There are not many directors around who have managed to accomplish so much within so little an amount of time as Denis Villeneuve. From his humble beginnings as an indie director of quiet, often surreal films of the late 1990s' and early 2000s' to the larger-budgeted projects of the past decade, the Québécois filmmaker has earned a distinguished place as one of the best directors currently making films.
His ten-year rise to the top of Hollywood rivals that of other screen giants like Nolan, Tarantino, and Edgar Wright, with all of his films managing to deliver a unique spectacle to viewers that very rarely fails to deliver.
Denis Villeneuve Movies Ranked and Where to Stream Them
With Villeneuve's newest project, the highly anticipated adaptation of Dune, set for release on October 22, we thought we'd take a look back at the French Canadian director’s career so far, ranking his films from worst to best, as well as providing information about where you're currently able to stream them.
August 32nd on Earth
Villeneuve's first feature-length debut film, this off-kilter 1998 Canadian film demonstrates a lot of Villeneuve's early talents as a director. 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).
While Philippe is reluctant at first — having just gotten over the crush he's had on Simone for years — he ultimately agrees on the condition that they conceive the baby in the desert. It's a strange movie (not altogether unsurprising, given how odd some of Villeneuve's later projects would turn out to be), but has a decent enough exploration of existentialism and finding meaning in life any way that you can — two themes you’ll find again and again throughout Villeneuve’s filmography.
While August 32nd on Earth may not be as memorable as some of the other films on this list, like all first efforts from directors, it does offer some glimpse of the filmmaker Villeneuve would become. The film includes his penchant for philosophical subject matter and his exploration of flawed (albeit good-hearted) main characters.
Streaming on Amazon Prime Video (premium subscription required)
One thing you cannot say about Villeneuve: he sure isn't ripping anybody off in his plots or approach to filmmaking. Taking some inspiration from the more surreal and absurdist movies of Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Terry Gilliam, and the directors of the French New Wave, Maelström follows a young woman who accidentally kills a local fisherman in a hit and run, only to find herself in a romantic relationship with the fisherman's son.
Dealing with the guilt over her boyfriend's father's death, Maelström explores the idea of finding forgiveness not only with other people, but also the ability to forgive yourself as well. In true absurdist fashion, the entire plot of the movie is narrated by an anthropomorphic talking fish moments before he is killed and cooked.
While viewers admired Villeneuve's originality and creativity in terms of the plot, ultimately many felt Maelström a little messy for their liking, with Villeneuve relying on too many tricks at one time — including a nonlinear story —making for a somewhat bloated, fairly confusing movie to follow.
Not currently streaming or available for rent anywhere
One of the more controversial films of 2009, Polytechnique still remains the subject of equal amounts of criticism and praise from moviegoers as it had upon its release ten years ago. 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 the 1989 École Polytechnique massacre (also known as the Montreal massacre), 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 exploration of a horrible cultural phenomenon, Polytechnique has grown increasingly more uncomfortable to watch due to the prevalent nature of mass shootings with each passing year. It's a problematic subject to tackle head-on, and while it sends a hopeful message by the movie's climax (with the main character resolving to teach her children about love rather than hate), it's violence continues to divide viewers. It remains one of the harder movies to watch among Villeneuve's filmography.
Streaming on Tubi
Villeneuve's fourth film, and the one that would serve as the biggest milestone in his amateur career that helped the young director gain international renown, Incendies is a very interesting movie in Villeneuve's career for an assortment of reasons. For starters, it was his first adaptation of an existing work, taken from the 2003 play of the same name by Wajdi Mouawad.
It would also be the last movie he worked on the screenplay for until Dune, the last French-Canadian language movie he would direct, and also the best-received movie out of his early Canadian films. Incendies follows a pair of twins (Lubna Azabal and Maxim Gaudette) who return to their mother's homeland in the Middle East after her untimely death to learn more about her past. While there, they are caught in an ongoing war being waged in the nameless country as they uncover the many secrets that their mother had kept hidden.
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. However, while the movie can be looked on as a stepping stone for Villeneuve as he moved onto bigger and more well-known projects, it remains a very enjoyable entry in his filmography, showcasing the best of Villeneuve's talents during his early days as a filmmaker.
Not currently streaming, but can be rented on Prime Video
Villeneuve's first American movie is an impressive enough movie that tends to get a bit overshadowed by his later, more popular films (similar to his early Canadian movies). Prisoners focuses on the fallout that a father (Hugh Jackman) faces when his two young daughters are abducted from their home in the Pennsylvania suburbs. As the police investigate the disappearances, led by a determined detective played by Jake Gyllenhall, the girls' father launches his own investigation to find the man he believes is responsible, leading him down a further path of violence that increasingly becomes harder to justify as time goes by.
A tight, thoroughly suspenseful mystery film, Prisoners managed to serve as Villeneuve's introduction to larger budget projects that was a far cry from his days as an indie director. Boasting the heavyweight talents of veterans actors like Jackman and Gyllenhall (both of whom give tremendous performances), this film is a thoroughly enjoyable addition to Villeneuve's filmography that began to show his maturation as a director able to handle Hollywood movies just as well — if not better — than his indie projects.
Streaming on Hulu
Returning momentarily to his stranger indie roots, Villeneuve's next project after his first American film Prisoners saw him shifting back towards the strange subject matter and surrealism he had touched upon in his earlier career. That's not to say some of his later films lacked odd themes or content, but that Villeneuve hadn't really gone full-on surreal since his early days as a director.
Enemy focuses on the story of two doppelgänger (both played by Jake Gyllenhall) who are exactly alike in appearance, but couldn't be more different in personality, with one of the lookalikes realizing he can use their physical similarities to his advantage. A Kafkaesque movie that is probably the most out there of Villeneuve's more recent movies, the film explores the idea of self-destruction and identity, blending psychological drama with aspects of a horror or a thriller film. It's unpredictable, scary, and also has likely the most disturbing final endings in all of film.
A word of warning: arachnophobes should watch this movie at their own risk.
Streaming on Showtime Anytime
It's difficult to rank Villeneuve's three most recent movies and determine which one is the best. It's like asking which of Nolan's movies is the best — the answer depends mostly on the individual, as each of his films are equally good. However, we decided that coming in third on this list is Villeneuve's 2016 sci-fi film, Arrival.
Taking a very different approach from many other sci-fi movies, Arrival focuses on the sudden appearance of alien spacecraft hovering over various locations all over the world. In order to communicate with the aliens aboard, the US military contacts an expert linguist (Amy Adams), who attempts to contact the aliens, and learn why exactly they came to Earth. Praised for Adams' performance and Villeneuve's direction, Arrival was nominated for several prestigious awards after its release, including Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography, and Best Adapted Screenplay.
The movie's outside-the-box approach to the sci-fi genre, namely through the difficulty caused by an alien race encountering humans for the first time and the painstaking process of developing a common means of communication between the two, made for a very interesting exploration of a topic that hadn't been fully explored in sci-fi before (with the exception of Close Encounters of the Third Kind).
It's an interesting, slow, sentimental movie that showed that Villeneuve was still capable of retaining his signature grounded narrative focusing on relatable, likable human characters even in larger sci-fi projects. It also served as the director's first foray into science fiction, a genre he would return to again in Blade Runner 2049 and later Dune, and that showed he was more than comfortable working within the genre.
Streaming on Hulu
Sicario is probably one of the greatest, most original action crime thrillers in recent memory. Following an admittedly standard plotline, the movie follows a joint task force made of CIA, FBI, and other law enforcement personnel (included in this group are characters played by Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, and Benicio del Toro) attempting to take down the powerful and vicious leader of a Mexican drug cartel.
However cut-and-paste that concept sounds compared to other similar-sounding crime movies, Sicario manages to remain distinctly fresh and unique, largely due to the performances, Villeneuve's direction, and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan's remarkable script. It's a movie full of twists and turns where you aren't really sure of who to trust, thanks to the three actors’ amazing performances (del Toro's reserved, aloof character with a traumatic past is easily one of the highlights of the actor’s lengthy career) and makes the drug-ravaged areas of the US and Mexico seem as legitimately frightening and brutal as they are in real life.
Like most of Villeneuve's movies, Sicario also features some fantastic cinematography and wonderful pacing, with the director managing to deliver an outstanding action crime movie which other, less talented directors might have made into a standard crime thriller audience would have forgotten about a year or two after release. With Villeneuve's talents as a filmmaker, though, it's a movie that will stay with you for a long time after viewing.
Streaming on Pluto TV
Blade Runner 2049
Villeneuve has always been an ambitious director with a distinct vision that you could see in even his earliest works, but Blade Runner 2049 was arguably his most ambitious work yet. Villeneuve had a lot riding on him with Blade Runner 2049, and quite frankly, few directors could've measured up to the plate as well as he did. His recurring interests as a director — namely, that of more grounded, human-centered stories that explore flawed individuals who want something more out of life — was a perfect match for the sci-fi heavy Blade Runner 2049 that featured tons of artificially created androids questioning their existence.
While there was an insurmountable pressure on Villeneuve to follow in Ridley Scott's shoes and create a sequel that lived up to the original sci-fi classic, Villeneuve more than managed. Blade Runner 2049 is full of incredibly memorable images of neon-lit buildings and smog-filled streets of dystopian Los Angeles. It also features unbelievable performances, with every single cast member carrying their weight and then some, as well as an extremely well-written script that Harrison Ford claimed in an interview was the best that he had ever read.
Blade Runner 2049 was a huge critical success, praised by fans of the original film and critics, and now regarded as one of the best movies of 2017. Which, given how downright amazing 2017's movies were — Get Out, The Shape of Water, Dunkirk, and Phantom Thread — is definitely saying something. While the film was not as warmly received at the box office, it showed once again how comfortable Villeneuve was working within the sci-fi genre, proving that he was ready for his next gargantuan project, Dune, a movie that Villeneuve himself called a dream project of his.
Streaming on HBO Max
In his short but amazingly successful career, Villeneuve has managed to become one of the most successful, popular, and creative directors of his generation. From his earliest movies to his later big-budget Hollywood epics, his films are bursting with originality and a distinct artistic vision, full of unique plotlines grounded by realistic characters that audiences are able to connect with and understand more deeply than most other cinematic characters out there.
With a career as prestigious as Villeneuve’s, we look forward to seeing what other films Villeneuve tackles in the future. In the meantime, though, like everyone else, we're extremely excited to see Villeneuve's newest project, Dune, on October 22 — which has already received superb reviews–and to see where exactly it ranks in Villeneuve's already impressive filmography.