24. “Gray’s Anatomy” (1996)
All four of the movies that Spalding Gray made from his monologues are ultimately about one person: Spalding Gray. And that only grew increasingly true as the iconoclast got older and more intimately acquainted with death; the broader his stories became, the more solipsistic he got (a trend that culminated in his suicide). But while Gray may have been the creative engine behind these films, that didn’t stop him from hiring a murder’s row of incredible directors to help animate his words. When Soderbergh agreed to shoot “Gray’s Anatomy” in 1996, he was following in the footsteps of giants like Jonathan Demme, Thomas Schlamme, and Nick Broomfield.
Compelled by the idea of shooting a film in just 10 days, and spurred by the challenge of visualizing a wild story about eye surgery and potential blindness, Soderbergh took a singularly aggressive approach to his subject. He isolated Gray from a live audience (which Demme would never have done) and engulfed the guy in a flurry of disorienting effects. Some of these elements add to the experience; others — like the footage of other people recounting their own ocular misadventures — actively detract from it. At best, Soderbergh’s stylizations lend shape to one of Gray’s most rambling monologues, but there’s little they can do to help us see a man who was struggling to see himself. —DE
23. “sex, lies, and videotape” (1989)
As influential a debut as “Citizen Kane” or “Breathless” (if nowhere near as sturdy), Soderbergh’s first feature not only won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, it also cemented Sundance as a cultural institution and helped codify the language of indie film itself — some movies create a new genre, “sex, lies, and videotape” established a new industry.
So why isn’t Soderbergh’s breakthrough remembered with the same reverence as Orson Welles’ or Jean-Luc Godard’s? Perhaps it’s because the film is too emotionally exposed to weather any sort of climate change, as raw nerve sincerity tends not to age with the same grace as operatic elusiveness or nihilistic cool. This is a chatty, class-conscious relationship drama about the challenges of intimacy and the dangers of distance, and its characters are overpowered by the sheer resourcefulness with which Soderbergh brings them to life. Andie MacDowell and Laura San Giacomo more than hold their own, but Peter Gallagher is already rehearsing for his “American Beauty” role as the Real Estate King, and his yuppie scumbag is a dull vessel for Soderbergh’s nascent interest in the relationship between wealth and happiness. “sex, lies, and videotape” is a necessary film, but it isn’t necessarily a great one. —DE
22. “Ocean’s Thirteen” (2007)
“Ocean’s Thirteen” feels like the movie that Soderbergh was trying not to make with “Ocean’s Twelve.” In other words, it’s exactly what you would expect from a mega-budget Hollywood sequel: It’s bigger (the gang creates a fake earthquake!), dumber (the gang creates a fake earthquake), and safer than the original in every respect. If anything, the film’s revenge plot is so unmotivated that you can almost see Soderbergh winking at you from behind the camera, as though the running joke behind this franchise of hangout movies is that audiences are amiably swindled into spending more time with these characters — there’s no need for a good excuse. That works with something like “The Trip to Spain,” where eating is the main event, but such a casual “let’s just do it and be legends” vibe doesn’t really jive with a trilogy of hyper-intricate heist stories. It doesn’t always need to add up in the end (as “Ocean’s Twelve” proved all too well), but viewers still have to enjoy doing the math.
Why is Danny still getting himself into trouble? If he and his crew can’t extricate themselves from the criminal life, then why doesn’t the script make room for their better halves in order to provide some pull from the outside world? Why does Brad Pitt have hair again, when the shaved head thing was working for him so well in the last film? These are questions that nobody seems to have asked themselves at the time. Still, it’s always fun to watch Soderbergh amuse himself with hilariously self-serving dashes of style (gotta love split-screen showing the same action on both sides). For a guy who’s always been so bad with boredom, this trilogy-capper must have been quite a challenge. —DE
21. “Bubble” (2005)
The first film to ever be simultaneously released in theaters and on VOD, “Bubble” is strikingly modest for something that anticipated the future of the movie business (and set it into motion), but an innovator like Soderbergh would probably rather be prescient than perfect. Billed on the poster as “Another Steven Soderbergh Experience,” the director playing up his brand while coyly emphasizing the film’s experimental nature, this unclassifiable nugget of an indie predicted a digital landscapes where cinema could be made by and about anyone.
Shot on high-definition video and entirely cast with non-professional actors who would never receive another credit (the impeccable lead actress was discovered working a KFC drive-thru window), “Bubble” leverages the social dynamics of an Ohio doll factory into a Nabokovian story of possession and jealousy. And murder, of course. Quietly enthralling but ultimately unformed, “Bubble” might be more valuable as a historical footnote than it is as a work of art, but the film earns a vivid sense of workaday authenticity, and its ominous flourishes — the disembodied doll head, in particular — are scarier than anything those “Annabelle” movies will ever throw in your face. —DE
20. “Schizopolis” (1996)
Not the best movie on this list, but undoubtedly the most important film in the trajectory of Soderbergh’s career. Unhappy with the direction of his career, the 31-year-old director intentionally detonated it by going back to his hometown of Baton Rouge to make this $250,000 experimental film, starring himself, with a small crew of close collaborators over the course of nine months. The exercise unleashed Soderbergh’s creativity, but resulted in a bizarre film no one seemed to understand when it was released. Soderbergh went back and added a hilarious opening that tells the audience it is their fault if they didn’t understand it. Trying to describe the film’s plot is an exercise in futility. “Schizopolis” is packed (overloaded, really) with ideas that don’t always congeal into a cohesive whole, as the film is both childishly silly while being a clear-eyed commentary on modern society. But the experiment has aged well, and feels less haphazard with each viewing. –CO
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