Five essential films from director Steven Soderbergh

Ben Bussey
UK Movies Writer
Some of director Steven Soderbergh’s best work: ‘Ocean’s Eleven,’ ‘Traffic,’ ‘Magic Mike’ (credit: Warner Bros, Entertainment Film)

New in cinemas this weekend is heist comedy ‘Logan Lucky.’ While notable for being the first we’ve seen of Daniel Craig in a while (and casting the Bond actor very much against type), it’s also the 26th feature from director Steven Soderbergh, and his first since prematurely announcing his retirement from film in 2013.

Since his 1989 debut ‘Sex, Lies and Videotape’ saw him (at 26) become the youngest ever winner of the Palm D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, Soderbergh has been one of the most unique figures in American filmmaking. His initial indie success soon gave way to a surprisingly prolific and varied directorial career, ranging from the hard-hitting and arty, to the light-hearted and mainstream-friendly.

‘Logan Lucky’ clearly belongs more at the light, mainstream end of Soderbergh’s spectrum – and with this in mind, here are five of the director’s key works which helped paved the way to where he is today.

Jennifer Lopez and George Clooney in ‘Out of Sight’ (credit: Universal)

Out of Sight (1998)

This slick adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s novel proved to be a major career turning point for Soderbergh and his lead actors George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez, and one of the coolest crime thrillers of the late 1990s. Clooney (in dire need of a comeback in the wake of ‘Batman and Robin’) plays smooth-talking bank robber Jack Foley, whose prison break is complicated by an encounter with Federal Marshall Karen Sisco (Lopez). Matters are complicated further when an attraction develops between the two.

This film set the template for a good portion of Soderbergh’s future output, as his first collaboration with a number of key figures he would later reunite with, notably Clooney, co-star Don Cheadle, and composer David Holmes.

Benico del Toro in ‘Traffic’ (credit: Entertainment Film)

Traffic (2000)

2000 was a very big year for Soderbergh, as he put out two films – ‘Traffic’ and ‘Erin Brockovich’ – both of which earned him Best Director nominations at the Oscars; the only time to date that a director has been nominated in the same category twice in the same year. But while ‘Erin Brockovich’ is a fine work, notable for earning Julia Roberts a Best Actress Oscar, it was ‘Traffic’ that won Soderbergh his Best Director award.

Based on 1989 Channel 4 TV drama ‘Traffik,’ the film is a powerful ensemble piece exploring the many sides of the war on drugs. The illustrious cast includes Michael Douglas as the government drug czar, Catherine Zeta-Jones as the pregnant wife of a drug lord, and Don Cheadle as a DEA agent. However, it’s Benico del Toro who really steals the movie as a Tijuana cop who uncovers government corruption, his performance earning him the Best Supporting Actor Oscar.

George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Elliot Gould and Don Cheadle in ‘Ocean’s Eleven’ (credit: Warner Bros)

Ocean’s Eleven (2001)

After two fairly serious movies the year before, the workaholic director went in a wildly different direction with this star-studded remake of the 1960 Las Vegas heist movie. An exercise in calculated cool, ‘Ocean’s Eleven’ saw Soderbergh reunite with George Clooney and Julia Roberts, with Brad Pitt and Matt Damon boosting the star power even further.

Soderbergh’s biggest box office hit to date, ‘Ocean’s Eleven’ made $450 million worldwide, and saw the director return for two sequels. A spin-off, ‘Ocean’s Eight,’ is also in the works. Clearly it was a winning formula.

Gina Carano in ‘Haywire’ (credit: Momentum Pictures)

Haywire (2011)

Soderbergh worked solidly through the 2000s, skipping between edgy independent projects (notably the two-volume ‘Che’) and glossier mainstream fare (‘Solaris,’ the ‘Ocean’s Eleven’ sequels); but it arguably wasn’t until this 2011 spy thriller that he really took a chance at something outside of his comfort zone.

A full-on action movie with a slew of hard-hitting fight scenes, gun battles and car chases, ‘Haywire’ still manages to retain enough of Soderbergh’s unique sensibilities to be instantly recognisable as his work. It’s as viscerally exhilarating as it is emotionally and intellectually sophisticated, making for hugely rewarding viewing. ‘Haywire’ gave MMA fighter Gina Carano her breakthrough acting role, and was also Soderbergh’s first film with another key collaborator, Channing Tatum, with whom he would reunite the following year…

Matt Bomer, Channing Tatum, Adam Rodriguez and Joe Manganeillo in ‘Magic Mike’ (credit: Warner Bros)

Magic Mike (2012)

One of the most talked-about films of recent years, ‘Magic Mike’ proved to be a career-defining movie for lead actor Channing Tatum. A semi-autobiographical account of Tatum’s real-life experiences as a stripper, the film had its genesis in discussions on the subject between the actor and director on the set of ‘Haywire.’

While it was immediately established as a ladies’ night favourite, ‘Magic Mike’ is a far more nuanced and intelligent drama than first appearances might suggest. As well as rejuvenating Tatum’s career, it also had a key role to play in the McConaissance; supporting actor Matthew McConaughey when straight from this to ‘Mud,’ ‘The Dallas Buyers Club’ and ‘True Detective.’

And of course, Channing Tatum takes the lead alongside Daniel Craig and Adam Driver in Steven Soderbergh’s ‘Logan Lucky,’ in cinemas now.

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