Made-for-TV movies have developed from their Hallmark stereotype in recent years, thanks to the rise of companies such as HBO. Although these films feature lower budgets and smaller casts than larger productions, they offer directors and actors greater freedom – leading them toward more successful results.

Related: Top 10 Best TV Series of All Time, Ranked by Viewers

Despite this shift away from melodrama for sensationalism’s sake, made-for-TV movies remain a viable alternative to seeing stories on screen without spending too much cash or time in cinemas.

10 Highest-Ranked TV Movies on IMDb

  • Duel (1971) – 7.6
  • You Don’t Know Jack (2010) – 7.6
  • Battlestar Galactica: Razor (2007) – 7.6
  • Conspiracy (2001) – 7.6
  • 61* (2001) – 7.7
  • A Christmas Carol (1984) – 7.8
  • The Normal Heart (2014) – 7.9
  • Prayers for Bobby (2009) – 8.0
  • Threads (1984) – 8.0
  • Temple Grandin (2010) – 8.2

10 ‘Duel’ (1971)

Duel (1971)

Genre: Action, Thriller
Director: Steven Spielberg
Stars: Dennis Weaver, Jacqueline Scott, Eddie Firestone, Lou Frizzell
IMDb: 7.6/10 74K | Popularity: 1,865 | Metascore: 81 | Awards: 3 (1 Primetime Emmy Award)

“Duel,” a 1971 suspense thriller from the mind of acclaimed director Steven Spielberg, follows an ordinary businessman (played by Dennis Weaver) as he is relentlessly pursued through the desolate California desert by a mysterious motorist.

Boasting powerful performances and groundbreaking cinematography, this iconic car chase movie has earned two Emmy Award nominations and achieved cult status among fans across all generations for its sheer tension-filled terror – never letting up or getting dull at any point in time. Despite having only been made with a modest budget compared to his later films, it was clear that “Duel” would mark just the beginning of one of cinema’s most renowned filmmakers’ lifelong impact on Hollywood’s hallmarks moments.

[ Watch on Prime Video ]

9 ‘You Don’t Know Jack’ (2010)

You Don't Know Jack (2010)

Genre: Biography, Drama
Director: Barry Levinson
Stars: Al Pacino, Brenda Vaccaro, John Goodman, Deirdre O’Connell
IMDb: 7.6/10 29K | Popularity: 4,783 | Awards: 11 (2 Primetime Emmy Awards)

Directed by Barry Levinson, “You Don’t Know Jack” is an acclaimed biopic starring Al Pacino as the controversial Dr. Jack Kevorkian. Kevorkian was a physician-assisted suicide advocate who sparked debate within public consciousness when he began providing services to people with terminal illnesses and severe disabilities so they could die peacefully rather than experience unnecessary pain while on their deathbeds despite broader opposition to his practices.

Related: 10 Best Biopics of All Time, Ranked by Viewers

The film also stars Danny Huston, Susan Sarandon, and John Goodman based on the book “Between Death And Dying” written by Neal Nicol and Harry Wylie, which went on be nominated for 15 Primetime Emmy Awards, including one won successfully taken home by Pacino himself alongside Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild awards for best performance.

[ Watch on HBO Max ]

8 ‘Battlestar Galactica: Razor’ (2007)

Battlestar Galactica: Razor (2007)

Genre: Action, Drama, Sci-Fi
Director: Félix Enríquez Alcalá
Stars: Edward James Olmos, Mary McDonnell, Katee Sackhoff, Jamie Bamber
IMDb: 7.6/10 24K | Popularity: 4,961 | Awards: 1

The groundbreaking sci-fi show “Battlestar Galactica” was more than just a space opera – its deep thematic explorations of humanity delve far beyond the trappings of special effects. Its executive producers, Ronald D. Moore and David Eick, alongside their co-writers, have arranged this series to peek into questions on religion and our will as human beings to survive in dire times; all these themes give gravity through characters such Admiral William Adama (Edward James Olmos), President Laura Roslin (Mary McDonnell), Cpt. Kara Thrace (Katee Sackhoff) or even Cpt. Lee Adama Jamie Bamber

Related: 10 Best Sci-Fi Movies of All Time, Ranked by Viewers

For fans that specifically want insight from one character is when we look at “Battlestar Galactica: Razor,” which follows Lt. Kendra Shaw (Stephany Jacobsen) & her joining Pegasus under Admiral Helena Cain (Michelle Forbes) during the Cylon attack against the Twelve Colonies, along with some visions for the previous period set within First Cylon War told painfully through flashbacks beneath Apollo’s narration. Both storylines merge, showing what it means eventually to be humane despite dreading circumstances.

[ Watch on YouTube ]

7 ‘Conspiracy’ (2001)

Conspiracy (2001)

Genre: Biography, Drama, History
Director: Frank Pierson
Stars: Clare Bullus, Stanley Tucci, Simon Markey, David Glover
IMDb: 7.6/10 23K | Popularity: 2,623 | Awards: 7 (2 Primetime Emmy Awards)

On January 20th, 1942, several top leaders of Nazi Germany met at a famous location known as the Wannsee Conference. These senior officials discussed how to carry out Adolf Hitler’s vision of eliminating Jews from Europe. Everyone in attendance knew this would later be referred to as “The Final Solution.” To memorialize such an infamous meeting – one that caused immense pain and suffering – 2001 saw HBO and BBC join forces on producing “Conspiracy,” a two-hour movie starring Kenneth Branagh (Reinhard Heydrich), Stanley Tucci (Adolf Eichmann), and Colin Firth (Heinz Hermann Thierack); it premiered on TV around Holocaust Memorial Day.

Related: 10 Best War Movies of All Time, Ranked by Viewers

This film takes viewers through the darker recesses of these characters’ twisted mindsets while explaining why they tolerated such abhorrent ideas behind closed doors at The Gestapo villa located by Berlin’s Wannsee Lake, where so much tragedy was born. For their performances, Branagh & Tucci won Emmy Awards, which cemented a lasting impression concerning our understanding of what happened during those days gone past but never forgotten nor forgiven.

[ Watch on HBO Max ]

6 ’61*’ (2001)

61* (2001)

Genre: Biography, Drama, History
Director: Billy Crystal
Stars: Barry Pepper, Thomas Jane, Anthony Michael Hall, Richard Masur
IMDb: 7.7/10 17K | Popularity: 4,822 | Awards: 4 (2 Primetime Emmy Awards)

Billy Crystal is a world-renowned talent both off and on the screen, but his true love has always been for baseball’s New York Yankees. His own personal tribute to their team came in 2001 with the movie “61*”, an acclaimed HBO made-for-TV sports drama co-starring Thomas Jane & Barry Pepper that focused on Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris’ attempt to beat Babe Ruth’s all-time single-season home run record during one historic summer of 1961.

Related: 10 Best True Story Sports Movies on Disney Plus

Screenwriter Hank Steinberg worked hard alongside Crystal to keep the movie historically accurate – making sure we were shown not only how good the “M&M Boys” were as players; but their flaws too. A real celebration of what makes The Yanks so special.

[ Watch on HBO Max ]

5 ‘A Christmas Carol’ (1984)

A Christmas Carol (1984)

Genre: Drama, Family, Fantasy
Director: Clive Donner
Stars: George C. Scott, Frank Finlay, Angela Pleasence, Edward Woodward
IMDb: 7.8/10 17K

If you haven’t seen this adaptation of “A Christmas Carol,” add it to your must-watch list. Starring the late Oscar winner George C. Scott and a plethora of other Hollywood favorites like Frank Finlay (Oscar-nominated), David Warner (Emmy Winner), and Roger Reece (also Emmy Nominated) – this television movie plays out more as a feature-length period drama due its stars power and slower pacing.

We also get overt Christian iconography that sometimes adds an extra spiritual element – for example, when Jacob Marley’s ghost appears beneath the painting of ‘The Last Supper.’ The exquisite ending scenes with Scott are some of his best work, resulting in him being awarded Primetime Emmy nominations — so don’t miss any minute of it.

[ Watch on STARZ ]

4 ‘The Normal Heart’ (2014)

The Normal Heart (2014)

Genre: Biography, Drama, History
Director: Ryan Murphy
Stars: Mark Ruffalo, Jonathan Groff, Frank De Julio, William DeMeritt
IMDb: 7.9/10 37K | Popularity: 3,568 | Awards: 29 (2 Primetime Emmy Awards)

The Normal Heart, one of the critically acclaimed made-for-TV films by HBO directed by Ryan Murphy, was based on Larry Kramer’s 1985 play. It stars big names such as Mark Ruffalo, Matt Bomer, and Jim Parsons, with Julia Roberts also starring in a significant role. Set in New York City at the start of the HIV/AIDS crisis during the 1980s, it primarily focuses on Ned Weeks (portrayed flawlessly by Mark Ruffalo), who is an activist writer running an HIV advocacy group which often clashed against his closeted boyfriend Felix along with other friends regarding how to serve the gay community best.

Although some critics found fault with Murphy’s direction, this film received acclamation from audiences. The striking screenplay that was penned down undoubtedly boosted its praise further, culminating in an Emmy for Outstanding Television Movie alongside acclaim garnered for terrific portrayals done respectively by Bomer & Ruffallo alike.

[ Watch on HBO Max ]

3 ‘Prayers for Bobby’ (2009)

Prayers for Bobby (2009)

Genre: Biography, Drama, Romance
Director: Russell Mulcahy
Stars: Sigourney Weaver, Henry Czerny, Ryan Kelley, Austin Nichols
IMDb: 8.0/10 17K | Awards: 4 (2 Primetime Emmy Awards)

Based on the 1995 Leroy Aaron book, “Prayers For Bobby” stars Sigourney Weaver as Mary Griffith, a faithful Christian who raises her kids according to the Presbyterian Church’s conservative teachings. When Bobby (Ryan Kelley), Mary’s son, confesses his homosexuality to his older brother, he and their father (Henry Czerny) come to terms with it.

At the same time, Mary believes Bobby can be cured of this “sin” if only she could help him pray harder and take solace in church activities. Bobby complies to gain acceptance from his mother but has grown distant as intolerance towards homosexuals prevails throughout the faith community.

This eventually results in an incredibly depressed young man driven by self-loathing until suicide becomes inevitable, leaving behind a guilt-ridden Mother desperately seeking seemingly impossible answers even though prayers are offered through pastors.

A long, arduous journey thus began, which brought out unexpected support giving new meaning to life and leading her closer understanding of those within the LGBTQ+ community, including her late son.

[ Watch on Lifetime Movie Club ]

2 ‘Threads’ (1984)

Threads (1984)

Genre: Drama, Sci-Fi, Thriller
Director: Mick Jackson
Stars: Karen Meagher, Reece Dinsdale, David Brierly, Rita May
IMDb: 8.0/10 17K | Popularity: 1,603 | Metascore: 92 | Awards: 4 BAFTA Awards

In a small city in England, Sheffield’s working-class population remains oblivious to the political tensions between the Soviet Union and America until one fateful day when they realize their peaceful lives may be forever changed. Ruth (Karen Meagher) and Jimmy (Reece Dinsdale), two young lovers with an unexpected pregnancy, decide to tie the knot despite of coming nuclear attack.

Related: 10 Best Nuke Shows Like the Upcoming ‘Oppenheimer’ Movie

Still, fate has something else for them as fallout from 20 miles away destroys the nearby NATO base and divides them. Amidst this post-apocalyptic landscape, Ruth is alone, struggling against all odds while survival becomes her ultimate goal.

“Threads,” directed by Mick Jackson, displays the long-term consequences of nuclear war on civilization, unlike anything we’ve seen before.

[ Watch on MUBI ]

1 ‘Temple Grandin’ (2010)

Temple Grandin (2010)

Genre: Biography, Drama
Director: Mick Jackson
Stars: Claire Danes, Julia Ormond, David Strathairn, Catherine O’Hara
IMDb: 8.2/10 31K | Popularity: 2,263 | Awards: 34 (7 Primetime Emmy Awards)

The true story of Temple Grandin’s remarkable journey is at the heart of this compelling biopic. Claire Danes delivers an outstanding performance as the autistic scientist who has become renowned for her humane livestock handling expertise.

Despite having difficulty communicating and socializing, Temple visited her aunt Ann’s (Catherine O’Hara) ranch early in life, where she developed an interest in cattle management.

Never giving up despite discouragement from those around her about what can be achieved by someone suffering from autism was paramount to Grandin’s success later on down the line when enrolled in college, notwithstanding prejudice due to mental disorder upon becoming a professor at Colorado State University subsequently winning awards such as PETA recognition towards best practices animal welfare.

She continues to keep fighting today so that others may follow suit.

The film was awarded seven Primetime Emmy Awards and won a total of 34 awards, making it the most decorated on this list of best TV movies.

[ Watch on HBO Max ]

Honorable Mention TV Movies Worth Watching

  • Citizen X (1995) – 7.5
  • Too Big to Fail (2011) – 7.3
  • The Day After (1983) – 7.0
  • Gia (1998) – 6.9

‘Citizen X’ (1995)

Genre: Biography, Crime, Drama
Director: Chris Gerolmo
Stars: Stephen Rea, Donald Sutherland, Max von Sydow, Jeffrey DeMunn
IMDb: 7.5/10 21K | Popularity: 4,306 | Awards: 10 (1 Primetime Emmy Award)

“Citizen X,” starring Stephen Rea and Jeffrey DeMunn, is a harrowing journey into the depths of human despair. The story follows an intrepid forensic specialist, played by Rea, as he battles bureaucracy in pursuit of one of Russia’s most infamous serial killers over 12 years.

Directed with finesse by Chris Gerolmo, “Citizen X” is an emotionally riveting exploration of psychological horror that will leave viewers breathless from its gripping drama to its fine performances. Its expert pacing adds tension and nail-biting suspense driving home why it has become so well-known throughout the genre for over two decades.

[ Watch on HBO Max ]

‘Too Big to Fail’ (2011)

Genre: Biography, Drama, History
Director: Curtis Hanson
Stars: James Woods, John Heard, William Hurt, Erin Dilly
IMDb: 7.3/10 18K | Popularity: 2,505 | Awards: 5 (11 Primetime Emmy Nominations)

Hollywood’s 2010s obsession with capturing the effects of America’s financial crisis was palpable in “Too Big to Fail,” a relevant docu-drama based on Andrew Ross Sorkin’s book. Directed by Curtis Hanson, it features an impressive ensemble cast led by William Hurt as Secretary of Treasury Henry Paulson, who is working hard to tackle the economic meltdown.

Intelligent and literate, this stern yet earnest film shows how powerful people maneuver their way around such high-stakes situations. It rightly earned Hurt an Emmy nomination for his performance depicting someone at crunch time trying desperately to prevent disaster from striking again.

[ Watch on HBO Max ]

‘The Day After’ (1983)

Genre: Drama, Sci-Fi
Director: Nicholas Meyer
Stars: Jason Robards, JoBeth Williams, Steve Guttenberg, John Cullum
IMDb: 7.0/10 17K | Popularity: 1,811 | Awards: 6 (2 Primetime Emmy Awards)

Released in the fall of 1983, “The Day After” was more than just a movie of the week, with over 100 million people tuning in to watch this television film setting record ratings for that time. It impacted its audience immensely and ultimately influenced US policy during the Cold War era. Directed by Nicholas Meyer, it tells the story of Lawrence, Kansas – a small town thrust into conflict as they face a potential nuclear war.

President Ronald Reagan watched “The Day After” one month before release, commenting feeling “greatly depressed,” which changed his outlook on nuclear warfare post-viewing – something he credits greatly with how differently he responded later towards arms negotiations with USSR leaders due to witnessing first-hand what could potentially occur should there be such warfare enacted.

[ Watch on YouTube ]

‘Gia’ (1998)

Genre: Biography, Drama, Romance
Director: Michael Cristofer
Stars: Angelina Jolie, Faye Dunaway, Elizabeth Mitchell, Mercedes Ruehl
IMDb: 6.9/10 47K | Popularity: 1,060 | Awards: 10 (1 Primetime Emmy Award)

Angelina Jolie made a huge splash with her performance in the acclaimed biopic “Gia.” The film follows real-life supermodel Gia Carangi — a beautiful young woman whose career was tragically derailed by drugs and addiction. Alongside Academy Award winner Faye Dunaway as Dutch model Wilhelmina Cooper, Jolie delivers an intense yet emotionally raw portrayal of the talented fashion icon that earned her both Golden Globe and critical acclaim from critics. 

The movie’s themes are timeless: ambition, excess, and sacrifices have been explored countless times. Still, director Michael Cristofer crafts it into something special due to his steady direction and Terrence Blanchard’s memorable score – making this well worth watching again if you haven’t seen it already.

[ Watch on HBO Max ]


Jimmy P

Senior Editor, BuddyTV