Terry Gilliam rose to prominence through his work on Monty Python's Flying Circus in the early '70s and their subsequent films. Beginning with Jabberwocky in 1977, he started making his name as a creative director with a unique approach to film making. The Minneapolis native has only directed 11 features, but he's made a tremendous mark in the sci-fi and fantasy genres. Gilliam's also known for his disastrous attempt to direct a Don Quixote movie, chronicled in the 2002 documentary Lost in La Mancha. He's been a British citizen since the late '60s, and that different sensibility likely affects his original approach. Gilliam's output has diminished in recent years, but he remains a notable director who's created a strong body of work. Despite the small number of movies, this wasn't an easy Top 5 List to put together. The only Gilliam films that I haven't seen are Tideland and Jabberwocky. Let's check out the picks and see if I made the right choices!
Honorable Mention, The Fisher King (1991)
More drama than fantasy, this intriguing story includes some of the top performances of Robin Williams' and Jeff Bridges' careers. Mercedes Ruehl won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her fiery role, and the film received four other nominations. Gilliam does his best work on the fantasy sequences as the guys search for the Holy Grail. This underrated film rarely gets mentioned, but it's one of the more interesting pictures in Gilliam's career.
5. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009)
Overshadowed by Heath Ledger's death and largely forgotten, this inventive film was a big surprise for me when I finally caught up with it last year. Christopher Plummer stars in the title role as the leader of a sideshow act that transports unsuspecting guests into a fantasy world. Tom Waits shines as his nemesis, and Ledger is excellent in an incomplete performance. Although its story is all over the map, this film works because of its offbeat style and remarkable images. This approach may lose some audiences, but it may provide great rewards if you're willing to take the ride.
4. Time Bandits (1981)
Co-written with Michael Palin and starring a plethora of familiar faces, this time-travel adventure sends a boy (Craig Warnock) through a series of famous historical events. He joins a group of dwarfs as they leap through holes in time and encounter figures like Robin Hood (John Cleese) and King Agamemnon (Sean Connery). They're being pursued by the Evil Genius, played by the perfectly villainous David Warner. Time Bandits succeeds because it's also a black comedy with a surprisingly dark sense of humor. The nihilistic finale remains stunning and ends the movie on a surreal note. It's an extremely original movie that hasn't lost any of its charm more than 30 years after its original release.
3. Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1974)
What more can I say about this classic? So many of the jokes have moved into pop culture and transcend their original place in the movie. Even if you haven't seen this film, many of the gags are likely familiar. The Monty Python guys all play a wide array of roles, and Gilliam contributes the oddball animated sequences along with providing the directing. The story follows the basic structure of King Arthur's quest for the Holy Grail, with a few unusual detours in between. Similar to Time Bandits, this picture also provides an offbeat ending that may disappoint a few viewers but fits perfectly with the tone of the movie.
2. 12 Monkeys (1995)
Choosing between the top two picks was very difficult, and this excellent time-travel story could easily take the top spot. Bruce Willis stars as a convict from the future who travels back in time to learn about a virus that basically destroyed the Earth. He quickly discovers that the answer isn't so simple and tries to stop it. This description fails to do justice to a movie that remains intriguing after many repeated viewings. Willis is at his best in the lead role, and Gilliam reins himself in a bit to present the complicated story.
1. Brazil (1985)
This wonderfully inventive vision of the future presents a bleak picture of humanity through the eyes of office drone Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce). The clever screenplay from Gilliam, Tom Stoppard, and Charles McKeown combines perfectly with the over-the-top visuals to deliver a remarkable experience. Gilliam consistently toys with our expectations and bombards us with striking images for more than two hours. This film is notorious for his battles with the studios, who created their own laughable cut that's a must-see viewing. Gilliam's at the top of his game here, and the result is an incredible film.
I'd love to hear your thoughts about this list in the comments section. You should also check out the archive of past Top 5 Lists if you've missed them.
Next week, I join a very young Tom Cruise as he battles the evil Tim Curry in Legend.
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