David Fincher has dug a perfect pocket for himself as a creator of movies universally, uncontroversially beloved while remaining signature and risqué. Points can be made for or against any politics or opinions Fincher has voiced personally, but the movies themselves are celebrated by a wide range of genre fans, from true-crime podcast listeners to silicon valley groupies, frat boys to anti-frat boys, thrill-seekers hoping to have their brains turned into lemon juice to just your friendly neighborhood cinephile who likes pretty pictures.
You can look at any frame and immediately know if it’s a Fincher: impossible cameras, unsaturated color palettes, chiaroscuro lighting. Yet, the plots go in all directions. Fincher’s soup of the day features serial killers, like in his Netflix series Mindhunter, but he’s the type to also direct an adapted F. Scott Fitzgerald story or a biopic of modern Goliath. In appreciation of a kaleidoscope of browns and yellows, here are all eleven David Fincher movies, ranked.
Blaming Fincher for this is like dismissing a Pompeii painter because you can’t make out whose portrait this is anymore. Sometimes, a studio head wants to make a movie so they attempt it via an up-and-coming director who has too little clout with which to fight back. The result will be a mess: a tug of war where there should have been a unified direction. Alien 3 had to follow up two of the most celebrated sci-fi movies of all time and fell hard; it was a slow start for Fincher and ultimately disavowed by the director as “not his movie.”
Some swear by The Game as being thrilling, clever, and good; these people did not watch the ending. Without spoilers, Nicholas (Michael Douglas) has been given a birthday gift of a real-life “game” with a torturous series of death-defying confrontations and no explanation for who runs this or what the prize is for “winning.” All of the stakes of the movie build on promises towards an expected revelation. The result is so cataclysmically unoriginal, uninteresting, and undoing of every logical connection made previously, that it retroactively wipes the preceding hour and a half of all its merit.
In terms of the skips in the Fincher filmography, Panic Room doesn’t exactly not deserve its position back here, but it’s also not as bad as many make it out to be. Meg (Jodie Foster) has just moved into her new, luxurious home with her daughter, Sarah (Kristen Stewart), complete with an impenetrable panic room. When burglars (including Jared Leto and Forest Whitaker) break into the home, knowing a secret about the contents of the panic room, Meg and Sarah are trapped with no communication to the outside world. Are some parts of it a bit stale? Sure, but plenty of it is clever, suspenseful, and worth a watch when you have a moment.
Written by David Fincher’s late father, Jack Fincher, Mank looks at the writing of “The Last Supper of movies,” Citizen Kane. Mank‘s subject, Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) — the wordsmith behind Kane and dear friend of that script’s subject, William Randolph Hearst (Game of Thrones}’ Charles Dance) — navigates alcoholism, attacks by representatives of the Hearst estate, and a new political age of democratic socialism versus semi-reformed capitalism. Mank deserves credit for being engaging, daring in this age, and even wholesome given its paternal origins, but it doesn’t hold a candle to most other entries in Fincher’s filmography. The crown jewel is its clever dialogue to fit its namesake, which is a credit to be given to Jack rather than David.
Zodiac’s position at seventh has far less to do with any inferior qualities but rather to do with 1) Fincher has made six even more incredible movies, and 2) the film throws itself on the pyre that is “Arthur Leigh Allen was the Zodiac Killer,” an accusation now lightly assumed to be incorrect in favor of Gary Francis Poste (though the case remains open). As the title suggests, Zodiac follows the investigation into the Zodiac Killer, the known killer of five Californians with claims of up to 37. Just like the investigation itself, the film features danger, suspense, and a promise of revelation in every crevice of every frame. No film will ever make you so careful to note which of your California friends have basements.
6The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Based on the terrible F. Scott Fitzgerald short story, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button follows Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt) as a man born geriatric and aging younger with time. Written by Eric Roth of Forrest Gump and Villeneuve’s Dune, the miraculous improvement upon Fitzgerald’s premise proved a gorgeous exploration of which graces are dispensed liberally by existence and which should be redefined as sacred. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button isn’t just a look at life, but through its reversing motif, a look at yours; it isn’t about whether Button’s flipped trajectory is blessed or cursed, but if our traditional one is.
5The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Following the celebrated, Swedish film adaptation of the Millenium series, Män som hatar kvinnor, Fincher’s venture had to fit a series-length square peg into a 2.5 hour round hole. Watching, you can feel there isn’t a moment to spare with plot and development, but where that could feel rushed in another film, it feels energizing and incendiary here. In The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Mikael (Daniel Craig), a disgraced journalist, teams up with Lisbeth (Rooney Mara), an antisocial hacker, in order to solve an island mystery plaguing the Vanger family for decades: what happened the night 16-year-old Harriet Vanger went missing? The film is right up Fincher’s alley: twists cozying up with lethal suspense and a desperate need for information, all done with expert precision and even a bit of levity. Not to mention one of the most underrated and impressive scores of all time by Fincher’s regular partners Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.
A modern classic in what has become the semi-Lucille Bluth-coined “Good For Her” genre, Gone Girl translates Gillian Flynn’s celebrated novel perfectly onscreen with some of the greatest casting choices in recent history. The ways people tend to feel about Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike are exactly how they subconsciously feel about Nick and Amy; the same for Emily Ratajkowski, Tyler Perry, Neil Patrick Harris, all of the film rests on your predispositions, much to the plot’s delight. The Reznor/Ross score is again excellent, encompassing the creepy with the sterility of the suburbs. When the midpoint twist of “Who kidnapped or killed Amy Dunne?” is realized and the movie really begins, the questions about girl boss variations of feminism and elitist assumptions of working-class abilities drive this movie to the Final Four of the Fincher filmography.
Fincher’s de facto debut centers on a serial killer (mark your bingo cards) claiming victims based on the seven deadly sins. As Detectives Mills (Brad Pitt) and Somerset (Morgan Freeman) hunt the mastermind, their own personal lives become intertwined in the events. The twists are some of the most celebrated in all of film history, the gruesomeness announced to the world exactly how strong Fincher’s stomach was, and the performances (with some debate) are simply excellent. After the tragedy that was Alien 3, the studio’s desire to change Seven’s infamous ending to something more upbeat (a proposal against which Pitt threatened to leave the film) is yet another Hollywood legend of how suits almost ruined Fincher’s career before it could start.
It isn’t that there aren’t enough words in this paragraph to talk about Fight Club, it’s that a university course would be needed to cover the debate around whether Fight Club works as a hypermasculine championing of misogyny, militance, and masochism or an unquestionable condemnation of those very things. The author of the novel, Chuck Palahniuk, is gay and meant for it to be an obvious critique of hypermasculinity, but for some of the deeper cinephiles on this side of the aisle, Fight Club goes further as an exploration of closeted men’s need to explore one another’s bodies without consequence. For some viewers, it’s a damning critique of capitalism and corporatism; another layer deeper, and Tyler Durden is a representation of Leninist statism against Marxist anarchism. In brief, Fight Club at this point has become the most accessible Rorschach test for film academics in modern history, and that alone raises it to a plane so ethereal that it earns its stripes here.
1The Social Network
Cited by many as the greatest film of the 2010s right at the start of the decade (until Parasite notably became its major contender right at the end), The Social Network follows Mark Zuckerberg on his journey from being dumped to being the youngest self-made billionaire in history at his time. The Social Network has what may be one of the greatest screenplays ever, Aaron Sorkin’s opening scene now a routine course on subtext and character agenda. It has what may be one of the greatest scores ever, Reznor and Ross’s orchestral simplicity against an electronic parade proposing Zuck is a machine with some strains of humanity left in him. It has some of the best performances of its stars’ careers, Jesse Eisenberg masterfully keeping the film’s tempo but Andrew Garfield’s Eduardo Saverin stealing the hearts. And the themes: take everything from the aforementioned movies about interrogations of capitalistic innovations, purposes of being alive, and hypermasculine masochism, wrap all those themes up in toaster cords, and toss them in the bathtub as democracy is washing its ass. That is The Social Network.