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The Criticwire Survey: Soderbergh's Best Movie

Criticwire By Matt Singer | Criticwire February 4, 2013 at 10:04AM

He's got a new movie, and a looming retirement. What's his greatest film?
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Every week, Criticwire asks film critics a question and brings you their responses in The Criticwire Survey. We also ask each member of the poll to pick the best film currently playing in theaters. The most popular choices can be found at the bottom of this post. But first, this week's question:

Q: What is Steven Soderbergh's best film?

The critics' answers:

Alan ZilbermanBrightest Young Things/Tiny Mix Tapes:

"Steven Soderbergh's best film is 'Out of Sight.' Its fractured timeline is nonetheless elegant, it's funny and sexy, plus there are so many memorable minor characters. Soderbergh took the Elmore Leonard novel and found a way to make it his own. Oh, David Holmes' score and all the musical cues are flawless.  But while 'Out of Sight' is Soderbergh's best, my favorite is still 'Ocean's Twelve.' Few films combine style, comedy, and cinema is such an inventive, taut way."

Mark YoungSound on Sight/New York Movie Klub:

"I thought about being contrarian and defending 'Contagion,' which I think is a fine film that received a raw deal from both critics and audiences in 2011. But, let's face it, that one isn't my favorite. My favorite is 'Out of Sight,' and by such a wide margin that a supercut of Don Cheadle's scenes might win by itself."

Stephen WhittyThe Star-Ledger:

"A difficult question, because they're all so different -- is 'The Limey' better than 'Che?' I'm very fond of 'Traffic,' though, a film which elegantly manages to cut among several different narratives yet never loses track of what it's saying, or what the audience is really seeing. For a director who sometimes seemed to chafe at the conventions of Hollywood storytelling, Soderbergh managed to be both artful and accessible here."

Andrew WelchAdventures in Cinema:

"I don't think I've seen Soderbergh's best film. There are several I would say are good to very good -- the 'Ocean's' series, for instance, or 'Haywire,' 'The Informant!' or 'Traffic' -- but I can't fully embrace any one of these in particular. His work is always visually interesting, but there's also a coldness to it that's off-putting. I generally come away from his work wanting to like it more than I do. Which, again, doesn't mean that I don't like him or his movies. It only means that nothing stands about. His best film is probably among the many I still haven't seen yet."

Max WeissBaltimore Magazine:

"I’m partial to 'Out of Sight.' It’s really the film that made George Clooney a movie star. So for that, I will be forever in its debt. Plus it had smarts to burn, that hella sexy trunk scene, and gripping action. Plus, Soderbergh managed to pull off the greatest directorial trick known to mankind: He made J.Lo seem like a real actress."

Ignatiy VishnevetskyMUBI:

"Soderbergh has such an eclectic, varied body of work that it seems unfair to pick just one; therefore, I'll pick three: 'Schizopolis,' an uncharacteristically personal film which presents Soderbergh at his most freewheeling; 'Ocean's Twelve' (or possibly 'Out of Sight' -- really depends on my mood), which is goddamn goofy fun and presents Soderbergh as a master visual showman; and 'The Informant!,' which perfectly balances his intelligence and his ability to entertain while also showcasing his talent as a great director of actors."

Anne-Katrin TitzeEye For Film:

"'Contagion' is unquestionably the Soderbergh film that crosses my mind, uninvited, in the most mundane situations. A splendid inquiry into human behavior under stress and what happens when love-thy-neighbor turns deadly, the movie makes you question quotidian actions, not merely have you fear coughs or peanuts. What ultimately is more dangerous, the lethal airborne virus or the uncaring lie?"

Andreas StoehrPussy Goes Grrr:

"I still have a lot of catching up to do, but right now my favorite is 'Out of Sight.' A skilled ensemble, tangled plot, and sizzling sexual chemistry: these are the makings of rich genre entertainment, made one-of-a-kind through the addition of Soderbergh's visual flair. (Between this and my 'Jackie Brown' answer for the Tarantino question, it seems like I really have a thing for Elmore Leonard adaptations!)"

Jason ShawhanNashville Scene/Interface 2037:

"For the longest time it was 'King of the Hill.' Then 'Out of Sight' took over for a while. It's been 'Solaris' for quite a bit now, but what makes the man's work fascinating is that he always manages to surprise me. It's my sincere hope that he'll release the original, more radical cut of 'Solaris' like he said he might in the long, long ago. But, as always with him, you never 100% know."

Josh SpiegelMousterpiece Cinema/Sound on Sight:

"Though Steven Soderbergh has made some truly exceptional films, I’m going with 'The Limey.' Terence Stamp’s performance as the gruff, tortured ex-con Wilson is excellent -- and Soderbergh’s choice to use so-called 'flashback' footage from 'Poor Cow,' one of Stamp’s first films, isn’t terribly distracting. And 'The Limey' features the best use of the elliptical visuals and storytelling format that Soderbergh has expanded upon in the last 15 years. Even now, it’s an arresting, starkly beautiful, and emotional piece of work."

Matt RorabeckMovie Knight:

"Steven Soderbergh is one of the best in the business, with a fairly good track record when it comes to putting out solid films consistently. While some are clearly better than others and you could probably choose a handful of his filmography and call it his 'best,' in my opinion that title should belong to 2011's 'Contagion.' It's a smart, scary, disaster film with outstanding performances from it's ensemble cast. Soderbergh's storytelling is at an all-time high and the score by Cliff Martinez is wonderful. It will truly be a shame if 'Side Effects' is his last feature film."

Andrew RobinsongmanReviews:

"So much to chose from. There's 'Traffic,' 'Che,' 'Haywire,' 'Out of Sight' and even 'The Limey.' These are all films I love, and partially expect a lot of the other respondents to bring up. But I'm going to put my head on the potential chopping block and nominate 'Kafka' as his best film. It's the film I feel is most representative of his career's efforts. It blends genre, pays specific homage to a love of his, and barely warrants an explanation as to what's actually going on in the bigger picture. Forever live Jeremy Irons."

Katey RichCinema Blend:

"This is such a cruel question, and I don't honestly know how anyone can answer it with confidence. Do you choose the perfect Hollywood movie, 'Ocean's Eleven?' Do you choose the other perfect Hollywood movie, 'Out of Sight?' Do you choose the committed, goofy brilliance of 'The Informant!?' Do you choose the still surprisingly effective 'Sex, Lies and Videotape?' Do you go with the will of Matthew McConaughey and choose 'Magic Mike?' I'm pretty sure I'd answer this differently any time you asked me, and I'm already sweating about how long it's been since I saw 'Erin Brockovich' or 'Traffic.' I'm just gonna say 'The Informant!' and then kick myself tomorrow for not saying 'Out of Sight.'"

Jordan RaupThe Film Stage:

"'The Informant!' The true story could have taken a wildly different direction under any other director, but it's equally hilarious and heartbreaking with Soderbergh's innovative vision."

Matt PriggePhiladelphia Weekly:

"I'm an 'Out of Sight' man, with 'Schizopolis' a close second. But I feel someone has to stick up for one of the runts in his litter: 'Ocean's Twelve.' Most of my friends not only dislike it but despise it, and they look at me funny when I say I've probably watched it more than most Soderberghs, if not all. (It's one of my go-to sick days movies, which should explain that.) But just as I somewhat prefer 'Help!' to 'A Hard Day's Night,' I somewhat prefer the goofier 'Twelve' to its slicker, more of-a-piece predecessor. (Same with, for the record, the franchise's underrated threequel.) Both 'Help!' and 'Twelve' are, as one commentator described the latter, vacations for people who don't need them. There's a lack of urgency this time around; the need to prove something is gone. (Not that the star-studded 'Eleven' had much to prove, except that someone, including a man just nominated for two separate Director Oscars, could make a hugely entertaining entertainment.) But rather than just sit back and lazily ape the original, Soderbergh and his game cast -- like Richard Lester and the Beatles -- indulge the weirder areas of their various senses of humor. Non-sequiturs reign supreme, including the scene where Clooney, Pitt and Robbie Coltrane confound Damon by speaking in an impenetrable code comprised of nonsense one-liners. And I'd be surprised if Damon, even counting his inevitable Oscar perf, will ever top the moment where he, with great sincerity and self-doubt, responds to Fake Julia Roberts' charge that it's wrong to pose as The Real Julia Roberts by furrowing his brow and asking, 'You mean...morally?' I dig the muddled look of the film, too: harsh maroons in darkened rooms, the actors often fading into the palette -- a far cry from the perhaps overly crisp 'Eleven.' Ditto the '70s Eurotrash vibe, plus Vincent Cassel, plus Catherine Zeta-Jones at her toughest and, not coincidentally, sexiest. Seriously, to the people who ask what's wrong with me when I speak up for it: what's wrong with you? (Now, would someone smart *please* defend 'Full Frontal,' a Soderbergh even I can't stick up for but would one day love to.)"

Dan PersonsMighty Movie Podcast:

"'The Limey.' (Surprised?)" 

Scott NyeRail of Tomorrow:

"The one film that continues to stand out, year after year, through thick and thin, and give me more to consider with each day, honestly, is 'Che.' Soderbergh's beyond unconventional, bordering on pointedly provocative decision to boil down the story of Che Guevara to two revolutionary campaigns (and a U.N. visit) ends up being much more revelatory than any simple biopic, even if he were to also shoot that across two films. We get to sit with Che in the most mundane of circumstances, watch him negotiate problems, and go through each campaign with a strict methodology that provides almost a manual for guerrilla warfare without, you know, giving one the idea to launch one's own campaign. Che stands at once alongside efforts to turn the man into an icon, even as it questions that movement (the soldiers attitudes towards him in 'Part II' are especially noteworthy here), and Soderbergh invests the film with indelible imagery that expands on his themes without being terribly overbearing (in 'Part I,' the group moving through water, their minor struggles rippling outward beyond their control). I only wish I had four-and-a-half hours free more often to revisit it."

Amy NicholsonMovieline:

"'Out of Sight' isn't just Steven Soderbergh's best movie -- it's also Elmore Leonard's. Both men have the same problem bringing their stories to the screen: their films are perilously close to being too cool and too slick. But under the surface, they roil with energy and pain and heat. Anguish is in every frame of 'The Girlfriend Experience' but it's blunted by the billionth shot of Sasha Grey looking blank behind her giant sunglasses. Blame it on Grey -- I'm sure you'd be half-right -- but a dozen good directors have also failed to bring Jennifer Lopez to life. Not Soderbergh. All of Lopez's qualities that flummox most filmmakers -- her leonine good looks, her control freak composure, her apologetic aggressiveness -- combine in Karen Sisco, and because of it, she's tried to duplicate the role over and over again in a series of stern psychologists and career women who fall for crooks. 'Out of Sight' is the rare heist thriller that people watch for the love story. It's confident, smart and funny -- the hallmarks of a perfect popcorn film -- with the charm to win over every audience: art housers, action fans, readers of the Wall Street Journal, and readers of Cosmo. And not only did Soderbergh take a pop star and a TV hunk and crown them Hollywood royalty, 'Out of Sight' let the at-the-time floundering indie filmmaker prove he was ready for the big leagues. Or as George Clooney's Jack Foley says, 'You'd be surprised about what you can get, if you ask for it the right way.'"

Mike McGranaghanThe Aisle Seat:

"Given that Soderbergh moves back and forth between mainstream fare and experimental works, I feel that I have to give two answers to this question. His best mainstream film is 'Traffic,' which looks at our country's drug problem from multiple angles and finds that it may be unsolvable. The movie is provocative, giving you a lot of ideas to contemplate when it's over, yet also stylish and very entertaining, with solid turns from the all-star cast. As far as his experimental stuff goes, I've always had a fondness for 'Bubble,' a creepy, shot-on-digital video thriller about the desperate lives of blue collar workers laboring in a doll-making factory. Soderbergh perfectly creates an unsettling mood, coaxing convincing performances from his cast of nonprofessional actors. In one of the most memorable sequences, he shows how doll heads are made. Under his careful direction, the process seems like the eeriest thing in the world. 'Traffic' and 'Bubble' give a nice overview of Soderbergh's diversity as a filmmaker, both in terms of subject matter and technical approach. I haven't liked all of his pictures, but his ambitiousness ensures that I eagerly await each new project he unveils."

James McCormickCriterion Cast:

"Thinking about my favorite Soderbergh was much easier than I thought. I love the director, but in my odd opinion (according to many people), I don't think he's made many masterpieces throughout his career. He's made crowd-pleasers, head-scratchers, experimental films and everything else in between and that is a commendable career in any profession, let alone filmmaking. But his best film, one that I revisit repeatedly and push on people when they say they haven't seen it due to one of the co-stars is 'Out of Sight.' I adore this film. The film that, to me, proved George Clooney had what it took to be a Hollywood leading man and showed Jennifer Lopez was more than a pretty face (which is sad considering she never really matched this performance afterward. Gobble gobble). But besides them, you have a stellar supporting ensemble consisting of Don Cheadle, Ving Rhames, Steve Zahn, Albert Brooks, Dennis Farina and Michael Keaton (which for anyone who doesn't realize, plays the same character he does in Jackie Brown which is a whole other amazing coincidence). It led to a TV series in 2003 ('Karen Sisco' for you Googlers out there). It's an amazing adaptation of an Elmore Leonard novel, which in the '90s we luckily had a few worthy film adaptations. And that's why it's not only my favorite Soderbergh film, but the best one he's made overall."

Joey MagidsonThe Awards Circuit:

"There are a few worthy choices here, but I have to say that I think his best might actually be 'Magic Mike.' I say that because that movie has no right to be as good as it is, and I believe a lot of that credit goes to Steven Soderbergh and his filmmaking skill.  There's a movie that works on multiple levels, when it probably shouldn't have worked at all. I dig a number of Soderbergh's flicks, but this one is his most impressive to me."

Germain Lussier/Film:

"'Out of Sight.' Slicker than the 'Ocean's' films, and tighter than 'Traffic,' this is just Soderbergh clicking on all cylinders."

John LichmanFreelance:

"'The Hunger Games.'"

Shawn LevyThe Oregonian:

"'The Limey' is kind of a perfect film in its size, form, impact. 'Traffic' is an amazing exercise in multi-thread narrative, 'Out of Sight' is an exquisite thriller, I adore and advocate for 'King of the Hill' all the time, and there's great fun to be had in perhaps ten other Soderbergh titles. But 'The Limey' is one of only a handful of movies I've ever seen that I can't imagine changing a jot of."

Christy LemireAssociated Press/What The Flick?!:

"I did a list of what I thought were the five best Soderbergh films when 'Contagion' came out in 2011 and picked 'Traffic' as No. 1. I was (and still am) so impressed by how ambitious and sprawling it is, how expertly he gets his arms around the complicated topic of the international drug trade from so many angles, so stylishly, while juggling such a great ensemble cast. But man, I love 'The Limey.' It's so cool and dangerous and darkly funny, and Terence Stamp is just such a badass."

Josh LarsenLarsen On Film/Filmspotting:

"Keeping in mind the embarrassing admission that I haven't seen all of his work, I vote for 'Out of Sight.' His first, least self-conscious attempt at playing studio stylist."

Joanna LangfieldThe Movie Minute:

"I will always have a special place in my heart for 'Sex, Lies, and Videotape,' the movie that not just put Soderbergh on the map, but stunned audiences and energized the independent film movement of the '90s. So while that is arguably his 'best' film, I'd like to remind fans about 'Out of Sight,' a dandy little caper with all-round terrific performances led by George Clooney and, yes, Jennifer Lopez. There have been several Elmore Leonard adaptations, far fancier and pumped up, but this one, by far, is the driest and sliest. An all-round treat."

Peter LabuzaLabuzaMovies.com/The Cinephiliacs:

"Can I say them all? They're all great if not excellent. Even the misfires are incalculably more fascinating than most independent or Hollywood features. And those that have gotten mixed reactions ('Ocean's Twelve,' 'Solaris,' 'The Good German'), I rank among some of his best. I couldn't even do a Top 5 without forgetting something that is key to the Soderbergh canon. For me, he is the most audacious filmmaker of the 2000s, and his filmmaking styles have only evolved into something more complex and more wonderful. I will say that 'Side Effects' ranks among his best."

Gary KramerGay City News:

"'Schizopolis,' but 'King of the Hill' is a personal favorite."

Dan KoisSlate:

"I watched them all, even the shorts, TV episodes, and '9012LIVE,' and my answer is 100% 'Out of Sight.'"

This article is related to: Steven Soderbergh, Criticwire Survey


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