Few filmmakers of the 21st century have risen to prominence and prestige with the forcefulness of “Blade Runner 2049” director Denis Villeneuve, whose seemingly unstoppable career has been bolstered by a steady balance of critical respect and commercial success. In fact, Christopher Nolan is the only other person who comes to mind, and the similarities between the two of them are hard to ignore.
For one thing, these men are both men, and that tends to be a more crucial detail than it should. For another, they’re also genuine auteurs, each committed to a clinical brand of Cinema (with a capital “C”) that’s muscular and intellectual in equal measure. Nolan is a bit more rigidly defined by his own rubric, but Villeneuve shares his gift for sublimating big ideas into even bigger spectacles, and has likewise honed his skills by fluidly moving between massive blockbusters and idiosyncratic passion projects. For Nolan, those idiosyncratic passion projects have become massive blockbusters; for Villeneuve, early or confounding fare like “Polytechnique” and “Enemy” has served as a launching pad — and a guiding light — for a filmmaker who’s now charting his own course towards the stratosphere.
Arriving hot on the heels of hits like “Arrival” and “Sicario,” the hugely anticipated “Blade Runner 2049” is poised to cement Villeneuve’s place among the very highest stratum of today’s Hollywood directors. As he rockets forward, we’ve decided to look back, ranking all nine of his films from worst to best in an effort to reach a broader understanding of how he got here, what is driving him, and where he might be going next.
9. “Maelström” (2000)
Wedged somewhere between Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Emir Kusturica, and his own emerging fixations, Villeneuve’s second feature is a guilt-laden romantic fable about a subject that its writer-director has explored many times since: Cyclical violence, and how it can be stopped. An obvious precursor to “Enemy,” “Maelström” isn’t a bad film so much as it is a half-baked one.
It tells the story of a beautiful Montreal woman named Bibiane Champagne (Marie-Josée Croze), who fatally runs over a Norwegian fishmonger, survives a subsequent suicide attempt, and then falls in love with her victim’s hunky son. Narrated by a talking fish while it’s being butchered — in what might be the quintessential Villeneuve moment, the fish’s head is lopped off right as he’s about to share the secret for world peace — the non-linear narrative might needlessly loop itself into knots, but no amount of trickery can disguise the fact that this is ultimately a simple tale about choosing light over darkness. To quote one of the movie’s scattered title cards: “To make love, we turned hate around.” This is Villeneuve’s least confident effort, and his least compelling as a result, but he would soon come to believe in his filmmaking as much as he does in the ideas that fuel it.
8. “August 32nd on Earth” (1998)
The title of “August 32nd on Earth” may not strike you as all that strange at first. It’s only after 20 minutes or so, when night falls and a title card welcomes us to “August 33rd,” that the butter begins to slide off the knife. In the movie, that realization hits everyone at once; in life, where the calendar inevitably flips over and each of us will only be here to account for so many pages, it happens to us all at different times. It takes a while to figure out what the hell this shaggy, seriocomic love story is trying to say, but Villeneuve’s directorial debut eventually coheres as a movie about that moment when you first begin to realize — on a guttural level — that you’re not going to live forever.
Simone (Pascale Bussières), the first of Villeneuve’s many female protagonists, is a young model who crashes her car into a ditch (the first of Villeneuve’s many car crashes), and emerges from the accident with an irrepressible desire to conceive a baby with her best friend, Philippe (Alexis Martin). Philippe has just gotten over the crush he’s always harbored on Simone, but he’s seduced into going along with her cockamamy scheme, even though he inexplicably suggests that they fly to America and have sex on the salt flats. It doesn’t go as planned.
Obviously a product of the ’90s (a decade when 95% of all indies were about two aimless, hyper-chatty twentysomethings trying to bone each other in the desert), “August 32nd on Earth” takes way too long to get going, but the chemistry between its leads helps things along. More than anything, however, it’s the incredible economy of Villeneuve’s images that keeps things together, his shots becoming tighter and more expressive as the story falls apart. “Simone,” Philippe confesses, “the more I know, the more I doubt. The world makes less and less sense. It’s falling apart.” It’s hard to imagine how Philippe might be holding up in 2017. And yet, I suspect that he and Simone are still here somewhere, if only because Villeneuve would never let his characters give up.
7. “Prisoners” (2013)
Like an uncomfortably long handshake with a guy whose hands are cold enough to make your whole body shiver, Villeneuve’s introduction to Hollywood (and the English-speaking world) is a sub-zero supercut of all the things he does well, and all the things he doesn’t. “Prisoners” obviously marked a new chapter in the director’s career, but it also made it clear that Villeneuve’s fundamental obsessions would follow him to the ends of the Earth no matter how big his budgets got or how many movie stars he was able to buy with them. Yeah, Hugh Jackman’s fee alone was probably more than the combined cost of making “Maelström” and “August 32nd on Earth,” but Villeneuve was painting a familiar picture on a much larger canvas.
You guessed it: “Prisoners” is a film about the eternal cycle of violence, and how it makes men into monsters. This gripping, semi-stupid 153-minute rural Pennsylvanian crime drama literally opens with Keller Dover, Jackman’s red-blooded American alpha dad, reciting the Lord’s Prayer: “…Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” From there, Aaron Guzikowski’s script illustrates — at great length — how, uh, we don’t always do that so well. Keller certainly doesn’t have those words in his heart when he abducts and tortures the mentally handicapped man (Paul Dano) he assumes is responsible for his daughter’s disappearance.
Villeneuve has never been more obvious about exploring his favorite subject, and at that time he had never been more operatic about it either. Collaborating with legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins and grounding each scene with enough gravitas to sink the average movie, he used a trio of exceptional performances (from Jackman, Dano, Jake Gyllenhaal, and definitely not Melissa Leo) to investigate how hatred can convince people of a righteousness that blinds them to the truth. The film never quite figures out what to do with that ugly fact of life, and the payoff almost makes you resent the time spent earning it, but “Prisoners” bought Villeneuve plenty of chances to plumb similar depths in much less dreary environs.