Every Denis Villeneuve Movie Ranked, from ‘Arrival’ to ‘Dune’

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[Editor’s note: this list was originally published in October 2017. It has since been updated with additional entries.]

Few filmmakers of the 21st century have risen to prominence and prestige with the forcefulness of Denis Villeneuve, whose seemingly unstoppable career has been bolstered by a steady balance of critical respect and commercial success. In fact, Christopher Nolan is the only other person who comes to mind, and the similarities between the two of them are hard to ignore.

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For one thing, these men are both men, and that tends to be a more crucial detail than it should. For another, they’re also genuine auteurs, each committed to a clinical brand of Cinema (with a capital “C”) that’s muscular and intellectual in equal measure. Nolan is a bit more rigidly defined by his own rubric, but Villeneuve shares his gift for sublimating big ideas into even bigger spectacles and has likewise honed his skills by fluidly moving between massive blockbusters and idiosyncratic passion projects. For Nolan, those idiosyncratic passion projects have become massive blockbusters; for Villeneuve, early or confounding fare like “Polytechnique” and “Enemy” has served as a launching pad — and a guiding light — for a filmmaker who’s now charting his own course toward the stratosphere.

After his venture into the writings of Philip K. Dick with “Blade Runner 2049,” Villeneuve has wrapped himself fully in the mythology of another great science fiction auteur via his continued quest to adapt Frank Herbert’s “Dune” saga for the silver screen. It’s such an epic undertaking that he needed two films to bring the original 1965 “Dune” novel, a spice opera about the rise of young Paul Atreides against the sandy backdrops of planet Arrakis. After the first film released in 2021, the second finally arrives in theaters March 1, following multiple delays. But Villeneuve’s ambition has largely paid off: the first “Dune” was the highest-grossing film of his career, and the sequel is expected to reach similar heights, firmly cementing Villeneuve’s place among the very highest stratum of today’s Hollywood directors.

How long will his third “Dune” film, based on Herbert’s “Dune: Messiah,” take to come out? That’s a question that can only be answered when it finally materializes beyond the writing stage. But as Villeneuve rockets forward, we’ve decided to look back, ranking all nine of his films from worst to best in an effort to reach a broader understanding of how he got here, what is driving him, and where he might be going next.

11. “Maelström” (2000)

MAELSTROM, Marie-Josee Croze, 2002
MAELSTROM, Marie-Josee Croze, 2002Courtesy Everett Collection

Wedged somewhere between Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Emir Kusturica, and his own emerging fixations, Villeneuve’s second feature is a guilt-laden romantic fable about a subject that its writer-director has explored many times since: Cyclical violence, and how it can be stopped. An obvious precursor to “Enemy,” “Maelström” isn’t a bad film so much as it is a half-baked one.

It tells the story of a beautiful Montreal woman named Bibiane Champagne (Marie-Josée Croze), who fatally runs over a Norwegian fishmonger, survives a subsequent suicide attempt, and then falls in love with her victim’s hunky son. Narrated by a talking fish while it’s being butchered  — in what might be the quintessential Villeneuve moment, the fish’s head is lopped off right as he’s about to share the secret for world peace — the non-linear narrative might needlessly loop itself into knots, but no amount of trickery can disguise the fact that this is ultimately a simple tale about choosing light over darkness. To quote one of the movie’s scattered title cards: “To make love, we turned hate around.” This is Villeneuve’s least confident effort, and his least compelling as a result, but he would soon come to believe in his filmmaking as much as he does in the ideas that fuel it.

10. “August 32nd on Earth” (1998)

“August 32nd on Earth”
“August 32nd on Earth”

The title of “August 32nd on Earth” may not strike you as all that strange at first. It’s only after 20 minutes or so, when night falls and a title card welcomes us to “August 33rd,” that the butter begins to slide off the knife. In the movie, that realization hits everyone at once; in life, where the calendar inevitably flips over and each of us will only be here to account for so many pages, it happens to us all at different times. It takes a while to figure out what the hell this shaggy, seriocomic love story is trying to say, but Villeneuve’s directorial debut eventually coheres as a movie about that moment when you first begin to realize — on a guttural level — that you’re not going to live forever.

Simone (Pascale Bussières), the first of Villeneuve’s many female protagonists, is a young model who crashes her car into a ditch (the first of Villeneuve’s many car crashes), and emerges from the accident with an irrepressible desire to conceive a baby with her best friend, Philippe (Alexis Martin). Philippe has just gotten over the crush he’s always harbored on Simone, but he’s seduced into going along with her cockamamy scheme, even though he inexplicably suggests that they fly to America and have sex on the salt flats. It doesn’t go as planned.

Obviously a product of the ’90s (a decade when 95% of all indies were about two aimless, hyper-chatty twentysomethings trying to bone each other in the desert), “August 32nd on Earth” takes way too long to get going, but the chemistry between its leads helps things along. More than anything, however, it’s the incredible economy of Villeneuve’s images that keeps things together, his shots becoming tighter and more expressive as the story falls apart. “Simone,” Philippe confesses, “the more I know, the more I doubt. The world makes less and less sense. It’s falling apart.” It’s hard to imagine how Philippe might be holding up in 2017. And yet, I suspect that he and Simone are still here somewhere, if only because Villeneuve would never let his characters give up.

8. “Dune” (2021)

"Dune"
“Dune”Warner Bros.

In the end, Denis Villeneuve was all too right: Your television isn’t big enough for the scope of his “Dune,” but that’s only because this lifeless spice opera is told on such a comically massive scale that a screen of any size would struggle to contain it. Likewise, no story — let alone the misshapen first half of one — could ever hope to support the enormity of what Villeneuve tries to build over the course of these interminable 155 minutes (someone mentions that time is measured differently on Arrakis), or the sheer weight of the self-serious portent that he pounds into every shot. For all of Villeneuve’s awe-inducing vision, he loses sight of why Frank Herbert’s foundational sci-fi opus is worthy of this epic spectacle in the first place. Such are the pitfalls of making a movie so large that not even its director can see around the sets.

How big is “Dune”? We’re talkin’ slabs upon slabs of angular concrete as far as the eye can see, spaceships that seem to displace entire oceans when they emerge from the seabeds of Caladan, and sandworms so large they could eat the Graboids from “Tremors” like bar nuts. Even yoked kings Jason Momoa and Dave Bautista look like tabletop miniatures when placed against its backdrops, as if cinematographer Greig Fraser discovered a way to shoot deep focus and tilt-shift at the same time.

So why, for all of its unparalleled immensity, does watching “Dune” amount to the cinematic equivalent of being handed a novelty-sized check made out for six dollars? Why is the scope of Villeneuve’s dream betrayed by the dull shallowness of its reality to the point that his film’s most astounding effects — which are every bit as tactile and transportive as those in “Blade Runner 2049” — feel more like optical illusions? Why does this “Dune” feel so small?

The first and most fundamental problem is a screenplay (credited to the heavyweight trio of Eric Roth, Jon Spaihts, and Villeneuve himself) that drills into Herbert’s novel with all the thunder and calamity of a spice harvester, but mines precious little substance from underneath the surface. And while it’s not much of a shock that Denis Villeneuve hasn’t succeeded where the likes of David Lynch and Alejandro Jodorowsky have already failed, his “Dune” is at least uniquely dispiriting, as the director of “Prisoners,” “Incendies,” and “Arrival” comes to this project with such a deep affinity for stories about transcending cyclical violence.

Read IndieWire’s complete review of “Dune.”

8. “Prisoners” (2013)

PRISONERS, from left: Melissa Leo, Paul Dano, 2013. ph: Wilson Webb/©Warner Bros./Courtesy Everett Collection
PRISONERS, from left: Melissa Leo, Paul Dano, 2013. ph: Wilson Webb/©Warner Bros./Courtesy Everett Collection©Warner Bros/Courtesy Everett Collection

Like an uncomfortably long handshake with a guy whose hands are cold enough to make your whole body shiver, Villeneuve’s introduction to Hollywood (and the English-speaking world) is a sub-zero supercut of all the things he does well, and all the things he doesn’t. “Prisoners” obviously marked a new chapter in the director’s career, but it also made it clear that Villeneuve’s fundamental obsessions would follow him to the ends of the Earth no matter how big his budgets got or how many movie stars he was able to buy with them. Yeah, Hugh Jackman’s fee alone was probably more than the combined cost of making “Maelström” and “August 32nd on Earth,” but Villeneuve was painting a familiar picture on a much larger canvas.

You guessed it: “Prisoners” is a film about the eternal cycle of violence, and how it makes men into monsters. This gripping, semi-stupid 153-minute rural Pennsylvanian crime drama literally opens with Keller Dover, Jackman’s red-blooded American alpha dad, reciting the Lord’s Prayer: “…Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” From there, Aaron Guzikowski’s script illustrates — at great length — how, uh, we don’t always do that so well. Keller certainly doesn’t have those words in his heart when he abducts and tortures the mentally handicapped man (Paul Dano) he assumes is responsible for his daughter’s disappearance.

Villeneuve has never been more obvious about exploring his favorite subject, and at that time he had never been more operatic about it either. Collaborating with legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins and grounding each scene with enough gravitas to sink the average movie, he used a trio of exceptional performances (from Jackman, Dano, Jake Gyllenhaal, and definitely not Melissa Leo) to investigate how hatred can convince people of a righteousness that blinds them to the truth. The film never quite figures out what to do with that ugly fact of life, and the payoff almost makes you resent the time spent earning it, but “Prisoners” bought Villeneuve plenty of chances to plumb similar depths in much less dreary environs.

7. “Incendies” (2010)

INCENDIES, Lubna Azabal, 2010. ©Sony Pictures Classics/courtesy Everett Collection
INCENDIES, Lubna Azabal, 2010. ©Sony Pictures Classics/courtesy Everett Collection©Sony Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

Let it never be said that Denis Villeneuve doesn’t know how to bust out a good Radiohead needle drop. For many people, “Incendies” was their first encounter with the Quebecois director, and the haunting prologue — a wordless sequence in which a child soldier has his head shaved to the sounds of “You and Whose Army?” — was enough to guarantee they would remember the name.

As for the rest of the movie… well, mileage will vary. Adapted from Wajdi Mouawad’s four-hour play of the same name, “Incendies” takes Villeneuve’s usual obsessions and stretches them out to their widest possible dimensions; it’s hard to decide if the film is telling a story, or if it’s slowly draw and quartering one. The adventure begins with a will that reads more like a treasure map, as the late Narwan Marwal (Lubna Azabal) leaves her twin children two letters (that they’re not allowed to read!) and very specific instructions to deliver them to the brother and father they didn’t know they had. From there, this multigenerational epic unpacks the Marwal family tree like it’s a painting in a Dan Brown novel, following the characters halfway across the world as they wend their way through the history of an unnamed Middle Eastern country. The discoveries that ensue — and the coincidences that conceived them — are improbable enough to make Oedipus roll his eyes.

If not for Villeneuve’s severely composed setpieces, or the portentous velocity of his direction, “Incendies” would snap apart at the seams. However, the whole thing is endowed with a very different power if you force yourself to read it as a parable about forgiveness, and the (specifically female) capacity to find love in a hopeless place. Like Lars von Trier, Villeneuve is awed by the strength he finds in women. And like Lars von Trier, he tends to express their perseverance through suffering. Also classroom scenes — he loves classroom scenes. But whether you find “Incendies” to be grossly manipulative or grippingly mythic, Villeneuve deserves credit for being one of the only contemporary filmmakers who can blur the line between the two.

6. “Dune: Part Two” (2024)

"Dune: Part Two"
“Dune: Part Two”Warner Bros.


Denis Villeneuve has insisted that “Dune: Part Two” would be a direct continuation of its predecessor rather than a sequel, and the man has absolutely made good on that promise: Not only does this new movie pick up exactly where the last one left off, it also carries over the strengths and weaknesses that made the previous chapter so astonishing to look at but stultifying to watch.

Once again, Frank Herbert’s sand-blasted spice opera has been adapted at a scale that makes the average Hollywood blockbuster seem like a shoebox diorama by comparison, and while the last “Dune” was compromised by Warner Bros. brass’ decision to sacrifice it at the altar of a streaming platform that no longer exists, “Part Two” is poised to thunder into multiplexes around the world like the Shai-Hulud swimming through a dry ocean full of desert mice.

Once again, the biblical solemnity of Villeneuve’s approach — along with the tactile brutalism of his design — have combined into a Timothée Chalamet movie that shimmers with the patina of an epic myth. And once again, the awesome spectacle that Villeneuve mines from all that scenery is betrayed by the smallness of the human drama he stages against it, with the majesty of the movie’s first hour desiccating into the stuff of pure tedium as Paul Atreides struggles to find his voice amid the visions that compel him forward. It’s a struggle that “Dune: Part Two” continues to embody all too well.

Read IndieWire’s complete review of “Dune: Part Two.”

5. “Sicario” (2015)

SICARIO, from left: Emily Blunt, Daniel Kaluuya, 2015. ph: Richard Foreman Jr./©Lionsgate/courtesy Everett Collection
SICARIO, from left: Emily Blunt, Daniel Kaluuya, 2015. ph: Richard Foreman Jr./©Lionsgate/courtesy Everett Collection©Lions Gate/Courtesy Everett Collection

Denis Villeneuve has never been afraid of the dark, of confronting how it feels to be frightened of the future. His first two movies were about women who had to be convinced to choose life, and his third was about women who stared death in the face and still managed to find some way to move forward. To that point, “Sicario” isn’t really a movie about the nuances of the drug trade. Hell, it may not be a movie by someone who even cares about the nuances of the drug trade. On the contrary, Villeneuve sees the border as little more than a backdrop for some of the world’s most pointless violence, as the kind of place that makes you lose hope for all humanity.

“Sicario” is a simple film that asks a simple question: Can you fight a monster without becoming a monster, yourself? And the answer seems to be: “Yes, but only if you’re Emily Blunt.” Villeneuve said almost nothing with this material that he hadn’t already said before (bloodshed only begets bloodshed, violent victories are always pyrrhic, female nature is inherently hopeful, etc.), but never had he conjured sequences as visceral and paralyzing as several of the ones he produced here.

Riding Jóhann Jóhannsson’s queasily effective score (which sounds less like music than it does the symptoms of gastrointestinal distress), Villeneuve and Deakins dig something both urgent and eternal from all this ugliness. It’s hard to watch the Juárez scene without lamenting the sad fact that so many of our best action directors are being claimed by “quality” cinema.

4. “Blade Runner 2049” (2017)

BLADE RUNNER 2049, Ryan Gosling, 2017. ph: Stephen Vaughan /© Warner Bros. /Courtesy Everett Collection
BLADE RUNNER 2049, Ryan Gosling, 2017. ph: Stephen Vaughan /© Warner Bros. /Courtesy Everett Collection©Warner Bros/courtesy Everett Collection / Everett Collection

Hollywood had good reason to go on full spoiler lockdown prior to the release of a highly anticipated franchise blockbuster prior to the release of “Blade Runner 2049.” It tells a brilliant story, the kind of provocative and soulful sci-fi yarn that Philip K. Dick could be proud of, one that more thoroughly excavates the essence of what it means to be alive than almost any other Hollywood film in recent memory (real or implanted). Despite the fact that it’s the first Denis Villeneuve film to take place in the future, it’s also the first to look inward, rather than backward or forward. As a result, it’s the first Denis Villeneuve movie that digs deep enough to wrap its hands around the roots of his existential concerns.

And yet, for all of those virtues, “Blade Runner 2049” represents another first for the Quebecois auteur: It’s the first Denis Villeneuve film to be boring. Turgid where the rest of his work is exhaustingly tense, this epic mega-sequel never shows any signs of life (natural or engineered). Each scene is a gilded vault of dead air, ideas sometimes crystallizing from the mist as the characters try not to be suffocated by the set design. Roger Deakins is having the time of his life, but the sterile, hyper-saturated nature of his work seldom feels right for this movie world, the atmosphere of which isn’t nearly as thick or twinkling as it was in the original (Villeneuve’s follow-up looks more like a steampunk “Inception” than anything else).

There are a million directors who can tell brilliant stories in boring ways, but we count on Villeneuve to do the opposite. “Blade Runner 2049” is as loud and severe as anything he (or anyone else) has ever made, but it feels like it was made by a replicant. More human than human? Not even close.

3. “Polytechnique” (2009)

“Polytechnique”
“Polytechnique”

Villeneuve took a long hiatus between his second and third features, but he returned with a profoundly upsetting film that bears all the hallmarks of his more recent (and more famous) fare. Often, and perhaps most easily described as the French-Canadian response to “Elephant,” this heart-stopping dramatization of the 1989 École Polytechnique massacre doesn’t pursue the same feeling of helplessness that makes Gus Van Sant’s movie such an honest evocation of post-Columbine entropy.

On the contrary, “Polytechnique” has a very clear, very familiar point to make: Empathy is the only answer to anger. And that point, — in classic Villeneuve fashion — is given voice by a character towards the end of the film, as a pregnant survivor of the school shooting looks into the future and considers the role her child will have in shaping it: “If I have a boy, I’ll teach him how to love. If I have a girl, I’ll tell her the world is hers.” This is a film that defies easy criticism, and makes it hard to ignore the fundamental absurdity of quantifying art in an article like this, but “Polytechnique” feels a little bit more urgent every time the world resorts to violence.

Villeneuve has always struggled with subtext, and “Polytechnique” is a movie that was made without any. So it goes — there’s nothing subtle about a massacre. The murderer made it explicitly clear that his killings were motivated by misogyny, and the filmmaker saw no reason to complicate that (though his script underscores that anti-feminist bent with non-violent scenes of everyday sexism). Instead, Villeneuve uses this grim premise as an opportunity to forge the hyper-experiential style that has since come to define his work, using abrasive sound design, droning music, and unflinching long-takes to grab your whole body. Over time, Villeneuve’s lack of subtlety would crystallize into immediacy. That’s a fine distinction, but one not lost on a filmmaker who’s always understood the power of words (more on that later).

2. “Enemy” (2013)

ENEMY, Jake Gyllenhaal, 2013. ph: Caitlin Cronenberg/©A24/courtesy Everett Collection
ENEMY, Jake Gyllenhaal, 2013. ph: Caitlin Cronenberg/©A24/courtesy Everett CollectionA24/courtesy Everett Collection

Remember the guy who made “Maelström”? Well, he’s still in there somewhere, and he’s doing great. An obvious successor to Villeneuve’s second feature (he’s even referred to these frenzied modern fantasies as “brothers”), “Enemy” is the weirdest film the director has ever made, and also the most personal.

Boldly adapted from José Saramago’s “The Double” and quick to go off the deep end, the movie stars two Jake Gyllenhaals (both of them brilliant). One is Adam Bell, an introverted college history professor with a very pregnant girlfriend (played by the great Sarah Gadon). The other is a hotheaded actor named Anthony Claire, who sees an opportunity to have a little fun with his doppelgänger’s wife (Mélanie Laurent). Sex, car crashes, and the scariest penultimate shot in movie history ensue.

At heart, “Enemy” is a story of self-destruction, a jaundiced nightmare about how hurting the people we love can split us in two. For once, however, Villeneuve has made a movie that isn’t quite as simple as it sounds. So much of his career has been spent trying (and failing) to disentangle action from its meaning, but only through making a film about failure was he able to pull that off. His least interesting movies focus on ideals, while his most interesting ones hone in on the obstacles that prevent us from living up to them. “Enemy” is so unnerving because it redirects Villeneuve’s social concerns back towards the individual subconscious. In its own poisoned way, it asks how we can shape the world when we can’t even control ourselves. In lieu of an answer, it mines a deep, lingering horror from the feeling that we can’t.

1. “Arrival” (2016)

ARRIVAL, Amy Adams, 2016. ph: Jan Thijs /© Paramount Pictures /Courtesy Everett Collection
ARRIVAL, Amy Adams, 2016. ph: Jan Thijs /© Paramount Pictures /Courtesy Everett Collection©Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection

A very good movie that stops just short of greatness thanks to a bunch of third act mishegoss (endless love for Michael Stuhlbarg, but the story gets snagged on his character like a plastic bag on a tree branch), “Arrival” is of course a story about breaking a cycle of violence. In this case, that cycle is on a cosmic scale, and meaningfully diluted for the people living in the present because the consequences of their actions won’t be felt until long after they’re dead.

But while this widely beloved Ted Chiang adaptation was, at that point, the most expansive film of Villeneuve’s career, it also hones in on the human details with a specificity that we had never seen from him before. It doesn’t merely pull at the chains of hatred, or outline a way to break them, it sublimates the solution into pure emotion until we can feel the truth for ourselves. Anchored by a wide-eyed, open-hearted Amy Adams (whose performance is an enduring reminder that Villeneuve deserves more credit for his work with actors), and bookended by a Max Richter composition that proves the director is a lot better at placing songs than he is at commissioning scores, “Arrival” pinpoints our fear of the other, and uses language to articulate the arbitrariness of our misunderstandings.

But the film’s full power only snaps into place once you recognize that its ending isn’t a example of fatalism or acceptance, but rather a beautiful moment of personal choice for someone who might not seem to have one. Adams’ character isn’t tasked with deciding whether or not to have her daughter, even though she knows the girl will die a few years later. And she’s not on the hook to decide whether or not to tell her baby daddy about what’s to come. Those things have already happened. No, the only choice that’s in her power to make is whether or not to enjoy the time her new family will have together on this Earth. It’s the same dilemma that Deckard has to deal with at the end of the original “Blade Runner” (in the non-theatrical cuts, at least), and Villeneuve handles it with such incredible grace that he definitely earned his chance to screw up the sequel.

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