When HBO Max launched in May of 2020 boasting thousands of hours of content, they weren’t lying.
The streaming service that came into our lives by way of yanking Friends from Netflix has proved to be an endless source of movie magic, with hallowed Hollywood favorites in the Turner Classic Movies collection to the works of directors like Kubrick, Hitchcock, Miyazaki, and Kurosawa.
Picking the best (and distinguishing them from our personal favorites) was no easy task, but we somehow managed.
In no particular order, here are the 20 best movies on HBO Max.
1. The Dark Knight
It’s daunting to pick just one Batman movie from the literal dozens available on HBO Max, but in the end the top spot could only go to 2008’s The Dark Knight, written and directed by Christopher Nolan (Mask of the Phantasm, we will avenge you — someday).
The Dark Knight is more than the obvious peak of Nolan’s Batman trilogy and the final, mesmerizing performance that won Heath Ledger an Oscar. Over a decade later, the film’s exploration of nuance within the poles of good and evil remains as prescient as ever. We’re drawn to the chaos and fury of Ledger’s Joker, yes, but we are as compelled by Bruce’s struggle (Christian Bale) and Harvey’s fall from grace (Aaron Eckhart). You don’t get a line like “You either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain” without seriously contemplating its meaning. –Proma Khosla, Entertainment Reporter
2. Singin’ in the Rain
Easily one of the greatest movie musicals ever made, Singin’ in the Rain tells the story of Hollywood’s shift from silent films to talking pictures. Caught in this transition is leading man Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly), whose leading lady Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen) has the most grating voice imaginable. With the help of his best friend Cosmo Brown (Donald O’Connor) and aspiring actor Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds), he plans to make a movie musical. What follows are some of the best musical numbers in history, with showstopping choreography accompanying catchy tunes. The title number is an absolute joy, as are “Good Morning” and the comedic masterpiece “Make ‘Em Laugh.” But it’s the 13-minute “Broadway Melody” sequence in all its Technicolor glory that solidifies Singin’ in the Rain as one of the all-time greats. –Belen Edwards, Entertainment Fellow
3. The Shining
The legacy of Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 horror masterpiece precedes it. There’s the electricity between actors Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall, revisited repeatedly by film scholars as a toxic artifact of Kubrick’s infamous process; the Overlook Hotel’s iconic imagery, reflected and even copied in countless horror titles since; the fascinating conflict the adaptation spurred between Kubrick and author Stephen King, a kind of clash of artistic titans that never fails to intrigue fans of either; and plenty more, like, oh say, all those conspiracy theories.
But, when choosing whether or not to cue up this classic, remember: The Shining is above all a great scary movie. Truly, one of the best. Regardless of importance or prestige, the story of Jack Torrance turning on his family in an empty, icy hotel is timelessly terrifying with entertainment value to spare. It’s superlative as a matter of craft, yes, but there’s also an intangible insidiousness to it that never fails to frighten.
If you like horror, The Shining is always expecting you. –Alison Foreman, Entertainment Reporter
4. You’ve Got Mail
The very best Tom Hanks-Meg Ryan collaboration, You’ve Got Mail is many things: a delightfully sweet romantic-comedy; a hilariously dated ode to muddling through technology problems; a Nora Ephron extravaganza where New York City is A Character. Kathleen Kelly (Ryan) owns a small children’s bookshop, while Joe Fox (Hanks) owns a new Barnes & Noble-esque conglomerate that is putting a new branch up just around the corner from her store. Will he run her out of business? Will the secret e-mail pen pal friends discover each other’s true identities? Will Greg Kinnear keep showing up to remind you of your most insufferable ex? (Yes.) Bonus: Hanks is so charming here it makes catfishing your sworn enemy…seem kind of sweet? –Erin Strecker, Entertainment Editor
It takes less than five minutes for Goodfellas to deliver one of its most-quoted lines: “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.” And it never slows down from there. Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece draws you into the colorful underworld of the Brooklyn mob through the ravenous eyes of Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), charting his rise and fall over the decades. It’s downright intoxicating at first, all that glamor and danger — so much so, you might not even notice how tight the noose has become until that white-knuckle third act. Goodfellas has rightfully earned a towering reputation for its swagger, style, and substance, and its influence can be felt in countless other movies and shows released since. But it’s also just a fantastically good time from start to finish — quite possibly the zippiest two hours and thirty minutes you’ll ever experience. –Angie Han, Deputy Entertainment Editor
6. Spirited Away
If you want to get into the beautiful, captivating films of Studio Ghibli, the vast majority of which are on HBO Max, Spirited Away is a great place to start. It’s the story of Chihiro, a young girl trapped in a spirit world who must work to free her parents from a witch’s curse, and it’s a perfect movie. Everything about it, from the visuals to the characters to the score, grabs you tightly and immerses you in director Hayao Miyazaki’s imaginative world of spirit bathhouses, soot sprites, dragons, and more. There’s beauty in Spirited Away’s most elaborate sequences, but also in its quiet moments too, like a train ride or a meal shared between friends. These are the moments when you’ll find yourself crying without fully knowing why. All you’ll know for sure is that Spirited Away is amazing and you’ll never want it to end. –B.E.
7. Malcolm X
Many actors have and will portray the impassioned civil rights Malcolm X, but Denzel Washington’s 1992 version looms mighty. From his childhood at Malcolm Little to his arrest and subsequent indoctrination into the Nation of Islam, the film follows classic biopic formula with an intimate look at this leader’s life.
Under Spike Lee’s direction, Washington captures Malcolm X’s vigor and magnetism in recreated speeches as well as subtler scenes, right up until his assassination in 1965. Lee encountered repeated obstacles to production, including public misperception of X over time, and backlash against his requests for Black interviewers (“The real crime is white publications don’t have black writers, that’s the crime,” he told The New York Times). It’s a small step on the long journey to understanding leaders like X, the civil rights movement, and the Black American experience, and Lee himself is a giant in moving that needle. –P.K.
8. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy remains the gold standard for fantasy adaptations: it’s epic in scope and full of memorable characters and performances. Most impressively, the trilogy is consistently great. Choosing the best movie from the three is tricky, but I’ve got to give the edge to The Two Towers. The battle of Helm’s Deep is still the best fantasy battle put to film, and the introduction of Rohan, the Ents, and Gollum (Andy Serkis) deepens the already well-established world of Middle Earth. Gollum in particular elevates the movie to a whole new level, with Serkis and the visual effects team nailing one of the most iconic characters of the books. HBO Max has the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy in its library, as well as the extended editions if you want even more Middle Earth goodness. –B.E.
9. Hairspray (1988)
For those most familiar with the 2007 musical starring Nikki Blonsky, John Travolta, and Michelle Pfeiffer the 1988 original might come as something of a shock. It’s not a musical, for one, though music and dance are still central to the story. It’s also perhaps one of the most sanitized and mainstream-friendly works in writer and director John Waters’ rich and thrillingly queer-coded filmography — though the Waters version of “sanitized” is still more beautifully irreverent than 99 percent of what Hollywood puts out, then and now.
Ricki Lake stars as Tracy Turnblad, a teenager in early ’60s Baltimore who has a particular talent for dancing. In fact, she’s so talented that she lands a recurring spot on a local dance show despite the fact that she’s a fat girl living in a place and time when fat bodies were still stigmatized in popular culture (much more so than they still are in 2021). That success eventually gets Tracy in trouble at school, which in turn leads to her forming friendships with a group of Black students. Tracy soon comes to recognize how insidious the deeply ingrained racism in her community really is, and it compels her to use her public profile to push for integration.
For all the “product of its time” faults there are that merit further discussion, Waters’ original Hairspray remains one of the iconic director’s most important and beloved films. –Adam Rosenberg, Senior Entertainment Reporter
Much like Rocky Balboa never backing down in his quest to prove himself, Rocky the movie works hard for its reputation as one of the greatest sports movies ever made. Its legendary inception from a script Sylvester Stallone wrote in three days to a hard sell for movie studios who didn’t want him in the lead role is an underdog story that comes across in the deeply human and triumphant tale of a poor boxer who finds validation, love, and a sense of self worth both in and outside of the ring. Stallone’s first and best performance as Rocky made him a movie star, but it’s the character himself who’s become a symbol for long-shot contenders with big dreams. –A.N.
Akira Kuwosawa is rightly considered one of Japan’s greatest filmmakers and Rashomon is his best known film in the United States. When it premiered in 1950, its unique storytelling device in which the same events are told from the perspective of four different witnesses (one of whom is actually dead) was such a revelation in filmic structure that the movie became eponymous with the concept — hence, the Rashomon Effect. Through this effect, the relatively simple tale of a priest, a bandit, a samurai, a woodcutter, and a woman becomes a complex analysis of truth and perspective that earns its place as a keystone of 20th century filmmaking. –A.N.
12. City of God (2002)
City of God might surprise some people. The 2002 crime thriller from Brazilian directors Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund picked up plenty of accolades in its moment, though most would argue it was robbed at a 2004 Academy Awards ceremony that was pretty much swept by Peter Jackson’s final Lord of the Rings movie.
Regardless, the semi-autobiographical story adapted by Bráulio Mantovani from his own 1997 novel paints a grim and troubling picture of life in the Rio de Janeiro neighborhood of Cidade de Deus (“City of God”). Conceived as a government housing project in 1960 to stem the spread of favelas (slums) across the city, the neighborhood — which ultimately became a slum itself in the end — is a central character in this story about the formation and growth of organized crime and the local drug trade, as told from the perspective of a young man whose life was directly impacted by those influences. It’s as must-watch in 2021 as it was in 2002. –A.R.
13. Rebel Without a Cause
Since its premiere in 1955, Rebel Without a Cause has become one of American cinema’s most influential teen films. Its sensitive (if melodramatic to modern audiences) portrayal of angst, domestic strife, and experimental queer subtext caused flare-ups with the restrictive Hays code before its release and made stars out of then–16-year-olds Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo. It didn’t have to make a star out of James Dean, whose tragic death a month before the film’s release crystallized his character and image as the eternally young face of a restless generation. Though Rebel Without a Cause never took home an Academy Award, its place in the pantheon of film is indisputable and well earned.-A.N.
14. Grey Gardens
In their famed 1976 film Grey Gardens, brothers and documentary team Albert and David Maysles pay a visit to a dilapidated mansion in the Hamptons. There, they profile the intriguing and tragic lives of a reclusive mother and daughter, both named Edith Beale, in a strange and winding character study unlike any other.
Relatives of First Lady Jackie Kennedy, the life stories of “Little Edie” and “Big Edie” are sensationalized in the documentary, and many argue that the film takes an inherently exploitative view of its subjects and their apparent mental health conditions. But as far as fascinating footage goes, Grey Gardens is a must-watch — capturing a unique family at the heart of a broader dialogue about the decline of political royalty and ‘60s-era Americana. –A.F.
The dusty dystopia of Mad Max: Fury Road is not one we’d ever wish to live in, but it’s one that enthralls us every single time we visit. In some ways, this is a pretty simple film: The meat of the plot is, basically, one long car chase followed by a second long car chase in the opposite direction. What George Miller does with that basic template, though, will leave you positively giddy. There’s the striking look of its universe, all rusty reds and dirty browns. And the pounding score by Junkie XL, working as your own Doof Warrior to get your heart rate up. Charlize Theron and Tom Hardy lead the cast with two perfectly matched, tough-as-nails performances. And the film even gets in a sharp message about toxic masculinity and female agency. But above all, there’s the action: propulsive and inventive, employing mostly practical effects and a minimum of CG to deliver blows that actually feel like they land, and races that get your adrenaline pumping. Don’t blame us if you find yourself running in circles around your own living room by the end of it. –A.H.
16. The Matrix
The Matrix has been imitated, referenced, and parodied so frequently in the past two decades, it’s almost easy to forget how mind-blowing it once felt. Almost. Watch the real thing in 2021, and it’s still plain to see that Lana and Lilly Wachowski’s sci-fi thriller is a true original. Keanu Reeves stars as Neo, a computer programmer haunted by the sense that something’s just off — only to be proven right when he discovers he’s been living in a simulation all along. The Wachowskis weren’t the first to raise the idea that reality might not be real (and there are other, less literal ways to interpret that central concept), but The Matrix did so with such panache that it forever embedded it into our pop culture consciousness. The sequels may not have the sterling reputation as the original, but they’re also worth watching for the Wachowskis’ unparalleled action sequences and trippy philosophizing — and they’re on HBO Max, too. –A.H.
17. North by Northwest
Even the most hallowed classic movies can be susceptible to modern standards of acceptability, pacing, and general entertainment — but Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest is not one of them. Cary Grant stars as Roger Thornhill, an innocent man pursued relentlessly while mistaken for someone else. 60 years after its release, the film is as thrilling, funny, and horny as ever (Grant and Eva Marie Saint could any scene on fire), a magnificent ride from start to finish. – P.K.
18. Ocean’s Eleven
Steven Soderbergh’s reboot (before we were even used to throwing that word around) of a clunkier 1960 film is so much sleeker, funnier, and more of a rollicking good time than it had any right to be. George Clooney stars as smooth-talking Daniel Ocean, a lifelong thief with a heart of gold who sets his eyes on the next heist as soon as he gets parole. We’ll never tire of the antics of second-in-command Rusty (Brad Pitt), inside man Frank (Bernie Mac), veteran Saul (Carl Reiner), explosives expert Basher (Don Cheadle), grease man Yen (Shaobo Qin) and the rest of the team for a groovy heist comedy as entertaining as the Vegas strip. –P.K.
19. Thelma & Louise
There’s buddy comedies and buddy heists and then there’s Thelma & Louise, which transcends the boundary. Written by Callie Khouri and directed by Ridley Scott, the film stars Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon star as the titular besties, whose road trip takes a stark turn after one night at a bar. They hop from state to state and into increasingly deep trouble (including with a young guest actor named Brad Pitt), but what sticks with you long after that gasp-worthy final shot is the power of this friendship — and how much it meant to both women to choose each other over anything and everything else. —P.K.
20. Little Shop of Horrors
Thirsty for comedy that sinks its teeth into the dark side? Open wide for the wild delights of this 1986 stunner from Frank Oz. Based on an off-Broadway musical (that was inspired by a dirt-cheap B-movie), Little Shop of Horrors centers on a fumbling flower shop in 1960s Skid Row. There, the meek Seymour Krelborn (Rick Moranis) pines for the beautiful Audrey (Broadway star Ellen Greene). When a chattering Venus Flytrap promises him fortune and fame, Seymour is willing to bleed — and do much worse — to impress his dream girl. Tapping into his storied career as a Muppeteer, Oz created a movie monster that’s mirthful, menacing, exciting, and sings with the voice of Motown legend Levi Stubbs. Grounding this perturbing plant in a world of wonders is plenty of doo-wop, witty one-liners, wacky lyrics, and comedy luminaries, including Steve Martin, Jim Belushi, John Candy, Christopher Guest, and Bill Murray. —Kristy Puchko, Deputy Entertainment Editor