He also directed “Incendies” (2010), and his distressing family drama received an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film.
Let’s look at these two movies from this very talented filmmaker.
"Incendies" (2010) 5 / 5 stars - Director Denis Villeneuve's extraordinary drama under a backdrop of violence and war - in the name of religion - is a stunning journey, but it is also an extremely difficult journey to shake.
Villeneuve's picture starts out ordinary enough.
Their mother, Nawal Marwan (Lubna Azabel) divides her assets equally between her two children, but the scene takes a strange turn as the notary (and also her former employer) reads instructions for two strange requests:
1. She wishes to be buried faced down and naked without a coffin.
2. She requests her children find their father - who they previously believed was dead - and their brother who they didn't know existed.
The children do not understand either demand and seem to be burdened by a lifetime of frustration and miscommunication caused by their mom.
More visibly upset than his sister, Simon curses and exclaims their mom was crazy.
He doesn't wish to participate with either one of her wishes.
Jeanne takes a more mature approach, and begins a journey which takes her to the Middle East.
Along the way, Villeneuve alternates between flashbacks of Nawal's painful life, while Jeanne picks up clues as to the whereabouts of her long-lost brother and her previously-believed-to-be-dead father.
This movie is a mystery and pulls us into Jeanne's discoveries.
She begins to realize her mother's perceived or actual mental illness is directly related to her painful past in violent surroundings.
From Quebec, Jeanne is stranger in a strange land, and she's as confused (as are we) by the uneven and haphazard turns she encounters on her way to discovery.
It becomes clear to Jeanne (and also to Simon) she might not like what she finds.
“Prisoners” (2013) 4.5 / 5 stars - In broad daylight on a gray Thanksgiving afternoon in a small Pennsylvania town, two little girls - without warning - go missing, and the remaining family members rightfully lose their minds over anxiety and desperate grief.
Thankfully, police do find an obvious suspect (Paul Dano), but within 48 hours of his arrest, officers let him go.
For Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) - a blue-collar, no-nonsense and religious father - he watches Alex Jones’s (Dano) sudden gift of freedom and turns his anxiety and desperate grief into something else: rage, revenge and madness.
Keller decides to take the law into his own hands in a most savage way.
In director Denis Villeneuve’s film, he weaves an intricate 2 hour 33 minute story down bleak and sobering paths and left this critic mesmerized to his despairing human car wreck which leaves no on-screen character unscathed.
This is frightening material for any parent, but the subsequent failed morality - by Keller and others - offers excessive fodder to feed my nightmares for years.
Meanwhile, Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) - a workaholic with no time for personal relationships or family - tries to find enough evidence to put Alex away, but also discovers a mysterious new suspect which increases the complexity of the shady puzzle.
Villeneuve also keeps us guessing by intertwining a baffling crime drama into the mix, and he moves the resonant characters along a chess board known as the fictional town of Conyers, PA.
Conyers acts as another character in the film by bringing a sense of dread with its charcoal skies, surrounding miles of leafless deciduous trees and brown lawns on winding neighborhoods, and this town did not escape the clutches of recession either.
For example, Keller mentions - in passing - available carpentry work is running thin, and Villeneuve offers bleak shots of a depressing “Value Mart”, a cheap liquor store and a dilapidated apartment building to help reinforce the message: present day life in 2013 rural America is not easy.
For the Dover and Birch families, any glimpse of happiness - right now - is utterly unachievable.
The film itself, however, does achieve effective uses of symbolism and is especially good at presenting the irony of a religious family crossing boundaries of human decency.
I do not know if Villeneuve or writer Aaron Guzikowski had President Obama’s famous (or infamous) comment about small town Americans clinging to their guns and religion in mind when shaping Jackman’s character, but these references thickly run with Keller.
This makes his ethical choices all the more fascinating, because in this horrific case, we learn what a human being is capable of doing when losing one’s mind over anxiety and desperate grief.
Follow me on Twitter: @MitchFilmCritic