Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s science fiction classic Dune is now out in UK cinemas and to celebrate, we’ve decided to get the team together to rank the films of Villeneuve, from his feature directorial debut August 32nd on Earth to the stunning sci-fi epic Blade Runner 2049.

We asked Film Twitter to share their rankings with us and we’ll be sharing the results of that in a tweet shortly after we publish this, so keep your eyes out!

Villeneuve’s earlier films – August 32nd on Earth (1998), Maelström (2000), and Polytechnique (2009) – didn’t make it into our final list due to receiving fewer ratings, but we couldn’t exclude them entirely so we had our resident Villeneuve super-fan, Corey Hughes, write up a little about them.

August 32nd on Earth (1998) & Maelström (2000)

Written by Corey Hughes

We have come to know of Quebec filmmaker Denis Villeneuve through his indulgences in large-budget, often cerebral Blockbuster monoliths. But like many other Hollywood directors, life wasn’t always about red carpets and limousines. Scroll long enough through the filmography of any acclaimed director and you will find films that have laid the groundwork of what was to follow – the recurring themes, the creative signatures – and Villeneuve is no different. Born and raised in Quebec, a largely French-speaking province situated to the east of Canada, Villeneuve made his mark on the cinematic landscape with two debut features: Un 32 août sur terre (August 32nd on Earth) and Maelström.

While Villeneuve may not hold fond opinions for his debut films, in fact, he has largely disowned them, but they make for a fascinating examination of his formative years. August 32nd on Earth tells the bizarre story of Simone and Phillippe, former a survivor of a car crash, the latter her best friend and supposed lover, who embark on a ludicrous journey to fulfill a childhood promise: if they reach 30 years of age and they have yet to settle down, they must conceive a baby together.

Villeneuve adopts a peculiar editing style throughout the film, showcasing an abundance of jarring jump cuts and whip-pan scene transitions, helping to demonstrate Simeone’s erratic and fragile psychological wellbeing following her traumatic car accident. Said accident acts as a catalyst for change, a near-death experience that taps into her existentialist anxieties. 

The premise of two people conceiving a child through friendship other than romanticism and infatuation raises questions about the myths governing the nature of a monogamous relationship, the role of the fertile female body also being challenged within this Western exchange economy that we are living in. In this sense, Villeneuve’s film is refreshingly cerebral; a distinct artistic exploration of such philosophical conundrums.

Villeneuve’s follow-up feature is no less enigmatic. Maelström embraces its pretentiousness, telling the story of a young, professional woman’s descent from fame and prosperity to drug abuse and alcoholism following the traumatic hit-and-run killing of a local fishmonger. It’s told through a bizarre narrative device; a talking fish whose spirit is transferred from fish to fish as countless carcasses are butchered by a brooding, satanic figure. It’s a truly surreal outing by Villeneuve.

But with the overwhelming ambiguity aside, Maelström introduces many of the trademarks that Villeneuve has now become renowned for: the expressive cinematography and mis en scene, the presence of atmospheric music, the enigmatic use of symbolism, but also the unflinching focus on violence and its destructive consequences on those involved. 

Both August 32nd on Earth and Maelstrom wears its pretentiousness on its sleeve, and perhaps this is why Villeneuve is eager to redact these films from his now-esteemed filmography. But make no mistake, these films are essential viewings for anyone eager to see where it all started for our beloved Quebecois Titan.

Polytechnique (2009)

Written by Jakob Lewis Barnes

Even at such an early stage in his career, with an incredible command of the camera and frame and an unsettling kinetic energy throughout, it’s clear that Denis Villeneuve was always set for the top. The directorial signature Villeneuve often leaves on his work are unmistakable here, not least of all in the way he depicts humanity, both physically and symbolically, with such a fine balance between delicate, tender moments, and a more visceral, violent energy. Polytechnique is a tense, tragic, almost horror-esque experience that, similar to Incendies, showcases a filmmaker who is not afraid to broach the bold and brutal elements of the storytelling spectrum.

and now for what you came for, our rankings!

6. Incendies (2010)

Villeneuve’s Incendies, which the majority of was shot in Montreal, follows Canadian twins who travel to their mother’s native country in the Middle East following her death to uncover her hidden past amidst a bloody civil war.

The film was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards in 2011 following a string of nominations and wins at numerous film festivals and critics associations – including Toronto International Film Festival, Vancouver International Film Festival, and the Genie Awards, where it won Best Motion Picture.

5. Enemy (2013)

Written by Sam Comrie

With a career forged in brilliance through an electrifying allure in all things existential and enigmatic, Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy is no exception to his masterful use of these elements. Described by Villeneuve as a film about “how to live and learn without repeating the same mistakes”, this is underpinned by a captivating dual performance from Jake Gyllenhaal.

Released a year before his mesmerizing turn in Nightcrawler, Gyllenhaal’s performance is a testament to his unparalleled ability to explore introverted characters. While later directorial features such as the equally brilliant Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 would see the following approaches refined with big-budget glory, Enemy is Villeneuve experimenting with the boundaries of art-house cinema, reveling in a potent dreamlike state that makes Enemy feel like an out-of-body experience. 

Weaving effortlessly through the complexities of ontology and mind-splitting confrontations, Enemy is a gorgeously lensed descent into a psychological odyssey breaking free from the Hollywood norm. If this film is a precursor to the immense grandeur that Dune may behold, then audiences better strap in for what will hopefully be another amazing addition to Villeneuve’s already glowing filmography.

4. Prisoners (2013)

Written by Rhys Bowen Jones

With Prisoners, Denis Villeneuve announced himself as the new kid on the block. For a first venture into English-language filmmaking, Villeneuve struck gold with a trio of tremendous lead performances and an absorbing plot that captivates you right to its final frame. It served as a perfect introduction to Villeneuve’s vibe, as his distinctively methodical style comes to the fore, never rushing the story and allowing moments to exist, forcing the audience to absorb the film before them, regardless of how uncomfortable the viewing experience may be. 

Hugh Jackman leads the way as the distraught father looking for his lost children, Jackman’s Keller loses himself completely on his quest to find them, taking the dangerously troubled Alex with him, played by the always-brilliant Paul Dano. The star of the show, though, is Jake Gyllenhaal, his detective grappling with the intense, disturbing mystery he’s found himself in. One could easily say Prisoners is a companion piece to David Fincher’s masterful Zodiac, not only due to the Gyllenhaal of it all, but through similar levels of tension and disturbance running through its very core. Prisoners is one of Villeneuve’s very best, one of the 2010s very best, and to cap it all off, it has an absolute humdinger of an ending. 

3. Sicario (2015)

Written by Charlotte Harrison

Sicario is a tour de force of a thriller, a tense and taut powerhouse that forces the viewer to accompany a journey that is ambiguous in both intent and mortality. We only ever know as little as our idealistic FBI agent protagonist Kate (a superb Emily Blunt). After leading a mission which resulted in the discovery of a safe house littered with dozens of decaying bodies, she finds herself joining a CIA-lead taskforce to bring down the leader of the cartel responsible for that and many, many other heinous crimes. Swiftly immersed into a terrifyingly uncertain landscape, she becomes dependant on the mission leaders, CIA officer Matt (Josh Brolin) and undisclosed Alejandro (Benicio del Toro at his most menacing finest) as she’s forced ever-further into an incomprehensibly lawless and frightening world.

Taylor Sheridan’s storytelling is unsettling economical and efficient, providing the scantiest level of detail to brutally exploit our anxieties to maximum effect. Roger Deakins cinematography intensifies this uneasiness, especially during the spectacularly directed set pieces where the malice is compounded ten-fold by Jóhann Jóhannsson’s throbbing score. With Denis Villeneuve at the helm, these masters of their respective fields unite to make a violently visceral film that you don’t just watch – you experience it.

2. Arrival (2016)

Written by Corey Hughes

Ted Chiang, author of Story Of Your Life whose story inspired Villeneuve’s vision, posited that science fiction is a speculative lens in which filmmakers can use to reflect upon humanity. In Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival, this lens examines how we, as a species, resort to aggression, not compassion, when faced with crisis.  Arrival achieves this by taking a thematic interest in how language and communication can be used in the pursuit of universal unification, and how our perceptions on the linearity of time can be questioned when faced with extra-terrestrial beings.

The ubiquitous dominance of linearity is displayed throughout the film, perceived as a routine that must be adhered to, an order that must be upheld: the doors of the Heptapods’ ship opens every 18-hours, Louise is told she only has 10-minutes to pack, and the 12 vessels that appear on Earth represent the recurring importance of the number ’12’ in relation to time; there are 12 months in a calendar year, and most basic units of time are all divisible by 12 (60-minutes in an hour, 24-hours in a day etc). Through the arrival of an extra-terrestrial force, Villeneuve is able to challenge these perceptions of time and propose an alternative conception, that time is perhaps not linear, but cyclonic. It is no coincidence that the design of the Heptapods’ visual language is, indeed, circular, as it is Villeneuve’s way of foreshadowing the gift of non-linearity in which the aliens bring to Earth.

It’s masterfully crafted, with Max Richter’s soul-purifying ‘On The Nature of Daylight’ guiding Bradford Young’s spectacular vistas, accompanied by the late Johann Johannsson’s mesmerically off-kilter score. All of these components make up what is, in my opinion, Villeneuve’s Magnum Opus – a breathtaking and cerebral close encounters drama that fuses the art house with the blockbuster. 

Arrival is a welcomed deviation from the conventional mainstream desire for science fiction stories. There is no grand spectacle, nor is there is no colossal space battle. It is an anti-Independence Day, asserting its place among more cerebral and thought-provoking science fiction affair. It is a staple of Villeneuve’s unique ability to roam free within Hollywood, to be given complete carte blanche and embolden the artistic credibility of the blockbuster. 

One might say that it’s the most artistic and poetic science fiction story since Kubrick’s 2001. 

Fuck it, I am going to say it. 

1. Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

Written by Fiona Underhill

As a huge fan of the original and someone who can be mixed on Villeneuve, I was nervous about Blade Runner 2049. But the casting of our Lord and Saviour – JC Mascot Ryan Gosling of course had me excited. Gosling takes his stoic “empty man” persona from the likes of Drive and Only God Forgives to the nth degree by playing a replicant here.

But of course, this is a replicant who longs to be a real boy. The “android who longs for a soul” is one of the most tragic character types – from David in AI, to David in Prometheus, to Ava in Ex Machinaand lest we forget Chappie – there’s a reason that the Pinocchio story has been retold over and over again. In this world, there are degrees of artificial intelligence, so Agent K is more sophisticated than Joi – the home computer that he’s in love with, and who can blame him when she’s personified by Ana de Armas? 

K spends most of the movie believing that he is the half-human, half-replicant child of Deckard and Rachel, which obviously adds huge weight to him eventually coming face-to-face with Harrison Ford about an hour before the end of the movie. Harrison Ford has revisited his most iconic characters – Han and Indy – with varying degrees of success. But he is actually pretty touching here and the setting of their encounter is one of the best of the film.

Against an orange sky, K walks underneath giant statues of naked women and finds Deckard hiding out in a kind of abandoned Vegas – with holograms of Elvis and Sinatra. Which is definitely where I would want to be, post-apocalypse. Sylvia Hoeks, who looks like a cross between Famke Janssen and Sean Young herself (who played Rachel of course) gives one of the best performances of the film as the steely Luv. And Dave Bautista surprised everyone with his performance in his brilliant cameo during the prologue. I’m not going to go so far as to say that BR2049 is better than the original because that’s crazy talk, but it is an amazing sequel and my second favourite Villeneuve movie (number one is Enemy, thanks for asking). We only have 28 years to prepare for living on an orange planet with fake food, people, so we best get cracking!

PS. And if we didn’t have BR2049, we wouldn’t have the greatest interview of all time.

We’d love to see your rankings, so be sure to let us know on Twitter!

Dune is out now in cinemas and you can check our full review.

“While Dune relies on its ensemble to pull together different components of the rich story, it’s director Denis Villeneuve who does most of the heavy lifting – recreating the harsh and unforgiving Arrakis straight out of the original novel.” – Ryan Leston

Review: DUNE (2021)