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Saturday, May 7, 2011

The Complete Darren Aronofsky

It's been two very quiet (OK, silent) months on the blog. To any faithful readers, I apologize for my absence. I always slow down quite a bit after Oscar season, and this has been a particularly busy time in other areas of my life.

Never fear though, I'm back with a new feature called "The Complete Directors" where I'll look at the films of directors who I've seen all (or nearly all) of their work. While I certainly have my favorite film actors and actresses, I tend to be more loyal and interested in a director's output. While even the best actors often make poor choices, many great directors hold at least some interest no matter the movie.

I'm starting with Darren Aronofsky, one of the most fascinating and singular directors working today. In each feature, I hope to give an overview of the director's work. After this, I'll do a ranking of their movies with some brief thoughts and clips of each one.

The Complete Darren Aronofsky

Movies: 5. Pi (1998), Requiem for a Dream (2000), The Fountain (2006), The Wrestler (2008), Black Swan (2010).
Oscar Nominations: 1 (Black Swan)

Darren Aronofksy is not interested in making you feel good. Exhilarated, yes. Riveted, yes. Disgusted, at times. While his limited output includes hyper-realism, psychological horror, and romantic fantasy, all his films share a view of the world which looks head-on at pain and suffering.

One common element in Aronofsky's films is that of manipulation of the body. It starts as early as Pi, where the lead becomes obsessed with a math sequence and begins digging into the flesh of his head. In Requiem, the seductiveness of drugs is portrayed in his fast-cut sequences, and then later the ravages are just as clearly seen. In The Wrestler and Black Swan, two very different athletes/artists are willing to manipulate their body for obsession, addiction, and personal acclaim. The juxtaposition of these two films is fascinating. While told in completely different styles, their stories (and even their haunting closing scenes) mirror one another in a sort of mirror-image meditation on warped masculinity and femininity.

Aronofsky is also a master at directing actors and forcing them to dig into pain in their performances. Think of Ellen Burstyn in Requiem for a Dream, Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler, and Natalie Portman in Black Swan. Each of these are among the most painful of modern performances and personal bests for each actor, and I get the sense Aronofsky works his actors hard. While his actors are astounding, there is always room for Aronofksy's flourishes behind the camera. He works relatively rarely (every few years) and seems passionate about what he makes. I can't wait to see what he comes up with next.

Here's how I rank his movies:

1.) Requiem for a Dream: Most anyone who has seen this movie will tell you it's one of the most sad and painful movies they've ever seen. Why then, have I seen it 3 times? And why could I watch it again right now? As a film lover, I'm so thrilled by directors who can connect us so deeply to the emotions of their characters that the pain can sometimes become transcendent. Requiem for a Dream, about 4 drug addicts, is just about perfect. It sucks you in, connects you to the characters, and breaks your heart. You'll remember the haunting score forever.

Grade: A

2.) Black Swan. I just rewatched this movie, and even if the surprises are lost the second time, it still holds up as a whacked-0ut, thrilling piece of moviemaking. There is literally not a moment wasted in this film. The mishmash between reality and fantasy (and who's to say which part is which?) is simultaneously fun, scary, and disturbing. In my opinion, the best movie of 2010.

Grade: A

3.) The Wrestler. This movie has so much pain in it, both physically and emotionally. Mickey Rourke's character of Randy "The Ram" is a washed-up wrestler trying to make it, and the movie, unusually realistic for Aronofksy, follows his life with documentary-like precision.

Grade: A-

4.) The Fountain. A movie I've only seen once and definitely need to see again. It's actually 3 stories at once, one set in the 16th Century, one in the present day, and one in the distant future. All 3 stories star the wonderful Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz (Aronofksy's ex-wife) and have a lush but painful romanticism. I'm not quite sure I can tell you what it all means, but it's really fascinating filmmaking.

Grade: A-

5.) Pi. I just saw this movie, and I'm glad I did as it gives a lot of insight into Aronofsky's early ideas. This one really seems like a film-school movie, in both good ways and bad. It's done with a lot of style and it tells an original story, completely focusing on the thoughts and actions of a mathematical genius who may be going crazy. There's some less-than-stellar acting, and I'm not sure all the ideas are fully formed, but it's really interesting to watch as Aronofksy's first film. I was especially interested in the echoes of other films, particularly the creepy subway ride which reappears in Black Swan and the drug-taking sequences which are echoed in Requiem for a Dream.

Grade: B-

That's all for my first installment of "The Complete...." Coming soon-Wes Anderson, Paul Thomas Anderson. I'll also take suggestions!

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