An indie movie maker through and through, Steven Soderbergh has made some of the most compelling and thought-provoking movies of the last thirty years. From his breakout Sundance hit sex, lies and videotape (1989), Soderbergh has tackled projects in a wide variety of genres and with an appropriately wide variety of results at the box office. Some have failed to make back the money they cost to make – Gray’s Anatomy (1997), The Good German (2006) – while others have underperformed (see the Top 10 below). But he has had some successes, mostly thanks to a certain franchise, but even outside of those movies, and despite his decision to retire from making movies in 2013, Soderbergh has remained a director you can never quite pin down. If nothing else, this list reflects the diversity of his output, and is a reminder of the quality of his work over the years.
10 – The Informant! (2009) – $41,771,168
A movie that never quite achieved the recognition it deserves, The Informant! uses its real life story in a way that refutes the “zany” approach presented in its trailers, and by doing so makes it much more rewarding. This is due to the combination of Scott Z. Burns’ clever screenplay, Soderbergh’s relaxed direction, and Matt Damon’s beautifully judged performance as deluded whistleblower Mark Whitacre. Ripe for rediscovery, it’s a tragic farce that has far more going on under the surface than most casual viewers will be aware of.
9 – Side Effects (2013) – $63,372,757
Soderbergh brings his usual intelligence and cool approach to thriller-dom with this convoluted and surprisingly well-constructed story set around medical ethics and the nature of psychopathology. While that may sound too highbrow for some, Side Effects revels in its Hitchcockian twists and turns – Soderbergh wanted to recreate the look and feel of old suspense movies for a modern era – and manages to keep audiences guessing all the way to its final reveal.
8 – Out of Sight (1998) – $77,745,568
The oldest Soderbergh movie on the list is also possibly his best, a funny, dramatic, odd couple romance (based on the novel by Elmore Leonard) that features a career-best performance from Jennifer Lopez, and George Clooney in the role that cemented his reputation as an A-lister. Soderbergh is clearly having fun with the material, and it’s easily one of his most visually entertaining movies as well, thanks to his use of stylised colour palettes and freeze frames to highlight significant moments in the story.
7 – Contagion (2011) – $135,458,097
A timely warning about the nature of pandemics and the ease with which they can spread, along with the inability of governments to deal with them in a constructive way, Contagion may have too many storylines (some of which don’t add much to the narrative), but is still an intelligently mounted, urgently prescient movie that uses its multi-national cast to (mostly) good effect – sorry, Marion Cotillard – while maintaining a focus on the pandemic’s impact on regular, individual lives.
6 – Magic Mike (2012) – $167,221,571
If you had any doubts about Soderbergh’s ability to tackle a variety of genres and stories, then this behind-the-scenes look at the lives of a group of male strippers should have dispelled any lasting uncertainty. Raucous, raunchy and down to earth, Magic Mike features a terrific performance from Matthew McConaughey, the kind of off-colour humour you’d expect given the characters, and a succession of stage routines that should have female viewers leaning forward in their seats – a lot.
5 – Traffic (2000) – $207,515,725
Another contender for Soderbergh’s best movie (and winner of four Oscars, including one for Soderbergh himself), Traffic is a jolt to the senses that grips from the beginning and never lets go. Examining the drug trade from both sides of the US/Mexico border, from the highest echelons of US law enforcement to the infrastructure of a Mexican cartel, Stephen Gaghan’s impressively detailed script is given more than due justice by Soderbergh, and features equally impressive performances from the likes of Michael Douglas, Don Cheadle, Dennis Quaid, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Oscar-winning Benicio Del Toro.
4 – Erin Brockovich (2000) – $256,271,286
2000 was an amazing year for Soderbergh, what with this and Traffic being released to critical and commercial acclaim. Based on the true story of its titular character, an Oscar-winning Julia Roberts has probably never been better as the no-experience paralegal who brings down a polluting Californian power company through a landmark class action suit. Threaded through the obvious drama are several moments of beautifully judged humour, and Roberts’ teaming with Albert Finney is inspired. All in all, a strong contender for Soderbergh’s most enjoyable and rewarding movie.
3 – Ocean’s Thirteen (2007) – $311,312,624
By the time this second sequel rolled around, Soderbergh and Clooney et al were determined not to make the same mistakes that made Ocean’s Twelve so underwhelming. While still not perfect, Ocean’s Thirteen is definitely more entertaining than its predecessor, even if it tries too hard to be as charming as the first outing, but audiences were willing to give the movie a chance. That it did as well as it did at the box office may well be due to brand recognition, and the popularity of its cast, but it’s also a movie that sees Soderbergh come as close to going through the motions as he’s ever done.
2 – Ocean’s Twelve (2004) – $362,744,280
A sequel to Ocean’s Eleven was always going to come along at some point, but when it did no one could have predicted it would be such a humourless, drama-free non-event. Easily the worst movie of Soderbergh’s entire career – yes, even worse than Underneath (1995) – Ocean’s Twelve is the very definition of a lacklustre movie. It’s almost as if Soderbergh and the returning cast decided to make a movie that was the very antithesis of Ocean’s Eleven, leaving it flat, unsatisfactory, unnecessarily confusing, and too reliant on “reveals” that are in no way foreshadowed anywhere else in the movie.
1 – Ocean’s Eleven (2001) – $450,717,150
Soderbergh’s most successful movie is probably his most well-known and well-regarded feature, a sharp, funny, engaging, clever, mischievous rascal of a movie that recreates the tone of the 1960 original and lends it a (then) modern sensibility that still holds up well fifteen years later. The scam is beautifully staged, the cast make it all look so easy, and the whole thing is handled with Soderbergh’s customary visual flair. It’s a movie that creates tension and expertly crafted edge-of-the-seat moments at every turn, and all of it while the movie is winking at the audience as if to say, “Well? Can you guess what’s happening?”