Denis Villeneuve Is the Best Canadian Director of All-Time. Full Stop.
Straight Outta Québec.
If I asked you to name the best Canadian director there’s a good chance that unless you’re a gigantic film nerd you will choose either David Cronenberg or James Cameron. Canada may not be as known for our film output as our neighbours down south, but we do have some memorable directors such as those aforementioned legends or others talented directors such as Atom Egoyan, Guy Maddin, Norman McLaren, Jason Reitman, Ivan Reitman, Sarah Polley or Deepa Mehta.
There’s also a good chance that nowadays you may list Denis Villeneuve. And if you don’t, you should. If you’re unfamiliar with his filmography then it’s something you should rectify. He surpassed Cronenberg and has become the most notable director from my homeland of all-time. This is not something I declare lightly but I have to do it.
As far as I’m concerned, you can split the Villeneuve ouevre–he’s French so now I have to act cultured–into two eras: before Prisoners and after Prisoners.
Admittedly, the pre-Prisoners era is significantly smaller and I missed one of the films, but I distinguish between the two because Villeneuve came into the public conscious with Prisoners and has only became a more respectable name since.
Before Prisoners–a Humble, Slightly Experimental but Interesting Beginning
August 32nd on Earth
You might read this list and not see a movie that you’ve heard of. I was the same way until one day I decided to go back and watch three of them. I have not gotten around to August 32nd on Earth but I imagine it is, at the very least, a good flick.
That’s because these were his humble origin story. I have not taken a look at his general reception if you asked me my opinion of this time period I’d say that, if you ignore his great short film Next Floor, his films got progressively better as time went on. They started good, ended on the middle area of great, on their way to amazing.
Having come into Villeneuve’s world with Prisoners it was fun to explore what he was doing before it. If you go by Maelström, apparently he was just making weird flicks. It’s the weakest of his body of work, but it does show signs of what was to come. I couldn’t help but feel that the strangeness of it was there to cover the little weaknesses that it had.
Polytechnique is a film about the Montreal massacre, a mass shooting that was, at one point, the deadliest mass shooting in Canada. Because of that it’s just naturally a challenging watch. The black-and-white adds to it, along with the minimalist music, letting the story stand above all else. He showed enough artistic restraint to not make this too beautiful because you don’t want to lose the fact that it’s about a massacre. It’s a nice balancing act.
Incendies was when he made that step into great territory. He wasn’t afraid to show how terrible things could be but he didn’t play it for shocks and he didn’t rely on gore. He could have ended the film a little sooner and perhaps the final plot twist was a little too much in order to get to where he wanted to go, but I’m still forgiving of it because where it went was (another) gut punch.
It’s harrowing. Don’t believe me? Look.
The subject matter itself is horrific but he does something special when framing it. You’ll notice that the woman looks out the window, just a bystander/audience member. She witnesses the heinous act and then the subtle camera work and positioning of the gunman reflects the violent act being turned on them. He literally turns the gun to the viewer, to us.
Something I didn’t realize until I researched this article is that not only did he direct these (obviously) but he also wrote them. That in itself is not in the least bit innovative, but in terms of his career it’s of note because when he launched himself into the stratosphere with his next era he also changed his approach.
Prisoners Onward–the (Not Literal) Birth of a Quebecois Giant and the Term Villeneuvian (Which Is Cool)
He adopted a David Fincher model. He stopped writing his films and instead focused on directing them. Plenty of directors solely direct, so I point this out not because it’s so unique; I only mention it because I see a direct correlation between him transitioning to a director-only role and the quality of his films. Interestingly, Dune is his return to his previous model, and in some small way it could decide whether not writing his movies is causation for them improving or not.
To use a sports analogy, he could be in his prime. He may have reached that next level. This era could be the best of Villeneuve. The downside to declaring that someone has reached their prime is that it’s their peak. Not only that, I could be wrong (imagine that) and he could go on and have an equally wonderful career for years to come. That’s why I took the wimpy route and said “he may” and “he could be” instead of outright stating it. What’s worse than being wrong on the internet?
I wonder if Dune will be the moment in which he exits his prime, but I have my doubts because the trailer makes it look amazing.
Prisoners wasn’t even a movie that I wanted to see. I just watched it one day and while it could have easily become tiresome at two and a half hours, it never did. The suspense built to a wonderful climax (sounds sexy). Everything is just on point here from the cinematography to the acting, to the plot. It’s a familiar type of movie but it does it really well.
I skipped Enemy for some reason until after I had seen his other movies. I didn’t read the book that it is based on and afterward I read some opinions about the potential themes and the flick itself became more clear. It might be about living under a totalitarian government without knowing it, and after I read smarter people talking about it I could see how Denis subtly showed that in the environment and in the way in which he contrasts the doubles. I appreciated it more after I understood what was happening. One thing he did fantastically was build an atmosphere full of dread… this is important because in my eyes it became a staple of his work, if it wasn’t already by the time Enemy came out. It’s a step down from Prisoners, but it’s still great.
Sicario is the moment for me when I seriously started to consider this man as an extraordinary talent. This is my favourite Villeneuve so while you could say that he declined since, I wouldn’t use that perspective. I think his next movies could make a legitimate case for being better, but this one hit me hardest.
It’s brilliant. The music drones and adds a sense of overwhelming dread that is prevalent and suffocating throughout. He lets the camera linger longer on a shot than most directors would, and he made Mexico frightening, where you can’t trust anything or anybody. No, I don’t mean Mexico can’t be trusted, I just mean that the particular areas were terrifying, the events taking place were full of uncertainty and danger. I won’t spoil anything but I especially loved the ending.
With Arrival he went into the science fiction realm with something that felt a little distinct within the genre. It embraces feelings and language along with being very meta because we ask what their purpose for being is, but what is ours? It’s slow but never boring, always intelligent. The soundtrack often drones, but there is an equally effective usage of silence.
Most recently he awed with Blade Runner 2049, a flick I had to watch twice because I fell asleep the first time. Don’t blame Villeneuve, blame me! I went to a late showing of it and I’m apparently an old man–I’m 35–and can’t handle that anymore. In bed by ten, you know. I was exhausted and the slow pace did not gel with my recently attained senior citizen status.
I honestly felt like I did the movie dirty. I revisited it and it was so, so good. Deakins, the cinematographer, is the unsung hero, because he helped Villeneuve make the most beautiful movie of 2017. It’s a masterclass to the point that every shot could be stuck on a wall and showed to your friends.
The isolation/emptiness of many of the environments and scenes echoes the loneliness that the characters feel. Because of this it’s contemplative, intelligent and has an excellent soundtrack. The moral of the story is: don’t go to late movies.
The Villeneuvian Future, What Does It Look Like?
So now we head into the great unknown, with an auteur that doesn’t seem capable of disappointing. Does Dune continue his streak and add to what I’ve labelled his prime, or is it his first misstep of his entire career?
Believe it or not, when I first saw the trailer for Blade Runner 2049 I thought it looked tremendous, but I was unsure about him just reigniting interest in a dormant movie franchise. Now he’s attempting to bring the notoriously problematic–impossible?–Dune to the big screens for us.
He’s not alone though. He’s bringing the big guns with him. Go down the list of people attached and tell me that it’s not loaded from top to bottom. You have Villeneuve himself on top, the maestro overseeing his creation, but below him you have a respected cinematography in Greig Fraser. Hans Zimmer is providing the soundtrack. You have Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac and Josh Brolin. You got Stellan Skarsgård, you got Jason Momoa. You got Javier Bardem, are you kidding me? Even Dave Bautista is in there and he has surprisingly amassed a respectable film career. This cast is stacked.
Is he going to pull it off? I don’t know, how can I? One thing for sure is that the safest money is betting on Villeneuve to succeed again. The only logical step from Dune on is to give him Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
It turns out that on the Team Deakins podcast Jake Gyllenhaal said that he and Villeneuve have a smaller project in the works. So I guess Ninja Turtles will have to wait.