By Josh Williams & Matt Neglia
Pain. Every single person in the world can relate to pain. Transferring emotional or even physical pain onto the format of film is something that continues to become increasingly rare. It has become directors focusing on characters at their absolute lowest point and glorifying that. It seems that recently at least, most directors seem to shy away from this. Obviously, there are still many directors who do not serve their stories with a cherry on top. One director who is the absolute maestro at glorifying pain is Darren Aronofsky.
Aronofsky’s filmography strictly deals with characters at a horrifying time in their life. He already begins his projects with his characters digging through the mud of life but then he begins to torture them further. The scariest part of Aronofsky’s work is that he manages to dig deeper. Instead of serving us a single terrifying experience he gives us multiple, sometimes the entire film is one massive traumatic event. He does not shy away from discomfort and at times he has even alienated his viewers. But one thing he has mastered through his shot composition, his editing, and his sound design is his ability to make you feel pain. Not only pain for the characters on screen but pain within yourself. You are witnessing these moments on screen with your hands over your face because you’re so afraid of what is to come. And with Aronofsky’s latest film “Mother!” arriving in theaters this weekend, we decided to take a stroll through Aronofsky’s entire career.
So here is NBP’s ranking of Darren Aronofsky’s filmography!
6. “NOAH” (2014)
More often than not indie directors will take their shot at a big budget studio blockbuster and attempt to get their vision through to the final cut. “Noah” is Aronofsky’s stab a studio blockbuster and while it may not be his most focused film, it is an admirable attempt. “Noah” is an incredibly loose re-telling of the incredibly well-known story from The Bible. Aronofsky’s version of the story takes quite a different turn than the one we all know which is a tad off putting at first but once you make it past the awkward storytelling bumps, it actually becomes quite admirable.
Even though the film has incredibly rocky moments within the screenplay, it still is quite a production. The overall scale of the film is absolutely massive. Not only is the cinematography absolutely stunning but the production itself is something that feels incredibly James Cameron-like. The ark that they build is complex and impressive. One might say that on a technical level, “Noah” is Aronofsky’s second greatest achievement as a director.
It does lose quite a bit of steam in its second and third acts but all in all, it is not a total disaster. “Noah” does move in a bit of a different direction than all his other films. It still focuses on all the tropes of his usual films: there is an obsessive main character who battles with their inner demons. “Noah” is not Aronofsky’s best film and some may say that is because the larger scale of the filmmaking did not suit his abilities and what we love about him. However, it’s an interesting take on a well-known story with powerful performances that goes in captivating directions. A misfire for sure but not an outright disaster.
5. “PI” (1998)
”Pi” deserves to be in the conversation for one of the greatest directorial debuts, ever. “Pi”, like most of Aronofsky films, does not have a clear cut plot but more so it revolves around a specific scenario. “Pi” revolves around a man who believes he can solve the stock market through the formula of pi. But in his research through the stock market, he becomes obsessed with the numbers and said formula, driving him insane.
One of the reasons that “Pi” works so well is that it possesses all of the early strengths that make Aronofsky an auteur. There is the realistic and mind expanding sound design. Aronofsky tells the majority of his stories through his soundscapes and often times his sound design tells a story of its own. “Pi” has some disturbing sounds like crowds murmuring in a weird town and the fast paced movements of Max leaving his home. The entire film is completely filled with moments that become twice as unnerving because of the sound design.
But the thing that makes “Pi” so impressive as a debut film is that it holds subtext. Aronofsky channels something that even seasoned directors cannot seem to grasp which is delivering a deeper more meaningful message. Aronofsky talks about how difficult it is to be obsessed with something and how that can drive you to actual insanity. Obsession is a big theme throughout Aronofsky’s career. It started with “Pi” and it continued throughout all of his films.
4. “THE FOUNTAIN” (2006)
There are some who feel that “The Fountain” is Darren Aronofsky’s single greatest achievement as a director. Still, over a decade later we are debating its filmmaking, its story, and its ideas. “The Fountain” is easily his most polarizing and divisive film. “The Fountain” deals with all the same themes that appear in his films but it adds a whole other layer underneath. It deals with characters and their obsession over one single thing, in this case, the fountain of youth. “The Fountain” is told over three different timelines with the two same actors. The first timeline takes place around the dark ages, the second would be in the modern era or the world we know today and the final timeline takes place in some sort of futuristic world.
Each timeline tells a different story between the two main characters but it all revolves around their hunt for the fountain of youth and ultimately their obsession over staying young forever. Aronofsky strikes a balance between all three timelines that is deliberately confusing and convoluted at certain points in the film but overall it is spectacular. It moves at such a methodical and intriguing pace in terms of story. The visuals are focused and beautiful, and all done on a $30 million budget.
The subtext touches into something we can all relate to which is how each person is consistently striving to live a longer and fuller life. The film speaks on a much more emotional and heartfelt level than any of Aronofsky’s other films. It does land lower on our list because of just how jumbled and discombobulated it becomes at times and this certainly divided the team over here at Next Best Picture. So if you’ve watched “The Fountain” and were completely baffled and dissatisfied, give it another try because it is quite possibly better than the first time you saw it.
3. “REQUIEM FOR A DREAM” (2000)
”Requiem For A Dream” is Aronofsky’s most brutal and bleak film. It currently is battling it out with “Mother!” for his most ballsy but “Requiem For A Dream” definitely delivers on a much more intense level than his other films. One thing “Requiem For A Dream” does that his other films do not, is focus on multiple characters and their obsessions instead of just one person. The film travels across a lot of different planes but it reels itself in to concentrate on four characters and their battles with substance abuse.
Each character abuses a different substance and we get to witness their battle up close and personally. The editing and the sound work in the film is truly glorious to witness. The sound of the characters abusing substances, from the sniffing to the injections, to the deep breaths and everything in between, it immerses you on a whole other level and it’s devastating.
The next thing that demolishes you as a viewer is the editing. The film is edited so quickly and at such a fast paced it’s almost difficult to keep up with. Aronofsky creates such an immersive and powerful viewing experience that it brings you to tears. The films entire third act is a constant emotional onslaught. It destroys you as a viewer and it’s a tough pill to swallow. Once the credits begin rolling your jaw will be hanging on the floor leaving you to wonder if you’ll ever want to experience the film again. For many, what keeps them coming back is the film’s performances. Ellen Burstyn gives quite possibly a career best performance and now Academy Award winners Jared Leto and Jennifer Connelly were so young that it is truly interesting to go back and re-discover their early work in this film. “Requiem for a Dream” is brutal, thought provoking and a truly insane film. But we keep coming back to it regardless.
2. “THE WRESTLER” (2008)
These last two films land in our final two spots because of Aronofsky’s rather specific approach to them. Unlike Aronofsky’s other films, “The Wrestler” is poignant and sensitive. It is also topped off by a career best performance from Mickey Rourke. “The Wrestler” is a film that revolves around a middle aged man who is trying to cling onto his glory days as a professional wrestler. Due to his age, he is damaged beyond repair physically and his damage is even worse mentally. But he is desperately clinging onto his glory days as a superstar and is consistently striving to be that again.
Aronofsky has stated that he tried to highlight a low brow sport and bring something that is viewed as dirty into the public eye. In terms of filmmaking, “The Wrestler” remains rather simplistic. The lighting design is well motivated and stimulating but in terms of the shot composition and editing, it does not try to dazzle. The visuals are definitely visceral in a few spots with the brutal and physical nature of the wrestling matches but overall, it feels much simpler than his other films.
What Aronofsky achieves with “The Wrestler” that is much more intriguing than some of the others, is he takes a step back from his typical strengths as a filmmaker and focuses purely on the performances. Rourke is an absolute revelation on screen and it’s riveting to watch. It’s like watching an old school 1980’s Rourke film and that makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up, to see this once gifted actor, rise back up from obscurity to remind us of how truly great he is. Mickey is definitely the stand out actor in the film but the entire ensemble is fantastic. Marisa Tomei is dynamite as always and so is Evan Rachel Wood in her brief role as Randy’s estranged daughter. “The Wrestler” is a brilliantly made character drama that created a different path for Aronofsky.
1. “BLACK SWAN” (2010)
Here it is. We’ve arrived. We’ve dug through all the blood, sweat and tears that is Darren Aronofsky’s filmography and finally, we have arrived at his magnum opus, “Black Swan”. “Black Swan” is a profound film and one of the most ingenious psychological thrillers to have ever been made. “Black Swan” is Aronofsky’s greatest film because it combines all of his greatest strengths into a single package. The sound design, the cinematography, the editing, the music by frequent collaborator Clint Mansell, the performances, everything. “Black Swan” is an overwhelming motion picture that is pure cinematic bliss and another brilliant stand out from a filmmaker who has already given us so many memorable films.
“Black Swan” revolves around a ballet dancer striving to be the greatest dancer to ever hit the stage. This goal is materialized through her achieving a part in the production Swan Lake. At first, the director of said production (The always terrific Vincent Cassel) believes that she does not have it in her to achieve the complexity required to play this role. But he casts her anyways in hope of breaking her out of her shell to achieve the darkness required to become the black swan. He describes that she is perfect to play the white swan but she needs to dive much deeper to become the black swan.
The film is told through such a personal and complex lens. Not only is this the most focused of Aronofsky’s projects but it is the most accomplished of his. On top of his filmmaking aspects being perfected, he also perfects the metaphorical aspects of the screenplay. He creates this aura and mood that is effective throughout the entire film. This same feeling arises from each of his films but it seems much more special and unique in “Black Swan.”
Natalie Portman is at her absolute best in this film too (That is until her extraordinary turn in “Jackie” last year), which earned her an Oscar for Best Actress. “Black Swan” is easily Portman’s most intense and physical performance. Not only does she channel this innocent and fragile “white swan” but she also transforms herself into the dark and terrifying “black swan” by the film’s third act. She completely encapsulates the character that has been written for her and she dances her way to perfection leaving us in cinematic heaven.
“Black Swan” is an excellent and piercing piece from Aronofsky. It channels of all his strengths, thus making it the best film he has ever made. One could say he has never made a terrible film and that to list his filmography is absolutely impossible. This is our general consensus and if you disagree with our ranking or feel a different film of his deserves the number one spot, let us know in the comments below. Also vote for your favorite Aronofsky film on this week’s poll here and be sure to also check out Aronofsky’s latest film “Mother!” this weekend in theaters.