With David Fincher’s latest, Mank, hitting Netflix December 4th, we thought it was high time to celebrate the auteur’s indelible imprint on the cinematic art, by ranking his complex films quantitatively. that is, by turning his body of work into cheap trinkets, to be priced and haggled over like so many hags outside a vegetable cart. Ranking art is a dumb thing to do, and we’re going to do it anyway. Fighting to the bitter end over unquantifiable intangibles is just how the internet shows affection.
And it’s hard not to have affection for David Fincher. While he has a few tics here and there (rewatching his movies this week I noticed how much he seems to love rain and taxi cabs), Fincher’s style isn’t nearly so easily parodied as virtually any other “name” director. It’s not that Fincher is some chameleon who never draws attention to himself. On the contrary, his films tend to be conspicuously “directorly.” Yet his conspicuous touches seem to change from film to film. He loves to play within a theme, but repeating them. Certainly not as often as other famous directors tend to do. Sorkin, Christopher Nolan, Terrence Malick, Quentin Tarantino — most moviegoers have a pretty good idea what a parody of those guys would look like. The hallmarks of a David Fincher film are more abstract — dry wit, commitment to a plan, visual panache, a sense of glee.
Fincher famously doesn’t like the word “auteur” and doesn’t take writing credit on any of his films. It’s this kind of no-nonsense humility that might be his defining characteristic. In his interviews and commentaries, he gives off the aura of a guy who doesn’t have time for your bullshit, which makes me think I’d like him. His work often reflects that termite-like single-mindedness. He doesn’t shy away from schlock, and loves adapting a mass-market paperback. Almost all of his movies have pulpy, straightforward conceits — the guy who ages backwards, the movie set entirely inside a house, cops chasing a serial killer. He’s the rare director who seems neither schmaltzy nor pompous, a deft storyteller who doesn’t cut corners and isn’t given to puffery.
In a world of auteurs who aspire to film, Fincher makes unapologetic “movies,” embracing the bullshit and artifice inherent to moviemaking, and in so doing, often reminding us why those conceits exist. Frequently throughout his career he’s given us the very best version of what we’d normally consider a fairly trivial thing. He tends to embrace the corniness of the gesture. There’s probably a life lesson in that.
I ranked these films pretty simply in terms of which ones I most want to watch, and which were the most memorable. Fincher is unique in that I don’t know that I wholeheartedly love any one of his films without reservation, but they’re all, basically without exception, interesting and worth arguing over.
11. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2011)
Being an adaptation of hot-at-the-time, mass-market fiction, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo fits firmly into the Fincher canon, though it’s also a sort-of remake (Fincher’s only), with the Swedish version having been released two years earlier. Rooney Mara’s Lisbeth Salander, a role for which she was nominated for an Academy Award — a bisexual, computer-hacking avenging angel of the anti-patriarchy who rode zoomy motorcycles and had a photographic memory — was a thoroughly memorable character. Everything else about the film… not so much.
I saw it and liked it okay at the time, but in retrospect, it’s the Fincher film I find myself least wanting to rewatch. Which may have something to do with the fact that it’s almost two hours and 40 minutes long. The bigger issue is that it’s the rare Fincher film that never quite transcends the pitch. It’s essentially three dudes (author Stieg Larsson, writer Steve Zaillian, and Fincher) trying to tell the story of one comically badass woman trying to stick it to one comically evil dude. In retrospect, it sort of smacks of trying too hard.
10. Alien 3 (1992)
This was the prison planet Alien, remember that one? David Fincher was 28 when he started shooting Alien 3, “without a finished script and after $7 million had already been spent.” Said Fincher, “It was an absurd and obscene daily battle to do anything interesting with what we were allowed to do.”
Keep in mind, this was the third installment of a franchise previously helmed by Ridley Scott and James Cameron, being handed to an unknown 20-something music video director. It was basically a lose-lose situation. Watching it now, Alien 3 is an interesting concept, Ridley having crash-landed along with an alien now running amok on a prison foundry planet with no weapons. The set up hooks you immediately, and the cast — Sigourney Weaver opposite Charles S. Dutton and Charles Dance, future Tywin Lannister — is wonderful. Once all the pieces are in place though, Alien 3 turns into a middling action thriller. Alien 3 isn’t a bad film, but I think even Fincher would agree that it’s not his best.
9. Seven (aka SE7EN) (1995)
Seven is so firmly established in the cultural imagination (what’s in the box, what’s in the boooxxxxx!) that it’s easy to forget how goofy it is. Seven is exactly as corny as you might expect a movie with a number in the middle of the title to be, and yet so much more. On one level, yes, it’s a movie about two cops — the snot-nosed punk and the soon-to-be-retired salt — hunting a serial killer who is committing themed murders based on the seven deadly sins. On paper, Seven is almost the exact movie Charlie Kaufman was making fun of in Adaptation.
CHARLIE KAUFMAN: The only idea more overused than serial killers is multiple personality. On top of that, you explore the notion that cop and criminal are really two aspects of the same person. See every cop movie ever made for other examples of this.
DONALD KAUFMAN: Mom called it “psychologically taut.”
Yet in practice, it’s impossible to deny that David Fincher directs the absolute shit out of this movie. He takes what is essentially a middling episode of Law & Order, gives it a clear and consistent tone, a coherent visual style, and makes us care about every character, to the point that it feels almost like an arthouse movie. It’s quite an achievement.
Still, it’s hard not to wonder, on some level, why this movie? The villain, Kevin Spacey’s “John Doe” (sure, yeah, okay) has dedicated his life to punishing a wicked world for their sins. Fincher seems to justify Doe’s worldview, to some extent, depicting the setting as a crumbling, vice-ridden cesspool where it’s virtually always raining. The setting is ostensibly New York, and Andrew Kevin Walker’s screenplay was said to be inspired by time he spent living in New York, where he was working at Tower Records. There’s more than a little Taxi Driver/Death Wish/Dr. Manhattan in Seven, where the city itself is a sinful place in need of cleansing. Which is sort of funny coming out in 1995, when New York was already becoming the Starbucks-friendly mecca for yuppies we know it as today. Hell, Friends premiered in ’94. It’s funny to imagine Detective Somerset walking by Central Perk muttering about man’s inherent wickedness.
Of course, they never actually say New York in the film. It’s only strongly implied, and at one point there’s a cameo by a pizza joint called “New York Pizza.” Meanwhile, the famous finale was very clearly shot somewhere in Southern California. Specifically Lancaster, but it’s obvious to anyone who has driven through California that it takes place somewhere in California.
Geographical vagueness is something that trips up a lot of filmmakers, but Fincher uses this contradictory setting to his advantage, giving us a place we can imagine but can’t quite pin down. He pulls a similar trick in Fight Club.
8. Panic Room (2002)
Panic Room stands out as arguably Fincher’s most slight concept, a film in which a wealthy divorcee played by Jodie Foster holes up in the (*air quotes*) “panic room” of her weird new apartment with her diabetic daughter played by Kristen Stewart while some thieves played by Forest Whitaker, Dwight Yoakam, and Jared Leto try to rob them. Fincher somehow has to make us care about the rich lady, believe (and to some extent commiserate) with the thieves, make a single-setting story feel dynamic, and breathe humanity into this dime novel concept.
Panic Room is far, far more entertaining than a movie starring Jared Leto as a burglar in cornrows has any right to be. That Fincher seems to love nothing more than to give Jared Leto a stupid hairstyle and then beat the shit out of him is one of his most endearing qualities as a storyteller. Fincher does some of the best directing work of his career just to get us to buy into this goofy concept, that largely works because of its goofiness rather than in spite of it. Forrest Whitaker and Dwight Yoakam, with Jodie Foster and Kristen Stewart is one of those truly bizarre flavor combinations that sounds insane but ends up feeling inspired.
Yet in the end, Panic Room has a bit of a Jurassic Park problem, where David Fincher was so preoccupied with whether he could that he didn’t stop to think about whether he should. This is weirdly true of a lot of David Fincher projects, but the better ones make you forget.
7. The Social Network (2010)
Between the 10-year retrospective and last week’s Aaron Sorkin ranking, I’ve already written plenty (read: too much) about The Social Network. Suffice it to say, it wouldn’t be nearly so well remembered without David Fincher, who probably made Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue seem intense, where in another director’s hands it would’ve merely been smug.
Fincher himself called The Social Network “as close to a John Hughes movie as I can make,” by which I think he means that at its heart, The Social Network is a story about teen and post-teen drama. If you ignore the fact that it doesn’t seem that close the facts, the portrayals of real people aren’t that accurate, and it doesn’t say much about the thing that was invented in it (2010 may have just been too early to know), The Social Network IS a wildly entertaining movie about post-teen drama.
David Fincher makes slick movies. In having a slick director with a slick screenwriter based on a slick book, The Social Network polishes down reality until there isn’t much left but shine. That works a lot better in an adaptation of airport fiction than it does in an origin story for a real guy who 10 years later is still testifying in front of congress.
6. The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button (2008)
Yes, I will be one of the last people on the internet to defend Benjamin Button. A few years after it came out, the public seemed to collectively decide that Eric Roth’s spiritual sequel to Forrest Gump (so similar in structure that it practically qualifies as self-plagiarism) was an overrated hunk of shit. Maybe it was the awards? Nothing sours the public on a kind-of-okay movie like too much awards consideration. Take awards out of the equation and Green Book is an above-average Farrelly Brothers movie. Give it a best picture and it’s a travesty.
This seems less fair in the case of Benjamin Button, given that the actual best picture that year was Slumdog Millionaire, one of the most excruciatingly lame movies ever made. The Wrestler was better than all of them that year, but that’s a story for another time.
My take is that David Fincher is brilliant at having his finger on the pulse of the zeitgeist at the exact moment his movies are released, and a lot of times we look back at what we liked in, say, December 2008, and we’re thoroughly ashamed of ourselves. Not that he’s blameless — Fincher and Roth should’ve known that a movie that ends just before Hurricane Katrina (with no reason for it other than cheap name dropping) would age about as well as that rom-com starring Robert Pattinson and the obnoxious Lost girl that ended with planes hitting the building on 9/11 (which was called, fittingly, Remember Me). Ditto Cate Blanchett hacking up a hairball hamming it up as an old woman. We get it, Cate, you’re supposed to be old.
I digress, but my point is that the things that are hateable about The Curious Case of Benjamin Button are very hateable. That aside, Roth and Fincher seem to be using this kooky story of a man who ages backwards as a meditation on the act of storytelling. Lived forward, everything seems so random and arbitrary. Recounted backwards, every tiny event becomes freighted with meaning, such that it could only happen just that one way. That simple act of recounting seems to justify all our most romantic notions. Benjamin Button is about the human drive to tell stories so that we don’t go crazy. In that way, Benjamin Button actually has a lot more depth to it than Forrest Gump, which only seems to get half the amount of hate.
5. The Game (1997)
The Game is similar to Seven in that it’s an example of Fincher taking a very, let’s say, commercial concept and directing it so well that it feels like art. The Game is maybe Fincher’s most movie-movie, one of his least introspective and most viscerally exciting. Starring Michael Douglas as a wealthy executive who gets drawn into an elaborate role-playing game who eventually becomes unable to discern the game from reality, The Game is a little like an experiment to see if a movie could do Total Recall without the sci-fi and with a businessman instead of a bodybuilder. It works shockingly well, and then it’s over.
The Game doesn’t necessarily stick in your mind, but it is one of the more thrilling thrillers ever made, which is its own kind of achievement.
4. Gone Girl (2014)
David Fincher is one of the only directors around who can take an already-hot bestseller and turn it into a movie that’s even more memorable. Gone Girl fits firmly into the canon of other Fincher fiction adaptations, a mass-market potboiler, guilty pleasure kind of read that Fincher does justice to by not treating it like something that needs to be “elevated.” Fincher does pulp because he loves pulp. He justifies genre by committing to it.
In a lot of ways, Gone Girl is the much more successful mirror image of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. He works with the actual author, Gillian Flynn, an actual woman, for another story with a meaty female role. (To be fair to Dragon Tattoo, the author was long dead by the time the movie was in production). True, the woman in this case, played by Rosamund Pike, turns out to be a murderous sociopath, but the fact that it’s written by a female screenwriter gives it some veracity (can you imagine if Aaron Sorkin had adapted this one? it’d probably look like Malice). And much like The Sopranos, the beauty of Gone Girl is that every character in it is kind of shitty in their own special way. Except maybe Carrie Coon’s character, but that could just be my love of Carrie Coon talking. Also, Neil Patrick Harris hangs dong.
3. Mank (2020)
Like Benjamin Button, Mank is another love letter to the act of storytelling. In this case, telling the story of Herman Mankiewicz (played by Gary Oldman), the 40-something screenwriter who battled alcoholism and the effects of a car accident to write the script for Citizen Kane, and its 25-year-old “wunderkind” director Orson Welles.
The Kane character is, of course, a stand-in for William Randolph Hearst, played by that old Fincher standby, the great Charles Dance. Mank uses a flashback structure to explain why the humanistic old drunk Mankiewicz had it in for Hearst, who had once upon a time had used Mank as something of a personal court jester. As Mank tells it, it all goes back to the 1934 gubernatorial race in California, in which Hearst and his cat’s paw, Louis B. Mayer, used their media might to crush the candidacy of Upton Sinclair, the famous author and avowed socialist who had steamrolled the Democratic primary.
The story of a disillusioned writer turning to alcohol after his socialist hero gets rat-fucked by the forces of entrenched wealth did, perhaps, hit a little close to home. And yes, Fincher, in shooting the whole thing in contrasty black and white, with cigarette burns, wipe transitions, fake film scratches, and all manner of Kane-mimicking conceits, did maybe get a little carried away with formal experimentation. He probably could’ve shot the whole thing in color with none of the cutesy transitions and the movie would’ve been better for it.
But part of the beauty of Fincher is that he does get carried away. The best thing about him is that he gets deeply into whatever he’s shooting. And in addition to exploring the act of storytelling, Mank is also something of a love letter to the era of filmmaking that produced Herman Mankiewicz and Citizen Kane. Even as someone who groans every time I see an awards movie conspicuously shot in black and white (and don’t even get me started on “creative” aspect ratios), Mank‘s plucky dialogue (written by Fincher’s father Jack, who died in 2003) and massive sets even managed to seduce me, exactly as intended. It’s a cliché that Hollywood loves movies about Hollywood, but there’s also no story that they’re more qualified to tell.
2. Zodiac (2007)
For whatever reason, I’m imagining half the people reading this are pissed that I didn’t put Zodiac at number one. And hey, you could certainly make a case for it. Zodiac is gorgeous, beautifully-crafted, unpretentious filmmaking, easily the least warty and most timeless of any of Fincher’s films. Despite being an at times terrifying and intensely creepy film about the hunt for a famous serial killer, it also makes me intensely nostalgic for the 10 years I spent in San Francisco.
Even when I still lived in San Francisco it made me nostalgic, for the time when San Francisco was still a place that attracted oddballs, eccentrics, and counter-culture figures who seemed like they couldn’t exist anywhere else — like Robert Downey Jr’s unforgettable take on reporter Paul Avery. Sure, that all happened before I was even born, but that was the city we wanted it to be, and five or 10 years ago it still existed in certain pockets.
Avery might be Downey Jr.’s finest role, and with a cast that also included Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Brian Cox, and John Caroll Lynch, Zodiac has one of the finest ensembles ever assembled. It’s a landmark in terms of films that helped Jake Gyllenhaal transition from the sullen kid in Donnie Darko to the man who absolutely should’ve won an Oscar for Nightcrawler. Honestly, Jake Gyllenhaal should probably have a few Oscars by now.
1. Fight Club (1999)
I know, I know, Fight Club is now near the top of the list of art closely most associated with toxic males and pseudo-erudite f*ckbois, along with Scarface and David Foster Wallace. Admitting you love Fight Club is tantamount to asking to be canceled. It gets derided all the time, for promoting fascism, toxic masculinity, Marxism, or Jared Leto. I can certainly concede that Fight Club is gospel for a certain subset of depressive male misanthrope who probably sleeps on a mattress directly on the floor and thinks washing his legs is ableist or whatever (insert the latest “type of dude who” Twitter meme here), but unlike Scarface, I would argue, Fight Club actually is a lot more than people’s half-assed interpretation of it.
There’s certainly enough material in Fight Club to spur arguments over whether it’s fascist, anarchist, misogynist, pro violence or whatever. The much easier and more obvious interpretation, however, is that it’s simply anti-consumer culture. To some extent, Fight Club is very of-the-moment 1999, when the emptiness of consumer society — “the IKEA nesting instinct” — seemed like America’s biggest problem. Not to mention it being the high-water mark of Generation X’s ongoing need to call out advertising for not telling the truth — a criticism that’s still true, but that basically everyone younger has accepted as an unchangeable fact of nature not even worth ridiculing anymore. It’s notable, watching it now, that when Tyler Durden tells his army of space monkeys “We have no Great War or Great Depression. The great war is a spiritual war. The great depression is our lives,” the same generation to whom he was speaking would have both a war and a depression in just a few short years.
Thus it’s perfectly natural for a Zoomer, Gen Y*, or younger millennial to hear something like “there is no war or depression” and automatically flip the bird at this movie and anyone who likes it. Yet the spiritual emptiness of consumer culture and of the third way, free trade meritocracy (in which acquisitiveness is applied not just to consumer goods but to titles, degrees, and accolades as well) hasn’t gone away, even if it’s become more hack to acknowledge it.
Yes, Fight Club is a very male-centric and mostly white-centric look at middle and working-class disaffection (the types of disaffection two white guys, author Chuck Palahniuk and David Fincher, are most qualified to explore). It’s also one of the most insightful and incisive portrayals of adult male disaffection ever made. Roger Ebert famously called Fight Club “cheerfully fascist” and a “celebration of violence” in what I consider one of the biggest whiffs of his career. Fight Club doesn’t celebrate violence; it simply depicts honestly how young men often turn to violence and vandalism as part of a larger search for human connections and an authentic experience. Fight Club and the rightly-revered Office Space are kissing cousins.
It’s worth noting that when the fight club guys kick the shit out of each other, they’re not celebrating winning. They’re celebrating feeling something, thanking the guy who kicked the shit out of them for this shared moment of authenticity and celebrating themselves for being willing to take the risk. Why don’t people often take risks in life, even in order to find happiness? Usually, because they’re worried about losing their stuff; their jobs, their houses, their cars. Fight Club doesn’t celebrate the fighting itself so much as the boldness to tell some efficiency consultant to f*ck off. (I love this scene intensely):
And yes, it’s very homoerotic — Chuck Palahniuk is a gay man — but that peculiarly male love of play-violence is always pretty homoerotic. See also Jackass, and pretty much any Schwarzenegger movie ever made for examples of this. Brad Pitt makes the perfect avatar for this kind of stunted white male, the guy Edward Norton’s character wants to be and kind of maybe also wants to kiss. Fincher applies the “male gaze” to Brad Pitt throughout the movie — like when Tyler Durden casually puts his hand in his pocket at the soap counter, revealing his lack of underwear and offering a brief glimpse of the ripped lines leading to his groin (“cum gutters,” in gay parlance). Even now he makes every dated 90s fashion trend look impossibly cool.
It’s funny that all the alt-right dorks online are up in arms about Harry Styles wearing a dress in Vanity Fair this week, when Brad Pitt did the same thing on the Rolling Stone cover 20 years ago.
The other thing that Fight Club depicts, which it does perfectly, is the way the violent impulses of disaffected young men can so easily be exploited by demagogues and authoritarians. Fight Club isn’t promoting fascism, it’s explaining how fascism functions. There’s a point at which Fight Club‘s relatively pure, or at least harmless form of community building turns into something dangerous. That the film is crystal clear about the exact moment when this happens puts the lie to the argument that it’s promoting it. Tyler Durden turns to the camera as he’s saying “you are not your f*cking khakis,” breaking the fourth wall as the film stock effect jiggles behind him. It’s clear just from the look on his face that this is a heel turn. After that, the fight club goes from a way to feel, to “I wanted to destroy something beautiful” (as Edward Norton’s character says to explain his brutal beating of Jared Leto). It’s the point at which their artful “self-destruction” turns outward.
The Proud Boys famously use a goofy version of a fight club as an initiation ritual (as did many street gangs, before and after Fight Club). Fight Club didn’t promote that, it simply predicted it. It was the spiritual rot of the Clinton years that spawned Fight Club that paved the way for the Trump years that spawned the Proud Boys.
As a film, Fight Club is just funny and memorable in a way that no other Fincher film, not even Zodiac, can match. Helena Bonham Carter’s entire performance is perfect, and the clever little touches, like Brad Pitt opening the door naked wearing nothing but yellow dishwashing gloves, are moments I’ll never forget. Fincher also perfectly captures, visually, the kind of punk rock grossness that defines Chuck Palahniuk’s work. Palahniuk being the author who famously had people running to their puke buckets during readings of his short story “Guts,” about a guy who gets his intestines sucked out his ass by a pool drain while masturbating. Likewise, who could forget that image of Tyler Durden cupping his hands to catch the fat from the liposuction bag after it snags on a barbed wire fence? The image is perfectly depraved and perfectly Palahniuk.
Which isn’t to say that Fight Club doesn’t have its faults. The film basically falls apart after the narrator realizes he and Tyler are the same person, leading to a silly, nonsensical ending that not even a Pixies song can save. It’s a flawed ending, and a sour note for an otherwise great film to go out on, but I have to give the slight edge to one of the most memorable films of an entire decade even if it’s not perfectly consistent.
*I refuse to be lumped in as an “older Millennial.” If you learned to masturbate before internet porn, you’re not a Millennial.