Movies

Ranked: David Fincher Films from Worst to Best

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Is Fight Club better than Seven? Does Alien3 have any redeeming qualities? On the eve of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, we find out.

by Rick Paulas

David Fincher does not seem like a pleasant person to work with. His works exude such technical craftsmanship that his collaborators must be nervous wrecks throughout. But unlike most perfectionist filmmakers, Fincher's actually been working at a steady clip. And his track record — eight films in sixteen years, six of them great, four modern classics — is unparalleled among contemporary filmmakers. With his ninth feature, the Americanized remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, out this week, it's time to take a look at his brilliant career thus far.

9. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)

Upon its release, plenty of snarky Internet commenters compared Benjamin Button to Forrest Gump, and they had a point. Both films concerned the decades-long journeys of outcast white guys witnessing historical moments of the twentieth century as they try to get back to the love of their lives. The big difference was that Gump was actually decent. The only redeeming quality of this saccharine mess — in fact, possibly the only reason Fincher made the movie at all — is the neat CGI the director later used for The Social Network.

8. Alien3 (1992)

This disaster avoids the last position only because its failure isn't entirely Fincher's fault. Heavy rewrites, constant studio interference, shooting without a script; Fincher has said that his first feature was the most frustrating filmmaking experience he ever had. "The Assembly Cut," on the special-edition DVD, may be closer to Fincher's original vision, but while it's certainly better than the theatrical version, it's still far from the "hidden masterpiece" some fans claim it to be.

7. Panic Room (2002)

Panic Room is a puzzle movie where the puzzle is less about the plot than about the logistics of how Fincher got his dazzling shots. You can hear the wheels turning in Fincher's head as he figures out how to frame his tightly-woven claustrophobic thriller in the confined spaces of a New York City brownstone. For the most part, it works. But I've got to dock it a couple points for Jared Leto's stupid cornrows.

6. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

Despite the unevenness of the source material, it makes sense for Fincher to tackle this adaptation: you have serial killings (Seven, Zodiac), puzzle-solving (The Game), and a whole bunch of tech (The Social Network, Panic Room). But the end result is merely adequate; it’s Zodiac, but without the existential uneasiness. It’s well done and worth seeing — if only for the droning Reznor/Ross score alone — but the original novels set a ceiling that Fincher can’t transcend.

5. The Game (1997)

A bit of a sleeper, The Game is one of those movies everyone forgets when you mention it by name, but then recall it as soon as you start with the phrase "Michael Douglas plays this game thing." This thriller succeeds, in part, because of Fincher's keen eye for upper-crust society. You've never seen wooden-paneled back rooms so beautifully lit. And while the ending may be a bit of a let-down for the nihilistic among us, anything else just wouldn't do.

4. The Social Network (2010)

Everyone was skeptical about how "the Facebook movie" could be worth seeing — mostly because it gave us an easy chance to be hypocritically snobby about social networking. But Fincher did the impossible here, making a story about a nerd creating a website actually compelling. The cast is perfect, and the Aaron Sorkin-written dialogue predictably crackles. Also, major points for the understated use of CGI in this film — how many of you, honestly, thought the Winklevoss twins were actually played by twin actors?

3. Fight Club (1999)

If impact on the zeitgeist were the only consideration, Fight Club would easily rank at the top of the list. What's so amazing is how prescient it looks twelve years later. Internet hacker collective Anonymous is basically a digital version of Project Mayhem. The recently-unleashed Bat Signal that projected Occupy Wall Street's message onto a skyscraper seemed like a Tyler Durden-ordered directive. The ending still doesn't make a whole lot of sense (Ed Norton shoots off a part of his face, so he kills Durden?), but that's just picking nits at this point.

2. Seven

The first "real" Fincher film (following the Alien3 debacle), this is as perfect a horror movie as you're going to find. The set design is top-notch, the script masterful, and the shocks genuine. One of the most nightmarish blockbusters ever made (can you believe a film featuring Leland Orser in a bladed dildo made over $300 million?), Seven also famously sticks the landing.

1. Zodiac

Of course, a filmmaker clearly prone to obsessive tendencies would make the greatest film about obsession ever. Some were put off by Zodiac because it's less about the pursuit of a serial killer and more about the toll of obsession on those pursuing him. For all its suspenseful scenes, Zodiac is more terrifying for its recurring time-marker subtitles; as the story stretches further and further into the lives of the characters, you begin to realize how deep their sickness goes.