Ranked: Terry Gilliam Films From Worst to Best

The American Python and visionary director gets his canon Ranked.


By David Sterritt, author of Terry Gilliam: Interviews

Terry Gilliam is one of cinema’s great fabulists. After emigrating to England in 1967, disgusted with Vietnam-era American values, he had a lengthy stint as animator-in-residence for Britain’s legendary TV show Monty Python’s Flying Circus, then made the leap to theatrical features in 1974. His breakthrough picture, Time Bandits, celebrated its thirtieth anniversary this week. Gilliam’s movies range from nearly sublime to utterly ridiculous, which makes his body of work perfect for ranking.

11. The Brothers Grimm (2005)

Gilliam had a prolific but not especially successful year in 2005, producing two of his least interesting movies. The Brothers Grimm stars Matt Damon and Heath Ledger as the eponymous fairy-tale collectors, portrayed as con artists whose phony demon-slaying racket turns perilous when they enter a forest that’s actually haunted. Fittingly given the film's title, some blame falls on executive producers Harvey and Bob Weinstein, who feuded with Gilliam throughout the production, delaying the release for almost a year.

10. Tideland (2005)

Gilliam’s unfortunate 2005 continued with this schizofantasy about a heroin addict, his emotionally troubled daughter, a dilapidated farmhouse, and some very weird neighbors. Jeff Bridges is completely at ease in this territory, and the story is classic Gilliam, featuring a child — a child who converses with dolls’ heads, a corpse preserved via taxidermy à la Psycho, a mentally challenged child-man with a stash of explosives in his room. But the imaginative elements end up clogging the story instead of energizing it. So many nightmares, so little time.

9. The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988)

Few modern filmmakers claim Georges Méliès as a major influence, but this white elephant of an epic is an overambitious homage to the magic of primitive cinema. It’s hard to beat for sheer spectacle, whether the eighteenth-century hero is surfing the sky on a cannonball or matching wits with the King of the Moon. What's missing is lightness, ease, and humor; they're traded for labored ingenuity and monumental cuteness. Gilliam trimmed bits and pieces throughout the film to achieve the contractually required running time just before release, and he’s always insisted the movie works beautifully in his original cut. If so, it’s a pity the pared-down version is the only surviving one.

8. Jabberwocky (1977)

The title comes from Lewis Carroll, the characters have names like Griselda Fishfinger and King Bruno the Questionable, and the style is Monty Python gone medieval. The dreaded Jabberwock is played by an actor walking backward in a monster suit, and that kind of comic klutziness is inadvertently present in the film’s other elements as well, turning Gilliam's first feature as solo director into a lumbering piece of entertainment and little else. At least Michael Palin, one of the best Python performers, is at the top of his game.

7. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009)

The too-much-ness of the title (thirteen syllables!) signals the tone of the movie: creative, but ultimately more frantic than fulfilling. Christopher Plummer plays the titular magician whose stage opens on a fantastic neverland of imagination, and Tom Waits is terrific as Mr. Nick, a devil who wants to recapture the souls liberated by Parnassus. Heath Ledger’s death during production forced Gilliam to reinvent his character as a protean figure who morphs into Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell, and the action zigzags accordingly. Gilliam has suffered plenty of bad luck in his career, but Ledger’s untimely departure was a blow worthy of Mr. Nick himself.

6. The Fisher King (1991)

On the skids after a career disaster — one of his monologues sparked a murder-suicide — a radio talk-show host meets a sidewalk schizophrenic whose voices are telling him to steal a trophy (which he thinks is the Holy Grail) from the home of a billionaire he's never met. When it isn't bogged down in romantic subplots, this pitch-dark comedy has great energy and visual imagination. Its view of urban poverty is hardly subtle (hardship wouldn't matter if homeless people had Robin Williams around to make them laugh), but reliable Jeff Bridges is on hand to smooth down some of the movie’s many rough edges.

5. Twelve Monkeys (1995)

In a future society driven underground by a deadly epidemic, a convict travels to the bygone year of 1996, looking for a bizarre animal-rights group that may have that may have unleashed the illness. Gilliam had never seen Chris Marker’s towering 1962 classic La Jetée when he set to work on this feature-length remake, but he manages to update, expand, and Hollywoodize the subject without in any way desecrating the French original. Bruce Willis is excellent as the film’s hero, and Brad Pitt is downright unhinged as the activist who dogs his trail. Gilliam's talent for vivid imagery fills shot after shot with an anarchic energy that's appropriate for the unpredictable story.

4. Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1974)

Codirected by Gilliam and Terry Jones — Terry G. focused on visuals while Terry J. supervised the acting — from a screenplay by all six Monty Python members, Holy Grail is rife with verbal wit and visual richness, and its rhythm is perfect. You’d never guess that Graham Chapman (as King Arthur) was often so drunk he could barely stand (much less remember his lines) or that the unusual depiction of horses — the knights trot along the ground while squires clack coconut shells to make clip-clop sounds — grew out of budget limitations, not divine inspiration. As a collective Python project, the film doesn’t quite equal Life of Brian, directed by Jones five years later, but both pictures are excellent and deservedly revered.

3. Time Bandits (1981)

Finding that his bedroom contains a hole in time, a boy ventures through it and emerges in different historical periods, teaming up with a band of diminutive time-traveling outlaws on the lookout for loot. The screenplay by Gilliam and Michael Palin echoes Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) and The Wizard of Oz (1939), and also C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia novels. The action is boisterous and inventive, with flashes of quintessential Python humor, and the excitement doesn’t let up even when the picture muses about the nature of reality, the problem of evil, and God’s relationship to humanity. Time Bandits is a unique, intelligent, freewheeling, and terrific film, complete with a switcheroo ending that few children’s films would dare to present.

2. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)

Hunter S. Thompson’s notorious book bounced around Hollywood for ages before Gilliam got involved; Gilliam promptly threw out the existing script and wrote a new one with Tony Grisoni in the course of a few days. The resulting film captures the energy and essence of Thompson’s deadpan pseudobiography and drug-soaked view of America during Watergate and Vietnam years. Gilliam has never made a darker, crazier, more passionate movie, and his principal players — Johnny Depp as Raoul Duke and Benicio Del Toro as Dr. Gonzo — turn in uncannily lived-in performances. The picture failed at the box office, but has since found a rabid cult following: it’s a bold and brilliant milestone in Gilliam’s career.

1. Brazil (1985)

Imagine a Monty Python version of 1984 and you’ll have a dim idea of what this masterpiece is like. A savagely satirical sci-fi noir that uses a miniscule computer glitch to launch a juggernaut of uproarious calamity, Brazil is the tale of a mild-mannered bureaucrat who dares to buck the system in a future society where conformity reigns. The film’s history is as strange as its plot: worried that the stunningly dark ending would alienate American audiences, Universal Pictures shelved it until Gilliam’s unauthorized private screenings and a major critics’ award forced them to release a somewhat altered edition to American theaters. Gilliam’s vision is the driving force of the movie, which also benefits from Roger Pratt’s retina-bending cinematography and a first-rate cast. Technically, intellectually, and artistically, Brazil is a landmark of fantastic cinema.

Commentarium (51 Comments)

Nov 10 11 - 1:12am
BrosephofArimathea

The best part is in the 12 Monkeys documentary where you see him take apart a child actor and yell at special effects for having a contraption wobble.

Nov 20 11 - 10:32pm
JD

You could really see him straining to be nice to that kid but obviously working with children is not his strong suit. The kid really is kind of bad in that movie.

Nov 10 11 - 1:47am
jp

Brazil == best movie evar!

Nov 10 11 - 1:49am
A Big T. Gilliam Fan

Brazil, no question, but I would have made Monty Python & the Holy Grail number three. 12 Monkeys was good, but uneven in spots (though it's Brad Pitts best work to date- wasn't he nominated for it?).

Nov 10 11 - 1:52am
nope

I read the title as "Terry Gilliam Films From Best to Best," and I stand by that error.

Nov 10 11 - 7:28pm
lakawak

That is becuase you are a fanboy. And people don't take fanboys seriously.

Nov 10 11 - 10:50pm
wakawaka

That is because you are a wanker, lakawak. And people don't take wankers srsly.

Nov 11 11 - 2:32am
nope

I'm a fan, sure. Not sure why the addition of "-boy" is supposed to imply "obviously irrational obsessive." You can enjoy someone's work without being obsessed.

Also, I prefer "fanlady."

Nov 14 11 - 9:28pm
Meg

agreed and touche

Nov 10 11 - 8:43am
Wossamotta

Never even heard of "Tideland".... did it even get a theatrical release.
You're really over-rated "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas"

Nov 18 11 - 10:20pm
DaveDebris

Over-rated!!!! Fear Loathing inL.V. was one of the most faithful adaptions of a book to movie . AND I can't believe that the discussion had took this long before F.L.I.N. was even mentioned. Offal scum.

Nov 10 11 - 9:39am
?

Isn't Depp Gonzo?

Nov 10 11 - 11:18am
gyptheblood

And the award for "Leaving a Comment that Could Have Been Resolved With A 30-Second IMDB Search" goes to ?.

Also, no.

Nov 13 11 - 3:26pm
Jim

How long did that douchey takedown take you, fuckweed?

Nov 10 11 - 9:51am
Moops

The Imaginarium was terrible, almost unwatchable. I'd certainly rank it below Baron Munchausen.

May 25 12 - 1:39am
CEA

I disagree. The first time I watched it, I couldn't follow it. I watched again and realized the subtle brilliance of it all. Tom Waits is amazing in the role of the devil. Worth watching just to see his performance.

Nov 10 11 - 10:09am
m-m-m

This is a predictable list. Fear and Loathing should be much lower and Twelve Monkeys should be higher.

Nov 10 11 - 10:52pm
n-n-n

Etc etc etc. Why is it that every fanboi out there has to impose their own priority on a published list? If you liked it so much *that way* m-m-m, you should have written your own article first. So m-m-m on my n-n-nuts.

Nov 11 11 - 2:21am
m-m-m

First of all, I'm not a Gilliam fanboy. In fact, I think he's fairly overrated. Secondly, are you saying I cannot hold an opinion contrary to the article? That I can't disagree with somebody? If this is so, then begone, you and your nuts

Nov 10 11 - 10:49am
93curr

Switch 'Tideland' (one of my most-rewatched Gilliam films) with 'Time Bandits' (a film I admire more than actually enjoy) and I'd pretty much approve of this ranking.

Nov 10 11 - 2:28pm
Myke

When will Tideland ever get the recognition it deserves? It's hardly an overlooked masterpiece, but it's a surprisingly good cinematic interpretation of the inner worlds of children. I don't think people give it enough credit for somehow being blisteringly dark and doggedly lighthearted/optimistic simultaneously. That's a pretty difficult tonal balance, and damn if Gilliam doesn't nail it. I mean, compare Tideland to almost any other American movie trying to tell the story of a child and tell me Gilliam didn't cut a lot closer to the core. At the very least, it shouldn't be losing out to The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.

Nov 10 11 - 3:22pm
Patrick

I would rate Baron M. much higher on the list.

Nov 10 11 - 5:26pm
VoR

Definitely agree.

Nov 10 11 - 8:59pm
Bowser

Uma! Uma! Uma!

Nov 11 11 - 2:08pm
azguki

yes!

Nov 10 11 - 3:31pm
matt

Brazil is a master piece, but my favorite is Holy Grail.

Nov 10 11 - 7:31pm
Show

God, I really am the only person that thought Brothers Grimm was great.

Nov 10 11 - 8:11pm
Evey

No, I thought it was wonderful...Gilliam was back on form for the first time in years.

Jun 01 12 - 1:42am
idleprimate

i'm not sure i would say great, but it was fun and clever and is unfairly maligned

Jul 11 12 - 9:55pm
rich

kinda pointless though.

Nov 10 11 - 8:02pm
radii314

these lists on the internet are always wrong

Brasil of course #1 ... all the others are in the wrong order

Nov 10 11 - 8:18pm
...

Tideland is underrated.

Nov 15 11 - 2:43am
Alvarex

Agree.

Nov 10 11 - 9:16pm
jin

i love his pizzas. and i hear his catering for things like the oscars is top rate.

Nov 10 11 - 11:13pm
Cgeers

What I love about the Grail is the budget on the project and the depth that was achieved. His later movies carried this to a much higher level but the layered simplicity of the Grail is just fantastic. Twelve is a great flick, Fear is just a blast, Tideland was fantastically bizarre. The Grimm movie was his most mainstream feeling movie. Not my favorite but it was fun. I've loved this guy's work since MP and hope he can make a bunch more films.

Nov 11 11 - 10:50am
faulknersaysrelax

Jabberwocky, in particular, has that shoestring budget feel to it, and I've loved it since seeing it on a battered VHS back in the day.

Nov 11 11 - 2:46am
Dan

Switch 12 Monkeys into 3rd and this list is perfect

Nov 11 11 - 11:59am
Keith

The Baron is far better than generally known. Several scenes on the moon will stick with you forever. It is a beautiful film.

Nov 11 11 - 5:16pm
Mark

Munchausen is a flawed masterpiece. Should be sitting right behind Brazil where Fear and Loathing is.

Nov 12 11 - 8:50am
Ordell Robbie

I agree totally, except for the "flawed" part. The Adventures of Baron Munchausen was Gilliam's best work IMHO. A really magical film.

May 25 12 - 1:41am
CEA

Yep, loved Munchausen as well.

Jul 11 12 - 9:58pm
rich

BEST

Nov 11 11 - 6:34pm
Super Jesus

Holy Grail, Baron Munchasen and Time Bandits should be 1, 2, 3. Brazil is good, but highly overrrated. Parnassus is one of his weaker yet still liakeable films and shouldnt be so high simply because of that. Jabberwocky should really be near the bottom, it gets by entirely on nostalgia. re-watch it, its simply a weaker version of Holy Grail.

Nov 11 11 - 10:07pm
UR

I love the first, what - 2/3? 3/4? of Brazil, but the last bit just drags on and on and on and the film suffers for it. I wish the editing knife had been used more generously for the tail end.

Nov 12 11 - 1:16am
Scagsdale

Who is this guy? Almost every one of these movies sucked.

Nov 17 11 - 12:30pm
dogdick

And thats why you will never have a career writing for nerve, writing about movies, or participating in an intellectual way to the great society. You my friend, are a fuckin' moron.

Nov 12 11 - 6:39pm
se7en

I remember seeing the brothers Grimm nopening night. It was so bad it made me actually angry. If TG had been there I would have punched him in the face.

Nov 18 11 - 12:12am
scribble

Munchausen smokes Parnassus.

Nov 23 11 - 3:45am
Susie

And to think I was going to talk to someone in preson about this.

Nov 24 11 - 6:42am
hwmimisfhkz

m4Ia7k zcttqkhxybly

Jun 01 12 - 1:46am
idleprimate

Fisher King and 12 Monkeys are underrated on this list and Fear and Loathing vastly overrated--sure it was amusing, but that's about it.

I find Tideland unwatchable, but I understand it has meat to it.

Finally, Time bandits has a special and not very objective place in my heart as it was one of the rare movies I saw in a theatre as a child, and was a mind blowing experience for me.