Ranking: The Films of Darren Aronofsky (Rob’s Take)
Darren Aronofsky is a favorite around here. I’ve been smitten since Fall of 2006 (yes, I remember it that clearly), when I encountered the jaw-dropping Requiem for a Dream. He’s one of the freshest storytellers to come along in some time: uncompromising in drive, earnest in responsibility, styled in visualization, and confident in vision. His films are categorically dark, graphic, claustrophobic, and often humorless. They are something you experience rather than view. Aronofsky’s work recalls a time when hip, postmodern amalgamation and pop-culture references and overt intertextuality (read: homages or theft) and detached voyeurism were not characteristics that passed as “good” cinema. He is more like a 1970s director, putting himself on the line and acting as if he had one more film to make every time out. Aronofsky does not, and hopefully never will, make films carelessly. He does what he wants because there is no point in expending yourself for passionless work. If you don’t like him, I feel you’re missing out. This man has given me as much cinematic “wow” as anyone else.
1. Requiem for a Dream (2000): For personal reasons, I don’t think this will ever be topped. It was my first Aronofsky film; it was one of the first (and only) films to indescribably blow me away and reignite my love for the medium; and it’s one of the few titles that has impacted me on an intensely emotional level more than once. The hip-hop montages, Snorricam, title cards, split-screens, haunting score, extreme close-ups…all of these things created an unforgettable viewing experience. After the stomach-churning, kinetic, disorienting climax, you’re drained and have had enough. But the repercussions for the characters are just beginning.
2. Black Swan (2010): It’s a close battle between this one and The Wrestler. I feel that the latter is more immediately identifiable, but the former is more intense and impressive. Like the #1 on this list, Black Swan is Aronofsky’s most effective example of go-for-broke, in-your-face filmmaking. It pins you to your seat and messes with your head. From a perspective of form, it tackles first-person subjectivity with numerous visual treats; from a perspective of content, it provides a lot of food for thought with regard to artistic aspiration and gender/sexuality. This strange thriller is worthy of the Academy nominations it received.
3. The Wrestler (2008): This is really the only Aronofsky film that is completely centered on one person. That is not to say that the others lack a main character or even an intensely subjective perspective. It is to say, however, that The Wrestler is about who a single person is (removed from plot). As such, Mickey Rourke gives the best performance in Aronofsky’s output. The pacing is slower; the visuals are less thrilling; the structure is less impressive; and the plot is less original. But the acting…the acting…wow. Rourke puts his very soul into Randy the Ram. As an added bonus, the film does a lot of other things right as well.
4. The Fountain (2006): Sorry, Brennan, this might be my “The Prestige” of this list. This is neither my genre nor my type of film; Aronofsky’s third feature did little to change that. I’ve seen it many times, and it continues to twist my mind into pretzels (in a way that I would not describe as “good”). I admire the structural, thematic, and visual ambition, but I can’t say that it offers me what the others do. The painstakingly schematic, symmetrical, painterly cinematography, however, is nothing less than stunning. That I must put such an imagery-laden feast so far down on my list speaks to Aronofsky’s brilliance and consistency as a director.
5. Pi (1998): Like Christopher Nolan’s Following, Aronofsky’s debut feature illustrates all of the promise of an upcoming virtuoso, but it would fall on the sophomore feature to fulfill such promise. You get subjectivity; you get claustrophobia; you get hip-hop montages; you get intensity; and you get confusion. What you do not get, in my opinion, is a fully realized, ultimately satisfying viewing experience. In any case, Pi announced to the world of film someone whose shoulders it might eventually fall on.