If there is one major schism in cinema, it's no doubt the barrier between mainstream and arthouse. There are a select few directors who manage to bridge that gap, but even that is fairly trivial compared to what Steven Soderbergh set out to do. Soderbergh didn't just try to bring these two worlds together, he actually managed to become successful in both worlds separately. Off the top of my head, there's no other director out there who has done something similar.
Looking at Soderbergh's oeuvre, he has kept a healthy diet of Hollywood projects interspersed with more arthouse-minded films, becoming quite skilled at making films on both ends of the spectrum. His Hollywood work has plenty of flair and gusto while his smaller films feel genuine and don't stray away from a little experimentation left and right.
Soderbergh started off small. Sex, Lies, and Videotape may be quite the bore on paper (with its B-cast and avalanche of small-scale drama), the actual film turned out to be surprisingly fun and entertaining. The next few years Soderbergh would keep to producing smaller films. Kafka and Gray's Anatomy are interesting experiments while films like King of the Hill and The Underneath started to show some openness towards more mainstream cinema.
Before going big for the first time, Soderbergh doubled down and directed his most experimental film. Schizopolis is a title that aptly describes its contents. A collection of ideas, sketches and just some general weirdness make for one of Soderbergh's weirdest films. It's a bit difficult to recommend since the humor won't be everybody's cup of tea, but if you like absurd comedy than this is a little gem.
With Out of Sight Soderbergh released his first attempt to sway the masses. It's a fun, light yet stylish crime comedy featuring George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez. The film marks the start of a series of movies aimed at a broader audience. The Limey is still a bit niche (but pretty damn good), after that Soderbergh directed Erin Brockovich, Traffic and the first Ocean remake. Good, solid Hollywood productions that may not be overwhelmingly great, but definitely better than your average Hollywood fare.
With Solaris, Oceans Twelve and a segment in Eros Soderbergh kept up his good name, but by then I guess these films didn't pose too much of a challenge. That changed when he made Bubble in 2005. The film itself is a worthy but somewhat predictable lo-fi drama, more interesting was the film's release plan. Rather than adhere to industry standards, Soderbergh rose up to call for a revolution. His idea was to release his film across the board, all formats at once. Ten years later this is still the consumer's utopia, but that move earned Soderbergh plenty of praise, because film makers stepping up for the pleas of consumers are a rare sight indeed.
In the next five years Soderbergh would continue to alternate between bigger Hollywood work (the third Ocean film) and smaller, more personal projects (The Informant). Sadly Soderbergh became more and more disillusioned with Hollywood (and the movie business as a whole), which prompted him to quite directing films altogether in 2013. His final feature was Side Effects, a good and solid goodbye, though not exactly the final bang that Soderbergh deserved.
Hopefully this is just a temporary setback, because it's sad to see a director like him lose interest in the medium. While his best years are clearly behind him, Soderbergh rarely made a bad film and always tried to do something interesting with his films, even his lighter Hollywood work. And if not that, he loved pioneering new ideas, from embracing DV to coming up with new release plans. I feel he didn't always get the praise he deserved, maybe because he walked two different paths at once, but looking at his body of work there are some great discoveries to be made. He is by far one of America's better directors if you ask me.
Best film: Schizopolis (4.0*)
Worst film: The Good German (1.5*)
Average rating: 3.20 (out of 5)