David Fincher started his career as one of the most acclaimed music video directors in the world, shooting for Madonna, Aerosmith and Michael Jackson, among others. In the thirty years since his first video (Rick Springfield’s “Dance This World Away”) he’s become not only one of the most visually accomplished filmmakers in the world, but also Hollywood’s most skillful director of thrillers and procedurals. His own obsessiveness as a filmmaker (he’s known for requiring dozens of takes before he’s satisfied) bleeds over into his films, most of which are methodical, pitch-black looks at how compulsion and misanthropy lead to isolation, alienation, or even oblivion.
Fincher’s latest film, “Gone Girl,” just debuted to mostly glowing reception at the New York Film Festival, a week ahead of its wide release this Friday. In anticipation, Indiewire has ranked Fincher’s earlier films from worst to best.
9. “Alien 3” (1992)
The story behind “Alien 3” – talented fledgling filmmaker gets opportunity of a lifetime, only to be rushed into production and second-guessed all the way – is more interesting than the film that hit theaters. Fincher has since disowned it, but many fans of the “Alien” series hold up the longer Assembly Cut (based on a rough cut Fincher worked on) as vastly improved. The longer version does salvage much of the first half, which is given more room to develop Fincher’s interest in social alienation and isolation, not to mention how male institutions and societies view the very presence of a woman as a threat. But while the film’s nihilistic, anything-can-happen approach is initially thrilling as major characters are killed without warning, it backfires in the second half, in which most of the major players are gone (in their place: Monster Food Dude and Guy About to Be Eaten) and the first half’s hushed intensity devolves into an overextended, monotonous chase. The Assembly Cut is worth seeing, but more as a clearer portrait of the movie Fincher wanted to make than a wholly satisfying film in its own right.
8. “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (2008)
Received by many as Fincher’s one blatant case of awards baiting, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” is a bit more comprehensible as a part of his filmography now than it was upon its release. While the most obvious draw is the technical challenge of making Brad Pitt age backwards, “Button” is notable for how its protagonist’s bizarre condition forces him to let go rather than fixate like most Fincher leads; a more traditional Fincher lead is Button’s love interest Daisy (Cate Blanchett), whose compulsions and desires (first for a dance career, then for a life with Button) would have made her a stronger center and a better lens to view Button’s strange tale through. Unfortunately, Eric Roth’s script spends too much time on Button’s picaresque adventures, in which a miscast, dully wide-eyed Pitt is whisked from here to there without much of a reaction to or perspective on anything he sees, whether it’s a major world event or the death of a loved one (bizarre, considering how that should serve as a reminder of his own mortality). And while Fincher’s downbeat, darkly lit aesthetic makes sense for this more melancholic take on a “Forrest Gump”-style fable, the combination of a heavy tone, epic pretensions and a lumpy, episodic approach eventually grows draining.
7. “Panic Room” (2002)
After a run of major achievements like “Seven” and “Fight Club,” some Fincher fans found the home invasion thriller “Panic Room” a bit wanting. It’s not totally unmerited: while the film does play with Fincher’s pet interest in isolation, it isn’t dealt with as more than a setup for a series of set-pieces. That said, those set-pieces are spectacular, with Fincher’s immaculate manipulation of space, sound design and cross-cutting heightening the tension in the film’s cat and mouse game. And what David Koepp’s script lacks in thematic and emotional resonance it makes up for in narrative economy, with every scene giving Jodie Foster’s resourceful mother and Forest Whitaker’s conflicted thief something to do that reveals more about their characters. The film is also notable for an impressive early performance from Kristen Stewart as Foster’s daughter, proof that — “Twilight” aside — she’s a major talent. “Panic Room” is a minor work, but it’s a perfect movie to catch ten or fifteen minutes of on cable and marvel at on a technical level.
6. “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” (2011)
Fincher has a knack for taking questionable source material and spinning it into gold, but never is this more apparent than in his adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s bestseller. The key difference between Fincher’s take and the Swedish version from two years earlier is the way they process information. Where the dull 2009 film treats the exposition as stuff it needs to slog through in order to get to the whys of the case, Fincher is more interested in the process of sorting through the information than the mystery itself. Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist’s shared obsession is in the search, not the find, and when the mystery is solved, their commonalities end, along with their relationship. Salander (played in a galvanizing performance by Rooney Mara) is a flip side to Mark Zuckerberg, a quieter savant who tries to find a human connection in Blomkvist, only to face rejection once the case is done. Fincher can’t totally overcome the novel’s weaknesses – for the first hour, it feels like two thematically similar but separate movies smashed together, and the Bond villain speech the villain gives can’t help but feel musty – but he twists the narrative from a rape-revenge thriller to a story about how unsatisfying that revenge is, not to mention a look at the essential but limited reach of analog research and the frightening, near-limitless power of digital (possibly Fincher’s own statement about his switch from film to digital).
5. “Fight Club” (1999)
Fincher’s landmark satire of consumerism, nihilism and hypermasculinity has undergone a strange journey in 15 years, from financial and critical disappointment to cult status to generational statement to a movie embraced by the alpha males it lambasts. That last bit isn’t terribly surprising: for about 90 minutes, Fincher makes self-isolation, youthful nihilism and beating the shit out of people seem like the most liberating thing in the world, particularly when you’re guided by an impossibly charismatic Brad Pitt and Edward Norton at the peak of his run as the 90s’ reigning wiseass. But “Fight Club” is awfully canny in showing how seductive fascistic (in the guise of anarchic) movements can be before taking a step back and showing the terrible consequences and pure insanity of it (pun intended) and the need for moderation. In a way, it’s one of Fincher’s most optimistic movies, as Norton’s protagonist is able to break from his toxic worldview. “Fight Club” is occasionally a little too pleased with its own cleverness (that’s a product of its eternally smug original author Chuck Palahniuk), but Fincher’s technical playfulness, particularly with how he uses editing to give peeks into the narrator’s head, make that satisfaction pretty well-deserved.
4. “The Game” (1997)
Criterion release notwithstanding, “The Game” is still unappreciated within Fincher’s filmography (including by the director himself). At first glance, it’s little more than a wildly entertaining exercise in sustained paranoia, with Fincher and cinematographer Harris Savides making every street in San Francisco menacing, every bit player a potential threat. On that level, the film is worthy of “The Parallax View” (a clear influence). Where the film loses some is at the ending’s Big Reveal, which many consider a betrayal of a more natural, bitterly ironic conclusion. But Fincher and star Michael Douglas (in one of his prickliest, most underrated performances) build to that reveal, gradually parceling out information about how a traumatic past closed Douglas off emotionally from those who love him. He’s one of Fincher’s obsessive loners, and he requires a catharsis just as obsessive and meticulously planned in order to break from his myopic, misanthropic outlook and realize what he has. That makes it not only Fincher’s own “A Christmas Carol” or “It’s a Wonderful Life,” but one of the most revealing films about his own interests and fears.
3. “The Social Network” (2010)
When news broke that David Fincher would direct a movie about the rise of Facebook, most reports were mocking. By the time it saw release, it was by far the most acclaimed film of its year. Like “Fight Club” before it, it’s one of Fincher’s most seductive films on its surface, particularly in a long, montage-heavy sequence of Mark Zuckerberg hacking into the Harvard network for a vengeful, misogynistic prank. But like “Fight Club,” Fincher has a healthy level of remove, a clarity of vision that shows how poisonous its hero’s behavior is (rarely have the director’s distinctive, isolating shallow focus close-ups been more purposeful or more effective). The director also finds the key in making Aaron Sorkin’s florid, often self-indulgent dialogue sing: speed it up to the point where it’s assaultive, and put it in the mouth of an actor who’s totally unconcerned with making his character likable (Jesse Eisenberg in a revelatory performance). “The Social Network” is one of Fincher’s clearest and smartest portraits of obsessive drive, one that illustrates how it can be both beneficial and ruinous, both unitive and isolating.
2. “Seven” (1995)
The film that turned Fincher from talented music video director to one of the major filmmakers of his generation is still his most viscerally powerful, gut-wrenching work. The hook of a serial killer who bases his murders on the Seven Deadly Sins could have been a trashy airport novel-style thriller, but Fincher makes it as much about the obsessive search, a look at city-wide moral corruption, and a character study of three different kinds of compulsive men. The first, a methodical loner (Morgan Freeman in his most precisely modulated, quietly effective performance), uses apathy as a shield for the world’s horrors (and its own apathy about them) until he can no longer block them out. The second, an equally methodical killer (Kevin Spacey, equally precise, far creepier), turns that apathy against him, showing how it breeds those horrors. The third, a more hopeful cop (Brad Pitt, his youthful nervous energy and eagerness to impress being put to good use), is so fixated on his belief that Spacey’s killer is an insane anomaly that it’s far too late by the time he’s finally able to see the terrible method to his madness. “Seven” is simultaneously a headlong dive into the depths of hell and a slow, careful build to its devastating conclusion, to which the forced, tacked-on narration winds up working as a desperate attempt to make the world feel less hopeless than the film’s conclusion suggests it is.
1. “Zodiac” (2007)
David Fincher’s greatest film is also, naturally, his most obsessive, and the one that’s most illustrative about the dangers of obsession. Its three leads – a hilariously earnest Jake Gyllenhaal, a prickly, methodical Mark Ruffalo, and Robert Downey, Jr. at his most delightfully snarky and cynical – compliment each other perfectly, all going down the rabbit hole of false leads, dead ends, and clues that tease without fully satisfying their search.
Fincher’s own OCD nature makes him a perfect fit for a true crime tale that’s so flooded with information that it’s near-impossible to sort it all out. “Zodiac” is at once one of Fincher’s least showy films and one of his most impressive, with each shot and each montage contributing to the slow, frustrating process of seeking without not finding. It’s also one of his tensest thrillers, particularly in a bravura opening sequence hauntingly set to Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man” and a scene in which Gyllenhaal’s Robert Graysmith finds himself in the basement of a man who might just be a weird old guy, but in the moment seems like a possible murderer.
While the film follows Graysmith’s book about the Zodiac killer closely, Fincher again twists the story to his advantage, following through on Graysmith’s theory while showing how all of the loose ends bring his conclusion into question. The final ten minutes are more confirmation bias than confirmation, a view of how being utterly convinced of one thing can force us to ignore the niggling little details that suggest otherwise.
Odds and Ends
Fincher is the executive producer on the popular Netflix series “House of Cards,” for which he directed the first two episodes. His work on those episodes is typically assured, but this writer is in the group of viewers who classifies the show as a turgid, self-congratulatory white elephant. More essential as Fincher miscellany is his long resume of stylish, iconic music videos, which have won him two Grammys for Best Music Video and three MTV VMAs for Best Direction (he ties with Spike Jonze for the most wins). Most of his videos are worth seeking out, from the expressionistic murder narrative of Aerosmith’s “Janie’s Got a Gun” to the crisp black-and-whites of his recent video for Justin Timberlake’s “Suit & Tie.”
But his best videos are the three he did with Madonna, all of which show his and the queen of pop’s shared interest in classic cinema. Check out “Express Yourself” to see “Metropolis” reimagined as a tale of female empowerment through sexuality, “Vogue” for a repurposing of Old Hollywood glamor, and the evocative “Oh Father,” which takes cues from “Citizen Kane” to process Madonna’s own history of abusive relationships. They’re truly remarkable videos, and a sign that Fincher was on his way to something greater.