Steven Soderbergh celebrated his 26th birthday on Jan. 14, 1989, a few days before his first feature, "sex, lies, and videotape," premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, launching his career and ushering in a new era of independent film. In the intervening 24 years, he's made 24 more films, ranging from crowd-pleasing heist comedies to esoteric experiments, from biopics to whatever "Magic Mike" was. He occasionally writes his own screenplays, usually acts as his own cinematographer (under the pseudonym Peter Andrews) and often serves as editor (as Mary Ann Bernard). Sometimes he'll release two movies in one year; once this resulted in him competing against himself for Best Director at the Academy Awards. (He won.)
The busy man turns 50 today, marking the point at which he's said he intends to retire (or at least take a "hiatus") from filmmaking. It remains to be seen whether he'll go through with it. His pharmaceutical thriller "Side Effects" hits theaters next month, followed by his Liberace biopic "Behind the Candelabra" on HBO in the spring. And after that? In case there is no "after that," we'll take his half-century mark as an occasion to rank his five best films. And since it's always good to give a birthday boy a little razzing, we'll include the bottom five, too.
1. 'The Limey' (1999)
This hard-boiled thriller about a British thug investigating the death of his daughter in Los Angeles isn't just marvelously entertaining, with an engrossing, twisty plot and an unforgettable lead performance by Terence Stamp. It's also a prime example of Soderbergh's gift for bringing artsy, inventive flourishes to mainstream products. In his hands, what could have been an ordinary crime drama is elevated to the status of minor classic.
2. 'Traffic' (2000)
Soderbergh's one and only Oscar (so far) was for directing this sprawling, multifaceted look at the war on drugs. (It also won for its editing, screenplay, and for Benicio Del Toro's supporting performance.) Loosely adapted from a British miniseries, "Traffic" was a box office hit as well as a critical darling, and it paved the way for HBO's "The Wire."
3. 'Out of Sight' (1998)
The director's fascination with crime was never sexier than in this adaptation of an Elmore Leonard novel about a suave bank robber (played by George Clooney in the first of his six collaborations with Soderbergh) who develops a mutual attraction with a U.S. marshal (Jennifer Lopez). Coolly seductive and playful, the movie thrives on the chemistry between its stars and on Soderbergh's effortless ability to inject personality into a potboiler.
4. 'Ocean's Eleven' (2001)
It's his biggest commercial success to date ($183 million in the U.S., $451 million worldwide); it's a remake; and it inspired two sequels. The man who was once the face of indie filmmaking went Hollywood here — and guess what? He proved as adept at popcorn fluff as he is at more thoughtful fare. Boasting a huge, charismatic cast — Clooney! Pitt! Damon! Roberts! — this is one of the rare remakes that improves on the original, a sleek, jaunty heist caper that demonstrates how much fun you can have making a movie.
5. 'The Informant!' (2009)
It was another eight years before Soderbergh exhibited the kind of playfulness that made "Ocean's Eleven" a hit, and while "The Informant!" didn't do nearly as well, it's even loopier and more creative. Matt Damon shines as a naive, talkative corporate whistle-blower, surrounded by a funny supporting cast and buoyed by a kitschy Marvin Hamlisch musical score. Just when you think you know where it's going, Soderbergh takes you down a different path (the true story it's based on is equally bizarre), providing an odd, provocative character study.
1. 'Full Frontal' (2002)
Soderbergh had experimented before, and he'd made a film with a large all-star cast. In "Full Frontal," he combined the two, and man, what a wreck. Semi-improvised by actors who clearly were not adept at improvisation, this tedious, navel-gazing rumination about Hollywood is almost insufferable.
2. 'Kafka' (1991)
Talented though he is, Soderbergh was not immune to the sophomore slump. His follow-up to "sex, lies, and videotape" was this strange mystery that's partly an adaptation of Franz Kafka's fiction and partly a biography of him. Yet even here, in a misfire, Soderbergh's talent shone through. Vincent Canby was not alone among critics in calling it "a very bad well-directed movie."
3. 'The Underneath' (1995)
Remaking the 1949 film noir "Criss Cross," Soderbergh showed that there's only so much a good director can do with a weak screenplay (which he co-wrote) and formulaic material.
4. 'Schizopolis' (1996)
Soderbergh has never been more eccentric, more self-indulgent and more fascinatingly off-target than in this absurd, non-linear experiment in which he also starred. You can admire his boldness, and occasionally laugh at the gags, but this mostly comes off as a juvenile embarrassment.
5. 'Ocean's Twelve' (2004)
Having scored a critical, commercial and artistic success with "Ocean's Eleven," Soderbergh here fell victim to a common Hollywood trap: trying to do it again without realizing what made it work the first time. "Ocean's Twelve" isn't a terrible movie, but it wastes many of its cast members, introduces too many new ones, takes the action out of Las Vegas and generally reeks of indulgence.