sex, lies and videotape
At the age of 26, Soderbergh conquered Sundance, won the Palme D’Or at Cannes and changed the indie film business forever – not bad for a first try. Having a killer title like sex, lies and videotape certainly raised eyebrows, but Soderbergh’s debut not only delivered on its seductive promise, but seemed to understand where human relationships might be headed in a future where the camera can act as a diary, a mediator and a tool for eroticism.
It’s also flirty and funny as hell, with James Spader kicking up mischief as a drifter who exposes the shaky marriage between his smug old college buddy (Peter Gallagher) and his dissatisfied wife (Andie MacDowell), who doesn’t realize her husband and her sister (Laura San Giacomo) are having an affair. As Spader upends these relationships with a camcorder and an eccentric mix of perversity and candor, Soderbergh examines the contradictions of the video age, where the same technology can both enhance intimacy and create distance. Scott Tobias
Out of Sight
Out of Sight is one of those moments where the stars align; people coming from different places and headed in different directions intersect and make big screen magic. Steven Soderbergh was taking his first stab at studio entertainment. George Clooney was transitioning from TV star and Batman and Robin embarrassment towards an A-list movie star portfolio including dark comedies and prestige fare. Jennifer Lopez, coming hot off Selena and Anaconda, was about to carve out her niche in pop music and rom-coms.
Their vibes were so different but together they do their finest work in Out Of Sight, a cool, sexy, laidback and gritty rom-com caper. This was where Clooney first oozed that Clark Gable charm and Lopez perfected a character that could easily descend into a trope: the tough, dominant but thirsty female action hero. Keep your eye on how she performs the role of helpless girl as an act of foreplay. And that breathlessly elegant foreplay scene is an all-timer, cutting between a flirtatious conversation at a hotel bar and the playfulness in the bedroom while zeroing in on the tender and electric touches and glances. That moment pays homage to the before and after sex scene in Don’t Look Now while mirroring Out Of Sight’s entire time-jumping structure, and it cemented Soderbergh as an independent artist who step into a studio movie and really class up the joint. Radheyan Simonpillai
In this legal drama that mixes elements of biopic, community mental health and thriller, Soderbergh channels the charisma and high-wire electricity from his caper flicks into something that feels far weightier.
Opting not for a male lead or an ensemble cast of guy’s guys, Soderbergh instead presents Julia Roberts in one of the best performances of her career, giving her the space to shine as the titular Brockovich – a hard-luck, savvy woman who turns into an unlikely hero as she unearths a conspiracy by energy giant Pacific Gas & Electric to hide the role its power plants play in an outbreak of cancer in the small California town of Hinkley. The result is a movie that’s far more fun and light-footed than you’d ever expect from a film about cancer and industrial pollution, yet also one that never feels like it’s trivializing its subject matter. That’s exactly why it stands out among Soderbergh’s best. Veronica Esposito
Part of what makes Soderbergh such a great director is his absolute mastery of a wide variety of different formats: indie sex comedies, straight thrillers, Hollywood caper movies, camp tragicomedy. It’s hard to pick an actual favourite (I nurse a major soft spot for Logan Lucky), but in the end I think the most impressive is Solaris, from 2002 – not the least because it’s essentially a fully successful remake of an even better film, Andrei Tarkovsky’s sublime 1972 space epic of the same title. (Yes, we know Soderbergh said he was going back to the source novel, by Stanislaw Lem, but that’s a considerably less intimidating challenge.)
Soderbergh plunges head first into the story’s existential discussions – how and why does death actually have dominion? – while expertly juggling dreams, flashbacks and the disorientating present. His film obviously has a bit more polish than Tarkovsky’s (though it never achieves quite the glorious highpoint as the earlier film’s Bach-scored zero-grav epiphany), and George Clooney’s silver-fox space traveller is in more of an investigative mode than the Russian film’s melancholy wondering scientist. This creates narrative momentum of some force; you want to keep watching even as the film’s increasingly baffling events play out. (No spoilers here.) Soderbergh is rarely sombre; this film shows he is as brilliant in this mood as any other. Andrew Pulver
Steven Soderbergh has spent a large portion of his career cultivating relationships with some of the biggest movie stars available, finding plum parts and packed ensembles for the likes of George Clooney, Matt Damon, Julia Roberts, Brad Pitt, Meryl Streep and more. But for a three-year period starting in 2009, he also built a number of films around less traditional actors: adult film performer Sasha Grey (The Girlfriend Experience), dancer/model Channing Tatum (whose Soderbergh collaboration Magic Mike helped level up his career) and mixed martial artist Gina Carano, who stars as double-crossed black-ops agent Mallory Kane in the spy thriller Haywire.
All of these movies are quite good, but Haywire is a particularly impressive achievement, with its no-frills, all-thrills fights and chases designed around Carano’s athleticism and Soderbergh’s icy blue/ sickly yellow color palette. Compared to the sterling ensemble surrounding Carano – Tatum, Ewan McGregor, Michael Fassbender, Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas, many of whom she beats to holy hell – Soderbergh’s star isn’t much of an actor, and she’s not supposed to be. Mallory, with her jet-black hair, unyielding determination, and array of casual hats, is a no-nonsense paradox: a tightly controlled force of nature. In other words, she’s the very essence of stardom, selling her physical abilities on the open market. That Carano later torched her career in a fit of rightwing pique makes for a sad postscript; it also makes Soderbergh’s blank-slate work with her all the more special, and weirdly fitting. Haywire may be the best example of the keen intelligence behind Soderbergh’s many genre forays: it’s an exciting and satisfying action movie about the dehumanizing corporate forces behind all that action. Jesse Hassenger
Magic Mike’s Last Dance is genuinely one of my most-anticipated films of 2023, and that is largely on the strength of 1) the trailer, and 2) the quality of the original, a deceptively serious, mostly fun romp featuring the then-surprising combo of Soderbergh and Channing Tatum. You wouldn’t necessarily expect Soderbergh to take on a story of male strippers, loosely based on Tatum’s experience as an 18-year-old college dropout and struggling dancer in Florida. But the material, and Tatum’s charm, played shockingly well to the director’s interests: a light but evocative enough portrait of capitalist binds, the pitfalls of the American dream (Tatum’s Mike just really wants to make artisan furniture), and the intractable knot of sex and money.
Still, the original Magic Mike, released in 2012, is Soderbergh at his most crowd-pleasing. It is a film that demonstrates no qualms with pleasure, specifically the pleasure that is watching beautiful bodies do impressive feats and, more specifically, watching entirely ripped guys undulate and thrust to It’s Raining Men. The gender flip of who is ogling and who is cavorting on stage, both drawn to and resentful of the game, is consistently entertaining and still too rare. I’ll admit that the dance sequences, led by Tatum and featuring Matt Bomer, Joe Manganiello, Adam Rodriguez and Kevin Nash, stuck with me over the years more than the actual plot of deceit, small business loans and botched drug deals. And that’s fine – there’s far more to Magic Mike than the beefcake, but it’s also a smart enough film to make that sizzle. Adrian Horton
Steven Soderbergh is a nimble handler of weightier issues, whether it be the war on drugs in Traffic or a prescient pandemic in Contagion or the crush of grief in Solaris, but he’s at his best when he’s having fun, and no more fun has been had than in 2013’s deliciously entertaining Side Effects. The domestic thriller – where we experience the sick joy of watching a happy couple devolve into murderous chaos – showed brief signs of a rebirth at the time with Gone Girl, Before I Go to Sleep and this, a twisty tale of rug-pulling and button-pushing that recalled the giddy highs of the subgenre’s greatest 80s and 90s hits.
Rooney Mara, not an actor one typically associates with the F-word, plays a believably fragile New Yorker struggling with her mental health as her husband, Channing Tatum as a credible finance douche, leaves prison. At her lowest, she finds herself cared for by an on-call psychiatrist, played by a never-better Jude Law, who prescribes her an anti-depressant. The film then morphs into a number of things – an intricate legal drama, a sexy con game, a reminder of the pleasure that can be milked from watching big stars do bad things and, without a heavy hand, a glum indictment of the US healthcare system – none of which we can totally predict. It might not have helped return the domestic thriller to its box office heyday (it was, like many of Soderbergh’s best films, a bit of a bomb) but, like the equally engrossing Kimi almost a decade after, it showed that Soderbergh makes for arguably the most convincingly Hitchcockian Hitchcock successor we might have today. Benjamin Lee
Behind the Candelabra
Behind the Candelabra was supposed to be Steven Soderbergh’s swan song. Having announced in 2012 his impending retirement, he was outspoken about his difficulties in bringing the 2013 film to life; despite attaching A-listers Matt Damon and Michael Douglas early on and having brought to the world the Ocean’s and Magic Mike franchises, no Hollywood studio executive was willing to cough up the relatively modest $5m that the Oscar winner needed for his Liberace movie. “Nobody would do it. They said it was too gay. Everybody,” he recalled. Ultimately, HBO saved the day and wrote the check for his presumed last film – and we’re sure glad they did.
Unfortunately released only on cable television in the US, it’s an idiosyncratic delight. Eschewing tired biopic tropes, the film follows a teenage Wisconsite (absurdly played by an early 40s Damon in a series of unforgettable wigs, underpants and prosthetic noses) as he embarks on a five-year relationship with the middle-aged star that results in his legal adoption by the pianist and ends with the younger lover’s suing for $100m in palimony. As Liberace, Douglas submits his most fascinating performance thus far; embodying greed in a new way, it’s certainly a far cry from the thriller leading men that had become his bread and butter. Splendidly scene-stealing are Rob Lowe as Liberace’s plastic surgeon, wearing a facelift that makes mere blinking a strain, and an unrecognizable Debbie Reynolds (who was friends with Liberace), as the musician’s mother. Soderbergh’s “retirement” would be short-lived – just months after Candelabra’s release, he went back to set, helming the superlative series The Knick, and he returned to feature film directing with his wholly independently financed comedic heist movie Logan Lucky. Perhaps in Soderbergh there’s a bit of Liberace, who proclaims in Candelabra: “I love to give people a good time.” Lisa Wong Macabasco
Let Them All Talk
Like the luxurious ocean liner on which it takes place, Let Them All Talk offers a disarmingly smooth ride over choppy waters. Thanks to delectable performances by Meryl Streep, Candice Bergen and Dianne Wiest, as well as a smart screenplay by the great short story writer Deborah Eisenberg, it’s a girls-are-back-together production that does without the cheese, and a literary satire that doesn’t sink into abject silliness.
The skewering is subtle (the prestigious “Footling award” for writers almost sounds real) and the production’s top note is one of elegant restraint. Meryl Streep is in full command of her powers as Alice Hughes, a Pulitzer-winning novelist with a deliberate and fluty delivery perfectly calibrated to telegraph her impatience and self-regard. The true standout here is Bergen, who plays Roberta, whose life story appeared in Alice’s best-selling book and who has never recovered from the betrayal. Bergen’s portrayal of a woman on the losing end of a bad art friend is as dazzling as it is deranged. Lauren Mechling