6. “Incendies” (2010)
Let it never be said that Denis Villeneuve doesn’t know how to bust out a good Radiohead needle drop. For many people, “Incendies” was their first encounter with the Quebecois director, and the haunting prologue — a wordless sequence in which a child soldier has his head shaved to the sounds of “You and Whose Army?” — was enough to guarantee they would remember the name.
As for the rest of the movie… well, mileage will vary. Adapted from Wajdi Mouawad’s four-hour play of the same name, “Incendies” takes Villeneuve’s usual obsessions and stretches them out to their widest possible dimensions; it’s hard to decide if the film is telling a story, or if it’s slowly draw and quartering one. The adventure begins with a will that reads more like a treasure map, as the late Narwan Marwal (Lubna Azabal) leaves her twin children two letters (that they’re not allowed to read!) and very specific instructions to deliver them to the brother and father they didn’t know they had. From there, this multigenerational epic unpacks the Marwal family tree like it’s a painting in a Dan Brown novel, following the characters halfway across the world as they wend their way through the history of an unnamed Middle Eastern country. The discoveries that ensue — and the coincidences that conceived them — are improbable enough to make Oedipus roll his eyes.
If not for Villeneuve’s severely composed setpieces, or the portentous velocity of his direction, “Incendies” would snap apart at the seams. However, the whole thing is endowed with a very different power if you force yourself to read it as a parable about forgiveness, and the (specifically female) capacity to find love in a hopeless place. Like Lars von Trier, Villeneuve is awed by the strength he finds in women. And like Lars von Trier, he tends to express their perseverance through suffering. Also classroom scenes — he loves classroom scenes. But whether you find “Incendies” to be grossly manipulative or grippingly mythic, Villeneuve deserves credit for being one of the only contemporary filmmakers who can blur the line between the two.
5. “Sicario” (2015)
Denis Villeneuve has never been afraid of the dark, of confronting how it feels to be frightened of the future. His first two movies were about women who had to be convinced to choose life, and his third was about women who stared death in the face and still managed to find some way to move forward. To that point, “Sicario” isn’t really a movie about the nuances of the drug trade. Hell, it may not be a movie by someone who even cares about the nuances of the drug trade. On the contrary, Villeneuve sees the border as little more than a backdrop for some of the world’s most pointless violence, as the kind of place that makes you lose hope for all humanity.
“Sicario” is a simple film that asks a simple question: Can you fight a monster without becoming a monster, yourself? And the answer seems to be: “Yes, but only if you’re Emily Blunt.” Villeneuve said almost nothing with this material that he hadn’t already said before (bloodshed only begets bloodshed, violent victories are always pyrrhic, female nature is inherently hopeful, etc.), but never had he conjured sequences as visceral and paralyzing as several of the ones he produced here.
Riding Jóhann Jóhannsson’s queasily effective score (which sounds less like music than it does the symptoms of gastrointestinal distress), Villeneuve and Deakins dig something both urgent and eternal from all this ugliness. It’s hard to watch the Juárez scene without lamenting the sad fact that so many of our best action directors are being claimed by “quality” cinema.
4. “Blade Runner 2049” (2017)
For once, Hollywood had good reason to go on full spoiler lockdown prior to the release of a highly anticipated franchise blockbuster. Don’t worry, there won’t be any reveals here, but suffice it to say that “Blade Runner 2049” tells a brilliant story. It’s the kind of provocative and soulful sci-fi yarn that Philip K. Dick could be proud of, one that more thoroughly excavates the essence of what it means to be alive than almost any other Hollywood film in recent memory (real or implanted). Despite the fact that it’s the first Denis Villeneuve film to take place in the future, it’s also the first to look inward, rather than backward or forward. As a result, it’s the first Denis Villeneuve movie that digs deep enough to wrap its hands around the roots of his existential concerns.
And yet, for all of those virtues, “Blade Runner 2049” represents another first for the Quebecois auteur: It’s the first Denis Villeneuve film to be boring. Turgid where the rest of his work is exhaustingly tense, this epic mega-sequel never shows any signs of life (natural or engineered). Each scene is a gilded vault of dead air, ideas sometimes crystallizing from the mist as the characters try not to be suffocated by the set design. Roger Deakins is having the time of his life, but the sterile, hyper-saturated nature of his work seldom feels right for this movie world, the atmosphere of which isn’t nearly as thick or twinkling as it was in the original (Villeneuve’s follow-up looks more like a steampunk “Inception” than anything else).
There are a million directors who can tell brilliant stories in boring ways, but we count on Villeneuve to do the opposite. “Blade Runner 2049” is as loud and severe as anything he (or anyone else) has ever made, but it feels like it was made by a replicant. More human than human? Not even close.