3. The Wrestler (2008)
Perhaps the most traditional drama in Darren Aronofsky’s catalogue, and certainly the most heart-wrenching, The Wrestler‘s tale of a less than honourable man looking to mend his life in the aftermath of a body-destroying run of fame and fortune is this great filmmaker’s exploration of what happens once the dream is over. It asks; what happens after the pursuit ends?
Choosing one-time Hollywood A-Lister turned shamed boxing match fixer and film industry outcast Mickey Rourke to star in the lead role was a stroke of genius, the eighties heartthrob being utterly believable as a one-time star turned washed up man quickly ageing out of his window back into the limelight, his very public physical transformation informing the character on screen; a man whose entire livelihood is dependent upon his body.
Visually, The Wrestler is a huge step away from The Fountain before it and Black Swan which followed it, substituting typically cinematic features for a washed out colour palette, handheld camera moves and a more blunt editing style, all of which was of course in-keeping with the hard hits (physical and mental) of the professional wrestling industry both in terms of its action and in terms of the full-time commitment it demands.
Rourke is sensational, as is Marisa Tomei who earned an Oscar for her part as the only caring presence in the wrestler’s life, and in presenting the world of wrestling with such a seeing eye, Aronofsky managed to forge a beautiful, intimate piece very much in his own mould; an unmissable entry into his filmography.
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2. Black Swan (2010)
2010 thriller Black Swan is a film that illustrates so clearly and concisely the mastery of Darren Aronofsky’s work both on the page and on the screen that it’s almost impossible to overlook how much talent and artistry is a part of the film even to those who don’t like it.
Starring Natalie Portman in an Oscar-winning turn, Black Swan twists and distorts our perceptions of reality to offer a typically cynical and dark Aronofsky take on the pursuit of perfection, delving deep into the human condition in search of a truth that causes said pursuit to mean so much to so many of us.
Spectacularly navigating the famous ballet of the same name courtesy of fluid long takes filled with swinging camera moves from cinematographer Matthew Libatique and invisible edits from Andrew Weisblum, Black Swan is the most traditionally spectacular of Aronofsky’s work, a ginormous achievement in Hollywood film language that earned four Oscar nominations in technical categories: Director, Cinematography, Editing and Picture.
1. Requiem For A Dream (2000)
Requiem for a Dream was the film that truly put Darren Aronofsky on the map. The director’s second feature, released in 2000, was a dark examination of the addictive nature of Western culture at the time, presenting our collective need for excess through a personal examination of four men and women of different ages each suffering from society’s most common vice.
As was the case with The Fountain, Black Swan and Mother! particularly, Requiem for a Dream was very musical in its pacing, the destruction of the four people at the centre of its narrative being played out to the orchestral sounds of Clint Mansell’s dramatic and later iconic score, the crescendo being an unravelling of lives in various horrifying ways; Aronofsky establishing himself as the harbinger of dark truths and a leading voice among America’s increasingly alternative forms of self-examination.
Very much like a drug hit, the euphoria at the heart of Requiem for a Dream is something you simply can’t turn away from, but the desperation and tragedy either side of it make for a tough watch about a hopeless situation, one that encapsulates the very fabric of substance addiction whilst providing an intricate examination of the subject matter.
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From top to bottom, the Darren Aronofsky filmography is must-watch, his challenging work offering unique experiences time and time again, and his overall contribution to the form being among the largest of any single filmmaker this century. Whether it be Noah or Requiem for a Dream, these timeless entries into the canon of American film will be remembered for decades.
What do you think? Is Aronofsky among the most important filmmakers of his generation? Which of his films impacted you the most and why? Let us know in the comments below, and be sure to follow @thefilmagazine on Facebook and Twitter for more insightful movie lists.
List updated 12th February 2023 to include The Whale. Originally published 27th June 2020.