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10 best HBO movies ever, ranked

Barry Pepper in 61*.
HBO

HBO was founded in 1972, and it quickly became the premium cable network of choice for fans who wanted to see Hollywood’s best movies from the comfort of their own home. It wasn’t until 1983 that HBO began making its own original movies. And back then, Home Box Office wasn’t just a name or a brand — it was a promise that HBO’s original programing would be several cuts above traditional made-for-TV films.

For decades, HBO has attracted top-tier actors and actresses, as well as established directors, to deliver feature-film quality content that, in many cases, should have gotten theatrical releases. Although HBO has largely pulled back from making new original movies in the streaming era of Max, many of the network’s top films from the past are still readily available to watch. To help keep these fantastic films in the public eye, we’ve put together a list of the 10 best HBO movies, which you can find below.

10. Behind The Candelabra (2013)

Michael Douglas and Matt Damon in Behind the Candelabra.
HBO

Picture if you will a movie about gay icon Liberace, with Michael Douglas as the famous pianist and Matt Damon as Liberace’s lover, Scott Thorson. The film in question was also helmed by one the best directors of his generation: Steven Soderbergh. So how is it that Behind the Candelabra couldn’t get a theatrical release in the United States? Because, with few exceptions, films with LGBTQ+ themes haven’t fully crossed into the mainstream. It would still be an uphill battle to get this movie made in 2024, much less 2013.

HBO gave this film the home and the stage that it needed to explore the last decade of Liberace’s life, as well as his complex relationship with Thorson. Liberace seemingly adored Thorson, but he also wanted to control his life and remake him in his image … sometimes literally! In the decades before gay marriage, there was no official divorce for two gay lovers. That didn’t stop Thorson from airing his dirty laundry in public after his relationship with Liberace was fractured.

Watch Behind the Candelabra on Max.

9. Live from Baghdad (2002)

Helena Bonham Carter and Michael Keaton in Live from Baghadad.
HBO

In The Tempest, William Shakespeare wrote “what’s past is prologue.” It’s hard not to think of that quote when considering Live from Baghdad, a drama that is set during the first Gulf War and made its debut on HBO just as the second Gulf War was beginning to get underway. Michael Keaton and Helena Bonham Carter co-headline the film as CNN producer Robert Wiener and his associate, Ingrid Formanek, respectively.

During the buildup to the war, CNN’s team is the only American news outlet allowed in Baghdad. Wiener attempts to build a working relationship with the Iraqi Minister of Information, Naji Al-Hadithi (David Suchet), in order to get the scoop of a lifetime. But even Wiener’s attempts to act without violating Iraq’s purview can only go on for so long before Iraq curtails their access to the outside world.

Live from Baghdad is not available to stream or rent.

8. Iron Jawed Angels (2004)

Hilary Swank in Iron Jawed Angels.
HBO

Women have only had the right to vote in the U.S. for 104 years. And there aren’t a lot of dramatized retellings of the women in the suffragist movement who fought to make that happen. Not long before her second Oscar win for Best Actress, Hilary Swank starred in HBO’s Iron Jawed Angels as Alice Paul, one of the leading voices among the suffragists.

Paul and Lucy Burns (Frances O’Connor) are so confrontational with the men in power that they seem extreme even to other suffragists like Carrie Chapman Catt (Anjelica Huston). When Paul, Burns, and the rest of their followers prove to be too disruptive, they are imprisoned and subjected to horrific abuse during their hunger strike. Regardless of their fate, the suffragists refuse to back down.

Watch Iron Jawed Angels on Max.

7. You Don’t Know Jack (2010)

Al Pacino in You Don't Know Jack.
HBO

Al Pacino has starred in three HBO original movies, and You Don’t Know Jack is the best of the three. Pacino portrays Dr. Jack Kevorkian, one of the leading advocates for assisted suicide in the late ‘1900s and ’90s. Rather than hide his activities, Kevorkian goes public with his assisted suicide device, the Thanatron, which allows patients to press the buttons that will end their own lives.

Despite attempts to prosecute Kevorkian, he manages to avoid serious charges until he shares footage of one of his dying patients on national television. Attorney Geoffrey Fieger (Danny Huston) leads the fight to keep Kevorkian out of prison, but even Fieger’s skills may not be enough win over the court of public opinion.

Watch You Don’t Know Jack on Max.

6. The Normal Heart (2014)

Matt Bomer and Mark Ruffalo in The Normal Heart.
HBO

American Horror Story creator Ryan Murphy directed The Normal Heart, which was adapted by Larry Kramer from his play of the same name. The MCU’s Hulk, Mark Ruffalo, stars as Alexander “Ned” Weeks, the openly gay boyfriend of Felix Turner (Matt Bomer) in the early 1980s as the HIV and AIDS pandemic strikes the homosexual community.

Dr. Emma Brookner (Julia Roberts) is one of the few medical practitioners who not only acknowledges the rising number of HIV cases, but also tries to get other doctors to recognize the greater scope of the crisis. Ned also uses his platform to promote awareness, which causes friction with his closeted lover. But as the disease spreads, Ned seems doomed to lose almost everyone he knows in the gay community as they succumb to illness and death.

Watch The Normal Heart on Max.

5. Something the Lord Made (2004)

Alan Rickman and Mos Def in Something the Lord Made.
HBO

To paraphrase critic Richard Roeper’s movie laws, here’s one to keep in mind: If Alan Rickman is in a movie, it’s either a great story or he gives the best performance in the film. Both things are true in HBO’s Something the Lord Made. But Mos Def is right up there with Rickman as he gives a compelling performance as Vivien Thomas, a gifted pioneer in the field of cardiac surgery who was largely denied recognition for his feats because he was Black.

Dr. Alfred Blalock (Rickman) initially disregards Thomas’ skills until the younger man proves to be indispensable. Over the decades, Blalock and Thomas tackle the “Blue Baby Syndrome, “and their innovative work leads to a treatment. However, Blalock takes and accepts most of the credit for the work, leaving Thomas in relative obscurity.

Watch Something the Lord Made on Max.

4. Temple Grandin (2010)

Claire Danes in Temple Grandin.
HBO

One year before the debut of her breakout role in Showtime’s Homeland, Claire Danes demonstrated her range with an Emmy-winning turn in HBO’s biographical drama, Temple Grandin. Danes portrays the title character, a woman who struggles with autism in the mid-20th century, when it was not widely understood.

Temple’s mother, Eustacia Cutler (Julia Ormond), does everything that she can to provide Temple with a normal life. While working for her family’s cattle ranch, Temple comes up with a way to comfort the livestock and humanely lead them to slaughter. But getting anyone to seriously consider Temple’s ideas is a fight in and of itself.

Watch Temple Grandin on Max.

3. Deadwood: The Movie (2019)

Ian McShane in Deadwood: The Movie.
HBO

Words can’t adequately describe how bleeping excited we were to see Deadwood get some closure a mere 13 years after it prematurely came to an end in 2006. Series creator David Milch gave the show’s numerous expletive-laced soliloquies a Shakespearean-like quality, especially when delivered by John Wick‘s Ian McShane, who portrayed Al Swearengen.

Ten years after the third season finale, Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant), Alma Ellsworth (Molly Parker), Trixie (Paula Malcomson), and more descend upon Deadwood as South Dakota celebrates statehood. Swearengen’s power may not be what it was a decade earlier, but he’s not one to quietly slip away into the night as civilization takes hold in the town.

Watch Deadwood: The Movie on Max.

2. 61* (2001)

Barry Pepper and Thomas Jane in 61*.
HBO

Billy Crystal directed the penultimate movie on our list, 61*, which is also one of the all-time great sports films. Crystal even incorporates Mark McGuire’s home run record chase in 1998 before flashing back to the magical 1961 season when the New York Yankees’ Mickey Mantle (Thomas Jane) and Roger Maris (Barry Petter) were both in contention to break the home run mark set by Babe Ruth.

The asterisk in the title is there because MLB stipulated that Ruth’s record wouldn’t really be broken unless Maris or Mantle managed to do it in 154 games, which was the length of the season during Ruth’s era. Amid the attempt to downplay their potential achievement, Maris and Mantle face incredible pressure to beat that mark. But only one of them will set the record for the decades that followed.

Watch 61* on Max.

1. Game Change (2012)

Ed Harris and Julianne Moore in Game Change.
HBO

Game Change turns back the clock to 2008, as John McCain (Ed Harris) struggles to win the Republican nomination for president and excite his base while Barack Obama clears the way for his own historic run for the Democratic party. McCain adviser Steve Schmidt (Woody Harrelson) convinces the senator to find a vice presidential nominee who can counter Obama’s momentum. The name they come up with is Alaskan Governor Sarah Palin (May December‘s Julianne Moore).

Schmidt realizes far too late that he’s created a monster, as Palin’s popularity starts to eclipse McCain’s. Meanwhile, Palin’s willfully ignorant statements make both her and the campaign look bad to independent voters. Palin may no longer be the political force that she was in this film, but her brand of anti-intellectual populism is here to stay. Once she’s out, there’s no getting this genie back in the bottle.

Watch Game Change on Max.

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Blair Marnell
Blair Marnell has been an entertainment journalist for over 15 years. His bylines have appeared in Wizard Magazine, Geek…
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