Throughout film school, one is inundated with a list of “the masters.” Your Kubricks, your Scorseses, and your Tarantinos. And while they all have their rightful place in the pantheon of auteurs, I’ve always wondered why one name has yet to reach the list. Sex, lies, and videotape debuted 30 years ago, and ever since Steven Soderbergh has directed upwards of 40 projects. 40! Steven Soderbergh movies run the gamut of tone, genre, and big-name talent. In this list, we’ll detail the Top 10 Steven Soderbergh movies from worst to best (the word worst being used loosely). By the end, we’ll have examined Soderbergh’s best movies and how they can help us become better storytellers.
Watch: Framing a Pandemic — Contagion
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Soderbergh Movies Ranked
10. The Girlfriend Experience (2009)
Coming in at number ten, Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience is a character study about human connection, a return to Soderbergh's trademark independent flair. The story focuses on Chelsea (played in meta fashion by real-life porn star Sasha Grey), a high-priced call girl balancing her career with her relationship as well as her identity.
This film ranks high in Soderbergh's filmography because it represents his tendency to explore prescient socio-economic and class issues all the while entertaining within an evocative narrative.
Soderbergh & Black Comedy
9. The Informant! (2009)
The same year as The Girlfriend Experience, The Informant! was released widely to critical and commercial success. Starring frequent collaborator Matt Damon, this true story follows Mark Whitacre, the highest-ranking executive in U.S. history to ever blow the whistle on corporate fraud.
The fun ensemble film combines equal parts of black comedy and espionage thriller to create a morality play. Soderbergh crafts a hilarious character study that examines American greed, hubris, and folly.
Elmore Leonard Alert
8. Out of Sight (1998)
Soderbergh films often intersect at the corner of crime and romance. Usually, you can find George Clooney hanging out on that corner, too. In this Soderbergh film, a bank robber (Clooney) grows attracted to federal marshal Sisco (Jennifer Lopez).
However, the film is less about action than it is about the steam between these two stars. This film ranks not only for its content, based on Elmore Leonard’s novel (author of many 90’s adaptations such as Jackie Brown and Get Shorty) but for Anne V. Coates’ classic non-linear editing.
Danceable Soderbergh Movies
7. Magic Mike (2012)
Speaking of steamy, Channing Tatum (whose real-life experiences as a former male dancer informed much of Reid Carolin’s script) leads this hunky, star-studded cast of dudes in fan-fav Magic Mike. And while much has been said about the film, Soderbergh doesn’t pander to the desires of anyone gender.
In fact, Magic Mike is a well-rounded story that explores sexual commodification much in the same way The Girlfriend Experience does, only this time through the male POV. While it’s often billed as a chance to see McConaughey strut, Soderbergh does double-duty by creating a true story caught inside a system of exploitation AND a thrilling, entertaining ride.
6. Side Effects (2013)
After Magic Mike, Tatum and Soderbergh worked together on
Side Effects. It's another masterful film about humans caught up in a system bigger than themselves, in particular, the pharmaceutical system. As with many Steven Soderbergh movies, he inculpates the drug industry by exploring its side effects on human relationships.
As a director, Soderbergh uses depth of field in a way that approximates the dizziness one might feel on Ablixa. Side Effects features what’s perhaps the mark of Soderbergh’s genius: his ability to make a non-political political film, one that doesn’t cram an agenda, but presents a situation and asks you to decide.
Soderbergh Films, Ranked
5. Logan Lucky (2017)
Logan Lucky tells the tale of the rednecks (played to perfection by Channing Tatum and Adam Driver) as they try to rob the Charlotte Motor Speedway. If it isn’t obvious, Soderbergh is the modern master of the heist movie and this “Oceans’ 7-Eleven” proves it. Here, there are so many elements that make a Soderbergh film so much fun. Suspense. Twists. Great actors. Hilarious dialogue. Cauliflower.
4. Traffic (2000)
The Academy has only bestowed Steven Soderbergh with one Oscar. And while awards are trivial, Traffic certainly was the type of movie made to win one (it did). A wide-scope examination of the controversial War on Drugs, Traffic was chosen for this position because it’s an example of Soderbergh’s storytelling superpower.
Soderbergh gets across themes, deep themes about socio-political conundrums without agenda-cramming. Here is a perfect example. Soderbergh lets the characters represent different aspects of the film’s theme and, through individual conflict, they and the audience arrive at a well-earned message.
3. sex, lies, and videotape (1989)
30 years ago, Steven Soderbergh won the Palme d’Or at Cannes for his debut film, a small-budget indie sex-thriller entitled
sex, lies, and videotape. The movie is simple enough: four people and their sexual relationships.
But what makes this a remarkable movie is that it sets the question of what Soderbergh would further discuss throughout his career. Likewise, it started and set the tone for the '90s indie film boom that spawned the likes of Tarantino, Jarmusch, and Baumbach.
Best Soderbergh Movies
2. Ocean’s Eleven (2001)
Perhaps one of the Steven Soderbergh movies people know best,
Ocean’s Eleven (2001) is pretty much universally praised as a groundbreaking heist movie. In fact, it’s probably best classified as the modern heist movie. It has a star-studded cast portraying now-iconic characters. Its stars, so effortlessly cool. Cooler even than the original Ocean’s gang.
From a directing perspective, Soderbergh’s film is a masterclass in suspense. Soderbergh is economical with story information, choosing precisely when and how to reveal twists for maximum audience impact.
Steven Soderbergh's Best
1. Contagion (2011)
Contagion is Soderbergh’s emergent classic, thanks to the fact that we’re living it. Coronavirus notwithstanding, Contagion serves as the perfect embodiment of Soderbergh’s signature style. This includes weaving multiple narratives and having each character represent an aspect of the theme. His unwavering focus on the characters is rather admirable.
Like so many other global crisis movies, Soderbergh could have been tempted to exploit the chaos for drama. Instead, he locks into these characters and forces us to empathize with them, making this deadly pandemic that much more personal and frightening.
P.T. Anderson Directing Styles
Along the lines of the 90’s indie boom, Paul Thomas Anderson started his similarly illustrious career. From cinematography to editing, take a deeper dive into PTA’s work. Compare and contrast the two filmmakers. Learn and take from each whatever helps you become the best filmmaker you can be.