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Ranked: The Films Of David Fincher

Ranked: The Films Of David Fincher

The Playlist first ran a retrospective of David Finchers films back in 2010. At that point, the release of “The Social Network brought the grand total of his narrative features to a whopping eight. In most cases, we wait a while before diving in to give a director the full retrospective treatment —Woody Allen had to hit a total of over forty before we accorded him that honor— but Fincher, in this as in almost every way, is atypical.

This week, “Gone Girl,” the director’s tenth narrative feature (his feature filmography comprises eleven titles if you add in his “debut” concert documentary, which we have included below for completeness sake) is released into cinemas. In the intervening years, he’s also added two episodes of an acclaimed TV show to his resume with “House of Cards, and has gone back to his music video days with a high-profile spot for Justin Timberlake and Jay-Z’s “Suit & Tie.” But the bare bones credits on his IMDB page really only represent the tip of an iceberg we’ve been trying to chip away at during our Fincher Week. First, we ranked all 55 of his music videos from his prolific late 80s/early 90s period, shooting promos for some of the biggest names in pop (and The Outfield). Yesterday we compiled an exhaustive literal A-Z of all the projects and scripts he has in the pipeline, has ever mentioned, has ever been rumored to be attached to, or has ever been seen in the same postcode as.

It can be comforting to know that someone with such a blazing talent and such a remarkable formal technique genuinely honed his craft: Fincher didn’t drop into this world fully formed as a filmmaker. In fact, after a brief stint with stop-motion pioneers Korty Films, Fincher moved to ILM (Korty’s “Twice Upon A Time,” on which he worked, was produced by none other than George Lucas). But he left after a couple of years (not before he worked on “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” and “Return of the Jedi” —you can find evidence of Lucas and Steven Spielberg‘s influence in the fun 1985 Rick Springfield video he directed for “Bop Till You Drop”) when a commercial he directed for the American Cancer Society caught the eyes of LA producers looking for a director for Rick Springfield’s concert documentary, “Beat of the Live Drum.” And here is that commercial.

Lord knows what exactly it was in that clever, disturbing spot (which we can presumably count as the first film Fincher ever directed) that made them think “yes, this is the man to direct a concert film by the ‘Jessie’s Girl’ guy!” but we’re glad they did, as it launched Fincher into music videos and commercials, which saw him join the remarkably influential Propaganda Films, a stable that over the years has also counted Michael Bay, Antoine Fuqua, Michel Gondry, Spike Jonze, Alex Proyas, Mark Romanek, Zack Snyder and Gore Verbinski among its show ponies. And from there, he got the “Alien 3” gig and the rest was smooth sailing.

Except of course it wasn’t. His relatively tiny list of feature films may be the visible tip of that iceberg and the reason for this retrospective, but that’s not to say that all are peerless classics. In fact “Alien 3” was a stumble that derailed a tremendously successful franchise (pitching it into the even murkier waters of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s “Alien Resurrection” and thence to the b-movie oblivion of the “Alien vs Predator” spinoff series), one during which Fincher clashed with Fox and which even now he dislikes —“to this day, no one hates it more than me” he told the Guardian in 2009. It affected him so badly that Fincher reportedly swore off reading any movie scripts for a year and a half, before a draft of Andrew Kevin Walker’s screenplay “Se7en” fell into his hands (apparently with the head-in-a-box ending) and Fincher rolled the dice on another feature. This time he delivered his first flat-out classic.

From there, there’ve been ups and downs, which makes Fincher one of the less reliable, or should we say more unpredictable, auteurs. To put it in his own terms, while we’re always hoping for another of his “films” (he counts “Fight Club” and “Zodiac” as films, while the more commercial pictures he makes are “movies”), what we seem to be getting increasingly are Fincher “movies.” “Gone Girl,” which opens this Friday (review here) and is based like ‘Dragon Tattoo’ before it on a bestselling thriller, does not seem to buck that trend. But while we wish he were taking on something more original, more unusual or more of a challenge to his consummate skills, there are few directors who can bring such distinctive personal flair to even less personal projects, and fewer still who can make slick, stylish, popcorn entertainment feel so coolly smart and compelling. So here’s our ranking of Fincher’s features, from worst to best, from “movie” to “film,” and while it’s a short filmography, it’s one marked by more than its fair share of growing cults and re-evaluations and passionate defenses of even the more unloved titles, so do feel free to bawl out our rankings in the comments.

12. “Beat of the Live Drum” (1985)

One for Fincher or Springfield completists only (and no prizes for guessing which camp we fall into), this feature debut is a live concert recording of a Springfield gig from the height of the Australian soap star/heartthrob/pop singer’s fame. There are some directorial flourishes, like cutting away from the live show to footage from three music videos, two of which —“Celebrate Youth” and “Dance the World Away”— were also Fincher’s work (you can see how they fare on our complete ranking of all Fincher’s music videos). But mostly it’s a competent concert doc that gives a good sense of what Springfield was like at his zenith, setting the pink frosted hearts of his teen fanbase ablaze (despite being in his mid-thirties) with his wildly successful pop-rawk catalogue. Unfortunately that zenith came at the midpoint of the 1980s, so it’s very hard as a casual viewer to get past the mullets and gratuitous fist dancing, even though he’s clearly giving it his all —crawling on all fours; tossing his guitar into the air; grabbing his guitarist by the shirt and singing nose-to-nose at him during the particularly torrid opening to “Jessie’s Girl”; frequently dropping to his knees; kicking a rose. It’s probably very affecting if you’re of that generation and were ever a Springfield fan —to the rest of us it’s fairly mystifying and occasionally unintentionally funny. While we’re grateful to Springfield for giving Fincher his break into music video direction, which would eventually lead the director to the big screen, when it comes to the director’s musical collaborators, sorry, we’ll take Trent Reznor any day.

11. “Alien 3” (1993)

There’s a reason that the documentary about the making of “Alien 3” on the original “Alien” quadriology set was named “Wreckage and Rape;” this wasn’t a smooth shoot. Originally conceived as a film about monks living in a wooden planet, under the creative guidance of Fincher, his first proper feature turned into a story about a prison colony of murderers, thieves, and rapists who take in the marooned Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver, sans hair) and help her fight the drippy alien beast from the previous films. Well, not exactly like the previous films. This beastie was born from a dog, so it was slicker and sleeker and moved around the tight corridors like a rocket, which is a good metaphor for the neophyte director. Working from a compromised conception, not to mention an ill-negotiated premise (the film’s misleading teaser, riffing on the famous tagline of the original film, promised “on earth, everyone can hear you scream”) and an impossible release date, the resulting film is a fascinating muddle: every actor, their head closely scalped, looks exactly-the-fucking-same; intriguing subplots (like a prison worshipping the alien as a dragon) were sheared away; and Fincher’s unerring cynicism turned a summer escapist romp into a tortured examination of the nature of death. His keen eye was already present (the drippy facility, the bar-codes on the back of the prisoners’ necks), but his sense of story still needed sharpening. If Fincher’s reputation for control precedes him, all you need to do is look back on the disastrous results of this film —and the directing experience which he described as his worst— to understand why.

10. “The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button” (2008)

Fincher’s seventh feature-length effort is his beautiful folly: a sprawling epic about a man who ages backwards (Brad Pitt), set against the backdrop of an ever-changing America and formed from the relative scintilla of a F. Scott Fitzgerald story that never quite finds its emotional footing. Even within its gravity-defying premise, the film is peppered with some great moments (like the opening clock tower story/backwards war sequence) and some delicately calibrated performances (particularly from Cate Blanchett, whose lovely turn as the self-centered but completely magnetic object of Benjamin’s affection is surely one of the finest performances Fincher has ever coaxed, and shifts the film’s orbit whenever she’s around), but the director seems more interested in the technology of aging and then de-aging a rather detached Pitt than anything else (that technology is admittedly impressive). Additionally, Eric Roth’s script takes an episodic approach to the story that spends equal time and effort on the less interesting or dramatic periods of Benjamin’s life, and also falters over little logic gaps —like, if Benjamin narrates from memory, how exactly does he know the events that surrounded Blanchett’s accident? And those are stumbles that undercut the film’s successes, like Benjamin’s extended affair with Tilda Swinton which is a great little detour, so that the entire enterprise feels off-kilter and wobbly, veering from impressive highs to crater-ish lulls. Most of all, it feels like Fincher is not stretching himself, but is instead reaching —as cynics would sneer —for an Oscar with the “Forrest Gump“-ish would-be weepiness of the story. But sentimentality is not a trait that comes naturally, and the result feels simply unconvincing; Fincher wearing the story’s heartstring-tugging like he’s trying on a new suit that doesn’t quite fit.

9. “The Game” (1997)

A “Twilight Zone”-y thriller about a wealthy businessman (Michael Douglas) who is engaged in an elaborate, maybe nefarious role playing game by his delinquent brother (Sean Penn), “The Game” is probably Fincher’s most cool-for-coolness-sake pop outing, but also his most hollow. No matter how much Fincher wants to connect the material (written by the geniuses that gave us “Terminator 3”) to themes of loss, regret and legacy (since Douglas’ game begins on the anniversary of his father’s suicide), the movie is too slick and polished, unfolding within too rarefied and un-relatable an environment, to have any sort of resonance in the real world of messy human emotion. It’s a film that seems to be gaining a degree of retrospective rehabilitation, but Fincher fans though we are, that’s a trend we must eschew. Despite occasional glossy pleasures, it’s beneath Fincher to have lavished so much skill on a story so trite and yet so smug; not only does this film cheat you at every turn, but by its close it’s clear that the film’s biggest mark is not Douglas’ millionaire, but the audience who get zero return on whatever investment they may have mustered. Sure, there are plenty of twists and turns and some extremely weird flourishes (like the fact that a large section of the film’s last act takes place in Mexico), anchored by fine performances by Douglas and Penn (in a role written for Jodie Foster, hence his character’s name “Connie”). But the film is at best a trifle with Fincher hardly taxing the flashy boundaries of his music video days, possibly a little stifled by the resounding critical and commercial approval of “ Se7en.” It’s a gift wrapped box beneath a department store Christmas tree: the packaging is exquisite, but there’s nothing inside. Interestingly, Fincher recently mentioned that his wife urged him not to do “The Game,” and confessed “in hindsight, my wife was right. We didn’t figure out the third act…”

8. “Panic Room” (2002)

It’s probably not surprising that Fincher’s biggest hit since “Se7en” came with his least cerebral, most straightforward effort, the slick b-movie “Panic Room.” It should be noted that the film faced a major stumbling block when original star Nicole Kidman stepped aside when a knee injury sustained during the filming of “Moulin Rouge” sidelined her (though you can see some early footage with Kidman on the ridiculously stacked triple disc DVD edition of the film). Luckily, a pregnant Jodie Foster saved the day and was probably a better choice for to play a desperate mother who has to protect herself and her daughter when home invaders crash the posh Upper West Side home she’s just purchased. If the single-setting is pure Hitchcock, so is the Macguffin; a safe full of bearer bonds that are really of no consequence and just there to drive the plot. But as a launch pad for a display of digital virtuosity, it sets up some bravura set pieces (particularly the single-shot, triple-level break-and-enter sequence early in the film which made our list of Best Long Take Scenes), and some clever approaches that open up the static environment (possibly in a way that slightly works against the film’s themes of containment and claustrophobia, but that’s a debate for another time). Otherwise, the film relies to an unusual degree for Fincher on its performances and the actors deliver, particularly Foster, a very young Kristen Stewart and Dwight Yoakam as the delightfully deranged Raoul. Forest Whitaker is solid as the bad guy with a heart but Jared Leto is less convincing as the cocky mastermind. Almost inevitably, the film deflates in its third act, (a recurring problem area for Fincher) and while the nods to “Rear Window” and “The Killing” are nice, the closing shot of the film finds the sympathy that had been building somewhat dissipating. Still, it bears rewatching more than some others here, and feels like it hasn’t aged at all, except maybe the shot of Foster’s already ancient-looking Nokia phone.

7. “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

If anyone worried that Fincher was somehow mellowing after “The Social Network” (though it would have to have been someone who hadn’t seen that film, which is as excoriating as any of his work, just in a different register), his decision to take on Stieg Larsson’s massive bestseller must have come as welcome news. Serial murders, incest, depravity, a taunting killer, a disaffected, socially marginalized hero —now that’s Fincher, right? And yet the film, perhaps more than any since “The Game,” felt like a retreat back into his comfort zone of slick, emotionally distant, default-blackness unleavened by the self-aware humor of a “Fight Club,” the heart of a “Se7en” or the talky erudition of “The Social Network.” And yet his technical aptitude, the sheer, breathtaking craft with which he can tell a story, seems to increase film to film and makes his ‘Dragon Tattoo’ a curious creature: it is moment-to-moment gripping, exhilarating even, but does not sustain at all and retains very little of the grimy resonance that made Lisbeth Salander such a compelling literary heroine. Rooney Mara, who was cast for the role after a hunt perhaps rivaled only by that for Scarlett O’Hara, is impressively committed and totally physical as the twitchy hacker genius, but Daniel Craig is a blank slate as Mikael Blomkvist, and Fincher again falls at the third act hurdle, tacking on an involved heist coda that is a lot of fun but feels totally disconnected from the main story. But then disconnect is perhaps the order of the day for ‘Dragon Tattoo’ a film so much easier to admire from afar than it is to immerse yourself in. Of the many mysteries (and red herrings and macguffins) the film contains, none is more perplexing than the fact that a movie so fucking brilliant as to use Enya’s “Orinoco Flow” to soundtrack a scene of grisly torture can fail to register as one of our favorites of all time.

6. “Gone Girl” (2014)
If the conventional wisdom suggests that Fincher occasionally takes on material that is a bit beneath his capabilities, “Gone Girl” does little to dispel this notion. Yet it’s clear that the mystery/ suspense elements of potboiler films aren’t really his bag either (he reportedly said that the serial killer elements of ‘TGWTDT’ didn’t interest him, instead it was the unique dynamic between the two protagonists). “Gone Girl” centers on the relationship between married couple Amy (a showstopping Rosamund Pike) and Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck), her unexplained disappearance and the many twists and turns we can’t spoil here. Suffice it to say many are just a little too over the top to allow our disbelief to remain suspended. The plot of the novel is along the lines of ’90s thriller fare like “Fatal Attraction” and if you’re at all alert to failings of narrative credibility, these endless surprises will more than test your resolve. But Fincher being Fincher, he isn’t just rendering a trashy airport novel; he suffuses it with rich texture about marriage, media, perception vs. reality and much, much more. With so much on its mind outside the silly overwrought plot turns, “Gone Girl” packs in enough layers for three different movies —some of which are simply more compelling than others. As it slithers along in sinister fashion, defying the three-act structure as it uncoils, the movie sheds its skin and in its second half almost becomes a whole new animal: arch, devious and deliciously dark. Fincher adds a “Rashomon” aspect to the conflicting stories of his two untrustworthy, unreliable and deliberately unlikable leads, taking aim at the vampirism of the media and wading waist-deep into toxic sludge of resentful marriages. And here he really lets loose, ripping at the facades of our “best selves,” uncovering the bitterness that can fester between partners, and the kicker, suggesting the lies and hypocrisy that we just learn to live with. Thematically, “Gone Girl” is an intellectual seven-course meal, but you must choke down the disdain you might feel for a silly plot that takes up a good chunk of the picture (the really good stuff doesn’t arrive until the 2/3 mark). It’s frustrating as a result, and making you wish Fincher could take these insightful ideas and this clever, cold approach and apply them to a genuinely great story. Plus it overstays its welcome with an needlessly long denouement (again, the director’s third act completion problem rearing its head). But even though its plot foundations are shaky (a legacy from a pretty daft book), there’s no doubt that David Fincher can be a brilliant architect of even mediocre material, and there’s no denying that his “Gone Girl” has the sort of penetrating, acerbic bite we just don’t often see in populist entertainment.

5. “The Social Network” (2010)

The defining film of a generation? Maybe the hyperbole was a little intense around Oscar time, but there is much to love about Fincher’s tale about the founding of Facebook. Largely ditching the camera trickery of his previous efforts, “The Social Network” finds Fincher’s focus squarely on Aaron Sorkin’s rapid-fire, dialogue-heavy script, and he delivers a thrilling, dynamic narrative whipping through two hours of talkiness that somehow feels more like 90 minutes of pure drama. This ensemble of young actors is terrific, with Jesse Eisenberg delivering a career-best performance and Armie Hammer stealing every scene he’s in as the privileged Winkelvoss twins. But even though the story is complex and riveting, the characters aren’t always as rich. With key relationships underdeveloped —between Mark Zuckerberg (Eisenberg) his best friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) and his ex-girlfriend Erica Albright (Rooney Mara)— the film lacks the emotional resonance it strives for in the latter half of the film. And structurally, it’s more or less the best episode of “Law & Order” you’ll ever see in your life. But, lucky for us, the film was immaculately guided by Fincher, and he delivers it almost like an in-the-moment “All The President’s Men” surging forward in real time. Propelled by a wonderfully minimal, minor key score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, “The Social Network” is grand, populist entertainment at its best.
4. “House of Cards” episodes 1 & 2 (2013)

“Have your lead character help a small child or an animal early on in order to establish sympathy with the audience,” was the advice we remember reading (and snorting at, in fairness) in a screenwriting book eons ago. So what does it say about your TV show when the very first thing your character does is kill a dog? Fincher’s first two episodes of the debut season of “House of Cards” are basically a masterclass in how to put a show together: of course it showcases the pin-sharp precision of series creator Beau Willimon’s scripts, but also displays its distinctive visual style, from the corporate grays and Washington blues, to the restrained, rich lighting, to the faultless tailoring and Robin Wright’s awesome hair. And a show that is so much about seediness and pettiness that can go on beneath a seemingly cordial surface —the rot that a lie and a smile and a handshake can conceal— benefits enormously from having a visual artisan of Fincher’s caliber shape exactly what that surface will look like. Put a performance requiring wry humor and piece-to-camera monologues in the hands of an actor like Kevin Spacey, who is on fabulously laconic, understated form here, and you have a most unusual and brave set-up. It’s a show that invites viewers to root for a loathsome and corrupt character by making them, with every wink or sly aside, totally complicit in the machinations of Frank Underwood. After one episode, “House of Cards” already felt like it occupied a fully realized, noirish universe, and after two we were hooked and frantically cuing up the rest of the season. You could suggest that getting in to set up the tone and look of a show with the first two episodes is almost the perfect role for Fincher, who sometimes struggles to finish his films as strongly as he begins them, but 2015 will see him go the whole Fukunaga on season one of “Utopia,” so let’s reserve judgement till then. For now, his “House of Cards” work stands as simply one of the best openers to a prestige TV show ever and probably the single best thing Fincher’s been involved with since “Zodiac.”

3. “Fight Club” (1999)

(Yes, we are about to break the first rule of “Fight Club.”) Overrated. Style over substance. Adored by neanderthal knuckle-draggers. Goes off the rails in the third act. Throw whichever jeremiad you want at “Fight Club” —you might not be wrong— but man, is it ever a fun ride, a rollercoaster careening through mischievous comedy and dark, psychotic nihilism, straight to Hell, cackling maniacally all the way. It’s a gloriously stylish exercise in the deconstruction of modern American norms of masculinity, consumerism and capitalism (which makes its subsequent embrace by alpha jocks it sends up so ironic) and while it would be only the first of several adaptations of bestsellers for Fincher, here he delivers something much better, deeper and more convincing than the Chuck Palahniuk novel it’s based on. Edward Norton plays the central role, a faceless everyman so despairing and paralyzed by his mundane life that he develops an acute form of insomnia that leads him to Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), an uber-charming, Machiavellian soap-maker and prophet of chaos who proselytizes the ultimate form of salvation —perhaps reincarnation— in the form of basement, bare-knuckle fighting. Fincher’s violent, acidic picture uses this premise as a launching pad to explore male identity, the pressure to conform, and the sickening homogenization of culture and ultimately seems to suggest that the protagonist’s central problem might just be the societal ennui that’s rotting us all from the inside, as we act like tourists in our own lives. “Fight Club” is ultimately the grandest (and most fascistic) carpe diem, a brutal and yet often hilarious wake-the-fuck-up call birthed from one of the most ambitious self-delusions ever demonstrated by an unreliable narrator. Somehow the fact it’s been so embraced by bro culture makes that irony all the more delicious and the whiz-bang of its delirious storytelling all the more prescient.

2. “Zodiac” (2007)

Though he was coming off the box-office success of “Panic Room,” David Fincher’s knack for ambitious material didn’t necessarily make him a studio favorite. So it’s no surprise that his next feature, a talky, two-and-a-half-hour procedural, had Paramount scratching their heads. Released to a box-office death in the spring of 2007, the film confounded Fincher-ites who expected the serial killer plotline to bring back the flashy, fleshy pleasures of “Se7en” and while it was praised by critics and landed on numerous top 10 lists, it was forgotten by awards season. While on the surface it’s an exhaustive retelling of the search for the famed Zodiac killer, the script by James Vanderbilt slowly spins a tale about the cost of professional obsession as Robert Graysmith’s (Jake Gyllenhaal) fascination with the case turns into a decades-long hunt that never comes to a satisfactory end. A film that is entirely about the journey and not the destination, the film was dismissed by “Fight Club” fanboys, who also failed to notice Fincher’s jaw-dropping technical work that proved he was a master at wringing texture and nuance from the technology even in its relatively nascent form. Shooting digitally, Fincher utilized a staggering number of effects shots to seamlessly and accurately recreate the 1970s San Francisco skyline, and he obsessively recreated facsimile newspapers in the San Francisco Chronicle offices that had accurate headlines and articles for the era even though they were never on camera; it’s no wonder Fincher related to the material. We expect technical wonders from Fincher, but here the procedural fascination and the excellent, understated performances draw us in. Vanderbilt, in tandem with Gyllenhaal, does a wondrous job of transferring Graysmith’s obsession to the audience. Featuring a wonderful, pre-“Iron Man” turn by Robert Downey Jr. as Graysmith’s smoking, drinking, quipping newsroom colleague Paul Avery and solid turns by Mark Ruffalo and Anthony Edwards as cops tasked to the case, “Zodiac” quietly demonstrates that the terror caused by random and senseless acts of violence can resonate for years. Unloved by audiences on its first release, it’s well on its way to its rightful position as one of the best films Fincher has ever made —serious, meticulous and desperately sad.

1. “Se7en” (1995)

Still Fincher’s bleakest, most haunting and yet most all-round satisfying picture, “Se7en,” is an unforgettable modern crime classic and a landmark film that essentially made the careers of Brad Pitt, Gwyneth Paltrow and Fincher himself (Pitt’s first leading role was only the year before in “Legends of the Fall“). And it cemented Morgan Freeman‘s unrivaled status as go-to gravitas guy while still allowing him to show some impressive range as one of the more atypical noir gumshoes. Grisly, dark and dank, the mood and aesthetics of this seminal serial killer film are second to none; the entire film looks and sounds and feels like an open wound that’s just on the verge of turning gangrenous. In case you’re somehow unaware, the film centers on two detectives, a disillusioned old-timer counting down the days of his upcoming retirement (Morgan Freeman) and the naive, aggressive newbie trying to make his mark (Brad Pitt), in their search to stop a psychotic serial killer (unbilled Kevin Spacey) who is picking off his victims using the seven deadly sins as a guide. The dichotomy of the cops’ two trajectories in life is just one of the details adding texture to what is already a layered tapestry of unsettling psychological elements. And while the plot might sound like standard Hollywood fare, Fincher largely bypasses buddy-cop/ action cliches to deliver a twisted and disturbing thriller that irrevocably scars both the audience and its character in its utterly brilliant, jaw-dropping conclusion (one, that Brad Pitt had to fight for, threatening the studio he’d bail on doing publicity for the film if Fincher’s cut wasn’t kept intact). Fincher’s been accused several times of coldness and aloofness, but here whether it’s Andrew Kevin Walker‘s script, the actors’ chemistry or Fincher’s own affinity showing through, there is a real sense of compassion for the characters, which ups the stakes to sky-high levels and allows the dour message about humanity’s inhumanity and depravity to land with shocking impact. “Se7en” is ultimately about the corrosion of morality and the decay of the human soul and Fincher somehow seems right at home. The term “What’s in the box?” will never be the same.

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