Terry Gilliam: five essential films

From dizzying dystopias to modern-day fairytales, the films of Terry Gilliam present a universe that’s highly imaginative and beguilingly strange. These are the five best places to dive in.

Neil Mitchell
Updated:

Time Bandits (1981)

Time Bandits (1981)

Time Bandits (1981)

Terry Gilliam’s second solo outing as director, following Monty Python and the Holy Grail (co-directed with Terry Jones, 1975) and Jabberwocky (1976), Time Bandits is a madcap romp jammed with ideas, memorable cameos and an impish sense of fun. Ostensibly a children’s film, Gilliam’s time-travel tale blends fantasy with reality and humour with darkness in a way that the director has made his own. Never one to hang around, Gilliam throws the viewer and the film’s young lead, Kevin (Craig Warnock), headlong from the off into the misadventures of a gang of dwarves on the run through space and time from the Supreme Being. 

Fittingly produced by Handmade Films, and featuring superb production and costume design by Milly Burns and Jim Acheson respectively, Time Bandits’ universe is one of Heath Robinson-esque effects work and strikingly rendered physical spaces. Chaotic, inventive and often inspired, Time Bandits is much like the director himself.

Watch it for … The bandits’ ad-hoc rendition of ‘Me and My Shadow’ to a bewitched Napoleon Bonaparte (played by Ian Holm).

What the critics say

“I’ve rarely, if ever, seen a live-action movie that looks more like an artist’s conception.” Roger Ebert, RogerEbert.Com

Brazil (1985)

Brazil (1985)

Brazil (1985)

A labour of love for Gilliam, who was frustrated in his efforts to bring the visually and narratively ambitious Orwellian tale to the screen for a number of years and then by Universal’s insistence on re-editing the film for its US release, Brazil is one of the great dystopian science fiction films.

Its hero is mild-mannered, low-level government employee Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce), who is stifled, befuddled and finally enraged by middle-management hell, Kafkaesque bureaucracy and an invasive (but humorously shambolic) ruling elite. Amid the monolithic government buildings, cramped, gadget-heavy apartments and gaudy, exclusive restaurants, his life begins to unravel as he’s dragged into a world of homegrown terrorism, doomed love and ever more suffocating, insidious officialdom.

Gilliam’s prescient insistence on a retro-futuristic aesthetic has helped preserve Brazil against the passing decades, and its themes remain as relevant today as they were in 1985.

Watch it for … the final 15 minutes, which lead to a gut-punch of an ending.

What the critics say

“The most potent piece of satiric political cinema since Dr. Strangelove.” Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times.

The Fisher King (1991)

The Fisher King (1991)

The Fisher King (1991)

Given an added layer of sadness following the tragic circumstances of Robin Williams’ death, The Fisher King is Gilliam’s most emotionally engaging film. It was also a film of firsts for Gilliam, as no member of Monty Python appeared in its cast and the director worked from a screenplay he had no hand in writing. Grief, guilt, personal responsibility, redemption, love and mental illness are at the heart of this fairytale-tinged romantic comedy-drama.

Suicidal former shock jock Jack Lucas (Jeff Bridges) and Parry (Robin Williams), a delusional homeless man on a quest to find the Holy Grail, unexpectedly repair each other’s lives three years after one of Lucas’ on-air rants inspired a phone-in caller to commit mass murder, a shocking act that claimed the life of Parry’s wife. Driven by impressive central performances, The Fisher King is, thanks to several idiosyncratic visual flourishes and fantasy sequences, still unmistakably a Terry Gilliam film.

Watch it for … the wonderfully choreographed mass waltz in Grand Central Station.

What the critics say

“Scary, touching, often hilarious, this modern fairytale is surprisingly enchanting.” Geoff Andrew, Time Out.

Twelve Monkeys (1995)

Twelve Monkeys (1995)

Twelve Monkeys (1995)

Directly influenced by Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1962), from which it lifts several concepts wholesale, Gilliam’s puzzle-like Twelve Monkeys saw the director return both to the concept of time travel and to a vision of a hellish dystopia. In its way as frenetic as Time Bandits and as satirical as Brazil, Twelve Monkeys is also tougher, darker and bleaker than any of Gilliam’s previous films. On the promise of a pardon, Bruce Willis’s convicted criminal James Cole is repeatedly sent hurtling back through time from the year 2035 to collect data on a devastating virus that has left the surface of the Earth uninhabitable.

The subjective nature of memory, perceived mental instability, mankind’s increasing reliance on technology and the dangers of deadly bacteria falling into the wrong hands are sombre themes addressed in typically visually striking fashion. The forthcoming Twelve Monkeys TV series has its work cut out to live up to Gilliam’s intense, post-apocalyptic vision.

Watch it for … Brad Pitt’s manic performance as Jeffrey Goines, which won him an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor.

What the critics say

“For all the fun, fright and hypnotic romance that Gilliam delivers, he digs deepest into fatalistic themes that usually scare away the crowds at the box office. Go with Gilliam anyway. Solving the riddle of Twelve Monkeys is an exhilarating challenge.” Pete Travers, Rolling Stone.

Tideland (2005)

Tideland (2005)

Tideland (2005)

The film for which Gilliam temporarily halted production of The Brothers Grimm in order to concentrate on, Tideland is an edgy, at times uncomfortable Southern Gothic tale. A bastardised take on Alice in Wonderland with shades of Psycho thrown in for good measure, Gilliam’s adaptation of Mitch Cullin’s novel of the same name is perhaps the director’s most divisive film to date. The subject of undeserving critical vitriol, Tideland was, nonetheless, the winner of the prestigious FIPRESCI prize at the 2005 San Sebastián International Film Festival.

At the time, 64-year-old Gilliam declared he had finally found his inner child, and it was Jeliza-Rose, brought to life onscreen by Jodelle Ferland. Orphaned and alone in a rundown rural Texan farmhouse, the traumatised Jeliza-Rose constructs, and slips into, an ever-darker fantasy world. Peopled by eccentric characters and touching on emotional and physical abuse, Tideland is an uncompromising experience, and a strangely beautiful one too.

Watch it for … Jodelle Ferland’s assured performance of a demanding role.

What the critics say

“It’s crazy, dangerous and sometimes gorgeous: a feast of nuttiness that takes you, for a while, over the edge.” Michael Wilmington, Chicago Tribune.

Your favourites

We asked you to vote for your favourite Terry Gilliam films. Here’s your top five … 

Brazil (1985) poster

Brazil (1985) poster

  1. Brazil (1985)
  2. The Fisher King (1991)
  3. Time Bandits (1981)
  4. Twelve Monkeys (1995)
  5. The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988)

It seems we got our top five almost right, though when we asked you on Facebook and Twitter which your favourite Gilliam was, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen proved a far more popular choice than his more recent film Tideland. There was a lot of love for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) too, which came in as your sixth favourite.

From Facebook:

Kit Gillson No Munchausen on the list, BFI? I don’t know if I can trust your judgement any longer

Ryan Parkhouse Brazil. Or Time Bandits. Maybe The Fisher King. Actually it might be Twelve Monkeys…

Christopher Devlin Glad to see some love for Tideland, it’s a beautiful and tragic film. But Baron Munchausen is my favourite film of all time. So many indelible images, it’s totally unique. I went and got it scrawled on my arm last year.

John Carbonaro I only sat through 30 minutes of Brazil. It was so frantically forced in its pockets of mayhem I got annoyed. I’ll give it another go.

Jane LS Definitely Time Bandits. I first saw it on a cross Channel ferry when I was 14. I loved it then and I still do now.

Laure Chevalier Brazil ! Was so impressive I can’t help singing the song when something really drives me crazy ^^ But I love them all, even those not present in this top 5

Annie Rawle “What has become of the Baron?”
Baron Munchausen is in my top 5 ever movies. So special. I really relate to most of his work.

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