Denis Villeneuve Movies Ranked: From the Streets of Montreal to the Sands of Arakis

Ryan Gosling in Blade Runner 2049 (Warner Bros.)

Director Denis Villeneuve’s career behind the camera can be classified into three periods. The first period, his indie period, only lasted a few years from 1998 to 2000, and culminated in two films, both of which were small-scale character studies about two women finding purpose in their lives. The second period, which started with 2009’s Polytechnique, was Villeneuve’s thriller era. This era found Villeneuve honing his craft as a director by making several tense thrillers. Villeneuve’s reputation as a director grew stronger in this era and you can see his growth as a director during this time. His films started to look better, the stories became stronger, and he started working with big-name actors and the best production teams in cinema. His third period, the one he is currently in, is his sci-fi period. Since 2016’s Arrival, Villeneuve has established himself as the premiere sci-fi director working today and is making sci-fi films at the biggest scales.

Villeneuve is an outstanding visual director. His movies are always expertly crafted and beautifully shot, and you can see the methodical direction of Villeneuve in every shot. But when diving into his filmography, what struck me most was how void of emotion his films are. A lot of Villeneuve’s movies are about tough subjects: school shootings, war, kidnapping, etc. and while the subjects themselves might be hard enough to watch, Villeneuve’s authentic filmmaking makes for some tough watches. While Villeneuve gets great performances from his casts, the characters in his films are usually lonely or lost souls trying to find a purpose. Because of the bleakness and exacting direction of the films, some of the characters in his films were tough to sympathize with or empathize with because they weren’t given an emotionally satisfying arc or characterization.

Despite Villeneuve’s dark, brutal vision of the world and the effects it has on people, he is still one of the best filmmakers in the world. Here’s my ranking of the films of Denis Villeneuve.

11. Maelström (2000)

Marie-Josée Croze in Maelstrom (Alliance Atlantis)
Marie-Josée Croze in Maelström (Alliance Atlantis)

Villeneuve’s sophomore effort is an interesting film, but one that didn’t fully click for me emotionally or narratively. Maelström follows Bibiane (Marie Josée Croze, giving an excellent internalized performance) whose life spirals when she is part of a hit-and-run. Watching Bibiane try to come to terms with her actions and live with her consequences was interesting and Croze’s performance is captivating. But during the last act of the film, Bibiane meets a mysterious man, and the film goes in a completely different direction. The third act either needed to be expanded more in the second act or not be in the film at all and continue to focus on Bibiane.

Oh, and the film is being told by the spirit of a wise fish who is constantly being decapitated throughout the movie, only for his spirit to transfer into the next fish. Very strange and confusing.

10. August 32nd on Earth (1998)

Pascale Bussières and Alexis Martin in August 32nd on Earth (Max Films Productions)
Pascale Bussières and Alexis Martin in August 32nd on Earth (Max Films Productions)

Denis Villeneuve’s feature-film debut is a well-made debut unlike anything else in his filmography. The film follows Simone (Pascale Bussières) who gets into a car accident and leaves virtually unscathed, making her rethink her life and her future. She decides a baby is the only way to fill the void in her life and she asks one Philippe (Alexis Martin) to help her. 

Visually and narratively unlike any of his other films, August 32nd on Earth is a character study that looks at a woman struggling to find meaning after an accident and the filmmaking style felt inspired by the French New Wave. While not entirely exciting, this is arguably Villeneuve’s lightest and most romantic film in his filmography.

9. Polytechnique (2009)

Maxim Gaudette in Polytechnique (Alliance Films)
Maxim Gaudette in Polytechnique (Alliance Films)

After taking several years off to be a full-time father, Villeneuve returned to directing with a horrifying dramatization of the Montreal Massacre of 1989, in which several female engineering students were murdered by a misogynist. In a brief 77 minutes, Villeneuve created a terrifying and bleak film showing this emotionless killer on a rampage and did not pull any punches in doing so.

There is hardly any character development in the film, and the overall tone is very one-note as you are just watching what a school shooting would look like, which is incredibly disturbing, especially in today’s world. But going from Maelström to this, you can see the growth in Villeneuve as a filmmaker, particularly in his visuals, and you can see how this film was the launching point for Villeneuve’s next six years of filmmaking.

8. Enemy (2013)

Jake Gyllenhaal in Enemy (Entertainment One)
Jake Gyllenhaal in Enemy (Entertainment One)

I have Enemy ranked here at eight, but if there was one Villeneuve movie that could move up the ranks with more rewatches, it would be this one. Villeneuve’s psychological thriller starring Jake Gyllenhaal as a man who becomes obsessed with tracking down an actor who looks exactly like him is a tense and mind-bending film that has you guessing until long after the movie is over. 

While shot well and featuring an excellent dual performance from Gyllenhaal and an ominous score, the execution of the third-act revelations is a little sloppy and made for a confusing ending the first time I saw it. On rewatch, though, the film makes far more sense and is a far more rewarding watch, especially when you are trying to decipher the surprising final moments.

7. Sicario (2015)

Emily Blunt in Sicario (Lionsgate)
Emily Blunt in Sicario (Lionsgate)

Sicario being this low on the list is simply a testament to how good of a filmmaker Villeneuve is. Villeneuve’s tough and relentless exploration of the war against drug cartels is a stellar movie and gave us a glimpse of the kind of action director Villeneuve was, something he had not shown up until this point. The shootouts are startling and bloody while also being shot and edited to perfection. The film also boasts a trio of great performances from Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, and Benicio Del Toro, all of whom give arguably the best performances of their careers here.

The only thing keeping Sicario from being a top-tier Villeneuve film is its tone. Much like Polytechnique, Sicario is a very bleak look at the border wars, the violence it brings, and the blurred lines between good and evil in the pursuit of justice. The film’s ominous, moody score which plays seemingly throughout the entire film, only elevates the film’s dower tone.

6. Dune: Part Two (2023)

Timothée Chalamet in Dune: Part Two (Warner Bros.)
Timothée Chalamet in Dune: Part Two (Warner Bros.)

From this point forward, the order of these movies could change on any given day. I do believe these are Denis Villeneuve’s best films and represent who he is as a filmmaker. I’ve started this top half with Dune: Part Two, Villeneuve’s epic sequel to 2021’s Dune: Part One about Paul Arteries (Timothée Chalamet) and his journey on the planet of Arakis.

Some might make the case that Dune: Part Two is better than Dune: Part One and they would have a strong one. While I prefer Part One (you’ll read more about that shortly), I also love Part Two. Like all great sequels, Dune: Part Two furthers Paul’s story and characterization while also making the movie feel more epic in scale and giving us new characters and new plots. And, of course, Dune: Part Two is a visual feast and a stellar piece of filmmaking, something we’ve now come to expect from a Villeneuve movie.

5. Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

Ana de Armas and Ryan Gosling in Blade Runner 2049 (Warner Bros.)
Ana de Armas and Ryan Gosling in Blade Runner 2049 (Warner Bros.)

Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner is a beloved sci-fi noir whose reputation has only grown since its release in 1982. Did the film need a sequel? On paper, no, especially not one without Ridley Scott at the helm. But it got one, and the result could not have been more impressive. Blade Runner 2049 is one of the best-looking sci-fi films I have ever seen, filled with eye-popping visuals, colors, and sets. The story is smart and intricate and is a perfect addition to the first film. The action is exciting and the ensemble, led by a stoic Ryan Gosling, is superb.

While only moderately successful financially, Blade Runner 2049 showed that Villeneuve was capable of working at the biggest scales in Hollywood, setting him up for his Dune adaptation. The film was critically loved and won two Oscars, including the first for legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins.

4. Incendies (2010)

Lubna Azabal in Incendies (Entertainment One)
Lubna Azabal in Incendies (Entertainment One)

Incendies is the film that put Denis Villeneuve on the map as a real-deal filmmaker to keep an eye on. His 2010 thriller follows twins Jeanne and Simon who go on a journey to find their father and brother in the Middle East as part of their late-mother’s wishes. Their journey is dark, and the twins learn about the hatred and war her mother went through when she was younger.

Incendies features the best screenplay of Villeneuve’s career. The multilayered story showing Jeanne and Simon trying to find their father and brother while also showing us everything their mother went through is effective and never overly complicated. The film is a powerful tale about the war in the Middle East, catharsis, and forgiveness in the face of evil. Incendies also features an all-time third-act reveal that is an absolute gut-punch every time I see it.

3. Dune: Part One (2021)

Timothée Chalamet and Rebecca Ferguson in Dune (Warner Bros.)
Timothée Chalamet and Rebecca Ferguson in Dune: Part One (Warner Bros.)

I’ll admit that I was not over the moon for Villeneuve’s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s classic sci-fi novel the first time I saw it. I also was not in a great headspace personally when I saw it so that probably had something to do with it. I was able to rewatch the film on IMAX before Part Two came out (in a better headspace) and I completely flipped my opinion on the film. 

Dune: Part One is a jaw-dropping visual spectacle filled with gorgeous sets and costumes and a vision so vast and layered that you watch the film and feel like the world you are in will never end. Villeneuve wrote the screenplay with Eric Roth and John Spaihts and they smartly split Herbert’s dense novel into two parts, allowing them to fully dive into the story and develop the characters, plot, and allow us to live in this new, fantastical world filled with different politics, machines, and creatures. The result is an astounding film and filmmaking on the biggest level.

2. Prisoners (2013)

Jake Gyllenhaal and Hugh Jackman in Prisoners (Warner Bros.)
Jake Gyllenhaal and Hugh Jackman in Prisoners (Warner Bros.)

Of all the films Villeneuve made during his thriller era, Prisoners was his best. The gripping police procedural about Detective Loki’s (Jake Gyllenhaal, giving the best performance of his career) search for two missing girls, with one of the girls’ fathers (a powerhouse Hugh Jackman) taking matters into his own hands is as good as police thrillers got in the 2010s. It’s a chilling, captivating, unpredictable film and marked Villeneuve’s first collaboration with Roger Deakins.

While Prisoners keeps with the dark and harsh moods of Villeneuve’s thrillers, what makes it his best thriller and one of his very best films is the character development of Jackman’s Keller. We start off rooting for Keller, feeling sympathy for him as he desperately wants to find his daughters and will do anything to do so. But as the movie goes on and Keller’s actions become more brutal and heinous, you start to see the effect desperation has on a man and how it can turn even the nicest suburban father into a monster. It’s powerful stuff that only becomes more powerful with the film’s chilling ending.

1. Arrival (2016)

Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner in Arrival (Paramount Pictures)
Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner in Arrival (Paramount Pictures)

Throughout this list, we’ve seen that Denis Villeneuve can make interesting character studies, tense thrillers, and epic sci-fi films and do so with immaculate precision and technical mastery. Arrival is a perfect combination of all of this, which is why it is not only the best film of his career, but arguably his most important.

Amy Adams gives one of the best performances of her career (and was criminally robbed of an Oscar nomination) as a linguist who is brought in by the government to help try and communicate with a mysterious alien lifeform that has mysteriously appeared on Earth. The film is an alien invasion movie that plays like a political mystery thriller that is big in scale but intimate in its story and emotions. Balancing all of this in one movie is an impressive feat for any director, let alone one who never made a sci-fi movie before or made a film on this scale before.

What elevates Arrival to the top of Villeneuve’s filmography is that it is Villeneuve’s most emotionally complex film. A lot of his films are grim and merciless, with a cynical view of the worlds these characters live in. Arrival is a hopeful movie about the importance of communication, listening, and accepting loss. It is perfectly constructed and the film’s final moments are beautifully executed and equally heartbreaking as they are heartfelt.

Arrival is poignant, thrilling, and engrossing. It took Villeneuve’s career to a new level as he took his filmmaking to a bigger scale while diving into sci-fi for the first time, on his way to becoming one of the best sci-fi directors in modern cinema. Arrival is one of the best sci-fi films of the 21st century and the best film of Denis Villeneuve’s career.

Written by Kevin Wozniak

Kevin is a film critic and writer from the suburbs of Chicago. He is a member of the Chicago Indie Critics, Online Film & Television Association, and Internet Film Critics Society. He usually writes movie reviews and lists of Film Obsessive.

You can find more of Kevin's work at

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