This essay was written before the release of Noah (2014). It will be updated… sometime.
The work of director Darren Aronofsky is at the same time jarring and striking. His films, though unnerving both in story and look, have an elegance that is worth distinction because of their subject matter: drug abuse, self-destruction, wrestling, manipulation, paranoia, death, and so on. Besides that, he is a filmmaker with good movies and is thus deserving of a films-ranked list. From the top:
1. Requiem for a Dream (2000)
The fact that people re-watch Requiem for a Dream is incredible. It has such a miserable, unsettling ending and overall message, so how could anyone be roused to watch it more than once? I’ve seen it around a dozen times—it is so visually and structurally interesting that its excellence as a film renders it worth viewing despite the nightmarish subject of its story: demise from heroin addiction. In other words, as a work of art in the medium of film, it is beautiful. Hundreds, probably thousands of films are beautiful, but since Aronofsky achieves it with such an ugly story, Requiem for a Dream is his most impressive and accomplished work.
2. The Wrestler (2008)
Like Requiem, The Wrestler isn’t pleasant to watch. It’s raw, emotional (painful, not heartwarming), and moreover, depressing. It follows the life of a has-been pro wrestler desperate to restore amity with his family, self, and career. The outcome is debatable (whether or not he has made peace), but its mode of delivery is anything but cheerful. Visually, the film is equally as rugged. Handheld tracking shots and unabridged violence aid in the realness of the story—there is nothing Hollywood about it. Above all, The Wrestler is original. Because of that, and its superb correlation between cinematography and storytelling, it earns the number-two spot in the ranking.
3. Black Swan (2010)
Black Swan carries on the Aronofsky tradition of a self-destructing lead character but adds an element of haunting surrealism. Following suit with its predecessors, it’s not fun to watch. It’s magnificent and all that, but pushes the line of creepiness. That said, you can’t go wrong with both Portman AND Kunis.
4. Pi (1998)
Despite having a tiny, black-and-white budget, Aronofsky’s lesser known debut is surprisingly consistent with the look and feel of his blockbusters. It’s shot in that recognizably disturbing style and its storyline is no less discordant. Speaking of storyline, this could be Aronofsky’s most bizarre screenplay. Without giving too much away, a mathematician, Maximillian, is aggressively pursued by various parties for his knowledge of the formula to life (or something like that). The viewer struggles with Maximilian through the entire film but the end is a treat for them both.
5. The Fountain (2006)
The Fountain is the furthest from the pack in terms of theme, structure, and look. It’s the easiest to see… but probably the most confusing to watch. Let me explain: it’s pleasant on the eye but a little sporadic for the brain. There’s three parallel storylines—not instantly obvious without a synopsis—that have nothing to do with each other save for actors and theme. Connected by match cuts, each story progresses in a quest to preserve life. And it’s stunning! Rich, warm, and luminous settings take the place of the dark and sharp photography characteristic of the rest of his oeuvre. It is interesting, but not quite as powerful as the others. Ironically, it had the biggest budget.
Ranking these, I realize that I have not as much created a best-to-worst list as I have a compilation of great films. There’s really no bad egg in the bunch and I recommend seeing them all. That said, my order stands; I like each just a little more than the one before.