Director David Fincher has been behind some of the best films of the last twenty years, including Fight Club, Se7en, and Gone Girl. After getting noticed for directing some popular music videos, the first feature film he directed was Alien 3 in 1992. The film had a troubled development rampant with studio interference. Lately, Fincher has collaborated with Netflix, where he produced multiple series such as House of Cards, Mindhunter, Love, Death & Robots, and Voir.
Since 1992, David Fincher has had an incredible run of making films that are often varying in quality but never venturing into the territory of ‘bad’. Most recently he directed Mank for Netflix with The Killer set to release soon. So to look back at his storied career, here is a list of the best films that were directed by David Fincher.
10. Panic Room
Panic Room was released in 2002, written by David Koepp, and starred Jodie Foster as Meg Altman and Kristen Stewart as her daughter Sarah. Forest Whitaker, Jared Leto, and Dwight Yoakam play thieves who attempt to break into a brownstone that Altman has recently purchased. After she wakes up and is alerted to the thieves, she takes her daughter and hides in their newly acquired panic room.
While many of Fincher’s psychological thrillers succeed with their premises, Panic Room misses the mark. It seems obvious in retrospect that the film may have been better if it had focused on the mother and daughter staying in the panic room. But with characters going in and out of the panic room throughout the film, the room loses its mystique, and the film loses steam. Even though Fincher manages to sustain some tension in this thriller, Panic Room sits at the bottom of this list.
9. The Game
David Fincher directed the 1997 film The Game, which was written by John Brancato and Michael Ferris. The Game starred Michael Douglas as Nicholas van Orton, an investment banker who lives practically in isolation as he is divorced and not close to his family. On his 48th birthday his brother Conrad, played brilliantly by Sean Penn, gives him a voucher for a game. The game’s rules and its players are a mystery to Nicholas, therefore he is constantly on edge as to whether or not the dangerous situations he finds himself in are real.
The first hour or so of The Game is intense, and like some of Fincher’s other films, it makes you question what is going to happen next. Sean Penn’s performance is a standout, with Michael Douglas expertly convincing the audience that he is losing his grip on reality. Unfortunately, the film falls apart in the third act by dragging the mystery on a little too far. Ultimately the ending is exactly what the film had been telegraphing from the beginning, which is quite unsatisfying and lands the film at number nine.
Mank was the first film David Fincher made for Netflix and it was released in 2020. The film was written by Fincher’s late father, Jack Fincher. Mank was the story of Herman J. Mankiewicz, the screenwriter behind Citizen Kane. Mankiewicz — Mank to his friends — was played by Gary Oldman, while Charles Dance played William Randolph Hearst, the inspiration behind Citizen Kane. The film, like Citizen Kane, is non-linear and it was shot in black and white as a period piece.
Unfortunately, while the story and performances of Mank are great, the film is brought down by the feeling that something isn’t quite right. It rarely feels like we’re watching a period piece because performances venture into parody territory and they can feel quite phony. The black and white palette — while warranted — never looks particularly good either. But the film is still an entertaining watch, portraying old Hollywood through a unique lens, and that’s why Mank sits at number eight.
7. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Easily Fincher’s weirdest film, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button was released in 2008. The film was based on the Scott F. Fitzgerald short story of the same name and the screenplay was written by Eric Roth. Brad Pitt played the role of Benjamin Button with Cate Blanchett playing Daisy Fuller, his soulmate, and Taraji P. Henson as Queenie, his adoptive mother. The film is a love story at heart, while posing philosophical questions about age. From birth, Benjamin has a peculiar condition where he isn’t a baby but an old man. The film follows the journey he takes as he ages in reverse and encounters various people who would change his life.
While the performances are fantastic, the film never manages to completely land what it is attempting to do. Part of the problem is the framing of the somber image of an aging Daisy in the hospital, and part of it is the framing of the clock running backward. The film constantly brushes up against the line between realism and fantasy, which the film never reconciles. The pacing is also a little rough with some parts of the story dragging, but The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is still entertaining enough to be our seventh pick.
6. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
The 2011 psychological thriller, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is the sixth-best film on this list. The film was based on the novel by Steig Larsson and the screenplay was written by Steven Zaillian. It tells the interweaving story of Mikael Blomkvist, a disgraced journalist played by Daniel Craig, and Lisbeth Salander, a hacker and investigator loaded with trauma, played by Rooney Mara.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo might be the best example of a mainstream action/thriller with the sensibilities of a David Fincher film. Most of the movie is pretty straightforward, you have Blomkvist trying to solve the case of a wealthy man’s decades-missing grandniece. But thrown right into the middle of that same plot is Lisbeth’s story, and we have a juxtaposition of his mystery with her tattooing “I’m a rapist pig” on the chest of an abusive rapist. As usual, Fincher captures great performances by everyone in the film, but the two tones in the movie do not quite manage to merge, with a slow first act and a brilliant last half, keeping this film at number six.
Se7en is easily David Fincher’s darkest film; a noir psychological thriller. Starring Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman as Detective Mills and Detective Somerset respectively, Se7en was released in 1995 with a screenplay written by Andrew Kevin Walker. Mills is a rookie detective who works with the almost retired Somerset as they attempt to track down a serial killer who is committing murders themed after the seven deadly sins.
Kevin Spacey played John Doe the serial killer. In hindsight, it might be easy to see why the disgraced actor’s performance was so chilling but he does manage to inhibit a man devoid of true emotion well. The film is well-structured with few pacing issues throughout. Nonetheless, Pitt and Freeman both give career-high performances and the climax of the film remains one of the best endings of all time. Even though Se7en is brilliant, it only sits at number five on this list which is a great example of just how good Fincher’s films are.
4. Gone Girl
Gone Girl might be Fincher’s most unassuming film on the surface, and perhaps his most mainstream. The 2014 film starred Ben Affleck as Nick Dunne and Rosamund Pike as his wife Amy Dunne. After Amy goes missing on their wedding anniversary, Nick is targeted as the main suspect by the police as a series of clues lead back to him. This film was Fincher’s highest-grossing, with a screenplay written by the writer of the novel of the same name, Gillian Flynn.
The turn the film takes is masterfully done, as the first half of the film is a slow burn where the audience is left questioning whether or not Nick killed his wife. The second half of the film twists the knife as you find out that Amy had orchestrated her own disappearance, intentionally leading the police to go after her husband after being dissatisfied with her marriage and finding out that he had an affair. The real genius of the film is that Fincher makes sure none of the characters are likable or at least on the same level of likability. If you choose to side with one character over the other it’s based on morality and not charisma. Gone Girl is number four because it could have been simple, but its complexity keeps the film fresh in our minds.
3. The Social Network
Taking the number three spot on this list is 2010’s The Social Network. The screenplay was based on the book The Accidental Billionaires by Ben Mezrich, and it was adapted by Aaron Sorkin. The film told the story of the founding of Facebook while framed by lawsuits against Mark Zuckerburg, played brilliantly by Jesse Eisenberg. Andrew Garfield also gives a career highlight performance as Eduardo Saverin, and Justin Timberlake plays Napster founder Sean Parker.
While The Social Network is unlike any of Fincher’s psychological thrillers, Fincher manages to emulate the same type of dread and tension felt in those films. By expertly creating increasing tension between the friends, Zuckerberg and Saverin, Fincher lands the movie on an explosive conclusion. The film also manages to remain somewhat impartial in the story of Facebook, giving us plenty of moments to both empathize with and loathe the parties involved.
2. Fight Club
Probably the most recognizable David Fincher film, Fight Club was released in 1999. The screenplay was written by Jim Uhls and adapted from the novel by Chuck Palahniuk. Fight Club followed the narrator, played by Edward Norton, as his insomnia led him to meet soap maker and anarchist Tyler Durden, played by Brad Pitt. Throughout the film, things get progressively worse for the narrator as he loses his home and moves in with Durden. The pair start a fight club in the basement of a bar, which eventually evolves into a full-blown anarchist terrorist organization whose members are large in number and scattered among ordinary people.
Of course, the gigantic twist in Fight Club is a large part of why the film is so great, revealing that Tyler and the protagonist are the same person is one of cinema’s all-time greatest twists. But Fincher’s build-up to that reveal is why the film takes the second spot on this list. Cutting frames with images while telegraphing to the audience that it’s exactly what you’re going to do and putting Brad Pitt into scenes before he is even introduced makes sure that the film stands firm upon a rewatch. Add to that the frequency of coffee cups in scenes, and you’ve got a film filled with tension and paranoia, as you wonder which parts of the story were actually real.
Taking the number one spot on this list is Zodiac, a film that was released in 2007 and written by James Vanderbilt. Zodiac was based on the book by Robert Graysmith, who is played by Jake Gyllenhall in the film. The film is a mystery thriller telling the story of the infamous Zodiac murders in California in the late 1960s. The film is perfectly cast, from Jake Gyllenhall to Robert Downey Jr. who plays reporter Paul Avery, as well as Mark Ruffalo and Anthony Edwards who play the two investigators working the case, and the several character actors who play smaller roles.
Zodiac is nearly perfect. The film is based on an unsolved crime, mind you. And Fincher manages to convey the stress and anxiety of a time in Northern California’s history when its citizens were experiencing the terror of feeling hunted and the police were desperate to be able to deliver some hopeful news, while failing and being taunted by a sociopath. With its stellar soundtrack and gripping story, Zodiac remains one of the most watchable mystery thrillers of all time and Fincher’s best film so far.
After going through this list we can all agree that Fincher’s work consists of very few misses if any. Hopefully, some of his future work, such as The Killer, will take a spot on this list in the future, as we could all use some more great David Fincher films to engross and entertain us.