In both his shadow-filled compositions and his often grisly subject matter, David Fincher embraces the darkness. But his rise through the ranks of Hollywood has a sunny, storybook quality. After getting his start as a young craftsman working on Return of the Jedi and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom while at Industrial Light and Magic, the George Lucas founded special effects company, the aspiring director developed his chops as a visual stylist in the wild, freewheeling world of TV commercials and music videos, shooting clips for artists like Michael Jackson, Madonna, and Billy Idol. Before his 30th birthday, he was hired to direct his first studio feature, a big-budget blockbuster sequel in a major franchise, establishing his public image as a Spielberg-like wunderkind.
That movie, Alien 3, ended up being a frustrating, dispiriting experience that led him on a career path that remains singular to this day. Largely avoiding super-heroes and science-fiction fare -- unless he ever makes that long-rumored World War Z sequel with his frequent collaborator Brad Pitt -- Fincher has earned a reputation for making slyly provocative, acidicly funny thrillers and rigorously smart, button-pushing dramas that test the technical boundaries of filmmaking while still providing the breathing room for big movie stars to give tricky, psychologically nuanced performances. Yes, his movies can be emotionally cold -- clinical even, as some critics might allege -- but they rarely feel detached.
Over the past decade, he's brought his obsessive approach to Netflix, directing the first two episodes of House of Cards, the groundbreaking political streaming hit, and becoming even more involved in the production of Mindhunter, the engrossing serial-killer drama that debuted in 2017. With MindhunterSeason 2 dropping this week, and news of long-gestating biopic of Citizen Kane screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz making headlines, there's never been a better time to look back at his body-strewn, blood-soaked filmography. Put on some Trent Reznor music and proceed.
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The much maligned third installment in the Alien franchise was, unfortunately for him, David Fincher's first foray into feature film direction. The return (and demise) of series protagonist Ellen Ripley was mired in development hell from even before the script was begun, and Fincher himself disowned it, not directing another film until three years later. The thing about this movie is that it's not necessarily the terrible, awful sin it's come to be seen as in the 26 years since its release -- it's just not as good as its predecessors.
Production on Alien 3 was a total mess, with alternate scripts coming in from Renny Harlin, Walter Hill, and cyberpunk legend William Gibson, and filming was micromanaged by the studio, leading to a rushed end result that no one was satisfied with. The central conceit, Ripley as the last survivor onboard the Sulaco crash-lands in the middle of a prison colony and is menaced along with the horny inmates by a quadrupedal dog-Alien, sounds pretty good! But the end result is functional, overlong, and disappointing. If only Gibson's "Marxist space empire" idea could have seen the light of day. -- Emma Stefansky
9. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)
Teaming up with Pitt again for this long-gestating adaptation of an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story, which at one point was attached to the duo of Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise, Fincher tries his hand at slightly more poignant, unapologetically sentimental material than he's known for. It doesn't always work. An achievement in state-of-the-art special effects wizardry and old-fashioned star power, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button was Fincher's first feature to receive a PG-13 rating, jettisoning the grim violence of his earlier work, and his first to be accused of being a little too gooey, too eager-to-please. If Fight Club was a middle finger from an angry young-ish man, Benjamin Button was a pat on the back from a wiser, gentler artist.
Still, even for an episodic historical-fantasy tale written by Eric Roth, the screenwriter who also adapted Forrest Gump, Fincher's Button is single-mindedly death-obsessed. Beginning with the passing of his mother, the story follows wrinkly child Benjamin (Pitt, hidden beneath impressive digital effects) as he grows up in 20th century New Orleans at an old folks home where his fellow boarders gradually die as he ages in reverse, becoming younger with the passage of time and eventually meeting the love of his life Daisy (Cate Blanchett) "in the middle" of his journey. Almost every scene, every image, and every line of dialogue is about the grim reality that Benjamin, as magical as he appears to be, won't live forever. The movie doesn't last forever either, even if its many detractors might argue it feels like it does. -- Dan Jackson
8. Panic Room (2002)
Compared to the more prolific directors of past eras or even a contemporary like Steven Soderbergh, David Fincher has a relatively small filmography and years can pass between new features. (He's left behind a fascinating and long list of unrealized projects.) That makes it easy for list-makers to organize his work, but it also puts a perhaps unfair amount of pressure on each film he makes to "matter" in the context of his career. More than many of the films on this list, Panic Room, a clever and propulsive thriller starring Jodie Foster as a divorced Manhattanite surviving a home invasion, is a victim of the outsized expectations viewers bring to a David Fincher movie. In an ideal world, he would have made five different smaller-scale potboilers like this.
Besides some occasional wonky-looking computer effects, Panic Room mostly holds up. The script, written by Jurassic Park screenwriter David Koepp, is packed with effective twists, sharp dialogue, and authentic-seeming details that help complicate the stripped-down premise about a trio of thieves looking for the hidden money of the house's former owner. Foster and a young Kristen Stewart, playing the precocious diabetic daughter, are both gripping in tough, demanding roles, while Forest Whittaker brings a weariness and warmth to his villain role. (Jared Leto and Dwight Yoakam are a bit more one-note as the other two goons, but they find dark humor in the desperation of the scenario.) Still, the movie doesn't quite maintain the same degree of tension throughout, particularly in its jumbled final third. As a stylistic exercise, it's exhilarating. As a story, it can feel a little too schematic for its own good. -- DJ
7. Fight Club (1999)
Watching Fight Club 20 years after its release is a strange experience. Fincher's Chuck Palahniuk adaptation is a treatise on masculinity with a protagonist (Edward Norton) that feels eerily prescient of all the angry young incels burning up 4chan and railing against or modeling themselves after "Chads," represented here by Brad Pitt in what might be the defining role of his career. Whether the film is a condemnation of these men or a glorification of them is in the eye of the beholder, but one thing you can't deny is that nearly every frame is fucking cool.
There's a reason Fight Club posters became a dorm room staple: It's grimy aesthetics are unimpeachable -- from Pitt's ugly-glam sunglasses to that final shot with the Pixies blaring. Outside of questionable politics, Fight Club also lives and dies by its twist. It's not worth spoiling here in case some reader does not know what becomes of the messed-up buddy-dom of Pitt's Tyler Durden and Edward Norton's narcoleptic, skittish narrator. In retrospect, it's painfully obvious what their relationship really is, but Pitt and Norton's edgy performances transcend the "gotcha" moment. Whether or not you find yourself skeeved out by its take on the male psyche, Fight Club still earns its reputations, good and bad. -- Esther Zuckerman
With his meticulously coiffed hair, smirking sense of humor, and cunning intelligence, Michael Douglas is the perfect avatar for Fincher's archly rambunctious sensibility. Even more than frequent Fincher star Brad Pitt, Douglas embodies the Fincher worldview: always looking for every angle, always making the careful choice, and always committed to the task at hand. As self-styled master of the universe investment banker Nicholas Van Orton, Douglas travels through the world with the same gliding ease and unwavering confidence that Fincher's camera often moves with. He's in total control -- until he's not.
Fincher, ever the narrative sadist, tests Van Orton's mental well-being at every opportunity, putting him through a "game," purchased as a birthday gift by Van Orton's younger brother (Sean Penn), that starts as frivolous and fun but grows more potentially dangerous and existentially draining at each turn. Like in Fatal Attraction or Basic Instinct, half the fun comes from watching Douglas lose his bearings and come undone. It's a movie that never stops trying to top itself, combining the '70s conspiracy paranoia of a classic like The Parallax View with the more modern ironic playfulness of an alternate reality game. Tucked between the more canonical '90s movies Seven and Fight Club, The Game might be his most consistently underrated brain-teaser. -- DJ
5. Gone Girl (2014)
How Fincher managed to pull off Gone Girl is another bit of magic. The surprise of the book from which it is adapted by Gillian Flynn is a switch in POV midway through that forces the reader to completely reevaluate his or her perspective. For the first half Flynn alternates between first person narration from Nick Dunne and diary entries from his now-missing wife Amy, telling the story of their courtship through their miserable move to Missouri. Then she drops the hammer to reveal that Amy is still alive and set up the whole thing. What Flynn does on the page feels like a specifically literary trick, something that can only be truly accomplished in words. But don't underestimate Fincher.
Working from a screenplay by Flynn herself, he directs a film that vibrates with tension, constructing a contraption as perfectly orchestrated as Amy's scheme. Once again using Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross' thrumming electronica, Gone Girl is a darkly funny tale of marital strife elevated by masterful casting. Ben Affleck has never had a more perfect role than not-murderer-but-genuine-shithead Nick, while Fincher reportedly nixed producer Reese Witherspoon's plans to star as Amy and instead chose Rosamund Pike, whose steely exterior fits perfectly with the character's many faces. Riffing on the media's fascination with dead white women, Gone Girl is the perfect match of Fincher's precision and his natural instinct with pulp. -- EZ
4. Seven (1995)
Having shaken off the lingering saliva strands of Alien 3, Fincher returned with a smaller-scale crime thriller that established the tone for the rest of his work. Set in the kind of perpetually rainy, dreary cityscape that Batman's Gotham would have nightmares about, Seven follows one week in the lives of two police detectives, Brad Pitt's young rookie Mills and Morgan Freeman's wise veteran Somerset, on the trail of a serial killer who models his murders after the seven deadly sins.
Fincher considered the film more of a "meditation on evil" than a standard "police procedural," which becomes especially clear in the final standoff. Oddly enough, screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker rewrote the ending at the request of a different director but Fincher got the bleaker version sent to him by mistake and insisted on keeping it. The famous "head in the box" scene -- which by now has been memed into oblivion -- was ultimately what made Fincher decide to join the project. To this day the film remains a potent, grimy noir, a study in explicit violence and the things that drive people to do the unthinkable. -- ES
3. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)
Fincher loves obsessive types, the kinds of people who lose themselves in their work, who can't rest or take a break without solving a case. Stieg Larsson's brutal Millennium series of novels introduced the wider world to goth hacker Lisbeth Salander and the joys and torments of a very specific, regional brand of Scandinavian crime fiction: bleak, violent, and cold, both literally and figuratively. Given the books' appeal and the success of the 2009 Swedish adaptation starring Noomi Rapace, it was only natural that Hollywood would jump at the chance to make an English-language Girl with the Dragon Tattoo -- and who better to direct it than the man who made Zodiac, a seminal work about serial murder and insidious savagery?
Fincher's adaptation stars Rooney Mara as Salander and Daniel Craig as Mikhail Blomkvist, a bespectacled, cozy sweater-clad departure from his slick, muscular Bond persona, and tosses the two together in the midst of a murder conspiracy involving a wealthy family, a series of horrific killings, and an unsolved disappearance that took place more than 40 years prior. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo reels you in with its mystery-thriller facade and slowly opens into a potent examination of the many different types of misogynistic cruelty hiding beneath society's surface. It also begins with, arguably, Fincher's best opening title sequence ever, set to Karen O's ripping, howling cover of Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song." -- ES
A movie about all-consuming obsession made by a notorious obsessive, Zodiac exists to be dissected, analyzed, and argued over. The more you re-watch the film, which tracks the investigation of San Francisco's Zodiac serial killer over the course of decades, the more little details, like the blue color of the Aqua Velva cocktail enjoyed by Jake Gyllenhaal's shy cartoonist turned amateur gumshoe Robert Graysmith, begin to take on new, possibly totemic meanings. Every little component of the production design, from Mark Ruffalo's animal crackers to Robert Downey Jr.'s flashy outfits, starts to feel important. It's easy to get lost in.
Shooting on digital for the first time, Fincher gives the analog world of the '70s, a media landscape of manilla folders, newspaper clippings, and microfilm, a hyper-real look. Similarly, Zodiac often evokes the everything-is-connected head-rush you get from going down a particularly illuminating, possibly unhealthy Wikipedia k-hole. (In this sense, it can feel like a spiritual sequel to Oliver Stone's more frenzied historical opus JFK.) As the internet makes people feel more and more accustomed to the thrilling and paralyzing sensation of having an infinite amount of information at you fingertips, Zodiac feels less and less like a period piece. Instead, it has the exacting energy of a true crime podcast, a message board, or a galaxy brain twitter thread. It devours you. -- DJ
1. The Social Network (2010)
The Social Network was right. Maybe that's all you need to know to understand why it ends up at number one on this list. Its vision of Mark Zuckerberg as a vindictive nerd with no thought to the human roadkill left in the path of his digital creation feels not that far off from the truth even if Aaron Sorkin's screenplay played fast and loose with facts. Whereas the idea of a movie about the founding of Facebook sounds dreary on paper, The Social Network is one of the bleakest, funniest, and all around best films of the 21st Century, one that is not just really good but somehow era-defining.
After the trio of Seven, Fight Club, and Panic Room, Fincher left behind the world of scumbags and crime for a fantastical, historical epic in Benjamin Button. The Social Network was another swerve, but yielded his greatest film. There's no murder on screen, but Fincher treats Jesse Eisenberg's Mark like a dorky, socially awkward mob boss operating on an operatic scale. Somehow he finds movement, despite the fact that the plot largely involves sitting in chairs, often in front of computers. He portrays the Internet as literal currency, the ripple effects evident in the way the camera whirls and darts around, bouncing between people and places.
Often the movie feels as tightly wound as Mark himself until it explodes into a sequence like the crew match set to "In the Hall of the Mountain King." Speaking of music, Fincher set off a new wave in film composition by recruiting Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor to score along with Atticus Ross. From the moment the nervy piano of "Hand Covers Bruise" starts to play, it seems like Fincher has hit upon his sonic soulmates. The Social Network often plays like a hilarious harbinger of doom, remaining as essential in 2019 as it was in 2010. -- EZ