6. Zodiac (2007)
Speaking of building tension, there probably wasn’t a movie to come out in the past decade that turned into a more stress-inducing experience than Villeneuve’s thriller, Prisoners. Drenched in the same nihilism present in most of his work, Villeneuve guides us into a slow-burning maze of revenge and despair with no glimmer of hope. One of the best performances came from Jake Gyllenhaal as the enigmatic, eye-twitching Detective Loki — a man slowly being consumed by a seemingly unsolvable mystery.
Prisoners is often pitched against another nail-biting crime thriller led by Jake Gyllenhaal — Zodiac. David Fincher’s frenetic film is based on the real-life investigation of the eponymous San Francisco serial killer who continuously taunted the police force with cryptic letters. It’s hard not to draw parallels between both movies as two equally realistic portrayals of the burden and obsession that such investigations inflict on those tasked with solving them. In both cases, lack of closure is the ultimate punishment, an unbearable reality that makes their detective efforts even more despairing.
7. Oldboy (2003)
By the hands of the master of poetic mayhem — a director that put South Korea on the map with a trilogy of hyper-stylized revenge films — comes this modern cult classic. To talk about Park Chan-wook is to talk about a filmmaker that excels at finding aesthetic beauty in the most macabre situations, forever treading the narrow line between self-indulgent bloodshed and graceful composition.
Oldboy is a movie that hits you like a freight train, a twisted, modern reimagination of the Oedipus Rex myth — capped off with a gut-wrenching climax eerily similar to Villeneuve’s Incendies — and radiating with the same pathos and gravitas of a Greek tragedy. Far from being endorsements of violence, vengeance stories are most effective when they urge the audience to dwell on the emptiness of the character’s quests and reconsider their most primitive instincts.
Watching this testosterone-heavy thriller can prove to be such a contradictory experience. As an exercise on masterfully-crafted violence, Oldboy is a morbidly exhilarating affair, but one that ultimately says a lot about our jaded indifference — by reflecting on its own meaninglessness.
8. Revenge (2017)
Women always get the short end of the stick in Villeneuve’s movies, where they’re subject to a whole array of misfortunes — from personal losses (Arrival, Maelström), violence (Polytechnique, Sicario) and abuse (Incendies) to being stripped from their maternal roles (32nd of August, Arrival). Revenge is also a recurrent motif in Villeneuve’s body of work — not one set to bring rewarding closure but rather a futile endeavor doomed to fail.
This blood-soaked thriller covers those very same themes by interrogating its own violence. One could consider it just a stylized exploitation movie about a woman clawing her way to retribution against a group of male abusers. In truth, this French-speaking tale of revenge is raging with the same sense of urgency of a movie trying to condemn decades-worth of misogynistic objectification in film.
Against all odds, our female protagonist endures the most gruesome of hardships, to the point that we’re left wondering if the heroic revenge we’re witnessing is even plausible outside the context of a mere fantasy. The film poses these said questions by flipping its genre tropes in its head in a visceral, emotional rollercoaster that deliberately mocks our own expectations.
9. Children of Men (2006)
Villeneuve is no stranger when it comes to exploring themes like hope, faith and human empathy in the face of overwhelming misery. From the horrors of civil war, a college shooting or the abduction of two young girls, Villeneuve has never shied away from analyzing the longstanding effects of trauma and grief. Another movie that offers a similar uncompromising look at humanity while treating similar themes is Alfonso Cuarón’s modern masterpiece.
Children of Men transports us into a hopeless future where humanity is on the brink of collapse, no longer capable of procreating and where totalitarian regimes rule the world with an iron fist. A disillusioned bureaucrat and a miraculously pregnant woman pose the only hope for survival as they attempt to smuggle their way into a hidden sanctuary at sea.
Villeneuve cited Cuarón’s movie among his shortlist of favorites of the century during an interview for the New York Times, recounting how, when he started making movies at the end of the 20th century, the previous generation said cinema was dead. “Well long live cinema!”.
10. Dead Ringers (1988)
There’s no shortage of thrillers that tackle dualism by featuring characters with multiple alter egos — Mulholland Drive, Persona, 3 Women, Perfect Blue, The Double Life of Veronique — the list is exceptionally stacked and goes on and on. As it’s been the case ever since celluloid emerged, there’s only a limited number of narrative themes available, and filmmakers have forever taken cues from those that came before them.
In some ways, argues Villeneuve, when doing a movie nowadays it can be tough to break the mold and make something new — even when you think you’re doing so — and finding out later that somebody did it before you can be a hard pill to swallow. To make sure that wasn’t the case with Enemy (Villeneuve’s doppelganger thriller), the director thoroughly rewatched Dead Ringers, a movie helmed by a fellow Canadian — the incomparable David Cronenberg.
Dead Ringers follows Elliot and Beverly, a set of identical twins who work together as gynecologists and share women with as little hesitation as one trades lunch meals. Regarded as one of the most traumatic films he’s ever seen in his life, Villeneuve compared Cronenberg’s classic to his own as two movies that “deal with that kind of strange exploration of intimacy”, albeit from different points of view.