5. Gone Girl (2014)
The worst date movie ever is also a deeply amusing dark comedy for couples who’ve been around the block. Adapted by Gillian Flynn from her own bestselling mystery novel of the same name, Gone Girl plays to Fincher’s strengths. It’s taut, twisty, and features complex characters who provide a dim view on the species. And unlike some of the director’s more brooding efforts, it’s also plainly fun in its demented way.
A bit of a precursor of our true crime obsessed reality, Gone Girl initially follows a slow-witted husband of dubious morality (Ben Affleck) after his beautiful wife, the “Amazing Amy” (Rosamund Pike), goes missing. All precedence, onscreen and off, suggests Affleck’s Nick is the killer, but it’s really Pike’s movie to slay in as flashbacks give way to some surprising turns. It’s a tremendous turn for Pike, whose entire career trajectory changed after her incandescent eyes dominate the screen before going cold. Pike’s Amy offers a scathing indictment of her own marriage and perhaps the institution of matrimony as a whole. Filmed in slick sterile grays, the passion of red really pops when characters at last let the audience in on what they’re truly thinking.
4. Se7en (1995)
The film that defined both what we still think to be a typical David Fincher movie, as well as the serial killer thriller subgenre boon that was to follow across the rest of the 1990s and 2000s, Se7en is an immaculately designed journey into the heart of neo noir. Set in a nondescript American city, the film’s screenplay by Andrew Kevin Walker nakedly attempts to diagnose all the symptoms of American sin, as well as the loneliness that can cause any observer to cast the first stone. One such voyeur is the film’s John Doe (an unforgettably creepy Kevin Spacey) whose reign of terror over an emotionally deadened society is the impetus of the story.
Nonetheless, the through-line that makes Doe’s nihilism work is the grounded verisimilitude Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt bring to the then ubiquitous “buddy cop” setup. Pitt would later become Fincher’s muse and partner in crime, and the appeal to both parties is self-evident in a film that knowingly perverts Pitt’s then-emerging movie star swagger. That charisma is turned into something crude and impotent as Fincher’s downbeat mystery places the two leads in a context where goodness and morality are just affectations waiting to be ruined. While the first two acts are overcast in a relentless downpour of rain, the finale of the film notably reveals we are in sunny Southern California when the three main characters arrive at a carefully selected location at a carefully chosen time. The revelations which occur there are among the most pessimistic of a major American film. The sun may be shining, but no daylight enters this thing once.
3. Fight Club (1999)
Folks have never been very good at obeying the first rule of fight club. To this day, we keep talking about Fight Club! A lot. Due to this long celebrated, debated, and often misunderstood counterculture inkblot test, Fincher is still getting questions in 2023 about whether he regrets how the film is misinterpreted by members of the alt-right—he doesn’t. Nor should he, since the film is very much an indictment of the distinctly American incarnation of strongmen and cults of personality, right down to the personality at the film’s center being a literal myth for disgruntled white loners. Brad Pitt’s Tyler Durden doesn’t exist! But the movie he’s in is so seductive that much like Edward Norton’s schizophrenic Narrator, viewers tend to forget that fact and go along even after Meatloaf’s body was left six feet deep in the backyard.
Released in the last year of the 20th century, and perhaps the last gasp of Gen-X anxieties about selling out and raging against the machine (later generations would love Norton’s IKEA-optimized apartment), Fight Club is a time capsule for a distinct flavor of disaffection. Characters like the nameless narrator feel ignored and cast aside, and their world is captured in a putrid melange of yellows, greens, and browns. Yeah, it’s easy to see why Pitt’s six-pack abs and collection of sway jackets could be so alluring. It’s also a blast to watch.