From the critically acclaimed Requiem for a Dream (2000) to the divisive and controversial mother! (2017), it has always been safe to say that Darren Aronofsky’s films indulge to the psychological torments of his protagonists who strive for greatness through the drive for perfection, but tend to crash and burn in a downward spiral of emotional and mental breakdown. Aronofsky’s films take us to the edges of his characters’ circular nosedive through the use of elaborate metaphors, grotesque images, expressionistic language and holistic punches. Through his stylistic approach, he helps us see what can’t be seen. He visualizes the unknown, or the ambiguity.
All of his films are intricately dedicated to be a character study as to how ambition can take you to the oxymoron of losing everything to win it all. From Pi’s mathematician to Requiem for a Dream’s drug addicts; from Black Swan’s principal ballerina, to The Wrestler’s dying fighter champ, we intimately see how these characters take a leap from inspiration to lunacy.
In this list, we break down Aronofsky’s filmography from best to worst. Despite some of it being a hit and miss, it will always be a fact that his films are with a signature stamp: recognizably dark, knowingly bizarre, distinctly Aronofsky.
7. Noah (2014)
Without a question, Noah happens to be Aronofsky’s weakest film, both in style and in substance. His biblical metaphors were lost in a sea of confusing visuals and blurry characterizations. His attempt to rationalize a story that isn’t meant to be rationalized is the biggest sin of the film. Maybe, the best way to tell a story that’s directly from an iconic biblical tale is to tell it as it is — no more rock monsters, no more incestuous creation-of-life twists, no more evil images from a supposed faithful and renowned hero. Tell it as it is. In irony, Noah has become his biggest commercial success to date, racking over $362 million at the box office. Despite of its derailed narrative, Aronofsky still proves to have produced a hit.
6. The Fountain (2006)
Aronofsky’s The Fountain is a preemptive diary of searching for the unknown, to set aside the dark pitfalls of grief. He introduces us to two characters, where Izzi (Rachel Weisz) is dying of cancer, while her husband Tom (Hugh Jackman) copes with the stress of losing her slowly. In this film, we see the actual rationale as to what causes the fear of death, or the fear of losing someone through death: that is, going to the unknown. Where and what is the unknown? Despite being relatively unanswered, Aronofsky shows value in giving one’s own narrative of after life as a form of escapade; what you believe is what you will see; hence, the importance of fantasy. We are taught the value of holding on to that belief, be it religion, fiction, or universal spirituality. The film discusses how science is not the actual end. Our minds can produce infinite possibilities. In spite of having a great premise, The Fountain is one of Aronofsky’s rather forgettable films. However, this film shows potential, and although considered a miss, it is only the tip of the iceberg to his grandiose, expressionistic films in the future.
5. Pi (1998)
In 1998, the world of auteur cinema gave birth to one of today’s most elaborate directors who happen to have won the Best Director trophy at the Sundance Film Festival for Pi. Shot in black and white, Pi makes us see through the eyes of Max Cohen, the obsessive mathematician who has been beyond committed in solving a mysterious equation to give order to the universe. Using the camera lens as the first person perspective, we see the craziness he dwells in his own brain. His search for meaning ended up as the search for his own sanity, as the madness of the world began to eat up his own behavior shown in a series of multi-layered metaphorical images, which ends up rather chaotic for a man who had dedicated his life for order. We are introduced how a director like Aronofsky can visually show us a person’s breakdown in a very intimate approach. This film will always serve as the baptismal of a brilliant director.
4. mother! (2017)
In terms of controversy and debate, mother! definitely has stirred a lot of love-hate, yet insightful conversations from both critics and audiences alike. Spoiler alert — Aronofsky did what no one has ever done: he gave mother nature a persona, and he brought Earth as an actual setting for a film’s storyline. He has managed to marry naturalism and expressionism, sprinkled with surrealism overkill in a frenzy circus of metaphors. He bravely eradicated the film’s actual plot to give way for his poetic language. There are no undertones; just an actual, primary tone of allegories. Perhaps others will see it as a crazy, nonsensical, even pretentious approach of an untold story, both style and substance, while others will perceive it as something off the charts in a monumental achievement. mother! proves that Aronofsky is as ambitious as his characters, and perhaps in the real world, his move is a directorial suicide; in the fantasy world, he is as avant garde as Kubrick, Lynch, or even Bergman. It is for the audience to see in which world they belong — not by choice, but by instinct. Aronofsky’s achievement in mother! is far beyond what cinema could contain.
3. The Wrestler (2008)
The Wrestler is a piece where Aronofsky proves that he can be as equally emotional and straightforward in a humane level, as he is dark and twisted in a euphoric realm. In this film, we see Randy, a retired wrestler who strives to be who he was born to be, even though he is physically hindered by a heart disease. We see him go through a downward spiral of wanting to earn greatness in his craft, despite him knowing that it will kill him. Again, the oxymoron of losing everything to become everything. The cheering of the crowd dulls everything else into background noise; the adrenaline running through his veins diminishes the physical pain he endures. We see a protagonist who would rather live a short, but passionate life, than a meaningless longevity. The Wrestler is surprisingly emotional and cathartic; not to mention, it is arched by a knock out performance by Mickey Rourke, in which I consider as one of the best male performances of the 2000s.
2. Black Swan (2010)
Aronofsky’s approach to The Wrestler is rather very similar to that in Black Swan, where one’s inspiration for creativity, and passion for craft becomes a masochistic obsession. In Black Swan, Aronofsky introduces us to Nina, whose craze for perfection led to a journey of losing herself, elaborately displayed in a psychological paranoia. Unlike The Wrestler who happens to be very in-your-face, Black Swan is a reminder as to who Darren Aronofsky is as a director. We are shown how he plays concoctions of reality and fantasy, as we see things from the perspective of a woman suffering from dual personality disorder. Her pursuit of reaching her full potential is shown through self destruction. Similar to Rourke, we have to recognize Natalie Portman’s iconic performance as Nina Sayers — one of the best female performances, perhaps ever.
1. Requiem for a Dream (2000)
Requiem for a Dream is, without a doubt, Aronofsky’s best. He found the perfect balance of sinister debauchery through the film’s fantasy sequences, and a tight-rope emotional rod that pulls the audience’s hearts in an emotional journey of witnessing these drug addicts’ distortion of reality as a form of escapade to narcotic dreamland. The film gave one of cinema’s greatest cast ensembles, showing absolute distraught, frustration and a crippling euphoria, as they show how they needed their own parallel universe to continue living in the actual world. From Ellen Burstyn’s haunting and iconic performance as Sara Goldfarb, to Jennifer Connelly’s hypnotic performance as Marion Silver, Aronofsky shows that he has not only mastered the technical works of an avant garde director, but also has impeccable skill in bringing out the best from his actors. Unquestionably, Requiem for a Dream is not only his best, but one of the greatest in cinema of all time.