I've been a movie enthusiast my whole life and been writing movie reviews for over 14 years.
In 2013, the Academy Award-winning director retired from directing after his thriller Side Effects, saying that “Movies don’t matter anymore.”
In 2017, he returned to direct the Cajun heist movie Logan Lucky. As of this writing, Soderbergh has directed six more movies since (including the shot-on-an-iPhone Unsane and Let Them All Talk) his “retirement.”
In 1989, at the age 29, Soderbergh’s debut film, Sex, Lies and Videotape, won Best Picture at the Cannes Film Festival. Since then, Soderbergh’s output as a director has been staggering, from big budget studio movies (the Ocean’s trilogy, the action movie Haywire) to experimental indies (Bubble, The Girlfriend Experience). Not all of them have been good (Full Frontal, Kafka), but what moviegoers have seen over the past 30-plus years is a true artist at work.
This list ranks the top 10 of Soderbergh’s 30-plus feature films (not including short films or television).
1) Traffic (2000)
Steven Soderbergh won his first and only Best Director Oscar for this hyperlink drama/thriller centering on the drug trade. I do like the movie Gladiator a lot, but I do think Traffic was (by far) the best movie 2000. With dozens of speaking parts (including Benicio Del Toro in his Oscar-winning role), Traffic paints a convoluted and bleak picture of the drug trade across Mexico and the United States. But what’s revolutionary is how it dares to supply reasonable and tangible hope. The final shots stay with you in way that you would have never expected considering what you’ve been through during the past two and a half hours.
2) Out of Sight (1998)
Considered a box office failure at the time, Soderbergh’s breezy, almost effortless, crime thriller features George Clooney’s best performance, as well as Jennifer Lopez’s best performance. Out of Sight’s timeline (as well as Scott Frank’s dazzling script) unfolds gracefully as it never feels like a time-jumping gimmick. It's one of those movies that you have to see more than once, not necessarily because you missed something, but because it’s such a pleasure to watch the movie unravel. Clooney and Lopez are electric onscreen and the definition of movie star-wattage. With a final scene that will leave you smiling, Out of Sight is the epitome of cool, in the best way possible. The National Society of Film Critics voted Out of Sight the best film of 1998. If you haven’t seen it in a while, watch it again and you’ll know why.
3) Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989)
As mentioned before, Soderbergh’s debut movie won the Best Picture award at the Cannes Film Festival as well as a Best Actor Award for James Spader. As you watch it, a part of you will think, “This is just a bunch of actors talking into a camera.” You’re right, but you’ll also find yourself captivated. Any line said in the wrong tone and the viewer would have laughed at the self-seriousness. But the four leads hold the screen. Did it really deserve a Best Picture award? Probably not, but you can’t deny the power of Soderbergh’s first film. Insightful and gripping, you can’t take your eyes off it.
4) Ocean’s Eleven (2001)
I mentioned star wattage writing up Out of Sight. This is movie star charisma turned up to an, um, eleven. There’s nothing Soderbergh wants to do here but entertain, and as many times as I’ve seen this, mission accomplished. Two hours never went by so fast. Does George Clooney have better chemistry between Jennifer Lopez or Brad Pitt. Who knows? Who cares? Throw in Matt Damon and Julia Roberts and you’ve got one of the zippiest entries of the con genre. Ocean’s sequels never quite reach the original’s heights, but they’re never as bad as you expect. So much adrenalized fun packed into a too-short two hours, almost as if time’s been stolen from you.
5) Che (2008)
As you might know, the Che Guevara biopic Che is split into two films. I’m taking both films as a whole as the do form one epic story. I never really knew much about Che Guevara, but despite the running time, the movie more than holds your attention over its four-hour span. A towering performance from Benicio Del Toro keeps you transfixed. There are a couple of dead spots near the middle, but those are easily forgiven and should not dissuade any curious moviegoer from seeing this.
6) Contagion (2011)
Granted, I know writing this in the middle of a pandemic may affect its rating, but watching this in the age of COVID does make this movie scarier. I remember seeing this in theaters and being terrified at how easily a disease could spread. Cue to 2020. Soderbergh uses huge movie stars as placeholders (Kate Winslet, Gwyneth Paltrow) as they all hold equal weight onscreen. When they die, it’s a genuine shock. This was fiction during its 2011 release. Hopefully, it’ll be fiction again soon. In 2011, you watched this with nervous laughter. If you actually watch this today, you’re just nervous.
7) Solaris (2002)
At almost half the running time of Andrei Tarkovsky’s nearly three-hour original, Steven Soderbergh’s remake has some existential flashes of its own. While the remake has the same basic plot as the original, it does hold its own identity. Featuring one of George Clooney’s more introspective performances, Solaris leaves you with many more questions than answers but in a very satisfying way. That final shot could be a conversation-starter. Considered too blocky and brooding from some of its harsher critics. With the proper expectations, Solaris has some profound moments.
8) The Girlfriend Experience (2009)
Men trying to find real feelings in a completely manufactured environment. A girlfriend experience is what you want if you can pay for it, but don’t necessarily want to do the work in order to achieve an authentic experience, or…love. Former adult film star Sasha Grey is perfectly cast as a woman who can give men everything they’re missing in a person. But for a limited time only and for an extremely high price. The film may leave you cold as the credits roll, but it does stick with you afterward. One of Soderbergh’s experimental films, and it’s a most gratifying experience.
9) The Limey (1999)
The Limey is one of those movies that affect you a while after the credits rolls. It’s a relatively quiet crime thriller that genuinely thrills, not because of action or violence, but in the way the story unfolds. You’ve seen films lime this before, but The Limey catches you off guard more often than not. Terence Stamp is magnetic as the titular limey. The limey is established as someone you don’t want to cross. A few unfortunate criminals will understand why.
10) Erin Brockovich (2000)
The second of Soderbergh’s movies released in 2000 to be nominated for Best Picture. While this is nowhere near as good as Traffic, it’s a tribute to Soderbergh’s skill that these movies have truly little in common. Erin Brockovich is an unabashed crowd pleaser, and while very little of what happens onscreen is surprising, you’re still sucked in. Julia Roberts won her Best Actress Oscar as Brockovich and you can tell she’s having a lot of fun with the role. Who wouldn’t? A diverting Erin-Vs-Goliath story pulls no punches in the story it's trying to tell. Soderbergh doesn’t need to do much to get the audience where he wants them to go, but it’s skillful in doing it anyway.
Having made movies in nearly every genre, Steven Soderbergh continues to grow as a filmmaker and an artist (he even produced the 2021 Oscar ceremony). With his 30-plus movies, he’s a director always willing to push himself. Moviegoers are better off for it.