Every Denis Villeneuve Movie Ranked

At the start of this year, I had never seen a film by Denis Villeneuve film. In honor of the premiere of Dune: Part Two, I watched and reviewed all eleven of his films in order. Reading back over the reviews I’ve written over the past few months, I’m struck with a tone of disappointment: As his films got bigger and more muscular, I kept waiting for the resulting films to further sweep me away.

Instead, as his production scope increased, so did my sense of frustration. His storytelling did not evolve even as his craft did; his tendency for blunt themes and overwrought, mismatched tones became more incongruous with the towering images and taut thrillers on screen.

And yet I still unambiguously like him as a director; just not quite to the level of his reputation as one of the best active filmmakers. I gave 9 of his 11 films positive ratings and 4 of his 11 films a “Very Good” or higher rating, meaning they are at or approaching greatness. That’s an excellent batting average for any director.

Perhaps when I revisit some of these movies down the line, this ranking order will shift, as I find it’s a relatively even bunch, with the majority of his films in the same approximate tier, strengths and weaknesses across his filmography largely balancing out. (I do have a clear and unshakable number one, though.)

Here is my ranking of his eleven films following my 2024 watch-through. I’ve included links to my full-length reviews and listed an “Is It Good?” rating for each of the films.

11. Polytechnique (2009)

Is It Good? Not Very Good (3/8)

Polytechnique, a dramatization of a real-life college shooting in Montreal in 1989, is fine enough as a visual piece of indie cinema. The black-and-white photography is striking and driven by a clear thematic purpose, the sense of gravity is laser-focused and tense. My issue with the film is moral: narrativizing real-life acts of mass violence in this way legitimizes them as acts of expression. Polytechnique falls apart especially as the film leans on a nonlinear timeline to turn a 20-minute tragedy into a three-act story.

(Note: My review of Polytechnique is a bit of a reflection of my own history with, and philosophies about, school shootings.)

10. Enemy (2013)

Is It Good? Nearly Good (4/8)

The most frustrating of Villeneuve’s film. An idea that’s cool in the abstract — Jake Gyllenhaal’s Adam facing an existential crisis as he discovers his exact doppelganger with an opposite life and personality — devolves into empty hokum. It’s not dreamy enough to support the surreal explorations of dual-sided identities that Villeneuve and screenwriter Javier Gullon clearly have in mind. The visuals are flat, the color grading piss-ugly, and the final shot stupidly obtuse. It is, thankfully, well-acted and intermittently tense and intriguing enough to avoid outright disaster.

9. August 32nd on Earth (1998)

Is It Good? Good (5/8)

Villeneuve’s debut is his slightest film, but still flavorful and satisfying. It’s an uneven and loosely-structured romantic dramedy taking cues from Godard and Linklater set in the visually-striking salt flats of Utah, permeated with allusions to death and crossing sacred barriers. The script, penned by Villeneuve, is a bit ragged, but the visuals tell enough of a story by themselves to make it worth a watch.

8. Maelstrom (2000)

Is It Good? Good (5/8)

A bleak comedy (or else a funny dark drama) infused with magical realism, Villeneuve’s sophomore effort shows his talent for visual storytelling continue to blossom. The script is memorable, too, offering a black sense of humor that he would abandon in the nine years between this and Polytechnique. The film deals with some heavy topics — abortion; immolation; accidental murder — but manages to escape miserabalism with playful touches like a narrator who is a dead fish. It’s still slight compared to his later work, but it offers a very distinct flavor.

7. Dune (2021)

Is It Good? Good (5/8)

Your reaction to this one will depend on your relationship with the source book. I’ve never read it, and thus the film left me a bit cold. At a baseline and undeniable level, Dune is a tremendous sci-fi production with a terrific cast. But the lore is just so… goofy. Paul is so self-serious. And it feels like an elaborate prologue slideshow for upcoming good stuff; all set-up, no payoff. Well-orchestrated spectacle is never anything to sneeze at, but I like Part 2 much better.

6. Sicario (2015)

Is It Good? Good (5/8)

Terrific muscle; lousy brain. Its cynicism, bordering on nihilism, is downright exhausting. It lays out its themes on cycles of violence inherent in the War on Drugs in the first half hour, then repeatedly smashes them with a hammer for another 90 minutes. Deakins cinematography is world-class and a few sequences are tightly-wound mini-masterpieces. But thanks to its dour spirit, it’s less than the sum of its considerable parts.

5. Prisoners (2013)

Is It Good? Good (5/8)

I have this and Sicario ranked neck-and-neck for similar reasons: terrific craft weighed down by miserabalism. My preference for Prisoners boils down to the fact that I find twisty crime mysteries more satisfying than shoot-em-up action flicks. Prisoners is a major downer, centered on torture and child kidnapping, and has some sloppiness in its writing and construction, but is always engaging and builds to a riveting finale. Roger Deakins does brilliant mood-constructing work.

4. Incendies (2010)

Is It Good? Very Good (6/8)

The culmination of Villeneuve’s Quebecois auteur era — four French-language films he both wrote and directed at the start of his career — Incendies is a wrenching and twist-filled story of a family unit broken down by a religious civil war in the Middle East. Its dual timelines — a mother’s past; her kids retracing her footsteps — collide in a coincidence-filled but breathtaking final half hour. The film is a messy but rewarding blend of docudrama and melodrama; a gritty war epic accompanying a tragic personal saga.

3. Dune: Part Two (2024)

Is It Good? Very Good (6/8)

The payoff to Dune (2021)’s setup is one of Villeneuve’s most satisfying films to date. The Dune story grows both more epic and more intimate as Paul sojourns with the Fremen tribe and takes the empire head-on. The production values are off the chart — especially in glorious IMAX — and the characters develop in compelling, climactic arcs.

2. Arrival (2016)

Is It Good? Very Good (6/8)

Arrival’s alien puzzle procedural is not always compatible with its grand spiritual epic, especially in the dazzling but puzzling final act, but damn if Arrival doesn’t have sweep, beauty, and heart to spare. Amy Adams is sensational in the lead, the tension is always building, and the imagery is terrific.

1. Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

Is It Good? Exceptionally Good (7/8)

Villeneuve’s opus (to date) is the film that I never would have guessed we needed: a legacy sequel to all-time sci-fi masterpiece Blade Runner. The majestic and innovative cinematography by Roger Deakins is some of the best of the decade, and the story of K, a replicant in search of the genesis of life, is both beautiful and enrapturing for the entirety of its rather lengthy runtime. The mandated legacy sequel cameos and plot threads are the only minor complaint I have. But Blade Runner 2049 isn’t just Villeneuve’s most unlikely triumph, it’s his greatest.

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