The Best Made-For-TV Movies of All Time

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).

Brian’s Song

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.”