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Steven Soderbergh's Best Films

How can you even attempt to sum up the arthouse, crowd-pleasing, big-budget, lo-fi, expectation-breaking career that is Steven Soderbergh's? After bursting onto the scene with his electrifying debut film, Sex, Lies, and Videotape, Soderbergh quickly became one of the most hyped directors working in Hollywood. And over the course of a more than 30-year career, there's not a genre he hasn't tackled nor a convention he hasn't broken, with enough cinematic classics to make up a dozen careers.

Making a list of Soderbergh's "best movies" might seem like a futile exercise, and there are bound to be films not featured on here that might just be someone's absolute favorite Soderbergh film. But the films featured here show a vast array of just how eclectic Soderbegh's career has been, from Oscar-winning dramas and blockbuster heist films to intimate character pieces shot with microscopic budgets. What is a Steven Soderbergh film? We may never have a definitive answer, but for right now, we can provide you with a list of what we consider his best movies!

Sex, Lies, and Videotape put Steven Soderbergh on the map

Sometimes all it takes is one film to show the world what kind of visionary you are, and so it was with Soderbergh's first feature, Sex, Lies, and Videotape. Soderbergh's Palme d'Or-winning debut film charted the course for the rest of his illustrious career, and it set a grounded base for where his best films usually stem from — broken people having tortured conversations with each other, trying to find meaning in a meaningless world. True to its title, there is indeed a lot of sex, too many lies, and enough videotape to capture the lurid conversations at the center of this 1989 indie standout.

The quartet of Andie MacDowell, James Spader, Peter Gallagher, and Laura San Giacomo all give dynamite performances in intimate scenes of sexual frustration, torrid truth-telling, and that ultimate desire to just be understood by another human being. Even from a young age on his very first feature, Soderbergh had a grasp on capturing the human spirit that would only blossom throughout his decades-long career.

Behind the Candelabra features Matt Damon at his best

Before making the announcement about his retirement from filmmaking (a retirement that would last all of four years), Soderbergh "closed out" his directing career with the seemingly by-the-numbers HBO biopic Behind the Candelabra, chronicling the final years of the life of piano virtuoso Liberace and his tortured relationship with Scott Thorson, who would go on to write the memoir that would provide the basis for this film.

While Michael Douglas as Liberace has the flashier, more awards-friendly performance (which did result in an Emmy for his work), it's really Matt Damon as Thorson who gets to shine here, bringing a sense of fear, vulnerability, and toxicity to his performance that's some of the best work in his career. Though for much of its runtime, Behind the Candelabra seems like Soderbergh just connecting the dots, it's the layers within those dots that make it a standout biopic and a worthy entry in this auteur's stellar collection of work.

Out of Sight is a sexy caper that helped Soderbergh go mainstream

Beginning with 1998's Out of Sight, Soderbergh would soon become an unstoppable critical hit machine, generating new films practically every year (sometimes more than one in a given year), with the added bonus that this deluge of content was some of the best new American cinema to hit silver screens. And Out of Sight — an endlessly enjoyable game of cat and mouse between bank robber Jack Foley (George Clooney) and U.S. Marshal Karen Sisco (Jennifer Lopez) — is one of Soderbergh's standout crime films, bringing the world of Elmore Leonard's source novel to the big screen in a most tremendous fashion.

With Clooney and Lopez performing at the absolute top of their game in one of the sexiest, craftiest pieces of genre filmmaking of the late '90s, Out of Sight is a brilliant showcase for all involved, kickstarting a collaboration between Clooney and Soderbergh that would go on for years to come. Plus, it proved that Soderbergh was more than just an indie arthouse director. His vision was to be one for the ages.

Traffic won Steven Soderbergh his Oscar

The film that got Soderbergh his directing Oscar, 2000's Traffic is a sprawling, deeply intense web of political intrigue, familial dilemma, and deep personal struggle within a world that takes no prisoners. Using color-coded imagery to differentiate its multiple overlapping storylines, Traffic is as formally experimental as it is deeply personal, and it's a further extension of Soderbergh's continuous attempt at challenging the ways we consume cinema.

Traffic is a fascinating piece of stylistic experimentation, mixed in with a kaleidoscopic look at the terrifying and cyclical world of drug culture, from the distributors to the legislators to law enforcement, all working tirelessly to try and close the lid on a Pandora's box that can't be shut. Traffic is as remarkable a showcase as any for the creative ways Soderbergh approaches his material, and his award-winning work here cemented a career devoted to taking risks and telling stories that needed to be told.

Logan Lucky is hilarious and heartwarming

It speaks to Soderbergh's general restlessness as a director that so soon after his "retirement," he found himself roaring back into the public with one of his strongest films to date in 2017's Logan Lucky. It's a hilarious, tense, gloriously constructed heist movie with the brains of the Ocean's films, the heart of Erin Brockovich, and the humor that can only come from throwing Channing Tatum, Adam Driver, and Daniel Craig into a heist at a NASCAR track and letting them loose in one of the funniest capers out there.

Logan Lucky could've just been seen as a minor entry in Soderbergh's oeuvre, a lighthearted heist flick with some fun character moments cobbled together for a few laughs here and there. But as with most of his films, Soderbergh isn't content with just having a good time and letting that be that. His films contain heart, humanity, and a deep exploration of the American condition, and Logan Lucky was a welcome "return" to cinema for one of Hollywood's most empathetic directors.

The Limey is a fantastic revenge film

If an angry Terence Stamp beating up his enemies and yelling Cockney obscenities into the air doesn't do it for ya, then what's the point of life? Released in 1999, The Limey is a revenge thriller with a heart of gold, and it places Stamp as the sole Brit amongst a cavalcade of West Coast scum as he tries to find the man who killed his daughter, get his true vengeance, and maybe discover some peace for once in his life.

The Limey, as exquisitely constructed as anything in Soderbergh's filmography, succeeds in part thanks to its top-notch performances (including excellent supporting players like Luis Guzman, Peter Fonda, and Lesley Ann Warren) and partly due to its intricate style of editing Stamp's dialogue with overlapping scenes and flashbacks. These impressive performances and stylized editing techniques, complimented with the film's spin on the revenge genre, all work in tandem to create a crime thriller unlike any other. Indebted to films that came before it yet still ahead of its time, The Limey is a fan-favorite in Soderbergh's oeuvre and for good reason.

And Everything Is Going Fine is a tragic and touching documentary

How do you capture a life gone too soon? Such is the quest at the heart of 2010's And Everything Is Going Fine, the only documentary on this list but one close to the heart of Soderbergh. The film works to capture the life and memory of the director's frequent collaborator and monologist extraordinaire, Spalding Gray, who'd drowned six years earlier in what was believed to be his suicide.

Rather than film new interviews with those who knew him best, Soderbergh's approach is something akin to letting a ghost share their story with us. All of the footage in the film is archival, with past interviews and performances from the late Spalding Gray providing us his life and his work in his own brilliant cadence, filtered through his own tortured mind. Like a collage of filmed memories collected together in perpetuity, And Everything Is Going Fine is Soderbergh's beautiful and tragic means of letting us know that sometimes the best way to tell someone's story is to just let them tell it themselves, in their own words, before they're lost to time.

If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

King of the Hill is a little-seen Soderbergh classic

After the absolute boom of a success that was Sex, Lies, and Videotape, Soderbergh hit the ground running right away and spent his next few films experimenting in various different tones and genres, refusing to be boxed in as just one kind of filmmaker. Among that early slate of pictures was 1993's King of the Hill (no relation to the cartoon of the same name), a charming and humane Great Depression drama about a young boy trying to survive in a world where nothing is guaranteed.

Young child actor Jesse Bradford absolutely holds down the fort as the lead. Plus, he's surrounded by a cast of "wait, they were in this movie?" stars like Adrien Brody, Katherine Heigl, Lauryn Hill, and Spalding Gray. Thankfully, King of the Hill narrowly avoids falling into twee Oscar-bait territory through Soderbergh's human touch and his commitment to showing the darker sides of American poverty in this utterly transfixing feature.

Let Them All Talk proves Steven Soderbergh and Meryl Streep are still going strong

Yes, even during the endless nightmarish year that was 2020, the world was gifted with another entry in the Soderbergh oeuvre, this time with a chill, literary hangout movie that was the HBO Max Original Let Them All Talk. Scripted by legendary writer Deborah Eisenberg, Let Them All Talk throws Meryl Streep, Dianne Wiest, Candice Bergen, and — naturally — Lucas Hedges onto a cruise ship together. And as the title suggests, it provides us a glimpse into the messy and volatile relationships of a struggling author (Streep) trying to reconcile and reconnect with her friends and family.

The latter day laid-back machinations of the Soderbergh feature-machine make for an altogether warm bath of a film, where the actors almost seem to be taking a semi-improvised manner of conversation to their scenes. And in a year where Streep was also seen chomping on the scenery of Ryan Murphy's The Prom, it's refreshing to witness such a down-to-earth performance from one of the best actors alive. Let Them All Talk is proof enough that Soderbergh, now more than 30 years into his career, is still working at the top of his game.

Julia Roberts is at her best in Erin Brockovich

The year 2000 was a pivotal one in the rise of Steven Soderbergh. Releasing two films stylistically opposed to each other — with both getting Best Picture nominations and Best Director nominations at the 73rd Academy Awards — Soderbergh was a filmmaker at the peak of his powers. And if Traffic proved that Soderbergh's creative instincts were as sharp as ever, then Erin Brockovich was Soderbergh proving that he could make a mainstream movie as good, or better, than anyone in Hollywood.

This biopic — following the life of the eponymous real-life environmental activist as she fights to hold an energy company responsible for contaminating the local town's water — hits that sweet spot of grand-standing crowd-pleaser and deep, intimate character study, with Julia Roberts' performance as the lead character easily standing as the best in her career. Roberts would go on to win the Oscar for Best Lead Actress for this role, a testament to Soderbergh's passion for guiding actors to perform their truth to their fullest.

Ocean's Eleven is the greatest heist movie ever made

The heist movie to end all heist movies, it's practically undeniable how much of a good time you're gonna get from 2001's Ocean's Eleven. A remake of the classic Rat Pack film of the same name, George Clooney stars as Danny Ocean, a too-cool-to-exist criminal who's out to tackle one of the biggest scores of his life — robbing three of the largest casinos in Las Vegas. He's got to assemble his team, plan the craziest heist of the century, and maybe crack a few one-liners along the way.

Ocean's Eleven's cast is absolutely phenomenal. It features Clooney as suave as he's ever been, Brad Pitt providing a knockout straight man performance, and Don Cheadle with the most ridiculous Cockney accent you've ever heard. Plus, we've got performances from Carl Reiner, Elliott Gould, Matt Damon, Bernie Mac, and Julia Roberts, not to mention enough hijinks and double-crossing that you'll immediately want to watch it all again right after you're done. Soderbergh may have launched himself onto the scene through independent films, but Ocean's Eleven was the ticket to Hollywood that proved he had the world of moviemaking right in the palm of his hand.