The most recent generation of cinephiles has cultivated a new canon of classic films and master filmmakers, and David Fincher features prominently in it. Fight Club and Se7en are held dear by a lot of twenty-something film buffs, and Zodiac and The Social Network garnered enough serious critical admiration to cement his status as an important 21st century auteur. He’s known for making dark and pessimistic films about dark and pessimistic people. His visual style tends to be cold and distant, although he’s never failed to showcase emotional depth in his work. In anticipation of the release of his tenth feature, Gone Girl, I’ve ranked the previous nine. We’ll start at the bottom:
9) Alien 3
Fincher’s preferred cut of his debut film, released years after a butchered studio cut made its way to theaters, isn’t the unmitigated disaster many still think of it as. Like its predecessors, it intelligently incorporates themes of gender without resorting to gender essentialism, and its characters are far more complex and interesting than they have any right to be. Unfortunately, even Fincher’s cut isn’t particularly good. It’s grim and dour from the first frame, and Fincher didn’t know how to sustain that feeling without making the audience miserable.
8) The Game
This is the Fincher film that time forgot. Every time I drafted this list, I left this one out by mistake and struggled to remember which one I was missing. That’s not a judgement of its quality, though. It’s an acceptably exciting thrill-ride, but it lacks the meat of Fincher’s best work. Visually, it’s of a piece with his other films, but it still holds an odd place in his canon. Even Alien 3 is a little more substantive. Still, it’s undeniably entertaining, and that can’t be said for Alien 3, so The Game ranks a little higher.
7) Fight Club
Fincher’s films are known for their cynicism, but most of them aren’t as smug about it as Fight Club. This was Fincher’s first book adaptation, and he would go on to direct many more (more than half of his filmography is adapted from novels or non-fiction books), and unfortunately it’s mired in its source’s smarmy tone. Edward Norton and Brad Pitt save the film, somehow remaining charming despite their characters’ whiny ideology. Fincher tries his best to do the same, throwing all the cinematic style he has into the mix. This uncharacteristic visual flair makes the social satire come off as less serious and pretentious, but Fight Club still never really comes together. Let’s all stop talking about it.
6) Panic Room
On the surface, Panic Room appears even less interested in theme than The Game, so you might be wondering why it ranks higher. They’re both very entertaining and clever, but the stark simplicity of Panic Room is a lot more appealing than the labyrinthine plotting of The Game, and the former has a lot going on sub-textually. This film is notable for featuring the first appearance of a major theme in Fincher’s work: the growing significance and power of technology. I’ve always admired Fincher for his ability to discuss technology in an unbiased way, never resorting to finger-wagging about its “terrible dangers.” In Panic Room, technology is helpful, and it allows victims the power to one-up their oppressors. Its positive depiction of a surveillance system probably wouldn’t fly today, but it’s still as smart as “Fun Mode”-Fincher has ever been.
5) The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
I hate how “sentimental” is so often perceived as an inherently negative quality. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a very good counter-argument. It’s one of those films that’s become widely despised since its release, and if you’re a Fincher devotee I can understand why. It trades his typical grim cynicism for unapologetic romance. His trademark yellow-and-blue palette, usually signifying grime and cold, communicates nostalgia and melancholy. It initially appears to be incredibly anti-Fincher, but its themes are consistent with the rest of his films. Benjamin Button is concerned (among other things) with loss, like Se7en, with time, like Zodiac, and with love, like The Social Network. The feeling of sadness that hangs over this film hangs over so many of Fincher’s others. With Benjamin Button, Fincher branched out, and he was pretty roundly rejected for it. That’s okay, though, as the films that followed this one are some of his best.
4) The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Speaking of films people hate, let’s talk about Dragon Tattoo. I don’t think this film is as roundly loathed as it sometimes seems, but the people who hate it really hate it, or at the very least have no interest in it. Even among Fincher aficionados, this film isn’t particularly popular. That’s odd, because it’s the most Fincher-y film Fincher’s ever made (give or take Se7en). Unlike Fight Club, whose brooding nature feels manufactured, Dragon Tattoo oozes with darkness and danger. That awesome opening credits sequence, with its blaring Led Zeppelin cover and nightmare-inducing visuals, tells you right off the bat that the mopey Fincher of the last few years is dead. The Fincher who’s got an attitude is back, and unlike those privileged dopes in Fight Club, the titular character here has a legitimate reason to rail against the system. It’s not Fincher’s most mature work, but it represents his most primal directorial desires. What’s not to love?
After the disaster that was his first film, it’s kind of a miracle that Fincher ever worked again. Luckily, he managed to do so, and his sophomore effort is still one of his best. Despite a premise that sets up a gore-fest, Fincher earns the right to use that shocking imagery through measured and intelligent direction. The film refuses to revel in its violence, and as a result the audience is never desensitized to the killing on display. Rather than ratcheting up the blood and guts with each death, Fincher shows less and less each time. The most memorable and horrifying murder isn’t even shown on-screen, but described in monologue. By that point in the film, Fincher’s genius is apparent. He’s forced the audience to admit to themselves that they don’t want to see such despicable acts, and as such he’s challenged the entire concept of violence on-screen. Se7en isn’t his best film (although it’s close), but it might be his most important, to his career and to Hollywood.
I agonized over the placements of these top two films. I went back and forth over and over again, but a tie would be a cop-out, so I went with my heart. That said, Zodiac is a phenomenal film, and I expect it’ll ultimately be remembered more fondly than any of Fincher’s other films. It’s like a parody of film noir, but without the comedy. The cool detective protagonist here is a nerdy newspaper cartoonist, the closest thing he has to a femme fatale is an ordinary woman who he eventually settles down with, and his pursuit of the truth ruins his entire life. Fincher tears down the notion that the camera inherently conveys truth by casting different actors to play the Zodiac Killer in each of his scenes. He still hides the killer’s face, teasing the audience with the potential of a definitive answer, but the moral of this story is that some mysteries don’t have solutions. The film spends so long denying the audience catharsis that even the final scene, where one of the few people to see the killer and live identifies the primary suspect, offers little closure. By that point, we know better than to assume that we know the truth, or that there’s any truth to know. Zodiac is a slow burn, and with good reason. It’s a great study of how time changes people (or how it doesn’t), kind of like Boyhood but with more murder. But it’s also about obsession, and its precise, constant focus keeps the film energized enough that it never feels like a slog. Zodiac is still under-seen, even though it came out several years ago, but it’s such a monumental achievement for Fincher that it’ll never be forgotten.
1.) The Social Network
Again, the top two spots are separated by just a hair, but The Social Network possesses all of Zodiac’s best qualities and then some. In another director’s hands, this could’ve easily been a film about shaming self-centered Millenials and their attachment to technology. But Fincher has no interest in demonizing modernity, and he plays the mythic simplicity of the story. The Social Network hearkens back to mankind’s most basic themes; it’s a film about friendship, brotherhood, loyalty, and betrayal. Fincher doesn’t let the film’s subject matter trivialize that fact. The brilliance of this film is that it isn’t reliant on technology to tell a story which centers around a website. People were skeptical that a “Facebook movie” would be interesting, but the film isn’t about Facebook at all. The emotions at its core could apply to anything, so the film is universally relevant. As if that weren’t enough, it also says some pretty interesting things about the Internet and social media. It’s not a glowing portrait, but its critique doesn’t come from a conservative “new is bad” mindset. It’s a very fair-minded look at what relationships mean in the age of social media. The film concludes that they mean less than they used to, and it doesn’t blame social media but rather people. More than any other Fincher film, The Social Network is fundamentally human, and it treats its characters with more pity than cynicism. The Social Network is one of the most vital works of art of the 21st century, and a defining film for this generation. If this were Fincher’s only film, he would still be one of the best directors currently working.