Monty Python collaborator and eclectic cinematic visionary, Terry Gilliam, is one of the industry’s finest and most creative thinkers, bringing the likes of Brazil, 12 Monkeys and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas to life with extraordinary innovation. Infusing many of his films with his influential, enigmatic art style that elevated the pop-art movement of the late 20th century, Gilliam has helped to inspire some of cinema’s most psychedelic films.
Speaking to the author Salman Rushdie in an interview for The Believer, Terry Gilliam discussed his influences as a filmmaker, stating: “Well, I really want to encourage a kind of fantasy, a kind of magic. I love the term magic realism, whoever invented it”.
Continuing, he adds: “It’s about expanding how you see the world. I think we live in an age where we’re just hammered, hammered to think this is what the world is. Television’s saying, everything’s saying ‘That’s the world.’ And it’s not the world. The world is a million possible things”.
Having worked with some of Hollywood’s biggest names including Brad Pitt, Bruce Willis, Christopher Plummer, Johnny Depp, Benicio Del Toro, Robert De Niro, Adam Driver and Tobey Maguire, Terry Gilliam has helped to transform the landscape of the industry and inspire a new refreshing surrealism.
Let’s take a look back at the ten finest films of his career.
The 10 best Terry Gilliam films:
10. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009)
Overshadowed by the tragic real-life death of co-star Heath Ledger, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is an imperfect, surreal fantasy featuring the likes of Johnny Depp, Lily Cole and Christopher Plummer.
A magical, gothic adventure, the film follows a travelling theatre company with a fantastical secret that sees its audience taken on a wild ride of impossible surrealism. With Ledger passing away during the production of the film, Gilliam does a great job in repairing the void left by his departure, ingeniously casting Colin Farrell and Jude Law to play different versions of Ledger’s character.
9. The Zero Theorem (2013)
Rising to popularity in the early 21st century, Christoph Waltz’s career took him from the likes of Quentin Tarantino in Django Unchained, as well as Roman Polanski in Carnage. In his most ambitious role, he also appeared in Gilliam’s sci-fi extraordinaire The Zero Theorem.
Playing Qohen Leth, a reclusive computer genius in the surreal science fiction flick, The Zero Theorem follows his character determined to find the meaning of life. Strange, colourful and vibrant, Gilliam’s world is a peculiar one that is suffused with the director’s own extraordinary vision. Though the story and final product may leave a little to be desired, the sheer amount of ingenuity is commendable.
8. Jabberwocky (1977)
Adapting Lewis Carroll’s iconic poem of the same name would always be a tricky feat for any filmmaker, though, despite Gilliam’s film receiving a negative critical reception, its spirit as one of the director’s only family-friendly adventures remains endearing.
The second of the director’s feature films following Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Jabberwocky stars Michael Palin and follows a young unadventurous peasant mistaken for a hero when a fearsome monster threatens their existence. Though the film didn’t manage to capture the imagination of critics or audiences, it was a daring enough adventure to make it a commendable effort on Terry Gilliam’s part.
7. The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988)
Combining his Monty Python crew with a whole new bunch of Hollywood A-listers, Terry Gilliam’s first film after the much-celebrated Brazil was a considerable step up for the burgeoning filmmaker.
Based on the German fables revolving around the 18th-century nobleman Baron Munchausen, Gilliam’s film stars Oliver Reed, Eric Idle, Sting, Robin Williams, Uma Thurman and Jonathan Pryce in an impressive ensemble cast. It’s one of his most frenetic and excitable films, no doubt inspired by the classic Monty Python feature films, including Gilliam’s own Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
6. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)
An iconic film of ‘90s popular culture, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas stars the likes of Johnny Depp, Benicio Del Toro and Tobey Maguire in a film that would quickly become a counter-cultural cult classic.
Based on the book by Hunter S. Thompson, Depp stars as Raoul Duke, a strange journalist and his psychopathic lawyer who travel to Las Vegas for a psychedelic journey of debauchery and madness. The perfect story for Gilliam to take on, the film is carefully imbued with his own sense of surrealism, whilst not overshadowing the terrific story and intricate characters of Hunter S. Thompson’s novel.
5. The Fisher King (1991)
The Fisher King is surely one of Terry Gilliam’s most underappreciated films, adapting Richard LaGravenese’s mysterious screenplay that follows a misanthropic Radio DJ (Jeff Bridges) who strikes up an unlikely friendship with a homeless man (Robin Williams).
Including a powerful and emotionally compelling performance from Williams, the actor uses gestures as much as spoken dialogues to transition between a threatening character and a playful one. Jeff Bridges and Robin Williams shine alongside each other in one of the most unpredictable duos in all of cinema. Whilst it was nominated for five Academy Awards, including one for Williams’ supporting role, it was Mercedes Ruehl who would walk away with an Oscar thanks to her character of Anne.
4. Time Bandits (1981)
Just like The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Time Bandits was a strange mix of Monty Python and Hollywood, featuring a fantastical medieval tale and a mix of familiar Hollywood faces and British comedians.
Including the likes of Sean Connery, Shelley Duvall, John Cleese, Ian Holm and Michael Palin, the film followed a young boy who joins a band of time travelling dwarves on a quest to steal treasure across history. A bombastic, thrilling romp through time, Time Bandits may be the most ‘Gilliam’ of all his films, showing off his Monty Python roots along with his love for fantasy and surreal comedy.
3. Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)
Brought to life with backing from Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull and Led Zeppelin, and produced from only a shoestring budget of £229,000, Monty Python’s first narrative-led film is an eclectic mix of classic absurdity and merry comedy.
Monty Python The Holy Grail follows King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table as they embark on a surreal search for the magical Holy Grail. Utilising its low budget to ingenious degrees, replacing horses for trotting men and hollow coconuts, the film has a tremendous sense of boisterous fun showing just how far DIY creativity and a hearty imagination can take you when forming a universally-beloved comedy.
2. Twelve Monkeys (1995)
Revered by critics and loved by audiences, Twelve Monkeys is a complicated time-travel adventure starring Bruce Willis, Brad Pitt, Christopher Plummer and Madeleine Stowe that remains a staple of modern sci-fi.
The story follows a man sent back in time to gather information about a man-made virus that has wiped out most of humanity. Based on Chris Marker’s La Jetée, the film is an apocalyptic nightmare with a glorious spin from Gilliam, though Willis stars as the hero, it is perhaps Brad Pitt’s dedicated performance as the intense Jeffrey Goines that remains the film’s most memorable character.
1. Brazil (1985)
His most critically acclaimed feature film, Brazil, remains his very finest, with Terry Gilliam’s surreal Orwellian fantasy providing a psychedelic vision into a retro near-future featuring the likes of Jonathan Pryce, Robert De Niro and Michael Palin.
Gilliam’s visionary, offbeat world is intoxicating, dragging you through twisted back alleys with chaotic hyperactivity as it tells the story of Sam, a bureaucrat who breaks the monotony of everyday life and unknowingly becomes an enemy-of-the-state. With a range of Hollywood talent Gilliam takes audiences on a joyride through his own imagination, indulging in the surrealism of the director’s own ingenious thoughts.