The Films Of David Fincher, Ranked

On Friday, the 12th film by David Fincher, The Killer, will arrive on Netflix after a brief theatrical run. It’s about a professional assassin (Michael Fassbender) who loves The Smiths and making dad jokes about sitcom characters from the ’70s and ’80s. Which means if he didn’t murder people for a living, he would be pretty relatable! The Killer is everything you want from a David Fincher movie: the violence is perfectly staged and incredibly thrilling, the performances are nuanced and convincing, and it’s a lot funnier than a movie this dark and nihilistic has any right to be.

In honor of The Killer, I decided to go back into Fincher’s filmography. I knew I had already seen all of his films, but I didn’t realize that I had seen multiple films multiple times. For a guy who has depicted more than his share of on-screen brutality, Fincher makes incredibly watchable films that only improve upon repeat viewings. Some movies are better than others, of course, but there isn’t an outright clunker in the bunch.

Join me as I dig into the work of David Fincher. You better lawyer up, a**holes! I’m not here for 30 percent of his movies. I’m here … for everything.

Pre-List Entertainment: The Best Music Videos Directed By David Fincher, Ranked

David Fincher is one of the great working directors in modern cinema. Practically everyone agrees with this. But he is inarguably the greatest director of music videos from the late ’80s and early ’90s. Not that Fincher himself would brag about this. For him, making music videos and commercials in the ’80s was the means to achieve the end of becoming a filmmaker in the ’90s. Nevertheless, for me, his music videos represent some of my very favorite David Fincher work. Before we delve into his filmography, I would like to briefly discuss five of his best music videos.

5. Billy Idol, “Cradle Of Love” (1990)

The premise of this video concerns a nerdy man (actually a very good-looking male model-type who just happens to be wearing glasses, She’s All That style) whose life is upended by a beautiful young woman who shows up at his apartment and proceeds to gyrate suggestively to the first single from the fourth Billy Idol album. On paper, it reads like a million other cheeseball videos that aired on MTV between 1986 and the release of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” But “Cradle Of Love” is not “only” that. “Cradle Of Love” also explains who David Fincher is as an artist.

The most important thing to understand about David Fincher is that if anyone else directed his films, they would be 100 percent trashier and 1,000 percent shittier. Pundits frequently use adjectives like “visceral” and “subversive” to describe his work, but if a less brilliant stylist were to draw on David Fincher’s source material those same pundits would be moved to apply descriptors such as “junky” and “Lifetime Channel-esque.” As Fincher recently told The Guardian, “I will never be a more mature filmmaker. I will carry the 12-year-old me with me wherever I go.” Because it’s David Fincher, you might think he’s being falsely modest. But he’s telling the truth. Put him in the context of his peers: Would Paul Thomas Anderson dare to make a movie out of a down-market best seller like The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo? Would Steven Soderbergh ever deign to take a de rigueur beach read like Gone Girl seriously? Imagine Wes Anderson directing multiple serial killer flicks. It’s like trying to envision Quentin Tarantino or Sofia Coppola making a movie about Facebook.

David Fincher’s skill made these exercises seem way more artful than they would otherwise be. Without him, Seven starts to look a lot like Saw. Without him, Gone Girl hews closer to Stalked By My Doctor territory. Without him, Fight Club really is the simple-minded incel bait that exists in the imaginations of that film’s detractors.

The same goes for “Cradle Of Love.” Without him, it would be like a typical late ’80s Whitesnake video.

4. Paula Abdul, “Cold Hearted” (1989)

But what is “Cradle Of Love” with David Fincher? I’ll quote the nameless yuppie at the start of the video for “Cold Hearted”: “Tastefully hot.” “Cradle Of Love” is tastefully hot, and “Cold Hearted” is also tastefully hot. Now, I was entering puberty during this period, and I will concede that my brain was not yet developed enough to fully appreciate the difference between the cinematic fillet that is “tastefully hot” and the more common music-video crapola known as “tawdry hot.” But even I could discern that the visual tableaux presented in “Cradle Of Love” and “Cold Hearted” was more carefully considered than whatever the director for Winger’s “Seventeen” was doing.

It was several years after Paula Abdul’s pop career came and went that I recognized the central film-geek reference point of “Cold Hearted” — the super sultry “Take Off With Us” dance sequence from Bob Fosse’s 1979 meta-musical masterpiece All That Jazz. Fincher has claimed to have watched Fosse’s film 200 times, and he’s often placed it among his favorite movies on lists such as this one. What’s immediately apparent about that list is how recognizable the 26 films are — there are no obscure European art flicks or barely known underground cult classics. Fincher favors Chinatown and All The President’s Men and The French Connection and The Godfather Part II, all movies that are critical of American culture while also speaking to the mainstream of American culture. And this, also, explains a lot about David Fincher, the bad-boy auteur who is also the most commercially minded “great director” of his generation.

3. Madonna, “Bad Girl” (1993)

Fincher made five videos with Abdul, and he understood intuitively what to emphasize (her dancing) and how to make up for what was lacking (her voice). His videos were credited with making Abdul’s 1989 debut Forever Your Girl a commercial blockbuster. (More important, Fincher did not direct the most infamously corny Paula Abdul video from this era, the MC Skat Kat co-starring “Opposites Attract.”) He also left a lasting impression on the performer — in the 2011 oral history I Want My MTV, Abdul praised Fincher for having “an inner strength that’s very sexy.”

After Abdul, Fincher’s most frequent music-video leading lady was Madonna, with whom he worked four times. Two of those videos, “Express Yourself” and “Vogue,” are among the most iconic MTV clips ever. But I’m going instead with “Bad Girl,” the final Madonna-Fincher collaboration and the most movie-like. Madonna plays the titular bad girl as an homage to Diane Keaton’s sexually adventurous heroine from 1977’s Looking For Mr. Goodbar, with Christopher Walken presiding over it all as the Angel Of Death. At the time, Fincher had already crashed and burned at the box office with his misbegotten debut as a film director, Alien 3. Retreating to the music-video world might have registered as a defeat, but “Bad Girl” showed that he was honing the neo-noir style that he would eventually take to the bank.

2. Aerosmith, “Janie’s Got A Gun” (1989)

Speaking of neo-noir, this is the ur-text for what Fincher will later do in films like Seven, Zodiac, and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. All of the elements are in place — the feeling of overpowering dread, the threat of violence (sexual or otherwise), the sumptuous images of beautiful people being degraded, the suggestion that these figures signify a deeper societal rot. Plus, there is a hit power ballad from a late-’80s Aerosmith album. Here is another example of Fincher elevating his material to unforeseen heights. I cringe at the thought of what Nigel Dick or Jeff Stein might have done with “Janie’s Got A Gun.” Whereas in Fincher’s hands, Steven Tyler not only comes across as a moral figurehead but as a moral figurehead on the subject of sexual assault, which — truth be told — is sicker and more perverse than anything in Fight Club.

(My one criticism of Fincher’s direction is that the lecherous father who Janie shoots and kills looks like he’s 26 and ready for a Calvin Klein ad. His finely chiseled good looks are inappropriate for the role, especially since the actress who portrays Janie looks like she’s 24. On a purely aesthetic level, their coupling is way too visually attractive for the setting. John Carroll Lynch was also 26 the year this video was made, but I’m guessing he already was more credible for this kind of part.)

1. George Michael, “Freedom! ’90” (1990)

You have a handsome pop superstar who no longer wants to appear in his videos. What do you do? You set his signature leather jacket on fire and assemble the Traveling Wilburys of late 20th century fashion models to appear in his place. Just as you don’t need to actually show Gwyneth Paltrow’s head in that box to prove she’s dead, you need not put George Michael on display in order to murder the mythology of 1987’s image-building Faith. You can just invent a new mythology for supermodels to replace it.

This is cinematic invention. This is proof that you are officially too talented to be making music videos. This is why you must have faith in his sound. It’s the one good thing that he’s got.

Now, let’s get to David Fincher’s films.

12. The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button (2008)

One of the more infamous footnotes in Fincher’s career is his short-lived feud with fellow Gen X auteur Paul Thomas Anderson. For those who have not obsessed over this as much as I have: It stemmed from a 2000 Rolling Stone interview in which PTA slammed Fight Club. The movie was so “unbearable” in Paul’s estimation that he wished testicular cancer on Fincher. The source of Anderson’s ire was the perception that Fight Club mocked cancer victims in the scene depicting Meat Loaf’s “bitch tits” after an orchiectomy, a sensitive topic given the death of Anderson’s father from cancer three years prior.

Apparently, the beef was quickly squashed: Anderson wrote Fincher an apology letter and publicly declared that his comments were “stupid.” But PTA’s quote lingered long enough in cinephile lore for Rolling Stone to bring it up to Fincher in a 2021 interview, to which he responded with graceful diplomacy. The “bitch tits” scene was satirizing the trauma tourism of Edward Norton’s character, not the struggles of the traumatized, he explained. But Fincher also understood why a person who recently lost a family member would react the way PTA did, even if PTA at the time was also a budding bad-boy auteur who had just flashed Mark Wahlberg’s big fat fake penis on screen in Boogie Nights.

Prospects for a juicy feud aside, I think what this story really speaks to is Fincher’s reputation as a cynic, the kind of man who really would belittle those afflicted with a terrible disease, a cold Kubrickian figure who doesn’t get the benefit of the doubt even in a preposterous scenario involving the guy from Bat Out Of Hell wearing prosthetic breasts.

I don’t know how much that perception played into Fincher’s decision to direct The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button, his most un-Fincher-like film. Fincher has said that he was moved to make the movie after his own father died of cancer in 2003. The resulting film is as fascinated with the grotesqueries of death as Seven, but it’s the more mundane grotesqueries perpetrated by the passage of time (rather than a serial killer). It works most effectively in the first third (when Brad Pitt is a geriatric baby) and in the final third (when Brad Pitt is a baby-faced geriatric) then in the goopy middle, where Brad Pitt looks like Brad Pitt but acts like a sexy Forrest Gump.

It’s not a bad film. (Yadda yadda-ing the usual plaudits for Fincher’s impeccable technique that I will be saluting in greater depth later in this column.) But it is his classiest movie, starting with source material derived from F. Scott Fitzgerald, who has nothing on Gillian Flynn when it comes to providing Fincher with the red meat he needs to really send his freak flag flying. For a man uniquely gifted at transforming schlocky material into cinematic profundity, a work of literary merit winds up being an “inversely proportional quality” proposition.

11. Mank (2020)

Benjamin Button was the first of four consecutive Fincher films released in the late aughts and early 2010s that grossed at least $200 million, and one of the two films in that run (with Gone Girl) to make over $300 million. All of them were made primarily for adult audiences. And none of them would likely be made for movie theaters today. It’s possible — even probable — that these movies (which also include The Social Network and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo) would be refashioned into “limited run” streaming TV series.

Whenever Fincher is interviewed now, his accidental but crucial role in the marginalization of film culture is a frequent topic of conversation. This is due, of course, to his involvement in House Of Cards, the first original Netflix series, which dropped in early 2013. The following year, the last Fincher film to receive a significant theatrical run, Gone Girl, scored big at the box office. In 2023, you can still choose to see a new Fincher movie on the big screen. You just might have to work a little harder. I live in an American city with a population north of 1 million, and last month I ventured to one of the three theaters in my area playing The Killer for a mid-day screening attended by three other people (two of whom were sitting with me). But it seems like the days when a new movie by one of the last remaining name-brand directors is a “leave your house” phenomenon are behind us.

I am a 46-year-old man who was raised on 1970s “New Hollywood” cinema and who came of age watching the emerging 1990s indie-film masters, so I am inclined to lament this as a great tragedy. But if we can dwell for a moment on the sliver of light in this modern cultural hellscape: Mank would absolutely not exist without Netflix. Now, I’m not sure Mank would exist even with Netflix in 2023, given the shrinkage of content in post-pandemic, almost post-strike Hollywood. But the fact is that Fincher did get it out in the world in 2020 after trying and failing to convince studios to back his passion project going back to the mid-’90s. And that is a miracle given that Mank is by far the niche-iest movie in his canon, a Citizen Kane tribute (already a commercially dubious endeavor) that doesn’t center the one person from that movie (Orson Welles) that non-cinephiles might recognize. But since this is David Fincher, it’s only natural that his least accessible film is also his tenderest. Working with a screenplay written by his late father Jack, Fincher fashioned a film that Manohla Dargis later classified as “eulogistic.” She meant that in a broader “end of cinema” sense, but it also applies to the effort of a son exhausting his tech-platform capital to finally realize his dad’s cinematic ambitions.

10. Alien 3 (1992)

People often classify Be Here Now as the worst Oasis album because Noel Gallagher has talked over and over about how terrible Be Here Now is. The same goes for Alien 3 and David Fincher — he once likened the process of making Alien 3 to being “sodomized ritualistically for two years” and has said that “to this day, no one hates [the film] more than me.” If a director despises what he has made that much, it seems natural for the audience to follow his direction. Especially when you have a film that resists affection as violently as this one. If the setting (an ugly planet converted into a drab prison colony) and the supporting characters (bald-headed misogynist creeps) don’t turn you off, perhaps you will be interested in witnessing an autopsy performed on the adorable little girl from Aliens.

David Fincher is a master at creating nightmarish images that are simultaneously horrific and beautiful. But Alien 3 is easily the least attractive movie he’s made. Whereas even the most psychologically scarring sequences in his filmography have a hypnotic quality that make them compulsively rewatchable, sitting through Alien 3 feels like hard work. And yet I put it at No. 10 because — no matter Fincher’s own perception of it as a compromised film — Alien 3 retains a weird, singular integrity. Particularly in retrospect, in our current moment of deadly dull franchise IP stagnation, this movie’s brutal bleakness stands out as artistically courageous. Only David Fincher could look at a would-be blockbuster that ends — spoiler alert, though I suspect Alien 3 is the last film on this list anyone will want to revisit — with Ripley committing suicide by throwing herself into a fiery pit while an alien baby explodes out of her stomach as a half-measure. By any other standard, Alien 3 must be counted among the most daring summer genre movies ever released by a major studio, no matter its questionable entertainment value.

Also: Alien 3 is really well made! Roger Ebert called it “one of the best-looking bad movies I have ever seen,” and that sums it up pretty much perfectly. There’s a reason David Fincher did not go the way of Josh Trank after Alien 3 tanked at the box office. Even when he whiffed, he whiffed with style.

9. Panic Room (2002)

If you read a lot of David Fincher interviews, or you watch him speak with journalists via videos posted on YouTube, you will notice that he tends to recycle the same bits. This isn’t all his fault — a usual talking point for interlocutors is the number of takes that Fincher demands from his actors, which always (understandably) annoys him and prompts his canned explanation about making the most of all the money that pays for a day’s work on set. Other than that, however, Fincher is fond of re-using the same anecdotes — the one about discovering the joy of filmmaking from a behind-the-scenes documentary about Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, the one about how his dad warned him as a boy about the at-large Zodiac killer threatening school buses in Marin County without offering to drive him to school, the one about re-writing the script for Fight Club at Brad Pitt’s house, and so on.

You could chalk up these interview tics to Fincher’s exacting nature, or his reticence about revealing too much about himself. Compared with compulsive over-sharers like Tarantino and PTA, Fincher remains an enigma more than 30 years after his first film. Or maybe Fincher just needs to be interviewed by Ben Affleck. This 2020 video timed with the release of Mank is one of the best Fincher interviews I’ve seen, mostly because Affleck is a fellow filmmaker who affords Fincher the space to get granular about his process. The best bit comes late in the video when Affleck brings up the book that Fincher prepared for Panic Room containing his micro-managed plans for the production, from camera moves to blocking to (presumably) snack assortments for the craft services table.

“Don’t ever do this!” Affleck recalls Fincher warning him.

Panic Room actually doesn’t seem any more overdetermined than any other Fincher movie. What it lacks is an underlying point — it’s only a perfectly conceived construction, like a luxury car outfitted with every amenity except for a place to go. It’s a lot of fun to watch and very difficult to remember. Every participant avails themselves professionally, but only Jared Leto and Dwight Yoakam appear to be enjoying themselves. As for Fincher, Panic Room feels like the end of his 1.0 era. Afterward, he didn’t put out another movie for five years. He made commercials, cashed his commercial checks, and then set about his next phase, in which nothing he made would feel as impersonal as this movie.

8. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2011)

I’ve used the word “auteur” three times so far in this column. Two of these instances were in reference to Fincher. And I know that he would hate this. Another frequent talking point in David Fincher interviews is that he does not think of himself as an auteur. He prefers to view himself as a hired gun. And that makes sense when you consider that Fincher — unlike those ’90s cinema peers I mentioned earlier — is not a screenwriter. Which is not to say he does not originate his ideas. (Andrew Kevin Walker, who wrote Seven and The Killer and script-doctored other Fincher movies, has said that Fincher came up with the premise of the latter film.) But he isn’t responsible for the voice of his movies as completely as someone like Quentin Tarantino, which is something that Quentin Tarantino himself has pointed out and I’m sure Fincher would not dispute.

But in a less pedantic sense, David Fincher is an auteur through and through, because anyone who is familiar with his films can instantly identify the attributes of a David Fincher film. Here is one of those attributes: Ironic needle drops. He’s not nearly as prodigious at using pop songs as Tarantino, Sofia Coppola, or Wes/Paul Thomas Anderson, but he’s made his handful of famous needle drops count. Like Stanley Kubrick in A Clockwork Orange, he uses music as a counterpoint to shocking violence in Zodiac (Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man”) and Fight Club (Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind”). Less heralded (but even more striking) is the application of Enya’s icy new-age pop hit “Orinoco Flow” during the “Daniel Craig is tortured by Stellan Skarsgård in a S&M dungeon” sequence from The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. It’s a scene that reminds you that you’re watching a serial killer film directed by David Fincher — whose propensity for black comedy goes hand in hand with his flair for depicting imaginary sadistic mayhem — and not some nondescript studio hack.

7. The Killer (2023)

Fincher’s latest movie provides ample opportunity to analyze him via the auteur lens. It amounts to a compendium of his past stylistic flourishes. The use of The Smiths throughout the picture functions as an extended ironic needle drop. (The best sequence occurs early on during a critical moment scored to “How Soon Is Now?”) The disaffected and unreliable narration by the protagonist recalls Fight Club, as do the references to vampiric corporate culture. The main character is a dead-eyed murderer with a strict ethical code (like John Doe in Seven) whose attention to detail ensures that he will never be caught (like the killer in Zodiac). He is a genius who is destined to be an island onto himself (like Mark Zuckerberg), but he also has a surprisingly sentimental attachment to the woman in his life (like Benjamin Button or Daniel Craig in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo).

For those convinced that they can read into his films to uncover the depths of David Fincher’s heart and mind, The Killer also offers some tantalizing “armchair psychology”-flavored morsels. The obvious (and common) take is that Michael Fassbender’s fastidious assassin mirrors the film’s perfectionist director, and that Fincher is using this literal gun-for-hire to express personal revelations about his own artistic method. I’m not sure I buy that. The old Fincher film that reminds me most of this new Fincher film is Panic Room, in that it’s a vehicle for David Fincher to create a series of intense, suspenseful sequences that more often than not end with someone’s brains spilled all over an exquisitely art-directed movie set. And that’s about all it is. What makes The Killer a better film than Panic Room is that Fincher has 21 more years of filmmaking experience.

6. The Game (1997)

Let’s revisit the subject of filmmaker feuds involving David Fincher. One of his actual adversaries is Michael Bay, who similarly came up in the late ’80s as a music-video director and was known in the business by the semi-insulting nickname “Little Fincher.” In I Want My MTV, a mutual associate describes the Fincher vs. Bay dynamic thusly: “Fincher was sophisticated. He was inspired by great philosophers such as Robert Frank and Horst P. Horst. Bay was a technical genius like Fincher, but he had the mind of a teenager. His sensibility was juvenile.”

But are Fincher and Bay really that different? Jake Gyllenhaal once called them “radically similar” filmmakers, though it’s possible he was trolling Fincher after being annoyed by doing so many takes during the making of Zodiac. But as we have already established, Fincher self-identifies as an overgrown adolescent, not as a philosophy-obsessed intellectual. And his career arc is similar to Bay’s, with them both establishing themselves as hot-shot cinematic wunderkinds in 1995. Of course, Bay did it with Bad Boys, a movie that could be credibly described as the antithesis of Seven. And their paths only diverge more dramatically from there.

The Game came out the year between two Michael Bay films, 1996’s The Rock and 1998’s Armageddon. And, if you squint a little (or a lot), it’s the David Fincher film that most resembles a Michael Bay movie, i.e. it’s preposterous, brazenly illogical, and very enjoyable if you turn your brain off. Fincher famously said early in his career that he wanted to make films that scar, but The Game lives up (or down) to its title. It’s affecting, but it doesn’t put you through the ringer like Fincher’s best movies. It’s as psychologically complex as an amusement park ride.

That superficiality marks The Game as a minor film. But I have a soft spot for it, partly for nostalgia reasons (it came out the week I turned 20, and I remember seeing it opening weekend) and partly because (with the exception of The Social Network) this is the Fincher I most enjoy revisiting. It’s the rarest of Fincher films: a comfort watch.

5. Seven (1995)

This is not a comfort watch. Though it has been ripped off by virtually every serial killer movie and TV show that followed in its wake, which has inevitably diminished some of its original impact. Rewatching the movie for this column I was repeatedly struck by how conventional Seven seems now. The older black cop/younger white cop “buddy” dynamic, the maniacally ornate crime scenes, the constant rain, the “serial killer as philosopher” posturing, the extremely serious treatment of borderline campy material — again, the brand has been diluted more than Eduardo Saverin’s Facebook stock.

What hasn’t been diluted is the ending. I can still remember being dazed by Seven the first time I saw it — I was on a date with my first serious girlfriend, and I’m still not sure if this is the worst date movie (for obvious reasons) or an incredible date movie (for obvious reasons). The first time you see Seven, you do not expect Kevin Spacey to turn himself in with 30 minutes left in the picture. You do not expect him to kill Brad Pitt’s wife. You do not expect to learn this information from a delivery man bringing a box to a stretch of barren terrain. And you do not expect — this is the biggest shock of all — Brad Pitt to shoot Kevin Spacey in the head. This is an ending that goes right up to the line of what is expected from a movie like this and then steps over it several times in the final act. Only then do you realize that the familiar things you smugly pointed out during the opening two-thirds were setting you up for all of this.

4. Fight Club (1999)

This is, and always will be, David Fincher’s most polarizing film. Detractors dismiss it for at least one of the following three reasons.

1. The “wrong” people like it.

2. It’s a movie about “toxic” and “privileged” white guys who don’t “deserve” to feel angst about their lots in life.

3. Its anti-capitalism message is obvious and juvenile.

The first criticism is the weakest. Every work of art that reaches a mass audience will also appeal to a segment of unseemly individuals who enjoy it for problematic reasons. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of tech bros who were inspired to move to Silicon Valley because they saw The Social Network and adopted Mark Zuckerberg as an aspirational figure. This is not David Fincher’s fault, and it’s not David Fincher’s fault that sex-starved losers on the Internet love Fight Club. He is not responsible for our piss-poor media literacy. That’s on us.

The second criticism hinges on whether you see Fight Club as a satire or a celebration of contemporary masculinity. But even the “pro-satire” partisans view this film too narrowly. It’s true Fight Club is literally about professional men who beat each other up in parking lots, but this is also a metaphor for a story about how modernity has cut us off from the most essential parts of ourselves. And you don’t have to be a “toxic” male to grasp that. It’s true for everybody. We are all under the heel of capitalism. It’s the human condition.

The third criticism has virtually become the common sense take on Fight Club. Smart people frequently argue that this album is too “on the nose,” to apply one of the most overused phrases in criticism. What this argument ignores is that American pop culture – and particularly American cinematic pop culture — is far more conservative in 2023 than it was in 1999. A film that ends with the demolition of the world’s credit card companies not only would cut more against the grain now, it likely wouldn’t even be made — certainly not by a major studio like 20th Century Fox, and probably not even by Netflix. And not because Fight Club is too “on the nose,” but because it’s actually way more subversive than the kinds of movies that we see now. We have not evolved “past” this movie. We have devolved from it.

A better criticism is that Fight Club is unnecessary as a movie because we are already overrun by Tyler Durden-esque blowhards on social media. That is undeniably true. But none of those people are as sexy as Brad Pitt, or as witty or stylish as David Fincher.

3. Gone Girl (2014)

Fight Club flopped at the box office because few people beyond Fincher, Pitt, and Edward Norton understood that it was a comedy. And this movie scored at the box office because few people beyond Fincher and his collaborators understood that it was a comedy. Audiences thought they were getting a drama about a woman getting revenge on her boorish husband, and Gone Girl presents a convincing-enough facsimile of that kind of movie to satisfy those demands. But the meat of the movie are the acidic takes on marriage, the media, and the bullshittery that men and women must indulge in to fit in socially. It’s a facsimile of a Lifetime movie that is really about the facsimiles we all invent just to get through life.

Stanley Kubrick is frequently cited as a point of comparison for Fincher. But Kubrick was always drawn to big subjects: war, outer space, man’s violent nature, Jack Nicholson’s forehead. He didn’t have the appetite for pulp that Fincher does. But if there is one Fincher film I suspect that Kubrick would have loved, it’s Gone Girl. It’s David Fincher’s Eyes Wide Shut. A marriage movie that’s skeptical about whether it’s possible (or wise) to reveal yourself to another person, even one who ostensibly loves and “knows” you better than anybody. Only Fincher also gives the audience the satisfaction of seeing a beautiful half-naked woman slit Neil Patrick Harris’ throat.

2. Zodiac (2007)

With the exception of his Netflix movies, which had limited theatrical runs, this is his worst-grossing film. But it’s also the movie that’s now regarded as the de-facto masterpiece in his oeuvre. It’s a weird duality for this artful populist, who was rightfully proud of what he accomplished and also emboldened after Zodiac‘s poor box office to venture into television because he believed that audiences no longer wanted to see through snail-paced 157-minute movies. Here’s a thought experiment: What if Zodiac made $300 million? Does Fincher still decide to do House Of Cards? If he doesn’t do House Of Cards, how does that affect the trajectory of Netflix? Does this shift mean that Fincher decides to keep on making low-key epics for the big screen? Is the entire course of modern cinema forever altered?

Maybe? Probably not? I have no idea. What I know for sure is that the more passionate you are about David Fincher, the more passionate you are about Zodiac. At the risk of bringing up the “a-word” again, this is the movie that best spotlights all of the things that people love about his movies. If you treasure graphic murders rendered in gorgeously desaturated greens and yellows, mismatched buddy teams with understated comic chemistry, and uncertain denouements that send you stumbling out of the theater in pained ecstasy, then Zodiac is the best possible version of that kind of film.

1. The Social Network (2010)

David Fincher wants you to know that he is not an auteur, and my favorite Fincher film (unlike Zodiac) is certainly not an auteurist statement. Aaron Sorkin’s script is rightly considered a modern landmark. So is the score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. Jesse Eisenberg’s performance as Mark Zuckerberg is one of the great film characters of the last 20 years, and Andrew Garfield’s Eduardo Saverin is not far behind. Everybody involved in The Social Network is working at the top of their games. But this is still David Fincher’s film. Only he could have made a movie about people sitting in rooms at computers feel as exciting and upsetting as Seven or Fight Club. It’s the David Fincher movie I’m always most excited about rewatching, and the one I find most difficult to stop watching once it’s on. Where do you stop? After the Facemash sequence? After the Winklevii meet with the Harvard dean? After Zuckerberg’s first meeting with Sean Parker? After his second meeting with Parker? Surely not before Eduardo says “you better lawyer up, asshole”? Of all Fincher’s movies, The Social Network is the one that belongs with all those golden-era warhorses he put on the list of his favorite films. It’s his All The President’s Men or Chinatown, a culture-defining work that chips away at our perceptions of the contemporary world while also entertaining millions of people. It’s where Fincher chases perfection and finally catches it.