Staff Picks: The Stupendous Steven Soderbergh

To tie into the release of Steven Soderbergh’s new thriller No Sudden Move, we at A Fistful of Film wanted to take a look back one of the most exciting and eclectic careers to grace our cinemas. Soderbergh won the Palme D’Or with his first film, indie drama Sex, Lies & Videotape, and after his 1998 crime thriller Out of Sight went from strength to strength, at one point being nominated in two slots for Best Director at the Oscars for Traffic and Erin Brockovich. In the 2010s he entered one his best creative streaks, making a series of films that approached a diverse range of topics and genres with a keen sense of incisive commentary, sharp filmmaking, and subversive themes. This period ran from 2011’s Contagion, across five films to 2017’s Logan Lucky. In recent years he’s innovated the world of digital filmmaking on lo-fi tech like the iPhone with Unsane and High Flying Bird. He also made the hit historical drama The Knick. Today he’s best known for heist franchise Ocean’s 11, Contagion, and Magic Mike.

Sex, Lies, and Videotapes (1989): By Saorise Selway

Soderbergh became an independent filmmaking idol overnight when he broke out with his 1989 drama Sex, Lies & Videotape. Winning the Palme d’Or, he set his stall out as a daring indie auteur with a fully formed voice and willing to tell daring stories with maturity. He would maintain all of those aspects despite a slight hiccup in the years immediately after this film. This still remains the pinnacle of his efforts for me. The dramatic insight in this film is the most ambitious of any film he’s made since and it’s deftly weaved. Excellent performances from James Spader and Andie MacDowell amongst an otherwise stacked cast are complemented by some of Soderbergh’s least flashy and most spare filmmaking with a focus on the camera telling the story rather than attracting the audience’s attention. Not that one is better than the other but it creates an eerily sublime effect to know that Soderbergh was the man behind the camera while making this. It’s lack of reliance on cinema tricks lets the drama stand free on its own feet, and the metatextual element of the use of a video camera lets you know the film is being made by someone as fascinated with the potentiality of cinema as Soderbergh. The interest here on what it means to be filmed and to film is fascinating and any cinema buff will be entranced.

Traffic (2000): By Jacob Calta

Steven Soderbergh’s will to experiment is one of his greatest assets as a filmmaker, leading him to creating many new, exciting, and oft-times unorthodox affairs. Whether it’s the cellphone filmmaking of Unsane or the absurdism and non-linearity of Schizopolis, Soderbergh has proven himself game for taking any and all risks in the creative process. In the case of 2000’s Traffic, Soderbergh takes his knack for non-linearity and color codes it.

Traffic is a snapshot of The Drug War at the turn of the millennium, taking viewers across borders and through different levels of society, from pushers to politicians and beyond. Soderbergh takes the framework of the 1989 Channel 4 miniseries Traffik and utilizes a contemporaneous North American lens for the concept. Armed with a cartoonishly stacked cast highlighting the colossal talents of actors like Michael Douglas, Benicio del Toro, Don Cheadle, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Tomas Milian, and countless others, we are treated to a multi-faceted depiction of the way the Drug War impacts everyone. We see the daughter of a politician cripplingly addicted to crack, a drug lord’s wife forced to indulge in her husband’s dirty trade, a Mexican police officer roped into nefarious acts at the behest of a corrupt general. Story lines intersect, characters brush past one another, and in some cases directly confront one another.

To keep the action clear, Soderbergh not only hops behind the camera to lens the film himself, he adopts unique color grading styles for the three core narratives of the film. The Mexican narrative is famously treated to a warm, grainy grade, the story surrounding Douglas’s “Judge Wakefield” is treated to a cool, often overexposed blue, and the narrative surrounding the DEA and drug lord Carl Ayala is naturally graded, if perhaps slightly warmer in temperature. The end result is a film whose aesthetics, while not only ever-changing, are unique and compelling.

While it’s easy to lob the word “dated” at this pre-9/11 glimpse into one of the longest running socio-political problems in the continent at large, Soderbergh is smarter than that. Like any sensible filmmaker working within the contemporary world, he crafts compelling narratives that use the time they are shot during as the backdrop to help inform the story. Combined with a powerful ensemble cast, the fresh structure, and his own incredible sense of vision, Soderbergh takes a hot button topic and bequeaths it a dramatic depth of field, ensuring Traffic remains as powerful a piece of film today as it was in its day. Recommended without reservation.

Ocean’s Twelve (2004): By David Alkhed

The quasi-original Ocean’s Eleven from 2001 is a fantastic film. A remake of the film featuring most of the Rat Pack from 1960, it starred some of the biggest movie stars of today with George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts and Matt Damon with others filling in the shoes of Sinatra, Martin, Lawford and Sammy Davis, Jr. It became a huge commercial hit, earning $450 million worldwide and it’s easy to see why. It’s almost as close mainstream movies come to being pure fun and entertainment, combined with stylish filmmaking and glamorous movie stars doing glamorous stuff and clearly having a blast doing it without it ever becoming detrimental to the audience. Critics also loved it, so it was another home-run for Soderbergh after the one-two punch the previous year with the Oscar-nominated Erin Brockovich and Traffic, although Soderbergh didn’t score an Oscar this time around. With that kind of success, a sequel was inevitable, with Soderbergh & Co. returning with Ocean’s Twelve in 2004. Yet despite commercial success almost on par with the original and a few positive notices from critics upon release (Roger Ebert being one of them), it was almost universally derided critically and some call it one of the worst sequels ever made. And yet it’s Soderbergh’s personal favorite out of the three, an opinion I happen to share with him.

Much like 22 Jump Street would do ten years later to slightly more successful results as far as critical reception goes, Ocean’s Twelve is a sequel about how hard it is to make a good sequel, albeit Ocean’s Twelve is a little more subtle (the two would make an excellent double feature though). It makes for a fun and self-aware fare without ever being obnoxious or annoying about it. There’s even a semi-baffling fourth-wall break where Julia Roberts’ character has to impersonate Julia Roberts, which also leads to a very funny cameo from Bruce Willis in the film. And even when the plot can be a little hard to follow and borderline incomprehensible, the film makes up for it with its likeable cast, more and funnier jokes second time around, cool music from David Holmes and a film that is simply gorgeous to look at from a visual standpoint in its use of locations, unusual camera angles and color schemes, evoking the glamor of both classic Hollywood and European cinema of the 1960s at the same time. There’s also the classic scene where Clooney, Pitt, Robbie Coltrane are speaking in code to which Matt Damon responds by quoting the lyrics from Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir, which I think is just amazing as a Led Zeppelin fan. There’s also the meta-joke taking a stab at the auteur theory, when the gang is riled up about their previous job being referred to as “Ocean’s Eleven” when they see it as a group effort. It may not actually have been an auteur-joke, but it’s funny nevertheless.

Whilst I run the risk of sounding like a vulgar auteurist or pretentious douchebag, Ocean’s Twelve feels like one of Soderbergh’s most experimental and daring studio movies, certainly his most polarizing. But I think time has been kind to Twelve, making it a standout in Hollywood’s ever-increasing sea (trying to avoid using the word ocean for obvious reasons) of sequels that just fails to replicate the success of the original. Ocean’s Twelve goes its own path, and is all the better for it.

Contagion (2011): By Amos Lamb

Like a lot of people, I watched Contagion when it jumped back up to the top of streaming rental charts in the midst of the Global Pandemic. Perhaps it’s a morbid curiosity that led so many people, myself included, to watch a film about a deadly virus while in the midst of a real-world pandemic but what shocked me about this film is how accurate it turned out to be. From ideas like toilet paper panic buying, to fake news personalities spreading doubt about vaccines, which all turned out to be scarily accurate. 

The hyper-realistic style that Soderbergh implements is really interesting for this type of film. By 2011 we were already exposed to tons of dystopian fiction, but taking inspiration from these and real world events like 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, Soderbergh presents the start of a dystopia in a brand new way, exposing the humanity and lack thereof in the wake of a world-changing event. The grounded feeling, coupled with the thorough research conducted by screenwriter Scott Z. Burns is what makes this film so great and has allowed it to hold up so well following the real-world pandemic. And it is through the hyper-realistic approach that makes the film feel so authentic, nothing feels contrived or unbelievable in the different ways we see people react. 

Soderbergh takes full advantage of the grandiosity of the story, manoeuvring the story through a large ensemble cast across the globe. The film doesn’t shy away from the sense of scale that this narrative requires but utilises that to highlight the humanity, and lack thereof, in the midst of the panic. The hyperlink style of storytelling sets Contagion apart from the traditional epic, but the interweaving narratives and grandiose cinematography that captures the beauty of the cities as well as the terror and fear as the virus progresses and gets worse. The bustling cityscapes transform into wastelands, the later images of trash lining the streets juxtapose the early shots of crowded cities and bustling casinos. As the film, and spread of the virus, progresses we see this shift from cities full of people to images of mass hospitals and grave sites, this stark contrast adds not only to the tension but also demonstrates the growing chaos of the situation. 

While I’m not sure I’d call this my favourite Soderbergh film, it definitely left its mark on me. The whole ensemble cast does a phenomenal job, with Jude Law being my personal stand-out amongst them, and Soderbergh’s cinematography is really great just like his direction. I wish I had seen it before experiencing a global pandemic myself but honestly in many ways I feel it has only enhanced the experience of watching Contagion.

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