Ever since I first saw Sicario at the San Sebastián Film Festival, Denis Villeneuve has been one of my favorite filmmakers. So I’m very excited to rank his movies. My favorite thing about Denis is how well he blends high-art visuals with blockbuster-y narratives. A lot of movies that look as good as his tend to be smaller, more intimate stories. He manages to turn popcorn films into statement pieces in a way that reminds me of Stanley Kubrick. I don’t think anyone is currently operating on that level. People will claim Nolan. But I have a lot of issues with Nolan—we’ll talk about that when I rank his movies. For now, let’s get to Villeneuve.
If a movie isn’t listed, it means I haven’t seen it yet. This is a live list that I’ll update over time.
(last updated: 8/2/22)
Enemy is one I liked on first watch but didn’t love. After the second watch, I’m close to loving it. Especially as the whole trippy story no longer puzzles me how it did before. It’s essentially Denis Fight Club. With that being the case, you’d think I’d rank it higher since Fight Club is my favorite movie. But because I’m comparing it to Fight Club and still love Fincher’s film so much more, Enemy suffers in comparison. It’s just a little too small in narrative scope for me to truly love it. But the thematic depth is nice. Absolutely one of those films that leaves you scratching your head. And those last few seconds are incredible.
I’m someone who can’t take David Lynch’s version of Dune all that seriously. I know it has an…ancient charm to it. They certainly don’t make ’em like that anymore. I’ll take the slicker, larger-budget, Denis version any day of the week. I think about this in comparison to Robert Eggers The Northman. They’re pretty similar in length. Northman is 137 minutes. Dune 156. Both are stories about lost empires and what happens in the aftermath. Both are visually incredible, as Eggers and Villeneuve are two of the best visual filmmakers in modern cinema. But you can see some of the difference in scope. Eggers is a very big story told pretty quickly. It never really settles for long. So you have this string of very interesting moments but it can feel maybe a little shallow. At least to me. I’d like to have spent a bit more time developing character and themes. Whereas Dune is essentially the first 40 minutes of Northman developed into 2 and half hours. That might be too long for some people. But I thought it gave the story more time to breathe and build and to develop more emotional stakes. All while staying visually dynamic.
Despite how impressive I thought Dune was, it was still a very familiar story. So it ranks lower against what I feel are some of the more original narratives. Enemy has better thematic and existential stakes than Dune, so part of me wanted to rank Enemy higher. But, ultimately, I’m a sucker for scope done well and Enemy is just such a small film in comparison.
Arrival is just such a flex. It’s one of the best examples, I think, of balancing the micro and macro stories. The larger alien story by itself is a fascinating mystery and race against the clock. You can see the elements of blockbuster it pulls from. I can very easily imagine the more by-the-numbers version of this movie that’s directed by Roland Emmerich. Denis elevates the popcorn material through some stunning shots and by how well he handles the smaller, human story of Louise Banks (Amy Adams). There’s a similar mystery and race against time that happens for her that’s completely existential and separate from the aliens (even though it ties back to them). So you end up with two very dynamic, interesting stories within a single movie.
I put it above Dune because I think Dune is maybe a little heartless? Maybe heartless is too strong a word? It’s clinical. A bit distant. Whereas Arrival has a very real and strong heartbeat. The ending makes me so emotional every single time.
3. Blade Runner 2049
The sequel no one thought would happen. Honestly, I have complaints. I don’t think 2049 is as good as the original Blade Runner. Visually, yes. But narratively, I think it’s a bit off the mark. In a lot of ways. I don’t like where it took Deckard and Rachael after the events of Blade Runner. I don’t think the main philosophical conceit was as developed as Blade Runner. And essentially everything involving Jared Leto’s character (Niander Wallace) was regrettable. And the ending landed a bit flat. It felt like the kind of ending you’d have in a first draft until a good editor challenges you to do something more exciting or meaningful. If there’s a part three coming and this was merely a segue conclusion to the end of the trilogy, it works a little better. But on its own? Meh. The original ending had power because there’s so much implication in Deckard and Rachael being together and going on the run and trying to live. It resonated thematically. 2049 meh.
So why the hell is it number three? Because I still find it to be mesmerizing. The only reason I complain so much is because Blade Runner is one of my all-time favorite movies. So I was probably going to complain about any sequel. Despite those issues and criticisms, I love 2049. Something about it is visceral and encompassing. Watching it, I feel swept up and carried away. That mixture of anger and awe is fun.
I put it above Arrival because I like the scope of 2049. Arrival has some huge stakes in terms of aliens and end of the world stuff. But it’s an intimate story. Almost a character study. It’s limited in locations and characters. 2049 is just a bit broader. Arrival wins in terms of depth but 2049 has enough of it that I’m okay with ranking it at three.
Prisoners is just an amazing movie. Multi-faceted. Deep. Thought provoking. Incredible performances. I think it makes other films in the crime genre seem a little childish in comparison. Like if you watch Taking Lives then watch Silence of the Lambs. It’s not like Taking Lives is bad but in comparison… Or Zodiac is another one that makes, say, The Bone Collector, kind of funny. And Prisoners is, to me, a step above even Lambs and Zodiac.
I’ll be a bit controversial here and say if you compare Memento to Prisoners, you really see the difference between Nolan and Denis. Memento is thrilling but it relies on a gimmick. The story itself, what the story’s saying—eh. Prisoners is so much more nuanced and complex and arresting. With these amazing performances from Paul Dano, Wolverine, and Donnie Darko. Both Jackman and Gyllenhaal give some of the best performances of their careers.
I put it above Blade Runner 2049 because how could I not? For me, Prisoners is about as flawless as a film gets.
As of right now, Sicario comes in at number one. But I could see Prisoners taking over. It’s been a few years since my last Sicario rewatch. But I’ve just been fascinated with this movie ever since the first time I saw it. As I said in the intro, I was in Spain, at the San Sebastián Film Festival. This was one of the big, showcase films and because I was press I got tickets. I had no clue who Denis was. Hadn’t seen anything by him. Hadn’t even watched a trailer. Went in completely clueless. Sat down. Literal curtains pulled open (it was that kind of premier theater). And the movie started. From the first scene, I was transfixed. All the way through to the end of the movie. Completely blew me away. I saw it a second time at San Sebastián. I saw it again when it released in theaters. I bought it as soon as it was on blu-ray. It’s just doing exactly what I want a movie to be doing. From the story to the cinematography to the performances. Thematic journey, character journey, narrative journey. Like with Prisoners, it’s about as flawless as they come.
I put it above Prisoners, for now, because Sicario is just a little more visually dynamic. And I think maybe some of the highs are just slightly higher. And it seems the degree of difficulty in filming is just a little higher. Oh man, and that first shot of going into Juarez. Hell, I forgot about that shot. And the score. The sense of awe I had during that scene the first time I saw it is one of those things you spend your life trying to find again. Yeah, okay, so Sicario wins.
I get that some people don’t like the ending but it’s about disillusionment, with Emily Blunt being symbolic for the general population waking up to the horribleness of our government and feeling powerless to do anything about it.
Still need to watch:
- August 32nd on Earth