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Director of the Decade: Denis Villeneuve


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With the 2010s coming to a close, Inside The Film Room is awarding End of the Decade Awards to the very best elements of film and entertainment over the past 10 years. Today, Johnny Sobczak is handing out the award for Director of the Decade.

Denis Villeneuve was not exactly an up-and-coming filmmaker when the decade began. His first feature film “August 32nd on Earth” was released in 1998, and his following films “Maelstrom” (2000) and “Polytechnique” (2009) were acclaimed, but did not receive much attention outside of the Québécois’ native Canada. 

It was 2010’s “Incendies” that put Villeneuve on everyone’s radar. The Oedipal tragedy, set largely in the heart of a civil war in an unnamed Middle Eastern country, premiered at the Venice and Toronto International Film Festivals. The film is carried by a powerhouse performance by Lubna Azabal and exemplifies what most have come to associate with Villeneuve’s work. It is brutal, violent, unnerving and wholly encompassing in its atmospherics. “Incendies” won eight awards at the 2011 Genies, or the Canadian equivalent of the Oscars, including Best Motion Picture and Best Direction. It was also nominated for Best Foreign Language Film and ultimately paved the way for Villeneuve to break into Hollywood.

His first proper Hollywood picture was 2013’s “Prisoners,” which he gratefully saved from the clutches of Bryan Singer. The kidnapping mystery-thriller is anchored by arguably career-best performances from Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal – the former portraying a father who loses himself in a desperate attempt to find his daughter, and the latter portraying the enigmatic detective assigned to solve the mystery. It also marked Villeneuve’s first collaborations with composer Jóhann Jóhannsson and legendary cinematographer Roger A. Deakins. “Prisoners” was a financial and critical success, named one of the top ten films of the year by the National Board of Review and nominated for Best Cinematography at the 2014 Academy Awards. While the story can drift into procedural territory, and the mystery may not hold up on multiple viewings, “Prisoners” shines as proof of how Villeneuve can elevate any material on which he gets his hands. 

Denis Villeneuve and Jake Gyllenhaal on the set of “Enemy.” (Photo courtesy of Pathé International)

Despite filming nearly a year before “Prisoners,” the surrealist psychological thriller “Enemy” didn’t hit theaters until spring of 2014. Also starring Gyllenhaal, it was Villeneuve’s first foray into English-language filmmaking. The sickly yellow city of Toronto in “Enemy” is the stage for a mystery that feels like a classic Hitchcock thriller by way of a David Lynch nightmare – complete with hypnotic dream sequences and giant arachnids. The flick never hit more than 120 theaters in North America, yet like Villeneuve’s previous works, it was renowned in Canada, winning five of its 10 nominations at the Canadian Screen Awards, including Best Direction. As Villeneuve’s reputation has grown, more people are exploring the early stages of his career and coming across “Enemy,” which has led to it retroactively receiving its due praise.

In 2015, Villeneuve returned to the United States for the crime thriller “Sicario.” The film starred Emily Blunt as an FBI agent recruited by a mysterious government taskforce to fight drug cartels on the U.S.-Mexico border. Blunt goes head-to-head with Josh Brolin and Benicio del Toro, the latter of whom delivered his best performance since “The Usual Suspects” and received a BAFTA nomination for Best Supporting Actor. The film allowed Villeneuve to re-team with Jóhannsson and Deakins, with both receiving BAFTA and Academy Award nominations for their work. The film was such a success that it allowed for a 2018 sequel, although Villeneuve elected not to work on the project. Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan returned, as well as del Toro and Brolin, but the film was a far cry from the original’s suspenseful masterclass and ultimately divided critics.

In this decade, Villeneuve has most notably become one of science-fiction’s greatest filmmakers. This started with 2016’s “Arrival,” which became his greatest financial and critical success to date. Villeneuve masterfully adapted the film from Ted Chiang’s short story “Story of Your Life.” Villeneuve had been wanting to break into sci-fi for quite some time, but didn’t feel compelled by anything until he read Chiang’s story. The story, which easily could have been sunk by its heavy focus on linguistics and its time-twisting narrative, manages to be intellectually stimulating and emotionally compelling. Amy Adams delivered one of the decade’s most heartbreaking performances (which resulted in one of the decades most heartbreaking Oscar snubs) and cinematographer Bradford Young captured otherworldly images of the aliens and their craft. The film grossed over $200 million worldwide on a modest $47 million budget and was named one of the top 10 movies of the year by the American Film Institute. It received eight Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director, and took home the award for Best Sound Editing. While being a sci-fi masterpiece in its own right, “Arrival” seemed to be a warmup for Villeneuve’s true sci-fi magnum opus. 

Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford and Denis Villeneuve on the set of “Blade Runner 2049.” (Photo courtesy of Alcon Entertainment)

When working on “Prisoners” in 2013, Villeneuve remarked to the Alcon Entertainment producers that “Blade Runner” was his favorite film. As fate would have it, producers Andrew Kosove and Broderick Johnson were meeting with Ridley Scott at the same time to discuss developing a sequel to the legendary cyberpunk film. According to Screen Daily, Kosove came to visit Villeneuve in 2014 during the production of “Sicario,” and it was then that he delivered the top-secret script for what would become “Blade Runner 2049.” Villeneuve was terrified by the prospect, but fell for the script and, in his words, “didn’t want someone else to fuck it up.” He agreed to direct, making the jump to the big leagues and taking the lead on a $155 million follow-up to one of cinema’s most influential sci-fi stories. The result was not only everything that could have been hoped for, but somehow more. It was a story that retained all the themes and mood of the original, while aggressively expanding the universe in a way that felt as organic as the replicants that inhabit it. Villeneuve once again collaborated with Deakins, resulting in the cinematographer’s 14th Academy Award nomination and first win. It was nominated for five Oscars in total and also won for Best Visual Effects. Although it was a financial failure, “2049” firmly established Villeneuve as a master filmmaker at the mega-budget level and the king of modern science fiction.

After an unprecedented run of releases from 2013 to 2017, Villeneuve has been hard at work on his adaptation of Frank Herbert’s “Dune.” The 1965 novel is the greatest sci-fi epic ever conceived, so it only makes sense the production has accumulated some of Hollywood’s best talent both in front of and behind the camera. The star-studded cast includes Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Jason Momoa, Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin, Zendaya and more. Off screen, Hans Zimmer opted to turn down long-time partner Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” in order to score “Dune,” and Academy Award-nominated editor Joe Walker (“Sicario,” “Arrival,” “Blade Runner 2049”) and Academy Award-nominated cinematographer Greig Fraser are also on board. The project has been split into two parts, the first of which is currently in the editing process and slated for a December 18, 2020 release date. Just as “Blade Runner” (1982) was Villeneuve’s favorite film, “Dune” was his favorite novel growing up, and the filmmaker has referred to the adaptation as “the project of my life.” 

As a director who has evolved more than any other in the last ten years, the project of his life is coming at the perfect time. Villeneuve is at the height of his powers, operating on a level that few others ever dream of reaching. As remarkable as the last decade has been – going from a respectable director in Canada to one of the most acclaimed filmmakers on the planet – the best truly may be yet to come.

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Johnny Sobczak View All

Johnny Sobczak is an entertainment journalist and graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he majored in Media and Journalism and minored in Global Cinema. Johnny is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association and has been with Inside the Film Room since August 2019. He was named Senior Writer in January 2020 and co-hosts the Inside the Film Room podcast with Zach Goins. Johnny spends his days job-hunting, watching films and obsessing over every new detail of Denis Villeneuve's "Dune."

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