Few filmmakers have the range of Steven Soderbergh. After bursting onto the scene with his 1989 hit sex, lies, and videotape, Soderbergh avoided easy categorization by directing the strange semi-adaptation Kafka. A few years later, he confused audiences even more with his experimental comedy Schizopolis. He’s a filmmaker who’s never been afraid to make the films he wants. Sometimes, those movies just so happen to line up with what everyone else wants.
Soderbergh remains one of only two directors nominated twice for Best Director at the Academy Awards in the same year (the other is Michael Curtiz in 1939) for his 2000 films Erin Brockovich and Traffic. But far from a critical and awards darling whose films keep mainstream audiences at bay, his remake of Ocean’s Eleven and its subsequent sequels reaped over $1 billion at the box office in the 2000s.
Since the success of the first Ocean’s film, he’s gone on to make films across the genre spectrum, from science fiction to horror and action. Here, find the best Steven Soderbergh movies across all genres to celebrate the work of one of the world's finest and most idiosyncratic filmmakers.
1. Ocean’s Eleven (2001)
A remake of the Rat Pack movie of the same name, Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven follows a group of, that’s right, eleven professional (and some not-so-professional) thieves as they plan and execute an elaborate heist. The film, which takes place in Las Vegas, looks incredible and invites the audience into the luxury the thieves enjoy as they prepare for the job. The film also invites viewers to identify with the ultra-cool and ultra-stylish thieves played by George Clooney, Brad Pitt, and Elliott Gould.
Ocean’s Eleven draws viewers into its world with a focus on character and process that allows what’s ostensibly a heist movie to function like a hangout movie without any of the narrative slack most hangout movies suffer from. The script, by Ted Griffin, stands as a remarkable work that’s celebrated not only for its hilarious quotes but also its perfect structure.
2. Ocean’s Twelve (2004)
Continuing the hang-out movie feel of Soderbergh’s first Ocean’s film, Ocean’s Twelve leans into the character focus and away from the tight plotting that made its predecessor such a success. Ocean’s Twelve adds characters and plotlines, expanding the world of the film in ways that could overwhelm the film but instead make it one of the best sequels ever made.
Ocean’s Twelve sees the original eleven thieves targeted by the man they stole from in the first film, regrouping to perform several jobs across Europe and finding themselves in a competition with another thief. The plot has a lot going on, including a romance for Brad Pitt’s Rusty, but that sprawl allows the audience to enjoy spending time with the characters in a more relaxed way than Ocean’s Eleven ever allows. Ocean’s Twelve doesn’t meet the same level of structural perfection as its predecessor, but it offers viewers the experience of a great sitcom with beloved characters in a movie that barely cracks two hours.
3. Haywire (2011)
As of now, Haywire remains the only action movie in Soderbergh’s filmography, which makes it all the more impressive that it ranks as one of the best action movies of the 21st century. The film follows black ops mercenary Mallory Kane (former MMA fighter Gina Carano) as she investigates why her boss betrayed her and framed her for murder.
Haywire offers some stunning action scenes, with Carano taking on A-listers like Channing Tatum and Michael Fassbender in wild, choreographed fights. The musical choices, however, make the film so memorable. Many of the hard-hitting action scenes feature no score at all, and the chase sequences in the film are scored by medium-paced, jazzy electronic music that highlights the mundanity of a life-or-death chase for Mallory.
4. Contagion (2011)
Nine years before COVID-19 spread across the globe, Contagion imagined what a global pandemic might look like. The film follows several characters, from an everyman to CDC scientists and conspiracy theorists, as they navigate the horrific new reality of the disease. Contagion stands alone as a film almost entirely driven by the processes of its many characters, whether they are searching for a vaccine, attempting to stop the spread, or simply attempting to survive and be there for their family members.
Scientists celebrated the film upon its release, with the director of the Vaccine Education Center, Paul Offit, celebrating that the film “is willing to allow science to prevail over drama.” When COVID-19 struck, many revisited Contagion and found themselves shocked at how accurately the film portrayed the responses to a pandemic. Contagion challenges viewers, especially with such a stark real-life counterpart not even half a decade in the past, but the movie has rightfully cemented itself as a modern classic, and one of the best Steven Soderbergh movies.
5. Solaris (2002)
Less a remake of Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 film of the same name than a new adaptation of the novel by Stanisław Lem, Soderbergh’s Solaris balances its heady themes with the pacing of a thriller. The film follows psychologist Chris Kelvin (George Clooney), who travels to a space station orbiting the planet Solaris to investigate strange phenomena.
When he arrives, he finds the station in disrepair, with only two of the original crew alive. His questions about the situation only multiply when his dead wife appears on the ship, not in a dream, not as a hallucination, but in a physical form that the others on the ship can see and interact with. Solaris asks existential questions about memory, relationships, and what makes us human in a stylish science fiction film with brilliant performances from all actors, including a pre-fame Viola Davis.
6. Unsane (2018)
Soderbergh’s first horror film and the first film he shot entirely on an iPhone, Unsane draws viewers into the perspective of Sawyer (Claire Foy), a young woman who has a stalker and has moved to get away from him but has PTSD. When she visits a counselor after a panic attack, she unwittingly signs herself into an inpatient psychiatric hospital, a hospital where her stalker is working as an orderly.
Soderbergh uses various cinematic techniques to build identification with the young woman and horror over her situation while also highlighting the versatility of the iPhone as a camera. Unsane’s small-scale and mostly single-location setting force the audience to feel the same sense of inescapability as Sawyer, creating a powerful and affecting horror film.
7. sex, lies, and videotape (1989)
The film that put Soderbergh on the map and won him the Palme d’Or at just 26, sex, lies, and videotape hasn’t lost any of its power over the last 30-plus years. The film tells the story of young, beautiful, and unhappily married Ann (Andie MacDowell) as an old friend of her husband comes to stay with them. Ann and her husband’s friend Graham (James Spader) are comfortable with one another, telling each other things they haven’t shared with other people. The film seems like it may become a story about a cheating wife.
But things are more complicated than that; Ann’s husband is already cheating on her with her sister, and when Ann discovers that Graham has a collection of videotapes of him interviewing women about their sexual histories and preferences, she’s spooked. When Graham meets Ann’s sister, the relationships among the four leads only become more intertwined and intimate. All that intertwining allows sex, lies, and videotape to deliver one of the most empathetic and realistic portraits of how people relate to sex and one another. Count it quintessential both among American independent cinema, and among Steven Soderbergh movies.
8. Logan Lucky (2017)
Few films offer the perfect description of themselves in dialogue, but when a character calls the heist at the center of Logan Lucky “Ocean’s 7-Eleven,” it just feels right. The heist comedy follows three members of the historically unlucky Logan family and their safe-cracking friend Joe Bang (Daniel Craig) as they plan to rob the Charlotte Motor Speedway during the Coca-Cola 600 race.
But Logan Lucky stands as a distinct film from Soderbergh’s other comedies about heists. Unlike the Ocean’s movies, none of the Logan family are professional thieves, and Joe Bang doesn’t resemble the smooth operators who orchestrate the jobs in those films. The film’s comedy is broader and more silly, with Craig delivering a hilariously over-the-top performance.
9. Ocean’s Thirteen (2007)
The final of those other heist comedies, Ocean’s Thirteen sees the thieves return to Las Vegas to avenge the betrayal of one of their own. The film attempts to recapture the magic of the first, with a smaller and more streamlined plot, but fails to hit the high standard set by the two previous films.
But because that standard is so high, and the film still offers some delightfully quick dialogue between the perfectly portrayed characters viewers have now come to know and love, Ocean’s Thirteen is far from a failure. Adding Al Pacino and Ellen Barkin to the cast, as the villainous casino mogul and his right-hand woman, also helps the film feel fresh despite its narrative repetitions.
10. Magic Mike’s Last Dance (2023)
While neither of Soderbergh’s Magic Mike films reach the heights of Magic Mike XXL, his return to the series with Magic Mike’s Last Dance offers some of the same joy that makes XXL so wonderful. The third film in the trilogy breaks up the group of male strippers the first two films center on to follow the eponymous Mike (Channing Tatum) as he journeys to London to direct a show produced by the wealthy and gorgeous Max (Salma Hayek Pinault).
The film plays like a romantic comedy between Mike and Max, with the show’s production played almost like a heist the two and their many dancers are pulling off. While some fans feel that the film abandoned the camaraderie and class-consciousness that made the first two films modern classics, there’s no denying the stunning dance sequences and the chemistry between Tatum and Hayek Pinault in the movie.
11. Magic Mike (2012)
The first Magic Mike film remains the weakest because it takes itself the most seriously. The film functions as a grounded drama about working-class male strippers struggling to make ends meet in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. The story follows Mike (Tatum) as he takes a young man under his wing and introduces him to the benefits of life as a stripper while also attempting to educate him on the responsibilities that come with the job.
While the film is less fun than its two sequels, Magic Mike features some phenomenal dance and stripping sequences, particularly Tatum’s dance set to Ginuwine’s “Pony,” and includes a fantastic cast, including Matthew McConaughey, Olivia Munn, and Joe Manganiello.
12. Erin Brockovich (2000)
One of the two films that earned Soderbergh his dual Best Director Oscar nominations in 2001, Erin Brockovich tells the true story of the eponymous Erin Brockovich (played by Julia Roberts). Shortly after starting a job as a legal assistant, Brockovich discovers that the Pacific Gas and Electric Company contaminated groundwater in Hinkley, California. She begins compiling information about the disastrous effects the contamination had on the town’s population and works with her boss to take legal action against the company.
Erin Brockovich could have become a by-the-numbers inspirational story. But Soderbergh and Roberts keep the film from growing saccharine or cliché. Roberts delivers a brilliant performance that makes the most of her charm and gets audiences on her side immediately, rooting for her as she works long hours and continues pushing for what’s right when all seems lost. The film garnered several Academy Award nominations along with Soderbergh’s for Best Director and won Roberts the Best Actress award.
13. Out of Sight (1998)
Based on the novel of the same name by Elmore Leonard, Out of Sight marked the first of Steven Soderbergh's movies to feature George Clooney, and it’s easy to see why they kept working together. The film tells the story of professional bank robber Jack Foley (Clooney), who develops a romance with U.S. Marshall Karen Sisco (Jennifer Lopez) after breaking out of prison.
The film takes several twists and turns, culminating in a ridiculous final shootout. But the relationship between Foley and Sisco becomes the heart of the movie, a coupling made incredibly compelling by the chemistry between Clooney and Lopez.
14. Che Part One (2008)
The first of two films Soderbergh made with Benicio del Toro on the life of the eponymous revolutionary, Che Part One, parallels Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s time in the Cuban revolution and his 1964 trip to New York to address the United Nations. The film’s focus on these areas allows it to delve into the details of an armed revolutionary struggle and the celebrity that followed for Guevara.
The film stands as one of the most process-driven biopics, allowing Che’s actions as a military and thought leader to stand in for the scenes of interpersonal drama that make up most biopics. Che Part One has more in common with The Battle of Algiers than any biopic. Like that film, it refuses to function as a hagiography of its subject, offering glimpses of Che’s homophobia and significant ego.
15. Side Effects (2013)
Few films keep the audience guessing like Side Effects. The film begins when a young woman’s husband is released from prison for insider trading, and she purposefully runs her car into a wall. A psychiatrist takes her on as a patient and works with her to find an antidepressant medication that will help her. But when unforeseen side effects lead to a murder, it’s impossible to know what’s true and what anyone’s motivations are.
Sadly, the film doesn’t end as strong as it starts. But Side Effects’ first two acts offer some of the most exciting and suspenseful scenes among Steven Sorderbergh movies.
16. Kafka (1991)
Released the same year as David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch, Kafka also melds facts of the author’s life with elements of his fiction to create a unique film. Drawing primarily from Franz Kafka’s The Trial and The Castle, the film follows Kafka (Jeremy Irons) as he becomes involved with a group of revolutionaries and investigates the disappearance of a friend.
The primarily black and white film pulls audiences into its strange world with disorienting editing, striking images, and surreal humor that properly bring to cinematic life the feeling of Kafka’s writing. But the twists and turns keep things surprising even for those familiar with his work and make the movie stand alone as one of the strangest and most fascinating of Soderbergh’s films.
17. Kimi (2022)
In a post-COVID update on Hitchcock’s Rear Window, Kimi tracks Zoë Kravitz’s agoraphobic Angela as she investigates a murder that she discovered while doing her work. Angela works for the tech company that produces the assistant Kimi, and when Kimi can’t hear or understand a command, Angela gets to listen to it and help Kimi listen better in the future. When Kimi sends Angela the sounds of a woman’s murder, Angela does her best to urge her employer to investigate. But her employer may be responsible for the killing.
Kimi never develops into anything grand, but that’s precisely why it’s such an enjoyable film. The small scale allows Soderbergh to play with form, especially during some thrilling chase sequences, and deliver a tight, tense, and satisfying genre story.
18. Schizopolis (1995)
While Kafka stands as one of the strangest films in Soderbergh’s filmography, Schizopolis claims the title of the strangest film in his filmography. Schizopolis tells the story of Fletcher Munson (Soderbergh in his only starring role), a man who works for the vaguely Scientology-esque “Eventualism” organization and struggles to write a speech for the organization’s leader.
That summary undersells the film’s strangeness, which features several surreal sequences focused on the character Elmo Oxygen and splits perspectives between Munson, his wife, and her lover, an identical man played by Soderbergh. Schizopolis is one of those rare films that’s truly unlike anything else.
19. Che Part Two (2008)
The second film in Soderbergh’s Che biographical film cycle contrasts with the first in many ways. Unlike the first film, which invites audiences into two paralleled aspects of Guevara’s life, Part Two centers entirely on his attempt to foment a revolution in Bolivia. The film rarely cuts away from Guevara and the few men with whom he trains to show Bolivian president René Barrientos meeting with representatives from the United States who promise to train the Bolivian army in counter-insurgent tactics they use in Vietnam.
While the first movie shows the steps necessary for a successful revolution, the second highlights just how many things need to go right and how many things can go wrong for an armed political struggle to succeed. Che Part Two may be the more interesting and intellectually valuable of the two films. But it fails to draw the audience like Che Part One does.
20. Traffic (2000)
The film that won Soderbergh his Best Director Oscar now feels like one of his least distinct. Traffic tells the story of several people involved in the United States’ “War on Drugs,” from a politician whose daughter uses drugs to cops attempting to slow or stop the trafficking of drugs and a housewife who learns that her husband’s drug money has paid for her luxurious life.
Traffic is quintessential hyperlink cinema, characterized by the interweaving lives of many characters connected by various threads. It’s a style that has fallen out of fashion and feels a bit too of its time, something not helped in Traffic’s case by its blatant edifying intent. Yet the film remains compelling because of Soderbergh’s talent for pacing and many fantastic performances, including Benicio del Toro’s Oscar-winning portrayal of a Mexican cop.