Denis Villeneuve is a one-of-a-kind filmmaker. The French Canadian storyteller chooses his projects with the utmost delicacy, resulting in an incredibly varied body of work. But no matter the genre or subject matter, one thing remains the same, it’s always “un film de Denis Villeneuve.” Whether it be the stunning terrains of Blade Runner 2049, the nail-biting tension of Sicario, or even narration from a dead talking fish, Denis Villeneuve is almost always able to dig deeper and find some greater understanding that will have a profound effect on the viewer. He is a modern visionary no question, never failing to continuously raise the bar. Just look at the release of Dune, which just set a new record for the largest box office opening of his entire career.
His biggest film in terms of scale, Dune is taking the entire world by storm. Many are calling it the most epic cinematic event in years, paving the way for potential Oscar glory. To celebrate this landmark feat for Denis Villeneuve, we take a trip down memory lane and explore his eclectic oeuvre. Before we get into the ranking, two things must be noted. First of all, this list was made possible thanks to the BFI Southbank’s Denis Villeneuve season this past September, as we consumed endless hours of Villeneuve back-to-back on the big screen. Secondly, there are honestly no “bad” films to be found in his filmography, making this task more difficult to assort. So without further ado, here all 10 feature films directed by Denis Villeneuve ranked from least good to the very best.
Denis Villeneuve Ranked:
Although it has its charms, this quirk-filled sophomore feature feels slightly incomplete. Just like Enemy, Maelström boasts a completely off-the-rails Villeneuve. The tone can be summed up in an instant by looking at the film’s narrator, a fish. Yes, that’s right, a fish – one that also keeps on coming back, despite being gutted alive. Wackiness aside, the fish’s narration is elegiac and always welcome. It serves the purpose of breaking up the flow of the film’s real, romantic story to emphasize the somewhat absurd nature of what occurs on screen.
Maelström sees its protagonist falling in love with a certain someone’s son, it’s best to find out going in blind. Everything on show is inherently interesting as its plot seems familiar, but is told in an unfamiliar way. The cinematography captures the beauty and harsh nature of reality, with an added flair that reminds of the handheld style of the French New Wave. The only thing holding Maelström back from ranking higher is its narrative structure, which, as aforementioned, feels as if it’s missing a few key components.
Dune fumbles as it tries to reach the technical marvel of Roger Deakins’ work on Blade Runner 2049. This is part of the reason why Dune comes across as hollow, character-wise. It’s clear that so much focus was put into making this adaptation the next Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, or Game of Thrones that Villeneuve forgot what makes his characters human. Going further, the film suffers from an overabundance of cliche dialogue that, in the greater picture, has no true meaning. Nonetheless, it’s undeniably still a very entertaining ride.
Without a doubt, Dune is what Warner Bros. and Villeneuve ordered after the mixed financial results of 2049. Action set pieces, quips, and worldbuilding is featured here in large quantities – excessive, unusual additions to Villeneuve’s well-known, heavily psychological touch. You couldn’t go as far as to call Dune a misstep, as it is fascinating and audiences will surely embrace it for years to come, yet for long-time Villeneuve fans, it could be a disappointment to see him slipping more into the way of Hollywood’s conventional blockbuster filmmaking. There is very little of Villeneuve’s enigmatic and ambiguous self, it’s almost as if he was forced to skew away from his style in order to become more commercially viable.
That being said, there are pockets of Villeneuve magic that can be cherished, just with added extravaganza. Who am I to complain? Ultimately, you can only hope that its sequel features more of Villeneuve’s signature voice and introduces much-needed depth to its expansive cast. Again, this is all coming from a huge Denis Villeneuve fan. And there certainly are standout qualities to Dune: the acting (Rebecca Ferguson!), the cinema-piercing sound design, the memorable villains, and Hans Zimmer’s roaring score.
Based on the real-life 1989 École Polytechnique massacre, Villeneuve’s third feature is undoubtedly a harrowing experience. Polytechnique serves as a great prelude to Villeneuve’s following film, Incendies. Both works tackle incredibly polarizing and horrifying topics. The reason why this well-made entry ranks lower on this list is due to a few narrative threads ending up a bit inconclusive, specifically with its underdeveloped leading male protagonist.
In spite of that, Polytechnique is still a bold and striking viewing experience that holds nothing back, plunging audiences into the heightened mayhem of being stuck in the same building as a soulless, misogynistic killer runs loose. Obviously, there is a very fine line in depicting real incidents like this, but Villeneuve navigates it well as it truly feels like a memoriam to the lives tragically lost. It must be emphasized that Polytechnique is genuinely a powerful film, notwithstanding its flaws.
Denis Villeneuve’s first English-language feature is possibly one of his most fascinating and beguiling films. It sees Jake Gyllenhaal playing two characters who look exactly the same, doppelgangers essentially. Upon discovering each other’s existence, both characters become engulfed in trying to unravel the mystery behind their shared anomaly.
Infamously, Enemy ends on an enigmatic note that will quite literally leave you pondering for years on end. It’s evident that every action has subtextual meaning behind it, Villeneuve just doesn’t simply reveal the key to deciphering it. It’s a spider-web of a film. Enemy flaunts Villeneuve’s trademark shooting style that favors slow, yet precise camera movement and is seeped in a uniquely beautiful color palette of yellow hues. It’s an impeccably made work of art through and through.
6. August 32nd on Earth
The feature debut of Denis Villeneuve is an impressive one. August 32nd on Earth embraces its experimental, French New Wave style approach to filmmaking, similar to his follow-up Maelström, with open arms. The deliberate camera flow and use of jump-cutting help streamline beats in a sleek, stylish fashion. Additionally, August 32nd on Earth exhibits beautiful, naturalistic visuals which capture the raw feelings of its protagonist, Simone, perfectly. The framing, especially in the film’s Salt Lake City segment, is indicative of the visual patterns that Villeneuve’s later entries would become known for.
At its core, August 32nd on Earth is about mortality. Everything spirals from an inciting car crash that sees our lead mere inches away from death. Upon leaving her wrecked car and hitching a ride to the hospital, Simone realizes that she wants a child, so she quits her job and goes searching for the only person who would be crazy enough to accept her brash proposal. It’s a story full of beauty, tragedy, and spontaneous adventure that never fails to keep viewers entertained.
Released in 2013, the same year as Enemy, Prisoners also stars Jake Gyllenhaal, but this time as a ruthless detective on the hunt. Gyllenhaal is now joined by Hugh Jackman, Paul Dano, and others to form an incomparable, fully devoted cast. At its core, Prisoners is a murder mystery. The true kidnapper of the two lost children at its center has killed in the past, yet Villeneuve chooses to leave the state of the missing kids shrouded in doubt, making it a continued source of unrelenting stress. This unnerving tale is aided by Roger Deakins’ beautifully potent cinematography – the first of his collaborations with Villeneuve.
Retrospectively, Prisoners fits neatly into Villeneuve’s age of mystery-driven thrillers. A common comparison is often made to another Gyllenhaal film, Zodiac, which does have similarities in the way it crafts its pivotal mystery. However, here, Villeneuve deals with a set of unpredictable culprits who are less like unhinged assailants and are more like psychologically damaged everyday folk. It makes for many unexpected twists and turns that will hold complete control of your attention throughout. Prisoners is as unpredictable as mysteries can get.
Rife with unbearable tension, Sicario is an astounding crime drama. Remarkably, it manages to surpass much of the crime genre’s archetypes. This is largely down to Villeneuve’s second pairing with Roger Deakins, who brings his uniquely gorgeous cinematic precision to the film. A large portion of the genre’s cliches come from the way these stories are shot, so by defying the standard, they were already one step ahead.
Sicario tells a recognizable story in a fresh and riveting way, with more focus on the psychological impact of violence rather than the spectacle of big gun-downs between law enforcement and traditional bad guys. Although, how could you ever forget the stomach-churning highway sequence that is regarded as one of the most tautly-made modern examples of pure suspense? It’s a well-rounded thrill ride from beginning to end.
Of Villeneuve’s French-language films, his last one, Incendies, marks his step into full-blown mastery. We follow a pair of twins who travel to their war-torn native country in order to uncover the secrets of their recently deceased mother. Villeneuve takes an awfully tragic story and tells it in such a convincing way that you become totally engrossed in the extreme apprehensions of the bloodshed at hand. Heavily inspired by the Lebanese Civil War, the central conflict of Incendies is a religious one, whereby being Christian is the determining factor if you live or die.
It’s heart-wrenching and absolutely devastating at points, while also being subtly clever in its narrative journey across time. Incendies is split in two, invisibly sliding between the mother in the past and her children in the present as they search for resolution, and more importantly, reconciliation. Villeneuve’s film is so deeply impactful that you won’t, potentially, ever shake the blistering shocks of this enthralling tale.
Utterly entrancing and poetic storytelling at its finest. Arrival takes you to another plane of reality and leaves audiences with an enamoring sense of awe, not only for the spectacle but for the spine-chilling conundrum that unfolds. The film follows Amy Adams as Dr. Louise Banks, a linguistics professor who is tasked with deciphering any communication from Earth’s first extraterrestrial visitors.
Despite its inherent sci-fi premise, Arrival is much more of a story about human connection, told through the lens of memory. Amy Adams is the film’s anchor, delivering every scene with pitch-perfect subtly, tenderness, and emotion. Transcendent, awe-inspiring, and hypnotic, Arrival is positively one of Villeneuve’s finest pieces and ranks among the very best of the last decade.
1. Blade Runner 2049
There is no other entry in Denis Villeneuve’s oeuvre that hits like Blade Runner 2049. It’s an astonishing achievement on all fronts. Not only does it advance on Ridley Scott’s timeless Blade Runner, but it also brings the iconic universe into a whole new cerebral plane that has now become a trademark for the director. Somber, transfixing, and reflective, 2049 embraces its sparse ambiguity and sweeps you along with it.
This is echoed in Roger Deakins’ Oscar-winning cinematography which has a constant overflow of some of the best images ever put on screen. The visuals emphasize the sparseness of barren landscapes to impeccable use. Additionally, Deakins and Villeneuve’s use of color and light is beyond any other film in this list, and it’ll be touted as the titular example for anyone looking to study or casually examine cinema in the future.
Everything of importance, to the very minor detail, is expertly told through the film’s symbiotic relationship between visual storytelling and the powerhouse performances on-screen. Ryan Gosling is an endless wonder as you’ll have no trouble getting lost in his evocative eyes, they often say much more than words possibly could. Even though a blockbuster in scope, Blade Runner 2049 embraces Denis Villeneuve’s independent film roots to tell a deeply effecting, long-lasting story like no other.