Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Ranking Steven Soderbergh

So according to Steven Soderbergh, after Side Effects, to be released this Friday, and his HBO biopic of Liberace, Behind the Candelabra, to be released later this year, he will retire. I don’t quite know if I believe that – Side Effects will be his fourth film released since my daughter was born – and she’ll be 18 months old a week after it opens. So here’s hoping it’s not a retirement but a break, because Soderbergh is one of the best genre filmmakers working right now. Not including his TV work (on one series, and one miniseries) or his two Spalding Gray docs, or various shorts (and one unreleased film), Soderbergh has made 23 films – and I’ve seen 22 of them (sorry 1995’s Underneath). I figured since Side Effects may just be his last theatrical film, it was time to go back and look and his work up until now. So below are the 22 Soderbergh films I have seen – from worst to best.

22. The Good German (2006)
I hate The Good German. The Joseph Kanon book on which the movie is based is brilliant – a novel about moral relativism, that calls into question the actions of everyone in the novel. Soderbergh treated the novel as an excuse to indulge his technical fantasies. And make no mistake about it – Soderbergh’s black and white photography is exquisite – and Thomas Newman’s score is one of the best in recent memory. But The Good German is supposed to be about weighty moral questions – questions the novel takes seriously, and Soderbergh casts aside because he’s more interested in making his film look good than he is considering what his changes to the story (which seem to be motivated solely on the basis of how much he make the film resemble Casablanca, even if it doesn’t fit) than about what it all actually means. The Good German was a rare miss for Soderbergh – but damn it if it didn’t miss it by a mile.

21. Ocean’s 12 (2004)
With Ocean’s 12, Soderbergh and company jumped the shark. Getting together a large cast of movie stars to pull off a casino heist worked the first time, so why not add even more movie stars and try to do it all over again. It may well have worked, except for one thing – there’s no actual plot to Ocean’s 12. The movie is solely about watching movie stars sit around, look pretty and exchange charming, witty banter for two hours. When they finally decide to throw in a heist (I assume because the screenplay was getting long, and they felt they had to squeeze one in), its stupid and silly. The original film worked because of the charm of the cast yes, but also because it was tightly plotted. This one wasn’t plotted at all.

20. Full Frontal (2002)
Soderbergh was one of the earliest adopters of digital technology, and if you watch Full Frontal today (and there’s little reason to), you will just how amazingly far the technology has come in 11 years. This is the ugliest film that Soderbergh has ever made, although perhaps that was the intent. I do not think however the intent was to have this seemingly improvised film feel so amateurish throughout. There are parts of the movie to admire – Nicky Katt as an actor playing Hitler in a new play is hilarious – and Mary McCormack (why she never really broke out, I’m not sure) as a masseuse are wonderful. And Brad Pitt’s cameo as Brad Pitt, horrible actor, is among the funniest things I can recall seeing in a Soderbergh film. But overall this film, with its film within a film, within a documentary structure, and the assortment of strange characters, played by talented actors making fools of themselves is just plain bad.

19. Eros (2004)
There is a reason to see Eros – a trio of short films made by three different directors about the subject of sex. And that reason is to see Wong Kar Wai’s brilliant segment The Hand, with a never sexier Gong Li (and that’s saying something) as a prostitute who has uses her sexual prowess to control a tailor. That segment is a small masterwork in a brilliant career. The reason NOT to see Eros would be to avoid Michelangelo Antonioni’s horrible segment – The Dangerous Thread of Things, where the old Italian master embarrasses himself. Somewhere in between those two segments is Soderbergh’s Equilibrium. It’s odd in that it stars Robert Downey Jr. and Alan Arkin, who unlike the principles in the other two segments, are not sleeping with each other. Instead, Downey does what Downey does best – verbally riff, as he tells Arkin, his shrink, about a sexual dream he cannot get out of his head, and Arkin stops listens when through a window, he sees someone he knows, and tries to mime that they meet up later (Downey, of course, cannot see this). As a sketch, it’s funny, and of course both Downey and Arkin are immensely talented, and they carry the segment. What the hell it’s doing sandwiched between the other two segments, I have no fricking idea. But what the film for Wong’s segment – it’s masterful – and stick around to be amused by Soderbergh’s. Than for God’s sake, turn the TV off. It’s better to remember Antonioni for Red Desert and L’Aventurra,  L’Eclisse and Blowup and The Passenger, and probably many of his other films that I have not seen, but I have a hard time imagining the could possibly be worse than what he made here (sadly, his last directorial credit).

18. Ocean’s 13 (2007)
While Ocean’s 13 is a definite step-up from Ocean’s 12 – which essentially had no plot – it does go the other way too much, by having way too much plot, all of it preposterous, and none of it as entertaining as when these people first got together and made Ocean’s 11. Once again, the same ragtag group of movie stars come together to plot an elaborate casino heist, and once again, it is fun to see this actors who are quite clearly having a blast (although it wears a little thin when you realize they had more fun making the movie than you are watching it). Al Pacino is a great addition as the bad guy this time around, and the movie is an entertaining way to waste two hours if you don’t want to think. But the bottom line is simple – they should have stopped at 11.

17. Kafka (1991)
Kafka suffers from the same thing that many sophomore films by filmmakers whose first film were huge hits do – over ambition. The film stars Jeremy Irons as the famed Czech writer, lost in a black and white cinemascape that is brilliantly well designed, as the writer goes searching for his missing friend. The film is partly inspired by Kafka and his work, but also inspired by a lot of film noir, and for the color climax – science fiction. It is a confusing film, and in no way an altogether successful one, as the elements of the plot don’t really seem to fit together in any meaningful way. And yet, the film is quite something to simply sit back and look at. As complex as his breakthrough, sex lies and videotape, was simple, Kafka doesn’t really work, but it’s interesting to watch.

16. Erin Brockovich (2000)
It’s hard to dislike Erin Brockovich – it is a quality, mainstream legal drama, with a fine, Oscar winning performance by Julia Roberts as the crusading, single mother who spearheads a lawsuit that ends up with a huge settlement. The movie gives Roberts the type of sassy, spunky dialogue that she delivers best, and also gives her an opportunity to cry at the victim’s pain – oh and shows off her breasts in pretty much every scene in the film. The film is never less than engaging and entertaining. Yet, it also feels somewhat hollow – a little too simplistic for such an inspiring true story. Roberts so dominates the film that no one else really registers. It’s a fine movie, but as one of only two Soderbergh films ever to received a Best Picture and Best Director nomination, it seems like an odd choice.

15. Schizopolis (1996)
I’m not going to try to explain Schizopolis, nor am I’m going to try and convince someone who hates it that they are wrong. This is the strangest film of Soderbergh’s career by far. The film starts out with Soderbergh, presumably playing himself (although he’ll play so many characters throughout the film, perhaps not) coming up to a lectern and announcing that Schizopolis is the most important film of our time, and if you don’t get it, that’s your fault. And it ends with Soderbergh getting back up and answering questions from the audience – questions that we do not hear, and Soderbergh’s answers do not let us in on what was asked. In between, Soderbergh will play Fletcher, a man whose wife is cheating on him with a dentist, the dentist himself, and another lover of his wife’s, who speaks Italian, French and Japanese, and whose dialogue is subtitled (and who, by the way, I don’t think can speak Italian, French or Japanese). Oh, and there’s a Scientology like religious movement/cult called Eventualism that Soderbergh is also the L. Ron Hubbard like creator of. The film is absurd in the extreme, and overall adds up to absolutely nothing. But the individual moments in the film are sometimes hilarious and brilliant. Soderbergh has often said making this film recharged his batteries after the bad experience he had making Underneath, and allowed him to regain his passion for filmmaking. So, good for him. And he’s also right about something else – if you don’t understand Schizopolis, it is your fault, because there is nothing here to understand. The film is exactly what it appears to be – whatever the hell that is.

14. King of the Hill (1993)
When you look at Sodebergh’s filmography, King of the Hill stands out as something completely different than anything else he has ever made. I mean that in mainly a good way. I still don’t know why, 19 years later, he decided to make this his third film, but the result is a fascinating film. It stars young Jesse Bradford as a 12-year old boy in the great depression, who is left to fend for himself – and does so amazingly well. It is the story of how this boy thrives when he’s left by himself – how he uses his charm and intelligence to get what he needs. It is an odd film for Sodebergh to make – nothing he did before or since really fits with it – but for whatever reason, he seems to have connected with this material, and made an very good little film out of it.

13. Contagion (2011)
Contagion is a scarily plausible thriller about a global epidemic that ends up killing millions. It is bound to happen sooner or later – we hear constantly about new superbugs, but for the most part, they end fizzling out without much impact. But Contagion is about the superbug that doesn’t. It tells multiple storylines – about Patient Zero (Gwyneth Paltrow) and her husband (Matt Damon), who grows increasingly paranoid, about the CDC people trying to contain it (including a poignant subplot with Kate Winslet), a profiteering blogger (Jude Law) who exploits everyone’s fears, and other subplot, as it shows the disease spreading, and with it the fear. This is straight ahead genre filmmaking of the highest order for Soderbergh. Not all the subplots are necessary (sorry Marion Cotlliard, I love you, but your subplot doesn’t need to be here), but mainly plausibly, realistically terrifying.

12. The Girlfriend Experience (2009)
Soderbergh excels at finding actors who may never again be great in a movie, but are perfect for his. For The Girlfriend Experience, he cast Sasha Grey, whose day job is as a porn star. He didn’t cast her because he wanted an actress that was willing to have sex on screen – because she doesn’t in this movie. He cast her, because she is smart, she is sexy and she is a businesswoman in real life, just like her character in the movie. In the film, she plays Chelsea, a high end prostitute, who specializes in providing “the girlfriend experience” – that is on her “dates” with her clients, she doesn’t act like a prostitute, but as their girlfriend. Her clients are all rich, and all work in the stock market (like her “real” boyfriend), and all like to talk to her – reveal themselves to her, and tell her how to invest her money. What they don’t expect is that perhaps she is a better businessperson than they are – she makes money off something that will never crash – sex. Soderbergh set the film in the lead up to the 2008 Financial meltdown, and the basic point of the movie is this – that there is no difference between what Grey’s character in the does, and what her clients do every day – they lie about who they are, what they want, what they know, all to make their client feel better. At least her clients know they are being fucked.

11. Haywire (2012)
I still do not understand why audiences pretty roundly rejected Soderbergh’s action movie from last January. He is an expertly crafted action film, with great, bone crunching, jaw dropping fight sequences that are actually REAL and not just CGI, a woman can kicks all the men’s ass’s (and for once, you actually believe she can, because while Gina Carano may not be Meryl Streep, she certainly can kick ass) and has an excellent supporting cast of slimy men – Michael Fassbender, Ewan McGregor, Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas and Channing Tatum (who isn’t quite so slimy). Haywire is a classic, old school, kick ass action film – and one of 2012’s great entertainments. Why didn’t audiences notice? I don’t know, but Haywire is excellent.

10. sex, lies and videotape (1989)
Soderbergh’s debut film earns a place in his top 10 because it is undeniably one of the most influential American indie films ever. Soderbergh became the face of the Sundance generation with this film – that went on to win the Palme D’Or at Cannes – and helped to usher in a new era of American indies. Yes, the film has undeniably aged in the two decades since it was released – and because there have been so many copies of it over the years, the impact has dimmed at least a little bit. Yet, mainly the film still works. James Spader is still at his creepy best as the strange old friend who shows up one day, moves in, and soon throws everything into tumult – not that it wasn’t already, but he brings it out into the open. The rest of the cast – Andie McDowell, Peter Gallagher and especially Laura San Giacomo are also excellent. Yes, the film has aged. But that doesn’t mean it still isn’t an important film – or an excellent one.

9. Magic Mike (2012)
Who would have guess that a movie about male strippers would be one of Soderbergh’s best films? Yet it is, because Soderbergh has an intelligent screenplay, that sees this world for all the fun it can be, and also it’s sleazy underbelly. It is basically structured like an old fashioned Hollywood story – with a young kid (Channing Tatum) becoming a star in his limited world, and then falling in love with the picture of female perfection (Cody Horn), and deciding to leave it all behind for love. Tatum and Horn are excellent in the movie, but the supporting cast is even better. Olivia Munn is wonderful in a small role that shows that women can be just as shallow and superficial as men can, and best of all is Matthew McConaghey, all Southern charm, until you test him, and he gets all vicious pimp on you. Magic Mike is fun to be sure, but is also well made, well-acted and surprisingly touching. A wonderful little film.

8. Bubble (2005)
Of all Soderbergh’s low budget experiments, Bubble is the most successful – the most complete film. It stars three non-professional actors, who play workers at a doll factory in Ohio. Martha (Debbie Doebereiner) is overweight, lonely and taking care of her elderly father. Kyle (Dustin James Ashley) is passive, shy, beaten down by life who spends much of his home life in a pot fuelled haze. Martha and Kyle are friends – he depends on her for rides, and in return supplies friendship, and that seems to be it. But when Rose (Misty Dawn Wilkins), a young single mother shows up, and may have designs on Kyle (perhaps because he’s the only male option), things go downhill. Bubble is a quiet film, attuned to the beats of everyday life. It is a murder mystery only nominally – it doesn’t take much to figure it out, and when the police show up, played by real police officers, the outcome is never in doubt. The film is about the quiet, sad, lonely lives of these three people. Soderbergh, who often uses style over substance, does the opposite here. Bubble is a one of a kind film of Soderbergh’s resume – and one that deserves to be seen by more people.

7. Ocean’s 11 (2001)
I was hard on both Ocean’s 12 and 13, because, well, they deserved it – and also because Ocean’s 11 is one of the great entertainments on Soderbergh’s resume. No, the film is no more realistic or plausible than the other two, but damn it all if isn’t a hell of a lot more entertaining. George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Julia Roberts and Andy Garcia are all at the top of their games – and are surrounded by a cast having a blast – Casey Affleck, Scotty Caan, Don Cheadle, Bernie Mac, Elliot Gould, Carl Reiner, etc. The plan is elaborate, and really did have me guessing the first time through, and still manages to entertain me to no end whenever the film comes on TV (which is often). I’m certainly not going to argue that Ocean’s 11 is some sort of masterpiece, but as pure movie entertainment, it is tough to beat.

6. The Limey (1999)
The Limey is perhaps the simplest film of Soderbergh’s resume – a straight ahead revenge story – but one told with wit and style to spare. It stars Terrence Stamp as a just released British criminal who comes to L.A. to get revenge for the murder of his daughter. He knows Peter Fonda is responsible for it, and he comes at him straight on – no mincing words with him. Stamp is great in the movie – all action, few words, and he just keeps coming. Soderbergh’s style elevates the movie – the unforgettable scene where, in the background, we see Stamp throw a bodyguard over a railing to his death below is the best single shot of Soderbergh’s career. Yet as stripped down as The Limey is, there is also an air of regret to the film – we see clips of Stamp as a young man (from the movie Poor Cow), and we get Fonda talking about his past. Both of these men are well past the point where they are any use to anyone – but that doesn’t stop them from trying. A great little genre film.

5. The Informant (2009)
The Informant tells the improbably but true story of Mark Whitacre, an executive with Archer Daniels Midland, who is questioned by the FBI as part of a potential corporate espionage case, is cleared, and then, for no reason, confesses to them that ADM is involved in price fixing, becomes a FBI informant to help them gather the necessary evidence, and while working with them, proceeds to embezzle $9 million from the company, all the while thinking that once the truth comes out, he’ll be seen as a hero, and can take over the company. Matt Damon plays Whitacre in one of his best performances – as a man who seems utterly without guile or cunning, completely na├»ve as to how things are going to work out, and yet somewhat intelligent to keep all the balls in the air. The Informant is not quite a comedy, not quite a corporate thriller, and yet somehow both. It is one of the odder films on Soderbergh’s resume – and one of the best.
4. Solaris (2002)
With Solaris, Soderbergh went out a remade an acknowledged masterpiece by an acknowledged cinema genius – Andrei Tarkovsky. I hadn’t seen Tarkovsky’s film when I saw Soderbergh’s remake – but once I finally did see the film, I went back and watched Soderbergh’s film again – and was amazed that I was still intrigued and fascinated by it. No, it is not the masterpiece that Tarkovsky’s film is – few are – but I do think that perhaps watching Soderbergh’s version first – and then Tarkovsky’s may be the way to go. Soderbergh’s film is more than an hour shorter than Tarkovsky’s – the characters and themes clearer, the pacing while slow, less ponderous. This is all part and parcel with how Tarkovsky works, and part of what makes Solaris a masterpiece. But Soderbergh’s film also works. It stars George Clooney in one of his best performances as Kelvin, a shrink who heads up to a space station after a death to “council” the survivors – and wakes up to find his wife, who recently killed herself, there with him. The space station is orbiting a strange planet – Solaris – who can read minds, and create people out of their memories, which is what has happened. But therein lies the catch – because the version of Clooney’s wife that the planet creates is not the “real” woman – because no one knows everything about another person, so this “replicate” is only part a person – with a huge hole in the center – the part of ourselves we keep to ourselves. Audiences hated the film – probably because it was marketed as a sexy George Clooney sci-fi film instead of a ponderous film about the nature of death and human relationship. It probably would have done better marketed as an art-house movie. But here’s hoping in that now that we’re 10 years removed from its release, that Soderbergh’s Solaris can get the praise is deserves.

3. Che (2008)
Soderbergh’s epic, two part, 258 minute biopic of Che Guevera is a masterpiece for precisely the reason why it didn’t satisfy many people in the audience – it doesn’t portray Che either as a romantic hero, as some see him, or as a ruthless murderer, as others do. The film doesn’t take sides. What it does do is show Che, moment to moment, day to day, in combat as he fights and wins a revolution in Cuba, and then fights and loses a revolution in Bolivia. The first part – The Argentine – is a more conventional biopic (not conventional mind you, just more conventional than the second) – as it does show Che as he comes to Cuba, and intercuts scenes of the revolution with his speech to the U.N. This is probably what people were expecting. The second part, Guerilla, is completely self-contained – has Che in the jungles of Bolivia, fighting a losing battle, because while the people rose up and supported them in Cuba, they don’t in Bolivia. What the film really does is show Che as doggedly, stubbornly persistent – unwilling and unable to compromise his own sense of right and wrong, or give up even when he knows he is defeated. The film is epic in length, but needs to be. It is also one of Soderbergh’s masterpieces – sadly, audiences didn’t care, but you should.

2. Out of Sight (1998)
For some reason, it took a long time to properly do an Elmore Leonard crime movie. Barry Sonnefeld’s 1995 Get Shorty was the first to get it right, and then in 1997 and 1998 there were twin masterworks – Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, and Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight. This was the film that start Soderbergh’s fruitful collaboration with George Clooney – and proved there would be life after ER for him. It is also the best work Jennifer Lopez has ever done. The supporting cast – Ving Rhames, Don Cheadle, Michael Keaton (playing the same role he did in Jackie Brown) and especially Albert Brooks are all great. But it is Soderbergh’s direction that is the true star here – from the now infamous barroom/bed room flirtation and sex scene, to the handling of all the action sequences, and Scott Frank’s brilliant screenplay (containing much of Leonard’s original dialogue), Out of Sight is one the best crime movies of the 1990s – and one of Soderbergh’s very best films.

1. Traffic (2000)
When Soderbergh won the Oscar for Best Director for Traffic he did a very rare thing – winning an Oscar for the Best work of his career. That hardly ever happens, but it did for Soderbergh. Traffic is his masterpiece – an epic crime film about the futile drug war America is engaged in, following three different stories. In DC, the newly appointed drug czar (Michael Douglas) struggles with his new job, as his daughter (Erika Christensen) sinks into addiction. In California, a rich housewife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) finds out what her husband really does, and proves she can be just as ruthless when she needs to take over. And in the best, Benicio Del Toro’s Oscar winning performance as perhaps the only honest cop in Mexico, trying to fight the cartels. Working as his own cinematographer (as we would from here on out), Soderbergh gives us segment its own distinct look and color palette. The movie comes together, looking at both the large scale impact of drug and the war against them, and the personal level as well. Soderbergh has made a lot of great films in his career – none better than Traffic.

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