While it is easy for film enthusiasts to get lost in the rich tradition of cinema and to debate over which classic movie ranks where, we often forget to ask ourselves, “Who is the most accomplished contemporary director?” According to the Hollywood Critics Association, French-Canadian Director Denis Villeneuve was voted the best director of the last decade. With three Academy Awards for his films Arrival and Blade Runner 2049, it is fair to say that Villeneuve’s filmography has met with critical as well as universal acclaim.
“I think I’m attracted to subjects that I’m afraid of,” Villeneuve once remarked while talking about his work. Indeed, the worlds that he constructs are uncanny and disturbing but revelatory at the same time. Deeply psychological in nature, Villeneuve’s films force us to confront our own anxieties as only art can do.
This list is an attempt to try and understand the complex oeuvre of an undoubtedly skilful director in a more accessible manner. Having said that, every film on this list deserves individual attention and is nuanced enough to start a discourse of its own.
See the full list, below.
Denis Villeneuve’s films ranked from worst to best:
9. August 32nd on Earth (1998)
This Canadian film was Denis Villeneuve’s powerful debut and one which follows the story of Simone, a model who finds herself in a car accident. Like the title of the film itself, Villeneuve continuously disrupts conventional signifiers throughout the picture. The landscapes keep changing from mundane ones like airports to heterotopic environments like Japanese sleeping pods where meaning itself starts to dissolve.
Villeneuve mocks theories of continuity by filming this story outside time (the dates keep progressing from 32nd to 33rd August and so on) as well as space. After being granted a premiere at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival, August 32nd on Earth managed to earn Alexis Martin victory in the Prix Jutra award for Best Actor.
8. Prisoners (2013)
Villeneuve’s 2013 film Prisoners was the first project he directed in which he was not involved in writing the script himself. The story revolves around a cerebral as well as the visceral pursuit of a criminal who abducted two young girls.
The blatant symbolism that is characteristic of Villeneuve’s work plays a subtle role in this film through passing mentions and recurring images of mazes. The father of one of the missing girls and a detective navigate through metaphorical mazes of their own belief systems as they hone in on the suspect.
Violent and unsettling, the film provides no resolutions in a typical postmodern fashion and leaves us wondering whether any of it was justified.
7. Maelström (2000)
Maelström is a mesmerising intersection of magical realism and allegorical predestination presented through the beautiful cinematography of Andre Tupin. The film’s visual elements constitute a brilliant poetic statement that speaks to the elegance of Villeneuve’s directorial talent.
As a product of Villeneuve’s radical vision, the events in the film are narrated by a fish which serves to emphasise the absurdity of the universe that the characters find themselves in. To reduce it to a tale of murder and love would be a great injustice to the movie as every scene is rife with symbolism and counter-narrative elements.
6. Polytechnique (2009)
Polytechnique is Villeneuve’s attempt at recreating the horror of the 1989 École Polytechnique massacre (also known as the “Montreal Massacre”) where a student walked into a university armed with a rifle and murdered female students as an act of war against feminism.
Shot artistically, Villeneuve forces us to watch the violent aftermath as the camera pans slowly to canvas the legacy of hatred. The project was fiercely controversial given the timing of its release and the immense sensitivity of the subject but, despite that, Villeneuve remained true to his vision and fired back against claims that it was too soon to make a film about the tragedy. The director and cast remained focused on treading the delicate line and, despite being granted permission to shoot the film on campus, Villeneuve opted against it in a bid to remain respectful.
Karine Vanasse, who played the role of Valérie, reached out and met with victims and families who were involved in the incident. According to the film, one of the women involved in the shooting confronts the killer to insist that the students are now feminists. “One of the women who was there told me that it was the first time in her life that she had to confront her femininity head on,” Vanasse explained.
A deeply powerful feature film and creative with all the sensibilities required to make such a project a success.
5. Sicario (2015)
Sicario features the gripping screenplay of Taylor Sheridan which is brought to life by Villeneuve’s masterful composition of each and every element of cinema, from sound design to the meaningful chaos of the mise-en-scène.
The story introduces Agent Kate Macer (played by Emily Blunt), a strong female protagonist, to the male-dominated world of drug cartels. The result is a tense and thrilling manhunt interspersed with gruesome shots, in Villeneuve’s trademark fashion, to remind us of our mortality.
“Well, first of all, it’s a disturbing point of view,” Villeneuve previously explained when discussing the topic of the film. “The thing I loved about it was that it was raising questions about the world we live in. And the idea of exploring the topic of cycles of violence, and this idea of the temptation of dreaming of having people like Alejandro [Benicio Del Toro’s character] that can solve problems for us — all that was intriguing. The idea of being very violent and that need of having that evil or anti-evil and just knowing that violence would solve nothing.
“Knowing that he will do things that are very questionable. I felt it was a very fascinating screenplay, and also above it all, one that had some very powerful cinematic moments. As a filmmaker, there would be big challenges for me. I felt that I was ready to try and do an action movie, but I was trying to find an action movie with depth — a meaningful action movie. I had it in my head for a while that it would be great to make a hybrid of arthouse film and action movie. And I just felt that [“Sicario”] was the perfect project for that.”
4. Enemy (2013)
Enemy occupies a unique space in Villeneuve’s body of work. It is radical in its tantalising allegory and it deeply disturbs the viewer. Denis Villeneuve reverses our normative understanding of the Uncanny Other by making the twin brother of the protagonist occupy that role.
Playing on common fears like arachnophobia, Villeneuve creates a sepia-tinged hostile environment where our sense of security is constantly challenged. The last shot is perhaps the most powerful in which he turns our conventional belief systems upside down.
“Most of the movie is shot in a studio, a very controlled environment, and what I said to the cinematographer [Nicolas Bolduc] was the structure of the screenplay, the scenes were very precise, but I wanted to improvise with the actors a lot and I did tons of takes,” Villeneuve later explained of his process. “I was doing 25, 35, 40 takes with Jake Gyllenhaal trying to explore a deeper approach, to go in the verge of chaos and find a new way of acting. For that, I decided there would be no marks on the floor, the actors would be free in the environment and we worked with a little crane that was able to follow their movements all the time. The sets were lit in a way for the actors to essentially find their own light. It was very exciting. The control work was about the storytelling; with the acting, I was trying to push the boundaries and explore new ways of directing. It was a work of collaboration.”
3. Arrival (2016)
In Arrival, Villeneuve deftly renders the strangeness of a sci-fi story and familiarises us with what is considered to be alien, slowly, with every shot. Based on the novella Story of My Life by Ted Chiang, this Academy Award-winning film follows the travails of Louise (played by Amy Adams), a linguist, who sets out to break the language barrier between an alien species and humanity.
Villeneuve blends the vast scope of inter-galactic science fiction elements with the intimate details of personal lives and makes them both seem equally relevant. “When we started we knew it was a profound, poetic story,” Villeneuve said. “It was a challenge to bring that to the screen because it was a science fiction movie we’re not so used to seeing — the science fiction film that says something about reality.”
Arrival is a triumph of Villeneuve’s artistic expression.
2. Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
Blade Runner 2049 is an expansion of the seminal work of fiction, ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’, by Philip K. Dick. In the novel, Dick chooses his protagonist to be a human, Villeneuve champions the trope of the insignificant protagonist and chooses an android, Officer K (played by Ryan Gosling).
Through beautiful panning shots of neon-lit urban jungles and dust-covered landscapes, Villeneuve constantly blurs the distinction between what is real and what isn’t. We end up relating to the android more than any other human in the movie as he exemplifies the emptiness of modern life.
“I wanted to make sure that we were as specifically true to film noir as the first movie was,” Villeneuve commented. “I wanted the atmosphere to carry the beautiful melancholy that was so powerful in the first movie. I wanted the world to be one of bleakness and gloom but to have sparks of beauty — coming out of technology or humanity.
“I wanted to show humanity’s relationship with nature — how human beings are disconnected more and more from nature, how we are trying to control nature. There is a lack of humility. We are trying to control nature when that nature is stronger than us by far. At the end of the day I don’t know anyone who will outlast nature.”
1. Incendies (2010)
Incendies is Villeneuve’s best film yet because it is a complete culmination of all his cinematic talents and directorial characteristics. Based on the play by Wajdi Mouawad, it is an Oedipal tale of one family and the cruel fate that life dealt them.
In an unnamed country in the Middle East, a pair of Canadian twins try and uncover their past according to the last wishes of her mother. There is an underlying sense of foreboding and dread that makes the past and the future equally terrifying.
Incendies is Villeneuve’s glorious effort to discover meaning amid conflicting ideas like the destruction of war and the unity of family. It devastates us but also makes us marvel at the tragic beauty that Villeneuve weaves.
“I wasn’t looking for material to adapt. My previous films August 32nd on Earth and Maelström had been based on original screenplays,” the director once explained. “But after we came out of the theatre that night my wife looked at me and said, ‘Oh my God, you’re going film that, aren’t you?’ The play was three-and-a-half hours long, very talkative and full of powerful theatrical images. Yet I made my decision right away, and for the next five years I woke up every day happy to be working on the film.”
Adding: “The goal was not to be stunning, not to show off, especially in the scenes concerned with war. I wanted to show the victims’ point of view and not make the action exciting. It was important that there was a relationship between the landscapes and the inner feelings of the characters walking through them. I tried never to fall into the trap of exoticism.”