After making Behind the Candelabra in 2013, Steven Soderbergh expressed frustration with the film industry and ‘retired,’ spending the next few years on a TV show – The Knick – instead. In 2017 he came out of retirement with aplomb and has gone on to make at least one film per year since, very much on his own terms. From using innovative camera techniques, to taking over the cinematography and editing, as well as in some cases even the marketing and distribution of his own films, to filming on a transatlantic cruise, Soderbergh has entered an inventive and prolific period in his career and we should all be grateful for it (not you, The Laundromat).

I *think* I’m writing in saying that two of these five films have Matt Damon surprise cameos and if you haven’t seen all of them, I’ll let you have fun finding out which ones.

Logan Lucky, Hulu (2017) ★★★★

Full Review

I’ve seen Logan Lucky at least five times since it was released and it never fails to put a smile on my face. I try not to bandy the phrase “perfect movie” around too much, but this just happens to be one! Easily comparable with the Oceans Trilogy in terms of hitting that finely-calibrated heist plot sweet spot, while being absolutely hilarious throughout, Logan Lucky has such a winning formula – great cast (as we’ll see with most of these movies), great script, great costume design – it really has it all. It all centres around the Logan siblings – Jimmy (Channing Tatum), Clyde (Adam Driver) and Mellie (Riley Keough, currently kicking up a storm in Zola) and the Bang siblings – Fish (Jack Quaid, son of Meg Ryan and Dennis Quaid), Sam (Brian Gleeson, son of Brendan and brother Domhnall) and Joe (Daniel Craig, husband of Rachel Weisz) who reluctantly team-up to pull off an audacious heist under the Charlotte Motor Speedway at one of the biggest NASCAR events of the year. With extremely memorable dialogue and line deliveries, from Driver and Craig in particular; “I am in-car-cer-at-ed” “Did you just say cauliflower to me?” and cameos from the likes of Katie Holmes, Hilary Swank, Sebastian Stan and Seth MacFarlane – Logan Lucky is hugely entertaining and enjoyable from start to finish.

Sodey didn’t want to “come out of retirement” just to keep making films in the same way, so with Logan Lucky, he tried a brand new model – he raised the $29 million needed to make the film by setting his A-list cast in place, then selling off the overseas distribution rights, he raised the $20 million needed to market the film by selling off a portion of the film’s nontheatrical rights (e.g. Amazon purchased streaming rights). Bleecker Street Media, a small independent company, took less than $1 million up front (with back-end incentives) to carry out the marketing campaign. By subverting the mainstream process, Soderbergh retained complete creative control over Logan Lucky, including even the trailers, which is unheard of. The film only needed to have a $15 million opening weekend (when most of a film’s box office is made) for this plan to work – it ended up making about half that and nearly $50 million over all. It should have been a monster hit, at least on the same level as Knives Out. (Much of this information was provided by Theoden Janes at the Charlotte Observer who in turn, gained their facts and figures from the New York Times.)

Unsane, Amazon Prime (2018) ★★★½

Full Review

The first of two films back-to-back that Soderbergh shot on iPhone, Unsane is probably the most underseen of these five films. I personally put off watching it for a long time, not because I thought it was bad, but because I knew it would be difficult to watch. Unsane features a woman who is being abused (in this case by a stalker), then is involuntarily committed to a psychological hospital, all while being disbelieved and gaslit. This is unusual for Soderbergh in not having a starry ensemble cast (Juno Temple is the only other recognisable name in the cast list, really), but instead entirely hinges on Claire Foy’s central performance. The iPhone works really well to centre Foy and creates off-kilter angles which add to the unease when she is confronted by her stalker, for example. It also emphasises the sickly yellow and brown colours of the hospital and makes the whole environment look unappealing. The soundtrack is also very good. Like many horror films of this nature, things spiral towards the end and get a bit too ridiculous, but Foy’s performance remains excellent throughout. This is certainly better than the similarly-themed Lucky (starring Brea Grant), but not quite as good as Invisible Man (starring Elisabeth Moss).

High Flying Bird, Netflix (2019) ★★

Soderbergh’s other iPhone ‘experiment,’ this time for Netflix, proves that you can create something with an entirely different atmosphere, using the same tools. We’re back with another brilliant ensemble cast, headlined by Andre Holland, one of the best actors working today and part of the cast of The Knick, the HBO TV show Soderbergh made during his ‘downtime’ away from movies. The cast also features Zazie Beetz, Sonja Sohn (great to see her getting a meaty role, after being one of the many standouts of The Wire) and Kyle MacLachlan. With this being focused on the NBA, it’s quite hard for a British non-sports fan (AKA me) to follow, but this doesn’t mean that you can’t appreciate the zingy dialogue, the great acting and the innovative camerawork on display here. Opening the film with a seven-minute two-hander in a restaurant, where he gets some impressively wide angles with his little phone and then a great tracking shot of Holland walking through the city, Soderbergh really shows off his mastery of technique here. It is definitely Holland who makes this so watchable and enjoyable if, like me, you don’t really have a handle on what’s going on. Roxana Hadadi’s detailed article for Ebert Voices on Black athletes, players’ associations, unions and their power struggle with the white owners of the teams explains it a lot better than I can.

Let Them All Talk, HBO (2020) ★★

No camera trickery this time, BUT this film was still made in unusual circumstances – this time on a real Atlantic crossing of the Queen Mary II in the ‘Fall of 2019’ (an alternative title to the film). Considering what was to happen to cruise ships just a few short months after this was shot, it really does feel like lightning in a bottle. When I heard about this film, I was in no rush to watch it, as I haven’t liked a Meryl Streep performance since The Devil Wears Prada fifteen years ago and I’m also no fan of Lucas Hedges. However, I ended up giving it a shot while catching up with 2020 films and I was so glad that I did. What seemed like a “rich people problem” movie (like On the Rocks and French Exit, also from the last year), ended up being much more complex and like most Soderbergh, has fantastic dialogue and performances.

Streep, Dianne Wiest and Candice Bergen play old college friends who meet up for the first time in thirty years on the crossing. Wiest deliciously subverts her super-sweet persona by occasionally dropping salacious anecdotes and Bergen brilliantly portrays a desperate woman who is not on the same financially privileged level of her friends. There is a charming subplot involving Lucas Hedges and Gemma Chan, which flirts with rom-com tropes but does not end predictably. One of the greatest strengths is the non-professional extras, who play a crowd of fans around blockbuster thriller writer Kelvin Kranz, a spa receptionist and other members of the ship’s crew and even seem to include several of the men that Bergen scopes out in the hopes of landing a rich husband. If they’re not ‘real people,’ then they’re fantastically believable and naturalistic actors, put it that way. I can see how the fairly large and sudden tonal shift at the end might lose some people, but it really worked for me. The running ‘gag’ where Wiest and Bergen meet to strategize over ever-changing board games is one of my favourite little details.

No Sudden Move, HBO (2021) ★★

Despite not even realising that Sodey’s latest was set in the 1950s, it only took mere seconds to catch up, due to the opening establishing shot which tracks Don Cheadle’s Curtis as he strolls through a Detroit suburb with a fantastic amount of fantastic 50s cars in the background. Cars are important in this world – cars are important to Americans, to the American economy and those at the top will go to extreme lengths to maintain that. A twisty noir featuring one of Soderbergh’s signature ensembles, with Don Cheadle and Benicio del Toro at the centre, No Sudden Move has been a huge pleasant surprise of the year (although why I’m still surprised at this point, I don’t know). Some of the smaller roles are filled by Kieran Culkin in typically wise-cracking mode, the brilliant director Amy Seimetz as David Harbour’s long-suffering wife (a performance comparable to Marielle Heller’s in The Queen’s Gambit) and Noah Jupe as their protective kid. Ray Liotta (clearly relishing this opportunity) and Uncut Gems’ Julia Fox play another married couple, also at loggerheads….oh and Twitter’s favourite Brendan Fraser is in the mix too.

Having recently watched the HBO docuseries The Lady and the Dale and rewatched Shane Black’s The Nice Guys, a clear picture has emerged of the grip that the car industry has on the US and the cover-up that happened which delayed catalytic converters being fitted into cars on a mass scale. Considering the current climate emergency we are in, this feels like it should be a bigger deal and more widely known!

The cinematography is once again, unusual, with the use of a vintage wide-angle fish-eye lens in the anamorphic aspect ratio that takes some getting used to. The people on the edges of the frame look tall and thin, while those in the centre of the frame look shorter and stouter. It does work well, despite how weird this sounds, particularly in street scenes. If you’re anything like me, the production design (by the Oscar-winning Hannah Beachler), costume design and the absolutely gorgeous cars will be some of the main draws and none of these areas disappoint. The jazzy score by David Holmes is another highlight and while this doesn’t feature a heist in the vein of Ocean’s or Logan Lucky, it is similarly intricately plotted, with money changing hands, being won and lost so fast, it’s hard to keep track. Soderbergh’s view of money is an interesting one and is certainly a theme that can be traced across much of his work – it may be a cliche that money doesn’t buy happiness, but it seems to be one that Sodey clings to.

So, if you haven’t caught up with Soderbergh’s recent work, I strongly suggest discovering it – all of these films are on streaming sites in the US (check JustWatch in the UK to find them). They examine various aspects of American life – capitalism and the obsession with money, the American Dream, the health industry, the labour movement and two great American obsessions – sports and cars. They feature some of the best actors available, working with some of the best dialogue available in American movies. They are of a consistently high quality (not you, The Laundromat) and show that retirement (for four whole years) was clearly good for Sodey.