The Best Performances in David Fincher Movies Ranked

In anticipation of the release of Mank on December 4th, this week Collider will be presenting original essays and features diving into the work of David Fincher.

David Fincher's Mank hits Netflix on Friday and critics are raving about Gary Oldman's performance as Citizen Kane screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, as well as Amanda Seyfried's turn as Marion Davies. Still others have gravitated towards Charles Dance's imposing turn as William Randolph Hearst or Arliss Howard's take on famed MGM boss Louis B. Mayer. Regardless of how you feel about the film itself, there's no question that Mank continues Fincher's legacy of eliciting strong work from his actors, so we took the opportunity to rank the finest performances from the director's 11 films.

Many actors have complained over the years about the number of takes that Fincher puts them through, but as the saying goes, practice makes perfect. Ever the perfectionist, Fincher demands nothing short of excellence from his cast and crew. He knows exactly what he wants, which is half the battle for a director. Fincher is fortunate that Hollywood's A-list is so eager to work with him that they're willing to put themselves through his exhausting paces and indulge his meticulous eye for detail. They know that he'll push them to their limits, but only in service of the work itself. It's not out of ego, which has no place on Fincher's sets.

Along with Quentin Tarantino, Fincher is one of my favorite filmmakers, so it wasn't just difficult to limit myself to 10 great performances -- it was impossible. That's why we have two ties below, because I simply had to include a dozen actors on this Top 10 list. That's not to say that I wasn't forced to make some tough cuts. Oscar winners Michael Douglas, Sean Penn, Jodie Foster, Forest Whitaker, Jared Leto and Cate Blanchett all do great work in The Game, Panic Room, and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, but none of them managed to crack the list, nor did Ben Affleck, who kills it in Gone Girl.

Zodiac is a staggering masterpiece, yet none of its three leads made the cut, all apologies to Jake GyllenhaalRobert Downey Jr. and Mark Ruffalo. Fincher guided Taraji P. Henson to an Oscar nomination for her work in Benjamin Button, but I couldn't make room for it. Singers-turned-actors Meatloaf and Justin Timberlake are both fantastic in Fight Club and The Social Network, respectively, but alas, there were only 10(ish) spots. Meanwhile, the incredible casts of House of Cards and Mindhunter weren't eligible since those are Netflix shows rather than feature films. That's a lot of great work I was forced to ignore, and though Mank may not be represented on the list below, its ensemble clearly faced some stiff competition! Still, I think Fincher fans will be happy with my list, so without further ado, here's the cream of his crop, in my opinion anyway.

10 (tie). Dwight Yoakam in Panic Room and John Carroll Lynch in Zodiac

Jodie Foster. Jared Leto. Forest Whitaker. Oscar winners, all of them. And I wouldn't be shocked if Kristen Stewart joined them one day. And yet, despite all that talent, it's country music star Dwight Yoakam who steals Panic Room from his co-stars. He is positively chilling as Raoul, who is a man of very few words in the first half of this film, though his silence speaks volumes. See, Raoul is a man of action, and when the bullets start to fly in this film, he is the one pulling the trigger. The fact that Raoul keeps his mask on is one reason we're afraid, but the other is the calm way he speaks, like he's done this sort of thing before. He keeps his cool while Junior (Leto) and Burnham (Whitaker) start to panic, for he knows the stakes, and has prepared himself for the consequences. That's why he thought to bring a gun. He's an actual criminal, and the idea that Burnham doesn't know who he is lends him an added air of mystery. Not only does Yoakam hold his own against his veteran co-stars, he steals the damn show with his ruthless brutality.

Speaking of which... that's the Zodiac's whole m.o. He was the most vicious serial killer California had ever seen, and he was never caught, which meant that Fincher could have some fun in casting his version of Mr. Z. He settled on veteran character actor John Carroll Lynch, a gentle giant of a man who would go on to play a creepy clown in American Horror Story, but before Zodiac, was likely best known from The Drew Carrey Show or Fargo. Lynch is just incredible as Zodiac suspect Arthur Leigh Allen, who Fincher and screenwriter James Vanderbilt clearly point the finger at. He shines during an uncomfortable interrogation scene in which he always keeps his cool, even while detectives raise eyebrows over his Zodiac-brand wristwatch, but it's the film's penultimate scene in which Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) finally locks eyes with The Man Who Would Be Zodiac that Lynch cements his spot on this list. The suspicious way Leigh stares at Graysmith before looking away and turning back again... he knows that he knows. Nothing mores needs to be said. Because it's all in that one look. And that's the sign of a brilliant performance.

9. Andrew Garfield in The Social Network

It's hard to believe, but Andrew Garfield didn't earn an Oscar nomination for his heartbreaking turn as Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin even though he was nominated for a Golden Globe earlier that year. Garfield is the film's conscience, constantly trying to steer Mark Zuckerberg towards doing the right thing, only to find himself forced out of the company he helped start out of a Harvard dorm room in Cambridge. The actor turns Eduardo into the film's most sympathetic figure -- a tragic figure at times -- someone sucked into Zuckerberg's orbit and built up by the boy genius, only to be cut down and betrayed by him. For Eduardo, it's not even about the money, it's about the acknowledgment of being a co-founder of Facebook, something that would go on to change the world, for better or worse.

Garfield breathes fire in his heated confrontation with Zuckerberg, smashing a keyboard and threatening to punch Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake) just to see him cower in fear. This performance was a promising sign of things to come from Garfield, who would go on to play Spider-Man, work with Martin Scorsese and earn an Oscar nomination for Hacksaw Ridge. But seeing as how The Social Network is remembered as one of the best films of the decade, this is the performance that Garfield will likely be remembered by years after we're all gone and all that's left is our Facebook profiles.

8 (tie). Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl and Rooney Mara in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

I'll be honest -- Rooney Mara was a last-minute addition to this list. Timing is everything in showbiz, and for me, Noomi Rapace will always be the definitive version of Lisbeth Salander in my book. But I simply couldn't bring myself to overlook Mara's work in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, as there's much more to her Oscar-nominated performance than mere face piercings and an edgy haircut. She brings a seething anger to the bisexual hacker, who she imbues with stone-cold strength and frigid determination. Dragon Tattoo was Fincher's first adaptation of a female-driven literary sensation, but Gone Girl was his second, and it was far more successful, in my opinion.

Based on the novel by Gillian Flynn, the film stars Rosamund Pike as Amazing Amy, a woman who, like Edward Norton's character in Fight Club, is a bit of an unreliable narrator. In this case, she appears to be narrating the story of her own disappearance from beyond the grave, only to turn the tables in a major way and gain the upper hand against her philandering husband Nick (played to perfection by Ben Affleck). Pike is extraordinary in Gone Girl, and there's something so chilling about the calmness of her voice, and how Amy can't be fazed or surprised because she has planned this out every step of the way. That includes keeping a diary of secrets -- or are they lies? Once the innocent young girl who always did everything right -- and famously so -- she's now the femme fatale who knows the devil is in the details. The hallmark of a true sociopath is a lack of empathy, and no matter how amazing Amy may be, we know she's missing something. Which is why it's so terrifying when she announces that she's pregnant at the end of the film. Because we know, and Nick knows, that kid is screwed. All due respect to Still Alice star Julianne Moore, but Pike should've won the Oscar for this tricky performance, which is nothing short of terrifying.

7. Helena Bonham Carter in Fight Club

When people think of Helena Bonham Carter's acting career, the first thing they think of is probably her extensive work with Tim Burton, and the second thing is probably her Oscar nominations for the period dramas The King's Speech and The Wings of the Dove, but for me, Helena Bonham Carter is Marla Singer. I maintain that Marla is the greatest female character in any David Fincher movie. Who else could show up to a support group for people with lung cancer smoking cigarettes and make it look cool? This is a woman who meets our protagonist at a support group for people with testicular cancer! She wears sunglasses indoors and steals clothes out of laundry machines just to sell them minutes later for pocket change. Bonham Carter sinks her teeth into this juicy character and makes a meal of Marla, delivering one incredible line after another. In her hands, she makes Marla one of Fincher's most fascinating characters, and I can't imagine Fight Club working as well as it does without her.

6. Edward Norton in Fight Club

Edward Norton leaves it all out on the floor as the nameless narrator of Fight Club. He gets the absolute shit kicked out of him throughout this movie, and in one jaw-dropping scene, he evens kicks the shit out of himself. And yet, his character rises like a phoenix from the ashes of his pain, which offers him a rebirth of sorts, one far removed from the polite expectations of modern society and its material trappings. The almost anonymous-looking Norton is perfectly cast as Brad Pitt's boring other half in this movie, which arrived less than one year after his startling turn as a reformed skinhead in American History X. Norton tried to avoid confrontation in that film, but that's exactly what finds him here, whether he goes out looking for it or not. This sleepy insomniac's once-white collar has been stained red with blood and that's fine by him. With three Oscar nominations on his resume, Norton is surely among Hollywood's finest actors, but when you really examine his filmography, it's clear that Fight Club is the movie he'll be remembered for. And deservedly so. Guided by Fincher's hand, he's brilliant here. A beautiful and unique snowflake, indeed.

5. Kevin Spacey in Seven

Kevin Spacey is not a good guy, but he IS a great actor, as evidenced by his two Academy Awards for American Beauty and The Usual Suspects, and had he not won Best Supporting Actor for the latter film, I'm convinced he would've been nominated in the same category that same year for his turn as John Doe in Seven. His is the most iconic role in the film, as what John Doe accomplished here will, as he predicted, be puzzled over and studied and followed... forever. I mean, it's 25+ years later and we're still making "what's in the box?" jokes.

Spacey doesn't appear onscreen in Seven until the last half-hour or so mark, when he walks into a police station covered in three different kinds of blood with his fingertip-less hands held high in the air. He is mesmerizing over the next 30 minutes, as we learn what motivated him to turn each sin against the sinner. As gripping as that car ride to the desert is, it's the alone time Spacey shares with Brad Pitt's detective that makes your skin crawl as the villain describes purchasing the man's home address from a fellow cop, paying his wife a visit, and taking a souvenir. He saves the worst for last though -- a devastating revelation that seals his fate, which he is all too ready to accept, for he knows his masterpiece is only completed once he's gone. He justifies his crimes, yet he clearly enjoys them, just as he enjoys the back-and-forth with Detective Mills en route to the desert. It's all part of his grand plan, executed to perfection with the help of his captors. Spacey is quiet, calculating and chilling as John Doe, who is one of the all-time great movie villains thanks to his smug performance.

4. Brad Pitt in Fight Club

I mean, this is probably the single most iconic performance on this list, which is saying something. Tyler Durden was no doubt a brilliant creation from the mind of author Chuck Palahniuk, but Brad Pitt brought the character in that book to life in a way few movie stars could, and would ever dare. He turned Tyler Durden into a model of masculinity, someone who lives the life you only wish you could lead, one free of distraction and free of fear. Tyler does what he wants, he's pure id. He is freedom personified, and that may be because, well, you know -- he isn't real. Or is he? After all, there was a Tyler Durden, just not the one we tend to think of. Pitt's wardrobe here, with the sunglasses and the porn-covered tank top exposing the V-cut in his pelvic area, is still a Halloween staple, and frankly, this is the kind of sex symbol performance that rivals Bo Derek emerging from the pool in 10. It just oozes sex, which is all too rare these days on the big screen, where movie stars typically play it safe. Pitt lets himself get dangerous here, and the result is one of his very best performances.

3. Morgan Freeman in Seven

Morgan Freeman is Fincher's secret weapon in Seven, as he seems to be operating on a different rhythm, a steadier one, as indicated by Detective Somerset's metronome. Freeman is quiet, rarely if ever raising his voice -- in fact, when he does, it's to admonish Mills for kicking in John Doe's door, or to tell implore Mills to put his gun down, or backhand John Doe when he reveals Tracy's little secret, knowing full well what has become of them both. Freeman's genius lies in the resignation on his face here, as he knows what Mills is going to do because over the course of the last seven days, he has gotten to know Mills, and he knows how susceptible he is to his anger. Mills is still a prisoner of his anger, where as wise old Somerset has become jaded. Though he was ready to quit the force, I could see him staying on after this case, as hinted at by the film's last lines -- an Ernest Hemingway quote about the world being a fine place, and worth fighting for. Freeman's performance is the glue that holds Seven together, and thank God for that.

2. Brad Pitt in Seven

Brad Pitt only recently won his first acting Oscar, but he has always been a brilliant actor whose hard work was overshadowed by his good looks. It's kind of funny how Kevin Spacey beat Pitt for Best Supporting Actor in 1995, and yet neither were nominated for Seven, as Pitt earned his first nomination that year for 12 Monkeys. He would go on to earn nominations for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button as well as Moneyball, but I've known since Seven that Pitt was much more than just a pretty face. He dazzles as Detective David Mills, a scrappy outsider with a depressed wife and a vibrating home in a new city brimming with rain and unspeakable violence. I wouldn't change a single thing Pitt does in this film, which is absolutely perfect. Every line reading is a gift, from "honestly, have you ever seen anything like this" to the desperation in his voice as he says "no" when John Doe points a gun at his head in an alley. And the look in his eye when he learns his wife was pregnant is priceless. The whole movie hinges on that moment, and Pitt sells it perfectly, because he allows us to see his character make the inevitable and irreversible decision that he does. I can't say enough about Pitt's work here. He just doesn't get the credit he deserves. Period.

1. Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network

As incredible as the three leads in Seven and Fight Club are, it's hard to deny Jesse Eisenberg's turn as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network as the best performance Fincher has ever elicited from an actor. Eisenberg's portrayal of the tech titan is aided, of course, by an Oscar-winning screenplay from Aaron Sorkin and an Oscar-winning score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, but the actor deserves credit for embracing his inner darkness to paint a picture of a truly unlikeable character who is willing to do whatever it takes, including screwing over his friends, to become a billionaire success story just so he can rub it in his ex-girlfriend's face. Eisenberg does an amazing job capturing the oily charm that Zuckerberg oozes, as well as the petty jealousy that drives him. The actor projects both a natural intelligence and a certain arrogance that fits Zuckerberg to a glove, and I truly wonder who else Fincher considered for this part, as there are so few actors who could do it justice. Fortunately, the director found the right man for the job, and Eisenberg eschewed all sense of vanity to deliver a searing portrait of a heartbroken nerd who craved power for all the wrong reasons, proving two adages at once "money can't buy happiness," and "be careful what you wish for." Hubris has never been dramatized with such frightening accuracy.

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About The Author
Jeff Sneider (1880 Articles Published)

Jeff Sneider is the Senior Film Reporter at Collider, where he breaks film and television news and curates the Up-and-Comer of the Month column in addition to hosting The Sneider Cut podcast and the awards-themed series For Your Consideration with Scott Mantz and Perri Nemiroff. A graduate of NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, Jeff started his career at Ain't It Cool News before moving to Los Angeles to write for Variety and later, TheWrap and Mashable. Jeff also served as Editor in Chief of The Tracking Board and has contributed to MTV Movies Blog, Hollywood Life magazine, Washington Square News and the Colorado Springs Independent. His Oscar picks have appeared on the LA Times' Envelope site, and he agrees with screenwriter William Goldman who famously said of Hollywood, "nobody knows anything." Jeff hails from Needham, Massachusetts and has never eaten a salad. He can be found on Twitter, Instagram, Cameo and Blogspot by searching his nom de plume @TheInSneider.

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