David Fincher has firmly established himself as a master of blending art and commerce. It’s especially impressive considering his output has been uniformly dark, moody and disturbing, with flashes of wit and satire thrown in. Let’s take a look back at all 11 of his films, ranked worst to best.
Born in 1962, Fincher cut his teeth at special effects house Industrial Light and Magic, working on such films as “Star Wars: The Return of the Jedi” (1983) and “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” (1984). He left to pursue a career in directing, making his mark with a commercial for the American Cancer Society that depicted a fetus smoking a cigarette. He co-founded Propaganda Films, a production house for music videos and commercials that employed future filmmakers Spike Jonze, Michael Bay, Antoine Fuqua, Alex Proyas, Mark Romanek, Zach Snyder and Gore Verbinski. Fincher himself helmed several famous music videos, including “Vogue,” “Express Yourself,” “Oh Father” and “Bad Girl” for Madonna.
His transition into filmmaking got off to a rocky start with “Alien 3” (1992), a critical failure that Roger Ebert described as “one of the best looking bad movies I’ve ever seen.” He quickly bounced back with the box office smash “Se7en” (1995), an unsettling film noir about a psychotic killer murdering victims in the style of the seven deadly sins. Its success allowed him to make even bigger and more ambitious projects, including “The Game” (1997), “Fight Club” (1999), “Panic Room” (2002) and “Zodiac” (2007).
He hit the Oscar jackpot for the first time with “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (2008), a romantic epic that employed revolutionary makeup and special effects to have Brad Pitt play a man aging backwards. The film snagged 13 nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director. Fincher also competed at the DGA, Golden Globes, BAFTA and Critics Choice.
His next film, the Facebook docudrama “The Social Network,” brought Fincher a second Best Director nomination at the Oscars and DGA, plus victories at the Golden Globes, BAFTA and Critics Choice. He earned a DGA bid for “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” (2011), followed by Golden Globe and Critics Choice noms for “Gone Girl” (2014). “Mank” (2020) brought him Best Director bids at the Oscars, DGA, Golden Globes and Critics Choice Awards.
Fincher has enjoyed success on the small screen as well, winning an Emmy for directing the pilot of “House of Cards” and returning to Netflix with the serial killer procedural “Mindhunter.” He’s continued to direct commercials and music videos, winning a DGA prize for a series of TV spots in 2004 plus Grammys for “The Rolling Stones: Love is Strong” in 1995 and “Justin Timberlake and Jay-Z: Suit & Tie” in 2014.
Tour our photo gallery above of Fincher’s films, and see if your favorite topped the list.
11. ALIEN 3 (1992)
Directed by David Fincher. Screenplay by David Giler, Walter Hill and Larry Ferguson, story by Vincent Ward, based on characters created by Dan O’Bannon and Ronal Shusett. Starring Sigourney Weaver, Charles S. Dutton, Charles Dance, Lance Henricksen, Brian Glover, Ralph Brown, Paul McGann, Pete Postlethwaite.
You don’t often hear Fincher bring up “Alien 3,” and for good reason. The 29-year-old music video maestro was brought onto the project after Vincent Ward left, and from the beginning, the first time filmmaker was undermined by the studio, which didn’t have a completed script before shooting started. He eventually left before final editing was finished, leaving the bad experience behind him. Yet is it really the disaster people chalk it up to be? While it’s far from perfect, the film — which finds Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) battling the malevolent alien on a remote prison planet — contains moments of visual and emotional splendor, hinting at the talent Fincher would show in his subsequent work.
10. THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO (2011)
Directed by David Fincher. Screenplay by Steven Zaillian, based on the novel by Stieg Larssson. Starring Daniel Craig, Rooney Mara, Christopher Plummer, Stellan Skarsgard, Steven Berkoff, Robin Wright, Yorick van Wageningen, Joely Richardson.
Originally planned as the first entry in a trilogy adapted from Stieg Larsson’s chilly bestsellers, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” turned out to be a one-off for Fincher and company (the less said about the Fincher-less reboot “The Girl in the Spider’s Web,” the better). So while it can feel a little incomplete, it’s still a compellingly dark, brutal mystery. Marketed as “the feel bad movie of Christmas,” it centers on a Swedish journalist (Daniel Craig) investigating the disappearance of a woman who went missing 40 years ago with the help of a tattooed computer hacker (Rooney Mara). The film earned five Oscar nominations including Best Actress for Mara. Fincher competed at the DGA, but was snubbed by the Academy.
9. THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON (2008)
Directed by David Fincher. Screenplay by Eric Roth, story by Roth and Robin Swicord, based on the short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Starring Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Taraji P. Henson, Julia Ormond, Jason Flemyng, Elias Koteas, Tilda Swinton, Mahershala Ali, Jared Harris.
Die-hard Fincher fans often dismiss “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” as his most obvious stab at Oscar bait. And yes, it did earn 13 nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director (plus three below-the-line wins), but it’s far from your typical Academy fare. It’s a sad, eccentric look at lost love and death, set on an epic scale with mind-blowing special effects and makeup. Brad Pitt stars as a man born with the infirmities of an 80-year-old who ages backwards. He meets the beautiful Daisy (Cate Blanchett), who will come in and out of his life in surprising ways. Covering nearly 100 years of history as seen through Benjamin’s eyes, this is a romance in the grand Hollywood tradition as only Fincher could imagine.
8. PANIC ROOM (2002)
Directed by David Fincher. Written by David Koepp. Starring Jodie Foster, Forest Whitaker, Dwight Yoakam, Jared Leto, Kristen Stewart.
Despite its relatively simple premise, “Panic Room” still managed to be one of the most expensive and complicated productions of Fincher’s career. Original star Nicole Kidman left after suffering an injury during filming, later replaced by Jodie Foster, who discovered she was pregnant. Yet you wouldn’t know it to watch the movie, which is a superbly entertaining, tightly constructed thriller. Foster stars as a divorced woman who moves with her daughter (Kristen Stewart) into a lavish new home complete with its own panic room. When three men (Forest Whitaker, Dwight Yoakam, Jared Leto) break in looking for a safe stuffed with cash, they lock themselves in and try to find a way out before it’s too late.
7. THE GAME (1997)
Directed by David Fincher. Written by John Brancato and Michael Ferris. Starring Michael Douglas, Sean Penn, James Rebhorn, Deborah Kara Unger, Peter Donat, Carroll Baker, Armin Mueller-Stahl.
With his followup to “Seven,” Fincher goes into full-on entertainment mode, crafting a riveting psychological thriller about the dangers of capitalism. “The Game” concerns an extremely wealthy banker (Michael Douglas) whose estranged younger brother (Sean Penn) gives him a very special gift for his birthday: the opportunity to participate in a mysterious game that turns out to be a physical and mental endurance test that could cost him dearly. As Douglas fights for his own survival, he learns a few valuable lessons about his own emotional aloofness. Filled with more twists and turns than a pretzel, this is a film noir masterpiece about the thread our lives hang on, skillfully and slickly directed by a master of the genre.
6. MANK (2020)
Directed by David Fincher. Written by Jack Fincher. Starring Gary Oldman, Amanda Seyfried, Lily Collins, Arliss Howard, Tom Pelphrey, Charles Dance.
Who’d have guessed that this Old Hollywood yarn would turn out to be one of Fincher’s most personal films to date? Written in the early 1990s by the director’s late father, journalist Jack Fincher, it’s a delightfully frisky behind-the-scenes look at how washed-up screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) mined the life of media tycoon William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) for his script to “Citizen Kane” (1941). Fincher and his ace crew have a lot of fun recreating the look of 1930s cinema (right now to celluloid grain and reel markers added to the digital black-and-white cinematography), but it’s the warmth shown towards its characters that’s really surprising. Oldman is at the top of his game as Mank, a man who has squandered his talents on booze and gambling and sees this assignment as his last shot at redemption. Amanda Seyfried steals every scene she’s in as Hearst’s sweetly tough-talking paramour Marion Davies, who becomes an unwitting casualty in the writer’s quest for legitimacy. “Mank” finds Fincher taking his talents in surprising new directions, crafting a mid-career masterpiece that certainly would’ve made his dad proud.
5. FIGHT CLUB (1999)
Directed by David Fincher. Screenplay by Jim Uhls, based on the novel by Chuck Palahniuk. Starring Brad Pitt, Edward Norton, Helena Bonham Carter, Meat Loaf Aday, Jared Leto.
Perhaps Fincher’s most divisive film, “Fight Club” has been praised as insightful satire and condemned as macho junk in equal measure. It’s a little of both, a satire of masculinity and consumerism, and how both are equally toxic to our society. Based on the novel by Chuck Palahniuk, it stars Edward Norton as a nameless office worker suffering from insomnia. As he searches for meaning in support groups, he eventually meets Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), a roguish soap salesman who forms an underground club for men to beat the crap out of each other. When a psychotic woman (Helena Bonham Carter) enters their orbit, it tears at their bromance, not to mention Durden’s sinister plans to fight back against the world.
4. GONE GIRL (2014)
Directed by David Fincher. Screenplay by Gillian Flynn, based on her novel. Starring Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Neil Patrick Harris, Tyler Perry, Carrie Coon, Kim Dickens, Patrick Fugit, Missi Pyle, Emily Ratajkowski.
A Hitchcockian thriller for modern times, “Gone Girl” might also be the most harrowing examination of marital woes since Ingmar Bergman’s “Scenes from a Marriage.” Adapted by Gillian Flynn from her own bestseller, it centers on Amy Dunne (Best Actress nominee Rosamund Pike), a Missouri housewife who suddenly goes missing, casting suspicion on her less-than-faithful husband, Nick (Ben Affleck). As all signs point to her spouse, he has to prove his innocence before it’s too late. Fincher keeps us guessing as to the character’s true motives, skillfully pulling the rug out from under us scene after scene. Though he competed at the Golden Globes and Critics Choice for Best Director, he was snubbed at the Academy.
3. THE SOCIAL NETWORK (2010)
Directed by David Fincher. Screenplay by Aaron Sorkin, based on the book ‘The Accidental Billionaires’ by Ben Mezrich. Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake, Armie Hammer, Max Minghella, Rashida Jones, John Getz, Douglas Urbanski, Rooney Mara.
With “The Social Network,” Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin create a spellbinding look at how the number one “friends” site was created by a man who was incapable of actually having any. Originally conceived as a way for dead-eyed college genius Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) to rate women, Facebook soon morphed into a multi-billion dollar company that destroyed his relationship with best pal Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield). Told “Rashomon” style with crackling dialogue and heedless energy, it’s a story of cold-blooded capitalism at its worst. An Oscar winner for its script, editing and score, it brought Fincher a Best Director nomination and victories at the Golden Globes, BAFTA and Critics Choice Awards.
2. ZODIAC (2007)
Directed by David Fincher. Written by James Vanderbilt, based on the books “Zodiac” and “Zodiac Unmasked” by Robert Graysmith. Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey, Jr., Anthony Edwards, Brian Cox, Elias Koteas, Donal Logue, John Carroll Lynch, Dermot Mulroney.
Like the murders on which it was based, “Zodiac” continues to perplex and disturb us. It’s one of those rare movies that’s about two different things at once, and is skillful at both. On the one hand, it’s a newspaper drama about a cartoonist (Jake Gyllenhaal) and a reporter (Robert Downey, Jr.) who become obsessed with the Zodiac Killer, an unidentified individual who terrorized Northern California with a killing spree in the late 1960s/early 1970s. On the other hand, it’s a police procedural about a San Francisco detective (Mark Ruffalo) tracking the killer down. Both stories coexist in perfect harmony with each other, making for a terrifying and riveting examination of one of the most unsettling unsolved mysteries in recent history.
1. SE7EN (1995)
Directed by David Fincher. Written by Andrew Kevin Walker. Starring Brad Pitt, Morgan Freeman, Kevin Spacey, Gwyneth Paltrow, R. Lee Ermey, Richard Roundtree, Richard Schiff, John C. McGinley.
With his second feature, Fincher firmly established the dark, sleek and moody cinematic style that would define him, creating one of the great modern film noirs. Its popular success is surprising given how unrelentingly bleak it is, yet that’s been the directors unique gift throughout his career. Set in a city constantly flooded by rain, it finds a veteran detective (Morgan Freeman) teaming up with a young novice (Brad Pitt) to catch a psychotic killer who murders his victims in the style of the seven deadly sins. Stylish and smart in equal measure, “Seven” keeps us on the edge of our seats with its disturbing twists and gloomy atmosphere, right up to the shocking finale. A superb mixture of art and commerce that proved Fincher was more than just an MTV director.