The moment HBO Max launched, it instantly boasted one of the best streaming libraries of films in the world. It’s certainly the deepest. Not merely content with HBO original programming, the service incorporates an extensive Warner Bros. library of classic films along with a vast selection of Criterion Collection releases and the exclusive streaming rights to Studio Ghibli. Oh, and also all the movies that just happen to be on the actual HBO at the moment.
The truth is that a list of the 100 best movies on HBO Max could consist of just the Criterion releases (with maybe a couple of Ghibli’s), but we have attempted to present a diverse selection. To that end, almost every filmmaker is included only once, but you can consider a recommendation for one Charlie Chaplin or Ingmar Bergman to be a recommendation for all of the ones on the service. For now, we’re leaving out all HBO Originals that aired on the network, although there are great films in that category like The Tale and the recent Bad Education. We’ve also tried to include some current films and will circulate everything in this list to present not a definitive list of the best of an incredibly deep catalogue as much as a snapshot of 100 great movies on HBO Max anytime you’re looking for something to watch. It will be updated monthly.
It’s no exaggeration to say that Stanley Kubrick’s classic sci-fi film changed the language of the genre forever. It has influenced nearly every film set in space to follow and embedded in pop culture a shorthand about distrust of technology that still resonates a half-century later. One of several films on HBO Max that can legitimately be called a masterpiece.
Federico Fellini’s 1963 dramedy is a deeply personal film that became an international success. The great Marcello Mastroianni stars as Guido Anselmi, an Italian director working on a sci-fi film and going through something of a creative crisis. Surreal and moving in equal measure, it won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film and was named one of the ten best films of all time by the BFI.
James Gray directed Brad Pitt in one of the best films of 2019, the story of an astronaut sent to the furthest reaches of space to find his very estranged father. More philosophical and even religious than it is action-packed, this is one of the most visually striking films you could watch on any streaming service, and the kind of movie that everyone will say they loved in a few years, wondering why it wasn’t more popular when it came out.
Rainer Werner Fassbinder died too young, but he left an incredible catalogue of films made in a relatively short span of time. Arguably his most accessible work is this 1974 riff on Douglas Sirk’s great All That Heaven Allows, in which an elderly German woman falls in love with a Moroccan immigrant. It’s delicate, nuanced, and moving.
Science fiction changed forever with the introduction of Ellen Ripley and the rest of the crew of the Nostromo. Critics write all the time about how certain movies play as well as they did when they came out, but this may be more true about Ridley Scott’s game changer than any other classic flick. It kills every single time. Even when you know where the scares are coming from, you still jump.
One of Gene Kelly’s most delightful musicals, this 1951 film was actually based on a 1928 composition by George Gershwin, whose music is the basis for the entire film, including songs “I Got Rhythm,” “Love Is Here to Stay,” and “’S Wonderful.” The most famous sequence is a 17-minute dance number between Kelly and Leslie Caron, making her film debut.
There aren’t a lot of silent films on any of the streaming services, and there aren’t a lot of silent films as influential as Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 masterpiece. It’s the story of a mutiny that occurred in Russian in 1905 on the titular ship, but it’s most remembered for a sequence on the Odessa Steps that would become wildly influential on generations to come. It really is something that every film fan needs to see.
The first two-thirds of Richard Linklater’s masterful romantic trilogy are on HBO Max just waiting to be rediscovered. The story of Jesse and Celine started in 1995’s unexpected delight, a film about two people who fall in love on one crazy night. It continued in 2004’s equally excellent follow-up. The third film isn’t on HBO Max as of now, but you’ll want to pay to rent it after watching these two.
Sofia Coppola wrote and directed this adaptation of the 1966 novel by Thomas P. Cullinan (already adapted once in 1971 starring Clint Eastwood). It’s a gorgeous period piece about the impact of an injured Union Army soldier (Colin Farrell) on a girls school in Virginia in 1864. Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, and Elle Fanning fill out a splendid ensemble.
Movies don’t get funnier than Christopher Guest’s brilliant mockumentary about people obsessed with their canine counterparts. Reuniting with most of his favorite colleagues and friends after the success of Waiting for Guffman, Guest and his ensemble dropped what is quite simply one of the best comedies ever made.
Like a lot of movies on this list, Ladri di Biciclette is considered one of the most influential films of all time. Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 drama is studied early in any film program in the world for a reason. The story of a father and son searching for a stolen bicycle defined the Italian Neorealism movement and was once considered the greatest film of all time in a Sight & Sound poll. It remains devastating and genuine over 70 years after its release.
Two brothers began one of the most important film careers of the modern era with this grisly 1984 noir starring Dan Hedaya and Frances McDormand. See where Joel and Ethan Coen got their start in a clever riff on noir tropes — double crosses! Femme fatales! — all imbued with the brothers’ dark sense of humor and understanding of human nature. It’s one of the most impressive debuts of the ’80s.
Screen violence changed forever with Arthur Penn’s 1967 telling of the story of the famous lovers turned criminals starring Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty. It is often considered one of the films that ushered in the creative era of American filmmaking that would follow in the late ’60s and through the ’70s; what shocked audiences was the film’s ending, something more violent than mainstream film had ever delivered. Anyone who thought this work was designed to glorify murderers wasn’t paying attention.
Paul Thomas Anderson is widely recognized as one of the best living American filmmakers now, but that wasn’t the case before the release of this 1997 masterpiece about life in the Los Angeles porn scene. Mark Wahlberg has never (and likely never will be) better than he is here, anchoring an ensemble that includes equally great work from Julianne Moore and Burt Reynolds. It’s a classic.
Lars von Trier had his worldwide breakthrough with this 1996 drama starring Emily Watson and Stellan Skarsgard. Watson would go on to earn a much-deserved Oscar nomination for her role as a woman whose immobilized husband asks her to have sex with other men. Winner of the Grand Prix at Cannes, it became arguably the most acclaimed of the Dogme 95 movement and a film that has lost none of its power.
Almost every cinematic telling of stories of unrequited love owes a debt to Noël Coward and David Lean’s masterpiece, quite simply one of the best films ever made. Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard star as two people who meet at a train station in England and begin a relationship that can never be because they are both married. The sense of longing and impossible happiness resonates in every moving frame.
One of the best horror movies ever made, Herk Harvey’s 1962 film is an early cult classic, a film made for almost no money that became an influential masterpiece. Candace Hilligoss plays a woman who starts having terrifying visions after surviving a car accident. These visions lead her to an abandoned carnival. You can see this film’s DNA in hundreds of horror movies to follow, but it’s still wonderfully creepy when judged on its own terms.
Maybe you’ve heard of it? There’s a reason Michael Curtiz’s drama is still being quoted and referenced almost 80 years later. See for yourself.
Sure, most people who want to see Citizen Kane have probably seen Citizen Kane by now, but it’s certainly not a film that plays on cable TV as much as some other acknowledged classics. And maybe you’re one of the people who haven’t seen the movie that redefined the form through the vision of Orson Welles? You have no more excuses.
Fernando Meirelles and Katia Lund’s searing crime epic about life in the Cidade de Deus suburb of Rio de Janeiro was, for a movie of its scale, a massive hit, making over $30 million worldwide and landing four Oscar nominations. It’s a vibrant, moving look at a world so dominated by crime that violence is an everyday part of life. It became such a phenomenon over the years that it produced a spin-off TV series and even a follow-up documentary film called City of God – 10 Years Later.
There simply aren’t enough films directed by women in the HBO Max catalogue, partially because it relies so heavily on classic cinema and Criterion releases, two things that have long been very white and very male. So take the chance to explore the career of one of the best directors ever in Agnes Varda, a key member of not just the French New Wave but cinema history from around the world. This is her best film, but you couldn’t go wrong with any of them.
Kevin Smith rocked the indie filmmaking world with his comedy that was shot for almost nothing and became a worldwide hit. Films at the convenience and video stores at which Smith worked in real life with his buddies, no one could have expected that this comedy would still be influencing writers a quarter-century later.
Certain movies find stars at the right point in their career, throwing up their magnetic charisma in all its glory. Such is the case with Stuart Rosenberg’s 1967 hit, which is Exhibit A in why Paul Newman was one of the biggest stars of his generation. Newman plays Luke, a prisoner in a Florida prison camp and the lead in a film that not only delivered one of his best performances but stands as an early entry in the counterculture dramas that would define the late ’60s and ’70s.
Spike Lee directed this filmed version of the highly acclaimed stage show by David Byrne, the former frontman for The Talking Heads. Lee doesn’t just film the show but takes you on stage with the joyous dancers and multi-talented musicians. The result is one of the remarkable concert films ever made and one of the best films of 2020.
Day of the Dead
The brilliant work of George A. Romero is too thinly represented on streaming services, so take the chance to watch this entry, the third film in his Dead series after the breakthrough Night of the Living Dead and masterful Dawn of the Dead. The third film in the series is an examination of how authoritarianism and the military machine might respond to a world-ending crisis. In other words, it’s strangely timely in 2020.
Dead Man Walking
Susan Sarandon won an Oscar (and Sean Penn probably should have) for her work in this examination of the morality of the death penalty, written and directed by her partner Tim Robbins. Sarandon plays the real Sister Helen Prejean, whose life was changed via relationships she formed with prisoners on death row. It’s a searing drama that’s grounded by two incredible performances.
Alfred Hitchcock reportedly made Psycho because he wanted to make a movie that scared him as much as Diabolique. Don’t you owe it to yourself to see a movie that can boast that trivia? The final act of Diabolique is a beauty, anchored by a wonderful horror movie twist that no one saw coming when it was released but has been copied dozens of times since, including by the masters of the form.
It doesn’t have to be Christmas to watch one of the best action movies ever made. It’s hard to believe that John McTiernan and Bruce Willis really comprehended the impact they would have on their genre. The reason it still plays like a current film over three decades later? Because so much of what followed has tried to be it.
Down by Law
Early Jim Jarmusch films that had been included in the Criterion Collection have made their way to HBO Max, including Stranger Than Paradise, Dead Man, and this indie gem. One of the titles that put Jarmusch on the map: this 1986 black-and-white dramedy, starring Tom Waits, John Lurie, and Roberto Benigni in what is basically a jailbreak film but in a way that only the master of droll humor could make.
A Face in the Crowd
If you only know Andy Griffith from his TV work, prepare to be shocked by his 1957 film debut in this Elia Kazan masterpiece. A film that foretold the rise of celebrity culture in politics, this is the story of Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes, a drifter who rises the ladder of fame to become a star on radio and television across the country. It’s a sharp, brilliant piece of work that wasn’t well-received when it came out but has been reappraised as a classic in the years since.
Darren Aronofsky doesn’t make easy, accessible blockbusters. He somehow talks studios into giving him giant budgets and then delivers a nightmare like Black Swan, the fever dream that is Mother!, and the true lunacy of Noah. Perhaps his most underrated film — it’s ostensibly about searching for the Fountain of Youth, but it’s more a vision of what drives humanity: grief and our fear of death. It’s got some of the best visuals you could find on HBO Max and one of Hugh Jackman’s best performances. (Available on 6/1.)
Guides like this are often dominated by serious, high-brow fare, especially with the TCM and WB classic movie catalogs on HBO Max. Sometimes you just want to watch something funny. And Friday is undeniably funny. Chris Tucker broke out in this 1995 comedy about two average dudes who need to find the money to pay back a violent drug dealer on, of course, a Friday. Ice Cube co-stars in a flick that started a franchise and a veritable meme/GIF factory.
Michael Haneke is one of the most daring filmmakers alive, willing to shock viewers to make a point. Perhaps his most divisive film remains this 1997 shocker about a family who are essentially held hostage in their vacation home in Austria. Over the course of the day, the criminals basically torture this family, and through fourth-wall breaks, Haneke interrogates why people would even want to watch something like this, illuminating what art can reveal about the dark side of humanity.
Ridley Scott’s Best Picture-winning epic has become one of the most watched movies of the last twenty years, the kind of film that feels like it’s always playing on cable somewhere. If you’re eager to revisit the story of Maximus, it’s now available whenever you want on HBO Max. It’s still a striking piece of work, a reminder of Scott’s incredible craftsmanship.
Criterion released an amazing boxed set of Toho Godzilla films last year to commemorate spine No. 1,000 in its collection. Several films from that set have made the jump to HBO Max, including the essential original, Godzilla Raids Again, Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla, Godzilla vs. Megalon, and Godzilla, King of the Monsters. It’s time for a marathon!
There are several Charlie Chaplin films filtered through the Criterion Collection and now on HBO Max, including City Lights, Monsieur Verdoux, and Modern Times. Some may disagree, but this 1925 comedy has always felt like the best gateway to the works of a master. It’s a perfect example of how Chaplin could tackle serious subject matter though his comic lens, revealing how much tragedy and comedy were intertwined.
This is the only drama currently on HBO Max by Spike Lee, one of the best living filmmakers, but it’s also one of his most underrated works. Lee draws another phenomenal performance from Denzel Washington, the father of a top-ranked basketball prospect, played by Ray Allen. It’s yet another electric piece of filmmaking from Lee and contains one of Washington’s most underrated performances. (Available on 6/1.)
Terrence Malick spent most of his life, but especially the films in his run since The Tree of Life, building to this 2019 masterpiece, a story that blends his beliefs about faith into the true story of a conscientious objector to World War II who was ultimately killed for refusing to pledge loyalty to the Third Reich. It is an incredibly moving, poetic piece of work about the resilience of true belief and everyone will wonder why it didn’t get more attention when it came out in about a decade.
Stephen Frears directed this adaptation of the beloved 1995 of the same name by Nick Hornby and the result is one of the best films of John Cusack’s career. The actor plays Rob Gordon, a Chicago music store owner who struggles with relationships and responsibility. It’s a smart, funny movie with a fan base that has only grown in the two decades since its release.
Steve James’s 1994 masterpiece is on any respectable list of the best documentaries ever made. Following two young black men from Chicago over years, James chronicles the extraordinary stories that are unfolding in cities and homes around the world in a way that only he can. James is one of our most humanist filmmakers — someone who deeply cares about his subjects — and that compassion shows through in every frame. It’s a documentary that’s more riveting and moving than most fiction.
This is another case on this list where one film represents everything by a master on HBO Max. The service doesn’t have quite the extensive collection of Akira Kurosawa as the Criterion Channel, but there are still a few of the acknowledged classics like Seven Samurai, Rashomon, and this 1952 masterpiece, arguably the Japanese director’s most moving work. Inspired by a Tolstoy novella, it’s the tale of a Tokyo bureaucrat who learns his days are numbered and how he tries to find meaning in the final chapter of his life.
One of the best films ever made, Wong Kar-wai’s 2000 drama is the story of a man (Tony Leung) and a woman (Maggie Cheung) who form a delicate relationship of glances and brief touches but can never fulfill their obvious passion for one another. Set in 1962 Hong Kong, it is a gorgeous film, filled with color and music that tell the story as much as dialogue or action. Filled with longing, cultural imposition, and regret, In the Mood for Love captivates every time you see it. It’s like entering a dream.
The best horror film of 2020 is already on HBO Max in the form of Leigh Whannell’s brilliant reimagining of the H.G. Wells classic. Taking the story of a man who figures out how to become invisible and turning it into a story of possessive, toxic masculinity resulted in an instant classic, a status helped greatly by another incredible performance from Elisabeth Moss.
Brad Bird directed this 1999 animated masterpiece based on the 1968 novel by Ted Hughes. It’s the story of a metal giant that falls from the sky into the average life of a boy named Hogarth Hughes. Filled with great adventure sequences, it’s ultimately about not letting the world define you as a hero or a weapon. That’s up to you.
The movie that ushered in the blockbuster era is often viewed more in terms of how it changed the industry than the fact that it’s, well, perfect. Seriously, you don’t need to change a single frame, line reading, or edit in Jaws, a film that works to raise tension from its very first scene. There’s a reason people are still writing books about Jaws. And they will be for a very long time.
Monster movies would never be the same after this 1933 classic debuted. Remade over and over again, there’s still something so powerful about the original. Sure, it’s lost some of the horrific power it must have had when it first came out, but it’s still a wonderfully creative film, one that completely set the foundation for an entire genre that’s still being made to this day. And it’s not just monster movies. Every film that relies on spectacle owes something to that building-climbing giant gorilla.
If you’re digging into the catalogue of HBO Max, you’ve probably seen Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill. Ever wondered what inspired some of that film’s more notable set pieces, especially the snowy battle with Lucy Liu? Look no further than 1973’s Lady Snowblood and 1974’s Lady Snowblood: Love Song of Vengeance, both available on HBO Max. It’s kind of amazing that films like this, which used to be the exclusive property of midnight shows at small art theaters, will now play in houses and on tablets around the world.
The Lady Vanishes
There’s some early Hitchcock on HBO Max courtesy of Criterion, including The 39 Steps and this comedy-thriller gem, an underrated entry in the master’s filmography. Blending the humor of a road movie with his thriller sensibilities, Hitch tells the story of an old woman who basically disappears on a train, then almost everyone acts as if she was never there. It’s gaslighting long before that became a trendy term.
No one could have anticipated that a 2014 movie about one of the most beloved toys of all time would become a legitimate phenomenon, sparking an entire franchise—the great LEGO Batman Movie and the not-great LEGO Ninjago Movie are also HBO Max—and rekindling love for the toys that spark creation. Clever in unpredictable ways, this is one of the top animated films of its era.
The Lethal Weapon Franchise
It’s impossible not to look at Mel Gibson with a sideglance in 2020 but anyone old enough to remember the ‘80s will tell you that there was a time when he was legitimately one of the biggest stars in the world. One of his most iconic roles was in this 1987 flick, a movie that redefined the buddy action genre forever in a sense and led to multiple sequels. All four films are on HBO Max.
Todd Field co-wrote and directed this powerful adaptation of the novel of the same name by Tom Perrotta (The Leftovers). Some of the familiarity of stories of suburban ennui has allowed this excellent performance piece to be relatively forgotten by history, a true shame since it contains some of the career-best performances from Kate Winslet, Jennifer Connelly, Patrick Wilson, and Jackie Earle Haley.
All six of the films produced from 1972 to 1974 based on the beloved Lone Wolf and Cub manga are sitting on HBO Max waiting for your weekend marathon. These are the stories of a wandering assassin named Ogami and his young son, the “cub” of the title. There have been other TV movies over the years and rumors of a remake in the 2010s, but these are the originals, remastered by Criterion.
Peter Jackson shook the movie world with his trilogy based on the beloved fantasy novels by J.R.R. Tolkien, and all three of the original films (plus the lesser Hobbit ones) are on HBO Max for your marathoning needs. HBO Max is reportedly waiting to add 4K streaming until later this year. These will look incredible then. Let’s hope they’re still on the service.
Fritz Lang’s 1931 masterpiece has lost none of its shocking power, influencing generations of thriller directors for nearly a century of moviemaking. Peter Lorre gives one of his most iconic performances as a serial killer of children in Lang’s first sound film, one that blends the director’s incredible sense of visual language and tension with heart-racing storytelling. In the ’90s, a group of film journalists around the world voted it the best German film of all time.
Paul Thomas Anderson ended the ‘90s with one of its most beloved films, a story of interconnected lives in Los Angeles that solidified that this was a filmmaker who was going to be essential. He took the skill with a large ensemble that he honed on Boogie Nights and applied to a story of lost souls in the City of Angels, drawing performances from Tom Cruise, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Julianne Moore, John C. Reilly, and Jason Robards that stand among their best.
The classic adaptation of the Dashiell Hammett novel was actually the third attempt, but it’s the one everyone remembers. It’s John Huston’s directorial debut, tackling the tale of Sam Spade and Mary Astor with style. Of course, Humphrey Bogart plays Spade, drawn into a competition to obtain a rare statue by a femme fatale played by Mary Astor. Here’s some good trivia about how important this movie is to film history: In 1989, the Library of Congress started selecting films for the National Film Registry. The Maltese Falcon was in the first wave of 25 films included.
Sean Durkin made a huge impact with his first film, a 2011 drama about a woman (Elizabeth Olsen) who escapes a horrible cult in the Catskill Mountains and returns home, paranoid that the followers she fled may be after her. As intense as a thriller, this character piece also includes a stunning performance from John Hawkes.
The wildly influential movies by the Wachowskis jump around the streaming services like Neo and Trinity bouncing between reality and the Matrix. As of this writing, they’ve shuffled over to HBO Max, where you’ll find all three films, waiting for you to rewatch them just in time for the reboot of the series, currently in production. The first movie is even better than you remember. The sequels are about where you probably thought they were the first time.
It sounds cliché, but they really don’t make adult thrillers like this 2007 Oscar winner anymore; stories like this one have basically migrated to Prestige TV. Tony Gilroy wrote and directed the story of a high-powered attorney played by George Clooney, who gets caught up in a dangerous case involving one of his firm’s major clients. Tom Wilkinson, Tilda Swinton, and Sydney Pollack co-star in a film that’s even better than you remember.
Martin Brest directed one of the best ‘80s buddy comedies in this gem of a movie that paired Robert De Niro and Charles Grodin. The Oscar winner plays a bounty hunter assigned to bring back Grodin’s embezzling accountant, who stole money from the Chicago mob. Easier said than done. Grodin and De Niro have perfect comic chemistry.
Three decades ago, Kathy Bates shook the world with her portrayal of toxic fandom — so much so that she rode a wave of support all the way to an Oscar. The great actress plays Annie Wilkes, who ends up kidnapping her favorite author Paul Sheldon (James Caan) in the Rob Reiner classic. Terrifying and unforgettable, it still has great power.
There are romantic dramas and comedies, but there are few films that embrace the concept of love as fearlessly as Baz Luhrmann’s hit 2001 musical. Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman star in a film that repurposes pop hits for a vision of a writer who falls for a dancer and the doomed love affair that follows. Listen, it may be corny, but it’s unabashedly all in on what it’s trying to do, finding the magic in the romantic movie musical in a way that we haven’t really seen since.
Steven Spielberg will always be best remembered for how he shaped the modern blockbuster, but there’s an underreported truth about the impact he has had on historical epics with films like Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, Lincoln, and this, one of the best films of the ‘00s. Munich is the story of Operation Wrath of God, a retaliation by the Israeli government against the PLO after they massacred its athletes at the 1972 Olympics.
There’s not much Eric Rohmer on HBO Max, but this one has come through the Criterion collection to the streaming service. Jean-Louis Trintignant stars in the film that really put Rohmer on the map. The centerpiece of a collection known as “Six Moral Tales,” My Night at Maud’s is the story of a riveting conversation and flirtation between a man and a woman, and how that night changes their lives. It was an international phenomenon, making Rohmer into an art-house hit in major cities, and redefining the terms of how one could make a film that’s so dialogue-heavy so riveting at the same time.
Clint Eastwood found material perfectly suited for his style in Dennis Lehane’s devastating novel about loss and vengeance. The mystery of a murdered girl in a Boston community became one of Eastwood’s biggest critical darlings, winning Oscars for stars Sean Penn and Tim Robbins, and nominations for Best Picture and Best Director.
One of the best films of 2020 is currently airing on HBO and so it’s available to stream on its sister service at the same time. The excellent director Eliza Hittman wrote and directed this nuanced story of a young woman who has to travel to New York City with a friend to get an abortion. Complex and largely apolitical, this is deep cinematic realism, the kind of story that unfolds across the country every day. You won’t forget it.
Movies simply don’t get much better than Alfred Hitchcock’s 1959 thriller starring Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, James Mason, and Martin Landau. Like so many Hitch classics, it’s a tale of mistaken identity, as Grant’s protagonist is chased across the country. The set pieces — like the infamous crop-duster sequence — are well known, but check out the complete picture, a perfectly paced and executed piece of refined filmmaking.
Remember when movies were as joyfully moving as Once? Way back in 2007, which feels even longer ago now than it did at the beginning of 2020, John Carney released this low-budget musical about a busker who falls in love and it became an instant phenomenon, all the way to an Oscar for Best Original Song. It’s still a beloved experience, a movie that produced a Broadway musical based on its lovely story that won eight Tonys, including Best Musical.
A Perfect World
Clint Eastwood released one of the most underrated films of his career in 1993 with this gem about an escaped convict who takes a young boy hostage in his attempt to escape. While that may sound like an action film, Eastwood’s approach is more character-driven, allowing space for Kevin Costner to deliver one of the best performances of his career.
The bulk of the HBO Max catalog and this list consist of bonafide classics courtesy of the Criterion Collection and TCM. This is one of the few modern films that feels like it belongs right in that company. Paul Thomas Anderson directed this story of a fashion designer, played unforgettably by Daniel Day-Lewis, and the twisted relationship that forms between him and a waitress, the wonderful Vicky Krieps.
This 1940 George Cukor classic is the movie that really made Katharine Hepburn a star, but it also features incredibly charismatic performances from Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart opposite her. Hepburn plays a divorced woman who is about to marry again when her ex-husband (Grant) and a reporter (Stewart) complicate things. It’s clever in ways that would redefine the comedy and are still influencing the genre. And the star power is blinding.
After a rough patch in the ’80s, Robert Altman came roaring back with this scathing Hollywood satire from the book by Michael Tolkin. Tim Robbins does his best film work as a studio executive who can’t decide if his biggest problem is at work or the writer sending him death threats. Altman’s skill with improvisational comedy and knowledge of the Hollywood machine blend to make a simply perfect movie, one of the best of the ’90s.
Ridley Scott returned to the world of Alien with this divisive prequel to the saga of Ripley and the iconic H.R. Giger creatures from his landmark original. It’s about a crew on a spaceship who find artifacts of Earth cultures on another planet, and it ultimately leads to a connection with the Alien mythology, although it also stands as its own gorgeous film. Say what you will about the storytelling, Scott is one of our best craftsmen ever.
Another essential Western on HBO Max is this 1959 Howard Hawks film that really defined the structure of “good guys inside and bad guys outside” that so many filmmakers have copied endlessly since (John Carpenter made a career out of it). The sheriff and deputy of Rio Bravo, played by John Wayne and Dean Martin, have to fend off the brothers of their latest acquisition, an infamous gangster in their jail. It’s another one of those fascinating cases of a film that was ignored and even poorly reviewed when it came out that has developed an entirely different reputation. In a Sight & Sound poll, it was named the second-best Western of all time.
Infamous filmmaking pair James Ivory and Ismail Merchant had one of the biggest critical hits of their careers with this 1985 adaptation of the E. M. Forster classic. The cast is simply ludicrous, including Daniel Day-Lewis, Helena Bonham Carter, Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Denholm Elliott, Simon Callow, and Julian Sands. It is a story of a repressed young woman who falls for a free spirit in Edwardian England, and it was a nominee for eight Oscars, including Best Picture.
John Ford and John Wayne took a hard look at the genre that made them household names with this 1956 instant classic. Wayne plays a man who has devoted his life to finding his niece (Natalie Wood), kidnapped during the Texas-Indian Wars. Not only is this arguably Wayne’s best performance, but it digs deeper into the genre than the Western was typically allowed to do, opening it up to new visions by revealing it as something capable of doing more than shoot-outs and horse chases.
HBO Max subscribers could do no wrong by picking any of the Ingmar Bergman films on the service, but this is arguably the best gateway to that world. Even those who have never seen this surreal vision have probably seen clips and images, especially the iconic chess match with Death himself. Max von Sydow is riveting in a film that defined a style of foreign filmmaking for American audiences when it was released.
The true genius of Edgar Wright’s 2004 horror-comedy is that it takes both sides of its clever genre coin completely seriously. Yes, the story of a zombie attack on a small British town is laugh-out-loud hysterical, but this is also a legitimately great horror movie at the same time. It kicked off Wright’s Cornetto trilogy, followed by the also-fantastic Hot Fuzz (also on HBO Max) and The World’s End.
*The Shawshank Redemption
One of the most beloved films of all time, this Stephen King adaptation seems to grow more popular with each passing year. One of the reasons for that is that it’s incredibly rewatchable. If you haven’t seen the story of Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) in a few years, do yourself a favor and revisit. You’ll be moved all over again.
Movies don’t get more delightful than this beloved classic about backstage drama on the advent of the talkie. Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, and Donald O’Connor are as charming as charming can be, and the movie contains some of the best choreography of its era, and not just in the titular number. It’s joyous from front to back. Honestly, you have to be kind of a jerk not to like this movie.
John Ford directed John Wayne in his breakthrough role in this 1939 American classic based on a short story by Ernest Haycox. It’s a deceptively simple script of nine strangers on a stagecoach through Apache territory and the dangers they face on the journey. What’s most notable about now was much it defined the visual language of the entire journey, including shooting in Monument Valley and Wayne’s undeniable swagger.
Elia Kazan directed the most essential version of Tennessee Williams’s Pulitzer Prize winner from 1947. It’s the story of a southern belle on hard times and the trouble she gets into at her sister’s house (and with her brother-in-law), but it’s also just a great example of blinding star power in the form of Vivien Leigh as Blanche and Marlon Brando as Stanley. It’s Brando’s breakthrough film. Movies would never be the same.
Almost all of the Studio Ghibli films are on HBO Max, the now exclusive home to them when it comes to streaming. The truth is that we could devote about 10 percent of this list to Hayao Miyazaki and his colleagues, but we’ll give up some that space and just point you here to the ranking of the entire output of the most important modern animation studio in the world. Start with Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro, and Castle in the Sky. You won’t stop.
The comic book movie has come so far in the last four decades that it may be hard for young viewers to watch this 1978 Richard Donner film through modern eyes, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t try. Donner’s movie has held up incredibly well, thanks in large part to the charismatic Christopher Reeve, who became so identified with Superman that no one has really replaced him since.
Michael Mann’s 1981 crime flick is one of the best directorial debuts of the era, a pronouncement of a major talent and a film that still feels fresh and new. James Caan is fantastic as a safecracker who is trying to leave his life behind. Mann’s refined visual style was there from the very beginning and the score by Tangerine Dream is unforgettable.
The late, great Krzysztof Kieslowski co-wrote and directed three films released in quick succession in the fall and winter of 1993–94. They became instant art-house hits that have only grown in esteem in the quarter-century since their release. Based on the colors of the French flag and what they stand for, Blue, White, and Red, these movies are masterpieces on their own that gain even more power when viewed collectively.
There are a lot more films by Yasujiro Ozu on The Criterion Channel, but the Japanese master’s best film has also made the journey to HBO Max. It’s as essential as movies get, the story of an aging couple who journey to Tokyo to visit their children. It’s ostensibly the story of a generation gap, but it’s the delicacy of the detail and setting work that have defined it. Viewers feel like they’re looking through someone’s window on lives that existed before the film started and go on after the credits roll. There’s a reason it’s in the top ten of almost every list of the best films ever made.
Sometimes a performance feels so dominant that it elevates everything around it. Ethan Hawke is good here too, but most of the rest of Training Day is pretty generic in terms of filmmaking and storytelling. And then there’s Denzel Washington, growling and prowling his way through every scene, and giving one of the most memorable performances of the career of one of the country’s best actors.
John Huston wrote and directed another film of his that would become an instant classic on its release in 1948. It’s an essential adventure drama, the story of three men who are so tired of being down on their luck that they decide to journey into Mexico in search of treasure. Huston’s craftsmanship leads to perfect pacing, and it features one of Humphrey Bogart’s most beloved performances.
At first, the Coen brothers didn’t seem a logical fit for a remake of a beloved John Wayne Western, but they really made this multiple Oscar nominee their own. One of the ways they did that was through directing a fantastic ensemble, led by Jeff Bridges, Hailee Steinfeld, and Matt Damon.
David Lynch came roaring back with Showtime’s Twin Peaks: The Return, but HBO Max has the film that followed the original seasons, this daring prequel to the story of Laura Palmer. With the resurgence of this world, Fire Walk With Me got a bit of an overdue reassessment, and a film considered one of Lynch’s worst when it was released is now widely considered one of his best.
M. Night Shyamalan’s best film remains this story of an unexpected hero, a man who gets into a car crash and discovers that he may not be like most ordinary men. Bruce Willis is great in the lead role, his stoicism balanced by a fun performance from Samuel L. Jackson as his worldly opposite. The long-awaited Glass is also on HBO Max as of this writing.
Jordan Peele followed up his Oscar-winning debut with one of the best horror films of the last few years, a stunning story of doppelgangers and the divided history of this country. Lupita Nyong’o is simply amazing as a woman who discovers the hard way that violent doubles of everyone are coming up from underground to claim their place above it. Visually striking and thematically fascinating, this is one of the best films of 2019.
Can black-and-white horror films from nearly a century ago still have power for modern audiences watching HBO Max on their tablets? We’ll see. Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1932 horror classic contains some of the most striking imagery of its era in the story of a student of the occult who travels to a village in search of a vampire. He regrets it. Vampyr is nearly silent but it contains visuals that you’ll never forget.
Henri-Georges Clouzot is one of the best suspense directors of all time, and his The Wages of Fear has lost none of its power to thrill. The premise alone is perfectly thrilling: Four men take a job driving explosive nitroglycerin over a mountain pass. Every bump could be their last moment on Earth. It’s a model of how to produce tension through narrative and pacing. Watch it and start listing movies that it obviously influenced. It will take all night.
He had to wait for Joker to get his first Oscar, but Joaquin Phoenix arguably should have had one already for his work in this 2005 musical biopic. Phoenix was nominated for playing Johnny Cash, but it was actually Reese Witherspoon who won Academy hearts for playing June Carter in this hit flick. It feels a little routine now in terms of chronological plotting, but the performances still rock.
In 2009, Spike Jonze adapted the Maurice Sendak classic children’s story in a way that only he could. Max Records plays a boy who flees his trouble home to find an island of creatures known as the Wild Things, who make Max their king. A fascinating, beautiful film that works on multiple levels, this is one of the best movies of 2009, a flick that works differently but equally for parents and children.
One of the best movies of the ’80s, Wings of Desire is about longing and what it means to be human. Bruno Ganz, in an unforgettable performance, plays an angel who can hear the thoughts of the denizens of Berlin and decides to give up his immortality to join them. One of the most poetic, lyrical films ever made.
Maybe you’ve heard of it? Seriously, what could possibly be written if you’re on the fence about The Wizard of Oz? Maybe you haven’t seen it since you were a little kid? Revisit the journey of Dorothy over the rainbow if that’s the case and appreciate this wonderful fantasy on a new level.
John Cassavetes’s best film is this 1974 drama that features one of the best performances of all time at its center. Gena Rowlands owns the screen as a woman whose average domestic life starts to come apart at the seams. She’s simply riveting in every scene, finding the truth in her character that other actresses wouldn’t have even considered.