Movies get ranked at the turnstiles by how much money they make. Critics pan or praise them in their reviews. Money and acclaim are two tough masters of the business, but the best movies usually come through on both.
While theatrical movies get all the spotlight, some great TV movies manage to upstage them sometimes. So, let’s enjoy this quite subjective list of the best made for TV movies of all time.
Your tastes will naturally differ, but it still makes these movies worth a watch.
1. Duel (1971)
It’s interesting to watch the early work of filmmakers we consider legends today. Not many know this movie might have been the catalyst for Steven Spielberg’s later successes. Not many even know about this gripping action thriller.
Think of it as a monster movie where the beast is a tailgating Peterbilt 281 semi-truck intent on tormenting the protagonist after he overtakes the truck on the highway.
It’s a simple premise that turns the idea of road rage into a horror cult classic.
2. All Quiet on the Western Front (1979)
Based on Erich Maria Remarque’s critically acclaimed book, the original feature film won an Academy Award in 1930. The made for TV adaptation by Delbert Mann won its share of the plaudits a few decades later.
The classic anti-war drama depicts a young German soldier in World War I who goes through the soul destroying horrors of life on the frontlines and his gradual disillusionment at the waste any conflict brings.
The book is one of the best war novels of all time. The TV movie is a fine adaptation of the classic.
3. The Day After (1983)
There have been many nuclear apocalyptic films since. But none has given it the voice like The Day After. It stoked the fears of mutually assured destruction and the arrival of nuclear winter in the United States when the Cold War was at its peak.
Its bleak documentary-like realism and depressing sobriety made it a TV moment for the eighties. It’s said that advertisers were so startled, that the movie didn’t make money. But it earned record-breaking ratings with viewership touching 100 million eyes and that included the White House.
It is still the highest-rated TV movie. It’s also a reminder that while the dangers of nuclear war may have ebbed slightly, they haven’t gone away.
4. If These Walls Could Talk (1996)
This made for cable movie was a surprise hit and became the highest rated movie in HBO’s history. The movies uses three stories set in different eras to examine abortion issues and how changing mores affect moral decisions down the years.
The movie is educational on one hand, and emotional on the other. But it is a definite must-watch. And it arguably features one of Demi Moore’s best performances.
5. Pirates of Silicon Valley (1999)
Pirates of Silicon Valley is a television movie for geeks and entrepreneurs. It’s the history of Apple and Microsoft in under two hours. The semi-biographical take explores the impact of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs on modern computing.
The movie is a character study and not historically accurate. But it does underline the ruthless business drive it sometimes takes to change the world.
The Steve Jobs biographical film of recent times didn’t come close. But you can watch these Netflix shows made just for geeks anytime.
6. 61* (2001)
It’s time to lighten up and play. And what better way than to sit back and enjoy a sports rivalry that defined baseball. Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle chase Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record of 60 that has stood since 1927. Who gets there first?
The movie is directed by Billy Crystal, and his passion shows through behind the lens. Maybe, it hit a home run for the best non-fiction baseball film of all time. Critics think so. But you decide.
7. Temple Grandin (2010)
Demi Moore might make you cry in If These Walls Could Talk, but Claire Danes’s turn will inspire you in this special story of an autistic girl who becomes a unique advocate for the humane treatment of livestock in America.
The biographical film will change any stereotype on autism. More than that, it is a fantastic lesson on how a big heart can make a dent in the world and how we treat animals for our food.
8. Behind the Candelabra (2013)
Steven Soderbergh’s finely detailed look at the romance between American showman Liberace and a 22-year old Scott Thorson. On screen, you have the brave pairing of Michael Douglas and Matt Damon taking you through their stormy six year relationship.
Liberace was an enigma and Soderbergh takes an intimate look at his highs and lows. But it’s the excellent performances from the two stars that pulls you into this complex story.
9. Deadwood: The Movie (2019)
This Western is a continuation of the TV series which ran for three seasons. On screen, the story resumes ten years after the events of that show. It brings to an end all the unfinished business in the TV series, so watch that first.
But even if you can’t, go ahead and meet Sheriff Seth Bullock and the ultra charismatic Ian McShane as Al Swearengen, the anti-hero at the center of it all in the frontier town of Deadwood.
There’s something to be said about any TV movie that holds a 98% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Perhaps, that’s why fans started wishing for a Season 4 and wondering why it was canceled in the first place.
10. Dolemite Is My Name (2019)
If you enjoy Eddie Murphy then you will laugh along at his magnificent version of comedy and rap pioneer Rudy Ray Moore. And who better to play him than the cop from Beverly Hills.
The movie is crude and rude, but it’s also an inspiring joyride on how you can take on anything if you have the right people around you.
Eddie Murphy lets it rip in his comeback film and it’s a crying shame that it only got a limited release before debuting on Netflix.
Just a Few Favorite TV Flicks
It’s difficult to narrow down so many good TV movies in such a short list. And at the end of the day, they are biased because you will have your own tastes.
But what it can do is to make you search for the one title you may have missed. Maybe, it is streaming somewhere right now or is available on Amazon. Find them and watch them because television and streaming are where the good stories are being told these days.
We earn commission if you purchase items using an affiliate link. We only recommend products we trust. See our affiliate disclosure.