The implicit particle filter is a sequential Monte Carlo method for data assimilation that guides the particles to the high-probability regions via a sequence of steps that includes minimizations. We present a new and more general derivation of this approach and extend the method to particle smoothing as well as to data assimilation for perfect models. We show that the minimizations required by implicit particle methods are similar to the ones one encounters in variational data assimilation and explore the connection of implicit particle methods with variational data assimilation. In particular, we argue that existing variational codes can be converted into implicit particle methods at a low cost, often yielding better estimates, that are also equipped with quantitative measures of the uncertainty. A detailed example is presented.