Steven Soderbergh has spent most of his career subverting the expectations of his audience. The most experimental mainstream American filmmaker by a long shot - check out his remarkable use of voice-over and music in The Informant! - he's deconstructed the action movie (Haywire), created a new monologue for the late Spalding Gray (And Everything Is Going Fine) and reimagined Casablanca with George Clooney and Cate Blanchett (The Good German). In addition, he's challenged the distribution paradigms by releasing a movie into theatres, on disc and on demand the same weekend (Bubble). He's done all this while making straight-up mainstream hits like Erin Brockovich, Traffic, the Ocean's movies, Contagion and Magic Mike.
On the eve of the release of the challenging Side Effects, which he's said in interviews may be his final movie, here are five films that stand as his most experimental and innovative.
1. Schizopolis (1996)
Soderbergh's 1995 thriller The Underneath left the director convinced that conventional studio filmmaking was a dead end, so he unleashed his inner Godard in this playfully Dadaist comedy, playing two characters in two narratives that may or may not be connected to one another. Depending on how you feel about the film, a key scene of Soderbergh furtively masturbating in a corporate washroom is either a joyful declaration of independence or a perfect metaphor for the entire venture.
2. The Limey (1999)
Terence Stamp's English hard man arrives in Los Angeles to find out whether his daughter's death was really an accident, and a simple revenge story becomes a Greek tragedy through Soderbergh's exquisite use of fractured chronology. The DVD commentary, with Soderbergh and screenwriter Lem Dobbs arguing over the director's structural choices, should be part of every film student's education.
3. Out Of Sight (1998)
Not long after Schizopolis, Soderbergh was offered the chance to adapt Elmore Leonard's characteristically terse book about two people on opposite sides of the law who fall in love while chasing each other across the country. He cast George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez in the leads, surrounded them with terrific character support and scrambled the chronology for maximum emotional impact. The result is an instant classic, even if it took a few years for people to figure that out.
4. Kafka (1991)
After conquering Sundance and Cannes with his debut feature, Sex, Lies, And Videotape, Soderbergh was in a position to make anything he wanted. He chose Lem Dobbs's complex literary fantasy, which imagines Franz Kafka (Jeremy Irons) being inspired to write his absurdist satires by an experience stranger than anything in The Castle or The Trial. It's a fascinating, unclassifiable project - the closest point of comparison is David Cronenberg's contemporaneous take on Naked Lunch - but it failed to find an audience. Soderbergh aims to correct that with an "overhauled" version, dubbed into German, to be released alongside the original cut at some point this year.
5. Solaris (2002)
After Ocean's Eleven became a surprise smash, Soderbergh and George Clooney tackled Stanislaw Lem's science-fiction novel about a psychologist investigating strange phenomena on a space station orbiting an alien world. Soderbergh's take is considerably more subtle and nuanced than Andrei Tarkovsky's 1972 adaptation, which was the Soviet answer to 2001; here, the emphasis is on intimacy rather than spectacle, with Clooney's character tenderly reconnecting with his dead wife (Natascha McElhone) when she's resurrected by the mysterious planet. Audiences hated it at the time, but a decade later it feels like one of Soderbergh's best.