David Fincher films are often described as cold. This seems frankly unfair, at least in most cases. Fincher’s films can take on a clinical and even deceptively disinterested perspective, but this coolness belies the passion that is always bubbling beneath the surface. Right down to the most meticulous of acting choices, and minute of set design details captured in a moving frame, Fincher’s movies uniformly radiate an obsessive, nigh maniacal, fervor for the art of storytelling. And it’s hot to the touch.
As arguably the greatest success story of the filmmaking class who came up through music videos during the glory days of MTV and networks that actually played videos in the 1980s and ‘90s, Fincher worked with seemingly everyone in that era of popular music: Billy Idol, Aerosmith, Michael Jackson, and, most prominently, Madonna. His precise and razor-sharp composition choices made him a sought-after commercial director, and yet these talents only teased how grave and twisted his aesthetic choices truly ran ahead of his transition to feature films. While his feature directorial debut is a production so infamously troubled he disowned the final product, even that film has its devoted admirers and defenders. That’s because the trick about a Fincher film is that his own peculiar brand of madness is infectious. Here’s how we rank them.
12. The Game (1997)
One of Fincher’s few box office misfires was also harshly dismissed by critics upon its release. However, The Game has developed something of a cult following in recent years. Its admirers argue this is a misunderstood masterpiece. While we would agree its qualities were misunderstood in its time, it is difficult to ignore that it is still the weakest film in Fincher’s oeuvre. That doesn’t mean Fincher’s dark heart isn’t still beating, however, in what could have otherwise been just another Michael Douglas 1990s thriller.
A film about a high-powered trust fund kid who has gone to seed by the age of 48, Douglas’ Nicolas Van Orton is isolated by his privilege and power. Revealed to be something of a media mogul version of Ebenezer Scrooge (and the clear inspiration for Succession’s opening credits sequence), he never leaves his cloistered life except to fire longtime employees. Perhaps that’s why his brother (Sean Penn) encourages him to play “the game”—luxury roleplaying that turns out to be a lot more lethal than the sale’s pitch. Maybe. The trick about the movie is the viewer, like Nicholas, never knows what’s real and what’s make believe about a “game” which has seemed to drain his bank accounts and led to men with guns burying him alive in a Mexican desert. The film is likewise a shell game, designed to keep viewers guessing. Fortuitously though, it’s told with so much finesse that you’ll still never know exactly what’s coming next, even if you’ll most likely feel scammed after its over.
11. Panic Room (2002)
The other polished but somewhat empty studio gig on Fincher’s resume was this more successful Jodie Foster thriller about a mother in the wrong house but with the right tool set to make it a death trap for her unwanted visitors. That’s more or less how it plays out when single mother Meg (Foster) and her teenage daughter (Kristen Stewart in one of her first roles) move into a posh brownstone on the Upper West Side, complete with its own panic room. The problem, however, is that when thieves played by the excellent Forest Whitaker and the adequate Jared Leto break into the house, the MacGuffin they’re after is also inside the panic room.
A total exercise in style, Panic Room features buckets of slickness as Fincher’s camera climbs vertically through the brownstone like a spidery assailant in its own right (although some shots which lean into CGI have aged less impressively). The film also proves that even when Fincher goes pulpy, he draws out layered performances from his lead, including a ferocious take on the aggrieved mama bear by Foster. We just wish the movie had a little bit more hidden inside the film’s vaults to make it stand out 20 years later.
10. Alien 3 (1992)
Another one with a collection of zealous defenders, Alien 3 is admittedly a very interesting experiment in the annals of blockbuster filmmaking and franchise risk-taking. Alas, the behind-the-scenes stories of how this movie was made—including why Fincher attempted to have his name taken off it—are more interesting than the finished film. Like James Cameron’s Aliens before it, Alien 3 was conceived to be a massive departure from what came before; it’s just that no one on the film, including Fincher or its star Sigourney Weaver, could determine what that departure should be.
We still wish the blasphemous Alien 3 set in a medieval monastery in space was what Fincher made. Instead we have a compromised form of that wherein Weaver’s Ripley crash lands onto a penal colony planet where murderers and rapists have become Born Again Christians. Little do they realize though that they’re about to meet the Devil, and he bleeds acid. In retrospect, the best thing about Alien 3 is its pitiless nihilism. This is as bleak a piece of cinema as ever made with a numeral in the title. The film literally ends with the hero of the first three Alien movies accepting an agonizing death over selling out her body to the corporation that’s condemned her to an odyssey with xenomorphs. The final (reshot) ending is a demonic inversion of Madonna and Child, as Ripley and the baby alien queen that burst out of her stomach descend into the flames of perdition. In our modern century where studios kowtow to servicing fans, the unrelenting despair of this is kind of punk rock… even if we still mourn what the film did to Newt and Hicks.
9. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)
Arguably the one time Fincher made a film with awards voters in mind, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button shares a lot of DNA with the most schmaltzy of Oscar bait movies, Forrest Gump. Both feature a character whose adventures span years and decades across the 20th century, with nearly every vignette bringing him in touch with hallmarks of American history; both films’ protagonists are in love with the same woman they meet in girlhood and know throughout their lives; and finally both pictures even share the same screenwriter, Eric Roth. Even so, if we’re being honest, Benjamin Button is far more interesting than Forrest and his box of chocolates.
Adapted from an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story of the same name, Benjamin Button plays like something of an American fable about a baby born as an old man who, as the years pass, eventually ages into a studly Brad Pitt by his middle age. Along the way, he knows a graceful girl named Daisy (mostly Cate Blanchett) whose love for this curious child only grows, even as her own vitality fades. It is Fincher’s lyrical heart and aptitude for savoring the shadowy silences of a doomed romance, as opposed to saccharine proclamations of adoration, that makes this movie work. Its ultimately derivative nature, at least in the hands of Hollywood dealmaking, still leaves it on the lower end of Fincher’s catalog, but the film has a melancholic ennui that really does suggest an old soul disguised by beautiful packaging.
8. The Killer (2023)
The latest David Fincher film might be his slickest. Happily all style, The Killer in some ways acts as a metaphor for Fincher’s precise style of filmmaking and his fanatical fixation on details. A filmmaker known for often doing upwards of a hundred takes to get what he’s looking for makes a film this time about a hitman who only cares about the little things. With not so much as a name, our protagonist barely speaks a word of dialogue aloud as he takes a voyeur’s eye to the world around him. Played by Michael Fassbender, the titular assassin has maybe five lines of dialogue spoken to another character throughout the film—however Fassbender’s intentionally flat and nondescript American accent narrates the film almost wall-to-wall while surveying every iota of a victim’s lifestyle and imminent demise.
With a svelte running time of 118 minutes, The Killer really might be the coldest of Fincher’s movies (we know what we said earlier), with a chilliness so all-encompassing it’s a wonder the film doesn’t grow scales. Still, there’s a very subtle and macabre sense of humor here, deftly revealed by Fassbender’s underplayed deadpan reactions as he interacts with a coterie of fellow predators and prey. The highlight is when he sits down to dinner with his true double, a loquacious hit woman played by a warm Tilda Swinton. She evidently enjoys the finer things in life that Fassbender’s Killer eschews. She seems more human, but perhaps that’s why their date occurs only when Fassbender is holding the gun.
7. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)
The problem that always faced Fincher’s otherwise masterfully executed adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s first novel is that Swedish filmmakers got there first. And if we’re being honest, in spite of Fincher’s greater aptitude for thrillers about serial killers, we’re still a little partial to Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander, the coolest literary heroine of the 21st century. But audiences wrote off Fincher’s American version at their own peril.
Retaining the bitter denouement of Larsson’s novel, and bringing a lot more ruthlessness to this decidedly Nordic spin on the Agatha Christie locked room murder mystery, Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a brutal return to the uglier side of life, and also the most unlikely of love stories between Rooney Mara’s delicately realized feminist wraith with a heart of gold and an over-the-hill magazine publisher on his way to prison (Daniel Craig). The two share a chemistry that suggests oil and water really should just get a drink one of these days, and it provides a flickering candle’s worth of light to this long night in the homes of wealthy elite… and the secrets such privilege can afford in the dark.
6. Mank (2020)
Arguably Fincher’s most divisive film, Mank was clearly a film made specifically for an audience of one: David Fincher. It’s a black-and-white, talky portrait about a remote and inscrutable figure, Herman J. Mankiewicz, the guy who wrote Citizen Kane. Also working from a screenplay penned by Fincher’s late father, Jack Fincher, Mank only got made because the director partnered with Netflix’s seemingly limitless deep pockets. But even if it’s one just for him, it appealed quite a bit to us too.
While inspired by a pretty unreliable account of the making of Citizen Kane, written as a hit piece against Orson Welles by Pauline Kael, Mank is engrossing cinema for those with an ear to the ground of Golden Age Hollywood. Hardly a spectacular bacchanal like Damien Chazelle’s own recent Babylon, Mank provides a more sober-eyed and cynical accounting of how the business of moviemaking can crush dreams, even if they’re turned into the allegedly greatest film of all time. Mank also features measured turns by Gary Oldman as the legendary alcoholic scribe and Amanda Seyfried as the movie star-turned-kept-woman, Marion Davies, which are luminously colorful, even when captured in endless shades of gray.
5. Gone Girl (2014)
The worst date movie ever is also a deeply amusing dark comedy for couples who’ve been around the block. Adapted by Gillian Flynn from her own bestselling mystery novel of the same name, Gone Girl plays to Fincher’s strengths. It’s taut, twisty, and features complex characters who provide a dim view on the species. And unlike some of the director’s more brooding efforts, it’s also plainly fun in its demented way.
A bit of a precursor of our true crime obsessed reality, Gone Girl initially follows a slow-witted husband of dubious morality (Ben Affleck) after his beautiful wife, the “Amazing Amy” (Rosamund Pike), goes missing. All precedence, onscreen and off, suggests Affleck’s Nick is the killer, but it’s really Pike’s movie to slay in as flashbacks give way to some surprising turns. It’s a tremendous turn for Pike, whose entire career trajectory changed after her incandescent eyes dominate the screen before going cold. Pike’s Amy offers a scathing indictment of her own marriage and perhaps the institution of matrimony as a whole. Filmed in slick sterile grays, the passion of red really pops when characters at last let the audience in on what they’re truly thinking.
4. Se7en (1995)
The film that defined both what we still think to be a typical David Fincher movie, as well as the serial killer thriller subgenre boon that was to follow across the rest of the 1990s and 2000s, Se7en is an immaculately designed journey into the heart of neo noir. Set in a nondescript American city, the film’s screenplay by Andrew Kevin Walker nakedly attempts to diagnose all the symptoms of American sin, as well as the loneliness that can cause any observer to cast the first stone. One such voyeur is the film’s John Doe (an unforgettably creepy Kevin Spacey) whose reign of terror over an emotionally deadened society is the impetus of the story.
Nonetheless, the through-line that makes Doe’s nihilism work is the grounded verisimilitude Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt bring to the then ubiquitous “buddy cop” setup. Pitt would later become Fincher’s muse and partner in crime, and the appeal to both parties is self-evident in a film that knowingly perverts Pitt’s then-emerging movie star swagger. That charisma is turned into something crude and impotent as Fincher’s downbeat mystery places the two leads in a context where goodness and morality are just affectations waiting to be ruined. While the first two acts are overcast in a relentless downpour of rain, the finale of the film notably reveals we are in sunny Southern California when the three main characters arrive at a carefully selected location at a carefully chosen time. The revelations which occur there are among the most pessimistic of a major American film. The sun may be shining, but no daylight enters this thing once.
3. Fight Club (1999)
Folks have never been very good at obeying the first rule of fight club. To this day, we keep talking about Fight Club! A lot. Due to this long celebrated, debated, and often misunderstood counterculture inkblot test, Fincher is still getting questions in 2023 about whether he regrets how the film is misinterpreted by members of the alt-right—he doesn’t. Nor should he, since the film is very much an indictment of the distinctly American incarnation of strongmen and cults of personality, right down to the personality at the film’s center being a literal myth for disgruntled white loners. Brad Pitt’s Tyler Durden doesn’t exist! But the movie he’s in is so seductive that much like Edward Norton’s schizophrenic Narrator, viewers tend to forget that fact and go along even after Meatloaf’s body was left six feet deep in the backyard.
Released in the last year of the 20th century, and perhaps the last gasp of Gen-X anxieties about selling out and raging against the machine (later generations would love Norton’s IKEA-optimized apartment), Fight Club is a time capsule for a distinct flavor of disaffection. Characters like the nameless narrator feel ignored and cast aside, and their world is captured in a putrid melange of yellows, greens, and browns. Yeah, it’s easy to see why Pitt’s six-pack abs and collection of sway jackets could be so alluring. It’s also a blast to watch.
2. Zodiac (2007)
A case can be made that Zodiac is Fincher’s true masterpiece. Previously, the director revealed a knack for immersing viewers into the windowless minds of serial killers (as well as the equally gloomy mental landscapes of their pursuers). But by turning his attention to a real-life, unsolved killing spree that left at least five people dead in the San Francisco area between 1968 and 1969, Fincher is able to step back and calmly observe the effects such evil can have on a time and place.
A noir, a police procedural, and a newspaper thriller, the film has the epic sweep of All the President’s Men mingled with the despair of, well, Se7en. It also is possibly Fincher’s best directed film, with the helmer taking a largely clinical vantage of the sometimes-masked Zodiac Killer’s carnage, making the atrocities all the more disturbing when captured in uncomplicated wide shots.
The film also marked Fincher’s first foray into digital photography, an approach he’d come to swear by. While we miss the director’s celluloid aesthetics (he still uses high-speed 35mm cameras in this one for splashes of sudden subjective violence), there is no denying Zodiac remains one of the best-looking pictures mostly filmed in digital, and one of the first movies to prove there is beauty in that technique. Also featuring a mesmeric ensemble cast, including Robert Downey Jr. at the beginning of his comeback, as well as Jake Gyllenhaal and Mark Ruffalo, Zodiac is a triumph in every sense of the word.
1. The Social Network (2010)
When The Social Network was released in 2010, there was at least some marginal pushback against the film’s overbearingly cynical viewpoint of social media and online interaction. What could a couple of middle-aged guys like Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin know about the millennial experience? As far as Silicon Valley was concerned, Facebook and social media was still in its honeymoon phase of changing the world. Well, it did, and in retrospect The Social Network was both prophetic and too kind to Mark Zuckerberg. As played by Jesse Eisenberg, the cinematic Zuckerberg is told in the last line of the film he isn’t an asshole; he’s just trying hard to be one.
Featuring Sorkin’s usual ratatatat dialogue, The Social Network remains the best showcase for that jargony screwball style. It even becomes faintly insidious and operatic when drenched in Fincher’s love of shadows. In fact, the earthy tones of the film look desecrated whenever the blue glow of a laptop is opened upon young faces. We’re witnessing children playing with Promethean power. Eisenberg’s Zuckerberg may not be an asshole, but as fictionalized by Sorkin and Fincher, he is broken—a despondent and isolated man who can be cruel to his enemies like the Winklevoss Twins (Armie Hammer) and worse to his friends, such as Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield). He’s a 21st century Charles Foster Kane, a man in search of a half-remembered inner peace that never really existed, but who will bring the whole world down in his quest.
Edited with the precision of a concerto by Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall—just look at that Harvard rowboat race cut to the sounds of “In the Hall of the Mountain King!”—and featuring a groundbreaking musical score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, everything about The Social Network clicks. It might not be the best movie of the early 21st century, but it could be the most important. This was a Cassandra’s warning and lament about the rot which in less than a decade after the film’s release would bring Western democracy to its knees.