This may be a lofty thing to say, but if any director working today is the most like Stanley Kubrick, I would say it’s David Fincher. I don’t necessarily mean his sensibilities, but few filmmakers are as famously fastidious (to a fault) as Fincher. He is known for doing dozens and dozens of takes and getting every shot, every performance, every frame of his movies just perfect. This, as some have argued, make the movies of both Fincher and Kubrick sterile and cold, but in neither case do I think that’s a detriment. Especially, in Fincher’s case, if the subject matter is often highly disturbing.
Below are my seven (or should I say Se7en) favorite films by David Fincher. As always, your mileage may vary.
7) The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)
Even though this is based on the first part of the popular Stieg Larsson’s book trilogy, I like to call this the third part of a thematic Fincher trilogy about murder investigations by highly flawed characters. Certain parts of this movie aren’t necessarily the best, including Daniel Craig’s complete lack of Swedish accent despite everyone else doing one, and that the plot holes from the novel and Swedish film adaptation weren’t fixed at all. That being said, Fincher’s able to make the film and its cadre of messed-up characters very compelling and the mystery at hand engaging. And, yeah, those scenes that you’d think would be hard to watch are especially hard to watch. That’s why the teaser trailer proudly proclaimed it the “feel bad” film of the season.
6) The Game (1997)
This movie often gets overlooked because of where it sits in Fincher’s early canon, but I think it’s tops. There’s nothing quite like a very well-plotted and tense thriller, and Fincher is terrific at choosing stories and scripts that allow him to ramp up this tension. And the conspiracy thriller has kind of gone away in recent memory, so it’s nice to return to a story where you’re truly not sure which direction things are going to go. Is Michael Douglas part of a game? Is the game is own death? Is this something totally separate? It takes a very sure-footed director to properly make their characters and audience so unsure of where they are.
5) Gone Girl (2014)
I know this wasn’t everybody’s cup of tea, but I really thought Fincher’s version of the Gillian Flynn novel was exactly the right mixture of mystery, drama, and dark comedy. The trailer didn’t really let on just how twisted and funny the movie actually was, and I’m still not sure if that was a good or a bad thing. Fincher shoots it like he would any of his thrillers, but, like The Game, nothing is as it seems and neither of the main characters is truly trustworthy. It eventually becomes a cat and mouse game between this formerly-happy married couple and that’s when stuff really starts coming off the rails. Ben Affleck was actually the perfect casting choice for that character because only he can play both sympathetic and douchey at the same time.
4) The Social Network (2010)
It’s a real testament to Fincher as a director that I like this movie as much as I do. It’s a movie about Facebook, firstly, and I didn’t think anything could be interesting about Facebook. And second, it was written by Aaron Sorkin whose writing, and I know this is blasphemy, I find totally insufferable. But, despite all that, this movie comes across a bit like Citizen Kane, a man becoming too big for his friends and burning bridges along the way. As great as Jesse Eisenberg is, the real star of the movie is Andrew Garfield who totally gets the shaft from Mark Zuckerberg. Fincher even went as far as to cast Armie Hammer as both Winklevoss twins, making the movie more complicated than it had to be. That’s the Fincher way, though, and the result is definitely more than the sum of its parts.
3) Fight Club (1999)
I was a freshman in high school when Fight Club came out but I didn’t see it until I was a sophomore in college. Somehow, I was completely unspoiled about it when I finally did watch it and, of course, it blew my sparking little mind. I thank my friends for showing it to me without giving away the twist, because that’s really one of the better ones in recent films. In fact…sidebar: how come nobody talks about Fincher being known for twist movies? Alien 3 aside, the first three David Fincher movies have huge twist-based third acts. Interesting. Anyway, Fight Club is more than just the twist, and Fincher does a great job to be as visually disjointed as the Narrator’s mind. The music by the Dust Brothers also does an amazing job of punctuating the strangeness, as we go from a quirky dark comedy about dependency and self-help into a very bleak look at a near-apocalyptic train of insanity.
2) Se7en (1995)
The top two could almost be tied for first, so by me placing Se7en here by no means is me saying it’s anything less than brilliant. I think Andrew Kevin Walker’s screenplay is basically perfect, and the fact that it didn’t get an Oscar nomination is akin to a criminal offense. Fincher creates a moody, grimy neo-noir that follows two very different police officers as they deal with a truly insane person doling out punishment to breakers of the seven deadly sins. This is often considered a horror movie, but it’s really just a dark police procedural, not too dissimilar to something like Criminal Minds today. That doesn’t make the end result any less devastating, nor does it take away from the air of doom that permeates the movie for the final third. When Somerset looks into the box and says “Joe Doe has the upper hand,” it’s about as big a gut-punch as anything I’ve ever seen. Thinking about it now still makes my heart race.
1) Zodiac (2007)
And we come to my favorite/co-favorite David Fincher movie. This is one that I didn’t expect to like as much as I did when I saw it in February of 2007, a spot in the release schedule traditionally reserved for dumping movies that didn’t turn out right. 2007 was a wonderful movie year, and if Zodiac had been released at the end of the year, I feel like we’d be talking about it alongside There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men. This is the second of Fincher’s policiers and it’s got a wonderful mixture of mystery, horror, historical drama, and confusion. Fincher does amazing things like never having “the Zodiac,” as relayed by the survivors of his attacks, played by the same person, and none of them are the same actors who play the suspects later on. Because we truly don’t know who the Zodiac is/was. While the movie does eventually give us a probable suspect, thanks to Robert Graysmith’s memoirs being the basis for the plot, even that has proven to be likely incorrect or at least uncorroborated. Mark Ruffalo and Anthony Edwards make a perfect pair of detectives looking for the truth, and Jake Gyllenhaal and Robert Downey Jr are equally terrific as the journalists at the center of things. It’s a long movie, but the director’s cut is even better. And Fincher’s use of technology in the movie (like a completely green-screened exterior) is so subtle and imperceptible that you are sure he just shot it outside. But, as I said at the beginning, this is a man who wants to control every frame, and he can do it best when he’s telling a story about people completely without control.
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