Weekly Top Five: Idea missing—the best of Steven Soderbergh

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Its like a jungle out there—a scene from Che
  • Courtesy of Wikicommons
  • Che: It's like a jungle out there
Side Effects, the new film from prolific director Steven Soderbergh, hit theaters on Friday. It marks his third project in 18 months, following the kinetic actioner Haywire (2012) and the surprise summer hit Magic Mike (2012). And it's reportedly his last for theatrical release.

If that's the case, he'll have left behind a filmography as varied and eclectic as there is. Never one to be tied to genres or hampered by budgets, Soderbergh has effortlessly moved between disparate projects, consistently maintaining a high degree of professional craft as well as his own idiosyncratic style—a little deciphering reveals that he made highly personal films. As the world's cinephiles hold on to the hope that he's just bluffing again about retirement, take a look at my five favorites by Soderbergh.

5. Schizopolis (1996) This hyperpersonal experiment is one of Soderbergh's most divisive works. Though nonlinear in structure, it nevertheless tells a straightforward story that's told from three different perspectives. It's a daring, modernist exercise in cinematic representation and the nature of storytelling, sure to test the patience of a casual moviegoer simply because it willfully pokes holes in the expectations of its audience.

4. Contagion (2011) This chilling disaster movie is nothing less than the blueprint for 21st-century studio filmmaking. Soderbergh's film is like a mechanized version of an Irwin Allen disaster movie, framing the downfall of infrastructure and information as mankind's ultimate undoing. Its entire thesis is summed up in one bone-chilling scene: A dead Gwyneth Paltrow (or rather, a prosthetic dummy that's bears a terrifyingly uncanny resemblance to Gwyneth Paltrow) lies dead on a surgical table, a faceless doctor picking at her exposed brain, looking for the cause of a deadly virus that's sweeping the nation but finding few clues.

3. Che (2008) Admittedly overlong, and with an air of pretentiousness unbecoming to Soderbergh, this epic biopic nevertheless provides a notable example of how digital filmmaking requires a new set of criteria for judging and reconciling the elements of a movie. As J. Hoberman put it in his initial review, Che is "both action film and ongoing argument. Each new camera setup seeks to introduce a specific idea—about Che or his situation—and every choreographed battle sequence is a sort of algorithm where the camera attempts to inscribe the event that is being enacted." History digitized.

2. King of the Hill (1993) The best film of Soderbergh's early period. It's a surprisingly affecting story about a resilient 12-year-old boy struggling on his own through the Great Depression. Rich in period detail and anchored by a stirring performance from its young star, King of the Hill proved Soderbergh was capable of work that was sentimental and universal while still being highly personal. It's also the rare sort of film that illuminates those that preceded it—King of the Hill shares little in common with Sex, Lies and Videotape and Kafka, but it does reaffirm their iconoclasm.

1. The Limey (1999) A perfect merging of Soderbergh's mainstream and arthouse sensibilities. Enjoyable as a first-rate genre exercise bolstered by a magnetic performance from Terence Stamp, the film is also a formal marvel, demonstrating strong command of elliptical storytelling while tastefully sampling Ken Loach's Poor Cow (1967). Essentially perfect in its size, tone, and ambition.

Honorable mention: Out of Sight (1998), of course. I also couldn't go without The Informant! (2009), The Underneath (1995), Bubble (2005), and Haywire.

Drew Hunt writes film-related top five lists every Sunday.

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