Total Recall

Total Recall: Steven Soderbergh's Best Movies

We count down the best-reviewed work of the Haywire director.

by | January 19, 2012 | Comments

Steven Soderbergh

With some directors, you pretty much always know what you’re going to get (paging Michael Bay to the red awesome button next to the white courtesy phone); with others, you can depend on certain stylistic sensibilities regardless of the genre they’re exploring (come on down, Danny Boyle!). And then there’s Steven Soderbergh: restless, eclectic, award-winning, and equally at home in the arthouse and the megaplex. With Haywire, Soderbergh is aiming squarely for the latter, but bringing his own unique style to the ever-popular action genre — and making this week’s Total Recall the perfect place to look back at some of his brightest critical highlights!


10. Che: Part Two (Guerrilla)

A year after concluding the Ocean’s trilogy, Soderbergh turned his attention to a sprawling, nearly five-hour biopic of iconic revolutionary/unintentional t-shirt model Che Guevara. Originally spearheaded by Terrence Malick but abandoned when funding fell through, Che made waves on the festival circuit — where star Benicio del Toro won a Best Actor trophy at Cannes — but even split into two chapters, it had little more than niche appeal to mainstream American filmgoers. For those who dared brave its imposing length, however, critics promised an experience worth the investment. As Peter Bradshaw wrote for the Guardian, “Che Two is deeply impressive: austerely confident, coherent and mysterious.”


9. Ocean’s Eleven

Glamour is a big part of what used to make going to the movies so much fun — and thanks to a variety of factors, not least the rising tide of paparazzi journalism, the wonderful spectacle of Hollywood’s brightest stars has lost a great deal of its wattage over the last decade and change. Soderbergh managed to turn back the clock a little with his 2001 remake of the minor 1960 Rat Pack classic, lining up a cast of heavyweights so impressive that even the most jaded filmgoers couldn’t help but give in to the spectacle. Critics were suitably dazzled, too, noting that the fun being had onscreen by George Clooney (as the titular Danny Ocean) and his luminous co-stars (including Matt Damon, Brad Pitt, and Julia Roberts) was too infectious to resist. Writing for the Philadelphia Weekly, Sean Burns applauded, “It’s a giant ice-cream cake of a movie that tickles the pleasure centers of your brain — restoring the good name of large-scale, old-fashioned Hollywood entertainment.”


8. Erin Brockovich

Soderbergh earned a slew of Golden Globe and Academy Awards nominations — including Best Picture and Best Director nominations at the Oscars — for this fact-based courtroom drama about a legal file clerk (Julia Roberts) who discovered that a town’s public utility company was poisoning its water supply, and continued to pursue the case until justice was served. Roberts’ Brockovich performance cleaned up at the awards circuit, winning her Best Actress honors from SAG, BAFTA, the Golden Globes, and the Oscars — and the film was a hit with audiences as well as critics, earning more than $250 million at the box office while bringing praise from critics like Michael Wilmington of the Chicago Tribune, who called it “One of the gutsiest, most exciting, and most satisfying courtroom docudramas ever, one that genuinely lifts the spirits as you watch it.”


7. Contagion

Movies about virus epidemics are nothing new — who can forget Dustin Hoffman saving the world from a monkey virus in Outbreak? — but Soderbergh gave the genre a fresh, chilly twist with Contagion. Using an Altman-worthy assortment of famous faces, including Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, and Gwyneth Paltrow, Soderbergh depicted the deadly spread of the illness with what some critics felt was overly clinical precision, but as far as most writers were concerned, its lack of colorful melodrama was precisely the point. “The most terrifying aspect of Contagion, ultimately, is the plausibility of its premise,” wrote Jeanette Catsoulis for NPR. “Meticulous and low-key, the film reminds us that disaster lies in the most mundane interactions.”


6. And Everything Is Going Fine

Spalding Gray was a singular talent, and after his mysterious death (ruled a suicide) in 2004, Soderbergh set about giving him a singular biopic. The result: 2010’s And Everything Is Going Fine, which uses judiciously edited performance footage to tell Gray’s story in his own words. Its theatrical run was mostly restricted to the festival circuit (including screenings at Slamdance and SXSW), but even if it wasn’t one of Soderbergh’s more commercial efforts, it gave the director a chance to show a rarely-seen side of his artistry. “This is not a standard bio-documentary,” wrote Misha Berson of the Seattle Times. “It is the artist giving us a guided tour of himself, through a mosaic of clips from his shows and TV interviews, craftily assembled by Soderbergh.”


5. Traffic

One of the more darkly ambitious films to make its way through the studio system over the last decade, Soderbergh’s Traffic looks at the human cost of the drug trade by following seemingly unconnected stories that slowly converge. In Mexico, a police officer (Benicio del Toro) becomes the unwitting employee of a drug lord; in San Diego, a major dealer (Miguel Ferrer) is targeted by a pair of DEA agents (Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman); and in the Midwest, a crusading judge (Michael Douglas) finds his black-and-white views on drugs challenged when his teenage daughter (Erika Christensen) develops a cocaine addiction. In condensing the six-part BBC series Traffik, Soderbergh had to trim some of the original’s heft, but Traffic was still a four-time Academy Award winner (including Best Director) as well as one of the best-reviewed films of the year, thanks to critics like Andrew Sarris of the New York Observer, who proclaimed, “The promise of Sex, Lies, and Videotape has been fulfilled.”


4. The Limey

Soderbergh followed the critical and commercial triumph of Out of Sight with The Limey, a gritty neo-noir showcase for the talent of leading man Terence Stamp. Here, Stamp plays Wilson, a British ex-con hellbent on bloody revenge for the death of his daughter. Surrounded by an ace cast that included Peter Fonda, Lesley Ann Warren, and Luis Guzman, Stamp led The Limey to some of the year’s best reviews — including an enthusiastic endorsement from the San Francisco Chronicle’s Edward Guthmann, who called it “a first-rate crime thriller and further proof that director Stephen Soderbergh is one of our great contemporary film stylists.”


3. Out of Sight

With his adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s bestselling novel, Soderbergh could have created just another heist flick, but Jennifer Lopez and George Clooney’s chemistry, along with Scott Frank’s razor-sharp screenplay, takes it to another level. As Sisco, Lopez gets to alternate between tough and vulnerable, all while being lovingly lit by Soderbergh and cinematographer Elliot Davis; meanwhile, Clooney’s screen presence fully evolves here from “moonlighting TV star” to “certified leading man.” As Radheyan Simonpillai noted in his review for, “Soderbergh finds the perfect equilibrium between mainstream entertainment and arty panache, lacing this heist movie/romantic comedy with character-motivated time shifting, prominent freeze-frames, a funky soundtrack and an all-around hip vibe.”


2. King of the Hill

After the relative disappointment of 1991’s Kafka, Soderbergh bounced back (critically speaking, anyway) with his next picture, 1993’s King of the Hill. With a script Soderbergh adapted from A.E. Hotchner’s memoir, Hill tells the tale of a Depression-era teenager (played by Jesse Bradford) who whiles his time in a fleabag St. Louis hotel while his father works the road as a traveling salesman and his mother is treated for tuberculosis. Not the cheeriest stuff, and hardly blockbuster material, but it impressed most of the critics who saw it — including James Berardinelli of ReelViews, who called it “a remarkable odyssey about a resilient young hero who uses both his imagination and his sense of reality to survive.”


1. sex, lies, and videotape

The DNA of the 1990s indie film boom can be traced back directly to Soderbergh’s debut, which took a deceptively simple premise — four people talking about their relationships — and turned it into a Palme d’Or winner that essentially made Miramax a viable studio. Viewed through modern eyes, it may not seem like much more than a series of well-acted conversations, but at the time, sex, lies, and videotape was a breath of fresh air that Hollywood desperately needed — and, as the New York Times’ Caryn James put it, “a film whose enormous authority and intelligence extend to every detail.”

In case you were wondering, here are Soderbergh’s top 10 movies according RT users’ scores:

1. Traffic — 81%
2. Schizopolis — 79%
3. King of the Hill — 77%
4. Ocean’s Eleven — 76%
5. Erin Brockovich — 76%
6. Che: Part One (The Argentine) — 75%
7. The Limey — 75%
8. Ocean’s Thirteen — 74%
9. sex, lies, and videotape — 73%
10. Kafka — 73%

Take a look through Soderbergh’s complete filmography, as well as the rest of our Total Recall archives. And don’t forget to check out the reviews for Haywire.


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