On ranking Soderbergh

Benicio del Toro as Javier Rodriguez, the border cop who experiences a crisis of conscience in Traffic (2000).

The premiere of Logan Lucky a couple of weeks ago—Steven Soderbergh’s “comeback” movie—has inspired a slew of articles reassessing Soderbergh and ranking his films.  To look at the various rankings is to be reminded of the eclecticism and idiosyncrasy of Soderbergh’s output.  While many critics seem to agree that he’s an important filmmaker, there’s no real consensus as to what his best film is.  Is it Out of SightOcean’s ElevenChe?  My own preference is for Traffic, a film that holds up beautifully in spite of the fact that it hails from another era: its historical moment pre-dates 9/11, social networking, and mobile technology.  It’s possible to argue that what Traffic tries to do—that is, map a whole sprawling network of interconnected players, locations, and systems—has since been accomplished to better effect by long-form television series like The Wire.  But as movies go it’s hard to imagine someone pulling it off better than Soderbergh does here.

I’m tempted to make the case that Traffic is Soderbergh’s best movie because it best encapsulates the spirit of his filmmaking—i.e., that it’s somehow “representative” of Soderbergh’s artistry.  His genius for casting Hollywood actors, for instance, is in full force here, as is his cheeky sense of humor in playing them against type or using them in otherwise unconventional ways.  (Real-life husband and wife Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones co-star but are never onscreen together; big name actors like Albert Finney and Salma Hayek flicker by in walk-on roles; Don Cheadle and Luiz Guzman of Out of Sight re-team here but as different characters; public figures like Orrin Hatch and Barbara Boxer have cameos as themselves; vintage favorites like Amy Irving and Miguel Ferrer are given key supporting parts.)  And Traffic is as good an example as any in Soderbergh’s career of his default tone: clear-eyed, eminently sane, humane yet ironic.  Like all of Soderbergh’s films, it’s also expertly paced; considering it runs 146 minutes, the thing moves.  But the problem in reducing Soderbergh’s oeuvre to a single title is that he has never stood still long enough to develop a signature style.  A talented and canny journeyman, his career has been studded with anomalies, one-offs, and experiments: slick Hollywood blockbusters (the Oceans franchise), weird passion projects (Schizopolis, Kafka), profile pieces (the Spalding Gray concert films).  One of his current projects is reportedly a horror movie shot on an iPhone, another a choose-your-own-adventure-style hypertext.    

Playing with stars: Michael Douglas as Robert Wakefield surrounded by politicians (playing themselves) in the Georgetown cocktail party sequence.

Traffic came out in December of 2000, fast on the heels of Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream, that year’s other “drug movie.”  Both went on to rack up numerous critics’ awards, and Traffic ended up winning four Oscars, including Best Director for Soderbergh (who competed against himself for Erin Brockovich).  The two films could be said to represent the opposite polarities of cinematic style.  Where the Aronofsky is visceral, kinetic, and assaultive, the Soderbergh is measured, clinical, and intellectual.  Requiem for a Dream has enjoyed a somewhat better reputation than Traffic, which may have something to do with a slight bias among cineastes toward Aronofsky’s “hot” style over Soderbergh’s trademark sang froid.  It may also be that what Soderbergh does in his films is often so unassuming, and so invisible, that it risks going unnoticed.  But, with all due respect to Aronofsky, Hollywood could use more of Soderbergh’s cool touch.  So all of the recent Soderbergh love is something to celebrate—even if ranking the films of this most mutable of filmmakers is something of a fool’s errand.

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