Sorting through the best of Steven Soderbergh

Just old enough to remember the hype, I watched Sex, Lies, and Videotape enthralled. Its coolness (the terrible late eighties furniture) and precise details (drinking all that iced tea) compensated for how written in the film school sense the film played; it didn’t feel like life but like someone imagining life was this complex. Meanwhile my friend Victor thought Kafka was the best thing he’d ever seen, and he hadn’t seen Lang or The Third Man or Murnau and the half dozen other masters from whom Steven Soderbergh rather soberly borrowed

Soderbergh is like that — a master of the received pleasure when the material excites him, a pedant about received pleasure when not. In 2000, Julia Roberts’ boobs and critics’ weariness with corporate law thrillers like A Civil Action led to a weighing of support toward Traffic instead of Erin Brockovich, despite the latter being one of the best comedic dramas about working class life released by a major studio, aware of the intersections of gender and class, boasting a sharp eye for interior design, and an excellent cast. “They’re called boobs, Ed” obviously paled beside the horror of Michael Douglas’ drug czar descending into the depths of a non-white Inferno to rescue his daughter from drug addiction, or Benicio del Toro’s quest to build a baseball diamond for all races.

Yet in the 2000s he won his Oscar and went his own way. After the premature Howard Hawks comparisons, he started earning them, alternating between quickie entertaining TV movies (Behind the Candelabra), quickie hack jobs out of genre pictures (Contagion, Ocean’s Eleven), and uncategorizable yet incisive-because-short fare like The Girlfriend Experience. Che, his Grand Gesture, suffered from his disinterest in history (Olivier Assayas’ Carlos, released a year later, reduces it to a kids’ dress-up program). Preferring Magic Mike XXl doesn’t mean we weren’t relieved that Soderberg directed the male gaze at beautiful lunks in movement the first time around. Not many people like his Tarkovsky remake; it’s closer to a re-imagining, transforming the original Solaris into an exegesis on remembered melancholy, the kind bereft of — too cool even for — ghosts. His instinct for cutting the crap shows itself in sharp dissolves and and crisp editing that isolate George Clooney’s astronaut in the shallowness of his recollections. I haven’t watched it again since 2002 and I’m afraid to — this guy’s work often wilts from on second thoughts. I like this list, though.

1. Erin Brockovich
2. King of the Hill
3. Out of Sight
4. Sex, Lies, and Videotape
5. The Limey
6. The Girlfriend Experience
7. Schizopolis
8. Solaris
9. Magic Mike
10. Ocean’s Twelve

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