The two greatest directors working in Hollywood right now are Christopher Nolan and Darren Aronofsky. They are the main reason that I have great hope for Cinema's future. They are the Hitchcock and Kubrick (respectively) of my generation. The one deals with intelligent and highly entertaining psychological thrillers, which also happen to turn a profit. The other existential dark dramas that often border on the surreal. Hitchcock and Kubrick, exactly.
Nolan and Aronofsky's films represent the very highest ideals of true auteur cinema: visual story telling that seeks to enthrall and entertain while asking the central questions of human existence. This is art at its best. To quote Steel Magnolias: "Laughter through tears is my favorite emotion." To be entertained and yet heart broken by the same piece of storytelling is incredibly difficult and yet these artists have done it time and again.
In an age where the word Auteur has lost all serious meaning in popular film criticism these two men have almost singlehandedly taken hold of the idea Sarris and the French film theorists were proposing and fully embodied the Director as Filmmaker and artist. Not only are they making great films but they are involved in every aspect of the film creation process and have formed lasting relationships with wonderful composers and cinematographers. So they're humble and honest Auteurs as well. They are aware that their success has been related to their trust and relationship with other artists.
The similarities between these two filmmakers start in 1998. They both released black and white low budget independent films. Both films were met with critical success. Both films were odd and unique. Since then their films have differed dramatically. But next year their filmographies will intersect again in a big way. Nolan will be releasing the climax to his Batman Trilogy and Aronofsky will be rounding out his second thematic film trilogy with his first foray into mainstream commercial fair (though it will most likely look like neither). Both films just happen to be about comic book superheroes.
Not much is known at this time about Aronofsky's The Wolverine. But I predict that it will be the capstone to his second trilogy of films. His first trilogy is about obsession and the forms it can take. The first two end with pretty bleak solutions to the problem of human existence and obsession. The last film has the key to the solution. And this second trilogy is the same, though more complex emotionally.
The Wrestler and Black Swan are character studies of a person whose whole existence is based around a performing art and their subsequent isolation (to be before others is to be truly alone). The Wrestler's focus is on a low brow performing art, masculinity, and absolute realism. Black Swan is about a very high brow performing art, femininity, and surrealism. Both films end with the Character's becoming the very embodiment of their particular art and then possibly (spoiler alert)
that thing consuming and ultimately killing them. The Wolverine will do all these things as well, except probably not emphasize Logan's performance of his profession before others. But it will involve Logan being consumed by The Wolverine, just as The Wrestler and Black Swan dealt with their respective characters being consumed by those things. But Aronofsky will have a less bleak ending for Logan, maybe even positive. The Fountain in many ways displays the synthesis between addiction and scientific obsession that are the major themes of Pi and Requiem, while also giving the solution to these respective problems: death to self and union with the divine. The Wolverine will show something similar. And its also interesting to note that Hugh Jackman is playing the main character in both films. Also a comic book film can be considered a sort of half way house between Realism and Surrealism. A serious study of how masculinity and femininity relate to each other will also be involved.
Logan must embrace his destiny while maintaining human relationships, this is where both main characters from The Wrestler and Black Swan failed. He is a killer, and must struggle with this as his telos. John Rambo does the same thing in his film series. But its not killing in itself which is their (John and Logan) life's work, its the ability to protect others and accomplish heroic feats that no one else can do as they can.
For example, in First Blood John is acting out of rage and frustration. He is not fulfilling his true telos just reveling in violence. But over the course of the next 3 films he embraces that death dealing is his primary talent and uses it to help and protect others. The Wolverine will be part of a similar cycle of futility leading to self discovery. What the characters in the previous two films have done is viewed their telos as the end of their lives, not as a means to the true end of their lives: human relationship aka love. And this is what causes their self destruction. Logan will be forced to deal with genuine human love and how it heals his personal pain, and how his vulnerability, self denial, and love for another will heal another persons pain as well. This will most likely happen in relation to a woman who is close to being his equal in combat. They will form a synthesis completing each other and enabling each other to better fight the narrative's villain.
And Nolan's film will be similar in some regards. I predicated that his third Batman film would be ultimately about resurrection as soon as the credits for The Dark Knight began to roll. So you can imagine my excitement when the title for the film was finally released. Batman Begins is about Birth, The Dark Knight is about Death, and The Dark Knight Rises will be about Resurrection. That is a severe gloss on each film, they are more profound than that. But it's basically the Christological cycle. Batman takes on the guilt and image of Gotham and working from inside that image becomes Gotham's permanent savior. The Dark Knight Rises will not end with Batman putting down his cape and cowl but taking them on even more fully: he will take them on forever. They will become his permanent identity and Gotham will finally understand that he is their only hope for salvation.
Both of these films will be the best films that are made in 2012, and both will probably be snubbed by many major Awards committees. But what they will prove beyond a shadow of a doubt is that Nolan and Aronofsky are the best they are at what they do and what they do best is pretty nice. They will also finally and fully establish the super hero/comic book film as a serious film genre that opens up new possibilities for mise en scene and other aspects of filmmaking. There are worlds and worlds of characters and storylines just waiting for talented artists to adapt into great films. 2012 may well be the most important year for 21st century cinema.
Needless to say I'm pretty excited.