Darren Aronofsky is back. The polarizing Oscar nominee is causing a quite a stir with his latest movie, the Jennifer Lawrence-starring “mother!,” but anyone familiar with Aronofsky’s six previous features knows he’s always been a filmmaker who forces a strong reaction out of people. He’s been pushing the boundaries of his own filmmaking voice ever since “Pi” caused a frenzy at the Sundance Film Festival in 1998, and “mother!” proves he has no signs of stopping.
With “mother!” opening in theaters nationwide, we put all seven Aronofsky features against one another for the ultimate director ranking.
7. “Noah” (2014)
“Noah” is unquestionably Aronofsky’s weakest film, but that doesn’t mean it’s a total disaster. The biggest misstep the director makes in this $125 million Biblical epic is turning the odyssey of Noah into a sword-and-sandals showdown, complete with a hackneyed villain played by Ray Winstone. The story of Noah is far less interesting when presented as a “Gladiator”-meets-“Braveheart” clash of civilization. The flashier Aronofsky gets with the material, the more his interpretation of the text becomes a predictable slice of studio bombast.
“Noah” succeeds on a much more intimate scale, turning its central figure into an agonizingly conflicted anti-hero. Noah is seen by Aronofsky as a do-gooder tormented by the weight of God’s mission for him. He’s not a proud savior or a noble prophet, but a man who is driven to the brink of insanity over his failure to interpret what his visions mean. Noah is such a quintessential Aronofsky character — a self-harming obsessor — it’s no wonder the director was drawn to this story in particular. The movie is most compelling when we’re watching the character battle his own doubt and isolation. Aronofsky’s script also dives into cosmic tangents, like one thought-provoking sequence that tells the creation myth by fusing together strands of creationism and environmentalism. Most directors are never given a chance to interpret their own understanding of the Bible on a $125 million scale, and for that “Noah” is the rare misfire that still proves utterly stimulating.
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6. “The Fountain” (2006)
Ambition is one of Aronofsky’s biggest strengths, but “The Fountain” goes overboard with its narratives-within-narratives meditation on morality. There’s just too much story, too much theme, and too many recurring motifs to simply be able to begin to process what exactly Aronofsky is trying to do. The most simple and effective version of the story — love makes us mortal — gets anchored down and completely drowned out by what seems to be every musing on religion, love, and mysticism Aronofsky ever had. And so, “The Fountain” failed as a theatrical experience.
The director is not entirely to blame here. He originally conceived “The Fountain” as a $70 million movie but was forced to scrap his original script and rewrite it on a $35 million budget. The move stripped the plot down to its most basic form but retained all of the weighty ideas that probably felt more organic when the movie had a larger budget and more room to breathe. Aronofsky himself has called “The Fountain” his version of a Rubik’s cube. It’s an apt comparison for a movie that is forced to bottle up centuries-spanning ideas into 96 minutes. Somewhere there’s a director’s cut of “The Fountain” that’s a true winner.
5. “mother!” (2017)
There are really no words to properly describe “mother!” after seeing it just once. The gutsiest movie Aronofsky has ever made ranks #5 only because of timing; give it a few weeks, repeat viewings and it might climb higher. Who knows — in several months, it could even break into the top three. “mother!” is the most Aronofsky movie you could imagine. Only this director would even dare to try and tell a story this, and that alone is worth the price of admission. The movie mixes the thematic ambitions of “The Fountain” and “Pi” with the claustrophobic intensity of “Black Swan” to create a truly singular experience. If “Noah” was a canvas for Aronofsky to explore his own interpretation of the Bible, then “mother” is the director’s canvas to draft his own contemporary scripture. To say more would be a disservice. Avoid spoilers and buckle up.
4. “Black Swan” (2010)
“Black Swan” is a milestone in Aronofsky’s career as it marks the first time a movie of his landed Oscar nominations for Best Director and Best Picture. Whether you’re a fan of the movie’s off-the-rails descent into horror-melodrama or not, there’s no denying the sheer brilliance of Aronofsky’s visual approach here. He works intuitively with his longtime cinematographer Matthew Libatique to turn the camera into a dancer itself. The choreography of the lens creates a hypnotic claustrophobia that’s impossible to shake. Natalie Portman’s Oscar-winning performance wouldn’t be half as good without Aronofsky’s direction forcing you to witness up close and personal her psychological snap. Unlike a majority of his work, Aronofsky is working contently with a single theme here — artistic drive and the hunger for perfection — and it’s his direction that enhances, challenges, and explodes this theme. Everyone remembers “Black Swan” for Portman’s unhinged lead performance, but it’s really so memorable because it’s one of Aronofsky’s strongest directorial efforts.
3. “Requiem For a Dream” (2000)
“Requiem For a Dream” is often credited as one of the most disturbing films ever made, and for good reason. It’s not only the subject matter of drug addiction that’s hard to stomach, but the way in which Aronofsky presents the material as a never-ending cycle of montages that grow increasingly exhaustive and horrifying. The movie is a director’s film through and through. Some detractors complain that “Requiem for a Dream” is all style over substance, but Aronofsky’s style is the movie’s substance. Working with editor Jay Rabinowitz, Aronofsky creates a visual representation of drug addiction that’s on a whole new level of disorientation. His movie provides the nightmarish sensation of an overdose. You don’t just watch his characters spiral out of control, but you’re forced to spiral with them. “Requiem” remains a masterpiece of sensory cinema, and it’s no wonder Aronofsky never tried to top this kind of experience in the years since.
2. “Pi” (1998)
“Pi” is as audacious as feature directorial debuts get. Not unlike “The Fountain,” the film is always at risk of biting off way more than it can chew in terms of thematic reach, but Aronofsky’s script never gets lost in its musings on Judaism, mathematics, and mysticism. He stays focused on his protagonist Max Cohen, played by Sean Gullette with an unnerving ferocity. “Pi” is a character study disguised as a paranoid thriller, and Aronofsky finds the perfect way of making his grandiose themes feel organic by filtering them through Max’s POV obsessions. The director sees the world through Max’s eyes, creating such a bizarre and agitated study of obsession-turned-chaos that it leaves you utterly floored. For a director so intent on using cinema as a tool for contemplation, “Pi” easily marks Aronofsky’s best achievement. No other film of his tackles ambitious ideas as focused and unrelenting as this one.
1. “The Wrestler” (2008)
The smartest career move Aronofsky ever made was the decision to scale way back after the six-year journey of making “The Fountain.” “The Wrestler” was a rebirth of creativity and directorial instinct that the filmmaker has never quite been able to top. He takes a character firmly in his wheelhouse — Mickey Rourke’s Randy “The Ram” Robinson is so obsessed with professional achievement that his personal life has been completely shattered — and crafts a film far less aggressive than anything he’s ever done. Aronofsky’s filmmaking isn’t necessarily relaxed here, but it’s so fragile in its use of handheld close-ups and tracking shots that every emotion happening inside Randy feels amplified for the viewer. Aronofsky’s direction gives Rourke the stage to see inside his soul, and the actor delivers one of the great performances of the 21st century as a result. “The Wrestler” is a deeply-felt, human-driven miracle in Aronofsky’s otherwise relentless filmography. It’s a true masterpiece if there ever was one.