Many critics have already been praising David Fincher‘s “The Social Network”, but then again, when haven’t they praised one of his films? The deservedly semi-forgotten “Panic Room” notwithstanding, Fincher’s recent work has been grossly overrated in my opinion, the most befuddling example being “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”. So I wasn’t sure if I should trust the advance buzz on his latest, but it turns out that “The Social Network” is indeed a great picture, the first one by the filmmaker since “Fight Club” that pops with the same kind of energy and humor. I’d go as far as saying that “The Social Network” just might define this moment in time the same way “Fight Club” did for the late 1990s.

Adapted from Ben Mezrich‘s “The Accidental Billionaires”, Fincher’s film is a dramatized version of the story of how, while a student at Harvard in 2004, 20-year-old Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) created the social networking site Facebook which, as you know, went on to become a worldwide phenomenon, with more than 500 millions users. The story of the world’s youngest billionaire could have been triumphant, but the way it’s presented here, it seems more like it’s about how one seemingly needs to sell his soul and stab people in the back to reach such a high-level of success in the cutthroat business world.

Driven by a dark undercurrent of greed, ambition, envy, arrogance and pettiness, Aaron Sorkin‘s screenplay takes something as innocuous as Facebook and convinces us that it’s a symbol for the obsessively individualistic tendencies displayed by so many people in this era. Sorkin also brilliantly captures how some of today’s young people behave around each other, be they computer nerds, frat guys or rich kids. At the same time, the film elevates their struggles and conflicts to make them feel nearly Shakespearean. Like me, you might have thought that making a movie about Facebook was kind of a silly idea, but I’m telling you, “The Social Network” is taut, riveting storytelling. It’s been compared to “Cititzen Kane”, of all things, and there’s actually something to it. And it’s funny, too! Full of snappy, rapid-fire dialogue, it almost feels like a 1940 screwball comedy at times.

Visually, Fincher doesn’t show off like he’s often been known to, but this is as perfectly calibrated in every aspect as anything he’s ever directed. Shot with the state-of-the-art Red One camera (the same one Soderbergh’s been using on his last few films), “The Social Network” makes one hell of a case for digital cinema with its extra sharp, high-contrast images. The editing is also impressive, constantly cutting back and forth between the goings-on during the early days of Facebook and hearings years later during which Zuckerberg is confronted by former allies who are now suing him.

And then there’s the score which, if there is any justice, will be rewarded with an Oscar next February. Composed by Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor in collaboration with Atticus Ross, the “Social Network” music is incredibly effective. Sometimes quiet and minimalist, sometimes heavy and explosive, using both rock and electronic sonorities, it makes everything on screen feel more immediate, rousing, atmospheric… It’s hard to believe that save for some NIN cuts on the soundtracks of movies like “Natural Born Killers”, “Lost Highway” and “Man on Fire”, Reznor hadn’t been asked to score a film before. Speaking of music, I also have to mention the use of The Beatles’ Baby You’re A Rich Man as kind of a punchline to the film.

Finally, let’s not forget one of the major reasons why “The Social Network” works so well, and maybe why it will be mainly remembered for the future: the awesome young cast, which could be tomorrow’s A-list. I’ve been a fan of Jesse Einsenberg for quite a while now, and I also gave props to Justin Timberlake‘s acting abilities in the past, but here I was taken as well by the turns by Rooney MaraArmie HammerMax Minghella and especially Andrew Garfield as Eduardo Saverin, who’s sort of the moral anchor of the film.

For all these things, “The Social Network” easily ranks as one of the best films of 2010, and Fincher’s best work this side of “Fight Club” and “Se7en”. Don’t miss it.