'Arrival' director Denis Villeneuve on his Filmography

Denis Villeneuve is a director that I've adamantly followed since the beginning of his career in Quebec more than 15 years ago. It took a while for this great director to finally hit it big. In 2010 he released an incredible masterpiece called Incendies. It garnered an Oscar nomination, critical acclaim and then the world finally knew about him. Too bad they haven't seen his earlier stuff.Maelstrom was a sexy, film-noir narrated by a fish and starring the lustful Marie-Jose Croze and Polytechnique was an artful black and white re-creation of an infamous college shooting in Quebec.

On a personal note, I lived through the Montreal film scene when Villeneuve, Jean-Marc Vallee, and an 18-year-old Xavier Dolan among others, revolutionized French-Canadian cinema, and in the process gave themselves a shot at the Hollywood studio system. It was a very exciting time, but it was always Villeneuve that I kept an especially close eye on. 

The fact that Villeneuve is becoming such a hot commodity is not surprising. Before he broke through in the States, he had made four highly impressive French-Canadian films. After each one I thought, “this might break through and get him known”, but it never happened. It’s a tough business, but the films got progressively better, and when his career finally reached its peak with Incendies, his trailblazing 2010 Oscar nominated masterpiece, audiences could no longer ignore the talent.

Hollywood has clearly been impressed by the man. He’s been given the outrageously important task of directing the sequel to Blade Runner, with a script by original helmer Ridley Scott, and Harrison Ford to star. “I don’t have the pretense to say I will do as Ridley Scott. I am totally different.” Of course Roger Deakins will be the cinematographer. Villeneuve has stated that his ”mind is more in America than Europe right now.” We hope it stays that way.

Over the years I have spoken to Villeneuve about his films. Some of the titles on this list will have quotes (in red) from past interviews I've had with him

1) Incendies

"The film's central story takes place both in present day Montreal & in a Middle East filled with corruption and violence. Brother and Sister lose mother and then consequently find out that they have a father they thought was dead and a brother they never thought existed. Through flashbacks the story of their mother's ordeal is told and through current day events, the sister finds out things she never knew about her mother, a past filled with pain and sorrow. The torching and shooting of a Muslim filled bus by christian radicals is the centerpiece of this tough movie. It's a sequence breathlessly shot and horrifying to watch in its authenticity. Villeneuve means to shake us and he does."

"The way Villeneuve tells his story is original and visionary, something missing in current day cinema. His middle eastern nightmare vision is a film that creeps up on you from its first frame to its last. I was also completely taken back by its final twisty revelation that only puts the icing on the cake. The film will more than likely find a comfort zone from both critics and audiences when it finally gets released in the States. Villeneuve hasn't really gotten the reputation he deserves south of the border and I think this film might just finally do it for him- it's a hell of a triumph an I couldn't be more proud it comes from Montreal."

“I didn’t have time to rest. The last day of shooting Polytechnique I directly went to day one of shooting Incendies. These were two projects that I really took to heart, but they mentally and physically drained me. The anger that was in the source material really, profoundly touched me."

2) Arrival

"Toronto was a kind of homecoming for Canadian boy Denis Villeneuve whose “Arrival” had very successful showings at both Telluride and Venice just a week prior. Amy Adams plays Louise Banks, a linguist who is recruited by the military after enormous Alien pods show up across the globe. Many countries are prepared for war, but Louise believes that the visitors might actually be on earth for non-violent reasons. Adams, in one of her very best performances, gives a touching and rewarding performance in a film that feels like a better version of Christopher Nolan’s well-known sci-fi blockbusters. The sentimentality is somewhat stripped down for a more concrete and profound look at the ties that bind us all on earth. It’s a thought-provoking adventure that isn’t about war, but communication instead. Villeneuve once again proves to be the real deal. The 49-year-old Quebecois filmmaker is building up a solid, loyal fan-base that could one day rival Nolan’s. The fact that his next movie is “Blade Runner 2” only gets us more excited about his future."

3) Sicario

"Denis Villeneuve’s best American movie is not easy stuff. Detailing America’s war on drugs it presents to us a new action heroine in the form of Emily Blunt’s Kate Macer. The action is relentlessly brilliant, but the repercussions and themes hit us just as hard.This journey has brought Villenueve to – what is so far – his best American movie with Sicario, a movie he calls a “dark poem”. Villeneuve is slowly but very surely getting to a groove of studio filmmaking that will likely propel him to join the very best in Hollywood. If that isn’t already the case, it sure as hell will happen in the next few years. Sicario is a monster of a movie. Villeneuve stages the action like a true master, moving his camera to the beat of the violence. It’s with these action scenes that you realize just how talented the man is. They seem like very simple scenes to shoot, but they aren’t.  It’s a good thing then that Sicario’s full-throttled sequences are refreshing, plentiful, and the highlights of the film, as they encompass a wide array of claustrophobic feelings and put you right in the thick of the action, especially in a highway shootout that is bound to become an iconic piece of cinema."

A lot of the film’s brilliance has to do with the cinematography that Roger Deakins brings to the table. This is Deakins’ second collaboration with Villeneuve – they make a great duo – and the film is almost as much a showcase for Villeneueve as it is for the famed cinematographer. Villeneuve seems to be giving carte blanche to Deakins with every movie, which isn’t a bad idea, and the two complement each other to great degrees. “I always profoundly felt Roger wanted to make the movie. One thing I adore about Roger is his discipline and his rigor. He exudes so much respect from the cast and crew. When I started editing the movie I was just floored by what he had done."

“There is obviously a lot of work to be done for women’s rights, there aren’t any good parts for women in movies these days … I think of this as my contribution.”  Sicario had a bumpy road pre-production, as the movie’s backers wanted the Kate Macer role rewritten for a man. It was something his screenwriter, Taylor Sheridan, had been “advised” to do, but Villeneuve and Sheridan refused. “It isn’t easy to get a film made where the protagonist is a woman – there’s less money, people are afraid, and it’s really sad that it’s still like that today,” Villeneuve said. “It’s ludicrous, and this film shows that attitude is dépassé…” safe for Enemy and Prisoners, Villeneuve’s five other films have dealt with female identity. Much of this might have to do with his upbringing, which was dominated by two very prominent figures – his grandmothers – whom he calls “very powerful women.”

4) Polytechnique

The Polytechnique school shooting in Quebec was still a big deal many years after it happened; it affected a generation and Villeneuve was one of those people. Shooting a film about the tragedy was a daunting task, and the film he made was not without controversy in Canada.  During a class, a gunman shot 28 people, killing 14 women, before committing suicide. He began his attack by entering a classroom at the university, where he separated the male and female students. He told the women that he hated feminists, claiming that he was “fighting feminism” and calling the women “a bunch of feminists.” He shot all nine women in the room, killing six. He then moved through corridors, the cafeteria, and another classroom, specifically targeting women. Polytechnique is an organic film, a beast. The film is alive. The film jumps back and forth in time, meditatively trying to find some peace with the tragedy. Villeneueve’s film tries to tackle the human cost of gender warfare and comes up with varying but troubling answers. Think Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, but French-Canadian. Shot in beautiful black and white by Pierre Gill, it’s an astonishing statement by a filmmaker who wants his voice to be heard. It justly won the Best Picture Genie award (the Canadian equivalent of the Oscars), his second one after 2008’s Maelstrom triumph. The following year he triumphed again with Incendies, winning his third Best Picture Genie. 
5) Maelstrom

People who saw his movie Maelstrom back in 2000 knew this was a talent to watch. The film, narrated by a doomed fish, features a career-making performance by Marie-Jose Croze as a depressed, suicidal woman who gets romantically linked to the son of the man she killed in a hit and run accident. The style was grimly unique and had a surrealist aspect to it that was almost too frightening to watch. Or maybe it was just the images Villeneuve conjured up with his camera – he could find the most basic looking detail in a frame and accentuate its impact just by the way he positioned a camera or had the cinematographer light up the scene. Talking to me a few years back Villeneuve mentioned  “It’s strange, when I finished Maelstrom I told myself, no more movies with a female lead. My first three films had that. Yet with my following film, Polytechnique, I made a film about the female condition and Incendies, the Middle East female. It just seems like women inspire me and that’s a good thing.”

6) Enemy
"Enemy" which again stars Jake Gyllenhall is a more moody and ambitious picture even if it has one of the more ambiguous and confusing endings I've seen in recent memory. Gyllenhall plays a Toronto professor that finds out he has an exact look alike living in the same city. It’a film very much inspired by Cronenberg but that also lets Villeneuve bring his own voice to the picture. This is smart, sexy, mysterious filmmaking that bites more than it can chew. My personal advice is just go along with it and don't let yourself ask any questions until the house lights come back on. It is another addition to the doppelgänger genre which has existed in cinema since the very beginning with "The Student Of Prague" in 1913.  
About Enemy he stated, “That was a very personal film adapted from a Portuguese novel by José Saramago. When I read it I felt the same sensation as when I was a kid and saw 2001: A Space Odyssey. It was very much about masculine identity.” This will probably not be the last time he works with Gyllenhaal either. “We very much were a creative team with Enemy, Jake was very into the whole process. We we’re feeding off of each other – so much so that I find the film is almost a documentary on Jake’s subconscious.”

7) Prisoners

In "Prisoners" Villeneuve doesn't soften his style or adhere to any Hollywood conventions. He is still the Denis Villeneuve I've always known. It helps that he has an impressive cast that includes 5 Oscar nominees. This is an ambitious, sprawling, fascinating and -yes- flawed 158 minute movie about a missing child case. Jake Gyllenhall and Hugh Jackman deserve a nomination, so does Villenueve for his impressive direction. Paul Dano, Terrence Howard, Octavia Spencer and Maria Bello complete the cast. An incredible cast having a go at a screenplay that was on the Hollywood “black list” for the longest time.

The film takes so many twists and turns that it threatens to derail, by the film's last act that's what happens. I wish they could have tightened this film up in the editing room and cut 15-20 minutes of it. That's a minor quibble because there are powerful moments here. Many will recall Clint Eastwood's Mystic River and Todd Field's In The BedroomThey wouldn't be wrong but I'd go a step further and say this is very much akin -and owes greatly- to David Fincher's Zodiac. Both are 150 minute tales about obsession more than about the actual case.

Prisoners was a big step forward in getting his name across. He admitted, “It was a film that was horribly American, almost a kind of western.” It was also the first film that he did not write the screenplay for. “All my life, I’ve searched for good screenwriters; I love writing, but I’m not a good screenwriter and I take forever to complete a script. For the first time ever, I’m receiving screenplays from Hollywood that actually intrigue me. I had heard so many horror stories about foreign filmmakers going to Hollywood that got fucked by the system. Martin Scorsese warned me in fact that ‘You need to remain intact, that’s the most important thing.”