why he is such a revered creator of films. There is always a new perspective on looking at previously explored subjects. Even with Behind the Candelabra, he bucks the trend and approaches this biopic with strong judgment and clarity of what he wants from the story. Liberace is an American legend and became a prodigy at a very early age. His arch was quite like Sir Elton John in some ways. But his alleged romance with Scott Thorson threw open a casket of secrets.
The true extent of his sexuality is still disputed, although Thorson maintained that Liberace was a homosexual. Be as it may, Soderbergh’s concerns here are more to do with how a star’s otherwise empty and vain life behind the stage and glamour was made normal with love. Matt Damon and Michael Douglas beautifully adapt to their characters and give a dazzling account of their acting abilities.
5. The Girlfriend Experience (2009)
This film is an uncompromisingly modern peek into the contemporary culture of side hustles and high-rise, darkly meddled stories of the rich. The hard truths about ambition and what it means to pursue them against all odds find a place in the exposition. It has emotional depth, but perhaps that does not involve you too much. Watching the film is a detached experience that hardly feels intimate, in spite of the nature of the acts being performed. That is Soderbergh’s real victory with The Girlfriend Experience.
A subversion of expectations gives birth to new ones that he and his technical team deliver. Sasha Grey gets to be unabashedly herself but also discovers that she can act as well. The visual inspirations for templates and moods find validation in the works of Antonioni and Bergmann. There is a clear effort not to imitate but imbibe the sense of atmosphere that the masters did in their craft.
4. Ocean’s Eleven (2004)
Ocean’s Eleven will forever remain one of the coolest heist films ever made. And perhaps that categorization can be generalized as well. Despite being entertaining, it is not stupid or vain. Even with its large ensemble, it never feels distracted. The editing work is so modern and chic that the pace never dies down, and the story constantly unfolds. George Clooney, Brad Pitt, and Matt Damon work as if they have known each other for years. Their camaraderie and that of the other “eleven” truly shine as the soul of Ocean’s Eleven.
Soderbergh’s mature handling is evident in the kind of themes explored. In his cascading style of progression, we see ailing adults who bare their existence in front of us. It is not just about the outcome of the heist and how it happens; we get a sense of urgency behind the scenes as well. As to how it happens, only devoted personnel like Soderbergh can be trusted to deliver without fail. The Ocean’s trilogy had that aspect consistently fulfilled, albeit now the one before it.
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3. Erin Brockovich (2000)
As a true-to-life legal drama, Erin Brockovich has immense potential. But as a meditative look at a single mother of three working jobs around the clock to keep her family going, Erin Brockovich triumphs. Soderbergh’s difficult task to balance his exposition of the two is made to look easy. He extracts a steady central performance from Julia Roberts, bringing a lot of her own personality to Brockovich. Despite the high level of stakes, Soderbergh’s treatment is not highly scrutinizing.
In the early days of the conspiracy being unearthed, there was a sense of disbelief about fiduciary corporate responsibility. People could not fathom the betrayal. But it soon became merely a foreshadowing of things to come. There is a relaxed attitude to how the story is brought to a conclusion.
2. Traffic (2000)
Soderbergh’s most political film is also riddled with narrative complexities that perhaps other entrants on the list are not. Traffic is an unmistakably original assimilation of how the drug trade actually works. There are no half-hearted efforts to bring the entire system to the fore. Every detail is marked with committed research and an innate unapologetic treatment. The cinematic universe benefits from that creative choice. It leads to ambiguity and uncertainty in morals and ethics and perhaps gives a realistic touch to the characters.
Benecio del Toro delivers a career-best performance, perfectly balancing his personality with that of his surroundings. He never quite lets you in, keeping an arm’s length but is still able to capture his character’s helplessness and bleak optimism. Traffic is an institution; it falls in the same category as films like Heat and Primal Fear, which offer a complete look at how the world works in different parts. It works with the viewer to finish the story, at times leaving it to our wits to complete the interpretation. A sordid masterclass in filmmaking.
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1. Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989)
Soderbergh’s maiden film set him apart as the special one when it won him the Palme d’Or in 1989. He was also the youngest to win the award. As far as indie films legend goes, Sex, Lies, and Videotape forever transformed the landscape for thought and imagination.
Questions of existential importance become a consequence of the events that happen in the plot. Soderbergh’s biggest victory through his vision is beckoning us to see ourselves as perceptions of Graham (James Spader), Anne, and Cynthia. All these flawed characters have an overawing effect on the viewer, who cannot resist the temptation to answer larger questions about love, self-esteem, and compassion with them.
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