LOS ANGELES (AP) — Steven Soderbergh has made every kind of film imaginable, from fizzy comedies to penetrating dramas, from experimental indies with miniscule budgets to star-studded extravaganzas. But he always seems willing to try anything, and that’s what makes him so vital and exciting.
Soderbergh’s latest, “Contagion,” follows a deadly virus as it spreads worldwide, claiming millions of victims. It gives us a chance to roll up our sleeves — and wash our hands — and pick five of the director’s best films:
— “Traffic” (2000): Soderbergh won the Academy Award for best director — even though he was competing against himself with another film on this list, “Erin Brockovich” — for his sprawling depiction of the international drug trade. Not a moment of this 147-minute epic rings false. Soderbergh juggles several complex, intertwined story lines and a huge, big-name ensemble and makes it all look effortless. Serving as his own cinematographer as usual under the name Peter Andrews, Soderbergh explores the pervasiveness of drugs — and the futility of government efforts to stop them — through a hyperreality, one that’s raw and edgy at times, dreamy and almost hallucinatory at others. Michael Douglas, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Don Cheadle and an Oscar-winning Benicio Del Toro are among the top-notch cast.
— “Out of Sight” (1998): Soderbergh captures just the right tone every time, even as he encompasses a variety of genres. Based on the Elmore Leonard novel, this story of the improbable connection that forms between a career bank robber (George Clooney) and the federal marshal who’s after him (Jennifer Lopez) ranges from buddy comedy to gripping suspense to sexy, noir-style romance. Clooney and Lopez have crazy, flirty chemistry as they exchange banter in Scott Frank’s script that couldn’t be tighter or snappier. They’re each at the height of their charisma, and together they’re irresistible. The excellent supporting cast includes Ving Rhames, Albert Brooks, Cheadle (again), Steve Zahn and Catherine Keener.
— “The Limey” (1999): Terence Stamp is just a complete bad-ass as a British ex-con who travels to Los Angeles to investigate the death of his daughter. His performance is powerful and without question, but Soderbergh provides an intriguing contrast by telling the story in fragments, in overlapping wisps of memories and dialogue, which contributes to the air of mystery and keeps us guessing. Stamp prowls a blistering, bleached-out LA, a mix of downtown warehouses and cheap apartments, shimmering beaches and staggering hillside mansions. He’s hunting a slick, laid-back record producer, played perfectly by Peter Fonda, who was involved with this much-younger girl when she died. Soderbergh seamlessly blends these actors’ aura of ‘60s cool with his own contemporary style.
— “Erin Brockovich” (2000): Soderbergh takes a daunting and seemingly dry topic — the true story of the industrial pollution of a town’s water supply — and turns it into an inspiring tale of redemption that’s warm, human, funny and even sexy. That largely has to do with Julia Roberts, who earned a best-actress Oscar for playing the title character, a single mother of three who takes on a massive class-action lawsuit while working as a file clerk for her lawyer (Albert Finney). Roberts radiates sass and smarts with her clingy clothes and dirty mouth, and she’s an absolute hoot. Aaron Eckhart counters that, bringing sweetness and tenderness to the film as the biker next door who cares for Erin’s kids.
— “Ocean’s 11” (2001): His remake of the 1960 Rat Pack caper is perfect escapist entertainment: fun and fast-paced, slick and spontaneous, light and full of laughs. Clooney, Roberts, Matt Damon and Brad Pitt are clearly having a ball bouncing off each other, never taking themselves too seriously despite their Hollywood heavyweight status. Clooney stars in the Frank Sinatra role as Danny Ocean, who amasses a rag-tag crew of cons to pull off his latest heist: a robbery of Las Vegas’ biggest casinos on the night of a heavyweight championship fight, when he knows the high rollers will be in town and the vault will hold about $150 million. The fact that this is preposterous, yet goes so smoothly, is only part of why it’s such a kick.