Entertainment

The Definitive Guide To Steven Soderbergh’s Film Career

From Sex, Lies, and Videotape to his latest (and possibly last) feature film, Side Effects, we rank how far the Oscar winner’s wide and varied career has swung to and from the mainstream.

Relativity Media

After years of threatening retirement, director Steven Soderbergh officially has no more feature films on his docket after the release of this weekend’s pharma noir Side Effects. (His Liberace biopic Behind the Candelabra will air on HBO later this year.) There is perhaps no other filmmaker alive whose filmography has swung as far from major Hollywood fare to tiny experimental art films, and back again, and back again, as Soderbergh’s. To celebrate what could be the final year of his movie career, we catalogued and ranked every single one of his solo directing efforts from the most mainstream to the least. Starting with…

1. Ocean’s Thirteen (2007)

Melinda Sue Gordon

Major movie stars? Yes (George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Al Pacino)
Conventional story? Yes. Clooney’s ace team of con men return to Las Vegas to bring down Pacino’s crooked casino owner.
Experimental filmmaking techniques? No
Linear storytelling? Yes
Sequel? Yes, twice over
U.S. box office: $117.2 million (courtesy Box Office Mojo)

2. Ocean’s Eleven (2001)

Warner Bros.

Major movie stars? Yes (George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Julia Roberts)
Conventional story? Yes. Clooney’s ace con man Danny Ocean rallies a motley crew of stylish crooks to knock over an impenetrable casino vault.
Experimental filmmaking techniques? No
Linear storytelling? Yes
U.S. box office: $183.4 million (his highest grossing film)

3. Erin Brockovich (2000)

Bob Marshak

Major movie stars? Yes (Julia Roberts)
Conventional story? Yes. Based on a true story, a buxom single mother helps win a massive settlement against a California power company.
Experimental filmmaking techniques? No
Linear storytelling? Yes
U.S. box office: $125.6 million

4. Ocean’s Twelve (2004)

Major movie stars? Yes (George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Julia Roberts, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Bruce Willis in a cameo as himself)
Conventional story? Yes. Clooney’s ace team of con men bring their act to Europe, where Julia Roberts’ character is tasked with bringing them out of a jam by pretending to be…Julia Roberts.
Experimental filmmaking techniques? No, unless you count the Julia as Julia stunt.
Linear storytelling? Mostly
Sequel? Yes
U.S. box office: $125.5 million

5. Magic Mike (2012)

Warner Bros.

Major movie stars? Yes (Channing Tatum, Matthew McConaughey, Alex Pettyfer)
Conventional story? Sorta. An ace male stripper (Tatum) and his completely insane boss (McConaughey) teach Pettyfer’s aimless kid how to take of your clothes for throngs of screaming women. Sounds silly and sexy, but it gets pretty dark.
Experimental filmmaking techniques? No
Linear storytelling? Yes
U.S. box office: $113.7 million

6. Side Effects (2013)

Peter Andrews / Open Road Films

Major movie stars? Yes (Jude Law, Channing Tatum, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Rooney Mara)
Conventional story? Mostly. In this modern film noir, after the medication a depressive young wife (Mara) is taking causes a lethal side effect, Law’s psychiatrist finds his life turned upside down — and he fights to right it again.
Experimental filmmaking techniques? No
Linear storytelling? Mostly
U.S. box office: N/A

7. Out of Sight (1998)

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Major movie stars? Sorta. George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez were famous, but they were not nearly A-list stars when this film premiered.
Conventional story? Yes. Clooney’s bank thief and Lopez’s U.S. Marshall meet cute during the former’s escape from jail.
Experimental filmmaking techniques? No
Linear storytelling? No
U.S. box office: $37.6 million

8. Contagion (2011)

Major movie stars? Yes (Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslet, Laurence Fishburne, Marion Cotillard, Jude Law)
Conventional story? Yes. A disparate group of people must determine the cause of a global outbreak before all of humanity is wiped off the planet.
Experimental filmmaking techniques? Sorta. It’s a disaster movie, but Soderbergh approaches it as a stark, clinical docudrama, instead of a crass Hollywood entertainment.
Linear storytelling? Yes
U.S. box office: $75.7 million

9. Haywire (2012)

Relativity Media

Major movie stars? Yes, but although Channing Tatum, Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas, Michael Fassbender, Bill Paxton, and Ewan McGregor all figure prominently in the film, it’s really a vehicle for mixed-martial artist (and heretofore unknown actress) Gina Carano.
Conventional story? Yes. A deadly black ops agent is betrayed on what seems like a routine mission, and seeks out retribution on the men who double-crossed her.
Experimental filmmaking techniques? Other than building a film around a woman who has never starred in a feature film before but can definitely kick your ass, no.
Linear storytelling? No
U.S. box office: $18.9 million

10. Traffic (2000)

USA Films

Major movie stars? Yes (Michael Douglas, Dennis Quaid, Catherine Zeta-Jones)
Conventional story? No. Using an enormous cast woven together in several multi-threaded storylines, Soderbergh tackled one of the least explored topics in American mainstream cinema: the war on drugs.
Experimental filmmaking techniques? Yes. Soderbergh employed an array of filters and film stocks to differentiate between the individual storylines, but his approach is otherwise straightforward.
Linear storytelling? A bit. Though the film often hops between characters and countries, everything unfolds chronologically.
U.S. box office: $124.1 million

11. The Informant! (2009)

Claudette Barius

Major movie stars? Yes (Matt Damon)
Conventional story? Sorta. It’s based on the true story of agribusiness executive Mark Whitacre (Damon), who worked with the F.B.I. to uncover a major price-fixing conspiracy, but Whitacre’s methods — and secrets — are often so outrageous, if they weren’t true, you would not believe them.
Experimental filmmaking techniques? Yes. Soderbergh uses spy movie music cues overtop Whitacre’s mundane life to illuminate the character’s less-than-healthy mental state.
Linear storytelling? Yes
U.S. box office: $33.3 million

12. sex, lies, and videotape (1989)

Major movie stars? No (James Spader, Andie MacDowell, and Peter Gallagher were working actors, but nothing close to box office stars, and this was Laura San Giacomo’s breakout role)
Conventional story? No. Soderbergh’s first feature film focuses on four characters: John (Gallagher), a womanizer; Ann (MacDowell), his sexually ambivalent wife; Cynthia (San Giacomo), Ann’s sister and John’s lover; and Graham (Spader), an old friend of John’s who deals with his impotence by video recording women discussing their sexual fantasies.
Experimental filmmaking techniques? No, but it was a huge hit at Sundance, won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, and changed the face of independent cinema forever.
Linear storytelling? Yes
U.S. box office: $24.7 million

13. King of the Hill (1993)

Gramercy Pictures

Major movie stars? No (but it was Bring It On and Guys with Kids star Jesse Bradford’s first lead role, and Downton Abbey’s Elizabeth McGovern plays a prostitute!)
Conventional story? Yes. A 12-year-old boy must survive on his own in a transient hotel during the Great Depression.
Experimental filmmaking techniques? No
Linear storytelling? Yes
U.S. box office: $1.2 million

14. The Good German (2006)

Melinda Sue Gordon

Major movie stars? Yes (George Clooney, Cate Blanchett, Tobey Maguire)
Conventional story? Yes — if it was 1948. A military journalist (Clooney) becomes embroiled in a murder mystery when he visits post-war Berlin.
Experimental filmmaking techniques? Yes. Soderbergh shot in black-and-white and used many of the old school filmmaking techniques — including microphones and lighting — of 1940s Hollywood.
Linear storytelling? Yes
U.S. box office: $3.2 million

15. The Limey (1999)

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Major movie stars? No (Terence Stamp and Peter Fonda are highly respected actors, but by 1999, their star luster had dimmed considerably)
Conventional story? Yes, in a pulp noir way: A British ex-con named Wilson (Stamp) wreaks havoc on the skeezy L.A. record producer (Fonda) he believes was responsible for his daughter’s death.
Experimental filmmaking techniques? At key points, Soderbergh used footage from Stamp’s 1967 feature Poor Cow, in which Stamp played a criminal named Wilson.
Linear storytelling? Not even close
U.S. box office: $1.3 million

16. The Underneath (1995)

Gramercy Pictures

Major movie stars? No (Peter Gallagher, Allison Elliott, William Fichtner)
Conventional story? Yes, in a pulp noir way. A reformed gambling addict (Gallagher) comes back home for his mother’s wedding, and conspires with the hothead boyfriend (Fitchner) of his estranged wife (Elliott) to hold up an armored car.
Experimental filmmaking techniques? No
Linear storytelling? No
U.S. box office: $536,000

17. Bubble (2006)

Magnolia Pictures

Major movie stars? No (Soderbergh cast non-professional actors Debbie Doebereiner, Dustin James Ashley, and Misty Dawn Wilkins)
Conventional story? Yes, in a fashion. The lives of two doll factory workers (Doebereiner and Ashley) are so disrupted when a young single mother (Wilkins) begins to work there, things eventually lead to murder.
Experimental filmmaking techniques? Yes. Along with casting non-actors, Soderbergh used their homes as sets and worked with them to create their dialogue. He also released his film on home video and VOD at roughly the same time it premiered in theaters, at the time a pioneering business decision.
Linear storytelling? Yes
U.S. box office: $146,000

18. Che (2008)

IFC Films

Major movie stars? Kinda (Benicio Del Toro)
Conventional story? Yes. Soderbergh chronicles the life of famed revolutionary and dorm-room poster subject Ernesto “Che” Guevara (Del Toro).
Experimental filmmaking techniques? Yes. The film spans over four hours, and after a series of “roadshow” screenings, it was ultimately split into two parts for its U.S. release.
Linear storytelling? No. The film often makes large chronological leaps in time.
U.S. box office: $1.5 million

19. Solaris (2002)

Bob Marshak

Major movie stars? Yes (George Clooney)
Conventional story? On paper, yes. A psychologist (Clooney) visits a space station orbiting a planet that seems to contain dangerous psychological powers. But Soderbergh treats the material not as sci-fi pulp, but as fodder for ponderous artsy filmmaking.
Experimental filmmaking techniques? No.
Linear storytelling? Mostly, though there are some flashbacks.
U.S. box office: $15 million

20. Full Frontal (2002)

Major movie stars? Yes (Julia Roberts, along with David Duchovny, Catherine Keener, Blair Underwood, David Hyde Pierce)
Conventional story? No. It’s an ensemble snapshot of one day in Los Angeles, culminating in a birthday party.
Experimental filmmaking techniques? Yes. Soderbergh shot the entire film on digital video, at the time a rare event.
Linear storytelling? No.
U.S. box office: $2.5 million

21. The Girlfriend Experience (2009)

Magnolia Pictures

Major movie stars? No (unless you consider porn actress Sasha Grey a major star)
Conventional story? Kinda. It follows the trials and tribulations of a modern day Manhattan call girl, who specializes in the high paying, full-service experience of having a real girlfriend.
Experimental filmmaking techniques? No. By 2009, Soderbergh’s use of high-def digital video had become commonplace.
Linear storytelling? No
U.S. box office: $696,000

22. Kafka (1991)

Miramax Films

Major movie stars? Yes (Jeremy Irons)
Conventional story? No. A gonzo noir fictional take on the life of famed early 20th century writer Franz Kafka (Irons) follows his descent into the Prague underworld.
Experimental filmmaking techniques? Yes. In its madcap sci-fi climax, Soderbergh switches from black-and-white to color.
Linear storytelling? Technically, yes.
U.S. box office: $1.1 million

23. Gray’s Anatomy (1997)

Major movie stars? No (Spalding Gray)
Conventional story? No. The film is an 80-minute filmed monologue by Spalding Gray.
Experimental filmmaking techniques? Just the notion of turning a monologue into a feature film is inherently experimental.
Linear storytelling? No
U.S. box office: $29,000

24. The Last Time I Saw Michael Gregg (2011)

Gareth Cattermole / Getty Images

Major movie stars? Yes (Cate Blanchett), though that hardly matters
Conventional story? Hard to tell. Soderbergh shot the film, which reportedly depicted a staging of Anton Chekov’s play Three Sisters, in Australia with the cast of the stage play Tot Mom he was directing at the time. But he has said he never intends for the film to get any sort of public release.
Experimental filmmaking techniques? He shot it in 10 days, so maybe?
Linear storytelling? Who knows?
U.S. box office: N/A

(Note: Above photo not from the play or the film.)

25. Schizopolis (1996)

Major movie stars? No (Soderbergh himself is the lead actor)
Conventional story? No. The same story — the disintegrating marriage between Fletcher Munson (Soderbergh) and his wife (Betsy Brantley), who is having an affair with a dentist (also Soderbergh) — is told from the different perspectives of each of the characters.
Experimental filmmaking techniques? Duh.
Linear storytelling? Are you kidding?
U.S. box office: $11,000

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