Has anyone gotten the sense, this year, that the "directors of the hour" have all suddenly made their signature movie? By "directors of the hour," I'm not talking about the Hollywood staples (Ridley Scott, James Cameron, etc), but rather of those provocateurs who are emerging into the mainstream. In particular, I've noticed this phenomenon with Christopher Nolan (who's just become the trump card of studios trying to ride the nerd zeitgeist)... Darren Aaronofsky (who's recently graduated from cinema cult-leader to critical boy wonder)... and Gasper Noe (who seems to be following Aaronofsky into the role of "that guy that directs those batshit crazy movies").
For Christopher Nolan, it was Inception. This was obviously the movie the guy's been fantasizing about since he was a teenager, back when he started writing the script. It marries the techno-futurist with the retro-stylist, bring noir into the realm of the virtual and the psychological, and it provides a great forum for structural experimentation and visual flair. As a bonus, Nolan got the creme de la creme of swaggering neo-noir actors, including Leo, JGL, and Michael Caine.
Memento will generally be seen as Nolan's Reservoir Dogs, I think. He came out of nowhere with that little shocker, riding the formal gimmick and stylish presentation out of the obscurity of film school... and The Dark Knight may always be seen as his Pulp Fiction, cementing his fame and proving his genius. But as much as it was a great piece of cinema, Dark Knight was tied down by its reliance on the Batman franchise, and by the legions of comic book fans who don't actually particularly care about cinema per se. Inception is the piece that Nolan will be able to claim as his own, stylistically, conceptually, and in every way necessary for it to become his signature piece.
As I mentioned above, Aaronofsky has gone through a transition recently. He was born as one of those bad-boy director provocateurs, giving us the hyper-intense and disturbed Pi, and then the devastating American neo-realist tragedy Requiem for a Dream. I think that phase of his life ended with The Fountain, which was his little vanity project, offensive to public sensibilities not because it was ugly, but because it was so soaring and uninhibited. But recently, with The Wrestler, he's made a decisive move into character-study territory, and he's become a guy for the middlebrow critics to watch.
Enter Black Swan. Could the man have a more perfect film to give to the world, at this moment of transformation? Black Swan retrieves Aaronofsky the stylist, the impressionist, the conductor of madness and dissociation, which are the themes that characterized his earlier work. It also marries the stylistic precision of The Fountain (the gothic, the erotic, the intimate) with the real-world anxieties and uncertainties that made The Wrestler work so well. And it's admirably reserved, refusing to resort to cheap shocks for his visual and emotional climaxes.
So I think Black Swan will be a signature film, as well: Aaronofsky's first award-winning, show-stopping feature, and also an index of his established themes: trauma, madness, and the tortured mind of the alienated genius.
And finally, we have Gasper Noe, who still sort of fulfills the role that Aaronofsky recently left behind: provocateur, offender of sensibilities, whose challenging and aversive style reads as "courage" to the independent circuit. Irreversible is commonly hailed among cinephiles (horror and extreme cinema enthusiasts, especially) as a breakthrough for extreme cinema. I think it really got noticed because the 9-minute rape scene got so much attention -- but, you know, once he was visible, Noe managed to convince people that he's a proficient auteur, and that's no small task in our skeptical community.
I think it was clear that after Irreversible, Noe had to push his sensationalism to the max before he could break in a different direction. I think, with Enter the Void, he did that. It's not only difficult and arresting in its visual innovations (the strict first-person camera, the hallucinated cityscapes), but it's also provocative in its specific images. If you want to read about them, it's all over the Internet. From what I understand, it's pretty intense.
Sibling loyalty, incest, death, and the cycle of destruction and rebirth are pretty ideal themes for an elusive assault on the viewers' senses. This is the piece that Noe's previous work was leading up to: something that people just had to see, something to polarize the community, something to provide the basis for grand controversy and extravagant claims. Again, it's the signature piece. This is the final draft of Noe's stamp as an auteur, and everything he does from here on out will be a reference to Enter the Void, or a notable departure from it. Or both.
Am I sure? No. It's possible that Aaronofsky will be remembered by his urban grime and realism, rather than his epic stylization. It's possible that Nolan will make an even more Nolan-esque movie in a couple years, or that Gasper Noe will manage to totally leave behind this shock-and-awe period in his cinematic oeuvre. But I'm guessing that one or two of these three films will end up being the signature film of its particular director, even though these directors have a lot of growth and accomplishment ahead of them.