Ranking the Films of Darren Aronofsky: Nick’s List

Unlike our previous rankings of the films of Wes Anderson, I don’t know any of us here at Film Illiterates who have ever claimed to be big fans of Darren Aronofsky. Sure, between all of us I’m sure we had seen most if not all his films, and we certainly appreciated the work that went into them, but none of us would probably list him as one of our favorite filmmakers. But with the release of Aronofsky’s Noah this weekend, I thought it would be a perfect opportunity to go through his short filmography (he’s only made five films up to now) in an attempt to patch some holes in my cinematic knowledge and better understand the man behind this upcoming biblical epic.

5. Requiem for a Dream (2000)

This may in fact be Aronofsky’s best film, but for me it’s one that I have little to no interest in seeing again. Not because of its technical or artistic merit, but rather because of just how dark and depressing it is. Requiem is a powerful and devastating story of addiction that doesn’t hold back to show us the lengths these characters will go to get their next high, a high that isn’t limited to just recreational drugs.

Aside from that, Requiem is really when Aronofsky came into his own as a filmmaker. Yet, there is still something amateurish about it, and I mean that in the best possible way. Here, he’s like a film student with a budget, expanding upon techniques he previously pioneered, while also experimenting with new ones. Fish lenses. Split screen. Montages. Time-lapses. Aronosky uses these tools not to show off, but to get us inside the characters’ heads. The cuts become quicker as they enter their high, and slow down as they sober up. As a result, we feel their tension, their fear, their paranoia.

Also worth mentioning is Clint Mansell’s score. Like Aronofsky’s direction, this is where the composer truly comes into its own. The main theme is one of the most recognizable pieces of film music, having been used in trailers throughout the early 2000’s (a special arrangement was most notably used for The Two Towers trailer).

4. Pi (1998)

Never has mathematics been so fascinating. It may be Aronofsky’s first film, but it’s a great first film, showing us the promise of a filmmaker wrestling with the themes and styles that would come to define him. Thought out, exciting, and precise, Pi is experimental. A high contrast, black and white, low budget thriller that focuses more on the mind than it does on any sort of external tension. Through the use of fast cutting montage, Aronofsky literally gets us inside the head of his lead character. Sorting through numbers and permutations, the film is cut like an action movie.

The film delves into ideas that I’ve always been fascinated by (the Bible code, Jewish mysticism, the golden spiral, etc.), even if I don’t necessarily believe in them. But it’s apparent that Aronofsky, like his characters, is a man searching for the truth. While the ideas are not necessarily the same from film to film, he always manages to tap into our universal desire to know and understand the mysteries of ourselves and those of the universe.

3. The Fountain (2006)

The Fountain may be Aronofsky’s most divisive film. It’s a film I didn’t get the first time I saw it. I understand it better now, but still feel there is much to be discovered upon further viewings. It’s a meditation on life, death, and immortality. But perhaps more importantly, it’s a meditation on grief: how we react and the different ways we cope with it.

Spanning a thousand years between Spanish conquistadors, modern day medical researchers, and far flung space dwellers, Aronofsky uses nonlinear editing techniques and match cuts, frequently jumping between all three timelines in a single scene. But it’s his use of light that really drives the story. You could turn off the sound and still be able to track Hugh Jackman’s story arc just through the cinematography.

Each storyline starts with a dim light that gradually grows brighter as the film unfolds. As the Hugh Jackman character steps further into the light, his character comes closer and closer to understanding the truth. In fact, there are moments where the lighting doesn’t match between characters, but it’s thematically consistent with their individual journeys.

2. The Wrestler (2008)

Aronofsky pares down his style here, presenting a raw, honest look at a man who’s on the ropes and doesn’t know what to do. The film is the least like his other works, at least in terms of visuals. It’s sparse and gritty, but in an unsensationalized manner. Even the wrestling matches themselves have a sort of tired weariness to them. They lost their extravagance long ago. It’s as if after the failure of The Fountain, Aronofsky decided he needed to cleanse his cinematic palette and reprove himself, just like the titular character.

But at its center, The Wrestler explores all the same themes Aronofsky has been dealing with throughout his career, particularly grief and loss. Is the story a familiar one? Yes. Are the characters recognizable? Yes. But Aronofsky elevates the material to a level where cliché becomes unrecognizable, perhaps even extraordinary.

1. Black Swan (2010)

Black Swan is such an assured piece of filmmaking. It knows what it is from its first frame to its last. Perhaps the most classical film Aronofsky has made, there are images throughout that feel like they were lifted out of the Powell and Pressburger films of the 40’s and 50’s, which would make sense as their 1948 film The Red Shoes is one of the great ballet films of all time. Add to that a few touches of Polanski and Hitchcock and you have a haunting psychological thriller that plays like a waking nightmare.

In many ways, Black Swan is a companion piece to The Wrestler. Some would consider wrestling to be the lowest form of performance art (that is, if they considered it art at all), while ballet is sometimes considered to be the highest. The Wrestler is about reclaiming old glory, while Black Swan focuses on the pursuit of perfection. Both performers make incredible use of their bodies to express themselves, even if it means sacrificing themselves for their art.

Darren Aronofsky’s films are visually stunning and thematically complex. While I admire them a great deal, I can’t say I have any emotional connection to them. But that hasn’t lowered my expectations for Noah. In fact, watching his films has given me a greater appreciation for the filmmaker. Aronofsky to me seems to be a man in search of the truth. While he may not have the answers, his explorations seek to challenge the audience, something that is a rarity in modern cinema. With a blockbuster budget and a story that has already touched the hearts and souls of millions, Aronofsky has the opportunity to make something truly spectacular. Something tells me he’ll be up to the challenge.

Noah will be released this weekend, March 28th. Aronofsky’s other films can be found in various formats On Demand and on Blu Ray.

Nick van Lieshout is an aspiring filmmaker and screenwriter.  You can follow him on Twitter @Shout92.