In the history of the Academy Awards, Steven Soderbergh is the only director who had to compete against himself. And he won.
Prognosticators figured Soderbergh hurt his chances by directing two of 2000’s five best pictures. (Actually, let’s make that two of the four best; how did the insipid “Chocolat” make the cut?) The conventional wisdom was Soderbergh would cancel himself out with “Traffic” and “Erin Brockovich” splitting the vote, but he was the surprise victor for best director with “Traffic.” That’s even more surprising when you consider that best picture, an award that usually went hand-in-hand with best director in those days, went to “Gladiator.”
It can’t hurt that Soderbergh is not only insanely prolific and smart but that actors — by far, the biggest group of Oscar voters — love to work with him. Many top Hollywood names are Soderbergh recidivists, including Julia Roberts, Don Cheadle and George Clooney. Maybe a bunch of those folks solved the double-nomination problem by conspiring to put their votes behind “Traffic”?
We’ll never know, but we do know something happened in Soderbergh’s career around 1998. After making a splash at the 1989 Sundance Film Festival with “Sex, Lies, and Videotape,” he built a reputation as a cerebral, experimental writer/director but never made anything resembling a popular movie until “Out of Sight.” That began a string of five wildly entertaining titles in a three-year span, including “The Limey,” “Brockovich,” “Traffic” and his biggest hit, the glittering remake of “Ocean’s 11.”
Although those movies vary in tone, ranging from the grit of “Traffic” to the larkiness of “Ocean’s,” they all share an element Soderbergh often returns to: the caper. His characters are usually trying to get away with something illegal and Soderbergh likes to let us in on the planning, so we can see where it goes right or, more often, wrong.
One of my favorites of his is the noirish caper “The Underneath,” starring Elisabeth Shue, but I can’t find it streaming anywhere. The following seven, fortunately, are easy to find. (“Out of Sight” is not on the list because I included it on my list of best Steve Zahn movies a couple of weeks ago.)
Not for the first time, I think the Oscars got it wrong with Soderbergh because “Brockovich” is better than “Traffic.” Probably the most conventional movie the prolific director has made — a fish-out-of-water, little-guy-fights-city-hall biopic — it’s a crowd-pleaser that doesn’t make you feel stupid for loving it. A #MeToo movie before that movement launched, it’s also a showcase for Roberts, who won an Oscar for her weary, cut-the-crap performance.
I’ve never understood why this comedy, written by Golden Valley native Scott Z. Burns (also the screenwriter of the next two movies on this list) wasn’t a hit. It stars Matt Damon, at the peak of his popularity, as a moron whom the FBI enlists as a mole in an investigation of corporate malfeasance. (One benefit of working frequently with the same actors is that they trust Soderbergh to cast them in a variety of roles, and respond with the kind of vanity-free work Damon does here.) It’s hilarious and, with its theme of government and business incompetence, troubling.
Soderbergh, also the cinematographer and editor of “Side Effects,” may have been born three decades too late. Hollywood loved twisty, clever thrillers in the ’70s and ’80s but had given up on them by the time this one hit theaters. Fans of “The Usual Suspects” will eat up the murder mystery, which, like quite a few Soderbergh titles, has nasty things to say about Big Pharma. Besides Channing Tatum, Rooney Mara, Jude Law and Catherine Zeta-Jones, the cast includes St. Paul native Laila Robins (that’s her warning, “It’s gonna follow you around forever,” in the trailer).
“Did she mention seeing anyone who was sick?” is not a phrase any of us wants to hear in the era of contact tracing, but this melodrama about a pandemic feels creepily prescient. Partly set in the Twin Cities but shot outside of Chicago, it features yet another all-star cast (Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard) and yet another Minnesota native (Alexandria’s John Hawkes).
The most gleefully silly of all of Soderbergh’s caper comedies, it’s another throwback, reminiscent of (but much better than) “Smokey and the Bandit.” The heist takes place at a NASCAR race, Daniel Craig plays a Southern safecracker named Joe Bang who turns “incarcerated” into five separate words, Adam Driver keeps losing his prosthetic arm and, eventually, all of that makes sense.
Soderbergh probably won his Oscar for “Traffic” instead of “Brockovich” because “Traffic” (for which he also was the cinematographer) is a flashier demonstration of his skills. Juggling multiple story lines and settings, the drama about the war on drugs remains as potent today as it was 20 years ago.
Soderbergh looks back again, this time to stylized ’60s British crime dramas that starred people such as Michael Caine and Terence Stamp. Wittily, Stamp stars in this one, too. He’s a mobster seeking revenge in Los Angeles, and a big part of the movie’s efficient (less than 90 minutes) fun is how Soderbergh keeps us guessing with tricky editing and visuals.