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.
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
Citizen Cohn (1992)
Grey Gardens (2009)
Hysterical Blindness (2003)
Live From Baghdad (2002)
The Sunset Limited (2011)
Taking Chance (2009)
Tsunami: The Aftermath (2006)
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