Rachel Paige
Updated October 03, 2014 11:23 am

The term “made-for-TV movie” gets a bad rap. You say “made-for-TV movie,” and your friends think “whatever is on Lifetime.” But the made-for-TV film genre was not born on Lifetime. The concept of a movie being made for television, and not for distribution in theaters, actually dates back to the 1960s. Back then, a movie was released in theaters and then it could literally be years until you ever saw it again. There were no VHS cassettes, DVDs, VOD, Netflix, YouTube, Vemo, or Apple Movies. There were no movies at all on TV until one day networks, that needed to fill programming slots, started playing movies on Saturday and Sunday nights, which turned out to be a pretty popular idea.

Soon, every station was airing a different movie on the weekends and series like Walt Disney’s World of Color, or NBC Saturday Night At The Movies. were born. Lots of people watched and the networks realized they could make low-budget films and show those instead of recycling already-seen features.. And that’s your made-for-TV history lesson for the day.

In the last 50 years, there have been thousands of made-for-TV movies, not just the hundred or so Lifetime ones you’ve probably seen fifteen times (or, if you prefer, the Hallmark Channel has similar fare). And some of these MFT movies have been truly great, smart film achievements that just happened to be made for television instead of the big screen. Here are just some of the TV movies you should know about, watch, and never forget.

1. Brian’s Song, 1971

Yes, this is a movie about football, but it’s not all about football. It’s the story of Brian Piccolo and Gale Sayers, two best friends and pro football players who have known each other since college. Brian is diagnosed with cancer, and the movie tells the story of how Gale stayed by his side through the entire thing. Considering guys tend to pair this movie with Field of Dreams as a ‘go-to cry’ you can probably figure out how it ends, but it doesn’t make it any less sad.

2. Fifteen and Pregnant, 1998

This movie, starring a very young Kirsten Dunst, premiered way before any sort of MTV TV show took off, so it was pretty radical at the time. The name gives away the whole plot, too: at age 15, Dunst’s Tina gets pregnant, and her conservative mother is none too pleased. The movie’s kind of dated now, but it’s still very entertaining.

3. Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century, 1999

The future looked so cool in 1999! In this Disney Channel Original Movie, we meet Zenon Kar, who is a 13-year-old girl living on a space station in 2049 (you know, 35 years away from right now). After a series of pranks, she is grounded, literally. Her parents send her back to Earth! Once on Earth, she has to thwart a dastardly plot to shut down the orbiting space station. Don’t worry, she saves the day, and the future is safe. This movie spawned two sequels, Zenon: The Zequel and Z3, both just as good as the original. Also, Proto Zoa. Zoom zoom zoom, makes my heart go boom boom boom.

4. Recount, 2008

For something completely different from Zenon, this HBO movie is based on the recount of the 2000 election—you know, that election with all those hanging chads. I might just be a sucker for a good political movie, but this one also boasts a very impressing cast, including: Kevin Spacey, Laura Dern, Denis Leary, and Tom Wilkinson. It won a bunch of Emmys in 2008, too. Maybe not something to turn on for a Sunday afternoon, but if you’re in the market for a totally engrossing story, even though you know how it ends, check this one out.

5. High School Musical, 2006

Say what you want about High School Musical, but without it we wouldn’t have Zac Efron, would we? Sure, you could write it off as a sappy teen musical—considering it’s basically the same plot as Grease—but it’s got so much more to it. It deals with social cliques, it encourages kids to be who they want to be, and it gave us the iconic anthem of “We’re All In This Together.” Plus, again, Zac Efron.

6. Angels in America, 2003

More of a TV mini-series than straight movie (its run time is a whopping 352 minutes), Angels in America deserves a spot here, because it doesn’t just deal with an incredibly important subject matter, it is also a beautiful six-part movie–adapted from the play by the same name. Angels takes place in Manhattan in 1985 at the height of the AIDS. The cast includes Meryl Streep, Al Pacino, Patrick Wilson, Emma Thompson, and Mary-Louise Parker. So carve out 352 minutes from your schedule, and settle in for one of the most epic films you will ever see.

7. Sabrina the Teenage Witch, 1996

Yes yes, we all know the story of Sabrina the Teenage Witch but in this made-for-TV movie, Ryan Reynolds plays her love interest!!! The movie loosely served as the basis for the classic TGIF TV show, with Melissa Joan Hart starring in both.

8. Why I Wore Lipstick to My Mastectomy, 2006

Not all Lifetime movies are aimed at that fluffy-romance spectrum. Why I Wore Lipstick to My Mastectomy stars Sarah Chalke, and is based on a true story. After being diagnosed with breast cancer at age 27, Chalke’s Geralyn has a lot of tough decisions to make, including the fact that she literally just landed her dream job at 20/20. It’s a movie with a heavy subject matter, but it’s also important subject matter.

9. Midnight Bayou, 2009

Ah, here’s what you were looking for. One of those made-for-TV movies. I could try to pitch Midnight Bayou to you in my own words, or I could tell you that it involves a haunted house, civil war ghosts, and Faye Dunaway. Honestly, what more could you want? It’s part of a Nora Roberts movie collection that aired on Lifetime, and also included High Noon (about a crisis negotiator), Northern Lights (about a homicide detective who moves to Alaska) and Tribute (about a former child star haunted by her grandfather). Life was so simple back in 2009.

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