Terry Gilliam Movies Ranked

2. Twelve Monkeys (1995)

A prisoner (Bruce Willis) is forced to travel back in time to prevent the outbreak of a viral apocalypse that has almost wiped out humanity in the future, eventually being interned in a psychiatric facility for his trouble.

This is Terry Gilliam’s most complete film, with the tightest and most coherent screenplay in his filmography. The presence of big stars Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt (both somewhat playing against type), and playing most of its time-travel tropes straight, might make you think you’re watching a standard studio sci-fi, though of course Gilliam has never been interested in the standard or the conventional.

This loose re-adaptation of French short sci-fi La Jetée is a film that intrigues from the off with its central mystery about exactly what caused the viral apocalypse at its heart. But Twelve Monkeys only really tips its hand in the final act with a couple of all-time great shock twists that also poignantly connect on an emotional level and tie into the “ouroboros” endless cycle theme. 

1. The Fisher King (1991)

A disgraced radio DJ (Jeff Bridges) turns guardian angel for a disturbed homeless man (Robin Williams) out of guilt for the part he played in the homeless man’s current predicament.

This is easily Terry Gilliam’s most thematically complex and emotionally compelling film, and perhaps his true masterpiece. Gilliam’s usually unmistakable, overbearing style is pretty dialled-back for the first stretch of the film, but as Robin Williams’ Parry and his seemingly delusional view of the world comes to the fore, the filmmaking language responds in kind. Gilliam’s fantasy aesthetic is used sparingly here, always emphasising character and their lived experiences, only embellishing the real or making contradictory or illusive ideas easier to understand.

Jeff Bridges and Robin Williams deliver the two finest, most layered and soulful performances in Gilliam’s filmography, and real New York locations (including, jaw-droppingly, Grand Central Station) are used in fascinating, beautiful new ways. Few Hollywood films seem as dedicated to exploring and being sympathetic towards personality disorders, making this the near-perfect balance of Terry G’s thematic obsessions: dreams, madness and the fantastical in the everyday. 

Recommended for you: Paul Verhoeven Films Ranked

Has Terry Gilliam just been really stubborn or seriously unlucky in his film career? Funding, mortality, even the weather always seems to be against him. Who knows whether Terry Gilliam will get another of his impossible projects off the ground? What he has made over almost 50 years couldn’t have been crafted by anyone else, or at least not if you wanted a body of work as rebellious and fascinatingly imperfect as it is.

Which Terry Gilliam movie do you enjoy the most? Would you like to see the famed filmmaker direct one of your favourite texts? Let us know in the comments below, and be sure to follow @thefilmagazine on Facebook and X (Twitter) for more insightful movie lists.

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