As a director, Denis Villeneuve has accomplished so much in a very narrow amount of time. From his humble beginnings as an indie director of quiet, often surreal films to the larger-budgeted projects of the past decade, the Québécois filmmaker has earned a distinguished place as one of the best directors currently working in the industry.
His unprecedented ten-year rise to the top of Hollywood rivals that of other screen giants like Christopher Nolan, Quentin Tarantino, and Wes Anderson, with all of his films delivering a unique spectacle to viewers that very rarely fails to deliver. Have a look here at every Denis Villeneuve movie ranked.
For nearly six decades, filmmakers have puzzled over how to bring Frank Herbert’s legendary novel, Dune, to the big screen. In 2021 – 56 years after the novel’s original publication – Villeneuve finally got it right, translating Herbert’s encyclopedic text onto film and creating a modern classic.
Humanity has perfected interstellar travel in the distant future, using a mysterious psychoactive drug known as “spice” as their key resource. Ordered to oversee spice production on the desert planet, Arrakis, the members of House Atreides battle the elements, rival clans, and ferocious creatures in their bid to control the planet.
Adapting a novel as large and complex as Dune presented a mammoth challenge, but if there’s one thing Villeneuve has proven over and over, it’s that he makes a habit of making the impossible possible. Staying true to much of Herbert’s text and using state-of-the-art CGI and cinematography to capture the desolate wasteland of Arrakis, it’s a movie whose esteem and reputation will likely only continue to grow with time.
2. Blade Runner 2049
Villeneuve has always been an ambitious director with a distinct vision, but Blade Runner 2049 was arguably his most ambitious work before Dune. While there was insurmountable pressure on Villeneuve to follow in Ridley Scott's footsteps and create a sequel that lived up to the original, Villeneuve was more than able to deliver.
In a dystopian near future, a robotic police officer (known as a “replicant,” played by Ryan Gosling) unveils a shocking revelation regarding replicants’ ability to procreate, leading him on a dangerous manhunt to find the missing Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford).
Villeneuve’s recurring interests as a director – namely, that of more grounded, humanistic stories exploring flawed individuals – perfectly matched the contemplative atmosphere of Blade Runner 2049. Though not a major box office success, it is easily one of the most visionary works of the 21st century and among the finest sci-fi films ever made.
Having impressed her superiors with her fieldwork, an FBI agent (Emily Blunt) joins an elite law enforcement task force attempting to take down a powerful Mexican drug lord operating within the U.S.
However cut-and-paste that premise sounds compared to similar-sounding crime movies, Sicario remains fresh and unique, mainly due to the performances, Villeneuve's direction, and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan's remarkable script.
It's a movie full of twists and turns where viewers aren't really sure of who to trust, thanks to the actors’ excellent performances. (Benicio del Toro's reserved, aloof character with a traumatic past steals every scene he’s in, as quietly threatening as Boba Fett and Clint Eastwood rolled into one.) With Villeneuve's talents as a filmmaker, it's a movie that will stay with you for a long time after viewing.
It's difficult to rank Villeneuve's most recent movies and determine which is the best. (It's like asking which of Nolan's movies is the best – the answer depends almost entirely on the individual.) By a very thin margin, though, Arrival takes the cake.
After the sudden appearance of spacecraft hovering over Earth, the U.S. government hires an expert linguist (Amy Adams) to communicate with the aliens and figure out why they’ve arrived on our planet.
Praised for Adams' performance and Villeneuve's direction, Arrival‘s outside-the-box approach to the sci-fi genre, namely the painstaking process of developing a common means of communication between two wholly different species, made for a unique sci-fi film
It's an interesting, slow, sentimental movie that showed Villeneuve could still retain a grounded narrative built around relatable, likable human characters, even in larger sci-fi projects.
Returning momentarily to his stranger indie roots, Villeneuve's next project after his initial American film, Prisoners, saw him shifting back towards the odd subject matter and surrealism he had touched upon in his earlier career.
Enemy focuses on the story of two doppelgängers (both played by Jake Gyllenhaal) who are identical in appearance but couldn't be more different in personality. Realizing their startling physical similarities, one of these lookalikes starts using their similar appearance to his advantage.
A Kafkaesque movie and probably the most out there of Villeneuve's more recent movies, Enemy centers upon the idea of self-destruction and identity, blending psychological drama with aspects of a horror or thriller film. It's unpredictable, scary, and has what is undoubtedly one the most disturbing endings in all of cinema. (Word of warning: Arachnophobes should watch this movie at their own risk).
After his two young daughters are abducted, a suburban father (Hugh Jackman) takes justice into his own hands, searching for his missing girls and the person responsible, to the chagrin of a dedicated detective (Jake Gyllenhaal) investigating their disappearance.
Villeneuve's first American film overshadows his later, more popular films. A tight, thoroughly suspenseful mystery film, Prisoners managed to serve as Villeneuve's introduction to larger-budget projects – a far cry from his days as an indie director.
Boasting the heavyweight talents of veteran actors like Jackman and Gyllenhall (both of whom give tremendous performances), this film is a thoroughly enjoyable addition to Villeneuve's filmography, illustrating his maturation as a director able to handle Hollywood movies just as well – if not better – than indie projects.
In the wake of their mother’s death, a pair of twins decide to return to their homeland in the Middle East, quickly getting caught up in an ongoing war as they struggle to uncover the secrets their mother had long kept hidden.
Villeneuve's fourth film, which helped the young director gain international renown, is a very interesting movie for various reasons. For starters, it marked Villeneuve’s first adaptation of an existing work, taken from the 2003 play of the same name by Wajdi Mouawad. He also wouldn't write another screenplay until Dune, the last French-Canadian language movie he would direct and the best-received movie of his early films.
A 2011 Academy Award nominee for Best Foreign Language Film, Incendies marked the end of Villeneuve's indie years and the start of a new phase in his career. For this reason, the movie can be considered a stepping stone for Villeneuve as he moved on to bigger and more well-known projects, showcasing the best of his talents during his earliest days as a filmmaker.
One of the more controversial films of 2009, Polytechnique still earns equal amounts of criticism and praise from moviegoers over ten years later. After the widely praised Gus Van Sant film, Elephant, Villeneuve tried making a similar movie chronicling the story of a real-life school shooting.
Based on an anti-feminist mass shooting that took place at an engineering school that saw 15 women killed and 14 more injured by a misogynistic shooter, the movie recounts the incident from the perspective of two students (Sébastien Huberdeau and Karine Vanasse).
An upsetting analysis of a horrible cultural phenomenon, Polytechnique has grown increasingly more uncomfortable to watch due to its prevalent emphasis on mass shootings. It's a problematic subject to tackle head-on. While it sends a hopeful message by the movie's climax (the main character resolves to teach her children to love rather than hate), its violence continues to divide viewers.
One thing nobody can say about Villeneuve: he sure doesn't rip anybody off in his plots or approach to filmmaking. Taking some inspiration from the more surreal movies of Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Terry Gilliam, and the directors of the French New Wave, Maelström follows a young woman (Marie-Josée Croze) who accidentally kills a local fisherman in a hit and run, only to find herself in a romantic relationship with the fisherman's son (Jean-Nicolas Verreault).
Dealing with guilt over her boyfriend's father's death, Maelström explores the idea of finding forgiveness with other people and the ability to forgive. In true absurdist fashion, the movie's entire plot is narrated by an anthropomorphic fish moments before he is killed and cooked.
Viewers admired Villeneuve's originality and creativity in terms of the plot. Still, many felt Maelström a little messy for their liking. Villeneuve relied on too many tricks at once – including a nonlinear story – making for a somewhat bloated, fairly confusing movie to follow.
10. August 32nd on Earth
After a young model, Simone (Pascale Bussières), has a near-death experience from a car accident, she decides the only way to give her life any meaning is by having a baby with her best friend, Philippe (Alexis Martin). Philippe is reluctant at first – having just gotten over his crush on Simone for years – but he ultimately agrees that they conceive the baby in the desert.
Villeneuve's feature-length debut, this off-kilter 1998 Canadian film, demonstrates a lot of Villeneuve's early talents as a director. It's a strange movie but has a decent enough amount of existentialism present throughout the film – a recurring theme you’ll find again and again throughout Villeneuve’s filmography.
August 32nd on Earth may not be as memorable as some of the other films on this list. Still, like all first efforts from directors, it does offer some glimpse of the filmmaker Villeneuve would become, including his penchant for the philosophical subject matter and his exploration of flawed (albeit good-hearted) main characters.