Ranking the Movies of Darren Aronofsky

When it comes to movie directors, there are many that I really love; there’s Steven Spielberg’s almost flawless filmography, the incredible eye of Alfonso Cuarón or Guillermo del Toro, or the unique styles of Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard. Honestly though, as much as I love and respect all of the filmmakers I just mentioned, when I’m asked who my favorite movie director is (and I’m not because who the hell goes around asking that?), I immediately go to Darren Aronofsky.

Ever since I saw Requiem for a Dream in 9th grade, which was also one of my first approaches to more artsy cinema, there’s been a weird connection I get when watching his movies, and it has only grown stronger since. With every new movie, I’ve discovered that this guy, as a visual storyteller, has a direct line to my soul. There is no other filmmaker that can so easily cause such potent aesthetic and emotional reactions in me. Yes, some of the credit is shared with long-time collaborator and giant fucking genius Clint Mansell (who then went on to compose music for Mass Effect 3, one of my favorite videogames of all time), but that’s a whole other story.

Aronofsky also has an uncanny ability to involve me in stories with backgrounds I would have never been interested in otherwise, and that is probably one of his greatest achievements, since I’m pretty difficult when it comes to truly involving myself in art (it’s hard for me to really fall into something, but when I do, hold on to your fucking hats).

There is not one movie in his six-feature-film canon I don’t love, but of course there are some I love harder and sweatier than others, so let’s talk Aronofsky, and let me rank all his movies, from my least, to my favorite (which could be considered my favorite movie of all time), starting with . . .

6. Noah (2014)

I gotta admit that even despite the faith I have in the D-Man (his real fans call him D-Man), I approached Noah carefully. From the beginning of production, there were signs that this might not be a purely Aronofsky experience, and that there might have been some touchy grabby from execs. Also, despite following large movies like Black Swan or The Wrestler, something about this one gave me the impression of being targeted more towards a mainstream audience.

From outside, it looked like a Ridley Scott epic (I don’t like Ridley Scott epics, Gladiator notwithstanding), and even the trailers lacked his signature style. Seeing some negative reaction, even from some of his fans, was a bit wary. Which is why I was very surprised when I saw the Fountain-esque celestial vault a few minutes into the movie, and I got misty eyed from the visuals alone; I immediately I knew my worries were unfounded.

For a while it’s been a rule with me that whenever I actually feel something powerful when watching a movie, be it something so emotionally charged that it makes me cry like a bitch, or something so beautiful it just makes me believe in God, I can’t bring myself to hate it. No matter how stupid or pretentious it might be.

I don’t think this movie is stupid or pretentious, though. I felt that there was a certain layer missing, but I cannot put my finger on it. The climax involving Hermione’s babies was dramatic and intense, and Noah’s conflicts were very solid. But there was a certain epic grandiosity to it that felt out of place in an Aronofsky movie, where everything epic and grandiose is usually personal. I don’t want to see big epic battles or some stock villain playing The Devil. I wanted the story to focus on the deaths and rebirths of the world, a family, and a man’s faith.

That Creation scene was incredible, though. Telling the Bible’s creation myth over a montage of scientific evolution is genius.

5. Pi (1998)

I remember being too confused to really say I loved Pi the first time I saw it, but the fact that I finished it, and was engrossed by it, when I was just a fifteen year old kid with a barely germinating interest in film speaks volumes of its genius storytelling.

Aronofsky’s films do something incredibly well: they take any theme, any setting, and transform it into something universal. Yes, math is universal to begin with, but its understanding is not, so having the lead character talk about how numbers are the language of God, and managing to make this idea completely understandable to a layman, and relatable on a personal and existential level, is brilliant. Not anyone can do something like this so effortlessly.

Despite having seen the movie many times, though, I always feel like that some of the drama is somewhat artificial, but then again in a movie like this that might be entirely intentional. Some of the subplots feel unnecessary, and when everything wraps up in an Aronofsky-brand explosive climax, suddenly the missing pieces feel like narrative betrayal (yes, I just put those two words together and no, I’m not particularly fond of my farts).

Still, Pi is a prime example of Aronofsky’s knack for making me like something I would hate in anyone else’s hands. If you told me someone made a pseudo cyber punk movie about math shot in high-contrast black-and-white film (most likely the result of budgetary limitations and not really an aesthetic choice, though I’d believe it I was told otherwise), I would’ve groaned and skipped it.

4. The Wrestler (2008)

Once more: I don’t like wrestling. I don’t really understand it or care much about it. Yet when I was watching this, I was given a really layered look into a sport that’s generally considered artificial, shallow and frankly dumb. I’m not even talking about Ram's personal story here, I’ll get to that later, I’m talking about the light shed on the actual sport.

Suddenly I began to much better understand the nuances of pro wrestling, the complicated politics backstage, the sense of camaraderie and artistry involved with its athletes, and the serious fucking danger they put themselves through only to put on a show for drunken assholes. This is, narratively, one of Aronofsky’s most layered stories, because there is so much more going on than what we see in the foreground.

And again, when I say “the foreground” I’m talking about Ram’s journey, which seen from outside isn’t really anything out of the ordinary. Almost every single aspect of his journey has been explored before in other movies, but the way it’s put together here, how carefully constructed the plot and the characters’ relationships are, turn it into something extremely complex and extremely personal. It gives me the same feeling PT Anderson’s Magnolia does: this shit is real; this shit is life. I’m sure hundreds of people saw parts of themselves reflected in Ram, even if they don’t have a whole lot in common with him on the outside.

Part of this is obviously thanks to the incredibly powerful performances from pretty much everyone involved. Aronofsky can always squeeze out phenomenal performances from his cast, but he really knocked it out of the park here. Mickey Rourke, obviously, but Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood in particular were shockingly good.

It’s crazy how much I liked this movie, especially considering it almost completely lacks Aronofsky’s weirdness that I love so much. I’d love to hear him talk more about this one, and why he chose to do it (though I have theories). Despite being a decidedly "Darren Aronofsky" movie, it is far more grounded and straightforward than the rest of his work. I appreciate the range, but I wonder if it could've been better if he hadn't restricted himself from being weird.

3. Requiem For A Dream (2000)

I’ve seen this movie a million times, and every single time, in the end, it’s impossible for me not to feel like someone kicked my heart in the dick.

I need to say that drugs is probably my all-time least favorite topic in movies or books. I really don’t believe that there are many interesting stories to be told about drugs. I couldn’t watch Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas. I can’t stand movies about drug trafficking. Even Breaking Bad failed to grab me like it seems to have grabbed everyone else (though to be fair that one doesn’t really focus on drug use). Though there’s inherent drama in the idea, I just don’t find it interesting at all. I don’t care about junkie characters.

Nothing else had ever made me fall in love with junkie characters like Requiem for a Dream does (many movies and shows make me pity them, but that's not the same). Trainspotting comes close, but my love for that comes from something else. I loved the setting, the humor, the energy, and of course the performances; the topic of drugs is still my least favorite aspect in that movie.

That is why it’s criminal that this story takes the four lead characters where it does. I can’t say I personally related to anyone (though I did see a lot of a now deceased family member in Ellen Burstyn’s character), but that’s only when I look at the story from the outside. When you look at the dynamics and relationships just a little closer, which is remarkably easy thanks to the brilliant writing, you can see see eye to eye with all of them. It’s so well narrated, you don’t even find yourself questioning their addictions, actions, or motives, which is fucking crazy, when you think about it.

But the real reason why I loved Requiem, and why it made me fall in love with Aronofsky as a storyteller is the presentation. Few movies do such a great job of visually representing the hellish reality of addiction like Requiem for a Dream does. The quick cuts, visual effects, incredibly powerful score (which the advertising industry tried really fucking hard to ruin), and D-Man-Brand montages make you sick to your stomach, often making you wish the whole thing would just end. Adding to that the grotesque images that I still have engraved on the back of my mind, and the fact that this thing spends so much time making you love the cast of characters before torturing them worse than George RR Martin could ever dare to try, turns it into a living nightmare.

Like with The Wrestler, this shit feels real. Jared Leto, Jennifer Connelly and Marlon Wayans (yes, the one who played the kinda-gay guy in Scary Movie) mess you up with some high caliber acting, maybe the best Aronofsky’s ever squeezed out of his actors, but for me it always boils down to Ellen Burstyn. I don’t even want to talk about her. Just thinking about Sara’s story breaks my heart. I still remember the shot of her two friends hugging outside the hospital at the end, and how that was the very first time I cried in a movie as an adult. Considering every other character ends up in a similarly depressing situation, having one stand out so much is incredible.

Oh, and this movie completely ruined Keith David for me. Forever.

2. Black Swan (2010)

Fun fact! One of my favorite anime movies of all time is/was Perfect Blue. I remember thinking it was really neat that D-Man got the rights to that movie only to recreate the famous bathtub scene in Requiem. I didn’t make the connection until later, but when I discovered that Black Swan, probably his most critically praised movie, mirrored Perfect Blue in many ways, I found a whole new layer to an already layered movie.

I’ve always felt that The Wrestler was his way of preparing for Black Swan—it was a first incursion into mainstream filmmaking in which he kept his instincts under a shorter leash. When it came to Black Swan, it’s like Aronofsky knew exactly how far he could take all his crazy ideas without alienating the mainstream audience (like he did with The Fountain).

The result is the ultimate Darren Aronofsky movie. There is literally nothing he did wrong with this film. He took an easily recognizable subject, placed an immediately relatable main character front and center, and put her through familiar territory before adding layer upon layer upon layer of narrative devices. It’s ridiculous how complex this movie really is.

Black Swan can be appreciated from the shallowest level, and it’s still an engaging and passionate drama. But if you try to go a bit deeper, you begin to understand just how carefully thought-out it really is. There is so much more going on with Nina than her career as a dancer and the explorations of her repressed sexuality. Like The Wrestler, the drama is built with ridiculous attention to detail, and the result is a story that affects the viewer in impossibly subtle ways. It goes much farther than the painful looking scenes of transformative self-abuse. It goes farther than the complex web of interpersonal drama between all the characters. It goes farther than I’m able to explain in just a few paragraphs.

Black Swan takes everything Darren Aronofsky does well into a perfect storm of filmmaking awesomeness. It has the complex characterizations of The Wrestler, the elaborate symbolic weirdness of Pi, the visual flair of The Fountain, and the powerful emotions of Requiem for a Dream. Like I said, I still think Black Swan is the definitive Darren Aronofsky movie.

. . . but still it doesn’t hold a candle to—

1. The Fountain

I want to write an entire post dedicated the The Fountain. I still might, but for now, I’ll do my best to hold myself back in these paragraphs, because I know how I get when I talk about this film. If I sound a little cuckoo’s nest, try to keep up.

I like to say that The Lion King is my favorite movie, but honestly I’m not really able to pick one between that, The Constant Gardener, The End of Evangelion and The Fountain. Any one of them could be my favorite movie, and though they’re all very different, I like them all for more or less the same reasons. I won’t go into that because this post is already long enough.

I said before that I think Black Swan is Aronofsky’s definitive movie because how well it manages to appeal to every aspect of filmmaking. That is great, but the reason why The Fountain is #1 is because how well it manages to appeal to every aspect of me. There isn’t one thing in this movie that I didn’t feel was tailor made for me, down to the casting choices.

Everything: every frame, every theme explored, every note of the soundtrack, every line of dialogue, every clever visual allegory, hits home. Thanks to the fact that it’s smart enough to be short, I’ve watched this more times than I’ve seen any other movie (though probably not; I’ve seen The Lion King and End of Evangelion a fuckton of times). I’ve analyzed every scene from beginning to end, and I love the way it makes me feel. It’s not even an intellectual effort—I’d go as far as describe it as a spiritual exercise.

Though if there’s a word I use to describe this movie is ‘transcendental’. If a robot walked up to me one day and asked me to define art, I would make him watch The Fountain, because it’s the closest tangible thing that truly encompasses the irrational nature, or idea, of art. I look at it and see something so unique and beautiful, I don’t even use it as an artistic inspiration for my own creations. I don’t dare.

Even after reading the “extended cut” that is the graphic novel, I feel like the answers it has do nothing for the story. Irrational ideas like love or death can’t be properly explored rationally, which is why this movie benefits from its ambiguity. All you need is to have the ideas presented to you in a way that will make you perceive them as beautiful, and your heart does the rest.

That’s why it’s hard for me to talk about The Fountain without sounding like I forgot to take my meds. I could talk about the screenplay, or the performances, but that’d be missing the forest for the trees, even if they’re some great fucking trees. Like I said, ignoring the big picture, I love the details. I love the incredible amount of visual metaphors, the space porn, the clever special effects, the soulful performances, and of course the soundtrack.

I won’t go deep into the soundtrack. Suffice to say it’s my favorite of all time. I want to study the sheet music and then go crazy because I can’t understand how someone could conceive something as overwhelming as this.

Jesus, I really climbed Mt. Crazy here, didn’t I? Well, okay, if it helps, let me say this: there is no other movie of which I’d speak this way. I can explain with incredible detail why I think The Constant Gardener is the best narrated story ever put to film, or why The Lion King needs to be watched by everyone on earth—not with The Fountain. I wish I was eloquent enough to articulate why I love it as much as I do, but I can’t. This shit is another level for me. To the point that it’s hard to believe this movie was conceived and shot and edited and put together. To me it almost feels like something we discovered, like it was left behind by someone else for us to find.

Hope you enjoyed my ranking. If you got one, share it in the comment section, just over yonder.
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About The Damn Beast

Pre-op trans-minotaur, sci-fi/fantasy/horror author, metal singer, videogame journalist, pop culture blogger. I also lift heavy things and put them down again repeatedly to occupy more space.
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