Terry Gilliam is a visionary —no, Terry Gilliam is a has-been. Terry Gilliam is a grouch… but wait, Terry Gilliam is a delight. Terry Gilliam is a Python. But hang on, didn’t he “just” draw the pictures? There’s almost no declarative statement you can make about Terry Gilliam without someone offering a direct contradiction, and without that contradiction containing at least the seeds of some truth. So let’s start with something easier: Terry Gilliam is an American director who … except he’s not, he’s British.
The facts are these. A 73 year-old American-born director, screenwriter, actor, animator and founding member of the Monty Python comedy troupe, Terry Gilliam has had one of the most fascinating on- and off-screen careers of recent years, and can inspire equal parts antipathy and adulation, often in the very same individual and often at the very same moment. A political science major who became an advertising cartoonist, illustrator and animator after college, by his own account he defected from America because he was worried he’d become a “full-time, bomb-throwing terrorist” in response to what he saw as the rising tide of authoritarianism in the U.S., especially with respect to police brutality.
Naturalizing to British citizenship in 1968, Gilliam first met John Cleese, and then the other members of what would become Monty Python, and graduated from duties as the troupe’s animator and illustrator for LPs and book covers to full membership with co-writing credits on all of their works (and certainly you can see the sensibility of his early solo animations having a direct effect on the troupe’s live action TV shows and movies). The astoundingly influential Pythons gradually dissolved during the early 80s (though recently reformed for a run of stage shows), but Gilliam’s solo directorial career was already in its fledgling stages with 1977’s “Jabberwocky” and 1981’s “Time Bandits” taking place outside the Monty Python banner.
Since then he has attained dizzying heights and bends-inducing lows in terms of the quality of his output. His career always had its ups and downs, but latterly has seen more downs, as Gilliam’s hireability took a knock following some box-office disappointments and a string of high-profile setbacks, notably around the mounting of his Don Quixote movie. And it’s probably fair to say that as a filmmaker whose extensive imaginative reach will often exceed his grasp, perhaps the worst impediment to hit Gilliam’s career recently has been the availability of cheap CG, which makes it seem possible to deliver the kind of fantastical productions he wants to make within budget constraints. Possible yes, but advisable maybe not so much, as the plasticky, unconvincing CG that has marred some of his recent efforts is a million miles from the charming, inventive, in-camera visual style with which he made his name.
But whatever mix of conflicting emotions we feel toward Gilliam’s output at any one moment, he remains a character (and a terrific interviewee) who fascinates us, not least for the tumultuous nature of his career, and the endearingly outspoken way that he assesses it. With the release of his latest film “The Zero Theorem” (original review here), we thought we’d take a look back at Gilliam’s directorial career in full, so here’s our take on each of his films, ranked from worst to best.
One title that does not appear, as he did not direct it, is the very great documentary “Lost In La Mancha,” but it’s a vital watch for anyone with even a passing interest in the craft of moviemaking, or in Gilliam himself. The doc, perhaps more than any of his own films, captures brilliantly what we love so much about Gilliam (even when we hate him) —endlessly tilting at the windmills of his imagination, deaf to the doubts of those around him, with a stubbornness so profound it becomes noble, he is cinema’s own Don Quixote.
17. “The Wholly Family” (2011, short)
Well, if you’re going to hit a nadir, better to do it with a 20-minute short film financed by a pasta company that few are ever going to see on the big screen —this was rejected from at least one film festival on the grounds of being “an advertisement.” In fact, having an overtly commercial agenda is not a problem here: there are occasional platefuls of spaghetti featured, but they’re no more shoehorned in than any other element of this trite, badly acted and frankly ugly little film. Along with “The Legend Of Hallowdega,” a product of one of Gilliam’s wilderness periods in which he was happy to take commercial sponsorship for short projects provided the sponsors more or less left him alone, “The Wholly Family” was financed by pasta brand Garofolo who mandated it be shot in Naples, but other than that it’s all Gilliam. And it is unmistakably Gilliam, though at his worst: a thin, rather obvious fairytale that amounts to very little except a series of grotesque dreamscape scenarios in which a little boy learns not to be bad. Based around a Pulcinella figurine (a masked Neapolitan puppet related to the “Punch” of English “Punch and Judy” shows) who comes to life, even its modest scope seems to overstretch the budget —the miniaturization effect is almost as unconvincing as the title’s labored pun, and the mostly non-professional cast deliver self conscious and uncomfortable performances. Worst of all, there’s nothing of the gleeful anarchy of Gilliam’s early shorts here, just muddy, off-putting visuals in service of a strangely conservative agenda, wrapped up in a silly dream-within-a-dream structure.
16. “The Legend of Hallowdega” (2010, short)
The first of Gilliam’s two brand-sponsored shorts which came in between his features ‘Parnassus’ and “The Zero Theorem,” ‘Hallowdega’ is marginally more successful than “The Wholly Family” if only due to a slicker presentation. However, it suffers from the same issue that a lot of latter day Gilliam projects labor under: why was it made? What is its reason for existing? There’s nothing particularly urgent about its story —a load of hokum about the Talladega Superspeedway and how the racetrack was built on an Indian burial ground which accounts for all sorts of mysterious goings-on— and if the advertiser’s brand (AMP Energy Juice) is laudably absent from the film overall, it leaves a hole where the point of this whole endeavor should be. Of all things in the universe, why is Gilliam making a faux-documentary investigating manufactured crackpot theories about Talladega? There are occasional flashes of the old Python wit, such as the opening credits of a fake supernatural investigation show presented by Justin Kirk listing other wonders that he has apparently debunked, such as “The Pyramids,” “Atlantis” and “The Midwest,” and there’s nicely characterful casting of the “interviewees” and some nice inside-baseball cameos, but the central thrust, which concerns a crackpot conspiracy theorist played by David Arquette is just plain silly, and the film overall never displays the sort of teeth it would need to work as even a mild satire —on reality TV, on ghost myths, on racecar culture and its adherents—on anything, really. An uncomfortable-at-best marriage of Gilliam’s fascination with fantasy with a world that doesn’t organically suit such an approach, it’s one for completists only, and probably not even for them.
15. “Tideland” (2005)
Made as a sort of palate-cleanser after the tumultuous production and endless delays on “The Brothers Grimm,” which it ended up premiering almost simultaneously with, “Tideland” was much closer to unfiltered Gilliam than the former. Unfortunately, that didn’t turn out to be for the better. An adaptation of Mitch Cullin‘s coming-of-age novel, the film follows Texan girl Jeliza-Rose (Jodelle Ferland), who’s left to fend for herself after the death of her obese mother (Jennifer Tilly) and heroin-addict father (Jeff Bridges), with the usual cast of eccentrics (most notably Janet McTeer) popping up along the way. Southern gothic might be an interesting genre for Gilliam, but one for which he’s ultimately unsuited on this evidence, as the film feels like pastiche rather than something more deeply felt and authentic. It doesn’t help that the director’s stylistic tics are dialed up all the way, to the extent that you worry that the dutch angles are down to a wonky tripod that no one could afford to replace, rather than any kind of actual choice. And though the cast, particularly Ferland (who should have gone on to bigger things) are fine, most are wasted. If anyone was sold on the idea of a reunion between Gilliam and Bridges, they’ll be disappeared to learn that “The Fisher King” star is a corpse rotting in a chair for 80% of the running time. It’s misjudged on a number of levels, but most important of all is the tone. Arguably the darkest of all the director’s movies, the film comes across as an unpleasant wallow, a Lars Von Trier-style piling-on on a young girl, particularly in the thoroughly icky scenes between Ferland and Brendan Fletcher‘s local man-child. Perhaps there was initially meant to be a point, but in finished form, none is apparent.
14.“The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus” (2009)
There are films that can recover from disaster-beset shoots, films that emerge as a triumph of creative vision and teamwork over adversity, films that stand as testament to the powers of persistence over the forces of dumb luck and unforeseeable tragedy. But as much as we all hoped all of the preceding would be true, ‘Parnassus’ was not one of those films, with the finished product wearing all the troubles of its conception on its sleeve and then some, feeling stunted, hurried, and shoddy when it finally stumbled onto screens. The most dramatic of those issues was of course the untimely death of the film’s star, Heath Ledger, who had filmed roughly a third of his scenes when he died, forcing a major retooling of the production. However the solution as such was actually pretty inspired. As Ledger’s role required him to change as he progresses through various dream states, Gilliam elected to recast the role three time over, so that ultimately Ledger, Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell all portrayed the same character at different times. The increase in star wattage alone seemed to suggest this might in fact enhance the film. And indeed, none of the stars are to blame for the film’s failures, and the readiness with which they stepped up remains a touching tribute to their departed friend. For better or worse, Gilliam is the author of his films, and here the incomprehensible storytelling (he co-wrote the script with Charles McKeown) and the flat-lit cheap CG aesthetic that is employed as soon as the film proceeds into the characters’ imaginations (ie pretty much all of the time) and which hardly looks like something released the same year as “Avatar,” speaks for itself. It’s a real shame, as the non-CG practical sets used early on are quite lovely, and the cast is rich in character from the central quartet to the supporting roles filled by Christopher Plummer, Andrew Garfield, Lily Cole and Tom Waits, perfectly cast as the Devil. But no amount of window dressing can distract from the convoluted, stakes-free narrative that ‘Parnassus’ delivers —less the wild, wondrous journey into the imagination that it should be, and more a tiresome parade of disconnected, half-baked vignettes that taken together amount to a great deal less than the sum of their parts.
13. “The Brothers Grimm” (2005)
Gilliam’s filmography contains all shades of good and bad, but it has few entries that are as bafflingly forgettable as his first outing after a seven-year hiatus (due to, among other things, the disastrous attempt at “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote”), 2005’s “The Brothers Grimm.” Despite some impressive production design, a game, likable cast in Matt Damon and Heath Ledger, with Monica Bellucci perfectly cast as an evil fairytale queen to boot, the film is a meandering muddle, constantly wandering around in search of a plot, occasionally threatening to become interesting but inevitably losing its way again soon after. Whether the problems sprang from Ehren Kruger’s original script (which suffers from the same slack plotting and logic leaps that Kruger’s ‘Transformers’ sequels scripts are dogged by) or whether Gilliam and frequent collaborator Tony Grisoni monkeyed with what was there to the degree that it become the directionless mess it is, “The Brothers Grimm” barely made its production budget back and retrospectively seems to usher in the later, relatively unlovable portion of Gilliam’s career on an already bum note. Add to that the reports of on-set tensions, especially between Gilliam and the Weinstein brothers (who fired Gilliam’s first-choice of cinematographer six weeks into shooting), and you have a kind of platonic ideal of what you don’t want your long-awaited return to screens to become. Perhaps it’s almost lucky, then, that the film is not actively worse than it is. It’s not terrible, not objectionable, just oddly pointless and bland, and as such the outlier in Gilliam’s already inconsistent catalog.
12. “The Zero Theorem” (2013)
Gilliam has referred to his back catalog in terms of what he sees as thematic trilogies, of which the first, encompassing “Time Bandits,” “Brazil” and “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen” formed a “Trilogy of the Imagination” about the ages of man —from childhood, to the so-called prime of life, to the decline into old age . We’re not sure how useful that classification is in general, but it’s possible that “The Zero Theorem” could be counted as the fourth in that grouping, with Christoph Waltz’s Qohen going even further than Baron Munchausen’s remit, and looking out beyond his life into the metaphysics of what happens after death. Bald as a baby (there’s a hint of a kind of reincarnation motif throughout), Qohen is a drone, albeit a gifted one engaged in a seemingly nonsensical and neverending job for a very Gilliam-esque faceless corporation while he waits for a phone call that never comes. So far, so trademark absurd, but there is a kind of internal coherence to “The Zero Theorem” that sets it above Gilliam’s other late-period disappointments, especially his previous feature “The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus.” Its production design may feel oddly archaic for a supposed futurescape, and its female characters may be unforgivably one-dimensional (Melanie Thierry gets a very raw deal), but “The Zero Theorem” finds Gilliam in more reflective form beneath the standard-issue zaniness, and there’s a kind of dream logic to how the film unfolds. There are also some very cherishable elements in terms of performances. Waltz’s Qohen starts off a bundle of tics and awkward mannerisms, but as the film goes on, he develops into a surprisingly touching character, while Tilda Swinton, Matt Damon, David Thewlis, Peter Stormare and Ben Whishaw all pop up to provide color and quirk to the background. It’s by no means an unqualified success, but it has heart and smarts beneath its gaudy exterior, making it by some distance the best of Gilliam’s late-period films.
11. “Jabberwocky” (1977)
Terry Gilliam‘s solo directorial debut (very, very loosely inspired by Lewis Carroll‘s poem of the same name in “Alice in Wonderland“) is hardly a massive departure from Gilliam’s previous picture, “Monty Python And The Holy Grail.” In fact, it was even billed as “Monty Python’s Jabberwocky” on its U.S. release, much to Gililam’s displeasure. It’s perhaps because of those similarities that the film remains thought of as a minor, forgotten work in the director’s canon, but while it’s certainly made by a filmmaker still finding his own voice, there’s plenty to recommend on its own terms. Michael Palin takes the lead role as Dennis, a young man in medieval times who heads to the big city to become an accountant, only to be picked to slay the legendary monster of the title. It’s a thin, pastiche-y plot, designed to be taken a little more seriously than ‘Grail’ (and there’s some dark, positively scary moments when the beast finally turns up), but is nonetheless uneven. It’s more “Your Highness” than “The Princess Bride,” with Gilliam’s gags owing as much to pre-Python British comedy of the music hall era as to his comedy supergroup day job. But it is fitfully funny and is an early indication of the world-building that would later mark his work. This is as mucky and murky a representation of the middle ages as you could ask for, seeing as the filmmaker was making the most out of what had to be a relatively meager budget. Not a total triumph, but an interesting look at a director in transition, for whom much better was to come…
10. “The Miracle of Flight” (1974, short)
A slight but charming short from Gilliam’s peri-Python days, along with “Storytime,” “The Miracle of Flight,” this film serves as a summary judgement upon any Monty Python fan who might be so wrong-headed as to assume that Gilliam was anything but central to Python’s anarchic, meta-textual brand of silliness. All those qualities are here in spades, as is the animation style that had already become so recognisable and so indelibly associated with dead parrots, cheese shops and spam. Indeed, the tinned, reconstituted meat product that so obsessed the team (and there are linguistic essays dedicated to how one can draw a straight line from the first airing of the “Spam and Eggs” sketch to the word’s modern-day usage for unwanted email) gets a reference here too, as the man who invents the airline ticket (a breakthrough that precedes actual flight in Gilliam-land) proudly reveals that it’s for a flight on Spam-Am. Ostensibly a jokey retelling of man’s struggle to achieve flight, the film is a great example of cramming a whole load of jokes, personal flair and inventive nuttiness into a short space of time, with next to no resources.
9. “Storytime” (1968, short)
Actually a collection of shorts, none of which were seen together until grouped under this title as an extra for the re-release of Gilliam’s feature debut “Jabberwocky,” “Storytime” comprises three separate animations. The first is the seemingly sweet story of Don the cockroach, narrated like a children’s story, before (in the first extant example of Gilliam’s squashing-foot fetishism) a foot squashes him. Not to worry, intones the voiceover, because cockroaches are not very interesting, especially compared to the owner of the foot. This prompts a cavalcade of those cut-out Victorian photos with crudely moving limbs and jaws that are so iconically Gilliam/Python, before a terse title tells us that the animator has been fired. The second film details a man despised by his neighbors for being “the only Albert Einstein not to have developed the famous theory of relativity” but whose pride and joy, his hands, run off with a pair of feet and then scandalizes polite society. And the third segment is the slightest: a series of Christmas cards through which wise men, hunters and carolers trundle after each other. The first two ran originally as part of “The Marty Feldman Comedy Machine” and they’re still terrific little amuse-bouches for anyone attuned to the Monty Python sensibility, or anyone who has ever been a Gilliam fan. In fact, watching these after some of his more recent short films may restore your faith.
8. “The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen” (1988)
In a career including a large proportion of films that came across as folly to many, “The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen” has the reputation as perhaps the greatest as such. It supposedly doubled its initial budget during filming and made only a fraction back, becoming known as a huge flop, although that’s not an entirely fair assessment of its commercial performance. While the film was a money-loser, it’s relevant that it was a victim of the regime change at Columbia. And it’s not fair to dismiss the film on a creative level either. ‘Munchausen’ isn’t Terry Gilliam’s best, but it’s still a wondrous and hugely enjoyable feat of imagination, the director getting to play on a blockbuster-seized canvas of the kind he’s rarely had a chance to take on since. Based very loosely on the (exaggerated) adventures of a real-life German explorer, it stars relatively little-known stage actor John Neville as the Baron of the title, who’s persuaded by a nine-year-old girl (a young Sarah Polley, who says she was left “traumatized” by the film’s production) to reunite with his former comrades to save their city from the Turkish army, an adventure that takes them to the moon, to the kingdom of Vulcan (Oliver Reed) under the earth, and even inside a sea monster. However nightmarish the production might have been, every penny is on screen, with effects that still impress today, and the brace of cameos from the likes of Jonathan Pryce, Oliver Reed, a young Uma Thurman and Robin Williams (billed as Ray D. Tutto). But despite Neville’s fine performance, which goes some way towards painting the lead figure as a Colonel Blimpish last remnant of a dying era, there’s a slight sense of a hollowness at the film’s center, all production design and no substance, not helped by the impression that it’s a spiritual sequel to the far superior “Time Bandits.” Still, on a scene-by-scene level, it’s inventive and impressive, even if it isn’t Gilliam’s most satisfying whole.
7. “The Meaning Of Life”/“The Crimson Permanent Assurance” (1983)
We can’t credit Gilliam directorially with many of the skits in “The Meaning of Life” (though he was a co-writer and he appears in quite a few of them) as he’s really only responsible for the animations therein, but they are among the most memorable parts of this rather more hit-and-miss Python collection. The film itself is structured around the various stages of life, but features a much looser narrative than ’Life of Brian’ or even ‘Holy Grail,’ and in fact mimics much more closely the sketch format of the Python TV show “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.” Gilliam, however, was responsible for directing the animated portions, including the opening credit sequence that accompanies the theme song sung by Eric Idle, and also the standalone 15 minute mostly live-action short film that usually plays as a pre-feature bonus, “The Crimson Permanent Assurance.” The daft yet somehow rather touching story of a stuffy old-school British accountancy firm turning to literal piracy when threatened by Big Corporate America, ‘Crimson’ turns an Old London office building into a pirate ship, filing cabinets into cannons and dusty old British stockbroker types into the swashbuckling scourges of the high (accountan-) seas. It’s glorious nonsense, but it shows Gilliam’s preoccupation with the idea of bureaucracy and his harsh estimation of his land of his birth: the Very Big Corporation of America is undoubtedly the baddie here and we are supposed to cheer for the creaky, cronky pirates right up until they fall off the edge of the world due to their “disastrously wrong” calculations about the shape of the Earth. ‘Crimson’ gets a couple of callbacks within ‘The Meaning of Life,’ adding a little meta-sauce to an already disjointed and ramshackle affair when an apologetic voiceover asks for viewer patience through interruptions caused “by an attack by the supporting feature,” but is probably, along with “wafer thin mint” and the Galaxy song, one of the best parts of the film.
6. “Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas” (1998)
Terry Gilliam‘s version of “Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas” was almost not made at all —”Repo Man” helmer Alex Cox had been developing Hunter S. Thompson‘s gonzo classic (after the likes of Ralph Bakshi, Martin Scorsese and others failed to get it over the line), but fell out with producers only a few months before it was due to go before cameras, with stars Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro already in place. Gilliam was brought in, wrote a new script with Tony Grisoni in ten days, and within a year, the film was premiering at the Cannes Film Festival. It’s an appropriate origin story for a film of Thompsons’ manic, drug-fuelled memoir of a long weekend in Vegas with his attorney, and one that explains why, for all the film’s inventiveness and faithfulness to the original source material, it’s not successful. But given that the book was considered unfilmable for many, it’s a damn good effort, and it’s hard to imagine anyone but Gilliam coming close. It helps that his cast are so game. Depp (a close friend of Thompson) has rarely been better, Del Toro is his perfect foil, and cameos including Tobey Maguire, Ellen Barkin and Christina Ricci are all satisfying. Gilliam’s trademark techniques are starting to reach a kind of fever pitch, but it works here because of the heightened, nightmarish, drug-addled tone, and he captures Americana here in a way that “Tideland” doesn’t come close to, perhaps because he’s most interested in Thompson’s story as a sort of farewell to the 1960s. The director and the author are clearly kindred spirits, and no attempt to film his work before or since has felt so close to getting the essence of the writer, even if it means that the film creeps towards tedium in places. That said, for the most part, it’s funny, a little melancholic, and occasionally even dazzling.
5. “Twelve Monkeys” (1995)
Famously based on the utterly brilliant Chris Marker photomontage film “La Jetee,” perhaps “Twelve Monkeys” was always going to seem a little like a bloated version of that film’s lean, evocative storytelling to anyone who has seen both. But if we’re going to go bloated, then this is a terrifically fun way to do it, with even more unnecessary additions, like the subplot about the titular shady organisation, yielding some enjoyable elements, such as Brad Pitt’s memorably manic, twitchy performance. Mostly, though this is a clever exercise in expanding an airtight sci-fi premise into a brainier-than-usual blockbuster, with room for two major Hollywood stars to play against type —hunky Pitt as the squinty mental patient and action megastar Bruce Willis as the confused, usually frightened time traveler who can only negotiate his fraying mental state with the help of Madeleine Stowe’s doctor. There are the very “Brazil”-esque future sequences, and the mental institution is similar to that featured briefly in “The Fisher King,” so Gilliam is well within his wheelhouse. But “Twelve Monkeys” really shows what he could do when working off a cleverly constructed script (David and Janet Peoples did the adaptation), and with such compelling structure to anchor Gilliam’s more fanciful tendencies, the film manages to dazzle but also to impress emotionally and logically. So it’s an exciting adventure, a thought-provoking science fiction yarn, a surprisingly effective love story and a post-apocalyptic tragedy all at the same time. Most impressively, even for those of us expecting the magnificent twist ending preserved from “La Jetee,” the film still manages to make that element work all over again, giving us that same wonderfully doomy sense of the unbreakable cycle of destiny.
4. “Time Bandits” (1981)
The film that made Gilliam’s name as a solo filmmaker, and still probably his most unqualified commercial success (it was the tenth top-grossing movie of 1981, grossing $42 million), “Time Bandits” might also be Gilliam’s most purely enjoyable fantasy. As you might imagine for a script co-written with Michael Palin, the story —which involves an eleven-year old boy, Kevin (Craig Warnock) accompanying six dwarves (David Rappaport, Kenny Baker, Malcolm Dixon, Mike Edmonds, Jack Purvis and Tiny Ross) on a time-hopping quest for treasure in which they are pursued by the personification of Evil (David Warner, in one of the all-time great turns of comic villainy)— has a decidedly Pythonesque sense of humor. That’s not least in the excellent selection of starry cameos, including John Cleese as Robin Hood, Ian Holm as Napoleon and Sean Connery as Agamemnon. But unlike “Jabberwocky,” the Python influence isn’t overwhelming here. Gilliam has found his own voice as a filmmaker, and it’s capable of scaring you, exciting you, awing you, and even making you choke up a little bit. For all of the script’s cleverness, Gilliam keeps it just this side of arch, with a real story to tell, distinctive fantasy worlds, and a sense of classic children’s literature throughout, not least in that hilariously bleak Hilaire Belloc-ish conclusion. It’s almost impossible to imagine these days that a film as idiosyncratic, strange and brilliant as “Time Bandits” could have been a blockbuster hit. Let’s just hope we see more like this from Gilliam again at some point.
3. “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” (1975)
So where does the genius of Monty Python end and where does the genius that is Gilliam at his best begin? It’s appropriately difficult, given the anarchic and inexplicable nature of the troupe, to tell how much they fed into/fed off one another, so let’s not even bother trying. Suffice it to say that co-director Terry Jones is largely credited here with directing the actors while Gilliam was in charge of the photography and of course the animation. His tendency to take smaller acting roles within the troupe’s output can mistakenly give the impression that he was somewhat peripheral, yet Gilliam, the sole American in a very British bunch, was entirely a Python, and his animation style provided the Pythons with their most recognizable iconography. Those unmistakable photo collage-style jerky animations set against Victorian/Baroque backdrops that can at any moment be summarily squashed by a giant foot or puked up by a giant beanstalk/vine. And in ‘Holy Grail,’ an unassailable comedy touchpoint that regularly tops comedy polls, Gilliam’s animations often take center stage, not just as interstitial moments but as self-contained chapters, and, most memorably, when Gilliam appears onscreen as the animator dying of a heart attack halfway through drawing the Legendary Black Beast of Arrgh! thereby allowing the Arthurian knights to escape its ravenous clutches. One of the elements that made Monty Python so irresistible was this meta-fuckery, messing with form as well as content to truly bizarre and eternally surprising effect, and the outsider perspective that Gilliam brought as both an animator and an American is a vital component. This is silliness raised to the level of an art form.
2. “The Fisher King” (1991)
“Brazil” may be Gilliam’s undisputed masterpiece, but if there is such thing as a disputed masterpiece in his catalogue, it may just be “The Fisher King,” which has never, perhaps until recently, received the adulation we’d say it deserves. This isn’t just revisionism in the wake of Robin Williams’ death, as the film has been one of our favorite Gilliam works ever since it was made. It’s remarkable for expertly walking the line between sentiment and horror, so that all its colors of light and darkness have meaning, and all are supremely well-earned. But of course it is hard to think of the film now without added melancholy resonance. Williams’ performance here was always terrific: the character of Parry allowed him off the leash at times (all dutch angles, manic renditions of “I Like New York In June,” and stories about little fat fairies), but it also let him embody a real man who had suffered unthinkable trauma and whose mind had transmuted that terror into literal dragons and demons. Playing off a similarly mid-career-high role from Jeff Bridges (along with “Fearless” perhaps his most underrated turn), Williams owns this role —it’s impossible to imagine anyone else who could have sold its dizzying turns from joy to despair to mischief to abject fear, and as an analogy for depression (here trauma-induced, but a mental disease nonetheless) it’s now almost unbearably prescient. Parry’s lovable, generous, clownish persona masks darkness and pain within, and the devils he suppresses can return to do battle with him without warning. As a film it’s anything but serious, yet its shining humanism reaches almost philosophical levels, and while we’ve always held the Grand Central waltz moment to be one of the most transcendent in the history of filmmaking, recently we’ve come to consider Parry’s soliloquy where he tells the story of the titular King in a similar light; “I only knew that you were thirsty.” Here Gilliam’s bizarro folkloric vision (featuring wonderful turns too from its supporting females Amanda Plummer and the Oscar-winning Mercedes Ruehl) is cut with real-world implications and emotions, leading to one of his most satisfying films, and one that has now and forever been lent an extra layer of heart-slicing poignancy for earning the happy ending for Robin Williams’ Parry that the actor was denied in life. See it and be nicer to everyone as a result.
1. “Brazil” (1985)
Still the most complete, influential and perfectly realized of all of his features, and the high watermark that his fans are most likely thinking of when they wish he’d make movies like he used to, “Brazil” is Gilliam’s masterpiece. A dystopian fantasy of such heartfelt despair and peculiar beauty —but always undercut by that impish Python humor— it’s in “Brazil” that Gilliam most convincingly married his animator’s eye for set design, photography, and even costuming with his political philosophy and personal storytelling sensibilities. Elements of “Brazil,” such as his very droll eye for the absurdities of petty bureaucracy, were foreshadowed in previous works; other elements would recur often thereafter, such as the thin line between imagination and insanity that is arguably the characterizing concern of every subsequent Gilliam movie. But while he’d return to this theme time and again, he’d never subsequently attain quite such thrilling and persuasive heights, nor achieve such a dense, textured sense of a lived-in world. Gilliam can always be relied upon for oddball side details and characters, and here those abound, from Robert De Niro’s molelike terrorist/air conditioning repairman (De Niro was so high on this script he agreed to take this smaller role despite being originally interested in the larger Michael Palin part), to Jim Broadbent’s plastic surgeon, but the film is anchored by a terrifically sympathetic and underplayed everyman turn from the perenially undervalued Jonathan Pryce, who somehow allows us to constantly access the humanity underneath all the immensely enjoyable tricksiness. And it simply has one of the most compelling storylines of any Gilliam film —it’s a dark, Orwellian cautionary tale about the dangers of complacency and unquestioning submission to authority. Gilliam’s work with Monty Python feels like little proto-anarchist tracts and essays, a naughty schoolboy taking pot shots at the headmaster with his slingshot. But “Brazil” is his manifesto, and here he has graduated from catapult to cannonade —it’s a fantastically angry, funny, deliriously imaginative film, a flight of fancy that somehow delivers a real gut punch.
Energetic polymath that he is, Gilliam has been involved with many other projects over the years —stage shows, television commercials, the recent Python stage show reunion, collaborations with bands like Arcade Fire and Gorillaz, and even opera. And as an actor he pops up pretty frequently too —we’ll next see him in a tip-of-the-hat cameo performance in the Wachowskis’ “Jupiter Ascending.” And the list of films he nearly made or was attached to at one time or another is long and storied: he was famously JK Rowling’s first choice to direct ‘Harry Potter’; his adaptation of Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s comic apocalypse novel “Good Omens” flares to life every few years; same goes for “The Defective Detective,” a script co-written with “Fisher King” collaborator Richard LaGravenese; not to mention a screenplay ready to go called “Mr. Vertigo” that was co-authored by Paul Auster.
But his longest-running on-again off-again saga, one seeming such a perfect encapsulation of the brilliant, maddening, magnificent folly that is Gilliam’s filmmaking career is of course “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” which is, and I can’t believe we’re actually reporting this again, apparently back on track now for the zillionth time. We really, really hope it comes together for Gilliam this time, because of all his unmade projects, we can’t imagine one better suited to his peculiar, eccentric talent. At his best there is no one more wondrous, at his worst no one more disappointing. But at either extreme and all points in between, Terry Gilliam is utterly unique; a precious resource for whom we couldn’t be more thankful. — Jessica Kiang with Oliver Lyttelton