The Naughts: The Director of the ’00s

The Naughts: The Director of the ’00s (photo)

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Steven Soderbergh had a remarkable 12 films in theaters between 2000 and 2009. That includes two shiny Oscar winners, “Erin Brockovich” (which nabbed Julia Roberts a statuette) and “Traffic,” and a potential third, “The Informant!”; all three installments of the blockbuster “Ocean’s” franchise; three fast-and-loose video experiments (“Full Frontal,” “Bubble” and “The Girlfriend Experience”); an anti-period piece period piece (“The Good German”); an anti-biopic biopic (“Che”); and a sorely underrated remake/distillation of a sci-fi classic (“Solaris”).

And that’s not even counting his contribution to the 2004 omnibus “Eros,” or the ten episodes of HBO series “K Street” he helmed. By virtue of unstoppable output alone, Soderbergh’s made more of a mark on the ’00s than any other working director. But that’s not why he’s my pick for director of the decade.

Back in 1989, Soderbergh kicked off the giddy golden age of independent film with “Sex, Lies, and Videotape,” and while the following ’90s days of Park City wine and Miramax roses weren’t as immediately good to him as to other now brand name filmmakers, he remained, as Roger Ebert put it, the “poster boy of the Sundance generation,” the kid who showed studios that the world actually wanted to watch talky, low-budget relationship dramas, provided they were, you know, really good.

12112009_Bubble.jpgIn the Naughts, the floor creaked, sagged and eventually fell out from under the film industry, leaving only those perched on the edges — blockbusters and microbudgets, everyone says, are the safest future if you want to stay in business. Well, Steven Soderbergh, king of the one-for-me, one-for-them career, has been making variations of both for years now.

Actually, “one-for-me, one-for-them” makes it sound as if he shuffles like Persephone from colorless stints in the commercial underworld to brief bursts in the bright daylight of unfettered creativity. There’s no sense that his studio work is any less his own, less distinctive, or less invested in than his more overtly personal projects — as A.O. Scott put it, “Soderbergh may have zigzagged in and out of the movie-industry mainstream in the course of his career, but he has remained, throughout, to an extent matched by very few of his peers, an experimental filmmaker.”

That Soderbergh’s an auteur there’s no doubt, but he’s one whose foremost identifying quality is a quicksilver versatility — the artist as journeyman-for-hire, just as ready to test out new technology and non-professional actors as he is to command a budget in the tens of millions and the biggest stars in the world. You may not like every one of the dozen features he’s turned out in the ’00s, but you can’t deny that they’re all interesting.

He stretches the constraints of genres until they’ve bent into something new, and tests, in a similar way, the limits of the industry’s unwritten rules. Looking back, it’s hard to believe the uproar over “Bubble”‘s 2006 day-and-date theatrical and VOD release — it’s now in no way unusual, but at the time, the president of the National Association of Theatre Owners called it “the biggest threat to the viability of the cinema industry today.”

The same goes for his toe-dips up and down the production scale — if you want to make a movie free of outside oversight, you deal with the constraints of budget, and if you want to make a movie with more resources, you deal with the different constraints that come with them. An innate understanding of those facts, of how to work the system, and of film’s place between art and commerce, seems to underline his career. Not to paint that career in too rosy a financial light — “Che,” while a relative success domestically for a four-hour foreign language film, still only made back half its budget worldwide, and Soderbergh was booted off “Moneyball” days before it was slated to begin shooting because of script disagreements, making it seem like the director’s era of sneaking a more challenging approach into a seemingly standard project might be coming to an end.

12102009_OceansTwelve.jpgIf it is, that’d be a shame. For me, honestly, it’s films like the “Ocean’s” trilogy, collectively light as a feather, that have the most intriguing underlying push and pull to them between what’s prescribed and what’s possible when you color outside the lines. There’s the unexpected delight in the movie stardom of their leads, a hedonistic joy in taking in their glow, beautifully wardrobed, traveling high-end settings — don’t they look good on camera? — the blurring of public persona and character as the films continued a more interesting examination of our concept of the famous than, for sure, “Full Frontal.”

But there’s no doubt that Soderbergh will keep working. It’s what he does best. He’ll be headed back to Park City next month with a new documentary, “And Everything Is Going Fine,” and not to Sundance but to its punkier cousin Slamdance, where he’ll also participate in a summit on new models for content distribution. I’d listen to what he has to say — he’s done pretty good so far.

This feature is part of the Naughts Project.

[Additional Photos: Debbie Doebereiner in “Bubble,” Magnolia Pictures, 2005; Matt Damon, Brad Pitt and George Clooney in “Ocean’s Twelve,” Warner Bros., 2004]

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Weird Roles

Anthony Michael Hall’s Most Rotten Movies

Catch Anthony Michael Hall in Weird Science on Friday at 8P on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Universal/Everett Collection

Anthony Michael Hall was the quintessential ’80s nerd. We love him in classics like The Breakfast Club and National Lampoon’s Vacation. But even the brainiest among us has his weak spots. In honor of Weird Science airing this Rotten Friday, we analyze Hall’s worst movies.

Weird Science (1985) 56%

A low point for John Hughes, Weird Science is way too wacky for its own good. Anthony Michael Hall’s Gary and his pal Wyatt (Ilan Mitchell-Smith) create the “perfect woman.” Supernatural chaos ensues. The film costars a young Bill Paxton, floppy disks, and a general disconnect from all reality.

The Caveman’s Valentine (2001) 46%

This ambitious drama starring Samuel L. Jackson couldn’t live up to its rich premise. Jackson plays Romulus, a Juilliard-educated, paranoid schizophrenic who lives in a cave. Hall co-stars as Bob, a rich man, who wants to see Romulus play the piano. The plot centers around Romulus investigating a murder, but with so much going on, the movie never quite finds its rhythm.

All About the Benjamins (2002) 30%

Ice Cube plays a bounty hunter who teams up with Mike Epps’ con man to catch diamond thieves. Hall plays Lil J, a small-time drug dealer. It’s definitely a role we’ve never seen Hall in, but overall the movie isn’t funny or original enough to justify its violence.

Freddy Got Fingered (2001) 11%

This showcase for Tom Green’s goofy gross-out comedy is often hailed as one of the worst films of all time. Green plays Gord, a 20-something slacker, who dreams of having his own animated series. Hall is Dave Davidson, a CEO of an animation studio who eventually helps Gord find success. Too bad Tom Green wasn’t so lucky.

Johnny Be Good (1988) 0%

Hall plays against type as Johnny Walker, a star quarterback. Robert Downey Jr. is his best friend and Uma Thurman plays his devoted girlfriend. Despite the support of a future A-list cast, the movie lacks central conflict and charm. Or, as TV Guide put it, “Johnny be worthless.” Ouch.

Catch the “Too Rotten to Miss” Weird Science this Friday at 8P on IFC.

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Season 6: Episode 1: Pickathon

Binge Fest

Portlandia Season 6 Now Available On DVD

The perfect addition to your locally-sourced, artisanal DVD collection.

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End of summer got you feeling like:

Portlandia Toni Screaming GIF

Ease into fall with Portlandia‘s sixth season. Relive the latest exploits of Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein’s cast of characters, including Doug and Claire’s poignant breakup, Lance’s foray into intellectual society, and the terrifying rampage of a tsukemen Noodle Monster! Plus, guest stars The Flaming Lips, Glenn Danzig, Louis C.K., Kevin Corrigan, Zoë Kravitz, and more stop by to experience what Portlandia is all about.

Pick up a copy of the DVD today, or watch full episodes and series extras now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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Byrning Down the House

Everything You Need to Know About the Film That Inspired “Final Transmission”

Documentary Now! pays tribute to "Stop Making Sense" this Wednesday at 10P on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Cinecom/courtesy Everett Collection

This week Documentary Now! is with the band. For everyone who’s ever wanted to be a roadie without leaving the couch, “Final Transmission” pulls back the curtain on experimental rock group Test Pattern’s final concert. Before you tune in Wednesday at 10P on IFC, plug your amp into this guide for Stop Making Sense, the acclaimed 1984 Talking Heads concert documentary.

Put on Your Dancing Shoes

Hailed as one of the best concert films ever created, director Jonathan Demme (Silence of the Lambs) captured the energy and eccentricities of a band known for pushing the limits of music and performance.

Make an Entrance

Lead singer David Byrne treats the concert like a story: He enters an empty stage with a boom box and sings the first song on the setlist solo, then welcomes the other members of the group to the stage one song at a time.

Steal the Spotlight

David Byrne Dancing
Cinecom/Everett Collection

Always a physical performer, Byrne infuses the stage and the film with contagious joy — jogging in place, dancing with lamps, and generally carrying the show’s high energy on his shoulders.

Suit Yourself

Byrne makes a splash in his “big suit,” a boxy business suit that grows with each song until he looks like a boy who raided his father’s closet. Don’t overthink it; on the DVD, the singer explains, “Music is very physical, and often the body understands it before the head.”

View from the Front Row

Stop Making Sense Band On Stage
Cinecom/Everett Collection

Demme (who also helmed 1987’s Swimming to Cambodia, the inspiration for this season’s Documentary Now! episode “Parker Gail’s Location is Everything”) films the show by putting viewers in the audience’s shoes. The camera rarely shows the crowd and never cuts to interviews or talking heads — except the ones onstage.

Let’s Get Digital

Tina Weymouth Keyboard
Cinecom/Everett Collection

Stop Making Sense isn’t just a good time — it’s also the first rock movie to be recorded entirely using digital audio techniques. The sound holds up more than 30 years later.

Out of Pocket

Talk about investing in your art: Talking Heads drummer Chris Frantz told Rolling Stone that the members of the band “basically put [their] life savings” into the movie, and they didn’t regret it.

Catch Documentary Now!’s tribute to Stop Making Sense when “Final Transmission” premieres Wednesday, October 12 at 10P on IFC.

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