To celebrate the 25th anniversary of Se7en and the 10th anniversary of The Social Network, The Ringer dubbed this past week David Fincher Week. And to cap things off, noted Fincher fans Sean Fennessey, Chris Ryan, and Amanda Dobbins ranked everything in the director’s catalog—from the movies to the music videos to the commercials—on The Big Picture. What follows is an edited, truncated version of their conversation (slash debate).
25. Alien 3 (1992)
Chris Ryan: Let me ask a question, Sean. Would Alien 3 be here if Fincher himself wasn’t like, “I almost quit movie making after this,” and “They took it away from me,” and “Never again,” and whatever?
Sean Fennessey: No, it wouldn’t. I am a slave to the narrative, just like everyone else. And we are all cogs in the machine. And I understand that he effectively told his story and that led to the way that we feel about his work, and when he is more exultant about an experience, you’re swayed to believe that it’s more successful. But I also think Alien 3 is just not a very good movie. Even the “Assembly Cut”—which is the version that is closest to the vision that Fincher had for making the movie—is still not that good. And it’s got to reach a high bar, because Alien and Aliens are two of the greatest movies ever made—one of the greatest horror films ever made and one of the greatest action movies ever made. And Alien 3 is kind of neither fish nor fowl.
It’s a little bit unclear, ultimately, what he’s going for. And it’s a very troubled movie for a lot of reasons. He’s got this mediocre script, an incredible cast, and an interesting idea—a kind of prison-colony planet where Ripley crash-lands along with a Xenomorph, or at least the makings of a Xenomorph. He gets to do some interesting things and there are some cool shots, and he gets these great performances out of Charles Dutton and Charles Dance. And Sigourney Weaver is always good. But the movie is weirdly stiff to me and not very propulsive, as far as Alien movies go. And I’ve been tricked into believing the hype on it being just OK. Amanda, do you want to defend Alien 3?
Amanda Dobbins: No, I don’t.
24. Nike, “Instant Karma” (1992)
Fennessey: Nike is famous for using the music and the images of the revolutionary ’60s and ’70s American experience to sell shoes. And they’ve done it effectively over the years. They’ve used The Beatles’ “Revolution,” and they have used, famously, in one of Fincher’s spots, John Lennon’s “Instant Karma.” It’s an incredibly captivating 30-second commercial for buying sneakers.
23. House of Cards, “Chapter 1” (2013)
Dobbins: The legacy of House of Cards, in a lot of ways, has become increasingly complicated. But in terms of being a pilot and in terms of what that meant in television, it was a big deal. I remember just being like, “What is this on my TV?”
Fennessey: Purely as a product of filmmaking and a thing that people want to consume, this is like the Flintstones vitamins of TV—it’s just very, very consumable, and maybe not as good for you as you think it is.
Dobbins: I mean, it starts binge-watching in a lot of ways. That’s had its benefits and also its drawbacks, but it’s certainly significant.
22. Paula Abdul, “Cold Hearted” (1989)
Fennessey: Fincher had this long period of time to kind of figure out what his palette was: the way that he liked to shoot things, what kind of technology he liked to use to shoot these things, what kind of film stock he liked to use. He’s playing around a lot. And then he meets Paula Abdul, of all people. It’s really Paula Abdul, the former Lakers cheerleader and pop star, who is, bizarrely, very closely related to Fincher’s development as an artist.
Ryan: I have no idea whether David Fincher thinks Paula Abdul can sing, but I guarantee you he thinks she’s an incredible choreographer and dancer. In this period of time he’s fascinated with the human body and how it moves, and I think so is she. And it’s really interesting to watch him approach from this way, because I think Fincher is only interested in the way human bodies move. The music is secondary. Maybe the rhythm matters or whatever, but it’s fascinating to see him come at something that we think of as so effusive and full of emotion and he’s like, “No, I’m interested in the way the knee moves. I’m interested in the way an elbow crosses.”
Fennessey: In the same way that we’re talking about how this guy was able to adapt Stieg Larsson and Gillian Flynn novels, he was able to transform what could be perceived as a cheesy version of late-’80s, early-’90s pop music. He made it seem more serious and more beautiful and more transgressive than it actually was.
21. Nike, “Fate: Leave Nothing” (2008)
Ryan: This is a commercial that basically purports to follow the life story of LaDainian Tomlinson, Shawne Merriman, and Troy Polamalu as they grow up from childhood through college, into the NFL. I think Fincher understands what makes sports bigger than sports. He looks at those guys like Greek gods, or characters in a Greek epic. His ability to understand what makes different stories interesting is why he can make The Social Network. The Social Network should not be an interesting movie—it should just be a court case, or a bunch of dicks yelling at each other about who gets credit for something. Fincher’s able to dig deeper and understand what makes those things objects of fascination.
20. The Gone Girl Director’s Commentary (2014)
Dobbins: An extraordinary document. Your mileage may vary on director’s commentaries, but David Fincher really performs in this one, and specifically performs about Ben Affleck in a way that definitely became a meme and an urban legend on the internet—except it’s real. There’s him making jokes about Ben Affleck not wanting to wear a Yankees hat, and he’s being dry and sarcastic, but just roasting Affleck because that’s a funny thing to do.
But then it does also add to the complexity of what the movie is about. It’s also slightly revealing of the man behind the curtain and how he thinks about things—his approach to the themes, and the people, and his work.
19. Panic Room (2002)
Ryan: I think Panic Room is technically marvelous, but it’s the film of his I’ve returned to the least.
Fennessey: I just returned to it over the weekend. I watched it in my house—
Ryan: A.k.a. the Panic Room—that’s what you call your house.
Fennessey: That’s what my wife calls the house, unfortunately.
There’s a lot of natural light in my house, and Panic Room is a very hard movie to see if you are sitting in a home with a lot of natural light. It is a movie that was made for movie theaters. But it’s still head and shoulders above every thriller made in the five-year window around it.
Dobbins: It’s still great and it does that thing I really love, when movies just encapsulate an entire idea and become a reference point on their own. I learned what a panic room was from Panic Room. There’s an economy of storytelling: Within 10 minutes, you know exactly where you are, you know exactly what’s going on, you know everyone’s motivations. And just the way that Fincher communicates the space of the house and where everyone is at once—the choreography of that is really impeccable.
18. Nike, “Barkley on Broadway” (1992)
Fennessey: Sick, sick commercial. It’s this big, bold, black-and-white homage to Busby Berkeley movies. It’s such a cool-looking commercial and it also features an original song written by Chuck D. Only in the ’90s could you get something like this—a black-and-white TV commercial for sneakers starring the most ornery superstar in sport, with a song from the frontman of Public Enemy, in an homage to 1930s Hollywood.
16a. Madonna, “Express Yourself” (1989)
16b. Paula Abdul, “Straight Up” (1989)
Dobbins: In terms of my memory, I put “Straight Up” by Paula Abdul at the top. I know that “Express Yourself” is a more ambitious and broadly iconic video, but I’m just glad that “Straight Up” is here in this tier.
Ryan: It’s cool to watch him work so much in tandem with someone, rather than “this person happens to be the subject of the video that I want to make.” He seems to be actively participating in the Madonna image machine and the Madonna celebrity-industrial complex.
Fennessey: “Straight Up” is sound in motion. It’s the human body dancing. And it’s the right song and the right filmmaker. “Express Yourself” is the opposite. It’s production design; it’s smoke and fog. It’s leathered-up, buttered-up male human bodies.
15. Gap, “Dress Normal” (2014)
Fennessey: For context, this is a 2014 Gap campaign called “Dress Normal” that David Fincher was brought on board to direct, I guess, during the production of Gone Girl. My favorite of these commercials takes place at a driving range, where a model is dancing to a 1950s pop song while a guy in a leather jacket hits a driver off the tee. It’s a commercial that makes no sense and it definitely rules.
Ryan: I feel a deep connection to the characters in this commercial. I, at once, love the woman who is dancing in jeans; I’m like, “Cool jeans.” And then I’m also like, “Your boyfriend seems pretty cool, too.” Because he’s got good form, off the tee.
Dobbins: Let me ask you something: The two of you, as people who know David Fincher’s work and like golf, do you think that David Fincher would respect you as golfers after watching this commercial?
Ryan: I don’t think David Fincher would like me.
14. Nike, “The Referee” (1994)
Fennessey: Speaking of subversive and speaking of things that seem impossible right now, this is an arch analysis from one of the leading figures of 1960s and ’70s American counterculture portraying a referee who is obsessed with—and obsessed with celebrating—the NFL. It’s obviously one big joke on the NFL and I can’t believe that they got away with this.
13. The American Cancer Society PSA (1984)
Fennessey: That commercial did something that no commercial had ever done before, and it was for a nonprofit, and it was so transgressive that it basically set him on his course as a filmmaker. That got him out of the drudgery of working at ILM as a matte photographer and able to write his own check, to become his own man: to launch Propaganda Films, which changed music videos; to become a feature filmmaker who made all these movies. So, it’s really important. Now, we can put it at 13. It doesn’t really matter; this is a fake list, no one’s really counting. But it is important.
12. The Game (1997)
Dobbins: I was rewatching it recently, and I didn’t realize, but it’s probably in the top-five movie kitchens, for me, of all time, which is just a very important thing to isolate. Fincher is really wonderful at real estate and interiors, in general. The Game has a lot to offer, and I am also a Michael Douglas fan. And there ends my soliloquy.
11. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011)
Ryan: This movie fucking rules.
Dobbins: It rules, but it’s just so fucked up. It is wild that these Stieg Larsson books were as popular as they were and that Dragon Tattoo was made into a Swedish film first and then David Fincher was like, “Sure, I’ll make it.” And Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara were like, “Sure, we’ll be in it.” Like, what is wrong with everyone?
Ryan: I’m into it.
Fennessey: I love it. I’m very, very proud of everyone who signed on to make this movie. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is a fantastic movie. And if made by any other mainstream American filmmaker, we would have said, “How in the world did this happen?” But by the time we got it from Fincher, we were like, “Of course.” This guy made a blockbuster with James Bond just rubbing grease all over himself being like, “You disgusting fuckers!” And then we were all like, “Yep!”
10. Aerosmith, “Janie’s Got a Gun” (1989)
Dobbins: Let’s talk about “Janie’s Got a Gun” for a second. Watch that video. I understand that someone dies at the end of it and some bad things are happening—but what is happening in that music video?
Ryan: You’re literally asking, “What did her daddy do?”
Fennessey: A wonderful music video that obviously set the stage for the kinds of films that David Fincher was going to excel at.
9. Mindhunter (2017)
Ryan: David Fincher made a 20-hour film about how this country broke in half, and how evil came out of that fissure. And how we have lost ourselves as a nation, but also found out who we really are, which is a bunch of fucking perverts and deviants. And that the only way we can truly understand one another is to give into the deviancy inside of us, or at least to try to psychologically identify with it.
There are parts of it that are flat and there are lulls. But thematically and dramatically, it’s a different kind of work from him, and in a lot of ways, it’s up there with Zodiac for me.
8. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)
Dobbins: The hottest that Brad Pitt has ever looked on screen. That’s important. There is a technological achievement to Benjamin Button; it looks beautiful, and Fincher is trying something different.
Fennessey: I don’t think you can watch Benjamin Button and not at least be impressed by it. It is definitely the most painterly and formalist David Fincher movie. And one underrated aspect of that movie is that, in many ways, he gave Mahershala Ali and Taraji P. Henson their biggest roles—Mahershala in particular. That’s been true of Fincher over the years—if he doesn’t necessarily discover actors, he finds ways to put them in incredible positions to succeed.
6a. Madonna, “Vogue” (1990)
6b. George Michael, “Freedom! ’90” (1990)
Fennessey: Two of the 25 most important music videos ever made, released within months of each other. They’re all about iconography—building up and destroying iconography—and that’s a big part of what Fincher’s trying to do with movies as well. He’s trying to identify masculinity or consumerism or our lives on the internet or the idea of wealth—and he wants to burn those things to ash. In the same way that he burns George Michael’s leather jacket.
Dobbins: These two music videos create the visual language of the ’90s, as an era.
Ryan: It’s pure image-making, and within those images you see his depth of perception when it comes to texture and movement and light and contrast. You can watch these music videos as silent films and almost get the same sensations that you do when the music’s playing.
5. Se7en (1995)
Fennessey: Rappers can have this sense of “I’ve been waiting my whole life to make this.” And in many ways, Se7en is a debut rap album. It’s extraordinary; Fincher is putting all of this stuff that he’s been waiting his whole career to put into a movie. But Fincher’s peak is a bit later in life ...
4. Gone Girl (2014)
Ryan: Gone Girl and Fight Club are partner films, because they’re the two films that have been most tussled over in terms of their meaning and how you’re supposed to watch them. If someone was like, “OK, tell me what you think of this movie and what this movie makes you think about,” each one of us probably has a different read on Gone Girl and Fight Club. But Gone Girl just continues to grow in my estimation as the years go on.
Dobbins: Gone Girl is a fascinating movie about Ben Affleck. And the first time you see that twist …
3. Fight Club (1999)
Fennessey: There are no bad films here. You could make the case that Fincher’s top five could go toe-to-toe with the top five of any living filmmaker. The thing with Fight Club is: Extraordinary as it is and as much as it took my breath away, I don’t think it’s any less true or any less powerful or any less amazingly made. But it’s just a polemic. It’s not really a movie. Because once the jig is up, you’re just looking at the moviemaking choices, and you’re not as invested in the story. Is that a huge criticism? No—I could watch this movie every day. But I think it’s a little too obsessed with its decision-making and not as obsessed with its story. That leads me to believe it’s not as powerful.
Ryan: I don’t think it’s a gimmick—I think it’s actually an amazing black comedy, a pretty thrilling action movie in certain places, and it features two of my favorite performances in all of the Fincher films in Brad Pitt and Edward Norton.
Fennessey: I would also throw Helena Bonham Carter in there.
Ryan: And fuckin’ Meat Loaf. And Jared Leto’s face!
2. The Social Network (2010)
Fennessey: Did all three of us agree that this is the best movie of the 2010s?
Dobbins: We did. And it is. That movie is going to live forever. It started so many careers; it got the most out of Aaron Sorkin; it gave us a language for understanding one of the most powerful entities of our time. We will be talking about The Social Network 50 years from now.
1. Zodiac (2007)
Dobbins: I just want to say that Zodiac rules. In terms of filmmaking, and engaging you, and just pure dread—there are some really terrifying scenes in the movie, including that scene in broad daylight. I mean, Jesus.
Ryan: The Social Network is a movie about the world, and Zodiac is a movie about life. Zodiac is the closest thing to a statement of purpose we get from Fincher. This is him being like, “This is what the world is actually like. All of the things that you try to do, the world is against. And it is going to eventually erase you from existence.”
And every archetype that I like in movies is in Zodiac: the cunning detective, the brainy puzzle guy, the crusading newspaperman. All of these people go up against this basically faceless, nameless, ghost-like presence of the Zodiac Killer and they get fucking wiped off the planet. That is what happens at the end of your life—you think you have something to offer the world, you think you’re doing something good, and then you get stepped on.
Fennessey: The Social Network is propulsive. You look at the regatta sequence, or the kids diving into the pool, or the coding showdown, or the dinner with Sean Parker—they’re cut fast, they move fast, they have energy. It’s an iron-sharpens-iron thing: By having to keep pace with Sorkin’s script, it changes the kind of filmmaker he is, in the same way that Fincher’s decrepit attitude about people helps Sorkin a lot, and softens some of his bullshit. It’s fascinating to watch that movie in comparison to Zodiac, which is propulsive in its own way. But Zodiac is on a long, calm walk that is never boring.