2000: “Requiem for a Dream” (dir. Darren Aronofsky)
Darren Aronofsky’s 1998 debut “Pi” announced the arrival of a filmmaker for whom the concept of the psychological thriller was basically a mission statement. Yet that jagged, unnerving look at one man lost in his own head was a tight proof of concept compared with Aronofsky’s stunning sophomore effort. “Requiem for a Dream” was hardly the first movie to dig into the unruly extremes of drug addiction (“Panic in Needle Park” was nearly 30 years old by then) but it was the first to worm its way into the core of that sickness and convey the fundamental terror from the inside out.
Aronofksy transformed Hubert Selby Jr.’s novel into a harrowing depiction of addiction’s crippling effect across multiple generations, from the heroin addiction of Harry (Jared Leto) and his cohorts to his amphetamine-addled mother (Ellen Burstyn, who scored an Oscar nomination). Yet despite the many disturbing twists of “Requiem” that veer into sheer visceral horror territory (look out for that fridge!), Aronofsky manages to imbue his characters with profound empathy, which means every shocking moment registers with bonafide suspense rather than outright exploitation. It’s a balance that Aronofsky tapped into later with “Black Swan,” “Mother!,” and yes, even “The Whale,” as he forged a career in exploring the maladies of deeply unhappy people and charting unexpected paths toward redemption. In the process, he inspired a generation of filmmakers. Many have imitated, but few have matched, that masterful juggling act — and it all started here. —EK
Runner-up: “You Can Count on Me” (dir. Kenneth Lonergan)