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Ranking the Greats: The Films of David Fincher

With his latest film arriving October 3rd, it's time to put David Fincher and his efforts alongside the other cinematic greats to see where he stacks up, aesthetically speaking.

He was born in Denver, Colorado. Inspired by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), he started making 8mm movies. He worked for George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic, serving time on such celebrated movies as Return of the Jedi (1983) and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), before moving to Propaganda Films to make commercials and music videos.

During his stint as an MTV favorite, he collaborated with Rick Springfield, the Motels, Loverboy, Sting, Paula Abdul, Madonna, Aerosmith, Nine Inch Nails, and the Rolling Stones. He won two Grammys in the process, becoming a noted name in the fledgling artform. When Hollywood came calling, it was with the third installment of an incredibly successful sci-fi horror series. When David Fincher was done with it, the Alien property would never be the same.

Now, with his tenth film in 22 years (he’s as bad as David Lynch and Terry Gilliam when it comes to output), Gone Girl (2014) coming to theaters, we thought it was time to install the director among his auteur brethren and rank his efforts, from worst (not that there is really a bad David Fincher film) to first (an easy choice, at least in our book).

Using a de-saturated palette and an attention to detail that reminds one of past greats like Kubrick and Hitchcock, Fincher has created some of the most amazing post-modern movies of all time. He’s also left a trail of tantalizingly unrealized projects (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Torso, Rendezvous with Rama) that would make the average cinephile weep over “What if?” After looking over this list, it’s clear that anything he touches usually winds up wonderful.

 
10. Alien3
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We will, perhaps, never see what drew Fincher to make this his first feature film. The troubled third entry in franchise was fraught with script problems from the beginning. Then the studio stepped in, unhappy with what it was seeing from its novice director. Even with home video trying, unsuccessfull, to resurrect at least some of Fincher’s vision, this is one of only a couple of films in his creative canon that the auteur more or less disowns. Which is too bad since, all problems aside, the entire prison planet concept provides an interesting setting for the story.

 
9. The Game
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Fincher has recently come out against this film as well, except this time, his displeasure has more to do with his wife’s reaction to the final product than its ultimate success or failure as a thriller. The story of a rich man caught up in a live action “experiment”, it was his next effort after the amazing response to Se7en, and while many fans of the filmmaker adore it (Criterion even deemed it worthy of a splashy release), the man behind the lens sees several flaws. “I thought if you could just keep your foot on the throttle it would be liberating and funny,” he said. Apparently not.

 
8. Panic Room
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Alfred Hitchcock was known as the Master of Suspense. He was also a meticulous filmmaker who spent untold hours in preproduction to make sure what ended up on the screen accurately reflected the version of the project he had in his head. So it makes sense that Fincher’s own nod to one of the greatest directors of all time would have many of his obvious aesthetic earmarks. A brilliantly executed thriller with Jodie Foster protecting daughter Kristen Stewart from a gang of home invading robbers, it’s one of the best examples of the post-modern nailbiters ever made. Hitch would be proud.

 
7. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
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For many, this weird adaptation of an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story is one of Fincher’s most puzzling. Usually a maestro of the dark and disturbing, there ‘s a lot of heart and a sense of home here. Brad Pitt is the title character, a man born old and ages into youth. It doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it does allow its maker to experiment with time, place, and mood. While not 100 percent successful in the end, it’s hard to argue with what Fincher does. It’s one of his best, most confident directing jobs overall.

 
6. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
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After Noomi Rapace and Niels Arden Oplev burst onto the international movie scene with their adaptation of the late Stieg Larson’s celebrated novel, film fans had only one reaction: no one in Hollywood could handle this material (for the inevitable remake) better than Fincher. Well, he got the job, got the actress he wanted, and delivered his usual dark and foreboding brilliance. Sadly, even though it arrived two years after the original, there seemed to be little interest in his otherwise amazing take on the material. The opening credits alone showcase that no one understands the subtexts here better than Fincher.

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5. Gone Girl
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It’s the perfect premise for Fincher. A husband (Ben Affleck) comes home to discover that his wife (Rosamund Pike) has gone missing. Even worse, there are signs of a struggle, and almost instantaneously, the police begin to suspect him. Naturally, there are secrets and lies in abundance, as well as Fincher’s famed disdain for the media-frenzy limelight that grows around such suburban shockers. This is another expertly executed thriller which manages to avoid many of the pulpier elements of Gillian Flynn’s bestselling novel without destroying it’s puzzle box reveals. It’s also further proof that no one deserves a blank checkbook approach to his output more than the often undermined Fincher.

 
4. The Social Network
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The story of Facebook, scripted by Aaron Sorkin, this was finally supposed to be Fincher’s ticket to mainstream success and Academy Award winning respect. Then, for some inexplicable reason, Tom Hooper and The King’s Speech stepped in and staged a creative coup. Naturally, the Oscar awarding blue hairs sided with the late George VI, and not with the man who turned the tale of a pissed off nerd with a computer chip on his shoulder into a billion dollar business. This is a dangerous film, especially from the standpoint of storytelling. Once Fincher and Sorkin get you, you can’t turn away. You have to ride it out to the end.

 
3. Zodiac
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This is another perfect vehicle for Fincher, another brilliantly realized (and overlooked) gem. The still unsolved case of the San Francisco based serial killer from the ’70s gave the filmmaker a chance to do something really clever: the post-modern period piece. By highlighting the technological limits of both journalism and the police procedural in the midst of the Me Decade, he created a kind of crime sci-fi, leaving viewers to wonder how any cases were solved during such a backward era. He also focused on the individuals involved, allowing actors like a pre-Iron Man Robert Downey Jr. and Jake Gyllenhaal a chance to shine.

 
2. Fight Club
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Leave it to Fincher to find the main male-driven message in Chuck Palahniuk’s major league mindf*ck of a novel. Our narrator, a nobody feeb played expertly by Edward Norton, discovers a special “friend” in polar opposite Tyler Durden (Fincher fave Brad Pitt) and together they explore the emasculation of the modern man with all the psychological subtlety of a bare knuckles street fight. Indeed, violence is the answer, both politically and personally, but Fincher also finds the inherent sadness in the state of humanity in his brilliant, bifurcated deconstruction. One of the truly great American movies of the last decade. Or all time, perhaps.

 
1. Se7en
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Do you want to see a perfect, pristine example of why Fincher is a true artist? Want to watch a flawlessly directed film where not a single shot is wasted, where we are witness to a major talent working without a net (and without interference from a scared studio) and delivering a modern masterpiece? This is it. After the disappointment, Fincher poured everything he had into this tale of two cops (Morgan Freeman, Brad Pitt) trailing a serial killer (Kevin Spacey) who uses the Bible’s deadly sins as his guide. Gruesome, dark, and bleak, Se7en set the benchmark for all crime films to come.

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Splash image: Brad Pitt as Mills in Se7en (1995)

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