Whenever the conversation about the greatest directors working today is brought up, certain names are almost guaranteed to come up. The likes of Spielberg, Scorsese, Tarantino, Kubrick, Nolan, Coppola(s), and Bigelow are more than likely to get mentioned. However, there’s one name that may well have in recent years started to edge its way into that conversation. This name is Denis Villeneuve. The French-Canadian director, who hails from Quebec, began making films over two decades ago. Yet, despite working in the industry for a long time, the last few years have seen him establish himself as one of the best directors currently in the business.
As many directors likely do at the start of their careers, Villeneuve began his road to directorial mastery by making short films. Eventually making his feature film directorial debut with AUGUST 32nd ON EARTH (1998). The film premiered at Cannes Film Festival and garnered a Best Actor award for its main star Alexis Martin. Following the success of his debut film, Villeneuve followed it up with the 2000 film MAELSTROM, for which he won the first of his four Canadian Screen Awards.
After the release of MAELSTROM, came an extended break for Villenueve’s career. Though after nearly a decade away from the spotlight, he put himself back in the director’s chair for POLYTECHNIQUE (2009), a gripping tale of the true story of the 1989 École Polytechnique massacre. Throughout his career, Villeneuve’s films have consistently pulled on the heartstrings of audiences, and that continued to be the case with the release of his devastatingly emotional drama INCENDIES (2010).The film was subsequently chosen to represent Canada for the best Foreign Film category at the 83rd Oscars. While it did not claim the Oscar gold, the director’s career took another upwards trajectory.
However, it was in 2013 where following the release of PRISONERS, where Villeneuve broke into the Hollywood mainstream, and he has not looked back since. PRISONERS, was a quiet slow burning thriller about two families on the hunt for their missing children, bringing powerhouse performances from all of its cast– but especially from Jake Gyllenhaal and Hugh Jackman, the latter of whom exhibited some of his best work when he was not wielding Wolverine’s claws. It also marked the first of his three collaborations with legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins.
Following PRISONERS, came the mind-bending enigma that was ENEMY (2013), where he reunited with Jake Gyllenhaal as a man who’s on the hunt for his doppelganger, as well as Canadian beauty Sarah Gadon. The film won Villeneuve his fourth Canadian Screen Award. Furthermore, it would not be the first time that his name would be attached to a truly mind-bending piece of cinema.
The midway point of the 2010s marked the start of what is arguably the best years of Villeneuve’s career, and began a hot streak of three immaculately directed films. First on the agenda was the gritty drama SICARIO (2015). Reuniting once again with Roger Deakins, Villeneuve’s superb direction put its audience on the ground delivering an extremely nail-biting and intense look at the war between law enforcement and the Drug cartels on the US-Mexican border. Anchored by a superb leading performance from Emily Blunt, and some sensational work from Benicio del Toro. It proved to be a further testament to Villeneuve’s skills that no matter the genre, of the grittiness of the film and in some of the cinematography, that the emotional journey of his characters shines through.
However, it was 2016 that proved to be the biggest year of Villeneuve’s career to date, as he directed the cerebral and emotional science fiction film ARRIVAL. Focusing on a linguist, played beautifully by Amy Adams, who has to decipher why some mysterious aliens have arrived on Earth. As well as being one of the smartest pieces of science fiction storytelling for quite some time, it had a lot to say about humanity, language, communication and how we treat each other as human beings on this planet. The film scored a total of eight Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, andlanding Villeneuve his very first (and surely not the last) Oscar nomination for Best Director. Plus, it was only just the beginning of Villeneuve’s venture into the world of science fiction.
Talk of a sequel to the 1982 sci-fi classic BLADE RUNNER was long in the making, but a much-mooted sequel BLADE RUNNER 2049 (2017) was stuck long in development hell, before Ridley Scott came back to direct. Though, those plans never quite materialised and the job fell into Villeneuve’s hands. The task of making a sequel to one of the most beloved and revered pieces of science fiction cannot have been the easiest of challenges. Yet, Villeneuve rose to the challenge and delivered a sequel that honoured its predecessor but managed to arguably surpass it with a story that very much felt part of the BLADE RUNNER story. The box office returns might not have been as high as they could/should have been, but it was another demonstration of his remarkable talents, that finally won Deakins his very first Oscar for Cinematography.
Having enjoyed all of that success, Villeneuve had now reached the point where he was ready to tackle one of the biggest, and arguably the most personal project of his career to date. Having grown up as a passionate fan of Frank Herbert’s classic novel Dune, the project of a lifetime fell into his hands when in February 2017, he was confirmed to be the director of a new adaptation of the classic novel. Of course, this won’t be the first time that Dune has received a feature film adaptation, as David Lynch previously adapted the novel in 1984. Unfortunately, Lynch’s version was not very well received, as even Lynch himself has disowned the film.
With one of the most star-studded ensemble casts to work with, the excitement as to what Villeneuve could deliver continued to grow and grow, especially given how passionate he is about the source material. With the confirmation that Villeneuve’s intention is to make his adaptation of Dune into two films, it only added to the excitement that was building. Anticipation was at absolute fever pitch when the very first trailer for the film hit the internet, and it duly blew everyone away.
Yet as we all know; the film has had to shift its planned December release date due to the COVID-19 pandemic. While we will have to wait that bit longer to see what Villeneuve can deliver, the anticipation surrounding this project is at levels that one could argue haven’t been matched since STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS back in 2015. As BLADE RUNNER 2049 demonstrated, if anyone can adapt Herbert’s novel faithfully and bring about an adaptation of epic proportions, it is Denis Villeneuve.