Although often written off as second-rate films due to their pension for excessive melodrama and ripping stories from the headlines, made-for-TV movies have been accepted as an acceptable alternative to the cinema in recent years. Along with the emergence of companies such as HBO, the understanding of what a made-for-TV movie have shifted away from its Hallmark stereotype.
With their typically lower budgets and smaller casts, TV movies often don’t get the same level of respect that larger productions do from fans. Because of the freedom and accessibility they provide, however, many prestige directors and actors have chosen the made-for-TV route – leading to successful results.
10/10 ‘Too Big to Fail’ (2011) – 77%
During the start of the 2010s, Hollywood became obsessed with capturing what the financial crisis did to America. While movies such as The Big Short and Margin Call depicted what it was like on the outside, Too Big to Fail showed what the discussion around the financial crisis was inside the government. Based on the book by Andrew Ross Sorkin, Too Big to Fail follows secretary of Treasury Henry Paulson, and his attempt to tackle the economic meltdown.
Directed by Curtis Hanson, the film features an impressive ensemble cast led by William Hurt as Paulson, a role that would get him nominated for an Emmy. Smart, literate, and more serious than some of its thematic counterparts, Too Big to Fail is stern and earnest in its attempt to show how the financial crisis got handled by the people at the top of the food chain.
9/10 ‘The Day After’ (1983) – 83%
While the idea of a television film may be denigrated now, it certainly should not have been in 1983. Watched by more than 100 million people at the time, The Day After set a record as the highest-rated television film in history. Directed by the excellent writer Nicholas Meyer, The Day After follows a small Kansas town who are thrust into the threat of a nuclear war.
Similar in plot to both the 1983 theatrical film Testament, as well as the 1984 made-for-TV film Threads, The Day After had by far the greatest effect on the culture out of all these films. Topically released during the heart of the Cold War, Ronald Reagan saw the film a month before release, commenting that it left him “greatly depressed” and ultimately changed his outlook on Nuclear War.
8/10 ‘You Don’t Know Jack’ (2010) – 83%
Directed by the celebrated Barry Levinson, You Don’t Know Jack features one of the great late-career performances from Al Pacino. Winning Pacino an Emmy for his portrayal, the film covers the career of Jack Kevorkian, a controversial doctor who pioneered physician-assisted suicide and introduced the idea to the public.
In recent years, Levinson has turned his attention to making television films with big stars, based on true stories such as 2017’s The Wizard of Lies with Robert De Niro as Bernie Madoff or last year’s biographical drama The Survivor with Ben Foster. While these were all well received, You Don’t Know Jack is Levinson’s best in recent years as it finely walks the tightrope of the film’s divisive subject.
7/10 ‘Citizen X’ (1995) – 86%
Citizen X is a bleak look at the true determination it took to catch one of Russia’s most infamous serial killers. The film stars Stephen Rea as a forensic specialist who, despite discouragement from the government, pursues an unknown serial killer over the course of 12 years.
Written and directed by Chris Gerolmo, Citizen X includes some of the finest acting of any movie that year, with Rea perfectly forlorn and Jeffrey DeMunn making a startling character actor turn as the murderer Chikatilo. Well-paced and often legitimately dramatic, Citizen X makes for a continuously compelling addition to the serial killer genre.
6/10 ‘The Night Stalker’ (1972) – 88%
Spurring a film and television sequel, The Night Stalker started off as one of ABC’s movies of the week. Scripted by the author Richard Matheson, The Night Stalker follows an investigative journalist who looks into a series of murders that he believes to be committed by real-life vampires.
The Night Stalker was a hit, becoming the highest-rated original TV movie on US television, as well as providing inspiration for later popular shows such as TheX Files. Highly regarded upon release, both the movies and TV show have gained a cult following, and are now considered some of the pioneering works of the supernatural and science fiction genre.
5/10 ‘Duel’ (1971) – 89%
The first professional film by Steven Spielberg started from humble beginnings. Made for a scanty $450 000 compared to Spielberg’s current colossal budgets, Duel follows a businessman on the road who is trailed by a psychopathic truck driver. Originally another ABC Movie of the Week, Duel was only given a theatrical release after its success on the small screen.
Now seen as one of the trailblazers when it comes to special effects and sound design, Duel was only nominated for one Emmy at the time for Best Cinematography. Although Spielberg’s direction was praised, Duel is a fascinating watch now when put into the wider context of Spielberg’s career and the history of TV movies at large.
4/10 ‘Gia’ (1998) – 93%
Receiving acclaim for her role, Gia is the film that put Angelina Jolie on the map. Though she had main roles in the thriller Without Evidence and the Joyce Carol Oates adaptation Foxfire, Gia earned Jolie a Golden Globe and remains her highest critically rated film to this day, according to Rotten Tomatoes. In the film, Jolie plays real-life supermodel Gia Carangi who falls prey to drugs during the height of her career.
Co-starring Faye Dunaway as Dutch model Wilhelmina Cooper, Gia is lifted past the rise and fall movie trope thanks to its performances, steady direction by Michael Cristofer, and searing score from Terrence Blanchard. While its themes of drugs, ambition, and the high life have been covered in many other films, Gia is still a rousing biography put on screen.
3/10 ‘Behind the Candelabra’ (2013) – 94%
Steven Soderbergh is no stranger to experimenting within the medium of filmmaking. It should have come as no surprise when he decided to make Behind the Candelabra, a made-for-cable movie about world-famous pianist Liberace, played by Michael Douglas, and the volatile relationship with his much younger lover Scott Thorson, played by Matt Damon.
Despite its limited release, Soderbergh brings together a grade-A cast for his film that includes – besides Douglas and Damon – Rob Lowe, Dan Aykroyd, and Debbie Reynolds. Douglas and Damon are sensational, both being nominated for an Emmy, with Douglas winning. Nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes, Behind the Candelabra is superbly acted and directed, quietly becoming one of Soderbergh’s most underrated great movies.
2/10 ‘Bad Education’ (2019) – 94%
While made-for-TV movies are often adapted from real-life news stories, few are more fascinating than the one presented in Bad Education. Written by Mike Makowsky and directed by Cory Finley, each one of the most exciting up-and-comers in their respective fields, Bad Education follows a Long Island Super intendant and his assistant who attempt to cover up a scandal involving embezzling their school.
Led by Hugh Jackman in one of the best roles of his career, Bad Education is very funny and well-observed, both in writing and direction. The script is subtle, with Jackman nailing every facial cue and interaction. Makowsky and Finley both have bright futures, making Bad Education a film that is going to be looked back on as a momentous point in their careers as well as one of the most riveting TV movies of the decade.
1/10 ‘And the Band Played On’ (1993) – 100%
Adapted from Randy Shilts’s book of the same name, And the Band Played On is one of the most notable made-for-TV movies of all time. Written by playwright Arnold Schulman, the movie follows an epidemiologist who begins researching a rare virus that would later be known as the AIDS epidemic.
Nominated for 11 Primetime Emmy Awards, And the Band Played On was notable for its subject matter, sprawling cast, and ending that features cameos from the likes of Magic Johnson to Freddie Mercury. Films before and since have covered the AIDS epidemic, including 1989’s Longtime Companion and 2014’s The Normal Heart, but none were as momentous as And the Band Played On.