“There’s a difference between being obsessed and being motivated,” Mark Zuckerberg blithely 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 that difference is. In fact, the same might be true of David Fincher himself. And thank God for that, because if the Denver native had any idea where to draw the line between determination and dementedness he probably would have left Hollywood after being fired off his first Hollywood feature. Three times.
Ever since he transitioned from visionary music video director to features, Fincher has established himself as one of the most idiosyncratic and indispensable voices of mainstream American cinema. Often described as “the next Kubrick” (even while Kubrick was still alive), Fincher is an unyielding perfectionist working within a deeply imperfect system. From “The Game” and “Fight Club” to “Zodiac” and “The Social Network,” 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.
With his big screen career on hold for the moment as he makes another foray into the world of streaming content — the first season of “Mindhunter” is now on Netflix — we’ve decided to look back at David Fincher’s body of work, and rank his 10 feature films from worst to best.
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David Fincher wasn’t in a position to be picky when he got offered his first studio directing gig. After all, it’s not everyday that an unproven 27-year-old music video prodigy is granted a $65 million budget to exhume and extend a massive Hollywood franchise; in fact, no first-time director had ever been granted a $65 million budget to do anything. But just because Fincher was looking to get his foot in the door and ended up stubbing his toes (three of them, at least) doesn’t mean that he didn’t want to be there. Yeah, he’s since become a world-class artist possessed of an uncompromising vision, but he’s also proven himself to be exclusively interested in mainstream entertainment. For a director who’s often compared to serial killers for his darkness and exactitude, Fincher’s truest connection to those guys is that he doesn’t see the appeal of doing anything if the public can’t appreciate his work — he needs us.
“Alien³” isn’t a very good movie, and had Fincher simply rolled over and surrendered his vision, it probably would have been a better one (if only just). A toxic, burbling soup of conflicting ideas, the film was doomed from the moment it rolled cameras without a finished script. Individual scenes reveal the strong choices that have been steamrolled along the way — and the industrial orange wasteland of Fincher’s prison planet is nearly as evocative an environment as the interior of the Nostromo — but there were just way too many cooks in this kitchen to ever produce an edible meal. Once Charles Dance exits followed by a Xenomorph, it all goes off the rails in a hurry.
Nevertheless, Ellen Ripley didn’t fall into that furnace for nothing. A strong, shorn, and incredibly resourceful heroine who navigated between men and monsters until she could no longer tell the difference, Ripley cast a long shadow over a career where women have never been taken lightly.
9. “Panic Room” (2002)
David Fincher’s fifth feature is based on one of the most terrifying premises ever conceived for a motion picture: What if a cornrowed Jared Leto broke into your apartment? 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 TAG Heuer as it does to Alfred Hitchcock. It stars with a divorced woman (Jodie Foster), her diabetic 11-year-old daughter (Kristen Stewart), and a brownstone that has one very special feature. But Fincher elevates that wisp of a story into a veritable playground of ideas, moving his camera through walls with the power of Kitty Pryde, and building household objects out of CG so he can milk them for every mite 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 weak villains and an apprehensive third act, for starters). 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 — darkness, the relationship between safety and technology, and women whose strength is forged through self-preservation against a world of primitive men — “Panic Room” becomes a ridiculously compact distillation of all the things that make its maker tick.
8. “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (2008)
“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” has gotten a bum deal over the last few years, as the film’s premise has become a punchline, and its finer pleasures have been understandably swallowed by the special effects wizardry that made them possible. And while it’s true that Fincher’s most expensive movie is an ungainly thing — pimpled with terrible New Orleans accents, lessened by its labored use of Hurricane Katrina as a framing device, and frustrated by the inevitable anticlimax of its ending — there are moments of this 166-minute epic that are as touching as anything that Fincher has ever done. Well, maybe that’s a low bar; Fincher isn’t exactly known for being “touching,” but the “Zodiac” filmmaker possesses a deep appreciation for the inexorable forward march of time, and there’s something heartbreaking about how he applies it to the story of someone who’s living in reverse.
An overstuffed film about the fullness of life, and how beguiling the journey is for all of us (“There are no rules to this thing,” Benjamin writes to his daughter), “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” is literally all over the map. It fares worst in New Orleans. A number of the scenes in Benjamin’s home town are stuck in the mud, as it’s hard to get over the sheer strangeness of watching Taraji P. Henson raise a shriveled old Brad Pitt — this might be the one time where Fincher got a bit carried away with his technological fixations. But the movie, like the singular life of its hero, grows more interesting as he gets more beautiful. Benjamin’s romance with Daisy Fuller may not be as grounded or tactile as the aborted affair that Fincher would later construct beneath “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” but it’s ravishingly bittersweet all the same, a brief and unlikely love story about the brevity and unlikeliness of all love stories.
7. “The Game”
Perhaps the most daring cinematic feint since “F for Fake,” “The Game” is more satisfying as an idea than it is as a movie, but it sure is one hell of an idea. Oh, if you haven’t watched “The Game,” stop reading here and go change that, this piece will still be here when you get back.
There are a few different reasons why “The Game” has seen its stock go skyward over the last decade or so. For one thing, minor works by major filmmakers tend to appreciate in value over time, especially when they’re as clever and slippery as this. For another, the raw simplicity of the premise — a rich, lonely man played by Michael Douglas is gifted an all-consuming ARG by his impish Sean Penn of a brother — allows it to function as something of a hyper-elaborate Rorschach Test. If you want, you can think of the movie as a more grounded precursor to “The Matrix,” a stress test for reality at a time when pop culture was really starting to push back against the runaway train capitalism of the ’90s. You can think of it as a story about the illusory nature of control, and how letting go (or jumping off) can be the most liberating thing someone can do. Or, if you want to be literal about it, you can think of it as a reminder that real life itself is a game, one played by rules that are made to be broken.
“The Game” is also a movie that’s most enjoyable as a diagnostic expression of the movies themselves, the power of illusion in motion. Here is a film that tells its hero (and us, by extension) straight up and in no uncertain terms that everything to come is fake. At first, he believes it, and we do too. But then Fincher starts to work his magic, committing to the bit with such unblinking devotion that you can’t help but follow his lead. And then, just when we’re so fully invested in what’s happening on screen that we’ve half-forgotten we’re looking at one, the film reminds us of the contract it made with us at the start. The process of getting there isn’t always nimble, particularly in the harried third act, but “The Game” resolves as a winking reminder that losing our bearings for a minute (or 100) can help us hold a better grip when we get them back.