Sunday, July 7, 2013

Top 10 HBO Films

“It’s not TV. It’s HBO.”

That was HBO’s slogan for nearly 15 in the late ‘90s/early 2000s (they’ve since opted for the bolder, “It’s HBO.”). And, to a degree, it’s a cutesy, but mostly accurate statement. HBO’s television programing has been consistently remarkable for decades, and, occasionally, their made-for-HBO movies highly impress as well. Below are my 10 favorite films made exclusively for HBO – no miniseries, no theatrical releases, straight films. HBO films, that is.

10. Introducing Dorothy Dandridge (1999)
I’ve known Halle Berry could act since her film debut as a crack addict in Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever. Problem is, she took a long time to remind me. Eight years after Jungle Fever, Berry abandoned her film persona as the innocent female sidekick in action flicks (or the innocent female sidekick in comedy films) by playing legendary actress Dorothy Dandridge.  

Dandridge had a hell of a life. In addition to enduring ceaseless racism, she was sexually victimized by a female relative (and her first husband), physically abused by loved ones, neglected, discarded, and on and on. A hell of a life, one that Berry brought to the screen with brutal accuracy.

9. Temple Grandin (2010)
I didn’t realize I loved Temple Grandin until a brief scene of declaration near its conclusion. Long after we know that Temple Grandin is an autistic genius who pioneered humane practices for cattle ranches, Grandin (a perfect Claire Danes) attends an autism conference with her mother (Julia Ormond). They sit in the back of a doctor Q&A, listening attentively to discouraged parents in the crowd. Suddenly, Grandin stands up and proclaims what works best for her as a patient. A parent asks how old Grandin’s child is, she says she has no child, she is the autistic one. The crowd pays attention.

As Grandin explains how her mother guided her to good practices, the camera catches Ormond fighting back tears of pride (tears that won her an Emmy for her role). This scene just kills me. Everytime.  

8. Gia (1998)
As far as I’m concerned, Gia Carangi is the role Angelina Jolie was born to play. A young, beautiful, reckless youth who reached fame early, and met her fate quickly, Gia Carangi lived life on the edge, much like the woman who played her in this film. If there’s a trend that has emerged in this list thus far, it’s that biopic films can be made worthy if the right person is cast in the lead. Gia is certainly no exception.

7. The Laramie Project (2002)
Shortly after Matthew Shepard was found beaten and dead on a rail fence in Laramie, Wyoming, playwright Moisés Kaufman and his theater troupe headed to Laramie to interview people involved in the case. Kaufman formed the interviews into a narrative, and created a compelling play based on the material. A few years later, HBO picked up the idea for a film, resulting in a uniquely honest look at homophobia in middle town America. Indie A-listers fill out the cast of The Laramie Project, but really, the magic of this film is in the noble intentions of its creation. A powerful work of experimental art.

6. Behind the Candelabra (2013)
Steven Soderbergh’s final film as a director tells the hellish and secret life of Liberace. How the man went to great lengths to disguise his homosexuality, how he picked up young men and molded them into his idea of perfection, and how he died emotionally crippled and physically defeated from AIDS. What struck me most about Behind the Candelabra was that it was in no way the flamboyant glitzfest that its marketing material let on. This is a serious film about a seriously confounded man. I only hope its critical and commercial success will motivate Soderbergh to make his retirement brief.

5. Conspiracy (2001)
The Holocaust was an impossibly mortifying event in human existence. No words can do its carnage justice. No image can speak to its true horror. And while many filmmakers have tried to depict its revulsion, director Frank Pierson chose a different angle with his film, Conspiracy. The movie is a dramatic retelling of the Wannsee Conference, in which high-ranking Nazi officials sorted out how to resolve the “Final Solution of the Jewish Question.”

So, essentially, we have a bunch of middle-aged white men planning the slaughter of millions while smoking expensive cigarettes and eating well-prepare food. If I’m making Conspiracy sound any less horrifying than it actually is, do forgive me. This film is fucking terrifying.

4. The Life and Death of Peter Sellers (2004)
Peter Sellers was a weird guy. His wives feared him, his children hated him, and his film characters forever lived with him. Or he lived with them. Point is, by most all accounts, Sellers was a mad, tormented genius, and Geoffrey Rush does a miraculous job recreating him. The film depicts Sellers on the set of his most famous films, while battling self-imposed family strife at home. With a slew of stellar supporting performances (John Lithgow as Blake Edwards, Stanley Tucci as Stanley Kubrick, Charlize Theron as Britt Ekland, and more), this film is a haunting dramatization of a haunted man. The kind of movie you’re not sure you’re supposed to laugh at.

3. 61* (2001)
During the 1961 baseball season, famed Yankees Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle fought to break Babe Ruth’s single season homerun record. Billy Crystal’s dedicated biopic documents the power, fame, and ultimate isolation that accompanies being in the public eye. While I believe both Thomas Jane (as Mantle) and Barry Pepper (as Maris) have delivered better performances as actors, their respective work in 61* is some of the finest acting I’ve seen on HBO. As for the film itself, it remains one of my all time favorite baseball pictures. A worthy ode to the days of yesteryear.

2. Wit (2001)
HBO likes making films about real people who have done memorable things. The eight movies I’ve covered so far speak to that. The final two, however, are original films based on articulate plays, directed by cinematic vets. First up is Mike Nichols’ Wit, which chronicles one woman’s fight with ovarian cancer. The kicker is, there’s no pity to Vivian Bearing’s demeanor. Emma Thompson plays Vivian as a headstrong educator ferociously equipped with the skill the title indicates. As the film progresses, Vivian gets physically sicker, but the movie becomes more oddly humorous. Wit is a film for people who love watching other people talk, and talk well. Thompson, who also adapted the script with Nichols, has arguably never been better.

1. Dinner with Friends (2001)
Apparently, 2001 was a great year for HBO films. Four movies on this list were released that year, the best being Norman Jewison’s Dinner with Friends. The film, based on Donald Margulies’ play, is a handful of extended scenes that accurately depict the hell of marriage. The two couples in Dinner with Friends have lived the highs and lows of married life, and are still scrambling to figure it all out.

Gabe (Dennis Quaid) and Karen (Andie MacDowell) are the seemingly happy ones. The suburban home, kids, dinner parties, love. But behind closed doors, Gabe and Karen are crumbling. Petty disagreements lead to dangerous hypothetical questions, words tangle, feelings are hurt, it never ends. Tom (Greg Kinnear) and Beth (Toni Collette) are the battered ones. They’re miserable, and everyone knows it. They scream, berate, abuse, break up, make up – a vicious cycle of love lost.

As couples, we’re almost certain both Gabe/Karen and Tom/Beth will not be all right. But as individual people, maybe there is still hope. Maybe.

Ten More I Love
Cheaters (2000)
Citizen Cohn (1992)
Grey Gardens (2009)
Hysterical Blindness (2003)
Live From Baghdad (2002)
Normal (2003)
Recount (2008)
The Sunset Limited (2011)
Taking Chance (2009)
Tsunami: The Aftermath (2006)

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40 comments:

  1. That's a great list. I own a used DVD copy of Cheaters that I got at my old used CD/DVD store for a few bucks. All because of my love for Jena Malone. It's one of my favorite HBO films along with Stalin that featured Robert Duvall in the role.

    I love some of those movies that HBO did like Behind the Candelabra, Temple Grandin (especially that scene you mentioned), 61*, Gia, Recount, Live from Baghdad, Citizen Cohn, The Game Changer, and The Life and Death of Peter Sellers.

    I've had HBO since I was a kid and I'm glad they continue to bring in quality stuff. They need to create a new channel called HBO classics for the shows they used to show.

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    1. Ohh I've never seen Stalin, but with your recommendation, I need to be all over it. I bet Duvall is excellent in that role.

      HBO Classics is an ingenious idea. You need to copyright that idea and pitch it to them. I would pay to watch that.

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  2. Over the past few years, I've really started to appreciate HBO more as a network. They really do turn out a lot of quality programming. I haven't seen all on this list, but The Laramie Project strikes me as something I should see. I hope it's on HBO Go. (Another reason to love HBO)

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    1. The Laramie Project is a very good film. Well made, with great intentions. I highly recommend it.

      Sadly, HBO GO is not very big on hosting their older movies. But thankfully, The Laramie Project is one of the few from my list that they currently are showing. Check it out if you get a chance!

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  3. Wit and 61* are such great choices. The acting from Emma Thompson in Wit is one of the best performances in her career. 61* is one of my favorite baseball movies. When I think of Mantle and Maris, I now have visions of Thomas Jane and Barry Pepper.

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    1. I agree with you all the way. The legends of Mantle and Maris are synonymous with Jane and Pepper for me. They did fantastic work there.

      And Wit... Thompson is just perfect.

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  4. It's always nice to see Wit get some love. Great movie, and one that tends to slip people by. Thompson is incredible in that one.

    I haven't seen any other of the films here, but I've found some to add to my watch list. Thanks for that. Keep up the good work!

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    1. Thank YOU for reading and leaving such a nice comment, Emil!

      Glad you're a fan of Wit. I agree, more people should track that one down.

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  5. I saw Dinner With Friends a couple years ago, and enjoyed it, and when I found out it was a book, it wasn't long until I found myself reading. I reviewed both play and movie.
    The Life and Death of Peter Sellers impressed me too, giving me a different understanding of who Peter Sellers was, and yes, Rush's perfomance is outstanding.

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    1. Any fan of Dinner with Friends is a friend of mine. I'd love to read your reviews of the play and the movie. Feel free to link them here!

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    2. Here's the link you requested to review of Dinner with Friends:

      http://moviesandsongs365.blogspot.com/2010/11/movie-of-week-dinner-with-friends-2001.html

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    3. Great stuff man. Thanks for coming back and sharing the link.

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  6. I've seen a few of these. I think Citizen Kohn and Normal would make my top-10 list. Normal was filmed about 5 miles away from where I live. I own a couple of the props, since they had a massive prop sale after filmed wrapped.

    I've shown The Laramie Project in classes.

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    1. I do love Normal, hell of a film. I can't imagine the props that could've been for sale... some interesting options there.

      So cool that you've shown The Laramie Project in classes. That's a a perfect film to show impressionable minds.

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  7. Even though I'm not familiar with all of them, it's a really impressive collection of films on this list. I saw The Laramie Project when it came out, and I was only 12. It really informed me as a person and was the first time that I realized things like that happened and it broke my heart. Really moving film.

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    1. HBO definitely knows how to make a solid flick, no doubt. The Laramie Project is so very moving. Really glad to hear you appreciate that one.

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  8. "It's not HBO, it's just regular-ass TV." - Chappelle's Show.

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    1. Ain't nothin' regular about The Wire.

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    2. It was in reference to Comedy Central being on cable.

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  9. Oh, I love HBO movies. Grey Gardens is in my top 100 of all time and Gia is still my favorite performance from Jolie. I also love You Don't Know Jack - it wasn't perfect but Pacino was fantastic there and the court case was fascinating.

    I LOVE that you mentioned that scene from Temple Grandin. The tears in Ormond's eyes were insanely heartbreaking.

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    1. Grey Gardens was very close to making the cut here. Love the documentary as well. Pacino was great in You Don't Know Jack. Did you see the Phil Spector movie? I thought that was a disaster.

      Ormond is perfect in Temple Grandin!

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    2. I haven't seen Phil Spector yet, it's on my pile of 30 movies to see so eventually I'll get to that :)

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    3. Gotcha. Well, my advice would be to put it at the bottom of the pile ;)

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    4. It is :) I mean I have tons of stuff to watch - The Hunt, which I heard is excellent, Trance - which has great soundtrack, Mobius with Jean Dujardin, Warm Bodies - which seems fun and Pacific Rim, if only I convince someone to go see it with me :)

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    5. The Hunt is miraculous. Loved that film. I can't wait to see Pacific Rim!

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  10. Man, I'm WAY behind on these, as I've only seen The Life and Death of Peter Sellers. Wit, Gia, and Behind the Candelabra are on my watchlist, though. I've never heard of Dinner with Friends, but it looks terrific. Added it to my watchist, and I need to check out the rest of these at some point.

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    1. Dinner with Friends is really a great little film. Like a less flashy Closer. I think you'll like it. And Wit as well!

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  11. I haven't seen ANY of these, but you make a damn good case for em. Many added to watchlist! Cheers mate.

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    1. I hope you like them! Thanks for reading!

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  12. This is a fantastic list! I've never seen Temple Grandin, but I watched that clip you included, and I nearly teared up myself. What a tremendous performance by both women...I remember this film during award season, and I understand why!

    And you're absolutely right to say that Angelina was born to play Gia. That's probably her best work to date.

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    1. Thanks! That's the power of that Temple Grandin scene: you don't even have to watch the movie to let the scene effect you. A great, great moment.

      LOVe Jolie in Gia.

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  13. Damn, guess I need to start watching HBO movies. Haven't seen any of these. I'll have to check and see if they're available on HBO Go -- love that service.

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    1. Only a few are on HBO GO (which I love as well). The Laramie Project, Behind the Candelabra, and Temple Grandin. Still, some good ones there for sure!

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  14. Hey it great seeing you liking 61* so much! Surprising moving and real from Crystal, also makes you think about how the media shapes the way we perceive public figures, as relevant then as it is today. The story of the home run chase is made even more relevant due to the steroids scandal in recent years. It was also the first time I really noticed Barry Pepper and what he brings to the many characters he has played. On that note is there an 'In Character' for him on the docket, would love seeing that one. Even though I probably know what role would top your list, HBO needs to crack out more movies like these nowadays. Behind the Candelabra is their best in years.

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    1. I LOVE Barry Pepper. And I'd love to cover him in In Character. Great call there. He hasn't really been in too much recently though, which is a shame. So many great roles in late '90s-early 2000s.

      Glad to hear you're a 61* fan. A really solid movie there.

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  15. Really solid list here Alex, I'm a bit disappointed in the lack of Gus Van Sant's sort of Cobain flick Last Days but it's not everyone's cup of tea. Still, I should give some of these a watch and rewatches respectively.

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    1. Thanks man. Hey, Last Days was produced by HBO Films, which actually releases movies theatrically, and I didn't count any of those here. I LOVE that film.

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  16. I like to see conspiracy movie. I watch the movie

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