Folded in among today’s DVD releases, presumably overlooked amid your Twilight sequels and Harold and Kumar 3D yuletides and “Shakespeare didn’t write his plays!” screeds, is one of 2011’s best films: The Sunset Limited , written by Cormac McCarthy, directed by Tommy Lee Jones, starring Jones and Samuel L. Jackson. Wait, you might be thinking. (You might be!) What a fine pedigree! What an excellent cast! I would have gone to see that! Did it not play at my local art house or multiplex? No, hypothetical reader, it did not. It was made for HBO, and since Sunset Limited, based on McCarthy’s play, is primarily a two-handed conversation piece about race, class, mortality, and despair, it’s probably not surprising that it found a home on a pay cable network rather than at a Hollywood studio. But this is nothing new; dialogue and intellect-driven efforts like this migrated to television long ago, as studios lost interest in telling small stories.
Since they started airing in the mid-1960s, TV movies have taken risks — either on subject matter or on rising young talent. The results weren’t always commendable; there’s a reason that the phrase “made-for-TV movie” calls up images of Tori Spelling cowering on Lifetime, or broadcast networks airing simultaneous dramatizations of the lurid Amy Fisher story. But between the networks and cable, we’ve seen an assortment of genuinely beguiling television movies; we’ve gathered ten of our favorites after the jump, with plenty of room for yours in the comments. (And, just to keep it simple, we’ve steered clear of miniseries, documentaries, and films like The Believer that were intended for theatrical release but premiered on television instead).
This true story of the friendship between cancer-stricken Wake Forest University football star Brian Piccolo (James Caan) and Chicago Bears Hall of Famer Gale Sayers (Billy Dee Williams) premiered in 1971 on the ABC Movie of the Week. It won three Emmy Awards (for teleplay, supporting actor, and Best Dramatic Program) and even saw a subsequent theatrical release; director Buzz Kulik, having directed one of the best television films of the 1970s, went on to direct one of the worst, 1974’s notoriously dopey Bad Ronald. But Brian’s Song’s legacy cast a long shadow; it was remade in 2001 (with Mekhi Phifer in the Williams role), and until Field of Dreams came along, this was considered the definitive “male weepie.”
The possibility of nuclear war, and the effect of such a conflict, was on everyone’s minds in the early 1980s, particularly as President Reagan bolstered our nuclear arsenal and proposed the controversial “Star Wars” defense initiative. ABC Motion Picture division president Brandon Stoddard, inspired by the edge-of-a-meltdown thriller The China Syndrome, started working on a post-nuclear apocalypse project in 1981, eventually hiring Nicholas Meyer (fresh off of Star Trek II) to direct the film. Shot on location in Kansas and Missouri, The Day After was seen by more than 100 million people during its initial broadcast, where its grim narrative and documentary-style realism prompted a nationwide discussion on nuclear arms that reached all the way to President Reagan and the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
This 1995 made-for-HBO film told the true story of the notorious McMartin preschool trial, where a family-run facility was accused of sexual abuse and Satanic rituals. It is horrifying, repugnant, difficult material, made into a riveting story by director Mick Jackson and writers Abby and Myra Mann — with considerable help from James Woods at his slick, fast-talking best in the role of McMartin defense attorney Danny Davis. Supporting performers are terrific as well: Mercedes Ruehl and Lolita Davidovich for the prosecution, Shirley Knight, Alison Elliott, and (in the very definition of playing against type) E.T.’s Henry Thomas as the McMartins.
Barry Levinson went on a hot streak in the late ’80s, directing Tin Man, Good Morning Vietnam, Rain Man , and others, before veering off into a series of less-than-inspired efforts. Al Pacino’s recent cinematic output has been more profitable but hardly more reputable. This 2010 HBO biopic of Dr. Jack Kevorkian is the best thing either of them has made in years. Though unabashedly sympathetic to its subject and agreeably opinionated on his central cause, You Don’t Know Jack is not a simple film — that wouldn’t do justice to Kevorkian or what he stood for. But it’s not some kind of issue-driven, mouth-piecing, “liberal Hollywood” dirge either. It is a prickly, messy, fast-paced, brutally smart, emotionally exhausting piece of work. No wonder they had to go to HBO to make it.
Nancy Savoca, the astonishingly underrated director of Dogfight and the Sundance winner True Love, co-wrote all three segments of this omnibus HBO film about abortion in America, and directed two of them (the third was directed by Cher, who co-starred). With sections set in 1952, 1974, and 1996, this powerful and heartbreaking drama is thoughtful and angry, firm but fair, and boasts tremendous performances from producer Demi Moore, Sissy Spacek, Cher, CCH Pounder, Jada Pinket Smith, and Anne Heche — who became one of the driving forces behind its equally memorable 2000 sequel (which applied the three-part, time-spanning structure to stories about lesbianism).
Angelina Jolie officially went from “progeny to keep your eye on” to “holy shit, full-on movie star” with this 1998 biopic for HBO (last one, promise) from director Michael Cristofer. As Gia Marie Carangi, a bisexual model and drug addict who died of AIDS at 26, Jolie found the perfect role for her tortured bad-girl sexiness; she’s fierce and unforgettable in the role, which nabbed her a Golden Globe and SAG award. And the copious nudity of not only Jolie but Lost’s Elizabeth Mitchell has given the picture a considerable afterlife on DVD, if you’re one who is interested in such things. (Also, side trivia note: young Gia is portrayed by Mila Kunis. Of course.)
Italian neorealist Roberto Rossellini had directed countless masterpieces — including Paisa, Europa ’51, Journey to Italy, and Rome, Open City — when he held a news conference late in his career to announce “Cinema is dead.” With that, he turned his attention to a series of television films focusing on historical figures, which he attempted to present in a “present tense,” focusing on the minutiae of day-to-day living in historical eras. The best of these was his 1972 film Blaise Pascal, which looked at the life of the philosopher and mathematician who struggled to unify God and science amid widespread religious persecution.
ABC aired this horror film in March of 1975, in which three scary stories by Richard Matheson were brought to life with Karen Black in four different roles. Director Dan Curtis made the film as the pilot episode for a Twilight Zone-style anthology series, and though it wasn’t picked up, Trilogy of Terror became a popular cult item in the years that followed — primarily due to its third segment, “Amelia,” a one-character tour de force in which Black is terrorized by a Zuni fetish doll. It’s a little campy, sure, but it’s also scary as hell, which isn’t a label commonly applied to made-for-TV efforts.
You can slap it on one other mid-70s movie of the week, though: John Newland’s surprisingly effective haunted mansion effort Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, which aired on ABC in October 1973 as their “Wednesday Movie of the Week.” While many made-for-TV movies (then and now) lost control of their ambitions and ended up letting their rough edges show, Newland wisely made his film about atmosphere and tension, minimizing our views of the rather goofy goblin creatures in the fireplace. Young viewers the world over were mesmerized by this creepy little item — among them Guillermo del Toro, who would later produce and co-write a big-screen remake of the picture.
Steven Spielberg had not yet directed a feature film — just some episodic TV work and a segment of the inaugural episode of Night Gallery — when he was handed the job of helming this crackerjack suspense picture, another telefilm adaptation of a Richard Matheson story. Dennis Weaver was cast as David Mann, a motorist on a business trip whose tense encounters with a Peterbilt tanker truck result in a classic battle of man (or Mann) against machine on a California highway. The film so impressed Universal brass that not only was it expanded and distributed to European theaters, but it got Spielberg his next job, directing another road movie: the Goldie Hawn vehicle The Sugarland Express. What’s more, its experiments with unseen horror (the truck’s driver remains a mystery) proved fine practice for Jaws four years later.
Those are just a few of our favorite made-for-TV flicks — what are yours?