This article is updated frequently as titles leave and enter HBO and HBO Max. *New additions are indicated with an asterisk.
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.
2001: A Space Odyssey
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.
Ali: Fear Eats the Soul
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.
It’s hard to overstate how much this Jean-Pierre Jeunet romantic comedy took over pop culture in 2001, becoming such an international hit that it grossed over $170 million worldwide and was nominated for Best Picture. The delightful Audrey Tautou stars as the title character, a waitress who works to better the lives of those around her but struggles to find her own happiness. (Available on 6/1.)
An American in Paris
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.
Francis Ford Coppola went into the jungles, nearly lost his mind, and came back with a war-movie masterpiece, one of the most quoted and cited combat films ever made. The journey to find Colonel Kurtz plays out like a fever dream, a trip into the violent soul of man. Blending Conrad’s Heart of Darkness with the recent wounds of the Vietnam War, Coppola barely survived production to deliver a movie that deserves to be mentioned with the best Vietnam flicks of all time.
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.
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.
While there has been a great deal of debate over “dated” comedy, Mel Brooks’ spoof of classic Western tropes has survived most of the critical reassessments of it over the years. Even its problematic elements are still fascinating because Brooks comedy writing was so sharp, assisted by Richard Pryor, who was once set to star in this instant classic.
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.
Lawrence Kasdan delivered one of the sexiest noirs of the ’80s with this smash hit starring William Hurt and Kathleen Turner. Inspired by the classic Double Indemnity, it’s the story of a lawyer who begins a torrid affair with the wife of a wealthy businessman and the plans that follow. It launched the careers of both Hurt and Turner and also features great supporting work from Richard Crenna, Ted Danson, and Mickey Rourke.
Bonnie and Clyde
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.
Breaking the Waves
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.
Bob Fosse’s masterpiece is set in Berlin in 1931, as the Nazi Party was gaining prominence. The success of this story of a German cabaret and the people who work there became a cultural phenomenon in 1972, winning Oscars for Liza Minnelli, Joel Grey, and Fosse himself (along with five others). In fact, it holds the record for the most Academy Awards won by a movie that didn’t win Best Picture — that went to The Godfather. (Available on 6/1.)
Carnival of Souls
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.
*Cleo from 5 to 7
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.
Cool Hand Luke
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.
Guillermo Del Toro’s gothic horror film seemed to start building a cult following the instant it was released. Sure, mainstream audiences who came to the multiplex in October looking for a scary movie didn’t quite respond to it, but a reappreciation started quickly. After all, this is a gorgeous, unforgettable piece of craft, a reminder that Del Toro’s vision is unlike anyone else’s. Watch it again. It’s one of those movies everyone is going to claim they loved from the very beginning.
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.
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.
East of Eden
Other than some uncredited very minor roles, James Dean only made three movies in his short career, and the entire trilogy is available on HBO Max. So consider this a stand-in for all three movies. Giant may be the one that got him an Oscar nomination and Rebel Without a Cause may be the one that changed culture forever, but this was his breakthrough, a glorious adaptation of the John Steinbeck classic by Elia Kazan. It’s a masterpiece made all the more poignant by the fact that it was the only starring role of Dean’s released in his lifetime.
As iconic as horror movies get, this is often listed as one of the best of all time. It really broke through the genre ceiling, becoming a cultural phenomenon for people who don’t even watch horror movies. Why? It tapped into something that crosses all demographics — a fear that religion won’t save our children from the true evil waiting to take them.
A Fish Called Wanda
Movies simply don’t get much funnier than this Oscar winner starring John Cleese, Jamie Lee Curtis, Kevin Kline, and Michael Palin. The story of a jewel robbery gone very wrong, the barrister who gets involved, and the fish that gets caught in the middle is regularly included on any shortlist of the funniest movies ever made. You know how the Academy Awards never include comedy performances? This one won an Oscar for Kevin Kline, who is simply impossible to deny.
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.)
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.
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!
The Gold Rush
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.
Good Will Hunting
In 1997, two old friends named Ben Affleck and Matt Damon saw their dreams come true in the form of a drama that would turn both of them into household names and win them Oscars for Best Original Screenplay. Damon stars as Will Hunting, a janitor who has not lived up to his intellectual potential, but what really makes this movie still effective is its emotional foundation. A lot of that comes courtesy of a therapist played by Robin Williams, who won an Oscar for his work.
Harold and Maude
Hal Ashby’s 1971 comedy about a relationship that forms between a suicidal youth and a rambunctious elderly woman became a massive hit but not until years after its release. When it came out in theaters, most critics hated it and most audiences avoided it. Rereleases and VHS helped propel this film into the history books, often ranked on lists of the funniest movies ever made.
*The Hate U Give
After the social unrest in May 2020, a number of outlets posted lists of recent films that addressed problems of police brutality and racial inequity. It was nice to see this film on almost all of them. When it was released in 2018, it didn’t get the attention it deserves, but people are already coming around to it, especially a performance from Russell Hornsby that should have been nominated for an Oscar.
He Got Game
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.)
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.
In the Mood for Love
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 Iron Giant
Before The Incredibles, Brad Bird made a different kind of superhero movie, a 1999 masterpiece that pays homage to Americana and entertainment from generations before while also remaining somehow timeless. The story of a boy who finds a literal giant robot in the woods has only gained popularity and power in the two decades since it was released. It’s a perfect movie. (Available on 6/1.)
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.
Lone Wolf and Cub
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.
The Lord of the Rings
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.
*Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior
Mad Max was fun, and it helped put both Mel Gibson and George Miller on the map, but it was the 1981 sequel, often just called The Road Warrior that blew the roof off. With some of the best car sequences of all time, this was a game-changer, a film that felt completely fresh and new, while also paying homage to classic tropes of the Western. Movies would never be the same.
Steven Soderbergh’s film became something of a hit because of its subject matter and the chiseled bodies on display in it, but it’s a smarter, more daring film than its reputation might lead people to believe. It’s really an early commentary on the gig economy, about how people have to scramble and do whatever it takes to make ends meet. And it features great performances from top to thonged bottom, including one of the best in the career of Matthew McConaughey. (Available on 6/1.)
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 Maltese Falcon
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 Bogrt 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.
McCabe and Mrs. Miller
Robert Altman referred to his beloved 1971 film as an “anti-Western” because it so completely pushes back against the norms and expectation of the genre. It’s fascinating now to watch Altman’s improvisational style blend with the blinding star power of Warren Beatty and Julie Christie, who earned an Oscar nomination for her work here. (Available on 6/1.)
Whit Stillman made his directorial and screenwriting debut with this clever 1990 film about a group of rich kids in Manhattan. It’s a simple movie that’s more reliant on witty dialogue and texture of its setting than narrative, but it’s an incredibly smart film too. It’s so clever that it earned Stillman an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay.
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.
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.
My Night at Maud’s
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.
Sean Penn and Tim Robbins both won Oscars for one of Clint Eastwood’s biggest hits, based on the excellent novel by Dennis Lehane. A study in grief and regret, this is an incredibly textured piece, anchored by arguably Eastwood’s best ensemble, which includes Kevin Bacon, Laurence Fishburne, Marcia Gay Harden, and Laura Linney. The less you know about this mystery-thriller going in, the better. (Available on 6/1.)
A lot of films, including ones on this list, are said to be ahead of their time, but that phrase has arguably never been used better than to describe this 1976 Sidney Lumet film, which foresaw the proliferation of sensationalistic news and the drama that would result. An Oscar-winning script by Paddy Chayefsky tells the story of a fictional TV network that will do anything to get ratings. The film also won Oscars for Best Actor, Actress, and Supporting Actress.
A Nightmare on Elm Street
One, two, Freddy’s coming for you. One of the benefits of having as deep a library as Warner Bros. is that it allows for major marathon viewing like being able to sit back and journey through the entire run of Freddy Krueger. Wes Craven’s surreal original remains the best of the bunch, but we won’t blame you if you want to watch them all.
North by Northwest
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.
One of the best performances by one of history’s best actresses exists in this 1942 hit drama starring Bette Davis. The legend was nominated for an Oscar in the role of a woman who believes her chance at happiness in life has passed her by. An awful mother doesn’t help. In fact, when Davis’s character gets away from Mom, she opens up, and she chooses to go on a cruise, where she finds herself. An old-fashioned melodrama of heightened emotions, this is a classic because of the nuance and depth brought to it by Bette Davis.
Once Upon a Time in the West
One of Sergio Leone’s best films, this Western stars Henry Fonda, Jason Robards, Claudia Cardinale, and Charles Bronson. It’s an epic film that casts Fonda against type as the bad guy and contains some of the best imagery in Leone’s career, anchored by one of the best scores ever written by Ennio Morricone. In a 2008 poll by Empire of over 10,000 readers, filmmakers, and critics, this film was the highest-ranking Western. It’s essential.
A Perfect World
Another underrated Clint Eastwood film, this drama also happens to contain one of Kevin Costner’s must nuanced, subtle performances. He plays an escaped convict who ends up on a road trip with a child, but that description doesn’t really convey the truth of setting in this delicate period piece that captures people in a way that plays as both thriller and drama. It’s a film that transcends its cop-and-convict structure to become something deeper, especially in Costner’s performance. (Available on 6/1.)
The Philadelphia Story
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.
Planes, Trains, and Automobiles
Sometimes the success of a comedy just comes down to finding the right people for the right parts. Such was the case with this John Hughes hit, which perfectly balances Steve Martin’s anal-retentive persona with John Candy’s average-guy demeanor. The two play a perfect odd couple, sent on a problem-filled journey across the country as they try to get home for the holidays. Candy’s work here is particularly moving and underrated.
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.
Lee Marvin is effortlessly cool in this 1967 John Boorman flick that was largely ignored when it was released but seems to grow more beloved with each passing generation. It’s a great crime film about a criminal left for dead who returns for vengeance and what has been stolen from him. Its plot has been reworked a number of times, but few imitators have been as perfect for a film like this one as Marvin.
P. T. Anderson films like Boogie Nights and Magnolia may get more attention on Film Twitter, but this is arguably his most underrated gem, a beautiful little film about two idiosyncratic souls who find each other, played with grace and nuance by Adam Sandler and Emily Watson. It’s a lyrical, unforgettable movie that really also marks a shift in Anderson’s work from the epic ensemble piece to more intimate storytelling. It’s just wonderful.
Long before they won Oscars, Joel and Ethan Coen made one of the best comedies of the ’80s about a babynapping. Of course, this Nicolas Cage and Holly Hunter vehicle is about way more than the stealing of one of the Arizona children. It’s about redemption, maturity, partnership, and, of course, the advice to not put a panty on your head. It’s also somehow even funnier now than it was when it was released.
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.
A Room With a View
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.
The Maysles brothers changed documentary filmmaking forever with this 1969 fly-on-the-wall look at Bible salesmen in the heartland of America. It really defined a storytelling structure that has influenced reality TV too. The Maysleses find the fascinating in the mundane, revealing how interesting people who call themselves ordinary can be for all of us.
*Saving Private Ryan
War movies haven’t gone anywhere, a prominent part of film history from its early days through 1917. There are certain tentpoles in that history of war movies that feel like game changers, and one came in 1998 when Steven Spielberg returned to World War II to tell a different story of history, reminding everyone in the world about the sacrifices that were made that day, and the obligation we all have to make them worthwhile.
David Cronenberg rocked the movie world with this 1981 horror film about people called “scanners,” who can do crazy things with their minds, including make people’s heads go boom. The plot here is a cautionary one about science and industry, but it’s stood out for its incredible practical effects, terrifying vision of the power of the human mind, and Cronenberg’s dreamlike storytelling. Again, this is a film that has accumulated a loyal following over the years, and not just for the awesome cranial explosions.
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.
The Seventh Seal
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.
Singin’ in the Rain
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.
A Star Is Born (all of them)
How about a different kind of marathon than Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings? On HBO Max, you can watch all four iterations of A Star is Born — the ones from 1937, 1954, 1976, and 2018. Why do they keep telling this story over and over again? And which one is the best version? Do your homework and get back to us. Show your work.
A Streetcar Named Desire
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.
The Studio Ghibli Collection
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.
The Three-Colors Trilogy
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 and insightful, it’s a daring, riveting piece of work.
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.
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
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.
The Tree of Life
Terrence Malick crafted one of his most personal and moving films with this 2011 drama about a man (Sean Penn) searching for meaning in the memories of his youth and the impact of his parents, played by Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain. On most respectable lists of the best films of the 2010s, this is a modern masterpiece.
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me
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.
Clint Eastwood found arguably the biggest success of his career by deconstructing the very genre that made him famous with this Best Picture winner. Unforgiven addresses violence in the Western in a way that hadn’t really been seen before, and almost ended the genre for years after its release. It was that tough an act to follow.
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.
The Wages of Fear
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.
The Wild Bunch
There may be a few too many Westerns on this list, but Warner Bros. produced some of the best the genre ever saw, including this Sam Peckinpah entry that redefined movie violence. This 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.
Wings of Desire
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.
Withnail and I
Bruce Robinson wrote and directed this 1987 black comedy that became a massive cult hit in the era of VHS. The wonderful Richard E. Grant plays one of two unemployed actors who share a flat in Camden in 1969 and head off on a weekend holiday. They drink a lot and generally hate the world. Of course, it became a cult hit. Everyone could see a little of these two nihilists in themselves.
The Wizard of Oz
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.
A Woman Under the Influence
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.