By the time Steven Soderbergh retires (we're still waiting to find out whether it'll be temporary or permanent) from filmmaking following the release of his final theatrical release Side Effects and the HBO premiere of his last film, Behind the Candelabra, he'll have helmed more than 25 features and a handful of shorts. And while many of those movies have deservedly received extensive acclaim and awards attention, some great ones have slipped through the cracks and still remain misunderstood and/or unappreciated. (Others, meanwhile, have deservedly languish in obscurity... looking at you, The Good German.) Here are our picks for the retiring director's five most underrated movies, in order of release; with no new Soderbergh features on the horizon for the foreseeable future, maybe these will finally get some attention.
King of the Hill (1993)
Not to be confused with Mike Judge's long-running animated series, Steven Soderbergh's third feature remains one of his most obscure, probably because its availability was so scarce for so long. Following a blink-and-you-missed-it theatrical release by Universal, the movie briefly popped up on long out-of-print VHS and laser disc editions, but never made the leap to DVD, although Soderbergh has indicated that may change. (In the meantime, it can be streamed via Netflix.) It's extended absence is a shame, because King easily ranks amongst Soderbergh's finest achievements, not to mention being one of his most purely emotional film... a big deal for a filmmaker who is generally tagged with the (sometimes valid) criticism of being too cerebral. Based on a memoir by A.E. Hotchner, the movie stars young Jesse Bradford as the youngest resident of a ramshackle St. Louis hotel during the Great Depression. Although he's technically not an orphan, he might as well be since his tuberculosis-afflicted mother is in the hospital and his travelling salesman father is never around. For a while, he had his younger brother to take care of, but he too has disappeared, sent off to live with relatives. So the kid is left all by himself and the movie depicts his day-to-day life with grace, good humor and more than a tinge of sadness. In addition to Bradford, King includes early appearances by Adrien Brody, Amber Benson and Katherine Heigl, as well as a memorably supporting performance by monologist Spalding Gray, in his first of three collaborations with Soderbergh.
Without this highly stylized, experimental comedy (that's the closest genre you can fit the movie into), we probably would never have gotten Out of Sight. Following a difficult experience on his fourth movie The Underneath (itself a somewhat underappreciated film), Soderbergh seriously considered quitting filmmaking then and there. Instead, he grabbed a camera, pointed it at himself (as well as his family and friends) and started shooting what would become Schizopolis without any kind of a script. The resulting feature is aggressively, but delightfully surreal, with Soderbergh playing an office drone working for a corporatized religion that calls itself Eventualism. From that starting point, Schizopolis merrily leaps around in space and time, deliberately avoiding a single chronology or point of view. The movie's freewheeling spirit is very much in the tradition of '60s director Richard Lester, who has long been a big influence on Soderbergh and whom he had recently interviewed for his invaluable book, Getting Away With It. Two years later, the director would bring some of that playfulness to Out of Sight and his stalling career was reborn.
A box office debacle that even its star, George Clooney, poked fun at, Soderbegh's effects-heavy remake of the low-fi 1972 Russian cult favorite (both versions are based on the book by Stanislaw Lem) does have one major problem: Clooney is completely and utterly miscast. But if you're able to overlook his terrible performance (and that's a mighty big "if" to be sure) as a grieving psychiatrist dispatched to a remote space station in order to analyze the states of mind of its two surviving crew members, Solaris boasts some of Soderbergh's most ambitious work behind the camera. Working with producer James Cameron, the new-to-sci-fi Soderbergh crafts some remarkable, 2001-inspired images and conjures up a general atmosphere of mystery and tension. And even though Clooney stinks, he does manage to get strong performances out of Jeremy Davies, Viola Davis and Natascha McElhone, who plays the dead wife in Clooney's past who may or may not have been resurrected by the titular planet that the station orbits. Because Solaris was such a bomb (it cost nearly $50 million and banked $14 million), it's no surprise that Soderbergh never got to helm another sci-fi picture, but what he achieved here makes you wish he had.
Ocean's Twelve (2004)
Soderbergh's first follow-up to his wildly successful all-star heist picture has, rather unfairly, become the red-headed stepchild of the Ocean's franchise. True, it represents a major stylistic shift from the first installment, which was an exercise in classic Hollywood glamour, both in terms of its storytelling and the Vanity Fair-ready photography of its absurdly handsome leading men. Ocean's Twelve is a looser, goosier affair, a whirlwind European caper that's again more in the tradition of Richard Lester than, say, the Rat Pack. (The movie's jagged, but enthused camerawork and casual indifference to narrative are straight out of Lester classics like A Hard Day's Night and The Knack... And How to Get It.) Beyond its formal inventiveness, Soderbergh adds a meta element to the enterprise that was only hinted at in the first movie, overtly calling attention to the fact that these are movie stars playing at being con men. (The most obvious example, of course, is having the Julia Roberts character impersonate... Julia Roberts.) Unfortunately, that aspect of the movie seemed to piss a lot of people off (as did its admittedly underwhelming finale) and Soderbergh went back to basics for the enjoyable, but far less interesting Thirteen. My advice: Watch Ocean's Twelve on a double bill with a vintage Lester picture like The Knack or The Three Musketeers and you'll at least see what Soderbergh was after, even if you still don't love it.
The Informant! (2009)
As his recent guest hosting stint on Jimmy Kimmel proved earlier this year (not to mention his legendary Eurotrip cameo), Matt Damon is a terrific comedian. Sadly, too few directors take advantage of that side of him. Not Soderbergh, who used him as a comic ringer in all three Ocean's movies and directed him to a career-best performance in this comic thriller about a whistleblower who exposes corruption at his billion-dollar agriculture corporation. Or does he? As the movies progresses, it becomes clear that Damon may not be the hero he wants us to believe he is. Instead, he may just be a freakin' nut. Soderbergh's second masterstroke after Damon's casting was surrounding his star with a galaxy of comedians like Joel McHale, Scott Adsit, Patton Oswalt and Paul F. Tompkins... all of them playing it absolutely straight. Couple all this with a terrific score by the late, great Marvin Hamlisch and you've got one of Soderbergh's most completely realized films.