Highest-Rated TV Movies of All Time, According to Letterboxd

Ora Sawyers

Letterboxd is a social media app principally designed for film buffs to review movies and keep track of all the titles they watch, but that doesn’t mean it’s exclusively centered on theatrically released films. There are various miniseries that premiered on television as well as TV movies that can be rated and reviewed, with most of the latter being marked as such and therefore excluded from some of the app’s all-time lists, including its Official Top 250 Narrative Feature Films list.


Essentially, TV movies are feature-length titles that are made for television, instead of getting distributed theatrically. They tend to be smaller in scale and often have reduced budgets, but this doesn’t mean they’re less worthy of attention or acclaim, with the greatest TV movies offering comparable experiences to great theatrically released movies. Some of the all-time best – according to Letterboxd users – are ranked below, starting with the great and ending with the greatest.


10 ‘Deadwood: The Movie’ (2019)

Letterboxd Rating: 3.8/5

Deadwood_ The Movie - 2019
Image via HBO

Back when it was airing on HBO, Deadwood was an acclaimed historical drama series with fantastic dialogue and countless memorable characters, but didn’t find quite as much success as some other heavy-hitters on that network. It ran for a respectable three seasons between 2004 and 2006, but found itself canceled abruptly after its third and regrettably final season. For 13 years, it was one of those great shows bemoaned for ending before its time, and prior to it getting a proper finale.

Deadwood: The Movie, as such, was a long time coming, but a welcome feature-length finale for the show that succeeded in providing closure to the most prominent characters living in the titular Old West town. It sacrificed a certain amount of historical accuracy to wrap things up, but such an approach was needed to be an effective send-off that could clock in at under two hours. It’s safe to say those not familiar with Deadwood would be lost watching this, but it’s a must-watch for the show’s fans.

Deadwood

Release Date
May 31, 2019

Director
Daniel Minahan

Rating
R

Runtime
110

Main Genre
Western

Watch on Max

9 ‘Meantime’ (1983)

Letterboxd Rating: 3.8/5

Meantime -1
Image via Channel 4

Mike Leigh’s a well-regarded British filmmaker who found success making feature films in the early 1990s and beyond, but he got his start making short films and TV movies. Of these earlier titles in his filmography, Meantime is perhaps his most celebrated, and was a TV movie that showed his directorial style and unique blending of comedy and drama feeling more well-defined than it ever had before.

It stars several actors who found breakout success in subsequent years – including Tim Roth, Gary Oldman, and Alfred Molina – and focuses on a working-class family struggling to get by during the divisive Premiership of Margaret Thatcher. Leigh specializes in highlighting the lives of people who don’t often get to be front-and-center in more mainstream movies, and this can be seen in Meantime, which is a sometimes dark, sometimes funny, and sometimes sad TV movie… as one can expect from something by Mike Leigh.

Watch on Criterion

8 ‘Duel’ (1971)

Letterboxd Rating: 3.8/5

duel 19710
Image via Universal Television

If you want to get technical, the first feature film Steven Spielberg ever made was an amateur effort in 1964 called Firelight, though it was apparently only screened once and isn’t available to watch today. He also made several short films before the release of the action-packed TV movie thriller that is Duel, but with a runtime of 74 minutes (or 90 minutes, if you watch the longer version), it’s this 1971 film that stands as his directorial feature film debut.

The premise of Duel is about as simple as set-ups thrillers get, as the protagonist is a lone man driving through the desert who crosses paths with the aggressive driver of a large tanker. Much of the film is like an extended car chase with just two people involved, and there’s a surprising amount of suspense for something so simple, and with such a stripped-back budget. It’s a solid watch, and also holds tremendous value for showing what a very young Spielberg was capable of.

Duel

Release Date
November 13, 1971

Cast
Dennis Weaver , Eddie Firestone , Gene Dynarski , Tim Herbert , Charles Seel , Alexander Lockwood

Rating
PG

Runtime
90 minutes

7 ‘Elephant’ (1989)

Letterboxd Rating: 3.8/5

Elephant - 1989
Image via BBC Northern Ireland

The most well-known film with the title Elephant nowadays is Gus Van Sant’s 2003 Palme d’Or winning film, which tells a bleak story that has parallels to the 1999 Columbine High School massacre. It’s certainly not a direct remake of 1989’s Elephant, a TV movie by Alan Clarke, though it takes a certain amount of inspiration from Clarke’s film, with the earlier Elephant also being an uncompromising and eerily realistic look at a series of brutal and seemingly senseless murders.

There’s essentially no context given for the killings shown in Elephant, and the film – which runs for just 38 minutes but feels a good deal longer – simply shows one disturbingly matter-of-fact murder after another, all presented in a minimalist and uncinematic way. It’s an understandably harrowing and challenging watch, but serves broadly as an effective condemnation of violence, and leaves enough up to each viewer’s perception of the evens to allow for analysis and differing interpretations.

Rent on Amazon

6 ‘Saraband’ (2003)

Letterboxd Rating: 3.9/5

Saraband - 2003
Image via SVT 1

Ingmar Bergman’s career trajectory as a filmmaker stands in contrast to the aforementioned Mike Leigh’s career, as Bergman made a series of acclaimed theatrical releases throughout the first few decades of his time as a director, and more often than not made television productions in his last two to three decades of work. One of these TV movies of Bergman’s was Saraband, which stands as a sequel to his intense romance movie about love breaking down: Scenes from a Marriage.

Interestingly, Scenes from a Marriage exists as both a three-hour theatrical release and a significantly longer miniseries cut, though Saraband has just the one cut. It sees the couple from the earlier film reuniting after about 30 years, with the narrative exploring the complex feelings they still have for each other in old age. It feels a little like how a fourth Before movie might feel, if Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke, and Julie Delpy were to make one in say the 2040s, and stands as a well-acted and brutally honest movie about growing both old and apart from someone who once meant a lot to you.

Buy on Apple TV

5 ‘Culloden’ (1964)

Letterboxd Rating: 3.9/5

Culloden 1964
Image via British Broadcasting Corporation

In a runtime that clocks in at just under 70 minutes, Culloden manages to ambitiously work its way into an eclectic range of genres. It’s presented using documentary conventions, and is about the 1746 Battle of Culloden, depicting events as if they were being filmed by a TV news crew of the 1960s. This makes it a gripping war movie alongside being a decidedly serious mockumentary of sorts, with the realistic presentation of the battle also making it a hard-hitting historical drama.

It’s a unique way to look at a historical event, and that novel approach alone makes Culloden worth watching. It covers the titular battle well, and even features mock interviews with various people involved on both sides of the conflict. Culloden is a strange beast of a TV movie, and certainly not perfect, but at the very least, it is fascinating and undoubtedly unique.

4 ‘The War Game’ (1966)

Letterboxd Rating: 4.0/5

the war game0
Image via British Film Institute

Two years after directing Culloden, Peter Watkins made the short but memorable The War Game, another TV movie that had a docudrama/mockumentary approach to its main subject. However, while Culloden did this to unpack an event from the past, The War Game looks to what could be a bleak future, being all about the effects that a devastating nuclear attack might have on Britain.

Though The War Game was made for TV, it was deemed too shocking – or perhaps too effective – for the BBC, and it was banned from being screened on television in Britain until the 1980s. It was screened elsewhere, though, and picked up acclaim for how disturbing, bleak, and effectively anti-war it was. Even when watched today, The War Game still packs a punch, and holds up as one of the most uncompromising war dramas of its era, or perhaps any era, really.

3 ‘Threads’ (1984)

Letterboxd Rating: 4.1/5

Threads - 1984
Image via BBC

For as gripping and devastating as 1966’s The War Game was, it’s arguably a film that walked so that Threads – released almost 20 years later – could run. Threads is significantly longer and even more intense, and aims to be as realistic as possible in its depiction of a world-ending nuclear war. It begins in the days before the attacks start, shows said devastating attacks in shocking detail, and then concludes by imagining a terrifying future world where society has fallen apart entirely.

The idea of such a thing happening is harrowing enough to think about, but seeing it captured with such vivid detail in Threads makes it all even worse. Sure, The War Game is still incredibly unsettling, but Threads is the kind of movie that’s likely to still cause nightmares for even the most hardened of horror buffs, and even those who think it sounds intriguing should still tread carefully.

Watch on Shudder

2 ‘Goodbye, Farewell and Amen’ (1983)

Letterboxd Rating: 4.2/5

Soldiers saluting in the final episode of MASH,
Image via CBS

M*A*S*H ran for an impressive 11 seasons, and was a groundbreaking sitcom (that also worked as a great drama) about surgeons and other medical staff serving during the Korean War. M*A*S*H was as funny and quotable as it was sad and brutally honest about the cost of war, and was populated with plenty of great main and recurring characters. The large cast needed a grand and fittingly climactic send-off after more than a decade on the air, which is just what “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen” offered.

The episode was a feature-length TV movie, and ended up running for two hours (roughly five times longer than the average episode of M*A*S*H). It feels bigger in scope, more emotional, and a good deal more serious than most of the episodes that came before, and it’s widely loved for being a wonderfully bittersweet farewell to a beloved show. Like Deadwood: The Movie, you do have to watch the preceding show to fully appreciate it, but it’s ultimately hard to think of a better way M*A*S*H could’ve ended.

M*A*S*H

Release Date
September 17, 1972

Cast
Alan Alda , Mike Farrell , Loretta Swit , Jamie Farr , Harry Morgan , David Ogden Stiers

Genres
Comedy , Drama , War

Rating
TV-PG

Seasons
11

Watch on Hulu

1 ‘Twin Peaks’ (1989)

Letterboxd Rating: 4.6/5

Twin Peaks 1989
Image via ABC

Now, things get a little complicated when it comes to the highest-rated “TV movie” on Letterboxd. Officially, it’s this extended/alternate pilot of Twin Peaks, the beloved – and weird – show co-created by David Lynch, with a remarkable rating of 4.6/5 from Letterboxd users. As the story goes, there was a chance the pilot of Twin Peaks wouldn’t get picked up, and so this alternate version of the pilot episode was made in the event that happened. It has an extra few scenes added on to the end of the regular pilot (itself a double-length episode), with these scenes hastily – and somewhat awkwardly – resolving the mystery of who killed Laura Palmer.

All the things that make the pilot episode great are still intact, and it’s only the understandably rushed ending that feels a bit silly. So, as a standalone “what could have been” for Twin Peaks, this alternate movie-length pilot – simply called Twin Peaks on Letterboxd – is still compelling and worth seeking out for the show’s fans. However, the high rating likely comes from Letterboxd users using this title to rate the first two seasons of Twin Peaks as a whole, as there’s a good argument to be made that the show’s first two seasons are worthy of 4.5/5 and perhaps even 5/5 ratings. But as for this extended pilot? It’s unlikely people rating it for what it is would result in a 4.6/5.

Twin Peaks

Release Date
April 8, 1990

Genres
Crime , Drama , Fantasy , Horror

Seasons
3

Watch on Paramount+

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