Ranking David Fincher’s Movies

Before I rank David Fincher’s movies, it’s worth going through the filmography and picking out themes. One thing that persists across all of Fincher’s films is the way he depicts and individual (or individuals) in a world that’s random and usually cruel, trying to navigate it the best they can. In Alien 3, Ellen Ripley is thrust back into a cat-and-mouse game of survival with the creature she fears most. In The Game, Nicholas Van Orten’s quiet life of luxury is disrupted by a bizarre and confounding game that threatens his sanity. In Se7en, detectives Mills and Somerset are forced to confront pure evil in the form of John Doe, a man who kills for no real reason other than pleasure. In Fight Club, Edward Norton’s character, with the help of Tyler Durden, actually create the chaos in the world. They view the pencil-pushing, dog-walking serenity of the average man to be a cancer and seek to disrupt it as much as they can, until Norton’s character gets cold feet. In Panic Room, Meg Altman has to survive the first night in her new house locked up with her daughter in the one room where three armed robbers desperately want to gain entrance. In Zodiac, three men—a cartoonist, a detective, and a reporter—must deal with the consequences of lives that have been almost entirely devoted to a murderer that will never be caught. In The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, the title character must learn to adapt in a world where no one is like him and few understand him. And in The Social Network, a young entrepreneur gets in over his head and destroys the only friendship he’s ever had.

The way Fincher deals with these character and the often strange and emotionally draining worlds they live in is usually similar. “Life might suck, but deal with it,” I think the director would say. He rarely offers these characters a break, which gives his films a sort of detached feeling. I don’t think he handles emotion poorly, however. I just think he handles it differently than most. He’s a bit more cynical in his approach to emotion, and in most cases, it’s refreshing that he doesn’t surrender that.

The other thing that one must point out when discussing David Fincher’s feature film career is his exceptional technical prowess. All of his films, even the less successful ones, are meticulously crafted—no one could deny that. His collaborations with Howard Shore always produce a moody, meaningful score. And his use of digital photography in his later films is gorgeous and gives his films a distinct look.

Fincher probably isn’t known for directing actors, but a few great performances have come out of his films. The best and most fondly remembered is Brad Pitt’s work as Tyler Durden in Fight Club. Also noteworthy are Edward Norton in Fight Club, Jesse Eisenberg and Andrew Garfield in The Social Network, and Sigourney Weaver in Alien 3.

When it comes to ranking Fincher’s films, three stand out for me—one for its tragic love story, one for its audacity, and one for its crackling dialogue and ability to really capture its time period. Choosing between these three is difficult. Things fall into place somewhat easily after that. So here’s the list, presented in reverse order:

9.) The Game

This film is exciting enough, but it’s ultimately undone by a really bad ending. It also happens to be Fincher’s worst directed effort, with very poor pacing and some painfully large plot holes.

8.) Zodiac

I’m sure there are many who would disagree with my placement of Fincher’s 2007 serial killer opus, I find it only fitfully compelling. It’s just far too unfocused and meandering to give it the praise many others would.

7.) Panic Room

While the films contrivances are very frustrating, Fincher’s expert ability to build tension (as well as the film’s fantastic cinematography and art direction) make this a solid, if forgettable, effort.

6.) Alien 3

Fincher has disassociated himself from the final version of this film, but the film he made is actually quite good. The special effects are rough, and one could make the argument that this is a pretty pointless film. But it’s a really interesting project, especially considering it was part of a popular franchise and Fincher’s first feature film.

5.) The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

This is probably the best adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s bloated novel that we could have ever hoped for, and technically, it’s quite an achievement.

4.) Se7en

It’s grisly, gruesome, and kind of nihilistic, but it’s also incredibly gripping and absolutely full of surprises. It’s also memorable for being Fincher’s first collaboration with Brad Pitt. Something about this combo works because Pitt happens to appear in three of my top four favorite Fincher films. Here’s to many other successful collaborations in the future.

3.) The Social Network

Having only seen this one once, there’s definitely a chance it could move up the list, especially if it improves with repeat viewings as many of Fincher’s other films do. This one features the best screenplay of any of Fincher’s films, and the way he speaks to the time in which we live is astounding.

2.) Fight Club

The most unique of all Fincher’s films, this one is shocking in both its violence and its boldness. Fincher’s direction is as assured as ever, and he peppers this film with a lot of dark humor. Plus, Brad Pitt’s Tyler Durden is a character for the ages.

1.) The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

The first time I saw this film, I was impressed. But it wasn’t until recently that I really fell in love with it. It’s the ultimate tragedy that tells us happy endings aren’t always meant to be. It’s slow and meditative, but it actually teaches us about life and appreciating what we have. Cinematically, it’s a masterpiece, with visual effects that can rival any film, solid performances from its leads, and some of the most beautiful digital cinematography I’ve ever seen. It’s a film that sticks with me for a long time after I watch it, and even as I went through Fincher’s other great films, it was never far from my mind. That’s what makes it Fincher’s best film, in my mind. It’s a triumph on every level and a film to absolutely be treasured.

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