The Cannes Film Festival is crapped on nowadays by film buffs as nothing more than a chance for actors to release their probably terrible debut movies and for Michelle Rodriguez to kill time before she jumps on a yacht. But 26 years ago today Cannes gave its prestigious Palme d’Or to a 26-year-old American Director named Steven Soderbergh for his provocative (and really low budget) debut Sex, Lies and Videotape. With Soderbergh having effectively retired from directing films (although he’s still got The Knick on Cinemax and he reportedly has his some kind of behind-the-scenes role with Magic Mike XXL), let’s celebrate the occasion by counting down the top ten films he either directed or produced. Just like the Cannes film festival you might not like the list below, but save your criticism until we’re on the yacht and drinking whatever rich people drink (Dom Perignon? Vodka from Dan Aykroyd’s house? Water in tall bottles?) or at least until the comment section.
One of Soderbergh’s last directorial efforts, Side Effects comes across as pretty standard Hollywood fare until it hits you with a dose (see what I did there?) of peak C-Tates, Rooney Mara playing her usually expressive self, and Catherine Zeta-Jones as she wraps the entire audience — as well as Jude Law — around her fingers as Rooney’s former psychiatrist, all while wearing sexy glasses and a mini-skirt. Also, it features Jude Law’s rapidly receding hairline and a pretty thrilling plot revolving around how drugs are bad mmmkay.
Soderbergh has produced a few documentaries, but none of them had the mass appeal or timeliness of 2014’s Edward Snowden focused film. Delicately balancing the line between making Snowden (and associates) appear as a martyr and also a naive dolt who didn’t really grasp what he had unleashed, Citizenfour is not only about one bespectacled man but also about those who struggle with the increasing reach of government information. The most impressive thing about the film though is that it plays just like reading a long boring document; chairs creek, Snowden chews, and people drone on and on. There are no info-graphics or sweeping violin scores, no vilifying either party, just cameras, journalists, and the most wanted man in America.
Behind the Candelabra
It’s bonkers now to think that a film directed by one of America’s greatest visionaries, and with a cast including Matt Damon and Michael Douglas, wouldn’t be touched by any major studio with a satin-covered 50-foot pole, but that’s exactly what happened to Soderbergh’s troubling biopic about the real-life relationship between Liberace and Scott Thorson. Eventually picked up by HBO and aired in May 2013, it received mix reviews and lots and lots of glitter. It’s an awkward watch, to say the least.
Unfortunately thrown in with the early 00’s “bro” films, Ocean’s Eleven tells the timeless tale of eleven schools of fish all traveling up to Oregon to lay their eggs and die. Along the way they’ll encounter bears, rivers going the other way, and Andy Garcia acting like he should have acted in Godfather 3…
But in all seriousness, when people talk about modern heist flicks, Ocean’s Eleven is always brought up in the conversation, and for good reason: it does the 60’s version justice, while not being overly nostalgic. It is cool, smart and features one of the best switcheroos in recent film history.
Sex, Lies and Videotape
Yes, that is James F*cking Spader standing there like a Sex God with a full head of hair and a Devil-may-care attitude (He still has one of those things), and yes, that is Andie McDowell, the hottest woman in Hollywood and a legitimate sex symbol. Curly hair and Jordache jeans? Sign me up!
Released independently, Soderbergh’s debut told the story of a man who filmed women talking about their sexuality and how it led to him becoming addicted to Cosmopolitan magazine. It didn’t blow up the box office, but led by critics it took home the Palme d’Or, and in 2006 was even placed in the US Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.
Good Night and Good Luck
Soderbergh executive produced this 2005 Clooney-led love letter to 1950’s TV journalism and even though I know lots of people (OK, two guys) who think it’s pretentious garbage, it sure is a beautiful looking piece of pretentious garbage. Soderbergh’s influence is everywhere, from the disciplined close-ups to dialogue that would rather give too much than lose something through clipped editing. Plus, David Strathairn knows his way around a speech.
Although it’s #1 in our hearts, Magic Mike could have been nothing more than a feel-good (it’s so hard not to use puns about this movie.) tale of a boy who makes good in the big city, but under Soderbergh’s direction, it actually has…well, layers and made me think about the character and not just about C-Tates doing this when I close my eyes.
Apparently Tatum reached out to Soderbergh to help with the sequel, although he’s not credited officially as a producer.
One of the hallmarks of Soderbergh’s tenure was just how often marquee names show up time and time again in movies he’s attached to. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Syriana, a flawed examination of how the US demand for oil plays out in Middle Eastern politics. Soderbergh’s influence as Executive Producer brought in Matt Damon (who worked on seven of Soderbergh’s films) and George Clooney (six, respectively) to anchor the film. Lots of people hated this movie for being so blatant in its perspective, but I freaking LOVE this movie.
Soderbergh has always had a knack for taking what could be just another throwaway Hollywood thriller and giving it just that little bit more to make it not only enjoyable, but also re-watchable five years down the road on a hungover Sunday (Out of Sight, Contagion, Haywire). Nowhere is this touch more apparent than with 1999’s The Limey – where Terence Stamp invades the United States and bashes heads because he wants to find the guy who killed his daughter. The real question the movie raises, however, is:
How the hell has Terence Stamp never been on Game of Thrones?
How is that possible? Can you imagine a scene with him and Charles Dance swinging swords and talking about Houses and Dynasties and even saying the words “Master of Coin”? Jesus.
I still remember seeing Traffic in April of 2000 (I was on a really bad blind date, don’t ask…) and was blown away by the sheer intensity and relentlessness of not only its subject matter, but also how each story felt like it was the main focus. Jumping from story to story can at times be exhausting for a movie visitor (take Babel for example) but Soderbergh managed to blend them all together, yet give them enough weight separately to hold their own. It is a little heavy handed and convenient (of course the new US Drug Czar played by Michael Douglas has a junkie daughter, because of course) but it’s rare for a movie to pivot at full speed so many times and not fall apart. For his efforts on Traffic, Soderbergh won the Best Director Oscar (he’s been nominated a total of three times for Best Director) while Benecio del Toro won Best Supporting Actor before immediately turning into a silly cartoon rabbit.
So, what do you think? What’s your favorite Soderbergh film? And please try to limit the total number of C-Tates gifs to under 50.