Villeneuve initially became interested in Sci-Fi comics, which then led to a passion for cinema. He began making short films in high school, inspired by the likes of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Blade Runner, the influences of which can be seen all over his body of work. Villeneuve’s early career consisted primarily of short films, with Next Door, a largely wordless drama depicting what appears to be ritualistic gastronomic carnage, garnering particular attention. Though the film received a special jury citation for the Toronto International Film Festival for Best Canadian Short Film, it wouldn’t be fair to pit it against his more recent features, particularly when it comes to production value.
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Taking cues from the likes of Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg, Villeneuve is a director willing to take risks in order to explore new cinematic landscapes. In discussing stories and the need to portray psychological depth in characters, Villeneuve stated (via TFCA): “In order to tell a story, I need to have a deep connection with it from a very intimate point of view. It’s always the goal as a filmmaker to try and create an artistic object that will be singular; that will have some freshness. We don’t necessarily need new movies, but we need connection. We need relationships, we need to communicate together, and cinema is such a powerful medium to do that.” Though all of Villeneuve’s films have been incredibly influential and are widely praised, with his upcoming Dune highly anticipated, the following is a look at his filmography ranked from worst to best – or, for those who believe all of his films have been valuable contributions to cinema, ranked from good to possibly one of the best Sci-Fi movies of all time.
9. August 32nd Earth (1998)
As his debut feature film, August 32nd on Earth was a promising look at what would become Villeneuve’s artistic signature: moving portrayals of human frailty and unforgettable visuals. The short, French-language drama (alternatively titled Un 32 août sur terre) follows photo model Simone, who decides to conceive a child with her best friend Philippe after a traumatizing car accident. Despite having a girlfriend, Philippe agrees, on the condition that the child be conceived in the desert.
While the story is intriguing and the characters’ sly humor is often quite charming, too much is overlooked in the film’s plot to keep viewers truly invested. For one, there are no fully realized characters other than Philippe and Simone – though Alexis Martin and Pascale Bussieres’ respective performances are one of the film’s best attributes, it’s odd that the only other major character in the film (Philippe’s girlfriend Juliette) is barely granted a few seconds of screen time. Despite its flaws, Villeneuve’s talent for creating unique visuals and choosing memorable rock tracks makes August 32nd on Earth a fun (albeit, highly cliché) watch for fans of the director, though they certainly shouldn’t expect it to measure up to the likes of Incendies or Blade Runner 2049.
8. Polytechnique (2009)
Denis Villeneuve’s controversial third feature, Polytechnique, is a profoundly upsetting dramatization of the 1989 École Polytechnique massacre. The film is often described as the French-Canadian response to Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, which was inspired by the Columbine shooting of 1999. However, where Elephant mimics the nationwide feeling of helplessness felt after the real-life massacre it’s (loosely) based on, Polytechnique assumes a more optimistic approach, suggesting empathy is the only answer to anger.
Villeneuve’s fictional villain mirrors the real shooter, who was motivated by a rage against feminism and a desire for revenge. Though Villeneuve is more than willing to showcase the perpetrator’s wavering mental health and unflinching cruelty, he doesn’t once mention his name; instead, the entire ordeal is framed in the eyes of survivors. In the context of social commentary (specifically on the delicate subject of school shootings), the film is nearly ideal in the sense that it is stylized enough to make real-life events “entertaining,” but avoids sensationalizing tragedy in a way that would be insensitive. Compared to Villeneuve’s other films, Polytechnique is modest and calm, yet undeniably haunting.
7. Maelstrom (2000)
While audiences today have Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water to thank for mysterious, sentient sea creatures, Villeneuve’s 2000 film Maelstrom gifted viewers the first ever romantic drama narrated by a talking fish. It stars Marie-Josee Croze as Bibi Champagne, a depressed business woman who falls in love with the son of a Norwegian fishmonger she killed in a hit and run accident (after a failed suicide attempt). If that isn’t bizarre enough, the film also features what is perhaps the most iconic Villeneuve scene of all time, when the talking fish’s head is chopped off just as he’s about to share the secret to world peace. Though the film’s non-linear narrative often loops in confusing ways in an attempt to complicate a relatively simple message, Villeneuve shows off his knack for peculiar stories and heavily stylized visuals; skills that would carry him through increasingly more impressive projects as his filmmaking career progressed.
6. Prisoners (2013)
Villeneuve’s introduction to Hollywood and English-language films came in the shape of Prisoners, which focuses on the theme of cyclical violence the director so frequently explores. Even with an exponentially larger budget than his early films (most of which probably went to hiring Hugh Jackman), Prisoners doesn’t neglect Villeneuve’s commitment to big, bold ideas – it only grants him a bigger canvas. The lengthy thriller focuses on the abduction of two girls – Anna and Joy – in suburban Pennsylvania and police’s subsequent search for the suspected abductor. After police arrest a seemingly (mentally) disabled young suspect, only to release him after he offers no helpful information, the father of one of the missing girls decides to take matters into his own hands.
Prisoners undoubtedly marked a new chapter in Villeneuve’s career, further cementing his ability to depict grim tragedies through mood and meaning, not just plot. On the surface, Prisoners might seem like a typical crime melodrama, complete with a clever yet drawn out ending that may leave some viewers unsatisfied. However, superb acting on behalf of Jake Gyllenhaal and Hugh Jackman coupled with Villeneuve’s uncanny ability to create chilling cinematic atmospheres make it a captivating film nonetheless.
5. Sicario (2015)
In a film review of Sicario for the New York Times, A.O. Scott writes, “Plenty of directors make violent movies. Denis Villeneuve makes movies about violence, which is not quite the same thing.” In Sicario, Villeneuve visits the United States-Mexico border to showcase some of the world’s most senseless, brutal acts of violence. The film tells the story of Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), an FBI agent who is part of the task force against top-ranking members of the Sonora drug cartel. Though there’s a thin line between exploiting the moral ambiguity of the drug trade and using it as a vessel for commentary on unnecessary violence, Villeneuve does an excellent job of making the film both serious and entertaining without succumbing to stereotypes of the genre.
Violent imagery and startling sound editing make Sicario a classic “Villeneuve”, though it is similar enough to the typical action drama that viewers who aren’t quite ready to deal with the director’s more existential films might still be drawn to it. Sicario’s lackluster sequel, Sicario: Day of the Soldado was released in 2018, though Villeneuve’s notable absence from the project likely contributed to the general lack of enthusiasm surrounding the film.
4. Enemy (2013)
A bold adaption of Jose Saramago’s award-winning novella The Double, Denis Villeneuve once described Enemy as “practice” for Prisoners, which was released the same year. Though Enemy originated after a night out drinking with the film’s star, Jake Gyllenhaal, it’s more than just a side project – it’s one of Villeneuve’s most horrifying films to date. Gyllenhaal plays two physically identical residents of the same unnamed Canadian city: introverted college history professor Adam Bell and irritable actor Anthony Claire. One night while watching a movie, Adam spots an extra who looks exactly like him, and proceeds to search tirelessly for his identity.
As always, Villeneuve proves he’s an expert at manipulating audiences, as the question of whether or not the two men are actually different people (or alternate sides of a single disordered personality) haunts viewers through most of the film. It’s a horror movie without the blood and gore, relying instead on lurid visuals and loud music to evoke an unparalleled sense of anxiety. Though the “doubles” trope is explored in cinema quite often, Villeneuve manages to exploit it without resorting to any overly ambitious gimmicks.
3. Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
Villeneuve’s biggest blockbuster film to date, Blade Runner 2049, is the director’s take on a sequel to Ridley Scott’s original 1982 Blade Runner. In Blade Runner 2049, the exact future Blade Runner projected is less than two years away. Officer K (Ryan Gosling) is a new blade runner for the LAPD who uncovers a secret with the potential to destabalize society and the course of civilization. He then goes on a quest to find Rick Deckard (reprised by Harrison Ford), a former blade runner who had been missing for 30 years. Villeneuve does his best to honor the original film while putting his own spin on the franchise; having Ridley Scott on board as executive producer certainly didn’t hurt, though Villeneuve was so intimidated by him while filming he politely requested that he leave the set.
Like most big blockbusters and highly anticipated sequels, Blade Runner 2049 had a hefty budget to work with ($150-185 million). Despite this, it didn’t do as well in the box office as Villeneuve hoped, though that can likely be attributed to die-hard fans of the original and other big-name releases at the same time in 2017. Though Villeneuve’s most recent film seems to focus more on landscape and atmosphere than the human qualities fans of the director are used to, it still manages to intertwine the complex narratives and primal fears unique to Villeneuve’s films.
2. Incendies (2010)
Incendies is based on Wajdi Mouawad’s play by the same name and concerns Canadian twins who travel to their mother’s native Middle Eastern country in the middle of a bloody civil war in an attempt to uncover secrets from her past. After their mother’s death, twins Jeanne and Simon must go on a kind of “scavenger hunt” based on her last will and testament, assisted only by notary Jean Lebel. Their peaceful journey is intertwined with violent images from their mother’s time in (what appears to be) Lebanon during the nation’s grueling civil war. E
Everything from landscape to special effects simulating war is impressively rendered, showcasing Villeneuve’s talent for technical filmmaking as a way to advance complex narratives. Had the film been only about Nawal (the children’s mother) it might’ve been too overwhelming to be as effective as it is. However, in combining her violent past with the modern perspective of Jeanne and Simon, Villeneuve has created a story that forces viewers to reflect on their own morality and inherited identity. Incendies is a simultaneously heartbreaking, heartwarming film, combining all the horror of Sicario or Polytechnique with all the humanity of Arrival.
1. Arrival (2016)
A poetic exploration of empathy and communication, Arrival is Denis Villeneuve’s best film to date. Based on the 1998 short story Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang, the film follows a linguist (Amy Adams) enlisted by the United States Army to attempt communication with extraterrestrial aliens who have arrived on Earth, in the hope that they will make contact before mounting tensions lead to war. Villeneuve once again innovates the science-fiction genre by proving that it can be more than just senseless violence and loud gunshots. Arrival advertises new ideas and hope, a meditation on understanding the unknown rather than outright rejecting it.
Like many of his films, Villeneuve employs a back-and-forth narrative style that gives audiences an alternate glimpse of Louise’s life, though for much of the film it is unclear if it is past, future, or neither. Strong performances by Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner, stunning cinematography by Bradford Young, and an incredible script by Eric Heisserer make Arrival one of the best Sci-Fi films of the 2010s, if not the last century.
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