Darren Aronofsky movies, like Pi, Requiem For a Dream, and Black Swan, are like nothing else out there, which is both to the director’s credit and maybe even to his detriment. Now, given what he’s done in the past, I highly doubt that he would even want to take on a Marvel movie these days or some other big tentpole project. But I also wouldn’t want to see a Darren Aronofsky Thor, or even that Batman flick he was supposed to do years ago. And this is because as grand and ambitious as Aronofsky’s movies are, his films are also extremely small and personal, which is why some of his movies really resonate broadly with audiences, while others feel like niche cult movies that only two or three people will enjoy.
But this is what also what makes Darren Aronofsky one of my favorite directors of all time. He makes Paul Thomas Anderson-quality films, but with way more nihilism. He filmed some of The Wrestler in my hometown of Dover, NJ, and while watching Mickey Rourke deliver his powerful final speech, I was amazed that this was the same director who made the maddening masterpiece, Pi, since the subject matter was completely different, but it still had that same undercurrent of darkness. Aronofsky’s next movie is The Whale, which is about a man with severe obesity, starring Brenden Fraser. But until that release, I thought it would be interesting to rank every one of Aronofsky’s films. Oh, and when you’re done reading this, please take the poll at the end. I’m interested to see what you think is his very best work. Everybody seems to have a different opinion of his oeuvre.
7. Noah (2014)
Darren Aronofsky’s most commercially successful movie (I’m serious), and the only PG-13 movie in his filmography, Noah suffers, not for ambition-sake, but because it doesn’t really know what it wants to be. It’s a big budget movie featuring warring factions and rock monsters, but also an extremely personal movie about a flawed man who thinks he’s screwed up everything since he wasn’t sure if he read God’s signs correctly. Out of the two films it tries to be, I think the second one is much more interesting, but we don’t really get nearly enough of that, as CG overwhelms this film.
Noah is an audacious film, and one that I really want to like, but it ends up falling flat. Russell Crowe is an interesting choice for Noah, as you can see the torment in his eyes, but the rest of the film is kind of lopsided. I don’t want to call a mess, so I’ll just say it’s not for me.
6. The Fountain (2006)
I want to be upfront. I don’t get The Fountain. At least, not all of it. Starring Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz, nestled in this cosmic love story are tales about a conquistador, a queen, and a scientist, and they’re all somehow connected through love and the quest for immortality. At least, I think that’s what’s going on here. In a lot of ways, I feel like it’s not the film that’s at fault, but me. Still, being me, I don’t love this movie.
Visually, it’s stunning, but I think it’s actually limited by its ambitious scope. What I mean is, whatever story it’s trying to tell is a bit marred by how epic it is. In that way, I feel like it’s trying to say so much, but not really saying much at all. Either way, The Fountain is a film I admire, but don’t necessarily like.
5. Black Swan (2010)
The film that garnered Natalie Portman the Academy Award for Best Lead Actress, Black Swan is a fever dream in the best sort of way. The story is about a ballerina who is caught between two roles and feels challenged by her understudy, played deftly by Mila Kunis. It’s labeled as a psychological horror thriller, and it definitely goes down that route. In fact, some scenes are downright terrifying.
Then again, doppelganger stories, like Us, terrify me. The mental collapse that Portman’s character endures is one for the ages, but it almost feels like the film around her is not as effective as her performance. I say almost, since it’s very close, and it’s an excellent movie. But I almost feel like it would have been better suited without Portman being just so good in her role as a paranoid ballerina.
4. Requiem For a Dream (2000)
Quite possibly the darkest movie in Aronofsky’s filmography, Requiem For a Dream is also that rare movie that I think is superior to the novel. Starring Ellen Burstyn, Jared Leto, Jennifer Connelly, and Marlon Wayans in a rare serious role, Requiem for a Dream is all about the damaging effects of drug addiction in its many forms, and what it can lead a person to do.
Requiem for a Dream is not a horror movie, but it certainly feels like one. Most notably the Ellen Burstyn moments when she becomes addicted to amphetamines. The plot goes from bad, to worse, to oh my God, I want to kill myself watching this movie, in a very short time, and it’s extremely effective in its depiction of drug abuse. If I have one complaint, it’s that the Jared Leto and Marlon Wayans sections aren’t nearly as impactful as the Jennifer Connelly and Ellen Burstyn sections, but it’s a very small complaint.
3. Pi (1998)
The director’s debut picture, Pi, unnerves me like few other films. I called Black Swan a fever dream, but Pi is like a fever NIGHTMARE. It’s about an unemployed mathematician who sees numbers in everything. This somehow ties into the stock market and how people can make predictions through math, or maybe even find God through math, and, no, oh no. I’m going down that rabbit hole again! Somebody help me, please!
Seriously, though, the film is just all consuming. It’s really the tone that sets Pi apart from other films, even within the director’s own filmography. The film is paranoia personified, and you really feel your skin crawling throughout its runtime. The black and white also helps. It’s rare that a debut film can set a director off on such an auspicious future, but Pi is that rare film that does it. It’s still highly effective, even today.
2. mother! (2017)
Okay, so here’s my one controversial pick, but I love mother!. I mentioned up top that Aronofsky does sometimes make broad, audience friendly films. But he also makes extremely niche movies that very few people will like. And mother! is definitely the latter. Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, and Michelle Pfeiffer, mother! combines the spiritualism (or lack thereof) of Noah, the claustrophobia of Pi, and the creepiness of Black Swan, and mixes them altogether in one of the most disturbing films I’ve ever seen.
I also think mother! is the kind of movie that people will appreciate in time. Upon first viewing, mother! is an unwieldy and weirdly aggressive movie. It’s a very angry film, and one that’s extremely off-putting. But there is something else lurking beneath the surface that is strangely alluring and even powerful. It’s more of a feeling than anything to do with the plot, and it’s one of the only films that has actively made me want to stop watching it. And anything that can disturb me that viscerally is excellent in my book.
The Wrestler (2008)
mother! is my favorite Aronofsky film, but The Wrestler is his best. I think it just might be because it’s so straightforward and direct. Mickey Rourke plays a washed-up wrestler who is estranged from his daughter. He tries to hold onto his glory days, but those years are long past, and we watch his struggle to come to grips with that.
The thing is, he never comes to grips with it, and like many of us who push ourselves way too hard despite our aging, The Wrestler is a testament to those of us who keep chasing our youth all the way to our graves. There really isn’t too much else to say besides the fact that it’s great. That’s just it. It’s great.