Steven Soderbergh’s directing career started with “Sex, Lies and Videotape,” a massive breakout that not only launched his career — it changed the industry of independent filmmaking in America. While struggling to find his footing after becoming a household name at age 26, Soderbergh never let himself become frozen by his early success or some preconceived notion of what his career would be. Instead, he dogmatically followed any story that piqued his interest, regardless if it was building the slick “Ocean’s Eleven” franchise or an experimental film he shot in his hometown with friends (“Schizopolis”).
He has been careful to build a career that was commercially viable so as to maximize his ability to be constantly creating and experimenting with films that were sometimes aggressively uncommercial. Along the way, he has fought to be as efficient a filmmaker as possible – constantly trying different approaches and new technology to make and distribute his films – while skirting Hollywood excess.
28. “Full Frontal” (2002)
The only film on this list that doesn’t reward revisiting is this 2002 experiment. Following a quick succession of box office and Oscar hits, the director got $2 million from the Weinsteins to play with the new, inexpensive DV cameras and make something completely different. In a story that feels like it was being made up as it was being shot, the director got his Hollywood friends – led by Julia Roberts, coming off her “Erin Brockovich” Academy Award – to partake in an experiment that blurred the lines between fictional and real-life Hollywood. The results were surprisingly ugly, described by Roger Ebert as “amateurish” — and, unlike Soderbergh’s other films, it’s hard to locate the kernel of an idea that spurred him to make this thing in the first place. — CO
27. “The Underneath” (1995)
After getting bumped off “Quiz Show,” Soderbergh quickly jumped aboard this remake of Robert Siodmak’s classic “Criss Cross.” The filmmaker turns in a decent neo-noir effort with the story of a man (Peter Gallagher) who returns to his hometown and painful memories he would like to forget, but gets sucked into a dangerous plot devised by his ex (Alison Elliot) to free her from her dangerous boyfriend (William Fichtner). The elaborate flashback structure of the original source material allowed Soderbergh to play with some of the unorthodox editing and narrative structuring he’d later perfect with “The Limey” and “Out of Sight,” but ultimately he’s unable to pull the various threads together in “The Underneath.” The film marked a low point for Soderbergh, who knew while he was shooting that it had fatal flaws (it’s not as bad he makes it out to be) and felt he was falling into a rut, which you can feel in the films somewhat sleepy pacing and tone. — CO
26. “Kafka” (1991)
The idea of blending Kafka’s biography and fiction is was wonderfully inventive concept, but unfortunately one that Soderbergh couldn’t quite keep in balance as the young filmmaker at times loses control of the tone of the layered world he’s created. The film is not without its pleasures, including the application of the black-and-white gothic horror tropes in this story about a turn-of-the-century insurance salesman getting sucked into a bizarre and mysterious suicide. In a film that references old movies and genres as much as it does Kafka, it’s fun to see Soderbergh use this canvas to work out influences and ideas to which he would return throughout his career.
Soderbergh has often said that he knew where he went wrong with this film, and he’s been tinkering with a re-edit ever since the film’s rights returned to him. Earlier this summer, he revealed that he would share a new version at the end of 2017. – CO
25. “The Girlfriend Experience” (2009)
Soderbergh, always removing himself from the grip of his most recent project like a child wriggling out of his parent’s arms, pivoted from a two-part historical epic about Che Guevara to a micro-budget chamber drama about a high-end escort in Manhattan. A sexually chaste but economically explicit story set against the backdrop of the 2008 recession, “The Girlfriend Experience” leverages the business of prostitution into an unsubtle look at the role that money plays in American society, and how inextricable it is from our values and self-identity. Former porn star Sasha Grey, here making her first legitimate bid for mainstream success, is fantastically inert as the film’s savvy heroine, and the meta-textual dimension of her casting helps return every scene to its transactional underpinnings.
This is a sterile, forgettable little movie that has quickly come to function more as a time capsule than a salient bit of commentary, but there’s something valuable about the sobriety of its perspective. Beyond that, it’s worth noting that “The Girlfriend Experience” galvanized Soderbergh’s counterintuitive approach to the possibilities of digital filmmaking — as movies became unshackled from money, one of contemporary cinema’s most playful stylists began to favor locked-off shots, shallow depth-of-field, pallid lighting, and dead air. It’s cheaper that way. So many of Soderbergh’s stories teeter between art and commerce, but this is the first one that never allowed you to stop looking at the balance. —DE
The countdown continues on the next page.