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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.
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 the most unexpected Best Picture winners, Argo tells the story of Tony Mendez, a CIA operative who staged a fake film production to rescue hostages from Tehran. Ben Affleck directed and stars as Mendez in a tense, old-fashioned thriller that became a bit of a punchline when people didn’t think it deserved its Oscar (which often happens) but seems overdue for a reappraisal. It’s an effective, taut piece of filmmaking.
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.
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, which is also on HBO Max, 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.
Ridley Scott’s 1982 sci-fi epic was notoriously derided when it was released, but it would go on to change the cinematic landscape. This is the final cut edition of the film, the 2007 version that removes the voice-over, re-inserts the unicorn, and takes out the original happy ending. It’s the essential edition.
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. Often considered one of the films that ushered in the creative era of filmmaking that would follow in the late ‘60s and through the ‘70s, what really shocked audiences was the film’s ending, something more violent than mainstream film had ever really delivered. Anyone who thinks this work was designed to glorify murderers wasn’t paying attention.
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.
It’s been a half-century since Stanley Kubrick made one of the most controversial films of its era with his adaptation of the 1962 Anthony Burgess novel of the same name. It’s lost none of its power, capturing a vision of a violent dystopian future in a way that thousands have tried to copy over the decades since, but no one has really matched.
Christopher Nolan’s landmark superhero sequel is over a decade old now and its influence shows no signs of diminishing. If anything, the story of the Batman, the Joker, and Two-Face feels more relevant today than it did when it was released. Most of all, the movie’s breakneck momentum and unforgettable performance from Heath Ledger haven’t aged a day. The entire trilogy, including Batman Begins and The Dark Knight Rises, are currently on HBO Max.
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.
After winning so many Oscars, including Best Picture, Martin Scorsese’s gangster epic became something of a target (Academy Awards will do that), but it’s a way better film than its recent reputation. Once again, Scorsese paces this thing like a runaway train, and he straps his incredible cast to it, drawing two of the best performances in the careers of Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon.
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.
Any list of the best performances of all time that doesn’t include Al Pacino’s work in this 1975 masterpiece is simply incorrect. Pacino plays Sonny Wortzik, a New Yorker who tries to rob a bank with his buddy Sal (John Cazale). Sidney Lumet directs a film that’s alternately as tense as any thriller and as illuminating as any character study.
Few musicians were bigger than life more than Jim Morrison, and filmmaker Oliver Stone captures that sense of immortality in his 1991 biopic about one of the most famous rock bands of all time. Val Kilmer rocks as Morrison, but it’s really Stone’s psychedelic approach to a traditionally stale genre than elevates this film.
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 Christopher Nolan film dropping on a streaming service is always a big deal and the current exclusive home for the beloved auteur’s 2017 war film is HBO Max. Nolan tells the story of the evacuation of Dunkirk during World War II from three perspectives: land, sea, and air. Say what you will about the film, it is a stunning technical achievement.
The horror genre changed forever when William Friedkin agreed to direct the 1973 adaptation of the novel of the same name by William Peter Blatty. It’s the simple story of a possessed 12-year-old named Regan (Linda Blair) but the way this film tapped into universal fears about evil and the occult made it into more than just a scary movie. It changed the landscape in a way that’s still being felt today.
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.
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.
James Dean only starred in three films, Oscar-nominated for two of them, before his untimely death; this was his last. He stars alongside fellow legends Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson in an adaptation of Edna Ferber’s 1952 novel, an epic examination of the family of a Texas cattle rancher.
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.
Few films have impacted the culture as much as Mike Nichols’s 1967 dramedy based on the Charles Webb novel of the same name. It really was one of the first films in a wave of artistic expression that would make the late ‘60s and ‘70s one of the richest times in American film history. Dustin Hoffman stars as a recent college graduate looking for direction in his life in this sharp, clever comedy that spoke to an entire generation of young people looking for how to change the world.
The reason that Joe Dante’s film became such a phenomenon, and the reason it holds up so well 35 years later, is that the super-talented director knew how to balance both the comedy and horror in his story of Gizmo, Stripe, and the rest of the Gremlins. It’s a family movie, action movie, comedy, and horror movie all rolled into one.
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.)
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.
Last year marked the tenth anniversary of one of Christopher Nolan’s best films, the story of a team of agents who can infiltrate dreams, led by Leonardo DiCaprio. It’s part heist movie, part Bond movie, and 100 percent something that only the director of The Prestige and Tenet could possibly make.
Is this the most divisive movie of Paul Thomas Anderson’s career? Watch it for yourself and see on which side of the debate you fall. Joaquin Phoenix rocks as Larry “Doc” Sportello in P.T.A.’s adaptation of the great Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel of the same name. Doc is a private investigator in 1970 who gets caught up in the criminal underworld in Los Angeles, but that might make this sound like more of a traditional thriller or noir than it really is.
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.
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.
Daniel Kaluuya is widely predicted to win the next Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, and because of the new deal between Warner Bros. and HBO Max, people can watch his searing, intense performance from their own homes, even while the film itself is still in theaters. Kaluuya plays Fred Hampton, a leader in the Black Panthers who was murdered by the FBI, who were assisted by an inside man, played by LaKeith Stanfield.
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.
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.
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.
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.
One of the best action films of all time has rarely been on streaming services, but it currently sits right there on HBO Max. No one knew what would result in George Miller returning to the world of Max Rockatansky in 2015, but the master filmmaker delivered one of the most acclaimed films of the decade.
The biopic is almost always a stale, by-the-numbers genre, but then you get movies like Spike Lee’s story of the life of Malcolm X that make the entire genre worthwhile. This movie is a powerful force of nature, diven by one of Denzel Washington’s career-best performances and Lee’s most ambitious filmmaking. It’s a masterpiece that plays with renewed power after the events of 2020 (and could be a nice partner with Amazon Prime’s One Night in Miami, which also features Malcolm X).
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.
One of the biggest movie stories of the pandemic was the announcement that Matrix: Resurrections, the reboot of the action franchise starring Keanu Reeves, would premiere on HBO Max the same day it launched in theaters. As if to prepare people for that exciting day, the company has returned the original trilogy to their streaming service. Do your research and count the days till Neo’s return.
It sounds cliché, but they really don’t make adult thrillers like this 2007 Oscar winner anymore as 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.
Arguably the best movie of the ‘00s, David Lynch’s masterpiece is a dreamlike tale of sex and horror in modern Los Angeles. Naomi Watts plays Betty Elms, a woman who arrives in the city of angels and meets a brunette (Laura Harring) who has lost her memory. Explaining what Mulholland Dr. is “about” in a brief paragraph cannot possibly convey why it’s an essential modern film. It’s a mood piece, containing some of the most striking, unforgettable imagery of Lynch’s notable career.
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.
Joel and Ethan Coen’s adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s crime novel is one of their best movies, and won them three Oscars — Directing, Writing, and Best Picture. If you haven’t seen it since 2007, you may be surprised at how well it’s held up. The exact same film could be released today and it would have the same cultural impact.
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.
Get the tissues ready for Rachel McAdams and Ryan Gosling’s 2004 breakthrough romantic drama, a movie that was so successful that it led to roughly a dozen inferior films that tried to find the same blend of doomed love. Nick Cassavetes directed the genetically blessed stars in this story of unpermitted love in the ‘40s, a movie so unapologetically romantic that its cheese factor doesn’t matter anymore. It helps that Gosling, McAdams, Gena Rowlands, and James Garner are about as likable as stars can be.
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.
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.
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.
There are certain tentpoles of American film history that changed the form forever, and this is undeniably one. Heck, we’re still getting Tarantino riffs over twenty years later, as everyone wants to make a movie as effortlessly cool as his masterpiece. What more could possibly be written about Pulp Fiction? You know you love this and want to see it again. Now you can!
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.
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.
Few film debuts have been as momentous as that of Billy Bob Thornton, who wrote, directed, and starred in this 1996 drama that became a critical darling and eventual hit. The story of a mentally disabled man who is being released from a mental hospital he has lived in most of his life struck a chord with viewers, earning Thornton an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. The mannerisms of Thornton’s Karl kind of became an easy impersonation, but this is a tender, nuanced character study that deserves appreciation beyond that.
How about a different kind of marathon than Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings? On HBO Max, you can watch three of the four iterations of A Star is Born — the ones from 1954, 1976, and 2018. Why do they keep telling this story over and over again? And which one is the best version? Watch them all and figure it out yourself.
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.
All mockumentaries owe a massive debt to Rob Reiner’s directorial debut in this 1984 classic. Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer made musical and comedy history when they stepped into the leather boots of Spinal Tap, “one of England’s loudest bands.” While a lot of comedies from the ‘80s are sadly dated, this one still lands every single joke.
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.
Arguably the best film about the Gulf War was written and directed by David O. Russell long before he became an Oscar darling. This is the story of four American soldiers — George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube, and Spike Jonze — who attempt to steal some gold during the chaotic period after the end of the Gulf War in 1991. Darkly humorous, riveting, and insightful,
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.
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.
Clint Eastwood’s 1992 Western completely deconstructed a genre that the director/star helped define and earned the filmmaker Oscars for Best Director and Best Picture. It’s a straight-up masterpiece, the story of an aging outlaw dragged back into one more job that will remind him of his own history of violence and that of this country. In Eastwood’s notable career as a filmmaker, it’s arguably still his best work.
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.
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.
There may be a few too many Westerns on this list, but Warner Brothers produced some of the best the genre ever saw, including this Sam Peckinpah entry that redefined movie violence. The 1969 ensemble epic was controversial because of a level of carnage that audiences hadn’t really seen at the time. Peckinpah pulled back the curtain on the artifice of the Western, revealing it for the blood-soaked truth.
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.