When you’re looking at the nominees for Best Director (as I did yesterday), you’ll see that four of the five nominees have something in common: with one notable exception, every director vying for the big prize is a relative newcomer. Promising Young Woman is Emerald Fennell’s directorial debut, and Lee Issac Chung (Minari), Thomas Vinterberg (Another Round) and Chloè Zhao (Nomadland) all have had careers, but each of them are finding the spotlight with their nominated film. I mean, to be fair, Vinterberg has had a very illustrious career in his home country of Denmark, but this is the first time American audiences are really finding out about him.
The one notable exception is David Fincher. And he is, in no uncertain terms, pretty fucking notable.
Since 1994, David Fincher has been one of Hollywood’s most consistent director. His films have two notable things in common: they are interesting, profitable, and always among the best films of the year. What’s even more amazing about that is that Fincher makes a very specific type of movie: his movies are usually for adults and capable of evoking strong emotions. Zhao will probably win the Oscar this week, and her next film is a Marvel movie. It is almost impossible to imagine David Fincher taking this kind of a career arc.
Unlike the other great directors of this era (Spielberg, The Coen Brothers, Steven Soderbergh) who seem capable of cranking out a movie every nine months or so, Fincher is known for laborious work schedules. Dude is gonna take his time and you will get his movie when he is goddamned good and ready. Stories from the set of his films often involve tens, or in some cases, over a hundred takes, as the director attempts to break actors down to get the most raw and real performances. When you take into account that the best performances from some pretty impressive actors (Brad Pitt, Ben Affleck, Jesse Eisenberg, Rooney Mara, Justin Timberlake, Amanda Seyfried, etc.) come from David Fincher films, it’s hard to argue with the process.
And yet, for all of his excellence, especially in the 21st century, Fincher has not gotten any real love from the Academy. Three nominations and no wins, and what they choose to nominate is fucking baffling. Mank, the film he is currently nominated for, is his most nominated film, and it’s nowhere close to being his best film.
So what is his best film? Let’s rank some Fincher, my little film darlings!
Ok, so this one is the big misfire. I will not lie to you and say this is a good film, but I can’t exactly call it a bad film, either. Fincher’s directorial debut shows that even when he’s dealing with a mess, he’s gonna make it interesting. This film is absolutely gorgeous (in his review, Roger Ebert called it “the best-looking bad movie I’ve ever seen”) and is able to ratchet up the tension and emotion in certain places, and I’m crediting so much of that to Fincher’s eye. He wasn’t able to save this movie fully, but he certainly stopped it from being an absolute garbage heap.
10. The Game
This film always feels like it’s teetering on the edge of being a bad film, and that’s always when Fincher seems to pull it back from the edge. Look, it’s a 90’s thriller with Michael Douglas and Sean Penn, so you know there’s going to be something there to hold on to. And this film is a slick and exciting film that is paced to near perfection. For everything that doesn’t work about this movie, there’s like one and a half things that do, and The Finch knows how to turn that net positive into a really entertaining film.
It’s easy to understand why this is the film David Fincher has taken the most care with. The film is the lone screenplay of Jack Fincher, the director’s late father. You can see the care and craft that is in this movie, sometimes to the detriment of the film. Again, Fincher gets credit for getting the best from Amanda Seyfried (an actress I always adore but who is bonkers good in this) and keeping Gary Oldman focused. It’s crazy how much I respect and appreciate this film and we still have EIGHT MORE TO GO.
8. The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button
When David Fincher tells a love story, you know it’s not going to be standard fare. His second Best Director nomination is the most Oscar-y movie in his resume, which is kind of why it feels like the weirdest. We’re not used to seeing a sweet side of Fincher, and he makes it work (mostly), but you kind of spend the whole movie wondering why he chose to make THIS movie. Still, it’s packed with good performances and some really special shots and cannot be discounted.
7. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
Murder? Secrets? Torture? Suspense? Now we’re back in Papa Finch Finch’s wheelhouse! Within the first half hour, Fincher shows us what he brings to the table and why he wanted to remake this film adaptation. This movie, like some of his best, just feels dirty and grimy. It looks the way we feel about some of the characters and that allows this film to absolutely envelope us.
6. Panic Room
Everything about this movie just brings out a huge, “Fuck, yes” from me. Jodie Foster kicking ass? Fuck, yes, Dwight Yokam acting all badass? Fuck, Yes. Jared Leto in CORNROWS? FUUUUUUUUCK YESSSSSSSSS!
5. Gone Girl
What I love about this movie is that it’s like Fincher read the book, thought, “Hmmm, the lead dude reminds me of Ben Affleck…” and then basically cast Ben Affleck to play the Hollywood representation of himself. And Affleck has never been better. This cast is all playing at the top level, especially Tyler Perry and Rosamund Pike, who is just giving a “WHAT THE FUCKING HELL IS THIS PERSON MADE OF?!?!?!” performance. It’s insane that there are FOUR movies better than this, and yet…
Ok, so let’s just be honest: any of these top 4 could be number one. This all just came down to personal preference but I’m also willing to admit that all of these movies are pretty much fucking perfect. Zodiac is a fucking masterclass of tone management and how to do a movie right. And I know I’m kicking a dead horse here, but David Fincher knows how to direct his actors so well. Here are three dudes (Mark Ruffalo, Jake Gyllenhaal and Robert Downey, Jr.) who all are known for going over the top of the top of the top are all giving performances with a lot of subtlety and nuance. This film is just so damn good.
3. Fight Club
Let’s get this out of the way: it’s hard to like this film because so many douchebags love it for the wrong reasons. Quick note: If you saw this movie and wanted to start a fight club, you do not understand the point of this movie! (We’ll call this the “Joker effect”.) However, this is a testament to Fincher’s filmmaking: we have to be won over by the fighting and the anarchy the same way that Edward Norton (and all of us, really) are won over by Brad Pitt- because he’s fun and sexy and cool and we could be all those things if we just surrender! David Fincher would have been an amazing cigarette salesman. Of course, what people forget sometimes is that the film also shows what happens when a large group of people looking for anything to define them discover something dangerous. Kinda feels relevant today, doesn’t it?
As an interesting note, Zodiac and Fight Club are Fincher’s only box office flops, neither of which made more than $35 million.
2. The Social Network
Anytime I hear the White Stripes’ “Ball & Biscuit”, I think of the opening scene of The Social Network, which a perfect example of when an unstoppable fucking force (Fincher’s directing) meets an immovable fucking object (Aaron Sorkin’s writing). Let’s watch the scene right now.
With The Social Network, Fincher had to learn how to curb his style to Sorkin’s stylized writing and cadence, and it’s a match made in heaven. The Finch somehow makes coding seem cool and sexy while also having us believe that Justin Timberlake is just an insecure computer dweeb looking for validation. There is nothing this man cannot do well.
I feel like I could watch this film once a year and still find something new and amazing about the film that blows me away- a line of dialogue that hits me the right way or an awesome way Morgan Freeman delivers his words or that perfect score. But, there’s also no way I could watch this film more than once a year or I would not be able to sleep at night. Like the other films in the top 4, this film is perfect. David Fincher is a creator of masterworks.
2 thoughts on “FBC Oscar Coverage, Part XI: Ranking David Fincher”
Extremely well done, Matt. I learned a ton about Fincher I did not know in this and am somewhat embarrassed to say that I have not seen 3 and feel like I need to re-watch them all. The fact that Fight Club was a box office flop blows me away (I trust your research) and I live your take on that film; I feel like so many dudes who love it don’t get it.