The Definitive Ranking of the Films of David Fincher
Dustin said something the other day that really resonated with me. In reporting on the imminent release of Davind Fincher’s new Netflix series, Mindhunter, he held forth thus:
You know what’s refreshing about David Fincher right now? That he’s a middle-aged white guy with tremendous power in the industry who — as far as we know — has never sexually harassed or assaulted anyone!
The truth of that rings painfully loud and clear. We are seeing a much-belated opening of the floodgates in this industry of ours right now, and we are finally seeing what many people—women especially—have known for a damn long time: That it is rotten. Like most other similar constructs in our society, its power structures are held up by sexism, racism, and abuse.
But there is still room in there for those who are concerned only with putting out quality work. For those people who make it a real treat for the rest of us to call ourselves movie fans. David Fincher is one such a man, and his oeuvre is a feast. Let’s rank the shit out of it.
10. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)
The Curious Case of What The Fuck Were You Smoking, Mr Fincher? more like. It’s not that Fincher’s telling of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s (read: ‘Probably actually Zelda Fitzgerald’s) short story about a man who ages in reverse is necessarily a bad movie, per se. It’s just a jumble of strange contradictions that sum up to basically zero. It’s well-acted but cloying; occasionally beautifully shot but forgettable; earnest but silly. For every tick you wanna add to the ‘Positives’ column while watching you can’t help but add two crosses to the ‘But Why?’ column. David Fincher isn’t a reclusive, once-every-decade filmmaker, but he isn’t exactly Mr Prolific either, so each one of his projects is worth savouring. Or rather, he should be making sure that each one of them is worth savouring. In any other filmmaker’s oeuvre, Benjamin Button could seem a harmless curiosity. In a director as precise as David Fincher’s, it comes across almost as an annoying time waster. This effect is doubled when you consider that the movie bounced around Hollywood in the developmental larval stage since the late 80’s, with numerous name directors attached at one point or another before Fincher finally caught it. Why, David, why? Why didn’t you duck?
9. Alien 3 (1992)
It’s widely accepted that Fincher’s debut feature is not a very good one. It is almost as widely known that this is largely not the director’s fault. Transitioning from his successful career shooting ads and music videos straight into (at the time) one of the most critically bulletproof movie properties, Fincher found himself butting heads with producers and studio reps over budgets, script issues, and overall creative control. ‘Control’ is a key word in the career of David Fincher, and while sometimes the push and pull between creative and business forces can lead to greatness, Alien 3 was not one of those cases—because the director is not one of those creative forces that needs interference from a tempering force. He is not a spoiled child who if given a large budget runs amok and creates a mess. Discipline and a clear creative vision are his hallmarks, and there are few filmmakers who can be relied upon to deliver the goods as much as he. But this was early days, and a combination of a large franchise and an as-of-yet unproven track record meant that Fincher could not exercise the kind of veto or override that would later become a powerful weapon in his arsenal. Alien 3 is the result of someone else telling David Fincher what to do. He once said of the movie: ‘No one hated it more than me; to this day, no one hates it more than me.’
8. Panic Room (2002)
Panic Room is a fine little genre flick. There’s nothing wrong with it, and plenty right with it. It’s tense, features some stellar actors doing great work (Jared Leto’s there too), and it doesn’t overstay its welcome. But in the gallery of the works of David Fincher, ‘fine’ doesn’t really cut it. That’s not to say it doesn’t have a place in it, just that its (intended) lack of ambition means it will often be overlooked. Had anyone else made Panic Room, it’d be a different story, because it is entertaining and very well made. Fincher called the film a ‘really good B-movie’, and that does about sum it up.
7. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2011)
The phenomenon that is The Unnecessary American Remake can be a particularly draining experience for movie fans. The Wicker Man, Secret in Their Eyes, Diabolique—the list of cringe-worthy efforts at adapting international successes grows ever longer and sadder. But David Fincher’s version of the best-selling Swedish thriller The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo does not belong on it. This is partly because it was developed roughly in parallel to the Swedish film adaptation rather than being conceived as a remake of the movie, but also just because it’s really bloody good. Ditching the slightly made-for-TV visuals that permeated the (otherwise pretty damn solid) Swedish version, Fincher crafts a much more cinematic telling of the story. Working with his longtime partner in crime, cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth (Fight Club, The Social Network, Gone Girl), he creates chilly landscapes of foreboding and dread for Rooney Mara’s Lisbeth Salander to stalk. It doesn’t do the movie justice to keep comparing it to the Swedish version, but alas due to the vagaries of fate and cinematic scheduling that will forever be its lot. In many ways Fincher’s version is grander and yet more intimate than the other. It’s shot to look better and bigger, but to feel more claustrophobic, and it achieves that splendidly. Mara’s Lisbeth, too, is a subtly different creation to Noomi Rapace’s conception of the character. Fundamentally they are very much alike of course, but there were shades of openness to Rapace’s Lisbeth, stronger traces of warmth, something slightly different behind the eyes. Both are great, but for my money Rapace is one of the few things about the Swedish movie that is superior to Fincher’s otherwise more able take.
6. Gone Girl (2014)
A nasty, visceral, calculated piece of work is Fincher’s adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. And I mean that in the best way possible. It achieves exactly what it sets out to do, and it gives us a hell of a one-two punch of great female performances. Because yes, Rosamund Pike is something to behold in Gone Girl. She’s terrifying and captivating. But then you also have Carrie Coon providing the movie with the closest thing it has to a heart. Coon is just fantastic as Nick Dunne’s sister.
I have a peculiar relationship with Gone Girl as a whole however. I saw it in the cinema and thoroughly enjoyed myself—well, maybe ‘enjoy’ is not really the right word for this story, but I was certainly gripped. And I marveled as I usually do during a Fincher production at the technical proficiency—genius, really—on display. But once it ended I had no desire to see it again. And I don’t think that’s because it’s quite an unpleasant story to witness. I don’t mind unpleasant stories. Nor do I claim that it’s a movie that lives and dies with its twist. There is just something about it that left me a bit cold. It’s fantastically put together, but personally it didn’t do very much for me. Maybe I need to force myself to watch it again.
5. Se7en (1995)
After his experience with Alien 3 soured him on directing features, David Fincher retreated from the scene for some time, not even reading a script in over a year. Lucky for us, when Se7en landed on his desk he made it through. There are few movies that create a world quite the way that Se7en does. Like Blade Runner its universe feels complete and alive, a parallel dimension New York where it never stops raining. You feel dirty watching Se7en, infected with the city’s poison and profaned by Fincher’s meditation on the scope of humanity’s evil. Brad Pitt is a little bit adorable as he begins his slow transition from 90’s pretty boy automaton into the very capable actor that he would later become, but Fincher’s strong directing hand helps him out here. Morgan Freeman could have probably played the part of Detective Somerset in his sleep but he brings the full weight of his talents in his portrayal of the world weary detective. His supremely moral and empathetic character stands in stark contrast to the bloody evil unleashed upon his city. Part detective movie and part morality play, Se7en still packs a punch. Famously of course the studio wanted the ‘head in a box’ ending cut and re-shot for a less gruesome and more anodyne finish, but Fincher (and Pitt) fought to keep it. That was a smart move.
4. The Game (1997)
It sometimes feels these days as if we’ve all forgotten how great of an actor Michael Douglas can be. There aren’t many refreshers better than David Fincher’s much-underrated psychological thriller The Game (Wonder Boys and Solitary Man are two others). A slightly metatextual analysis of the artifice of moviemaking, The Game is primarily enjoyable purely as a visceral roller coaster of emotions and thrills. It is an extremely enjoyable and intelligent, giddy ride that Fincher directs with devilish precision. He guides us through the movie’s reveals like a master. Those twists and turns come hard and fast but crucially they do not feel cheap or unearned. There is no cheating here. The movie has heart too, which gives it all the emotional weight it needs to work. You feel for the characters, and Michael Douglas—with whom we spend almost the entirety of the running time and whose perception of things is our portal unto this dark tale. Looking back now, the atmospheres of paranoia and fear Fincher creates in The Game at times look like a trial run for Zodiac, and it remains a hidden gem in his filmography that I urge all who remember it with anything less than fondness to revisit.
3. The Social Network (2010)
How the fuck do you turn the genesis story of a social media platform into a taut and gripping drama? You hire David fucking Fincher that’s how.
I remember when The Social Network was announced. I thought to myself, ‘Wow, I’m struggling to imagine a story I could be less interested in seeing.’ Oh ye of little faith, Past Knava, oh ye of little faith. What Fincher (with notable assist from a pretty great Sorkin script) achieves in this movie is quite spectacular. Rarely falling back on cinematic cliches or visual tropes usually used in the depiction of computer work, he instead devotes a lot of his focus to the psychological. The technical still features, of course, but The Social Network works so well because it allows the war of personalities and egos at its centre to take the spotlight. In typical Fincher fashion, events are depicted in a precise and methodical way, shots are perfectly composed and utilised—but it’s his often underappreciated understanding of the human condition that is the secret weapon here. He is a filmmaker driven by the need to explore what drives people to obsession, to devotion, to anger and to fear. In The Social Network’s versions of Mark Zuckerberg and the characters that were there at the birth of an unstoppable behemoth, Fincher found a gloriously twisted set of subjects to dissect.
That soundtrack doesn’t hurt either.
2. Fight Club (1999)
Can you say: ‘Zeitgest-y’?
Alright how about: ‘Unwarranted backlash’?
Fight Club is a powerful and kinetic bit of vital filmmaking, made by a director driving home his creative vision and indelibly searing his name into the historical record.
It’s also become somewhat of a sacred text for reactionary, ignorant internet fuckboys who completely misunderstand its message and who use it to promote retrograde ideals of masculinity and violence that fly directly in the face of its ideals. The backlash against Fight Club seen in some commentary circles is a confused crusade. In tarring those idiots who abuse the movie for their arse-backwards politics, sometimes the movie gets dragged along with it, and that’s unfair. The film stands on its own, and is not only a hyper entertaining, blackly funny indictment of mass consumer capitalism, toxic masculinity, and the poisonous relationship between the two, but a tour de force of acting and directing that packs a hefty emotional punch too. I have seen Fight Club many times. I never get bored. I always see new things.
1. Zodiac (2007)
Look, Zodiac is basically a perfect piece of work. I wrote a whole bunch of words detailing exactly why a little while back. The only thing that might have changed since then is that, like fine wine, it has aged a little bit and become even greater. It’s a perfect storm of technique, humanity, and control.
It’s Peak Fincher in other words. Drink it in.