This week, the first major movie of the fall, David Fincher’s Gone Girl, hit multiplexes to more or less widespread acclaim. (For what it’s worth, my boss J.R. Jones, America’s most reliable film critic, wasn’t a fan.) The release of a new Fincher film feels like a major event at this point, so endeared is he to moviegoers of mainstream and more refined tastes alike. Personally, I have a complicated relationship with his films, which are hardened, meticulously structured gadgets with rigid-to-the-point-of-oppressive narratives and terse visual sensibilities. I tend to prefer rustic, looser, more spontaneous and handmade films—the antithesis of Fincher’s, essentially—but the technique on display is too impressive not to appreciate. Plus, I’ve gradually warmed myself to Fincher’s occasionally callous touch. Known for his Kubrickian tendency to shoot the same scene dozens and dozens of times over, the director has earned the nickname “40 Takes” Fincher, and it’s easy to detect such tedium in his work—but his films are ultimately so efficient and breezy they essentially efface his mechanical methods. Somehow, he makes the most painstaking, heavily orchestrated sequences—like The Social Network‘s arduous, dialogue-spinning opening scene—seem effortless and natural, and there’s a certain kind of beauty in that. You can find my five favorite Fincher films below.
5. Alien 3 A true curio, seemingly the director’s least personal work until you realize it anticipates the anarcho-feminism of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and the grimy, pestilential machismo of Fight Club. By no means a great or even good film, but a fascinating one.
4. The Social Network Probably his most highly regarded film, and for good reason. It’s hugely entertaining, which actually sort of contradicts its messy and pessimistic worldview. This subversive irony isn’t unique to Fincher—Steven Spielberg has a penchant for sneaking some bleak themes into relatively congenial material—but he’s nevertheless mastered the technique. Also his funniest movie, after the grimly satirical The Game.
3. Seven Fincher’s best films are his procedurals, and the next three movies on this list form a loose trilogy in my mind. Seven is an expert genre riff, littered with references to classic noir and the experimental cinema of Stan Brakhage. It’s a film-critic cliche to describe a location or setting as “another character” in the movie, but the nameless, foreboding metropolis of Seven, with its endless gray skyscrapers and incessant, pounding rainfall, is one of Fincher’s most daunting creations, a “character” in the sense that it guides the action more than the actual characters do.
2. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo There’s something alluring about watching skilled professionals practice their craft onscreen, and here, Fincher, to quote Ben Sachs in his capsule review, “[makes] information technology eerily seductive.” The film is among Fincher’s most metaphysical, illustrating the white-collar and therefor invisible labor of his characters with an elegant and highly organized visual design that, similar to The Social Network, emblazons the vulgar, dime-store material.
1. Zodiac Fincher’s masterpiece, a neoclassic tale of desire and obsession in which solving a crime becomes less important than the experience of solving it, and the procedural process is less a function of labor than an exercise in art-making. This single image really says it all: