Aronofsky. I’m not sure he is done. It would seem that way (writing this in 2019 it seems like a long time since Black Swan) but Mother! showed ambition and I look forward to a revisit. Even if he is done, Aronofsky has already put a stamp on the world of cinema with his fractured characters, bold visuals and editing bravado. He’s a unique voice, certainly a talented “style-plus” auteur with 2 inarguable masterpieces (Black Swan, Requiem) who will inevitably have at least 3 top 500 all-time films (Black Swan is not allowed on the top 500 because of the 10 year moratorium so it’s Requiem and The Fountain for now) and a remarkable and visually stunning 3rd best film (The Fountain). Frankly, my admiration for Pi, has grown over the years as well as his themes and marks as an auteur come into fuller bloom.
Best film: Black Swan– this one isn’t easy. I think Requiem may actually have some more ambitious elements and that usually wins out for me but Black Swan is absolute perfection. No false notes or flaws (he throws the kitchen sink at Requiem and it doesn’t all land). It’s a tighter work.
- The opening scene, a dream sequence, has an absolutely astounding use of cinematography. It’s very distinctive as well- aggressive camerawork despite it being a tracking shot and ballet.
- The wound in Portman’s back are reminiscent of the wound in the house in mother!, the track marks on jared leto’s arm in requiem, the skull of Max in pi—the mutilation and body horror also reminds me of cronenberg of course
- The editing in the mini-montage of portman prepping her shoes is pure filmmaking skill on display
- the Vincent cassel character (and damn he’s perfect here) says “strip black swan down and make it visceral. Make it real”
- the coloring comparison with the kunis character is obvious but effective. Art doesn’t need to be muddled to be great- she has tattoos, wears black, you have portman who wears white mainly (switches to black for night club sequence)
- we have an abundance of whip pans here—mostly utilitarian to serve the dancing- not like the use in la la land or the work of wes anderson
- of course the influence of bergman’s persona is draped all over this film (which will lead to comparisons with Mulholland drive) we have the identity of the two women being mixed, mixing in surrealism
- deliberate casting of Barbara Hersey and Wionna Ryder- more than just great actresses- they are former “It” girls who were large stars in their day (particularly Ryder in the early 1990’s) so the role takes on another level of meaning
- the camera, like in mother! with Lawrence, is fixed on portman’s shoulder almost the entire film- POV shots, reaction shots, it’s powerful work and her face and range as an actress are more than up to the task- this is her show
- Portman is magnificent- one of the best performances of this decade. Her nina is vulnerable and fragile, childlike, uptight, rigid and cold at times in a very cutthroat world. Portman has multiple moments of genius. When she falls on stage the look on her face after she gets off stage is an amazing display of acting—it’s complete devastation. As is the final shot on her face- there are great performances out there but few actresses get this moment in a masterpiece
- The last 25 minutes is devastating cinema—the cinematography and music pairing is virtuoso filmmaking at its finest- Music crescendo and acting when she realizes it’s her she stabbed
- Portman erupts with anger in a tub—just like jennifer connelly in requiem
- Guy on the train is from pi I believe
- Here’s an autobiographical element (or reading) of the film with aronofsky coaxing portman to a performance- changing old actress for new one- it’s in mother! As well- you could read the entire cassel performance this way
- The finale is a transcendent moment- it brings it all together for a perfect finish
total archiveable films: 6
top 100 films: 0
top 500 films: 2 (Requiem For a Dream, The Fountain)
top 100 films of the decade: 4 (Pi, Requiem For a Dream, The Fountain, Black Swan)
most overrated: The Wrestler—not really overrated. It just annoys me when a critic will call this Arronofsky’s best. He’s not a naturalist—it’s a great movie- don’t get me wrong. But these are typically the Rex Reed types who are happy to see Aronofsky (a great stylist) or any auteur—but away all that “stuff” (aka film style) and just direct a story with good writing and acting (which this has in abundance).
most underrated: The Fountain. Wow- so this is now ranked #15 of 2006 on the TSPDT extended top 2000 list. It’s trending in the right direction. Just a few years ago it was #52 of 2006 on the 21st century version
- The film repeats the line “death is the road to awe” and awe is the best way to describe this film. It’s luminous beauty is unmatched by 99.9% of cinema ever made
- The three stories (future, present, past) are woven together well but in a different way than nolan’s recent Dunkirk and different than requiem and leone’s the good the bad and the ugly which start a little separate and then are getting closer and closer together as the stakes get ramped up almost like the dueling banjos in deliverance.
- Parallels can easily and rightly be made to 2001 and david lynch
- The film is a wonder of set design—my favorite section may actually be the Spanish sequences set in the past- such ornate and beautiful design and lighting scheme.
- That lighting of the entire film is purposefully the fading star (referenced often as is a focal point of the film’s narrative) it’s similar to but distinct from fincher’s green or green/black and soderbergh’s yellow glow. It hovers between the two.
- The camera is constantly moving in and out in a deliberate speed to keep the structured mise-en-scene symmetrical—many of the symmetrical layouts remind me of Wes Anderson’s work
- It’s quite possibly both the most beautiful film visually of 2006 and includes the best musical score of the year
- Aronofsky’s visual triumph cannot be overstated—such meticulous construction detail paired with aching beauty
- Aronofsky’s obsession with self-mutilation is alive and well here with Jackman giving himself a painful ring tattoo and the inquisitor’s self-flagellation
- A film of ridiculous artistic ambition- go-for-broke cinema
- if forced to pick a flaw (and to be clear I’m a 4/4 stars guy here—nowhere near the 51 on metacritic) I think it’s telling I don’t think more of jackman’s performance (though he’s very good) and the screenplay isn’t amongst the best of the year. I think Jackman in the yoga pose is easy fodder for critics but that’s nothing really
- Must-See/Masterpiece border – I have previously been learning towards high end MS but I’m happy to call it fringy now
gem I want to spotlight: Requiem For a Dream
- Requiem is a masterpiece of editing/montage
- It’s a relentless, sometimes repetitive, unsparing and searing fucked up portrayal of the American dream
- I forgot about the heavy use of split screen
- Accented sound editing (drugs being taken, remove control, etc)- all of these in these mini-montages (eye ball enlarging upon drug use—it does get repetitive and not in a good formal way
- A stunningly ambitious second film
- Expressionistic in mise-en-scene, in narrative with some of the surrealism sequences and in wonderfully edgy and embellished performances
- Aronofsky absolutely refuses to shoot anything in a straightforward way and I love that
- The surrealism sequences are superb. We have the reoccurring use of the end of the pier, the wonderful tangent of wayans as a boy telling his momma he’s going to make it and we have the fridge and television coming alive to attack ellen Burstyn
- The film has tiny flaws- you don’t have to be flawless to be a masterpiece, it gets repetitive with the drug sales montages and cash register noises
- A very free-swinging film instead of a more calculating peer like say Nolan or Wes Anderson
- Meditation on ambition, drug addiction on both sides of the legal fence
- Aerial 360 shots above bed reoccurs
- Bold broad strokes
- Use of fast motion prevalent, reverse POV shot a la mean streets just like he used in pi
- I think it’s the career best work form Burstyn and Leto. Burstyn is the show-stopper here. Such bravery- she throws herself out there.
- The last 20 minutes the 3 story montages get tighter and tighter- it’s devastating
- The score is an all-timer
- I do think we lose the summer/fall/winter chapters unless he never planned to have a spring
- It is a 102 minute epic and that is hard to do
- I think it is a Must-See film 75 minutes in but those final 30 minute push it to a masterpiece
stylistic innovations/traits: Aronofky’s traits are very recognizable. He has characters that are hell bent on self-destruction (usually physically) and often in the grip of compulsion or addiction. There’s a schizophrenic nature to his characters which is why he’d be a dream director for any actor (Portman has given us one of the best performances, if not the single best, of the decade, and many thought Rourke deserved an Oscar for the wrestler). Visually, Aronofsky is astonishingly flamboyant and his films are fervently and passionately edited. Many contain Biblical reference or allegories. He has a very low average shot length (ASL) and is largely a montagist (especially in the latter third of his films when the fractured characters more rapidly disband). He often shoots in 16mm (Pi, The Wrestler, Black Swan, parts of Mother!). One trademark is the elevated diegetic sound design (combined with editing) as his characters open doors, pop pills, etc.
In at least two films (Requiem and Black Swan) he has characters erupt in anger in a bathtub. Aronofsky is not subtle or naturalistic. He’s a surrealist (not unlike Lynch in many ways) obsessed with body mutilation (Cronenberg or Polanski’s Repulsion). Often his films are about characters obsessed with stardom, celebrity and las a long spiral ending as they come crashing down. Not unlike Herzog is films are incredibly ambitious—Requiem and The Fountain are artistic ambitious – go-for-broke cinema and even in his lesser works- Noah and Mother! his films The wound in Portman’s back are reminiscent of the wound in the house in mother!, the track marks on jared leto’s arm in requiem, the skull of Max in pi—the mutilation and body horror also reminds me of Cronenberg of course. Lively jump editing with exaggerated sound mix (door locking, noises in his head). Matthew Libatique has shot all of Aronofky’s films except for The Wrestler. Like Hitchcock – Aronofsky is obsessed with showing through cinema and not relying on acting and writing. Aronofsky, even in his debut, isn’t afraid of taking an ingenious and stylistic approach to “how do I show someone getting a headache”? POV reverse “ head mean streets “Rubber Biscuit” shot used often- especially in his first few films.
- Black Swan
- Requiem For a Dream
- The Fountain
- The Wrestler
By year and grades
|2000- Requiem For a Dream||MP|
|2006- The Fountain||MS/MP|
|2008- The Wrestler||R/HR|
|2010- Black Swan||MP|
*MP is Masterpiece- top 1-3 quality of the year film
MS is Must-see- top 5-6 quality of the year film
HR is Highly Recommend- top 10 quality of the year film
R is Recommend- outside the top 10 of the year quality film but still in the archives
I’d expect him higher
@Kirk– thanks for the comment. Where would you have him?
Requiem For a Dream MS
The Fountain HR
The Wrestler HR
Black Swan HR
I’m curious if you’d consider revisiting Noah? Taking away the religious reactions, it is simply an excellently made film, with some amazing cinematography and legitimately heartbreaking performances. I suspect that over the years, as we get further away from the controversies, its merit as a film will be revisited, and it will be viewed much more positively. I could even see it being considered Aronofsky’s masterpiece (the way it integrated both epic and intensely personal conflict into the same themes is nothing short of incredible). If not, maybe you could at least explain what about it disqualifies it from a place in your archive?
@Austin M- Thanks for the comment here and for visiting the site. I’ve seen Noah at least twice at this point. Once in theater and once since, but certainly the next time I do a Aronofsky study I’ll include it again. There’s a chance that after Black Swan expectations were unfairly high for Noah– but it being underrated (it does not have a great reputation) is one thing– but it being “Aronofsky’s masterpiece”? That seems like a stretch. I’d have to see it again to talk about what disqualifies it from being in the archives- but I certainly feel at least 30-40 films from 2014 surpass it.
@Drake-Thanks for the response. I legitimately think Noah had the best performances of any Aronofsky movie (I have not seen Requiem for a Dream yet). Portman’s individual performance in Black Swan was better, but taking the cast as a whole, I’d give it to Noah (and the actress playing Noah’s wife even gives Portman’s performance a run for its money in some scenes towards the end). It also had the coolest cinematography of any Aronofsky movie imo (especially the montages, the shots of walking against the horizon, and some of the shots of Noah on the arc). I personally consider it second to Black Swan because I appreciate the tighter story, but I consider it far superior to The Fountain (which was also a somewhat hokey and overcomplicated story imo, and had comparably lower quality performances and cinematography).
ps: I really appreciate how much work you put into this site. It is now one of my go-to places when I am looking for recommendations and historically significant filmmakers/performers.
@Austin M- Thank you for the kind words on the website.
I watched all of Aronofsky’s films last year and found Noah to be the standout weakest and the only one not up to standards. I think The Fountain is a much better-looking film (evidenced by some of the shots on this very page). Maybe too much focus on special effects rather than great set pieces killed it for me.
Anyway we should have two new Aronofsky films coming out in the next few years or so. The Whale is approaching fast and then Adrift with Jared Leto in the pipeline after and I am very excited for both despite feeling Aronofsky had an artistic decline after Black Swan.
Thoughts on the whale? I just finished it and it was okay, just like the wrestler, good acting and engaging story. Not really interesting at all visually
@Dylan – That is a little disappointing to hear that it is not more cinematically ambitious (The Wrestler is rock solid though). I have not yet had the opportunity to catch The Whale. It is on my short list of those yet to get to. I have been able to get to 105 2022 films so far, with 48 landing in the archives
@Drake – not only is it lacking any cinematic ambition it’s also one of the most overwrought scripts and just has to spell out and shout every single metaphor at the audience. It’s a dumbed down mother! minus anything interesting in front of the camera, the acting is good all around though.
105… that’s super impressive. Obviously you love film and would continue to consume it at a high rate but would you be watching *this* many *yearly* films if you didn’t have this site and the yearly film pages that everyone looks forward to? Would you focus more on film history or are you just also super invested in what’s being currently put out? No real reason I’m asking, just curious. I’ve seen 27 and will probably be at 40ish by the time the time the Oscars kick off
@Matthew- Good question – I try to keep my hand in on current cinema. I can’t help myself but be on the lookout for the next thing that blows my hair back so to speak. In some years I’ve been to the theater 75-125 times- not as often this year. I’d like to think I keep a good up a mix of the old to go with the current though. The 105 from 2022 is roughly 20-25% of what I saw last year.