This article was originally published in 2019 and has been updated to include Mank.
The last line of David Fincher’s Seven doubles a mantra for his career: “Ernest Hemingway once wrote, ‘The world is a fine place and worth fighting for.’ I agree with the second part.” That line, uttered by Morgan Freeman’s world-weary detective, offers the tiniest sliver of hope in a film thoroughly engulfed by darkness. Seven is a rain-drenched neo-noir that doesn’t merely revel in sin and grotesquerie, but directly confronts the question of whether the world is fit to occupy. Fincher’s conclusion is remarkably bleak — not only are the detectives powerless to stop a serial killer, they’re folded into his cruel machinations — but he admires the fight, on both sides, to bring order to a fucked-up world. His films are full of visionaries: some of them heroes, some of them sociopaths, none of them passive.
They’re also planners. In Fincher’s universe, it’s not enough for people to take bold action against the chaos and discord that surrounds them, but they also have to be detail-oriented. By all accounts — and by all evidence onscreen — that’s his approach to film direction, too: He knows exactly what he wants and he’ll shoot 100 takes until he gets it right. His best films are about that particular pathology, about obsessive personalities who get lost in puzzles (sometimes of their own making) and isolate themselves from the rest of humanity. It’s a common cliché in serial-killer movies for detectives to think like serial killers in order to catch them, but that’s the role Fincher is most comfortable playing. His patterns are deliberate, his methodology cooly precise. He’s also self-aware enough to offer true insight into this behavior.
After cutting his teeth on commercials and music videos — his work with Madonna (“Vogue,” “Express Yourself,” “Oh Father,” “Bad Girl”) got him particular attention — Fincher quickly established himself as an enfant terrible on the set of Alien 3, a shoot so famously contentious that Premiere magazine ran a detailed, on-the-record article on the fiasco the month the film came out. It takes a certain confidence for a first-time, 27-year-old director to insist on his vision and burns bridges if it’s not respected, but from his next effort onward, there was never any doubt that a David Fincher film was fully and unmistakably his own. Ranking his work isn’t about finding the least-flawed vision, but the best-laid plans.
11. Alien 3 (1992)
It didn’t take that Premiere article to understand Alien 3 as conceptual mishmash of the first order. All the evidence is right there onscreen. The producers burned through several prominent screenplays and directors, but remnants of earlier drafts make the finished script seem like a game of exquisite corpse, a nonsensical collision of story elements. The idea of monks on a wooden planet was modified for a religious cult on a prison planet, but Alien 3 was nonetheless caught in a no-man’s-land between the first two films, splitting the difference between a minimalist horror film about fighting a single alien without weapons and a maximalist action film full of corporate schemes and runaway machismo. Yet there are flashes of brilliance in isolated setpieces, like an alien’s-eye view of a chase through the prison tunnels, and it’s by far the bleakest entry in the series — which is saying something, since everyone on the Nostromo but Ripley gets killed in the first one. Fincher’s willingness to lay waste to the franchise in order to revive it would pay off later.
10. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)
In a bid to make the next Forrest Gump — a decades-spanning drama of cultural import and CGI wizardry, penned by the same screenwriter, Eric Roth — Fincher drifted into the sort of cornball sentimentality that seemed antithetical to his more clinical nature. There are plenty of directors who’d be tacky enough to use Hurricane Katrina as a deathbed framing device, for example, but for Fincher, it’s distinctly out of character. Yet The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, loosely inspired by an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story, still has moments of breathtaking beauty, tied to the inherently bittersweet notion of a man who ages in reverse. As on-again, off-again lovers who intersect in age only once before passing like ships in the night, Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett are a touching pair, and there’s something heartbreaking about a full life ending in infancy, with a man cradled off to eternal sleep. But Fincher’s interest in technology ultimately gets the best of him: This is a journey into the uncanny valley.
9. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011)
For Fincher to direct The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was more inevitability than inspiration given the Fincherian honeytrap of Stieg Larsson’s hit novel, which allowed him to return to the serial-killer subgenre for a third time, reheating a decades-old cold case in fiction as he did with the fact-based Zodiac. Though it plays now like yesterday’s beach reading, Larsson’s tangled story gets straightened out nicely in the Finch-o-matic, which slathers the requisite gloom on the Scandinavian wilds and ekes a cohesive theme out of an environment hostile to free-thinking young women. As a disgraced journalist hired by a business magnate (Christopher Plummer) to look into his grand-niece’s mysterious disappearance 40 years later, Daniel Craig falls down a rabbit hole that’s swallowed many a Fincher character. But it’s Rooney Mara’s performance as Lisbeth Salander, a freelance investigator and hacker under state guardianship, that gives the film its one true distinction. Though Fincher revels too much in Lisbeth’s exploitation — the rape-revenge subplot in Larsson’s book is primed for maximum impact — he and Mara heighten her personal stake in seeking justice. The denouement, too, gives her a particularly lonely place in the gallery of Fincher heroes, who always absorb a private cost for their obsession.
8. Mank (2020)
As the story about the writing of Citizen Kane, Fincher’s portrait of Kane scribe Herman J. Mankiewicz, written by his late father Jack Fincher, is disappointingly facile, from the synthetic sheen of its black-and-white photography (complete with fake cigarette burns) to its winking references to famous moments from the film. But Fincher’s tendency to lose himself in minutiae pays off in a rich evocation of Hollywood in the mid-’30s to early ’40s, where iron-fisted studio heads like Louis B. Mayer would conspire with media titans like William Randolph Hearst to bend the political landscape to their will. Mank lurches around fitfully as a biopic, partly because the elements that seem digressive, like Upton Sinclair’s failed gubernatorial campaign, are also the ones that are most important.
7. Panic Room (2002)
Panic Room may be little more than an exercise in style, but oh what style! Working from a script by David Koepp, the genre specialist behind Jurassic Park and Mission: Impossible, Fincher takes the bare-bones premise of a mother (Jodie Foster) and daughter (Kristen Stewart) squaring off against a trio of dangerous home invaders and lets it rip, dashing around every inch of a just-purchased, sparsely appointed, four-story Manhattan brownstone. There are some crucial nuances built into Koepp’s script, like the moral division among the thieves and the complications of the panic room itself, which suffocates the women as much as it protects them. But the chief pleasure of Panic Room is the compact thrill of Fincher wringing every last drop of suspense from this premise, which finds him moving the camera vertically nearly as often as horizontally across this immense space. It may not have the thematic significance of his best work, but thrillers this impeccably crafted are rare.
6. The Game (1997)
It’s tempting to dismiss The Game — about an emotionally detached businessman (Michael Douglas) who goes through an elaborate, custom-designed adventure that may or may not be a diabolical plot against him — as high-concept gimmickry, a far-fetched and frivolous thriller. Yet the film is a fascinating hybrid, like A Christmas Carol by way of The Parallax View: It takes the form of a paranoid thriller, thick with corporate conspiracy, but the action has the effect of shaking its hero from his stupor and bridging the distance his money has afforded him to disconnect from the rest of humanity. The climactic twist may stretch credulity close to the breaking point, but there’s a outpouring of feeling, too, that’s unusual for Fincher, like the payoff to the world’s most expensive therapy session. It’s also funny as hell to watch Douglas’s blue blood get put through the wringer, from the absurdly extensive daylong testing session (“I sometimes hurt small animals, true or false?”) to a literal dumpster dive that costs him a $2,000 pair of shoes. And that’s to say nothing of the graduate-thesis-sized bill that comes at the end of the night.
5. Fight Club (1999)
Adapted from Chuck Palahniuk’s short novel about young men finding an outlet for their inchoate anger and frustration, Fight Club will be a rich text for cultural anthropologists of the future, who might wonder why privileged white guys were feeling so aggrieved at the turn of the millennium (and beyond). The film has become an inadvertent touchstone for disaffected Gen-Xers, but it’s also remarkably perceptive about what happens when bruised masculinity manifests itself in violent rebellion. The movie’s first half is like a two-fisted Office Space, perfectly articulating the soul-withering drudgery of a white-collar office drone who longs to break free of his ready-to-assemble, Ikea-box lifestyle. The anarchy that breaks out in the second is harder to track, but Fincher remains plugged in to the potent fantasy of razing the system and hoping something new will rise from the ashes.
4. Gone Girl (2014)
After The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, it fell to Fincher once again to adapt the literary phenomenon of the moment, in this case Gillian Flynn’s delectably batshit thriller about a woman’s disappearance and the cracks it reveals in her marriage. This is Fincher’s idea of a love story, much more so than gauzy convention of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and within this public game of cat and mouse between husband (Ben Affleck) and wife (Rosamund Pike), the film finds a perverse sort of equilibrium. It helps, too, that Fincher is a master of the twist: From page to screen, the big revelations from Flynn’s book could have easily sunk into “oh, come on now” territory, but Fincher plants them elegantly within the flow of the narrative, which weaves through different time periods to tell the complete story of a wounded relationship. He squares his particular sensibility with the lurid social commentary of Flynn’s book, carving out a pop provocation that entered the culture like a shiv.
3. The Social Network (2010)
In the eight years since The Social Network was released, the diminished public image of Silicon Valley, epitomized by the fake news and data breaches of Facebook in particular, has only further validated Fincher’s portrait of founder Mark Zuckerberg as a bloodless creature of ambition. Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin understand Facebook as coded by Zuckerberg’s DNA, in essence the social network of a sociopath — wholly reflective of his ambition, arrogance, neediness, and petty disregard for other people. Sorkin’s hypercaffeinated voice tends to overwhelm less assertive filmmakers, but his dialogue has never found a more suitable vessel than Zuckerberg, and Fincher counterbalances all the talkiness with moments of pure cinema. The unsettling ambience of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s Oscar-winning score sets the surprisingly portentous tone, and Jesse Eisenberg’s performance is blessedly free of ingratiation — he doesn’t care if the audience likes him, because Zuckerberg doesn’t seem to care, either. The sequence where Zuckerberg slaps together Facemash in a fit of juvenile brilliance from his Harvard dormitory is a thrilling synthesis of campus life and one man’s half-inspired/half-pathetic effort to bottle it in pixels. The Social Network respects his vision and hustle, but keenly recognizes the flaws that are now readily apparent.
2. Seven (1995)
After the false start of Alien 3, Fincher set the table for his entire career with his next project, a serial-killer thriller that’s so unrelentingly grim and unsettling that it’s a small miracle mainstream audiences went along with it. The premise is pure hokum, with two detectives following the trial of a serial murderer inspired by the Seven Deadly Sins, but Fincher takes it seriously enough to develop deeper themes about sin and evil and whether the world itself can be redeemed. Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt play off each other nicely as a measured, seen-it-all detective and his new brash, emotional young partner, and Gwyneth Paltrow is affecting as Pitt’s lonely wife, who reluctantly supports his transfer to a more dangerous beat. The final “sin” is a gut punch that Fincher times out for maximum impact, and the conclusion he reaches is bleak and uncompromising while simultaneously full of genuine feeling for the lonely, dedicated humans beating back the darkness.
1. Zodiac (2007)
Fincher’s best film also feels the most like a window into his mind, an obsessive movie about obsessives. Opening with a series of murders by the Zodiac killer, who haunted the San Francisco Bay Area in the late ’60s and early ’70s, Fincher vividly captures the uneasy tenor of a city that was held captive by a psychopath’s cryptic threats and deadly actions. But that’s only the beginning of a case that would go cold for everyone but the men who devote every spare minute of their lives to it. Played by Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr., and Mark Ruffalo in performances of steady deterioration, they follow every bread crumb through dead-ends and red herrings, so transfixed by the process that they don’t realize the extent to which it’s ruined them. It’s these men — the evidence collectors, the archive trollers, the puzzle solvers — that are aligned most closely with Fincher, keeping up their pursuit for the Zodiac as much to scratch an intellectual itch as to find justice for his victims. In fact, the film itself is a gripping reinvestigation of sorts, with Fincher validating and dismissing theories on the near-unsolvable case, and, as ever, fussing over every detail that goes into the hunt.