Ranked

Every David Fincher Film, Ranked

To mark the arrival of Mank on Netflix, Iana Murray sorts through the meticulous director's feature films to date...

You know you’re watching a David Fincher film, not so much by his trademarks, but in the recognisable command he wields over every disparate element on screen. “People will say, ‘There are a million ways to shoot a scene,' but I don't think so,” the American director once explained. “I think there are two, maybe. And the other one is wrong.”

Fincher is renowned (and feared) for his meticulous and perfectionist approach to filmmaking, often demanding dozens of takes for every scene. Jake Gyllenhaal described his method as “painting with people” – a testament to the careful orchestration of his vision that results in singular works of art. The stories Fincher tells fittingly reflect the man behind them. Save for the odd Benjamin Button, they’re cynical portraits of obsessive control freaks driven to breaking point – and I say that in the most loving way possible.

When the director pivoted from making music videos for Madonna to feature films, it birthed one of the industry’s most fascinating and unpredictable artists. Now, to mark the arrival of his revisionist Citizen Kane drama Mank, I’ve compiled the definitive (and probably controversial) ranking of every David Fincher feature to date…

*this article was originally published on 27 November, 2020. It has been updated to include Mank

 

11. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

Where were you when you were first scarred for life by the image of Brad Pitt as an old man-baby? Unusual for this filmmaker, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a surreal brand of Oscar bait. It has all the components – award-winning actors coated in make-up, an ambitious story, an ending that might cause a tear or ten – but it’s also about a guy who grows up backwards. Surprisingly, the special effects still hold up 12 years later, but that doesn’t stop it from being outright terrifying. For a mostly pessimistic director, this melodramatic weepy feels uncharacteristically saccharine in its sweeping romanticisation of life and too overly simplistic for such a fascinating and disturbing premise. Benjamin Button’s biggest crime, though? Taking two hours for Brad Pitt to get hot. At nearly three hours in total, it feels like you’re physically ageing watching this film – never mind in reverse.

 

10. Alien³ (1992)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

A lot of people have maligned the third entry in the Alien entry, citing it as a disappointing follow-up to two of the most acclaimed sci-fi films in, well, ever. But its biggest critic is Fincher himself. “To this day, no one hates it more than me,” he once said, all but disowning his debut feature. The film's bad rep isn’t entirely deserved – the Alien franchise is unique in that it offers directors a blank slate to play around with, and so Fincher chose an immensely nihilistic route that would defy expectations and challenge fans, not unlike The Last Jedi. But Alien³ was also plagued by production issues and studio interference that would scar the filmmaker, though thankfully not enough to stop him from making films. Also, what’s up with the name? Is it Alien 3? Alien Cubed? There are no mathematicians in this movie. Very confusing.

 

9. The Game (1997)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

On his 48th birthday, a highly strung investment banker is gifted with a chance to play a game. What the game entails exactly, he doesn’t know. He’ll find out sooner or later. The story of a control freak (played by Michael Douglas) driven to paranoia and made to believe that he’s at the centre of a grand conspiracy feels more timely than ever, speaking to this fractured, conspiracy-obsessed world more than Fincher probably intended. The fact The Game is directed by a notorious perfectionist is even more fitting. It’s just a shame that its ending feels not just underserved but so tonally out-of-place with the thrilling mysteries that precede it. Fincher himself seems to agree. “We didn’t figure out the third act,” he said. “And it was my fault, because I thought if you could just keep your foot on the throttle it would be liberating and funny.” He thought wrong.

 

8. Fight Club (1999)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

It’s a cruel twist of fate that Fight Club was so readily embraced and worshipped by Film Bros. It’s not hard to see why this is the case: read at its most literal level, Fight Club is just guys being dudes, pummeling each other in dark basements for some reason. In reality, the cult classic is an insightful examination of male insecurity, particularly at a time when American men felt so disillusioned by society that they overcompensated with violence. Maybe society hasn’t changed much in the 21 years since Fight Club, though we now have the vocabulary to articulate it: toxic masculinity, incels, etc. Still, the debate about whether Fight Club glorifies its characters’ actions rages on to this day, especially since Men’s Rights Activists have adopted Tyler Durden as their alpha male messiah. The only reason that the film's ranked so low is that Fincher sets the bar so high – but the monster that it unintentionally birthed is always lurking around the corner.

 

7. Mank (2020)

Where to watch it: Netflix

It’s surprising that it took this long for a movie about the making of Citizen Kane to get off the ground. Then again, it is Citizen Kane, a film so revered that living up to it is an almost impossible task. But Mank doesn’t attempt to do that – for one, Orson Welles is largely absent, with the film’s focus instead on self-sabotaging screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, played here by Gary Oldman. Mank is also drained of the wide-eyed nostalgia that so often colours similar films (i.e. Hollywood worshipping itself), instead creating a dense, cynical view of the industry that’s refreshing in its blunt honesty. Fincher enlivens a complex script from his father, Jack, that’s full of zingers to rival The Social Network, and shoots it in vibrant monochrome with startling period accuracy. On a technical level, Mank is superb. It’s just a shame that the story and its many, many branching plot-lines aren’t as cohesive and masterful as the presentation.

 

6. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

In The Social Network, Rooney Mara eviscerates Jesse Eisenberg in a blistering, lightning-paced conversation that is basically every person’s dream interaction with a Harvard student. Even in scenes demanding the utmost precision, Mara proved to be adept at pulling vulnerability from the moment. It would be the introduction to a more electrifying collaboration between Mara and Fincher, who enlisted the actress to portray hacker-investigator Lisbeth Salander in his adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s wildly popular novel. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was too glacially-paced for those expecting a taut thriller, but Fincher composes a tense and slow-building mystery that doubles as a compelling portrait of its always fascinating titular character. Nevertheless, disappointing box office results meant the two planned sequels were scrapped, and you can’t help but think about what might have been if Fincher had been allowed to finish the trilogy. Probably something very different (and a lot better) than the disappointing sort-of sequel we ended up with.

5. Panic Room (2002)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

Before Kristen Stewart was unjustifiably hated by detractors who haven’t seen any films besides Twilight, Fincher recognised her extraordinary talent, casting the then 10-year-old actress alongside Jodie Foster as a daughter and mother facing off against intruders in their new brownstone home. Stewart and Foster build a touching relationship amongst the terror, but what feels most astonishing about Panic Room is the contrast between visual spectacle and simplicity. From a director who's infamous for the control he wields, Panic Room is remarkable in its intricacy. Every moment is calculated to wring out as much tension as possible, and the illusion of a flying camera weaving in and out of the house’s rooms (created by CGI effects) adds to that uneasy feeling of being watched and followed. Set almost entirely in one space, Panic Room is evidence that Fincher is capable of restraint – a testament to his versatility. And despite being his most pulpiest movie, it still feels undeniably in line with his style.

 

4. Se7en (1995)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

After the disappointment of Alien³ Fincher proved his potential tenfold with Seven (or Se7en, another instance of numbers in titles that probably shouldn’t be there). Here, the foundations were laid for what he does best: nihilism and uncomfortable truths. It would also mark the beginning of the filmmaker's long-standing collaborative relationship with Brad Pitt, who stars alongside Morgan Freeman as a detective investigating a series of murders inspired by the seven deadly sins. Seven is unflinching in its portrait of humanity’s most depraved, a story where the good guys don’t win and evil prevails. Despair permeates, culminating in that famous “What’s in the box!?” scene that – despite its meme status – continues to haunt audiences to this day. Seven may also be remembered for what came after. Earning over $300 million worldwide, it was (aptly) the seventh highest-grossing film of that year. And after the ceaseless struggles of getting his Alien sequel together, the success of this follow-up would cure Fincher's disillusionment with filmmaking. Thank goodness for that.

 

3. Gone Girl (2014)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

Fincher’s adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s smash hit of a mystery novel is the reigning champion of the “She did that!” genre. A thrillingly perverse twist on girl power, the devoted followers of “she did that!” cinema delighted in yet another tale of a woman taking sickly sweet revenge on the men who wronged her. Enter Amy Dunne, a “cool girl” who takes ownership of her life after being unwittingly pulled into – and trapped – in suburbia by her husband, played by Ben Affleck. “Yes!” you yell from your couch as Amy chops her hair into a blunt bob… “She did that!” Despite all of the dubious plans, you can’t help but root for this woman. The combination of Fincher’s precise directing and Gillian Flynn’s slick screenplay crystallise in a thrilling domestic tale, but it’s Rosamund Pike’s disturbing lead performance that’s responsible for one of the 21st century's greatest screen anti-heroines.

 

2. Zodiac (2006)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

Before Fincher would helm Mindhunter for Netflix – where is the justice for season 3!? – he would prove himself as a master of true crime with Zodiac. Strangely, it might just be the director’s most personal film. Raised in the Bay Area, he was seven-years-old when he noticed police officers following his school bus, and his father told him bluntly that a serial killer was on the loose. The conundrum when handed the story of the California serial killer is that the mystery remains unsolved – it’s destined to have an unfulfilling ending. But that uncertainty appealed to Fincher, who felt that unanswered questions were true to life. Chronicling the relentless search for the notorious murderer, Zodiac is the most obsessive tale by the most obsessive filmmaker. But it also immerses itself into the terror of that period, how a murderer was able to hold a state hostage to his own self-written narrative. To that end, Zodiac sees Fincher make a serial killer film about not finding the murderer, subverting the nihilist but definitive resolutions that permeate his earlier work. And in offering his own hypothesis for who the Zodiac killer is, Fincher also strips the murderer of his power – reducing him to someone who is as human as the rest of us.

 

1. The Social Network (2010)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

The idea of a film about the creation of Facebook was met with scoffs and eye rolls. Likes, pokes and friend requests didn’t feel loaded with cinematic potential. Instead, what audiences were met with was a riveting portrait of arrogance, ambition and betrayal. The Social Network was like some Shakespearean tragedy for the digital age. All of its components, from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ pulsating techno score to Aaron Sorkin’s extremely quotable screenplay (“F*ck you flip flops,” anyone?) come together in perfect alchemy to set the bar for what biopics should be. If Sorkin’s directorial efforts have proved anything, it’s that he’s in need of a great director to find pathos and substance in his showboating, rhythmic dialogue. Fincher was the perfect match in that respect, accomplishing the right balance between all of the outlandish personalities packed into a Harvard campus. Facebook in 2020 is a more terrifying beast than Fincher could have ever imagined, but the film remains a perfectly preserved artefact of social media obsession in its infancy.

Mank is available to stream on Netflix from December 4.

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