Soderbergh. It seems unlikely that Soderbergh won’t have 20+ archiveable films when it’s all said and done (he’s at 15 as of 2019) and that’s remarkable for a contemporary auteur. This is 3 and 5 ahead of Linklater and Spike Lee who are Soderbergh’s contemporaries and both are also extremely prolific. The fact that Soderbergh almost always serves as high on DP (I’ll get to that more below in stylistic traits) makes it all that more impressive. He only has two top 500 films though and 4 films that are in the top 100 of their respective decade (which is low for someone with 15 archiveable films). But even his weaker work often includes moments of “style-plus” direction and overall I would categorize Soderbergh as “style-plus”—he’s certainly no curator or overseer of archiveable films. It’s a double-edged sword though with his productivity because I often wish he would slow down, take his time, and make another Traffic or Out of Sight. I read a quote somewhere the Soderbergh only evaluates things as one of two things: good, or bad. So through his eyes he makes a lot of good films. Done. Thank god that isn’t reality. Can you picture someone like Kubrick saying that? I don’t like when auteurs take 7 year between films or whatever but there has to be a middle ground.

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over the course of his oeuvre I’ve said that Soderbergh could like a bathroom, a parking lot– and yes– the trunk of a car as he does so elegantly in Out of Sight

Best film:  Traffic. It would also be a candidate for most underrated at this point. For some reason, Traffic is far too often lost in the wake of other films in the fruitful period from 1999-2001. The way Soderbergh differentiates the Mexico sequence and the US sequences through lighting and the use of color is the highlight of his career. It is Soderbergh’s strength and ties so well to the formal and narrative structure. Stunning work.

a stroke of genius in Traffic– two worlds separated by a border– distinctive lighting and coloring
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a dried out yellow for Mexico, an almost day-for-night blue here for the US sequences

total archiveable films: 15

top 100 films:  0

top 500 films: 2 (Traffic, Out of Sight)

some of the best uses of freeze-frames this side of Truffaut come from Soderbergh

top 100 films of the decade: 4 (Sex, Lies and Videotape, Out of Sight, Traffic, Ocean’s Thirteen)

most overrated: none— really too bad here and a bad look for the critics—Soderbergh actually doesn’t have a single film in the TSPDT consensus top 1000.  

most underrated:    Ocean’s Thirteen

  • It’s a minor revelation for me- first time seeing it since theater in 2007 when I liked it as an entertaining movie, but was largely oblivious to Soderbergh’s clear mise-en-scene brilliance on display–  it’s an art film masquerading as pop entertainment
  • A long tracking shot to open of Pitt on a job with another crew and quitting right at the most important time when he gets a call from Clooney
  • Few usages of both freeze frame and split screens- crisp and effective
  • The montage sequence introducing the hotel (by far the most important character in the film) is a thing of beauty—lighting as mise-en-scene everywhere—chandelier city
  • I’m 99% sure that Clooney reads Pacino his lines back from The Godfather to him: “What I want, what’s most important to me…”- nice touch
  • There’s a shot of Pitt with a window- frame within a frame
  • Wipe editing- keeps it brisk and paced despite being over 2hours— with the ensemble and fun narrative it moves nicely
  • The cast is loaded and talented- which makes me wonder (sorry) why we have so much of Eddie Izzard sucking the energy out of the room
  • On top of the genius-level lighting on display here- we have wall paper city in the hotel- stunning
  • Soderbergh’s trademark golden/yellow/orange hue here- Garcia is even shot in front of a fake “woman in gold” painting
  • A great scene at dusk on the strip of Pitt and Clooney talking about old Vegas
  • Plenty of flaws and problems—the Casey Affleck revolution in Mexico sequences don’t work—I’m not sure about how slapstick the Damon/Barkin aphrodisiac with his nose prosthetic scene gets—and I also hate the Oprah stuff with Pitt and Clooney
  • Another one is a terrible scene where Clooney rolls his eyes when Garcia says “I was born ready”— Soderbergh is just moving too fast I would guess and didn’t get another take. I’d be upset with him if I’m Clooney because he looks hack
  • Soderbergh’s color scheme even leans from his gold/yellow/orange to red with the Hotel, Barkin’s dress and some of the lighting scheme
  • The fireworks montage to close with Sinatra’s “This Town” is fitting—nice touch back to the Bellagio closing of the first film
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remarkable wall-art from Ocean’s Thirteen– an avant-garde art film in the background with the heist genre driving the narrative
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a breathtaking stand-alone shot in Ocean’s Thirteen

gem I want to spotlight:    Haywire

  • It’s an interesting mixture of gorgeous photography and lighting (soderbergh), a very chill score (david holmes who also worked with soderbergh to create great atmospheric score for oceans 11 and out of sight) and heavy duty action sequences led by Gina Carano as protagonist
  • She’s a newcomer and soderbergh is right to put her with veterans like mcgregor, michael douglas, banderas and bill Paxton and also in a couple good scenes with the talented michael fassbender and channing tatum
  • Soderbergh’s harsh gorgeous yellow is used early (interrogation/meeting room in like 3 scene) and often. Highlights include a gorgeous escalator at the airport, a white/yellow wine glass in foreground and a reflection (yellow of course) in the window of a night shoot where they are looking off into the distance at two men opening a building door (with a yellow light inside)—really special shots
  • Sort of reminds me of like an early godard experiment (maybe alphaville)—it’s a little sloppy- but very charming and even has a b-movie black and white sequence intertwined for nearly no reason at some point
  • Style as style—it’s a very slim story
  • Soderbergh even lights a parking lot beautifully
  • The narrative device of carano telling the story (in flashback) to Michael Angarano doesn’t work at all
  • See pic above- a gorgeous day for night blue night shootout sequence
  • The word “shit” both opens and ends the film—but the ending, despite the bookends, feels a little truncated.
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for glimpses in 2011’s Haywire– we’re reminded of Soderbergh’s potential
day-for-night steely blue finale in Haywire

stylistic innovations/traits:  Prolific and visually stylized is a rare combination amongst auteurs. Soderbergh’s main claim to fame is his trademark lighting (like say Fincher’s is). It’s beautiful work. He’s an undeniably talented DP (on his own films) with a distinctive look.  Films that seem to fly at us every year with talented ensemble casts (he has a knack for discovering talent as well –they worked elsewhere but he helped launch Clooney, Channing Tatum, Riley Keough). His films often implore freeze-frames edits a la Truffaut (none better than Out of Sight) and split-screen work. Soderbergh edits it fiercely at a great pace most often (perfect for the genre Ocean’s films—wipe edits used a bit ther)e. Often, the lighting isn’t just light- it’s part of the mise-en-scene and is a physical structure and part of the background décor in so many scenes (like Welles). Of his 15 archiveable films he’s the DP (under pseudonym Peter Andrews) for 11 of them and the editor (under pseudonym Mary Ann Bernard) for 9 of them.  Despite being an top 100 all-time auteur with 15 archiveable films he’s frustrating because he might be capable of making better films if he slowed down). Many of his films have great chill jazz scores from David Holmes (6 films).

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lighting and the ceiling as mise-en-scene like Welles or Pakula
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impressive shot composition here in Ocean’s Eleven

top 10

  1. Traffic
  2. Out of Sight  
  3. Ocean’s Thirteen
  4. Sex, Lies, and Videotape
  5. Ocean’s Eleven
  6. The Limey
  7. Haywire
  8. Contagion
  9. Behind the Candelabra
  10. Magic Mike
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this composition is also from Ocean’s Eleven – stunning work

By year and grades

1989- Sex, Lies, and Videotape
1993- King of the Hill R
1998- Out of Sight MS
1999- The Limey R
2000- Erin Brockovich R
2000- Traffic MP
2001- Ocean’s Eleven R
2007- Ocean’s Thirteen HR
2009- The Informant R
2011- Contagion R
2011- Haywire R
2012- Magic Mike R
2013- Behind the Candelabra R
2013- Side Effects R
2017- Logan Lucky R

*MP is Masterpiece- top 1-3 quality of the year film

MS is Must-see- top 5-6 quality of the year film

HR is Highly Recommend- top 10 quality of the year film

R is Recommend- outside the top 10 of the year quality film but still in the archives