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3. The Social Network
(2010)
Scripted by Aaron Sorkin based on the book by Ben Mezrich

The concept of Fincher as a chronicler of personal obsessions was well understood by the time he made this profile of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, and The Social Network gave him a chance to look at an individual as a representative of the banal urges to which we all fall prey. Choosing Jesse Eisenberg to lead the film proved to be a tremendously perceptive casting choice, and Eisenberg turns Aaron Sorkin’s script into something that goes into territory that is far more ugly the typical tabloid tell-all. This vision of Zuckerberg is utterly unlikable and yet strangely empathetic. Anyone whose life has migrated onto the internet will see something of themselves behind his cold eyes.

While his genre thrillers can be chilling, The Social Network may be Fincher’s most deeply unsettling film to date, as it leaves us with an unshakable image of isolation as the result of Zuckerberg’s drive to success. This is a person who could be any of us, and who many aspire to emulate; this eyes-wide-open view of modern success is painfully potent.

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2. Fight Club
(1999)
Scripted by Jim Uhls based on the book by Chuck Palahniuk

Earlier I dinged The Game for being dated, and one could argue that Fight Club is even more a product of the late ’90s than The Game. But few films are able to crystallize the elements of their milieu in the way in this manner. Fight Club captures the generational transition from Baby Boomer to Gen X, skewering consumerism even as it is explicitly self-aware of its own nature as “product.” It satirizes masculinity so deftly that it has been held up as an aspirational ideal by the very people it scorns. Like Se7en before it, this film achieves an understanding of personality and control by examining a paired character set, but this time Fincher goes even further into pop psychiatry, taking the risk of explicitly defining an entire generation.

Fight Club is high-level alchemy: novel to script translated through cast and camera to an idiosyncratic set of flicking images which present the story in a way that is purely cinematic. It is the true blossoming of Fincher’s work as a film craftsman, and the film’s tremendously un-subtle tricks disguise a very forward-thinking approach to integrating analog and digital work. That Fight Club was even able to escape the cage of the studio system is rather amazing; that it has endured as a bizarre artifact of corporate punk rock is not.

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1. Zodiac
(2007)
Scripted by James Vanderbilt based on the book by Robert Graysmith

It’s rare that a story that is unresolved by definition can be as satisfying as Zodiac. Here David Fincher’s own obsessions feed a story about obsession, and his empathetic approach proves to be exactly the entry point we need to the story of a real-life cold-case serial killer. Zodiac is the ne plus ultra of the police procedural, a film patient enough to watch characters doing diligent drudgery, and inventive enough to make us want to keep looking. Once again, casting instinct pays off. Jake Gyllenhaal seizes the chance to create a bizarre yet familiar compulsive, and Mark Ruffalo, Chloe Sevigny, Anthony Edwards, and a pre-Iron Man Robert Downey Jr. all craft their own individual puzzle pieces with great skill.

Fincher patiently guides digital artists to exemplary work in tandem with sublime cinematography from the late Harris Savides. The combined efforts of the technical crew result in a seamless recreation of San Francisco across a broad span of time — one that is often so good that viewers can’t tell the difference between locations and stage shoots.

The script by James Vanderbilt, and Fincher’s own emphasis of elements in its approach to the real-life Zodiac story show both the rewards of chasing fine details and the dangers of giving in to one’s own compulsive drive. Having learned from the experience of Panic Room, Fincher seemingly floats through the complex sea of information and technical detail rather than allowing it to wash over him. The effect of watching the film is to feel the weight of the Robert Graysmith’s impulses and unshakeable concerns, but also to understand precisely what effect they have on a life.

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