Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Ranking David Fincher

On this blog, I tend to notice when a) I've seen all of a particular type of movie, like movies directed by a particular person, and b) that particular type of movie reaches a particular numerical milestone.

And then I rank.

Only a) is technically necessary to do the ranking, but in the case of Gone Girl, both a) and b) are satisfied.

Gone Girl is, lo and behold, David Fincher's tenth feature, and I've seen all of them. So, it's time to put this man's career under the microscope -- microscopic precision being something that Mr. Fincher himself would heartily endorse.

Without any further ado:

1) The Social Network (2010). I have known for two or three years now that I consider this to be Fincher's masterpiece, but have only shied away from embracing that stance because I thought it made me seem like too much of a new-school cinephile. There are three other titles that many people would be more quick to christen as Fincher's best. But Network is one of only two Fincher films I've seen more than once, and it's the only one I've seen three times. Given that it is also his third most recent, that says something about just how much I dig it. I know part of my love has to do with it being Fincher's first and still most memorable collaboration with my favorite musician, Trent Reznor. I still listen to the score at least a couple times a year. But it also has towering performances from Jesse Eisenberg and Rooney Mara, Aaron Sorkin dialogue that crackles like Sorkin dialogue has never crackled for me before, and a brilliant non-chronological narrative structure that works perfectly in concert with Fincher's trademark formal magnificence. If I had to boil down why I love The Social Network to just one thing, however, it would have to be similar to why I love Bennett Miller's Moneyball: Both films take subject matter that is inherently uncinematic and find the pulsing human drama that brings it to life. It's an against-all-odds success, so it also bucks the odds by being my #1.

2) Seven (1995). Seven is not the other Fincher film I've seen more than one time ... and the fact that I've seen it only once truly shocks me. This is, quite simply, one of the most indelible documents of human depravity ever committed to film, a sinister worm that gets inside your brain and sucks out any optimism you feel toward your fellow man. As Morgan Freeman's William Somerset states: "Ernest Hemingway once said 'The world is a fine place and worth fighting for.' I agree with the second part." This was also when Fincher announced to us just what he could do with a camera, with a frame, with a cast. Not only is every new thing glimpsed around every new corner freshly horrifying, but the movie builds toward a perfect climax involving one of the enduring classic spoiler twists of the 1990s. (Twist casting, anyway.) What's in this box? A crackerjack piece of filmmaking that has probably been the director's most influential work.

3) Fight Club (1999). Fight Club is an odd mixture of strengths and weaknesses, satisfying material and stuff that is just plain bogus. But what endures for me is the way this movie almost feels like the first movie told using the language of the internet. What I focus on when I think of Fight Club is not guys punching each other in a grimy basement (or even punching themselves), but the opening act and its hologram-like 3D aesthetic, its intermingling of support groups and exploding airplanes and the ability to walk into, and select, and move the shiny material objects in an Ikea catalogue. This is the other Fincher film I've seen twice, and it's the roaming quality of his camera -- traveling through ceilings and floors on a 360-degree rotation, moving to places only the mind's eye can go -- that made me come back for more. Fight Club's good parts are so good that you are easily distracted from the whole thing collapsing in on itself in numerous spots. It's only the lack of a convenient opportunity that has kept me from seeing this again -- it's been over a decade since my second viewing.

4) The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008). It's hard to say, with a straight face, that you really like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, since it has been so generally shit upon in the six years since its release. But I ranked it in my top ten the year it came out, and I wasn't crazy ... was I? Button represents a pretty significant drop-off from the top three, but it must have done a number of things right because I remember being entranced in its spell. The right kind of epic love story, which spans years and continents and lots of really nice art direction, can do that for me, and I suppose Button was unusual enough to find a sweet spot in my imagination. Having lived through a number of years of Button backlash, though, I now think that it's probably the least likely of Fincher's movies for me to revisit, because there's the least amount more I could discover from it. I'd revisit the great ones to soak in their greatness and the misfires to analyze why they missed, but Button will probably just sit in the middle, never to be explored again.

5) Zodiac (2007). Now is the time for you to haul out your apoplexy and give it full voice. On a podcast devoted to Gone Girl I listened to yesterday morning, the podcasters described Zodiac as the consensus choice for Fincher's masterpiece. Well, that consensus didn't poll me, I guess. I like this movie a lot and respect it even more, but it's a very hard movie to love. I find Jake Gyllenhaal and Mark Ruffalo's search for the Zodiac killer a wholly unsatisfying affair, and I don't really buy the argument that that's the point. I didn't expect for the movie to reveal who the killer was, as the case is still unsolved, but the movie asks you to be interested in police procedural behavior for its own sake. Through that it gets at an interesting glimpse into the obsessive mind, but I remember telling people that it felt like a really long episode of Law & Order. A really good episode, but one held back by the same limitations. Since time has placed this movie in an even more favorable light than it enjoyed from the critical establishment at the time, I definitely have to give this one a second chance.

6) Panic Room (2002). I didn't give Panic Room a fair shake at the time of its release, and it took me more than a year to finally see it. In fact, I derisively referred to it as "Green Room," so cynical was I about its sleek green-filtered appearance and apparent lack of substance. But Panic Room is actually a tight, taught little domestic invasion thriller, with uniformly good performances and real tension. What I really remember about this movie, however, is how it represents the most ostentatious demonstration of technique Fincher has ever committed to film. I referred to the wandering of Fincher's camera in his previous film, Fight Club, as a major plus in that film. Here, Fincher's camera travels on impossible tracks through the house and main set, a feat that is equal parts digital manipulation and cinematographic derring-do. I would watch this movie again just to sit agape at the audacity of that camera, its omniscience purposefully representing no one's perspective.

7) Gone Girl (2014). It's too soon since my first viewing of Gone Girl to know how it will really settle with me over time. But as I indicated in my previous post, it's the only Fincher movie I've seen where I questioned the potential irresponsibility of the ideas presented. I didn't use the M word -- misogyny -- in my previous discussion of Gone Girl, but it's been fighting its way to the surface the more I think about the film. However, if you entirely divorce (pun intended) the players from what they signify in terms of the battle of the sexes, and view them only as pawns in a Hitchcockian thriller, you can sit back and appreciate how Fincher may be today's most capable director in terms of assembling such an homage. I was thrilled by the film's look and execution, and didn't guess where it would go at any point. If I can just get past that little issue of the underexplained psychotic behavior of the lead female character, Gone Girl might jump a few spots on this list.

8) The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011). It's when we get to #8 on this list that I truly appreciate just how good Fincher's filmography has been. In a lot of ways, this is the most technically accomplished film Fincher has ever made in terms of perfectly distilling the hard and icy world of its story. It's a near ideal match of director and subject matter. Ah, but it's the subject matter that holds me back here. I'd already seen the original version of the film, and already been generally dissatisfied by a story that I feel has been quite overrated by the public in general. Certainly, there are elements of this series of books that truly crackle, including the introduction of a truly memorable character (and Rooney Mara kills it as Lisbeth Salander), but overall I just don't think this narrative lives up to its apparent promise. And Fincher's version backloads the movie with a bunch of extraneous material that may be true to the book (I don't know, I haven't read it) but has the effect of weighing things down. There's a trailer's worth of super awesome in this movie and lots of very good sprinkled throughout, but you walk out of the theater feeling a bit disappointed. I know my disappointment is also tied to the long, bloated and indistinct score by my hero, Mr. Reznor -- in the height of self-indulgence, the movie's soundtrack was something like 39 tracks long. Maybe that Oscar for The Social Network went to his head.

9) The Game (1997). And here comes the big dropoff. Remember the bogus material that I said detracts from Fight Club? The Game is 87.3% bogus material. There's suspension of disbelief, and then there's what The Game asks you to do. Sure, this movie looks good, and sure, it can be thrilling in spots. But when you start to realize that the only way certain outcomes could be achieved, the only way the giant puzzle could keep going along the correct trajectory, is by every character making exactly the right decision at exactly the right moment, you start to feel like The Game thinks you're a fool. And I'm no fool.

10) Alien 3 (1992). I can't say for certain that the third Alien movie, and Fincher's first feature film, is really his worst. The Game might be worse, actually. But when you live in a climate of hatred for Alien 3, as we all do, some of it has to seep through your skin. I actually think this movie is pretty good for a completely stripped down version of an Alien movie, and not all that essentially wrongheaded for a series that kept reinventing itself with every new entry. But that cruel and unusual way it renders the events of Aliens meaningless -- that's all I'll say for those of you who still haven't seen these movies -- is a misstep from which the movie never recovers, even if it only comprises the very beginning of the movie. Since Fincher didn't write the movie, you can hardly blame him. Still, it's kind of funny to think about how we were introduced to this great new talent through a movie that was widely panned ... and yet he still got to make Seven and go on to become one of our great modern-day auteurs. Without Seven to prop up his first three movies, Fincher's early output doesn't look so good at all.

And that's probably just about enough David Fincher for today.

Stay tuned for tomorrow's post, in which I wonder aloud "Where was Ben Affleck's junk in Gone Girl? I DIDN'T SEE IT."

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