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20 of the best movies to watch on HBO Max

From Criterion Collection favorites to Warner Bros.’ biggest blockbusters

In recent years, the streaming giant that is Netflix has shifted away from licensed movies, new and old, to become a monolithic hub of original content. In turn, room opened up in the click-and-watch galaxy for a service for film fans. Enter: HBO Max, WarnerMedia’s amalgamation of Warner Bros. titles, Turner Classic Movie gems, the Criterion Collection, and HBO’s own licensed library.

There are a lot of movies on the platform, and more than just a slew of Batman vehicles and LEGO-themed adventures. Where to start? Knowing that 1600-plus titles will always offer something for everyone, the Polygon team has rounded up a few of the best movies to start with, no matter what your tastes.

The American

george clooney runs up stairs in rome in The American Photo: Focus Features

In 2010, George Clooney starred as an aging assassin ready to hang up his scope. Very few people saw the movie, and based on the movie’s “D-” Cinemascore in exit polls, those who did were caught off guard. Instead of a slick, Bourne-esque espionage thriller, The American was a Euro-mood piece in which photographer-turned-director Anton Corbijn descended deeper and deeper into Clooney’s ice-cold gaze. Set in Rome, the film is steamy and noir-ish, finding exhillariation in the assassin’s attempts to complete one last job with as little emotion as possible. But for all the seriousness and atmosphere, there’s still a pulpy, page-turner quality to the film’s second half — think of the whole packaeg as Bond for the art house crowd. —Matt Patches


Image: 20th Century Studios

The Don Bluth classic that everyone assumed would go to Disney Plus — since it’s owned by the Walt Disney Company’s newly acquired 20th Century Studios — is actually on HBO Max! But let’s be clear: Anastasia is not a Disney Princess. Anastasia tells a fictionalized version of the Russian Revolution, in which it was not communism but a necromancer who threw over the imperial regime, and follows the youngest Romanov princess as she rediscovers who she is. Animation fans should come for the sweeping ballgowns and musical coming-of-age story and stay for the hottest animated guy in existence: con man Dimitri, voiced by John Cusack. There’s also a talking bat! —Petrana Radulovic

Blood Simple

blood simple: man crawls in front of car Image: Criterion Collection

Joel and Ethan Coen’s first movie, the sharp neo-noir Blood Simple, is a much more straight-faced genre exercise than their more playful and satirical later films, from Fargo and The Big Lebowski to O Brother, Where Art Thou? and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. But it has a distinctive and personal dark-comedy streak, and it’s still terrific. Initially just the story of a jealous, jilted husband (Dan Hedaya), a cheating wife (Frances McDormand), and a private detective (M. Emmet Walsh), Blood Simple piles up the twists as everyone goes for the backstab, the cover-up, or the safe full of money. Arguably, this is the world’s wryest movie about the importance of communication in relationships — particularly communicating things like “I am afraid you have murdered someone, and I would like to talk about it.” —Tasha Robinson

Carnival of Souls

the phantasms sit on a bus in carnival of souls Image: Carnival of Souls

A true indie horror from 1962, well before indie horror was an immense and thriving subgenre, Herk Harvey’s dreamy oddity Carnival of Souls reveals its Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge bona fides early on, as a Kansas woman (Candace Hilligoss) impossibly survives an accident with no memory of how she did so, and abruptly goes on to make a new life as a church organist in Utah. That intro may seem a bit disjointed, but it’s clear enough why, as phantasms start to haunt her and her life begins to seem unreal. Carnival feels more than a little like an old-school Twilight Zone episode, but its spectacular, unreal imagery (shot at an abandoned theme park) elevates it into something haunting and immersive, and Hilligoss’ performance really brings across the story’s nightmare qualities and thrilling sense of dread. —TR

Detective Pikachu

Pikachu looking up, mouth agape in Pokemon: Detective Pikachu Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures

Detective Pikachu manages to capture what we love most about the world of Pokémon. It’s not the battles or cool moves — it’s that these little creatures live alongside humans and can be their best friends. The plot of the movie is straightforward, with a twist most people saw coming, but it’s full of heart and the very essence of the Pokémon world. Ryan Reynolds voices the frantic Pikachu, who accompanies Tim Goodman (Justice Smith) on his quest to find his father. Kathryn Newton plays determined reporter Lucy, whose partner Pokémon is a delightfully confused Psyduck. —PR

Dick Tracy

al pacino as Alphonse “Big Boy” Caprice in dick tracy Image: Walt Disney Home Video

Warren Beatty directs and stars in this adaptation of Chester Gould’s famous comic strip, and takes its elements to the next level. Every color pops, the villains are covered in prosthetics that make them look as though they’d jumped off the page, and the characters sing songs written by Stephen Sondheim. As Tracy, clad in his trademark yellow fedora and coat, pursues gangster Alphonse “Big Boy” Caprice (Al Pacino), he comes across such figures as Breathless Mahoney (Madonna), a singer and a key witness to Caprice’s crimes; Flattop (William Forsythe), a hitman who literally has a flat top to his head; and Pruneface (R. G. Armstrong), a crime boss whose face is nothing but wrinkles. The whole movie is similarly outsized and colorful — and unforgettable for it. —Karen Han


that’s eraserhead! Image: Criterion Collection

Before David Lynch was a stay-at-home weatherman, before he changed the face of television with Twin Peaks or gave the world a bunch of cringe-inducing, profane Dennis Hopper catchphrases with Blue Velvet, he launched his film career with 1977’s staggeringly surreal Eraserhead, a labor of love made over the course of years, whenever Lynch was able to put together money to work on it. The story, such as it is, features a man who lives in an apartment full of piles of dirt and dead plants, until he discovers that his girlfriend has produced a hideous, mutant baby, which begins to haunt his life. Plenty of directors have tried to capture the seeping dread and utter illogic of nightmares, but Lynch is one of the few that gets it right — Eraserhead is solemn and slow and utterly serious about its insanity, and it’s also utterly unnerving. The sound design is spectacular, though, and the visuals — particularly the baby-creature — are unforgettable. This is disturbing viewing, but it’s also daring, mesmerizing, and immensely technically accomplished, one of the most telling directorial debuts of all time. —TR

4 Little Girls

the families of the four little girls of the Birmingham bombing exit a church Photo: Courtesy of HBO

You can find a number of Spike Lee joints on HBO Max, but one underrated masterpiece is this documentary about Addie Mae Collins, Carol Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Rosamond Robertson, the four young girls killed in 1963 when the Klu Klux Klan set off a bomb in the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Joan Baez’s rendition of “Birmingham Sunday” opens this haunting look back at the vile, racist killing, which dovetails into the civil rights demonstrations that followed. Lee teamed up with renowned documentarian Samuel Pollard and his go-to composer Terence Blanchard to make 4 Little Girls as cinematic as his fictional films, but the power comes in the director’s persistence to hear the truth. His interview with Alabama governor and well-known white supremacist George Wallace is one of the most shocking moments in documentary history. —MP


hanna (saorsie ronan) kicks ass in hanna Image: Focus Features

Director Joe Wright (Atonement, Anna Karenina) departed from his usual British period pieces to make this surreal action movie starring four-time Oscar-nominee Saoirse Ronan in full super soldier mode. Hunted by a ruthless CIA operative (Cate Blanchett) and hoping to help her father (Eric Bana) escape certain death, Hana goes on the offensive to eliminate anyone hoping to snuff her out. She’s sharp with a dagger, savvy with a pistol, and can use a bow-and-arrow in a pinch. Wright takes advantage of all the skills, and sets the mayhem — including one mind-boggling long-take — to a bespoke Chemical Brothers score. It’s rad. —MP


Takashi Shimura learning of his illness Image: The Criterion Collection

Rashōmon, Seven Samurai, and Ran get the bulk of the attention in discussions of Akira Kurosawa’s filmography, and with good reason — they’re all striking classics. (And the first two are also on HBO Max, so consider them bonus recommendations.) But deep-dive cinephiles know that his domestic drama Ikiru also belongs on his greats list. The great Takashi Shimura stars as a stymied bureaucrat who learns he has a fatal illness. Searching for meaning in his life, he looks at his mercenary family, his unsatisfying dead-end job, and the people around him for some form of inspiration, and he finally seizes on a small but meaningful cause to chase. It’s a simultaneously heartbreaking and uplifting story, ruthlessly practical and realistic rather than romantic, but incredibly well told and insightful about what gives life meaning. —TR

The Lady Vanishes

a man wrapped up with bandages in the lady vanishes Image: Criterion Collection

Alfred Hitchcock’s 1938 paranoia thriller The Lady Vanishes is one of the all-time master classes in building quiet tension by giving the audience more information than the characters. When an English tourist (Margaret Lockwood) meets a charming old lady (Dame May Whitty) in a European hotel, she doesn’t think much of it — until the woman subsequently disappears from the train they’re traveling on, and everyone on the train seems to be involved in a conspiracy to pretend she never existed at all. Unlike later iterations on the “Who’s crazy here?” subgenre like Bunny Lake is Missing and Flightplan, The Lady Vanishes makes it very clear to the audience that shenanigans are going down, and Hitchcock teases the audience with the question of whether Lockwood will ever catch up with the action. It’s a twisty, surprising mystery with the usual Hitchcockian touches of mildly ridiculous romance, and it’s one of the director’s best and most memorable films. —TR

Long Shot

seth rogen and charlize theron are high as shit in long shot Photo: Summit Entertainment

Seth Rogen and Charlize Theron sizzle with on-screen chemistry in this rom-com. Long Shot could’ve easily fallen into the “schlubby guy gets beautiful woman who’s way out of his league” trope, but the connection is deeper from the moment the two characters interact. Rogen plays out-of-work writer Fred Flarsky who is reunited with his high school babysitter Charlotte Field (Theron), who just so happens to be the United States Secretary of State. She’s in need of a new speechwriter to help her seem more relatable as she launches a presidential campaign and reaches out to Fred. Toss in some life-or-death scenarios, the intrigue of a forbidden romance, political scandals, plus a splash of Rogen-brand raunchy humor, and you get the unexpected delight that is Long Shot. — PR

Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again - Rosie, Sam, Sophie and Tanya pointing Jonathan Prime/Universal Pictures

Mamma Mia (2008), the movie version of the ABBA jukebox musical, was a grand movie, but it has the rare sequel that surpasses the joy of the original. For one thing, director Ol Parker made a very calculated decision not to force Pierce Brosnan to sing for too many songs (if there is one flaw about the original, it is that Bronsan should not have carried multiple solos and duets). There is no real reason for Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again to exist and yet it does, weaving the past and the present into one big joyous ABBA celebration. Lily James, who plays a young version of Meryl Streep’s character, is absolutely charming and the entire cast playing young versions of the older characters is stellar, mimicking their counterparts to a tee. Cher descends from a helicopter in an all-white pantsuit and massive sunglasses. There is a man named Fernando who sings — you guessed it — “Fernando.” It’s a glittery, vibrant singalong affair that you can’t watch without smiling. —PR

Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed

the scooby gang Image: Warner Bros. Pictures

The early 2000s Scooby Doo movies capture a bizarre duality of kid-friendly adventure and borderline raunchy humor. Both the original live-action Scooby-Doo and this sequel take the typical formula of the cartoon and play with the traditions, creating both a loving homage to the cartoon as well as a tongue-in-cheek subversion of its overdone elements. Director-writer team Raja Gosnell and James Gunn also play with horror movie tropes, lifting the three of the four lead actors from slasher flicks of the 1990s. The result is a campy good time full of brightly colored costumes and set pieces, fun riffs on the beloved cartoon, and — in case you remember seeing it when you were younger — a bunch of jokes you wouldn’t get until you rewatch it as an adult. — PR

The Searchers

john wayne on a horse in the searchers Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures

John Ford became synonymous with the Western over the course of his career, but no ride into Monument Valley is as epic and seering as The Searchers. John Wayne stars as Ethan, an ex-Confederate soldier who returns to his brother’s ranch to take shelter with his family. But when the Comanche raid the home and kidnap one of the daughters, Debbie, Ethan and the adopted brother, Martin, ride off in search of answers. Unlike Ford’s more traditional Westerns, The Searchers is ugly, aware of Ethan’s hate-filled heart as it follows his quest to do something right. The beauty of the land can only go so far: as Ethan spends years tracking down Debbie, the reasons that drive him are consuming. This is the broken version of Wayne’s stereotypical hero. —MP

Singin’ in the Rain

Gene Kelly dancing in a raincoat with an umbrella in Singin’ in the Rain. Image: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen’s musical rom-com is nearly 70 years old, but the pleasures are timeless. The film follows silent film star Don Lockwood (Kelly) as he approaches the edge of a new era in Hollywood: the rise of the talkies. Seasoned at dancing, singing, and stunts, Don seems set for success, but technical issues and a co-star who isn’t making the transition well plague his first try. Instead of letting his latest movie bomb in theaters, Lockwood teams up with his vaudeville partner Cosmo (Donald O’Connor) and ex-chorus girl Kathy (Debbie Reynolds) to turn trash into musical treasure.

The goes-down-easy plot allows for Kelly and Donen to stage intricate dance numbers (“Good Morning”), slapstick vaudeville routines (“Make ’Em Laugh”), and pure romance (“You Were Meant for Me”). Kelly is a showman. Reynolds is a legend. The whole production is an eye-popping, Technicolor dream. Singin’ in the Rain is a movie for everyone, musical buff or not. —MP

They Shall Not Grow Old

they shall not grow old: soldiers in a trench in world war I Image: Warner Bros. Pictures

After directing The Hobbit trilogy, Peter Jackson turned his attention to documentary filmmaking, and produced one of the most eye-popping war films of the modern era. They Shall Not Grow Old is assembled from original World War I footage secured from the Imperial War Museum’s archives, and colorized to appear like it would have looked IRL 1in the 1910s. Using the words of over 100 soldiers, the film is naturalistic and human, the closest we may ever come to recreating one of the most tragic stretches of time in history. —MP

13 Going on 30

jenna answers a phone while working at pose magazine in 13 going on 30 Image: Sony Pictures

13 Going on 30 stars Jennifer Garner as Jenna, a 13-year-old girl who finds that her wish to become “30 and flirty and thriving” has come true. Watching her navigate her adult life as a high-powered fashion magazine editor is hilarious, especially as her teenage sensibilities butt up against what’s expected of her as a career woman, but the true highlight of the film is watching her deal with her crush on her childhood best friend Matty (Mark Ruffalo). As adults, they lead totally separate lives, and Jenna must decide what’s important to her in life, being “cool” or being true to herself. The movie is, to put it bluntly, one of the best rom-coms of the last 20 years. For any skeptics, it features a dancing Andy Serkis with no CGI covering his face whatsoever. —KH

Treasure of the Sierra Madre

bogar in treasure of the sierra madre Image: Warner Bros. Pictures

One of the richest, most devastating films about greed ever made, John Huston’s classic Treasure of the Sierra Madre is a classic that makes a lot of other derivative culture make more sense, including that Bugs Bunny cartoon where Humphrey Bogart keeps hitting Bugs up for pocket change. Bogart and Tim Holt star as down-on-their-luck men who partner with an ancient prospector (John Huston’s father Walter, in an all-time-great performance), but find that their small chance at prosperity and happiness is even more damaging than poverty. As paranoia sets in and they debate what they’re willing to do to preserve their successful gold claim, Bogart in particular becomes erratic and dangerous. It’s a movie full of slow-burn twists, stunning surprises, and the heavy weight of inevitability, and it’s great drama. —TR

2001: A Space Odyssey

2001: a space odyssey space station floating above earth Image: Warner Bros. Pictures

The apes. The monolith. “Thus Spake Zarathustra.” The ascent to the moon. The Discovery One hovering toward Jupiter. The gravity-defying jogging track. Hal 9000’s beady eye. The EVA pod exiting the bay doors. The stargate. The alternate dimensions. The starchild. My god, the stars ... and every other iconic image burned into the collective pop culture consciousness thanks to Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi drama.

If you have never seen this pillar of the genre, carve out the 142 minutes and prepare for something that’s a heck of a lot more entertaining and mesmerizing than the endless praise might have you think. Kubrick spent countless hours angling the floating pens aboard a zero-g commercial spacecraft flight for your pleasure, so indulge. —MP

Bonus: Studio Ghibli’s animated movies

satsuki and mei jump in the air when totoro makes the rain come crashing down Image: Studio Ghibli

Here at Polygon, we were so excited about the canon of Studio Ghibli’s animated features finally coming to streaming after 35 years that we spent an entire week discussing them in depth. The Japanese studio, co-founded by animators Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, along with two producers, has produced nearly two dozen largely gorgeous feature films, ranging from the unbeatably adorable, upbeat children’s romp My Neighbor Totoro to the devastating wartime drama Grave of the Fireflies to the complicated, immersive fairy tale Spirited Away. (Just don’t call them anime.) Start with Spirited Away — it’s our staff consensus pick for Best Ghibli Movie — or skim through our list of the best Ghibli scenes of all time, and see what sounds appealing. —TR

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