So I’m gonna gush pretty much throughout this one. Darren Aronofsky is one of my absolute favorite directors working today, and everything he puts out is worthy of discussion. He’s far from perfect but he has a style and sensibility that pushes boundaries and really incites some people. Each film is provocative, aggressive, and asks some hard questions that don’t have simple answers. His first film was released in 1998 and the guy has been consistently marvelous for twenty-one years now. I don’t know that I’ve followed any other director with as much loyalty and passion. Others have crept into my life and there are plenty better than Aronofsky, but his films have always spoken to me and have always commanded my attention.
Let’s get down to it.
- Noah : This is such a weird film! It’s probably safe to say this is everyone’s least-favorite Aronofsky film but that doesn’t make it one you should skip. A lot of people were pissed off with it due to the subject matter and the liberties he took with it. Giant rock-golems that are fallen angels desperate for redemption, a strange animal rights undertone, and an incredible set of performances weren’t enough to make this a massive success but it worked on me. I was uncomfortable with the casting of Russell Crowe but I was pleasantly surprised when I saw his work here. The sheer devastation of survivor’s guilt is intense and dangerous, and when he’s playing off Emma Watson giving the best performance of her career it really made a big difference. I think the film stumbles a lot in places, but these two put in some real talent. That shouldn’t overshadow Anthony Hopkins’s goofy role or Jennifer Connelley’s quiet matron because they also did great. I only take issue with one role – Ray Winstone. He’s not doing bad work but he ultimately feels very miscast. This is something so weird that it just has to be seen. Am I sorry that I picked this over The Grand Budapest Hotel when they came out alongside each other? Yeah, sort of, but this was still a fun theatrical experience.
- Requiem for a Dream : I’m going to get so much shit for putting such a seminal film so low on the list. Look, I love this film as I do all of Aronofsky’s work, but I think this is where it feels right to me. And what a film it is! Jared Leto in an absolutely amazing role, Jennifer Connelly giving one of the bravest performances I’ve ever seen, and Ellen Burstyn just going absolutely wild. Hell, Marlon Wayans is in this one the same year he made his name with Scary Movie (where he also plays a druggie, but he’s funny in that one). This is a movie where Keith David plays a vile pimp that runs some…uh…well he pays for things in heroine. The shooting style would become legendary, the little quick cuts that became known as “hip-hop montages,” were so new and eye-opening to me. No one in their right mind pops this on regularly as it’s beyond depressing and disturbing, but it’s one that I get the itch to watch again every few years. Oh, and I’d be remiss in my duty if I didn’t mention the absolutely incredible score from Clint Mansell (who would go on to score all but one Aronofsky film). Seriously, just listen to it.
- Pi : This was the first Aronofsky film released and the first one I saw. Found it in a two-pack at Best Buy back in 2006, the title intrigued me enough to go in blind with a director I knew nothing about and I was happy I did. Sean Gullette plays Max Cohen, a man obsessed with finding a repeating pattern in the number Pi to use as a method for manipulating the stock market. Along the way, he makes enemies of a Hasidic Jewish cult that believes the Torah is a mathematical sequence coded by God, as well as a Wall Street agent that wants his possible formula for her own purposes. He’s threatened with gun violence, assault, and by his own waning sanity. Mark Margolis plays Sol, his mentor that is scared for him and urges him to take a break. The whole thing is shot in a grainy black and white that leaves me unsettled every time I watch it. This has become one of the overlooked Aronofsky movies and I think that’s a damn shame because it’s a fascinating early look into what he wants to talk about. It’s a film about obsession, like every single other work he’s made, and it’s always held my attention.
- The Wrestler : Mickey Rourke got a comeback! He didn’t exactly make it last, but this film was a huge hit for the director and the actor. Randy “The Ram” Robinson (Rourke) delivers a great performance about a man obsessed with a comeback himself, his body falling apart as he struggles to make ends meet and trouble connecting with his daughter (Evan Rachel Wood). He’s also in love with his favorite stripper, Pam (Marissa Tomei) and his interest causes friction between her work and what she wants to do with her personal life. This is a very melancholy film, depressed about itself and done by a director who aimed high and freaked out audiences. Due to that whole affair, he made this, what is easily his most human and digestible film, and it shows. It’s a movie that served as a comeback for everyone involved, from Rourke to Tomei to Aronofsky himself. The whole thing is laden with a strange energy that doesn’t move quickly but demands attention. The wrestling community came out in support of the film’s accuracy about their lifestyles and it remains a fascinating piece of movie-making to this day.
- Black Swan : It’s fitting that these two remain coupled on my list as they’re meant to be companion pieces. The Wrestler and Black Swan are, in many ways, the exact same film. They’re both about performers desperate to be the best at their craft and willing to sacrifice personal lives, their physical health, and their sanity for it. Where The Wrestler was shot as a realistic, gritty drama, this film was shot as a surrealistic horror film complete with terrifying imagery, creepy tones, and music adapted from the original stage ballet by Clint Mansell. I know a lot of people remember this for the sex scene, but I remember the black bird-man, Vincent Cassel’s performance as a sexual predator, and the feeling of dread the film left me with. This one owes a lot to some older Roman Polanski films like Rosemary’s Baby or Repulsion. This is one of the films I revisit the most, and it always reminds me of how I felt that first night driving home from Omaha with my friend Chris as we listened to Radiohead and sparsely talked about the film. I think it’s going to be remembered eventually as a classic.
- mother! : Yup, I loved this one. It’s so weird! Most Aronofsky films have a surrealistic bend to them, a reality that is twitching with things beneath the surface. This one took reality and yeeted it out the window. This starts off as a story about a couple rebuilding a home in the woods, the wife happy to be alone with her husband. He’s a poet struggling with writer’s block and their relationship feels toxic from moment one. When Ed Harris and his family eventually show up everything goes to chaos. No one in this film has a name and no one in it is a true character, instead meant to be representational of beliefs and emotions. This is a biblical allegory that touches on the nature of how religions are created and why they may not be a great thing. It also serves as a representation of how humanity affects its environment and damages not only itself but its home. I’ve mentioned several times my adoration for Clint Mansell’s work with Aronofsky, but this is the film he didn’t score. Instead, the music was created by Johan Johannsson. After viewing the final product the decision was made by the composer and the director to remove all music and opt for stylized sound design instead. It works so perfectly and made an uncomfortable movie even harder to watch. This was my favorite film of 2017 by a wide margin, and I’m pleased to say that it’s continued to hold up for me.
- The Fountain : Y’all knew this was coming. Hell, I already wrote a whole article about my obsession with this film and it’s probably our most highly-viewed article. This is a love story, but it’s also a film about the obsession with death and how we cope with it. From the beginning, we’re given a slaughter, with conquistadors dying in the jungle as they hunt for the Tree of Life. We then smash over to a strange astronaut in a bubble as he rockets toward a dying nebula to save a dying tree. To top it off we’re also watching this man in the present day as he struggles to find a cure for his dying wife. The structure of this film asked a lot of the audience, offering questions and pushing people to decide what they thought of it for themselves. I watched this while half-alive after a huge meal with a friend and we were both baffled and delighted with it. I think it’s not only the best Aronofsky film but one of the best films ever made about its subject matter. This is my absolute favorite film and it’s one of our best stories. I continue to research it and pick up memorabilia here and there, from the graphic novel to a gorgeous custom case for my Blu-ray. If you haven’t seen it run, do not walk, to whatever place you can grab a copy or wherever you can rent it digitally. You won’t be disappointed, but it may take time for what the film truly is to sink in.
That’s my Aronofsky list! He’s one of my favorite directors and an absolute master of his art. I hope this pushed you to check him out if you haven’t and for those already into him I hope you revisit his work. I’d love to hear about your favorite Aronofsky films as well, so let’s have a conversation!