Director Duel #2: Denis Villeneuve vs. Rian Johnson

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Welcome to the second installment of my newest series, Director Duel where I take a close look at the movies made by two directors and compare the quality and success they had. I go into the analytics and also put forth my own personal opinion of each director to determine who I believe is having the better career so far. This is by no means a way of knocking one director over the other, but rather a highlight of the movies they’ve crafted. So without further ado, I bring you to my newest duel where we look at the careers of Rian Johnson and Denis Villeneuve.

The first installment of the Director Duel brought on a very close decision between two fantastic up and coming directors. This installment gives us two directors that started in the 2000’s, but really hit the mainstream of popularity and recognition in the 2010’s. They both started with small indie like films early on, but broke through the mainstream with films like Prisoners for Villeneuve in 2013 and Looper for Johnson in 2012. Both of those films caught everyone’s eyes and are still talked about as being some of their best films. I could go back in talking about their earlier works in the 2000’s, but with this duel, I’m going to focus mostly on their projects starting at and following these two films.

Rian Johnson (Brick, The Brothers Bloom, Looper, The Last Jedi, Knives Out)

Looking at Rian Johnson first, we see that has released three films since and including Looper along with three directing credits in television for Breaking Bad. I will briefly go over the directing credits for Breaking Bad by saying that he has been highly regarded for his work on these episodes including receiving nominations for these episodes over various awards groups. Some of these episodes are also included in being some of the best episodes of the series and in recent television history. Back to his actual work on film though, he started with Looper in 2012. On a budget of $30,000,000 it turned a profit by making $176,506,819 at the worldwide box office. It also garnered critical and audience appeal with a 93% critic rating and an 82% audience rating on Rottentomatoes.

His next film you could give a bit of a pass to as far as box office goes because of the franchise name beings successful for the majority, but we’ll still go over the numbers. Star Wars: The Last Jedi had a budget of $317,000,000 and made all of it back several times over with a worldwide total of $1,332,539,889 becoming one of the highest grossing movies of all time. It did however hurt in the rating department with mixed reception on RT. It received a 91% by critics and a 43% by the audience. This is the first film where there is some controversy over the actual audience number since it seemed there was a plot to review bash it, but still this movie is known to be very divisive. His final and most recent film which dropped towards the end of 2019, Knives Out, had a budget of $40,000,000 and while still in theatres, has already turned a profit with $229,319,164 so far worldwide. It also is the best received film on both sides with a 97% critic rating and a 92% audience rating.

Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Enemy, Sicario, Arrival, Blade Runner 2049)

These two directors have different styles and different stories that they like to tell and with varying stories, it also brings varying results at the box office and with reception. Villeneuve began is rise to prominence with Prisoners. $122,126,687 worldwide on a $46,000,000 budget isn’t a terrible result as it likely turned a decent profit, but does sit a bit lower than the results of Looper. It did garner more notice with the Academy with a sole nomination for cinematography, but it’s reception was a bit lower in relation to its nomination. It received an 80% critic rating and an 87% audience rating. His next film, Enemy, was a much smaller indie level film that did not do well at all at the box office and I can’t find any information on its actual budget, so we’ll treat this a bit like a comparison for Johnson’s work on Breaking Bad. It received a 71% critic rating and a 63% audience rating.

He was overall a bit of a busier director during this time than Johnson, but Star Wars does take up a bit of time so to be fair that could be a reason. Villeneuve’s next film was a big step into more appeal to general audiences with Sicario. It didn’t do very well at the box office making $84,872,444 on a $30,000,000 budget which may have allowed it to breakeven but they may be it. According to RT it did however receive decent scores with a 92% critic rating and an 85% audience rating. It did continue the overall quality in terms of Oscar nominations by receiving three. His next film may have been his best yet with Arrival. It turned a pretty good profit making $203,388,186 worldwide on a $47,000,000 budget. It continued the trend of quality with a 94% and 82% and also received several Oscar nominations including Best Picture. His most recent film is Blade Runner 2049 which bombed at the box office by losing the studio money due to its large budget of $150,000,000. It did receive an 87% and an 81% with several Oscar nominations to go with it.

My Thoughts

With all of the analytics out of the way we can take a second to understand that both of these directors are incredibly successful on both ends, while also having faults too, but without a doubt are fantastic directors. When I think back on Denis Villeneuve’s work, I immediately gravitate towards Prisoners and Arrival. Arrival gives me everything I normally want in an original sci-fi film and certainly caught me by surprise with where the story ended up going. It was Prisoner’s though that really got my attention to the director. I remember seeing the trailer for it for the first time and immediately wanting to watch it because of my obsession with crime and mystery shows and the Investigation Discovery Channel. A lot of it was also that it was something my dad and I were both interested in, and we both ended up loving it despite the dark story that it was.

My love for those two movies specifically is no knock at all on his other films. I would probably put Enemy last if I were to rank them because it’s the most forgettable one of the bunch, but the others are all tough to figure out. I really enjoy a lot from Sicario, but I really hate that the studio decided to make a sequel for it when it was perfectly fine as a standalone film. Blade Runner 2049 was interesting because it is a very good movie, but I was never the biggest fan of the original and while I like the film, it doesn’t quite grab me like his original films do. One of the best things about him is his directing and ability to really give a great story and the handling of his characters. He knows how to craft a film, and while his first attempt at a big franchise like title wasn’t the best at the box office and wasn’t necessarily my favorite of his, he is getting another chance with his upcoming adaptation of Dune which could potentially spinoff into a franchise depending on its success. I’m incredibly excited for Dune which I never thought I would be, but is due solely to the fact that he’s directing it. He is one of the few directors that I will be on board with anything they direct because I trust his vision and ability to give a movie that will grab me. With his trajectory, it’s only a matter of time till he strikes the ultimate goldmine and has his big awards film with multiple nominations and multiple wins. I wonder now though, with the cast and crew involved with Dune, could that be the film to do it?

Rian Johnson is a guy that I have been signing the praises for ever since I saw his film Looper. It wasn’t really until I saw Brick and The Brothers Bloom that I realized how good of a director he was and how much I really did like him. It was easy to see that he had a unique vision and writing style the was most notable in Brick. Looper was a movie that came out in a time where I wasn’t as into the film industry as I am now, so I didn’t really have much knowledge of what it was, but I remember exactly when and where I was when I saw it because of the effect it had on me after seeing it. It wasn’t a life changing film by any means, but it was such a unique film that surprised me from start to finish and managed to help push my love of movies to what it is today. It’s easily one of the most prominent movies in my life as far as how it made me feel and how I reacted after seeing it. Because of that feeling and how much I loved his other films, I was excited to see what he was going to have next, and of course to much excitement from me, he was announced as the director to the Star Wars: Episode VIII.

I know at the time a lot of people weren’t as familiar with his work, but I was singing the praises of him to anyone and everyone about how good he is and how excited I was for his Star Wars film. Not just because I love Star Wars, but because it was a director that I was very excited for mixed with one of my most beloved franchises of movies to watch. Despite all of the mixed reactions and trolls out there that really are just out to hurt people, I actually enjoyed The Last Jedi so much that it is my second favorite Star Wars movie. It’s a movie that I go back to time and time again to rewatch because of how amazing I think his direction and writing is for these characters that I liked at first, but ended up loving because of what he was able to do. Coming off the backlash he received from that movie, I was excited to see him get back to his roots of doing a smaller movie in his typical vein of writing and directing and so he did with Knives Out. Knives Out is likely going to go down as my favorite movie of 2019 and one of the best movies I’ve seen in quite a while. After watching it, I just felt like it was an absolute masterclass in filmmaking from every angle you could look at it. There really isn’t much wrong if anything with it. Rian Johnson is a guy who has had plenty of success critically and at the box office who seems to be venturing out and doing his own thing after Star Wars. I know that there are some reports that he will be writing his own trilogy which of course I would love to see, but I think he could easily make some big Oscar buzz for Knives Out and could continue repeated success if he sticks with his own smaller movies.

This truly is a tough choice when trying to decide which one I think has had the better career because they both have proved to be masters of the art. They are still both somewhat early in their careers and have some incredible potential and a ceiling that will only stop at the point of winning all of the awards which they could both easily do. They are both directors who I look forward to seeing their next projects and I think will continue to build themselves up enough to become household names in the future. Ultimately the decision had to be made and while I would really like to make this a draw, it was Knives Out that was the deciding factor. It’s a movie that I think is the best film of every movie these two have made so far, and what puts Rian Johnson a little further ahead is that he knows how to make engaging movies that are also fun. Denis Villeneuve I think hurts his appeal by making movies that are all very serious and a bit dour. I think maybe Dune could turn the tide, but only if he brings a sense of fun and adventure. For now though, Rian Johnson I personally believe has had the more complete career thus far with what I believe is the best film in Knives Out. Although, Villeneuve does win when it comes to overall awards appeal by having more films nominated at the Oscars.

Winner: Rian Johnson

It all comes down to the range Johnson provides between drama, comedy, and everything in between. Along with providing the most recent film of the two and what is probably the most complete film of either resume. I hope you enjoyed this installment of Director Duel and feel free to comment your thoughts!

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