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Every David Fincher movie ranked worst to best

Since the dawn of the music video age back in the mid-'80s, the talents behind the cameras of those stylish shorts have sought to turn their skills toward the broader canvases of feature-length films. With a handful of notable exceptions, most of those video directors have not been successful in that endeavor. One of the legitimate exceptions is David Fincher, who began is ascent to auteurism in the mid-'80s bringing a notable visual flair to vids for pop staples like Rick Springfield, The Outfield, and The Motels.

As the decade raged to a close, Fincher found himself furthering his visual aesthetic with groundbreaking videos for '80s/'90s kingpins like Madonna, Aerosmith, Billy Idol, and George Michael. Fincher's work on The Rolling Stones' "Love Is Strong" video earned the director a Grammy Award. A decade later, he'd earn a second for directing Justin Timberlake's "Suit & Tie." The years in between have seen Fincher become one of the most respected feature filmmakers in the world. He achieved that status on the strength of a genre-jumping oeuvre that's as impressive as it is eclectic. Here's our official ranking of every David Fincher movie to date, from worst to best.

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The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

To fully understand David Fincher's visual style, it's important to note his first official gig in showbiz was with Industrial Light & Magic, the special effects powerhouse founded by George Lucas when he began production on a little film called Star Wars. No, Fincher did not work on Star Wars, but he did contribute to 1983's Return of the Jedi and 1984's Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

As those famed films seamlessly blend special effects and practical photography, it should come as no surprise that Fincher has often taken a similar approach to effects and narrative. Though he typically works on a smaller scale than Lucas or Spielberg, the director's sweeping 2008 drama The Curious Case of Benjamin Button found him swinging for the fences on both fronts.

To say that Fincher's Benjamin Button is far from a home run would be an understatement. Though it should be noted that the film's technical achievements are often nothing short of miraculous, they're just as often ridiculous and frequently prove a glaring distraction throughout the film's bloated 166-minute runtime. Making matters worse is a screenplay from Forrest Gump scribe Eric Roth that takes a genuinely intriguing setup (via F. Scott Fitzgerald's short story) and Gumps it into something Gumpier than Gump. And no amount of unabashed romanticism, or Oscar nominations, or award-winning effects, or yeoman's work from Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett could make the boorish absurdity within palatable.

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ALIEN³

First films are often a difficult experience for a director, and even a visionary like David Fincher was not immune to the "first time flop" syndrome in Hollywood. By now, much has been said of Fincher's maligned entry into the Alien franchise. So much, in fact, that we're going to try and avoid getting too deep into all the behind the scenes mayhem and creative clashes that ultimately led to Fincher infamously quipping of ALIEN³, "No one hated it more than I did." 

While Fincher is hardly the first filmmaker to disown his own project, few directors have done so with quite as much certitude. Given his reputation as a stodgy perfectionist, it's no surprise Fincher has issues with ALIEN³, particularly given the level of creative interference lobbed his way during production. It's worth noting that Fincher was not the first choice to direct it, only landing the gig after several higher-profile filmmakers exited the project. It's also worth noting that ALIEN³ is far from the career-killing disaster many painted the film upon release. 

Don't worry, we aren't going to try to convince you that ALIEN³ is the unheralded masterpiece in Fincher's oeuvre. It isn't. But aside from the film's muddled narrative and over-reliance on schlocky jump scares, Fincher works enough of his vision into ALIEN³  — via the film's stark visual palette and dazzling special effects — to keep the film interesting, which at the very least pointed the way toward the genius to follow.

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Panic Room

Though David Fincher stumbled mightily out of the gate with the wildly uneven ALIEN³, he quickly righted the ship, delivering three legit '90s classics in its wake via Se7en, The Game, and Fight Club. When Fincher selected Panic Room as his first project of the new millennium, expectations were high. That the film was based on a screenplay by lauded genre scribe David Keopp, and would feature Jodie Foster, Forest Whitaker, and Jared Leto (not to mention an up-and-comer named Kristen Stewart) only added to the excitement.

As is often the case, such lofty expectation are all but impossible to live up to. While Panic Room did prove itself a hit at the box office, it also proved a surprisingly underwhelming cinematic experience in the context of Fincher's electrifying canon, never quite delivering on the promise of Koepp's tightly wound narrative or the film's menacingly claustrophobic single-location setup.

Even if it misses the mark on narrative payoff, Fincher's cinematic wizardry is on full display throughout Panic Room, with the director showing off his visual panache by working his camera in and out of every nook, cranny, and crevice imaginable by way of groundbreaking visual/editing effects. He also pulls solid performances from his cast, taking obvious pleasure in knocking off his baddies in increasingly brutal fashion, particularly Jared Leto, who's pretty face Fincher has especially enjoyed destroying on screen (see also Fight Club). All of which is good for a pulpy bit of fun, but nowhere near enough to rank amongst Fincher's finest.

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The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

If Hollywood history has taught us anything, it's that big-budget remakes of critically and commercially lauded foreign films are rarely successful. That being said, if there was one remake property that seemed destined for stateside success, it was The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. It's gritty, pitch-black narrative about a journalist enlisting the talents of a pierced and punked-out hacker to solve a twisted, decades-old missing persons case seemed particularly well suited to David Fincher's aesthetic. Unfortunately, by the time Fincher brought his version of Dragon Tattoo to screens in 2011, half the world had already read the wildly popular Steig Larsson novel that inspired it, and the other half had helped make the marvelous Swedish adaptation an international blockbuster in its own right just two years prior.

Unreasonably lofty expectations and a definite level of Dragon Tattoo fatigue are likely what led Fincher's big-budget adaptation to feel like such a let-down when it finally hit theaters, even in spite of its surprisingly decent worldwide box office take. Even if Fincher's adaptation never fully justifies its need to exist, it's still a simmering piece of neo-noir fiction that's overflowing with the sort of cinematic bravura one would expect from the master. It also features one of the greatest acting performances of the modern era in Rooney Mara's turn as the iconic Lisbeth Salander.  

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Fight Club

If you asked 100 cineastes to pick the best year for movies in the past two decades, 1999 would probably get a lion's share of votes. After all, how could a year that saw masterworks from the likes of Stanley Kubrick, Michael Mann, Paul Thomas Anderson, Spike Jonze, The Wachowskis, Martin Scorsese, M. Night Shyamalan, and more not qualify as one of the greats? So ridiculously stacked was 1999, that many forget said year also featured a calculating, corrosive, and flawlessly executed offering from Mr. David Fincher.

Make no mistake, the bare-knuckle beast that is Fincher's Fight Club is all of those things and more, and finds the filmmaker giddily utilizing cinema (a patently consumer driven platform) to craft a brazenly acerbic, anti-consumerist film for the ages. One that also mercilessly skewers the absurdities of the masculine mythos and white male privilege to boot.   

If those thematic elements weren't heavy enough, the film's bleak depiction of a society on the verge of eating itself alive likely hit a little too close to home for many, which is why it's no big surprise Fight Club has never really found the audience it deserves. Still, Fight Club stands as one of Fincher's finest cinematic achievements. It also features one of the greatest twists in cinematic history, not to mention career-best work from stars Brad Pitt, Edward Norton, and Helena Bonham Carter; and if the film didn't feel slightly dated (and maybe a touch misogynistic for today's environment), it would rank much higher on this list.  

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The Game

While we were not prepared to bestow the title of "unheralded masterpiece" on Fincher's first feature film (ALIEN³), his third gig in the director's chair seems a much better fit for that particular label. It was, after all, tasked with following in the footsteps of Fincher's spectacularly brutal/brooding breakout film Se7en. Such a monumental achievement was Se7en, its gargantuan critical and commercial shadows made it all but impossible for anything that directly followed to measure up.

For the record, we're not saying that The Game does measure up to Se7en. But we'd also offer that isn't Fincher's goal with The Game. Instead, the film finds Fincher meticulously manipulating audience expectations for his followup, and using them to craft a far more slippery and subversive little puzzle box of a film in the process.

At the center of that puzzle is a wealthy banker (a never better Michael Douglas) who, at the behest of his ne'er-do-well brother (a perfectly smarmy Sean Penn), enlists the services of a mysterious gaming company to liven up his life. "Liven up" proves to be a dramatic understatement, as all manner of bizarre and increasingly dangerous things begin to happen. In all that chaos, Fincher spins a narrative that mines the weighty, moralistic doom and gloom that dominated Se7en and twists it (quite unexpectedly) into something a bit more uplifting, and in many ways far more satisfying.

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Gone Girl

After the relative box office failure of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Fincher took a couple years to himself, but came back big with an Emmy win for directing episodes of Netflix's hit drama House of Cards. He followed that by getting back to his music video roots, netting his second grammy for directing a vid featuring his The Social Network star Justin Timberlake. Still, the auteur's next move caught even a few of his devotees off guard.

That move was claiming the director's chair on the adaptation of Gillian Flynn's bestselling thriller Gone Girl, a story that (at least on paper) sounded a bit like a Lifetime movie. Of course, those who'd already read Flynn's exacting tale of the media circus surrounding a missing woman and a potentially suspect husband knew Gone Girl was as far from cheesy Lifetime fodder. Those who hadn't were in for a helluva wild ride in Flynn's shifty, obsessively executed mystery about a deviously unstable woman scorned.

It was Rosamund Pike who landed the coveted titular role in Gone Girl. Of her Oscar-nominated work in the film, we'll simply say it's the stuff of femme fatale legend. For his part, Fincher seemed keenly aware Pike's (nay the entire cast's) next-level work in Gone Girl, gearing back his usual flair for cinematic trickery in service of their performances, not to mention a story that has some wicked wildcards to play … and always seems to know when to play them for maximum shock.

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The Social Network

Of the ten feature films in David Fincher's catalogue, The Social Network is the one many would point to as the least "Finchery" of the bunch. After all, the story behind the rise of Facebook features no bloody violence. There are no shocking narrative twists, brazen psychological gameplay, or murderous psychopaths either. Such it is that as "un-Finchery" as The Social Network appears, it's also one of the most distinctly "Finchery" films the director has made, replete with all the narrative complexities and visual acumen that have made him one of the most consistently compelling filmmakers around.

As far as the narrative complexities at play in The Social Network, much of that can be attributed to a crackling screenplay from legendary scribe Aaron Sorkin that turns Mark Zuckerberg's meteoric rise to prominence into a bracing, cringingly personal drama that teeters between an Odyssey-styled epic and a legit Greek tragedy. Somewhere in that mix, a then up-and-coming Jesse Eisenberg delivers a career-defining performance as wunderkind Zuckerberg, bringing a savvy mix of tortured genius and spoiled, tragically insecure brat to the role that both humanizes and deifies the man/mind behind the madness.

Fincher guides that madness with a deceptively detached hand, allowing the ethically complex web of a story to unfold sans judgement towards any of the central players, bolstering the film's underlying tensions with a calculatingly cool visual palette and show-stopping original score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. All of which makes The Social Network a singular piece of biographical drama as prescient as it is incendiary.

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Se7en

The behind the scenes issues that sullied Fincher's ALIEN³ proved such a hellish experience that the director's future in movies was very much in question. Such it was that when New Line Cinema brass approached him about possibly directing Se7en, he reportedly hadn't read a script since production ended on ALIEN³, and had little interest in reading the script for a film he thought sounded like a buddy cop movie. New Line's stayed on him, though, and eventually got Fincher a copy of the script. The rest, as they say, is history.

It's a peculiar piece of history at that, which involves New Line sending Fincher the original version of Andrew Kevin Walker's screenplay, not the revised version sans that shocking, "What's in the box?" finale. After learning some difficult lessons about studio influence on his first film, Fincher decided to stick to his creative guns on his second, agreeing to direct Se7en only if the original ending remained intact. He was backed on that front by the film's stars, Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman.

What they delivered is a study in creative sadism, with Fincher and Co. crafting a grisly, anti-police procedural that remains one of the most punishingly bleak, psychologically unsettling genre movies ever committed to film. Shockingly, Se7en also proved a creative and commercial triumph for everyone involved, heralding the arrival of a visionary filmmaker, and still earning accolades not just as one of the best movies of the '90s, but also one of the greatest serial killer movies ever made.

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Zodiac

Over the course of his career, David Fincher has earned a complicated reputation as a cinematic stylist/perfectionist who maybe doesn't always appreciate the delicate art of acting. As such, part of that reputation stems from often pushing his actors through dozens of takes for the sake of getting a single worthy scene. Even as most actors can claim their work with Fincher as some of their finest, the process doesn't always sit well with them.

Count Jake Gyllenhaal amongst those actors. By now, much has been made of his dustups with Fincher throughout the the filming of the director's masterful 2007 crime drama Zodiac. That ongoing tension obviously proved useful, 'cause as much as Gyllenhaal might resent being "a color" in Fincher's frame, there's little argument that Zodiac features some of Gyllenhaal's best work onscreen. It's no surprise either that Zodiac remains David Fincher's best film to boot.

That has a lot to do with the fact that Zodiac's "based on true events" narrative is uniquely suited to front the moody atmospherics, perplexing mysteries, and thematic complexities that unify all of his work. It helps that said story is also stacked with the sort of emotionally scarred, tragically obsessive types that Fincher seems to have a preternatural understanding of. True to that, Zodiac finds Fincher turning all of those elements up to 11 in service of delivering a propulsive, near-flawless character-driven psychological thriller culled from the far out tale behind the most enduring serial killer mystery in U.S. history, and setting the bar impossibly high for any serial killer movie produced in its wake.