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No one can deliver us a deliciously watchable psycho quite like David Fincher. The 61-year-old director (where did the time go?) is behind a literal murderers' row of sickos: Amy Dunne, the Zodiac Killer, Xenomorphs, and of course, Tyler Durden. There's Mark Zuckerberg, too, but without the homicidal tendencies.
Following his excellent 2020 historical drama, Mank, Fincher has returned to his psychological-thriller roots. The Killer, which is now streaming on Netflix, stars Michael Fassbender as... wait for it... The Killer. He's an unblinking, go-it-alone assassin who works for an agency we never quite understand. We won't spoil it for you, but when an early hit doesn't go as planned, globe-trotting antics ensue. It's one of the sweatiest movies in Fincher's canon, which is saying a lot, but if you look a little bit closer, it's also one of his most nuanced films.
To celebrate Fincher's latest Netflix foray—we'll never stop missing you, Mindhunter—we've ranked every one of Fincher's films. As Durden himself once said, let the chips fall where they may.
12. Alien 3 (1992)
Thanks to his eye-candy sense of style and sinister wit, Fincher’s music videos helped to elevate the medium from promotional hackwork to high art. His bite-size movies often went viral (long before viral was a thing). Naturally, it didn’t take long for the major studios to come calling. However, the young director’s first feature-length assignment was doomed before he even stepped foot on the set thanks to constant script revisions and studio indecision. In this gloomy third installment in the face-hugger franchise, Fincher battled for control with Twentieth Century Fox and it shows. Despite the returning presence of Sigourney Weaver as Ripley, this bleak, dystopian chase flick about grimy monks on a penal colony planet overrun with H.R. Giger beasties is, well, a mess—albeit a pretty awesome-looking one. Following Ridley Scott’s original and James Cameron’s follow-up, audiences and critics (and Fincher himself) couldn’t help but be disappointed. There’s only one whiff on Fincher’s resume and you’re looking at it, folks.
11. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)
One person’s three-hankie heartwarmer is another’s person’s Gumpian sap-fest. Loosely inspired by an F. Scott Fitzgerald story about a man who ages in reverse, Benjamin Button reunited Fincher with his Fight Club muse, Brad Pitt. And he is excellent. As are the extraordinarily impressive aging and de-aging effects, which only occasionally stumble into the uncanny valley of creepiness. But Eric Roth’s melodramatic script works your tear ducts with the subtlety of a crow bar. The result is a film that’s easy to admire on a technical level and hard to resist on an emotional one (even if you may hate yourself in the morning for being suckered by its schmaltz). Fincher has always worked best when he balances visual wizardry with story equally. But here, his eye-candy tips the balance too far.
10. Panic Room (2002)
Another exercise in style (are you sensing a theme for the lower half of this list yet?), Panic Room is a master class in claustrophobia. The stripped-down screenplay from Jurassic Park’s David Koepp pits a mother (Jodie Foster) and her daughter (a young Kristen Stewart) against three home invaders who are stymied when their victims lock themselves in the high-tech panic room of their Manhattan brownstone. There isn’t really enough narrative meat on the bone here to justify a full-length movie (it would have made a killer Twilight Zone episode), but Fincher manages to make what little he has to work with feel like a white-knuckle workout worthy of Hitchcock.
9. Mank (2020)
Written by Fincher’s late father, this Netflix-bankrolled black-and-white biopic about the brilliantly soused screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz chronicles the pre-production creation of Orson Welles’ masterpiece, Citizen Kane. Picking up where Pauline Kael’s infamous take-down of Welles (Raising Kane) left off, Fincher sets out to give the unsung Mankiewicz his due. As the alcoholic bon vivant, Gary Oldman gives a nicely layered performance mixing flashes of brilliance and longueurs of self-immolating regret. Amanda Seyfried soars as publishing magnate (and real-life Kane inspiration) William Randolph Hearst’s lover, Marion Davies. And even if the film is a bit of an echo chamber targeted more at film buffs and cineastes than your average Joe Q. Popcorn, it’s nonetheless a gorgeous and tragic tribute to a Hollywood that’s long passed into the yellowing pages of history.
8. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011)
Considered a bit box-office let-down when it first came out—especially since its studio had bullish hopes of turning Stieg Larsson’s bestsellers into a lucrative movie trilogy—The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo has aged better than expected. This was Fincher’s third foray into the serial-killer mires and he fills the whodunit with assured control and twists. Daniel Craig is terrifically understated as a disgraced reporter who’s hired by a wealthy Scandinavian family to get to the bottom of the mysterious disappearance of one of their own four decades earlier. And as his punk-hacker partner in sleuthing, Rooney Mara is absolutely astonishing—toggling between unflinching force and vulnerability. (Christopher Plummer as the wealthy clan’s chilly paterfamilias is also extraordinary) Like Fincher’s slightly better Zodiac, Dragon Tattoo is a film about justice. Not just for the victims, but for the tireless seekers of truth as well.
7. The Game (1997)
A delirious puzzle-box thriller that feels like a ‘90s riff on The Parallax View, The Game is one of those conspiracy thrillers that delights in constantly keeping the audience on its hind legs, off balance and unsure what lays around the next corner. A lizardy Michael Douglas is tailor-made for the part of a shallow businessman whose ne’er-do-well brother (Sean Penn, also spot-on) gifts him with a mysterious present that will put him through his paces on a series of wiggy, paranoia-inducing challenges that feel like more than a game. Is it totally far-fetched? Sure. But if you’re willing to let go and put yourself in the hands of maestro like Fincher, it’s also a total blast. And the ending is pure giddy, WTF lunacy.
6. The Killer (2023)
Want to know exactly how creepy, broken, and lethal Michael Fassbender is in The Killer? He never blinks. Never blinks! But that's just one small tell as to why the pairing of Fincher and Fassbender vaults The Killer to the top half of the director's filmography. Fincher has always had a knack for making a Travis-Bicklesian descent a can't-look-away event, but Fassbender's titular assassin—who is literally credited as "The Killer"—is one of his most compelling psychos yet.
Over a breathless two hours, Fincher paints a portrait of a by-the-books hitman, who—you guessed it!—actually kind of likes this whole murder thing. His arc is slow, painful, deeply nuanced, and sickly thrilling. Add the best fight scene of the year and The Killer may very well be the most downright entertaining film Fincher has ever made.
5. Fight Club (1999)
Twenty-two years after its divisive release, Fight Club has aged…problematically. Adapted from Chuck Palahniuk’s bruise-black novel, it’s hard to tell if this mad-as-hell movie is a last stand for toxic masculinity or a treatise against it. But coming as it did in a year where all of the old Hollywood rules seemed to be getting tossed out the window, it’s also an important film regardless of which way you view it. A millennial statement whose thesis is still open to interpretation—which is always an interesting place to view a film from. Edward Norton is the epitome yuppie-consumerist male impotence who finds power and purpose in an underground demimonde of likeminded guys beating the snot out of one another to feel something…anything. And as his tour guide through that underworld, Brad Pitt oozes ripped-abs, alpha-male charisma. The final third of the film is the ultimate mindbender, a ballsy payoff that works brilliantly even though it probably shouldn’t.
4. Seven (1995)
Coming off of the soul-crushing disappointment of his experience on Alien 3, Fincher bounced back with this stygian wallow into the diseased mind of a serial killer whose M.O. follows the Seven Deadly Sins (pride, greed, wrath, envy, lust, gluttony, and sloth). As the two detectives following the psycho’s trail, Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman have a lived-in give-and-take that leavens the film’s gorier tableaus with the comfortingly familiar formula of a police procedural. And Gwyneth Paltrow gives the story some much needed counterweight as Pitt’s lonely wife. For a film that’s full of Grand Guignol crime scenes, mainstream audiences surprisingly lined up to be taken on Fincher’s dark funhouse ride—a ride that climaxes with one of the all-time great final-scene sucker punches. What’s in the box?…What’s in the box!?
3. Gone Girl (2014)
Adapted from Gillian Flynn’s addictive beach-read sensation, Fincher’s Gone Girl could have easily been a massive disappointment. After all, anyone who read Flynn’s master class in female-fronted suspense already had their own fixed ideas about what the characters and storyline should look like in their own heads. But Fincher throws caution to the wind and admirably follows his own inner vision. It helps that Rosamund Pike is icy perfection as the “heroine,” displaying a range and spark she hadn’t mustered before this. And Ben Affleck as the husband suspected of her murder couldn’t feel more right with his put-upon, jackass grin. Fincher doles out Flynn’s fractured, he-said/she-said narrative like a miser—and a master, leaving us hanging on every next twist even though we already know the road map. Movie adaptations are rarely as good as the books they’re based on. But here’s one that is, or at least comes out as a draw.
2. Zodiac (2007)
Zodiac is a film that feels deeply personal. And that’s probably because on some level it is. Fincher grew up in the Bay Area in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, when a serial killer nicknamed the Zodiac tormented the region. The case seeped into his marrow at an impressionable age. But that’s not the only reason why Zodiac feels like a movie only Fincher could make. You see, this is a movie about obsession—and few filmmakers are as obsessive as Fincher is. Robert Downey Jr., Jake Gyllenhaal, and Mark Ruffalo are all tremendous as the trio of newspaper reporters sniffing out the murderer’s identity long after the case has gone cold. Not since All the President’s Men has a film turned laborious shoe-leather sleuthing into such a tension-filled thriller. This is a movie about details, about process, about dead ends. And only an artist of Fincher’s virtuoso skill could turn it into a nailbiter.
1. The Social Network (2010)
This one gets my vote as the greatest movie of its decade. And to be honest, no one was surprised more than me by that pick since a little of its screenwriter, Aaron Sorkin, usually goes a long way for me. But Fincher’s warts-and-warts portrait of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is not only a straight-up masterpiece, it’s also a remarkably perceptive reading of the era we live in, for better or worse, a decade later. I’m not usually a fan of Jesse Eisenberg’s particular brand of jittery, motormouthed geekitude. But he’s never been better cast than he is as this brilliant-but-lonely misfit whose ambition and arrogance managed to connect the world and lose his soul in the process. The final scene, in which Zuckerberg, more on his own island than ever, keeps hitting refresh on his laptop to see if he has any friends is the perfect capper to both his story and our desperate-to-be-liked age. It’s a masterpiece.
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