“There’s a difference between being obsessed and being motivated,” Mark Zuckerberg insists during the opening moments of The Social Network. But the thing about the characters in a David Fincher movie is that they never seem to know what the difference is. In fact, some might say that same is true of Fincher himself. And, frankly, it’s for the best, because if the filmmaker had any idea where to draw the line between determination and dementedness he probably would have left the game of filmmaking after being fired (multiple times) from his first Hollywood feature. As he’s transitioned from music videos to feature films, Fincher has established himself as one of the finest, most idiosyncratic voices of American cinema. Often described as “the next Kubrick,” Fincher carries the reputation of being a perfectionist who works within a deeply imperfect system. Even as he disagrees with that — saying “No. There’s just a difference between mediocre and acceptable.” From The Game to Zodiac, his peerlessly audacious films tell stories about people who recognize that rules are made to be ignored, who are willing to walk over broken glass if they find something worth bleeding for. So, with his return to the big screen career now here with Mank, I’ve decided to look back at Fincher’s body of work, and rank each of his films.
11. Alien 3 (1992)
David Fincher wasn’t in a position to be picky back when he got offered his first studio directing gig. After all, it’s not everyday that an unproven twenty-seven-year-old music video director is granted a $65 million budget to follow in the steps of Ridley Scott and James Cameron and continue a massive Hollywood franchise; in fact, no first-time director, to my count, as ever been given $65 million to do anything. But just because he was looking to get his foot in the door and ended up stubbing his toe, in a way, doesn’t mean that he didn’t want to be there. He’s since become a world-class artist, but he’s also proven himself to be interested in mainstream entertainment, it just didn’t help that he would get manipulated and puppermastered by the studio system for his first time at bat. Alien 3 isn’t exactly good, but I wouldn’t call it bad either; it’s just fine. It’s a soup of conflicting ideas, with individual scenes that reveal the strong choices that are slightly trampled along the way. Even as there were too many cooks in the kitchen and Fincher has since strongly disowned the work, I wouldn’t say it’s worth throwing away.
10. Panic Room (2002)
A contained, claustrophobic reaction to the sprawl of his previous film (Fight Club), Panic Room might be the smallest of Fincher’s movies, but the director characteristically still found a way to complicate it to the point of gleeful absurdity, turning what’s essentially a single-location home invasion thriller into a piece of machinery so precise that it owes as much to Rolex as it does Hitchcock. Fincher elevates its light story into a playground of visual ideas, moving his camera through walls and building CG household objects so he can milk them for every ounce of their drama. In a film that hinges on the balance between freedom and security, Fincher’s all-seeing eye is used to underline just how limited his characters really are. Panic Room is as purely entertaining as anything Fincher has ever made, even in spite of its modesty and its flaws (a trio of blah villains and an apprehensive third act). More to the point, it actually grows when seen in context with the rest of his oeuvre, even if it didn’t make much of a dent in the culture. Making literal some of Fincher’s most favorite motifs, Panic Room becomes a ridiculously compact distillation of all the things that make its maker tick.
9. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button has kinda gotten a bum wrap over the last few years, as the film’s premise has become a punchline — a man who in life ages backwards — and its finer pleasures have been swallowed by the visual/special effects wizardry that made them possible. And while it’s true that Fincher’s most expensive movie has its clumsy elements — from by its labored use of Hurricane Katrina as a framing device to its struggles to get going early on and for getting some beats to stick — there are moments of this two-hour-forty-six-minute epic that are as touching as anything that Fincher has ever done. And while that might be a low bar; Fincher isn’t exactly known for being “touching,” but the filmmaker possesses a deep appreciation for the unstoppable forward strut of time, and there’s something heartbreaking about how he applies it to the story of someone who’s living in reverse. It’s an overstuffed film about the fullness of life, and how beguiling the journey is for all of us. For chunks of it, I guess it depends on if you’re weirded out by a shriveled old Brad Pitt, for which I’m not really. But the movie, like the singular life of its hero, grows more interesting as he gets more beautiful. Benjamin’s romance with Daisy (a great Cate Blanchett) is ravishingly bittersweet, a brief and unlikely love story about the brevity and unlikeliness of all love stories. All in all, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a film that achingly evokes the melancholic march of time in a devoutly singular form of philosophical conundrums and emotional paradoxes that’s ultimately affecting.
8. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo holds an awkward spot in Fincher’s filmography, in that it feels like it belongs to him less than maybe any of his other features (actually, Alien 3 probably holds that spot). Adapted from a rabidly popular book series and released after all of the Swedish-language movie adaptations, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a work that aligns right with Fincher’s pursuits: it’s a bold adult entertainment. The methodical nature of Stieg Larsson’s source material must’ve appealed to Fincher, as did its focuses on technology and obsession, if only Fincher grabbed and cared a little more about the central disappearance. Maybe that’s why the film works so well though, as Fincher is considerably more interested in the journey rather than the destination, considerably more interested in what an investigation identifies about the people conducting it than he is the people they’re trying to identify. This is an one-hundred-fifty-eight minute murder mystery with a grand total of three plausible suspects, and the ultimate reveal is so obvious that you hardly feel it happening. On one hand, it’s a shuddering multi-generational epic of systemic misogyny, and how it thrives on silence. On the other, it’s a beautiful and deeply human portrait of two people saving each from a world that’s out to destroy them. This Lisbeth Salander isn’t just some badass goth hacker, she’s a fresh welt surrounded by scar tissue, a brilliant survivor who taps into her trauma like a superpower, only to be victimized by the collateral damage left behind. And Rooney Mara’s heartbreaking performance might be the best that Fincher has ever inspired, the actress piercing through layers of affect and rage to create something that’s heightened but indivisibly real. It’s of a piece with this intriguing process-centric work.
7. The Game (1997)
The Game is the David Fincher film that sits as a hyper-elaborate Rorschach Test in his filmography. In one viewpoint it’s A Christmas Carol by way of The Parallax View; in another, it’s a wrong-man thriller in which the main character enters willingly into his own nightmare; in another, it’s about a man pulling back the curtain on movie magic and world-building; but, for me at least, it’s always been about a man trying to fight determinism (or God). Either way, it’s a massively clever and slippery film, one of the very few where suspension of disbelief is intrinsically apart of it; only adding weight to its themes (I guess that might depend a little on how you read it as well). But, at the very least, The Game is also a movie that works just as well as a diagnostic expression of movies themselves, the power of illusion in motion; hinting/telling us everything from the get-go then still having us tight in their (Fincher’s) grip all the way down the rabbit hole. Fincher’s control is, as always, off-the-charts, ultimately delivering an odd outpouring of feeling, like the payoff to the world’s most expensive therapy session, a winking reminder that losing our bearings for a minute (or a hundred) can help us hold a better grip when we get them back. It’s a world-class punch to the brain and a personal exorcism.
6. Mank (2020)
In a way, Mank is about the formation of Citizen Kane through that of its writer, the titular Herman J. Mankiewicz (a beautifully disheveled and concise Gary Oldman). In a larger actuality, Mank very much is a story about class divides and clashing egos, outsiders and insiders, striving and ambition, creation and authorship, an artist in the throes of a creative and a moral crisis, and the thrill and loneliness of being the smartest guy in the room. It’s rich, fascinating and inevitably painful material overflows with visual and verbal elegance and is weaved together with an intellectual vigor. Frankly, it would make a particularly fascinating Mank-and-Mark double feature with Fincher’s The Social Network, which not coincidentally was greeted as the Citizen Kane of tech-whiz biopics. It’s also, arguably, the least accessible of Fincher’s works, one so relentlessly niche within its history and figures. Yet there’s so much to luxuriate in; a film of off-kilter rhythms, which feel both immersive and agitated, as if Fincher were trying to both hypnotize you and jolt you awake from the Old Hollywood he’s re-created. And it’s an interesting feeling: Mank demands your surrender, but also your heightened attention. It’s a pleasurably discombobulating experience, sometimes playing like a biting comedy of manners and sometimes flirting with being an expressionist nightmare. It’s one of Fincher’s most audacious filmmaking experiments that sees a man running against a system of media titans remaking the world in their image and it’s provocative contemplations on the nexus between art, society and legacy are tantalizing. (Full Review)
5. Gone Girl (2014)
It’s an understatement to say that David Fincher is drawn to mysteries that resist closure; his movies show an obsessive concern for what we know, what we can prove, whose perspective we’re seeing, and how we can learn more. Fincher’s adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s bestseller is yet another investigation, albeit of a more interior sort. Instead of a sprawling murder case, the film centers on a couple trying to worm their way inside each other’s heads. Nothing can be trusted: not the flashbacks, not the news footage, not even the tone. A venomous thriller that hides an unapologetically perverse story about the performative nature of public life, Gone Girl begins as a Pinter-esque procedural before gradually rising into a De Palma-esque pitch of pulp trashiness. As always, Fincher’s sense of rhythm is without fault, thanks in part to cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth’s eerily precise compositions and Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ soothing score, who help create a vision of suburbia that’s dreamy and distrusting in equal measure, a hazy place where everything — even marriage — is seen in shallow focus. Incredible casting helps, too: Ben Affleck taps right into his sliminess with ease, while Carrie Coon is Carrie Coon (enough said), and Rosamond Pike is a duplicitous revelation as “Amazing” Amy.
4. Fight Club (1999)
The films of David Fincher — no matter their size — very often boil down to the elastic push-and-pull between two very dissimilar people, diametrically opposed characters who reveal themselves through the tension of whatever ties them together. He’s drawn to scenarios that heighten that dynamic more than the average drama: Cat-and-mouse detective stories, strained marriages, a fantastical romance where a man and a woman are aging in different directions. And Fight Club sees him tackling a duo unlike any other, in territory of pure confrontation; delivering a character in Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) that was an impossibly cool avatar who could bark truisms at us with quasi-religious touches, like a life coach who blathers advice that seems like its been deep-fried in Axe body spray. It’s a film about as subtle as a punch to the face and twice as smug, and it’s also a true Fincher knockout with a legacy as complicated as any film of the last however many years. But then again, it seems kind of obvious that Fight Club was destined to be co-opted by bro culture, but it also seems just as obviously destined to be pried right back away from them. In a masterfully directed movie that served as a reckoning with the 20th Century as we readied ourselves for the 21st (and ended with a man reconciling his old demons just in time for some towers to implode under the weight of his new ones), Tyler Durden ultimately was a character that became the physical embodiment of consumer masculinity: Aspirational, impossible, insufferable. A foil that Edward Norton’s Narrator first needed, but also something that needed to be extinguished. In Fight Club, as in all of Fincher’s best films, neither of the protagonists is better than the other, but the conflict between them brings a measure of humanity to them both. This is one of the most bewildering studio movies of the last thirty years, and also one of the best.
3. Seven (1995)
A cataclysmal neo-noir that launched a handful of careers, galvanized others, and instantly asserted itself as one of its decade’s major cinematic flash points, David Fincher’s second feature is assuredly one of the filmmaker’s most influential works. The first two acts of this grippingly oppressive film may be the stuff of a traditional detective procedural, but they’re still suspenseful in an era when every town in America has its own NCIS spinoff (thanks in large part to the incisive chemistry that flows between Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt). However, Seven is obviously remembered for the nihilism of its third act, which giddily reanimates the apocalyptic sprits that once bolstered inside the likes of Kiss Me Deadly. However, this time around we do find exactly what’s in the box, it’s Fincher ambushing Hollywood (and its audiences) with an unforgettable movie about living in a world so dark that we can’t see it clearly.
2. The Social Network (2010)
Fitting nicely with the film’s Rashomon approach to the founding of Facebook, there are any number of different ways to come at The Social Network. You could think of it as a movie about the loneliness of achieving great things, as a movie that recontextualzies Citizen Kane for the internet age, or as a movie about how men antagonize women. You could think of it as all of those things, and you could think of it as none of them. You just can’t think of it as the truth. With The Social Network, Fincher was presented with one of the most difficult problems he’s ever had to solve: How do you pull great cinema from a story about some Harvard nerds sitting at their computers and screwing each other over? Even with the help of Aaron Sorkin’s rat-a-tat dialogue and the twistiness of the timeline, this is still a movie about Mark Zuckerberg, a guy who would struggle to hold up a TikTok. But Fincher characteristically rises to the occasion and then some. Seductive montages palpably illustrate the very internet sensation that everyone is living better than you, while the strictures of Kirk Baxter’s editing suspend time so that you can actually feel the impact of closed friendships exploding into an open world. It doesn’t matter if Mark Zuckerberg didn’t really invent Facebook because he got rejected by Rooney Mara. The Social Network is one of the great American films of the 21st century because it recognizes that changing the world means changing the world. It’s like that line from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: When the legend becomes fact, print (or post) the legend.
1. Zodiac (2007)
David Fincher has always gravitated towards material that rewards his clinical disposition and his painstaking attention to detail, but it might only be Zodiac that completely enshrines them, internalizing them like a religion. And it does that by balancing the minutia of a crime scene against the momentum of time, which speeds forward (often in astounding time-lapses) and forgets all things. It’s kind of ironic that Fincher’s first digital feature was also his first period piece, the director stepping into the future while looking over his shoulder. On the other hand, he’s always been quick to point out that the format change was motivated less by aesthetics than workflow, and Zodiac is nothing if not a movie about workflow — its ebbs and ties, its stagnant waters. An epic portrait of process and obsession, this is the kind of movie that could only be made by someone who likes to shoot one-hundred takes at a time, and made at a time when they actually could. Life is what happens when you’re looking for answers, and Zodiac makes a meal of that search, implicating us a bit more in the manhunt every step of the way. Of course, it helps that each of the unnervingly sedate murder sequences tap right into our deepest fears, and that the late great Harris Savides shoots them like blood-spattered postcards, and that John Carroll Lynch delivers what might be — pound for pound — the most impactful supporting performance of the 21st Century. As a whole the incredibly involving endeavor is arresting, confounding, and endlessly re-watchable. Making it the quintessential film about trying to follow the plot in a world that’s made up of loose ends. “There’s a difference between being obsessed and being motivated,” a certain internet mogul would say in the first scene of a film a few years later. If only any of Fincher’s characters knew what that difference was.