HBO is the gold standard when it comes to mature television series, and that’s no different when it comes to their TV movies. There’s still a stigma associated with TV movies in that they’re generally cliched and over-the-top, but HBO changed everything and, more than any other network, reinvented what the TV movie means today.
The celebrated network greenlights screenplays of brilliant and untold stories, hires the industry’s best directors, and casts the biggest movie stars. HBO has hundreds of TV movies dating back decades, but the best of them include continuations of their TV series, heartfelt and tragic biopics, and thrilling detective movies.
10 Deadwood: The Movie (2019) – 7.4
HBO has made a habit out of continuing their TV shows in film format after the series ended. The network did this with Entourage, Sex and the City (twice), and now with The Many Saints of Newark, which is a prequel to The Sopranos. But the most successful to date, at least from the fans’ perspective, is Deadwood: The Movie.
There are still many questions fans have after the movie, but for the most part, the film has the best visuals of the entire series, which is saying something considering how beautiful the Western show looked. It saw the whole cast come back, including the major stars, and it gave fans closure, which is all they wanted after the coldness of the show’s finale. Deadwood: The Movie is the most rewarding 110 minutes any fan could have asked for.
9 The Gathering Storm (2002) – 7.5
The Gathering Storm is one of the most accurate depictions of one of the greatest Prime Ministers of the United Kingdom, and one of the very best versions of Churchill in movies and TV. What’s fascinating about The Gathering Storm is that it doesn’t see Churchill lead the country during World War II, but it instead sees him in the years before, as he returns back to government after being exiled.
It’s an account that has rarely been depicted in film or on television, as it isn’t exactly an era that sees him at his most heroic. But that’s what makes The Gathering Storm an original and honest movie about one of the longest-serving politicians in British History.
8 Citizen X (1995) – 7.5
One of the things HBO is best known for is building brutal, criminal stories in thoroughly entertaining ways, and Citizen X is another shining example. The film is based on a true story, and it follows two detectives in the Soviet Union who try to track down a serial killer that murdered over 50 women and children over 12 years.
With the movie having some major star power behind it, as Donald Sutherland plays one of the detectives, the performances are captivating. The portrayal of the characters elevates the procedural drama of it all, which was already completely absorbing, to begin with.
7 You Don’t Know Jack (2010) – 7.6
You Don’t Know Jack is a relatively new entry in HBO’s filmography, and it’s already one of the most beloved. The movie is another biopic that follows a pathologist’s attempt to help terminally ill patients end their lives. The movie is almost completely performance-driven, as the love of this movie is based on Pacino’s portrayal of Jack Kevorkian aka Dr. Death.
Al Pacino moved into comedies in the 2000s, meaning that fans of the actor have to hunt down TV movies like this if they want to see new releases with the actor at the top of his dramatic game. And that’s exactly what fans get here, as the movie won a ton of awards, including the Golden Globe Award for Best Actor for Pacino.
6 Longford (2006) – 7.6
Filmmaker Tom Hooper is best known for his dramatic directorial debut, The King’s Speech, the musical epic Les Misérables, and the interesting 2019 take on Cats. But before any of them, he cut his teeth directing the HBO TV movie, Longford.
As is expected from Hooper, it’s just as melodramatic as anything he’s made, as it follows Lord Longford, who campaigned for the parole of Myra Hindley, a vicious murderer who claims is reformed. It makes viewers question their own beliefs, whether they side with the fact that she should have gotten parole or not, and it remains a great moral debate to this day.
5 Lackawanna Blues (2005) – 7.8
Lackawanna Blues was another major awards contender at the time, and it’s a drama about a boy’s upbringing without his mother. The movie is based on a stage play of the same name, and it follows Ruben Santiago Jr. having to deal with a mentally ill mother and a father out of work.
However, the movie has uplifting undertones and is a celebration of Black communities in New York more than anything else, as it focuses on the help Ruben gets at the boarding house he’s sent to. On top of that, the movie features one of the best acting performances by a musician with Mos Def’s take.
4 And The Band Played On (1993) – 7.8
And the Band Played On is a thoroughly convincing and compelling docudrama about the real-life epidemiologist, Don Francis. The doctor was the one who first investigated the illness that led to the deaths of several gay men, which would go on to become identified as AIDS.
The film courageously tackles a tough subject and does so gracefully, as there’s a perfect balance of well-researched facts and character development. Not only does the movie have a 7.8 on IMDb, but it’s also one of the very rare movies that has a perfect 100% score on Rotten Tomatoes.
3 61* (2001) – 7.8
In what is unusual for HBO, the network created something seemingly ordinary in making a baseball movie, but they still managed to knock it out of the park. There are many great sports movies in the 2010s and earlier, but 61* manages to even compete with the theatrically released films.
The movie follows two famed baseball players, Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle, who compete to beat Babe Ruth’s record of 60 home runs in a single season. It’s full of all the tropes that viewers would expect from a baseball movie, but a comfort food film full of entertainment and heart is sometimes all anyone needs.
2 The Normal Heart (2014) – 7.9
As the 2010s saw a paradigm shift in which movie stars were vying for leading roles in TV shows, TV movies weren’t ignored either. The Normal Heart features a cast that audiences would expect to see on the billing of superhero movies. It stars Mark Ruffalo, Taylor Kitsch, Julia Roberts, and Alfred Molina, among many others.
The Normal Heart is another take on the AIDS crisis of the early ’80s, and it has as much research and profundity put into the script as And the Band Played On. But since the movie has more production value and higher caliber actors, it feels like it could be presented on the big screen more than any other HBO original film, and it’s better than some of Mark Ruffalo’s best theatrical movies.
1 Temple Grandin (2010) – 8.3
It seems as if HBO can dramatize anything and make it edge-of-the-seat entertainment. Temple Grandin is a movie about revolutionary innovations in the humane handling of livestock, and it’s by far the highest-rated HBO original movie according to IMDb.
The movie has more emotional weight than any other, as it sees the titular character, a woman with autism, face sexism in the wake of trying to improve cattle ranches and slaughterhouses. Claire Danes’ performance as Grandin is one of her best, and it helps that the screenplay has a laser focus, forgoing any uninteresting subplots and stepping over any of the cliches that would normally come with a TV movie like this.