With the release of Dune: Part One, I wanted to share my list ranking the films of director Denis Villeneuve.
Ever since I watched Prisoners, I’ve been interested in Denis Villeneuve as a director. Over the past decade, he quickly established himself as one of the most acclaimed, visionary and sought-after directors. He has a fantastic body of work and has excelled at any genre he attempted from gritty crime thrillers to grand sci-fi epics.
With a few exceptions, most of Villeneuve’s films are truly excellent and as such, ranking his work is not easy. Here’s my best attempt at it.
10. August 32nd on Earth
August 32nd on Earth is a very obscure and hard to find movie, and one that even most fans of Denis Villeneuve probably haven’t heard of. Even though I’m glad I watched it, it’s by far his worst movie. It isn’t riveting and it takes a while for things to happen. It is Villeneuve’s first movie, and the direction definitely feels like it’s from someone making their filmmaking debut. It is rough with the editing, music and cinematography and isn’t exactly what you would call polished, with not much of a style.
With all that being said, August 32nd on Earth is a competently made movie, and it is solid as a directorial debut. It’s a decent romance dramedy that’s written well, especially with the dialogue between the two leads. Pascale Bussières and Alexis Martin are good as the main characters, and they share some great chemistry which drives and carries the movie, which is just as well since the movie relies on them so much. Without them, it wouldn’t have worked as well. Overall, it’s directed, written and acted well enough to make it entertaining to watch. With that said, it’s not anything special, and I wouldn’t recommend it to many people outside the most curious of Villeneuve fans.
If August 32nd on Earth was a standard movie for a directorial debut, Maelstrom is Denis Villeneuve getting experimental and creative. Some of it works, some of it doesn’t, but overall, I think it’s an admirable early effort from him. There’s a lot going for Maelstrom with it being a dark character study of the troubled lead character, and the movie tackling the themes of guilt, grief and regret. Some of its aspects are strong, Marie-Josée Croze acts very well as this complicated protagonist, and Villeneuve’s direction certainly helps the film. It’s not as polished as his later work and he’s still crafting his own distinct style, but the technical aspects like the cinematography and editing fit the movie quite well. You can even detect aspects of his filmmaking style here which would make its way into his future movies.
Although there are some interesting elements to it, the film is held back by its shortcomings. The film is very slow moving and unfortunately doesn’t really keep your attention all the way through despite the strong character focus (not helped by the unsatisfying ending). I appreciate the movie for a lot of its ideas, though not all of them work. The narration of the film is delivered from a talking fish as it’s being chopped up by a butcher over the course of the film. It’s certainly memorable and probably meant to be symbolic given that fish play a symbolic part of the film but distracts more than anything, and is just one example of decisions in the film not really landing. Despite its issues, Maelstrom is still a solid and intriguing enough movie, and it does have some interesting aspects to make it worth a watch even if not all of it works.
It’s a huge step up in quality from this point in the list going forward. Polytechnique is definitely Denis Villeneuve’s least rewatchable movie, this drama focuses on a very difficult subject, that being a real life tragic shooting. It is a harrowing and haunting experience of a film, yet is beautifully shot, acted, and written, and respectful to the victims of the tragedy. The runtime is less than an hour and 20 minutes, but Denis put so much into it and does so much with it.
At this point with his third movie, Denis Villeneuve has honed his skills and has become a very capable filmmaker. The black and white cinematography complements the raw brutality of the scenes, giving it an eerie feeling. At the same time, these brutal sequences never feel glorified. Along with the excellent direction, the film is also helped by the acting, which felt authentic and real. Again, Polytechnique is not an easy movie to watch at all, but it is a great and important film.
Enemy is one of Denis’s more confusing and experimental movies. A hypnotic, brilliant and thought-provoking psychological thriller, it definitely requires more than one viewing to really appreciate it. I know that personally as soon as it ended, I looked into online theories and videos to see what everyone else thought and interpreted from the movie. The premise is initially simple, and you are pulled into this intriguing doppelganger story. Throughout there’s an eerie and unnerving feeling that grips you. Enemy is incredibly complex and layered with so much to look into and think about as it plays with perceptions of reality.
Elevating the movie are the incredible dual performances from Jake Gyllenhaal, he really delving deep into the personalities of these two roles and again does some outstanding work. Another critical part of the film is of course Villeneuve’s direction, which is amazing as always. It’s an absolutely stunning looking movie, distinct with the yellow-ish tint and with moments of scary and unforgettable imagery. There’s also a general vibe of strangeness and wrongness, helped even further by the unsettling score. Even though it’s not a horror movie, this is probably the closest that Villeneuve has made to one. There are some unnerving scenes with some great tension building, keeping you on edge from beginning to end. As I said before, Enemy is very confusing at first, but its more satisfying on repeat viewings. It’s really an unforgettable experience that is well worth checking out if you have the patience for it.
Sicario is a captivating, intense, dark and gritty crime thriller, it takes it time with its pacing and plot and is nonstop suspenseful. It has a very dark tone and feels appropriately unpleasant and uneasy throughout. There’s always an undercurrent feeling of tension and danger, you never really feel that the characters are completely safe. There’s also some stellar performances from the likes of Josh Brolin and Daniel Kaluuya, but it’s both Emily Blunt and Benicio del Toro who are the standouts, delivering strong and powerful acting work in their parts.
Denis’s direction is fantastic as expected, and this film is outstanding on a technical level. The cinematography by Roger Deakins is phenomenal as usual, framed and lit perfectly and capturing the tension. Johann Johannsson’s haunting and ominous score is a presence throughout the entire film and helps maintain this unnerving and uncomfortable feeling for the movie. Overall Sicario is a tightly directed, bleak and memorable thriller that accomplishes just about everything it sets out to do.
I remember hearing about Incendies being one of Villeneuve’s earlier movies. I went in fairly blind, and I was not prepared for what I would be watching. Incendies is a brutal, harrowing and uncompromising film. The storytelling is fantastic, a mystery with a plot containing a lot of twists and turns focusing on twins fulfilling their dying mother’s last request. You are locked in from start to finish as the plot unfolds. There are some truly devastating moments and reveals, and it’s very bleak even by Villeneuve standards.
The acting is great from everyone, from the twins played by Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin and Maxim Gaudette, to Lubna Azabal as the mother. Everyone acts their role well, but it really is Azabal’s film, and she carries the movie excellently. Denis Villeneuve’s direction is fantastic as usual, it’s a stunning looking movie with so many memorable and emotional impactful images that are burned into your memory. Much of the movie is quiet and subtle, only making everything feel all the more real and raw, and there is a tense feeling throughout. Incendies is an unforgettable and truly remarkable film. It’s constantly engaging, greatly acted and packs an effective emotional punch when it needs to be. Not an easy watch by any means but nonetheless really worth checking out.
Arrival was the first Denis Villeneuve movie I was able to watch in the cinema, and it was an unbelievable experience. It is a thoroughly griping, intelligent, and thought-provoking science-fiction film that deserves multiple viewings, and is worth going into not knowing anything about it. I was satisfied with all the twists and turns, and the story by the end felt complete. While it is on the surface level a first contact/alien invasion movie with worldwide stakes at play, it is still a very human and soulful movie, presenting some interesting and thought-provoking ideas.
The performances are great, but it really comes down to Amy Adams in the lead role, giving one of her all-time best performances. She is spectacular here, this really is her film. Villeneuve’s direction is also outstanding. There is some spectacular cinematography from Bradford Young with the use of gorgeous wide shots, and the CGI is fantastic and never looked overused or fake. The score from Johann Johansson is euphoric too, eerie, suspenseful and ominous, yet very beautiful and it really added to the tone of the film. Overall Arrival is one of the best science fiction films from the past 10 years and is one that gets better the more you think about it and revisit it.
3. Dune: Part One
The most recently released film from Denis Villeneuve, Dune: Part One is currently his most ambitious film, especially considering that its adapting one of the most iconic piece of science fiction literature ever. While we have only half of the adaptation to judge at this point, needless to say his work on this one movie was fantastic. The world of Dune is very detailed, and he conveyed it incredibly well with outstanding world-building. I grasped the story and lore surprisingly well and I really wanted to know more about it. While Part One is essentially used as a way of delivering exposition about the world, characters and lore, it felt incredibly natural and worked seamlessly with the unfolding story. It is a slow movie with a steady pace, but this helped to tell the story effectively, and still felt reasonably accessible to most audiences. Villeneuve does a fantastic job at conveying the high stakes of the story, while still having a strong focus on the lead character’s journey and internal struggle.
There are some outstanding performances from the excellent cast as these memorable characters, especially with Timothee Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Jason Momoa and Stellan Skarsgard. Unsurprisingly, Denis Villeneuve’s direction is magnificent, and Dune is one of the most beautiful movies I’ve seen, you really feel the sense of scale throughout. The cinematography from Greig Fraser is amazing, the production design, set pieces and wardrobe are unique and detailed, and the score is operatic and outstanding. Dune: Part One is an immersive experience and spectacle of a film and while it definitely needs Part 2 for me to judge Villeneuve’s adaptation on the whole, I have high hopes for it. Part 2 just can’t come soon enough.
Prisoners was the first movie I watched from Denis Villeneuve, and it’s his first English language movie. 8 years on, it remains a tense, well crafted and relentlessly grim thriller. Mystery thrillers following a kidnapping have been pretty common but this is incredibly well executed. You are completely invested in this the whole time, and despite the many disturbing twists and turns you can’t turn your attention away from it. It’s helped by its engaging characters and thought provoking questions that it poses.
The spectacular performances from the cast also are a big reason why it works so well. Hugh Jackman gives his best performance as a father desperate to find the missing children, Jake Gyllenhaal is phenomenal as a detective searching for the children, and Paul Dano sticks in your head the entire time as a possible suspect. Other performances from Viola Davis, Terrence Howard and Melissa Leo were amazing and add so much to it. The direction from Denis Villeneuve is amazing as expected. Roger Deakins’s cinematography was incredible, really appropriate for the dark atmosphere and constantly feeling dark and damp. There is an effective sense of dread throughout, helped by the mesmerising score from Johann Johannsson. Prisoners still remains an outstanding mystery thriller film, and is still one of my favourite movies from Villeneuve.
1. Blade Runner 2049
Potentially a very predictable pick for number 1, but my favourite of Villeneuve’s films nonetheless. Blade Runner 2049 is a grand sci-fi spectacle and one of the best science fiction movie of recent years. Living up to the Ridley Scott directed original Blade Runner, 2049 isn’t just a continuation that remains true and faithful to the original, it also expands upon its world and crafts its own unique story that improves upon it. The fantastic script tells an intimate story for the lead character played by Ryan Gosling, and his compelling journey over the course of the film. It is a long movie and moves at a steady pace but not a single second felt wasted.
The performances were fantastic from everyone. Ryan Gosling is perfectly cast as the lead role of K, effectively carrying the whole film really well. Harrison Ford reprises his role of Deckard from the first Blade Runner and is incredible in his screentime, and Ana de Armas and Sylvia Hoeks are very memorable in their parts. Denis Villeneuve’s work on 2049 is spectacular, with so much attention to detail. The cinematography from Roger Deakins is nothing short of breathtakingly spectacular. The world is incredibly well realised with the visual effects, physical sets and the production design working together incredibly well. Blade Runner 2049 remains one of the most impressive films I’ve seen, and is currently my favourite film from Denis Villeneuve.
What is your ranking of Zack Snyder’s movies?