Darren Aronofsky’s filmography may be small, but it’s also consistently solid. Even at his worst, Aronofsky still manages to create films with profound messages. His ability to experiment with different genres and filmmaking techniques is admirable. More importantly, his knack for capturing the darker side of life is almost unprecedented. Whether he’s making a movie about ballet or mathematics, Aronofsky always finds a way to deliver a melancholy story filled to the brim with depth.
Before the release of his upcoming horror-drama film mother!, it’s worth looking back at his tremendous filmography to evaluate which of his six movies is the strongest. Let it be known that each movie is worth a watch. The goal is to figure out which one is most worthy of attention. Not everything is created equal. Not even Aronofsky movies.
The response to Aronofsky’s last film has been polarizing to say the least, and it’s easy to see why. His first crack at the blockbuster genre did reasonably well critically, but the general public didn’t treat it quite as kindly.
The movie was accused of whitewashing a multicultural story, and the creative choices made by Aronofsky were also somewhat controversial. Even with the positive critical reception, it still failed to earn the same type of acclaim as his previous two films. Financial success aside, it definitely felt like a step in the wrong direction after the release of two critical darlings.
The controversy isn’t the only thing bringing Noah down in terms of quality. The movie is ultimately too ambitious for its own good. The tone is uneven, the characters are bland, and the big budget fails to mask the fact that the movie lacks thought-provoking ideas. Russell Crowe is a force to be reckoned with, but not even he can save the movie from a flawed narrative. His latest movie isn’t an unmitigated disaster, but it’s certainly a disappointment.
Fans of Aronofsky should still give Noah a look as long as they keep their expectations in check. The beautiful visuals and top-notch cast help distract from some of the more frustrating moments. These frustrating moments remain difficult to ignore, but they’re slightly more forgivable as a result of the more positive aspects. It’s a shame that Noah had to follow two of Aronofsky’s most memorable films, but certain viewers should be able to find value despite the evident flaws.
5. The Fountain
Aronofsky’s worst reviewed film is, to some degree, an underrated gem. It’s definitely less intelligence than it probably thinks, but it’s a fascinating ride nonetheless. It’s probably Aronofsky’s most ambitious film to this very day, so the fact that it occasionally stumbles isn’t entirely mind-blowing.
From the multi-layered narrative to the visuals littered with symbolism, The Fountain has a tendency to bite off more than it can chew. The tonal shifts are distracting, the story is muddled, and editing is hit-or-miss. However, when the movie is at its best, it’s a dazzling tale about mortality and humanity.
The multi-layered narrative consists of three stories taking place in the past, present, and future. Each of these stories has to do with immortality and grief. The interwoven themes are what drive the narrative forward. It’s a novel idea, but it’s also a risky one. For the most part, the risk luckily pays off.
The stories are so different that the constant tonal shifts ultimately damper the quality of the film. Ignoring the inconsistent tone, The Fountain uses its three stories to convey intelligent ideas. Aronofsky has a lot on his mind, and he does his best to shove it all into this strange fantasy adventure.
Originally, Aronofsky envisioned a much bigger movie featuring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett. Instead, he had to settle for a smaller budget with a different cast. The good news is that Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz do a marvelous job in their roles. Hugh Jackman’s portrayal of the grieving husband is crushing, and Rachel Weisz never ceases to surprise the viewer.
In terms of the visuals, the smaller budget never seems to take away from the unique effects. The smaller scale is only noticeable when you look at the length of the film. Though Aronofsky intended for the film to be something of an epic, the 96 minute runtime hardly feels epic. Instead, it often feels rushed. It seems as if everybody is trying to jam in as much content as possible. It’s a shame that Aronofsky never got to release a proper director’s cut.
If anything, The Fountain is an inconsistent work of art. It represents what people have come to expect for Aronofsky. It’s a little messy, but it has big ideas that are presented to viewers in unique ways. If Aronofsky were given the creative freedom he sought, would this be his greatest achievement? It’s hard to tell. Regardless, it’s still an interesting experiment.
Aronofsky hasn’t always been able to make his surreal movies approachable for mainstream audiences. His directorial debut is as strange as it is thought provoking, but its appeal is limited. If the grainy black and white cinematography doesn’t drive casual moviegoers away, then the chaotic math centered story can easily get the job done. Unlike Black Swan, Pi is unable to present complex ideas while simultaneously telling an accessible story. Basically, the movie is too damn weird.
Luckily, a movie’s quality is not determined by whether or not it can reach a wide audience. If that were the case, then The Tree of Life wouldn’t have been able to earn a Best Picture nomination. Pi may not be the best movie for a first date, but it’s more than capable of appealing to its target audience. People looking for an unconventional surrealist thriller will find a lot to love in this tiny package.
Aronofsky uses his bizarre story to make statements about religion, obsession, and the quest for perfection. Each subsequent viewing reveals a little more about what the film is attempting to tell the audience. The movie is undoubtedly tied to the subject of mathematics, but that particular subject exists only to further strengthen the underlying themes. This kind of philosophical depth is precisely what makes the movie such an artistic achievement.
Pi fails to reach the upper-half of the list if only because it has a tendency to feel slightly amateurish. Given the fact that it’s Aronofsky’s first movie, that shouldn’t be too surprising. The forgettable performances and clumsy editing can definitely bring down the overall experience, especially when you compare the movie to something like Black Swan. When viewed as a directorial debut, it’s unfair to put too much emphasis on the more technical aspects. The movie may lack polish, but it’s never short on interesting ideas.
3. Black Swan
Black Swan was Aronofsky’s first awards-season smash. While The Wrestler and Requiem for a Dream picked up some acting awards, Black Swan was Aronofsky’s first film to pick up nominations for Best Picture and Best Director at the Oscar’s. It also did exceptionally well at the Golden Globes and BAFTAs. What was it that made Black Swan such a critical darling? Aside from Portman’s haunting performance, the movie was also a visually engrossing treat that crawled under your skin and stayed there.
Honestly, Black Swan isn’t remotely close to the typical Oscar bait. It’s still very much an Aronofsky film. It’s the same type of dark, beautiful, thought-provoking film that made him famous years ago. It’s the type of film that should have been more polarizing. Luckily, this talented director sprinkles in something for everyone. The people put off by the creepy imagery may be able to dig the creative symbolism instead. The film somehow manages to hit all the right marks in order to make everyone happy.
Aronofsky also managed to pull an Aronofsky by making a not-so-interesting subject mesmerizing. This is a movie that can’t be described with a quick plot summary. It’s not just a movie about Natalie Portman learning how to dance. It’s an introspective look at a damaged woman seeking to achieve perfection. Like Pi and The Wrestler, the importance of perfection constantly lingers in the background. If it’s not directly given to the audience, this theme is at least implied throughout the entire runtime.
People have likely heard enough about Portman’s performance, so be aware that although there won’t be countless paragraphs dedicated to praising her, she is still exemplary. The same can be said about the costume design, art direction, and cinematography. In fact, almost every aspect of Black Swan is top notch. If at first it seems like a pretentious bore, give it time. It’ll surprise you.
2. The Wrestler
For those looking for a more grounded movie from Aronofsky, The Wrestler fits the bill. It’s a more straightforward film to be sure, but it’s still just as thought provoking as some of his more experimental flicks. At first glance, a movie like The Wrestler seems risky. Fighting movies are a dime a dozen.
Every year, it seems like countless big-name directors attempt to take on the genre only to fall slightly short. Bleed for This, Southpaw, and Hands of Stone are recent examples of sports dramas that have good intentions, but fall flat due to generic scripts. So how does The Wrestler manage to stand out in such a crowded field?
Upon its release, Rourke was no doubt the most talked about aspect. His comeback performance earned him countless award nominations. While he fell just short of the Oscar, there’s been much debate on whether or not Sean Penn deserved to take it home on Oscar night. Truthfully, Rourke gives the best performance of his career. His sensitive portrayal of the title character is unforgettable.
The movie is more than just a vehicle for Rourke. The Wrestler, like many of Aronofsky’s movies, deals with the fear of disappointment and the search for perfection. Randy Robinson is on a quest to relive his glory days, and it’s shocking to see how far he’ll go to achieve his goal. His cinematic journey is equal parts harrowing and inspiring.
With The Wrestler, Aronofsky shows that he’s a flexible filmmaker. His adoration of the surreal is pushed aside this time around. His more conventional approach to filmmaking only proves that he can be exciting without being strange. The Wrestler is an emotional gut punch that sticks with the viewer long after the initial viewing.
1. Requiem for a Dream
Requiem for a Dream is, without a doubt, Aronofsky’s most well known film. It may be surprising to learn that despite this, it’s not necessarily his most critically acclaimed piece of work. Both The Wrestler and Black Swan did far better with the critics.
Some critics claimed that Requiem for a Dream valued style over substance, while others found the cynical tone to be off-putting. The movie is definitely stylish, but the visuals rarely distract from Aronofsky’s message. The darker tone is occasionally hard to sit through, but it seems necessary in contrast to the more light-hearted drug movies that had become so popular during this time.
Requiem for a Dream is no Trainspotting. That is to say, it takes on the subject of substance abuse in a completely different way. Trainspotting was frequently accused of glorifying drug use thanks to its more comedic tone. Requiem for a Dream uses drug abuse to tell something resembling a horror story.
Aronofsky uses the anthology format to show addiction from multiple angles. None of these angles resemble the the kind of hilarious roller coaster ride found in Trainspotting. Each of the overlapping stories are bleak peaks into the lives of addicts. Each new frame is just as heartbreaking as the last. To put it bluntly, Requiem for a Dream will ruin you.
Aronofsky keeps things classy though. The movie depicts addiction in a way that’s hard to stomach, but he never paints the protagonists as villains. Instead, he shows the audience that these people are human. He simultaneously warns people about drug use while also making a statement that in many ways, the people are helpless. They continue to make poor decisions not because they think it’s the right thing to do but because they don’t believe there’s another option.
In other words, Aronofsky’s breakthrough film isn’t afraid to make a statement. This bold look into addiction is packed with symbolism and strong motifs, but that’s not all it has going for it. Claims have been made that the movie puts a strong emphasis on style, and while some think the rapid editing and vibrant colors detract from the message, others (including the author of this article) welcome it with open arms.
The way the movie is edited is almost anxiety-inducing. Shots rarely last more than a couple seconds, and they all come together to form a frenetic experience comparable to a bad trip. There are times when Requiem for a Dream will make you feel like you’re on drugs.
It’s well-written, it’s unique, and it makes you believe Marlon Wayans is a capable dramatic actor. What isn’t to love? The movie may come across as disturbing, but the most uncomfortable moments only exist to further emphasize the bigger picture. Minor complaints aside, this is Aronofsky’s magnum opus.
Author Bio: Justin is a paraprofessional teaching assistant and full-time film enthusiast with a degree in English. When he’s not writing about films, he’s probably watching them in his spare time.