4: Polytechnique (2009)
This is a fairly tough watch, and that’s not solely referring to the subject matter. The story centres around a fictionalised account of a 1989 school shooting, when a man walked into Ecole Polytechnique in Montreal with a rifle and targeted young women. It’s a beautifully craftedÂ black and white film, contains very little dialogue, and is both intelligent and daring with its subject matter. A strong argument could be made that this is Villeneuve’s most important film.
Choices are made throughout to show a more voyeuristic stance on the violence, as we spend more time with characters watching the drama unfold. While there is a “villain” in this situation, he is deliberately understated and not the primary focus. Villeneuve instead prefers to show reactions of the people involved, allowing the audience to empathise and experience their terrified points of view.
It has some powerful imagery, both in an actual and metaphorical sense, and is a loud condemnation of this attack and of violence in general. The wonderful use of sound combined with brilliant camera work made it truly deserving of the sweep of Canada’s Genie Awards in 2010.
3: Arrival (2016)
Villeneuve’s first real foray into the world of science fiction, Arrival was a critical and commercial success. When aliens land around various locations on Earth, the USA brings in linguistics expert Louise Banks (Amy Adams) to try and decipher the motives behind their arrival. It’s as intimate as any character piece, balancing Louise’s own personal journey, as she’s attempts to learn the reason these aliens have arrived, with the potentially apocalyptic endeavour of the world having to work together to find a solution.
After Sicario went back to linear storytelling, Arrival returned Villeneuve to his roots of dripping in overarching story beats, making time itself an important theme. His ‘upside-down camera crawl’, which we’ve seen him employ since Polytechnique, was also back on show for the world to see. This brilliantly executed sci-fi pic, again, boasted truly gorgeous shots, this time thanks to cinematographer Bradford Young (Selma). Combine all this with excellent work by Adams (robbed of a nomination, I have to say), and you have a stunning, powerful film that is just as philosophical as it is beautiful.
Deservingly nominated for multiple Academy Awards, including a long-overdue Best Director nod for Villeneuve himself, Arrival is an important film for the times, stressing the importance of communication, even when language itself breaks down. It’s one of the best sci-fi films of the 21st century.
2: Sicario (2015)
In this writer’s opinion, SicarioÂ and Arrival are on a fairly even playing field. However, seeing as Arrival got far more awards buzz, this gets a slight nudge up from me. Featuring a fantastic script from Taylor Sheridan (Hell or High Water, Wind River), Sicario centres around an idealist FBI Agent (Emily Blunt) who uncovers the grim reality of how the drug war must be played.
Incredible work again from cinematographer extraordinaire Roger Deakins, combined with great performances from Blunt and a menacing Benicia del Toro, makes Sicario a true standout picture. The film is incredibly intense right from the get-go, and it keeps that dirty and grimy feeling throughout. Blunt represents (and carries) the audience as we are taken through the gamut of emotions, with Villeneuve expertly navigating us through the sweat-inducing developments without handholding to make it easier. Villeneuve, at times, brings an almost horror tone to these proceedings, so raw and gruesome is his brutal take on the ongoing US/Mexico drug war. Sicario is one of those films that stays with you long after you’ve seen it.
1: Incendies (2011)
This may be a controversial choice for the number one choice, and perhaps it’s more of a reflection of my tastes, butÂ Incendies is – hands down – the film that has affected me the most. It’s hard-hitting from the start, tackles serious subject matters, and holds a twist that absolutely floors you. Villeneuve’s amazing direction drives home this meticulously crafted story of two immigrant twins tasked with finding their long-lost father and brother following their mother’s death
The story is structured in a way that is very similar to Arrival. Villeneuve teases the audience with flashbacks, progressively unveiling information that the children keep discovering, and lingering on our main character as she slowly pieces the puzzle together, before she breaks down in front of our eyes. The country and conflict itself remain nameless, a smart choice on Villeneuve’s part in order to propel the characters and the themes to the forefront.
To date, I see this as perhaps his most ambitious film. It has some very challenging moments and a complex narrative structure, but Villeneuve brilliantly traverses this material like the genius he is. Despite the accolades, including a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nomination, not enough people have seen it. If you’re one of the poor souls yet to experience Incendies, place this masterpiece at the top of your must-see list right now!
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