One thing I love to do is judge a director’s entire career. I’ve done this with Kubrick, Tarantino, Spielberg, and a number of others. But one director who is extremely exciting and I have no idea where his career is heading is Canadian director, Denis Villeneuve. As you’ll see from this list, Denis Villeneuve's movies are all over the place. But in a good way! While he’s never done a comedy, his drama and sci-fi films are equally compelling, which is why I’m so excited for his upcoming version of Dune.
Ah, yes, Dune, legendary in its difficulty in getting made. David Lynch tried (and many would say, failed) with his adaptation, and unlike Lynch, Alejandro Jodorowsky didn’t even get to see his version make it to the big screen. But, I have hope that the director of Blade Runner 2049 and Arrival can take this famously cerebral sci-fi story and mine it for gold. Or, should I say spice? No matter, only time will tell if Villeneuve will succeed where other directors have struggled, but in the meantime, here are the nine best films that the auteur has made, ranked.
9. Maelstrom (2000)
You want to know a weird film? Maelstrom. Maelstrom is a weird film. And, the thing is, it didn’t have to be! At its core, it’s a story about a woman (played by Marie-Josee Croze) who has an abortion, and her life goes downhill from there. I don’t want to spoil the big twist in the middle, but the strange thing about this film is that it’s all narrated by a talking fish who’s about to get its head chopped off. Like, what? Why?
That’s a pretty good question. Other than the fish, though, the film is pretty bland. Don’t get me wrong, it’s dark as all hell in the way that only a Villeneuve film can be. Besides that, it’s just not engaging. An okay film, sure, but Villeneuve at his least interesting.
8. Polytechnique (2009)
Polytechnique is about a school shooting in Canada, which is based on a true story. It’s shot in black and white, and disturbs me on an emotional level since I grew up hearing about Columbine. Polytechnique is so stark and horrifying because it doesn’t really have much to say besides the idea that massacres are terrible.
That said, out of the school shooting movies that I can think of—including Elephant and We Need To Talk About Kevin—this is actually the most hopeful, because it doesn’t focus on the killer or the parents. Instead, it focuses more on the victims (all women), and offers a glimmer of hope that the other movies completely shy away from. I wish it was a bit more complex, but a film of this nature really doesn’t need to be.
7. August 32nd Earth (1998)
I have a soft spot for Villeneuve’s debut film, which is about a woman (played by Pascale Bussieres) who gets into a car accident and comes out of it wanting to have a baby. She enlists her best friend (Played by Emmanuel Bilodeau), but he says that the only way he’ll go along with it is if they agree to have the baby in the desert. It’s not the most complex film, but that’s kind of why I like it.
August 32nd Earth sounds like a sci-fi movie, but it’s really just about how life is short and we really don’t have much time, so we might as well spend it with the people we care about. I like that it’s nowhere near as dark as the rest of Villeneuve’s catalogue. Sure, it’s a little slow at times, but I never find it boring.
6. Sicario (2015)
Who had any idea that 2015’s Sicario would actually become a series? Starring Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro, and Josh Brolin, Sicario is the story of an FBI agent (Blunt) who goes after a cartel thinking that there is still some good in humanity, while Del Toro’s character doesn’t see good in anybody, and is now an assassin. The film is labeled as a thriller, and it is quite thrilling at times, but it’s also an incredibly dark journey into the human soul, and there really is no light at the end of it all. It’s just dark. Pitch black dark.
At times, Sicario is a bit too grim. Blunt’s character, Kate, was definitely the moral compass of the film, and that helped it from becoming entirely bleak. It’s so dismal at times, however, that it becomes less enjoyable as “a thriller” in the process.
5. Incendies (2010)
Speaking of dark, Incendies may be even darker than Sicario. It’s also not trying to be a thriller, though, so its darkness is more palatable. It’s the story of two twins (Played by Melissa Desormeaux and Maxim Gaudette) who go to their recently deceased mother’s homeland to find a brother they never knew existed. But, there’s a civil war going on in the area, and you get a true sense of what it must have been like for their mother to get her children out of that area and into a much safer environment.
And…well, there’s so much more to it then that. It’s mostly because we get to see what their mother (played by Lubna Azabal) went through, because the movie keeps jumping back and forth in time. What we learn is so disturbing that it recontextualizes everything in the story. I won’t spoil it, but it gave me serious Old Boy vibes. A part of me feels like the film could be a bit more straightforward, but another part of me knows that it would rob the story of some of its oomph if it were. So, it’s great, but a part of me feels like it could be a little bit better.
4. Prisoners (2013)
Prisoners is another thriller from Villeneuve, but I think this one is a lot more effective than Sicario. The story is a parent’s worst nightmare. Two girls go missing, and one of the parents (played by Hugh Jackman) thinks the police aren’t doing enough. Especially once they apprehend a man who’s not all there (played by Paul Dano) and then let him go, as Jackman’s character is certain that he has their daughters.
Prisoners, like most of Villeneuve’s films, is hard to watch. Jackman’s character tortures Dano’s character, and the whole time, we’re never sure if he’s torturing a pedophile or a mentally handicapped man. And, he doesn’t know, either! You seriously hold your breath the entire film, and by the end of it, you’re still holding your breath. A masterful movie, and definitely one of Villeneuve’s best.
3. Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
I’m going to be honest with you. I hate Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is one of my favorite books, and it’s a landmark in science fiction, but the movie adaptation is just too slow for me. Not so with Villeneuve’s version. The sequel follows the first film, but it expands upon it tremendously. Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner was great when it came to world-building, but not so great at character development. However, Villeneuve gets a fantastic performance out of Ryan Gosling, and his quest is just so much more interesting than Harrison Ford’s in the original.
Speaking of Ford, he makes another appearance in this one. Honestly, Ford’s section of the film is the weakest part for me since it feels so tacked on, even though it’s essential to the story. Everything else around that is perfection, and it’s one of the few sequels that I believe is superior to the original.
2. Enemy (2013)
Here’s some more honesty: While I know Enemy is not Villeneuve’s best film, it’s my personal favorite of his. It reminds me of Takashi Miike’s Gozu, if you’ve ever seen that. Jake Gyllenhaal plays two roles in this film, one a professor, and the other an actor who looks just like him. What transpires is a complete head trip that includes the women who love them, and spiders. Lots and lots of spiders.
I really can’t tell you why exactly I find Enemy to be so compelling. It’s more of a mood thing than anything else. I’ve watched it several times, and each viewing brings me deeper and deeper into its story, until it feels like I’m actually trapped in a spiderweb, and I can’t get out. That’s how much I love this film. Like I said, it’s my favorite, but you and I both know Villeneuve’s best movie…
1. Arrival (2016)
Here’s my problem with most sci-fi films. You usually only get two kinds: Fun action movies like Men In Black and iRobot, or deep, heady movies like Solaris and 2001. I like both, but I usually find that I want just a tad more intellect in my action, and a sprinkle of better pacing in my head trips. But then, you have the incredibly rare, well-paced, cerebral sci-fi movies like Total Recall and Contact. And when it comes to recent films, Arrival instantly jumps to mind. It’s the kind of sci-fi film that I would recommend to both people who have never watched a thought-provoking sci-fi flick, as well as ardent fans of the medium. It works on both levels.
Starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, and Forest Whitaker, Arrival is the thinking person’s Independence Day. Aliens come to Earth, but instead of being hostile, they just want to talk. The problem is, we don’t know how to communicate with them. Therein lies the conflict, but it’s so brisk and easy to follow that you actually feel smart for enjoying such an intelligent film. I can honestly see Arrival being considered one of the greatest science fiction films of all time down the line. It’s seriously that good.
That’s the list! But, what do you think? Sound off on your favorite Villeneuve film in the poll. Oh, and if you want to know about some more movies on the horizon that aren’t specifically Villeneuve-related, check out our coverage of 2021 movies here. Who knows, maybe you’ll find the next great director who inspires you to view their entire filmography.