Total Recall: Steven Soderbergh's Best Movies
We count down the best-reviewed work of the Haywire director.
With some directors, you pretty much always know what you're going to get (paging Michael Bay to the red awesome button next to the white courtesy phone); with others, you can depend on certain stylistic sensibilities regardless of the genre they're exploring (come on down, Danny Boyle!). And then there's Steven Soderbergh: restless, eclectic, award-winning, and equally at home in the arthouse and the megaplex. With Haywire, Soderbergh is aiming squarely for the latter, but bringing his own unique style to the ever-popular action genre -- and making this week's Total Recall the perfect place to look back at some of his brightest critical highlights!
A year after concluding the Ocean's trilogy, Soderbergh turned his attention to a sprawling, nearly five-hour biopic of iconic revolutionary/unintentional t-shirt model Che Guevara. Originally spearheaded by Terrence Malick but abandoned when funding fell through, Che made waves on the festival circuit -- where star Benicio del Toro won a Best Actor trophy at Cannes -- but even split into two chapters, it had little more than niche appeal to mainstream American filmgoers. For those who dared brave its imposing length, however, critics promised an experience worth the investment. As Peter Bradshaw wrote for the Guardian, "Che Two is deeply impressive: austerely confident, coherent and mysterious."
Glamour is a big part of what used to make going to the movies so much fun -- and thanks to a variety of factors, not least the rising tide of paparazzi journalism, the wonderful spectacle of Hollywood's brightest stars has lost a great deal of its wattage over the last decade and change. Soderbergh managed to turn back the clock a little with his 2001 remake of the minor 1960 Rat Pack classic, lining up a cast of heavyweights so impressive that even the most jaded filmgoers couldn't help but give in to the spectacle. Critics were suitably dazzled, too, noting that the fun being had onscreen by George Clooney (as the titular Danny Ocean) and his luminous co-stars (including Matt Damon, Brad Pitt, and Julia Roberts) was too infectious to resist. Writing for the Philadelphia Weekly, Sean Burns applauded, "It's a giant ice-cream cake of a movie that tickles the pleasure centers of your brain -- restoring the good name of large-scale, old-fashioned Hollywood entertainment."
Soderbergh earned a slew of Golden Globe and Academy Awards nominations -- including Best Picture and Best Director nominations at the Oscars -- for this fact-based courtroom drama about a legal file clerk (Julia Roberts) who discovered that a town's public utility company was poisoning its water supply, and continued to pursue the case until justice was served. Roberts' Brockovich performance cleaned up at the awards circuit, winning her Best Actress honors from SAG, BAFTA, the Golden Globes, and the Oscars -- and the film was a hit with audiences as well as critics, earning more than $250 million at the box office while bringing praise from critics like Michael Wilmington of the Chicago Tribune, who called it "One of the gutsiest, most exciting, and most satisfying courtroom docudramas ever, one that genuinely lifts the spirits as you watch it."
Movies about virus epidemics are nothing new -- who can forget Dustin Hoffman saving the world from a monkey virus in Outbreak? -- but Soderbergh gave the genre a fresh, chilly twist with Contagion. Using an Altman-worthy assortment of famous faces, including Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, and Gwyneth Paltrow, Soderbergh depicted the deadly spread of the illness with what some critics felt was overly clinical precision, but as far as most writers were concerned, its lack of colorful melodrama was precisely the point. "The most terrifying aspect of Contagion, ultimately, is the plausibility of its premise," wrote Jeanette Catsoulis for NPR. "Meticulous and low-key, the film reminds us that disaster lies in the most mundane interactions."
Spalding Gray was a singular talent, and after his mysterious death (ruled a suicide) in 2004, Soderbergh set about giving him a singular biopic. The result: 2010's And Everything Is Going Fine, which uses judiciously edited performance footage to tell Gray's story in his own words. Its theatrical run was mostly restricted to the festival circuit (including screenings at Slamdance and SXSW), but even if it wasn't one of Soderbergh's more commercial efforts, it gave the director a chance to show a rarely-seen side of his artistry. "This is not a standard bio-documentary," wrote Misha Berson of the Seattle Times. "It is the artist giving us a guided tour of himself, through a mosaic of clips from his shows and TV interviews, craftily assembled by Soderbergh."