The Essentials: The Films Of Denis Villeneuve

Denis Villeneuve is that most uncommon of contemporary filmmakers, to the degree where he’s pretty much a unicorn in Hollywood terms. Put more plainly, Villeneuve is one of a handful of noteworthy studio directors capable of re-imagining venerated properties in ways that shouldn’t work – like say, for instance, a sequel to Ridley Scott’s beloved “Blade Runner” or an epic take on Frank Herbert’s long-thought-to-be-unfilmable “Dune” – and making them sing onscreen. As such, Villeneuve has cemented a unique niche within the current industry machine: he’s that rare studio hire who has earned the artist label; not only that, but he’s been known to unite the fanboys and the high-minded film snobs, two demographics who have long been at odds with each other.

READ MORE: ‘Dune’: Denis Villeneuve Crafts A Spellbinding Arthouse Blockbuster Odyssey About Destiny & Betrayal [Venice Review]

Then again, Denis Villeneuve wasn’t always this guy. The French-Canadian auteur, born in Quebec in 1967, began making waves with a pair of bizarre indies (“August 32nd on Earth,” “Maelstrom”) before settling on a brooding, near-Gothic temerity that would come to define his signature style in formative early works like “Polytechnique” and “Incendies.” “Prisoners” was Villeneuve’s big swing for the Hollywood mainstream; that disturbing murder procedural led to a slew of high-profile awards nominations (including one for Roger Deakins’ exquisitely decrepit cinematography) and ended up landing on many critic’s Best Of The Year lists. The success of “Prisoners” afforded Villeneuve some blank-check money to make the prodigiously weird psychological thriller/black comedy “Enemy,” which preceded even more critical and commercial success in the form of “Sicario,” “Arrival,” and “Blade Runner: 2049.”

“Dune” is, without question, Villeneuve’s most massive undertaking to date. A downright leviathan adaptation of the cult sci-fi novel – previously attempted in the ’80s by David Lynch – the film boasts an enviably stacked ensemble that features Timothee Chalamet as the reluctant heir/warrior Paul Atreides, as well as Zendaya, Oscar Isaac, Rebecca Ferguson, Jason Momoa, Josh Brolin, and more. The film has been at the center of some unfortunate pre-release controversy relating to the HBO Max/Warner Bros. day-and-date strategy, but the ensuing conversation has only confirmed what many cinephiles already knew about Denis Villeneuve: that he is one of our more intriguing and invaluable widescreen myth-makers, and that he directs films that are meant to be seen on big screens, not on tablets whilst doing laundry.

READ MORE: Hans Zimmer Talks ‘Dune,’ Working With Denis Villeneuve & The Need For Epic Bagpipes [Interview]

Here is the official Playlist listing of Denis Villeneuve’s most essential films to date – which, let’s be honest, is basically everything. Enjoy reading!

August 32nd on Earth” (1998)
Villeneuve’s debut, which premiered at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival, sees a distinctive cinematic storyteller finding his footing and establishing an aesthetic that suits his burgeoning obsessions. Here, we have the story of Simone (Pascale Bussières), a woman who begins questioning her life choices after she is nearly killed in a terrible car crash. The ensuing fallout involves an unorthodox bid for motherhood, as well as a trip to the desert badlands of Utah. There’s an almost Bressonian economy at work in this stark drama – which was submitted as Canada’s entry to the Best Foreign Language category at the 71st Academy Awards, where it lost to the treacly and offensive “Life Is Beautiful” – even if the plotting feels somewhat lethargic compared to Villeneuve’s later, tighter work. Visually speaking, “August 32nd” is relatively unadorned, very much a product of the no-frills 90’s independent scene, but each shot is carefully considered and thought-out, and you can see the seeds of a brilliant visual storyteller beginning to blossom. Villeneuve die-hards will want to seek this one out if they haven’t already.

Maelstrom” (2000)
It’s far from hyperbole to say that “Maelstrom” feels like nothing else in Denis Villeneuve’s filmography: we’re not sure he’s ever made anything like it before or since. For one, the tone here is decidedly quirkier and less menacing than everything that comes later; though dread-suffused flourishes still punctuate the narrative, they’re handled with a lighter touch in this quixotic early effort. “Maelstrom” also incorporates elements of whimsical fantasy into its plot, which is, in the words of its narrator, the tale of “a young woman who sets out on a long journey towards reality.” The movie’s tone is, it must said, occasionally erratic, and “Maelstrom’s” interrogations of difficult subjects like abortion and romantic disenchantment are not always handled with the fine touch that this filmmaker would develop later in his career. “Maelstrom” is most interesting as a left-field curio from a director who would later go on to do much bigger and more interesting things, although it’s certainly not every under-the-radar independent feature that is narrated by a fish who is being sliced open as he addresses the audience.

Polytechnique” (2009)
In the age of incels, toxic masculinity, and depressingly frequent mass shootings, Villeneuve’s lean, lacerating character portrait “Polytechnique” has lost none of its distressing power in the years since its release. If Gus Van Sant’s stylistically analogous “Elephant” was inspired by the Columbine killings, Villeneuve’s film is openly about the 1989 École Polytechnique Massacre, a terrorist shooting in Montreal where fourteen women were slain. The shooter, unnamed in the film, is a rancid misogynist whose vile, nakedly self-serving agenda inevitably morphs into sickening violence. Villeneuve dispassionately sees all this carnage through the eyes of two students, neither of whom had any idea what they were in for on that fateful day. As with “Elephant,” there have been arguments as to the question of responsibility in Villeneuve’s depiction of these troubling events, but there’s no way to look at “Polytechnique” as anything other than ideologically anti-gun: throughout, the director resists the urge to give into sensationalism, and while the film that led to his arthouse breakout, “Incendies,” is every bit as tough to take as you’d expect, it’s also a film with a lot to say about the deadly collateral damage wrought from male entitlement.

Incendies” (2010)
It’s worth noting that “Incendies” is based on a stage play by the Lebanese-Canadian writer Wajdi Mouawad. This bears mentioning inasmuch as it is one of a few factors that account for this slow, seething psychological drama’s unorthodox structure. A study of diasporic sorrow and the side effects of generational displacement, “Incendies” is about twin siblings united by the passing of their mother, a Canadian immigrant with family ties in the Middle East. A series of revelatory letters leads to long-buried family secrets being unearthed, and the film’s style is rendered with shades of the dense thriller plotting Villeneuve would continue to practice in his later, more Hollywood outings. Really, this is the last time Villeneuve makes a film outside of Hollywood, which is why it’s a shame that “Incendies” isn’t one of the Canadian auteur’s more memorable efforts. There are authorial blind spots that Villeneuve, a white filmmaker, cannot help but stumble into by adapting a culturally specific story penned by a non-white artist, and we find the film’s climactic twist, while beloved by some Villeneuve die-hards, to be ill-conceived, little more than a cheap “gotcha” moment in an otherwise patient, probing work of moral drama.

Prisoners” (2013)
It feels safe to say that “Prisoners” marks the juncture at which point Villeneuve graduates from acclaim in arthouse/cinephile circles and into the big leagues of prestige studio filmmaking. Granted, this slick potboiler is every bit as tense and agonizing as “Polytechnique” or “Incendies,” but it’s also cast with bonafide movie stars, and positively drips with the kind of sumptuous, expensive capital-M movie atmosphere that only a studio like Warner Bros. can buy. Taking a page from David Fincher’sSe7en” and other like-minded, grisly murder procedurals, Villeneuve turns what could be a beach-read mystery into a study of godless reckoning the American suburbs. Over the course of the film’s chilling narrative, a child goes missing, an investigation is launched into an abduction, a family comes apart at the seams, and ordinary working people are pushed to unthinkable spiritual extremes. “Prisoners” is, as you could imagine, an ugly and at times punishing film to sit through, but it’s also one of the best-acted dramas of 2013, featuring galvanizing work from Hugh Jackman and Maria Bello, an insidiously creepy Paul Dano, and a twitchy, caustically funny, career-best Jake Gyllenhaal.

Enemy” (2013)
Imagine, if you will, that you are a depressed, sexually frustrated academic living in modern-day Toronto. Then, imagine that, one day, you rent a videotape (remember those?) and are shocked to see your exact doppelganger lingering as an extra, a bellhop, in one throwaway frame. That’s the deliciously wicked premise for “Enemy,” Villeneuve’s most confounding nightmare to date, which updates the mirroring-double perversity of something like David Cronenberg’sDead Ringers” as an actor’s showcase for Jake Gyllenhaal, returning from “Prisoners,” to give two of his most outrageously entertaining performances to date. The legacy of Canada’s master of body horror looms large over “Enemy,” to the point where the film is occasionally held back from greatness by Villeneuve’s reliance on pastiche, tips of the hat weirdo geniuses like Cronenberg, Lynch, and Brian De Palma. The doom has never been amplified anywhere in Villeneuve’s filmography more than it is in “Enemy,” though the film is immersed in a sinuous kinkiness that prevents it from ever leaning into glum self-parody. It doesn’t hurt that “Enemy” contains two of Gyllenhaal’s most dialed-in performances, though the actor is well-served by co-stars Sarah Gadon, Melanie Laurent, and Isabella Rossellini. And how about that final shot?

Sicario” (2015)
Villeneuve took his technical storytelling chops to a new level with the taut and blistering “Sicario,” a borderland thriller and thoroughly pessimistic morality tale that festers with more than a touch of the existential rot that has come to define Michael Mann’s canonical work over the years. Emily Blunt gives a lead performance that is utterly engrossing in its tactical restraint, playing Kate Macer, an FBI agent trapped in a growing quagmire of ethical and legal corruption that extends to both her smarmy CIA superior (Josh Brolin) as well as their lethal, enigmatic guide through the less tourist-friendly parts of Mexico, Alejandro (an unforgettable Benicio Del Toro). Adapting an airtight thriller script penned by a then-ascendant Taylor Sheridan, Villeneuve fills this adrenalized milieu with haunting, even ghostly images – a cartel stash house where corpses line the insides of the walls, dead bodies hanging like a grim warning sign from a bridge in Juarez – that evoke not only shades of the Western and neo-noir genres, but also the empty futility of the American War On Drugs itself, and our culture’s unwitting, docile complicity in it.

Arrival” (2006)
Villeneuve has been accused in some circles of being a cerebral, somewhat cold filmmaker, but that is certainly not a criticism that applies to the auteur’s shimmering sci-fi allegory “Arrival,” which still stands as the director’s most emotionally mature motion picture to date. “Arrival” also marks a fascinating point of artistic transition for Villeneuve, as he begins to pivot away from the gloomy, mid-budget, crime/thriller/mystery films he had been making shortly before this, and towards epic, serious-minded blockbuster science fiction. Based on Ted Chiang’s 1998 novella “Story Of Your Life,” “Arrival” features one of Amy Adams’ loveliest and most graceful performances as Louise Banks, a grieving linguist who come to act as a critical human catalyst for communicating with a host of visiting extraterrestrial life forms stationed at various points around the globe. With the aid of Bradford Young’s rapturous and otherworldly images and the incandescent, heavenly score by Jóhann Jóhannsson, “Arrival” went on to be nominated for eight Academy Awards (winning only one, for sound editing), and gross over $100 million at the domestic box office. We’d argue its acclaim is well deserved.

Blade Runner: 2049” (2017)
If we are to judge motion pictures on purely visual terms, then surely Villeneuve’s grandiose take on the mythology of Ridley Scott’s dystopian cult classic would rank as one of the great films of all time. The images that the director’s regular D.P., Roger Deakins, constructs for this overwhelmingly immense neon-lit tentpole are so jaw-dropping in their alien majesty it’s easy to get lost in them and forget the movie’s clunky attempts at world-building, the regrettable treatment of its female characters, or Jared Leto’s camp, one-note turn as the movie’s villain. This is all another way of saying that “Blade Runner: 2049” is an intoxicating sensorial feast, almost certainly one of the most beautiful movies ever made, that nevertheless leaves one wanting. Which is small potatoes, really: when the filmmakers create a world that’s this immersive and fully realized, flaws like the ones we mentioned are easier to forgive. Ryan Gosling certainly broods masterfully as the LAPD replicant K, though we’d argue that “2049” really belongs to Harrison Ford, reprising his iconic Rick Deckard from the original and finding a bruised, affecting hurt in the character that was only hinted at in Ridley Scott’s picture.

Dune” (2021)
Villeneuve has been dreaming about “Dune,” since he was a teenager. It’s been in his imagination, arguably been in his blood and DNA for decades. And thankfully, his gorgeous and spellbinding “Dune” does the dense Frank Herbert book justice without having to make any sacrifices to the gods of forward motion and cinematic entertainment. Villeneuve’s “Dune” is also dense, it’s a world-building affair, but a ravishing one that isn’t at the expense of character. Starring Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides, the young heir of Caladan and Arrakis, “Dune” is essentially a personal story of destiny and identity— can Atreides shoulder the burden of purpose, prophecy and all the things everyone demands of him?—and then a more plot-driven, world-building story of galactic political betrayal on a grandly operatic scale. Featuring a spectacular supporting cast Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Josh Brolin, Zendaya, Javier Bardem— all there to help support a greater story about opposing cultures and oppressive colonizers (which will hopefully be expanded in part two), the best way to put “Dune” is that today’s best actors all rallied behind Villeneuve and he brought his majestic, hypnotic A-game to deliver a rich, expansive and mystical experience that must be witnessed on the big screen. – Rodrigo Perez