There will arguably never be a bigger year for HBO Max than 2021, what with Warner Bros.’ decision late last year to premiere its entire slate of upcoming films day-and-date via the service in light of COVID-19 and movie theater shutdowns. This past summer has seen movies like Space Jam 2 and The Suicide Squad premiering in theaters and on streaming starting on day one — possibly to the detriment of their box office hauls.
While WarnerMedia’s release plan may be stealing all of the spotlight, HBO Max is a service brimming with great movies. From pop culture mainstays like Mad Max: Fury Road and The Matrix trilogy to canonical classics like Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane and The Shining to eccentric animated features like Fantastic Planet and the works of Studio Ghibli, there are a ton of awesome titles to choose from across the service as more and more continued to be added each month. With that said, there’s a lot to choose from and only so many hours in the day. Don’t sweat it, we’ve got you covered: Here are 20 of some of the best movies on HBO Max to stream so you can finally start whittling down that watchlist.
Here are 20 of the best films to stream on HBO Max right now.
2001: A Space Odyssey
2001: A Space Odyssey is an unassailable classic of science-fiction cinema, a work of stunning visual achievement and operatic scale whose legacy looms as far and wide over the expanse of film history as the shadow of one of its iconic monoliths. Co-written by science-fiction author Arthur C. Clarke, Stanley Kubrick’s landmark 1968 film follows the epic voyage of the Discovery One from Earth to Jupiter following the discovery of a mysterious artifact on the surface of the Moon. As humanity attempts to grasp after an understanding of an inscrutable alien intelligence far older and vast than their own, the journey is complicated when the onboard AI in charge of Discovery One gains sentience and attempts to imperil the lives of its crew. From the film’s opening flashback to the dawn of human evolution to its dazzling and iconic “star gate” sequence, 2001: A Space Odyssey is an absolute must-watch for any serious sci-fi fan. —Toussaint Egan
Paul Verhoeven’s 1992 erotic neo-noir thriller Basic Instinct starring Michael Douglas and Sharon Stone is as sexually charged as it is gruesomely violent. Douglas is Nick Curran, a detective with the San Francisco Police Department investigating the death of former rock star Johnny Boz who was brutally stabbed to death while in bed. His investigation leads him to Boz’s mistress Catherine Tramell, a sultry and manipulative seductress who ensnares Curran in a web of lies, lust, and artful deception. Basic Instinct is a quintessential entry in the genre of erotic thrillers and a gripping work produced by a director at the height of his abilities. —TE
Centered on a cloister of nuns attempting to establish a convent in the Himalayas, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1947 film Black Narcissus is a sensuous, psychological melodrama of the effects of isolation and mortal temptation, the harrowing of the elements, the nature of faith, madness, and sin. Heralded as one of the greatest achievements of cinema, the film won two Oscars for best art direction and cinematography at the 20th Academy Awards. —TE
Michael Mann’s 2004 action thriller Collateral is one of the director’s most successful films, grossing over $220 million worldwide and earning Jamie Foxx a nomination for Best Supporting Actor at the 77th Academy Awards. Tom Cruise stars as Vincent, a contract killer whose assignment to assassinate five targets across Los Angeles leads him to holding Max (Foxx), a taxi driver with aspirations of starting his own business hostage to drive him from target to target. Collateral’s nocturnal lighting and brilliant cinematography courtesy of Dion Beebe and Paul Cameron combine to make for one of the most hypnotic and memorable portraits of LA’s metropolitan sprawl ever committed to film, and Cruise’s performance as the aforementioned hitman Vincent ranks as one of the actor’s best. —TE
Keanu Reeves stars in Francis Lawrence’s 2005 paranormal action horror film as John Constantine, an expert demonologist and exorcist caught in the middle of a proxy war between heaven and hell on Earth. When police officer Angela Dodson (Rachel Weisz) comes to Constantine to assist her in proving that her sister’s mysterious death was not a suicide, the pair become entangled in a century-long conspiracy to unleash Lucifer’s Mammon using the the Spear of Destiny. —TE
Escape from New York
John Carpenter’s 1981 dystopian action film Escape from New York is a classic of proto-cyberpunk sci-fi cinema. Starring Kurt Russell, the film follows “Snake” Plissken (Kurt Russell), a legendary former soldier-turned-convict who is offered a chance to expunge his life sentence in exchange for rescuing the President of the United States. The catch: he’ll have to move undetected onto the island of Manhattan which for the past decade has been walled off by the US government and converted into a giant maximum-security prison. Featuring supporting performances by Isaac Hayes and Adrienne Barbeau, Escape from New York is must-see for action fans and John Carpenter stans alike. —TE
F for Fake
One of the last films completed before his death, Orson Welles’ 1973 experiment docudrama on the lives and legacies of two of history’s greatest “fakes”: The world-renowned art forger Elmyr de Hory and his biographer Clifford Irving, is a whimsical and mischievous work of sleight-of-hand filmmaking. Welles’ film inevitably circles back on the subject the filmmaker himself through its examination of both Hory and Irving’s lives, transforming into an irreverently charming and gleefully farcical meta-treatise on the nature of performance, illusion, and art. —TE
One of Martin Scorsese’s most celebrated and memorable films, and possibly his last unimpeachable classic, Goodfellas charts the rise and fall of a wannabe gangster who works his way into the Mob in 1950s Brooklyn, then finds the organization’s focus and fortunes changing radically over the decades that follow. Packed with storytelling devices that Scorsese went on to repeat over and over — particularly the monologue-voiceover introduction of a whole pack of colorful gangster characters who don’t much matter — Goodfellas is full of indelible dialogue and familiar comic bits (“I’m funny how? I mean funny like I’m a clown? I amuse you?”), it’s the sprawling saga of a criminal watching the world change around him until he doesn’t recognize it anymore, made before any of these tropes, lines, and devices became clichés because so many people imitated Goodfellas. —Tasha Robinson
The Hidden Fortress
Akira Kurosawa’s 1958 adventure film The Hidden Fortress is perhaps best known by contemporary audiences for its role as one of the key inspirations behind George Lucas’ 1977 sci-fi juggernaut Star Wars. The similarities are clear from the film’s premise alone: following a princess (Misa Uehara) disguised as a mute farmer who is led through enemy territory by her loyal general and bodyguard (Toshiro Mifune) to retrieve a secret cache of gold with the gold of rebuilding her kingdom. The two are led by a pair of comical peasants, Tahei (Minoru Chiaki) and Matashichi (Kamatari Fujiwara) who, unbeknownst to their companion’s true identity, lead them through danger in hopes of sharing in the gold as a reward. The Hidden Fortress ranks among the very best of Kurosawa’s oeuvre; a grand-scale adventure filled with moments of gripping excitement, action, and disarming levity. —TE
Watching Nobuhiko Obayashi’s House is like watching a live-action cartoon. The bonkers cult horror classic bursts off of the screen with bold experimentalism and charming surrealism from the first frame and at no point ever lets up. The film follows a group of eccentric schoolgirls who travelled to the haunted country home of one of their ailing aunts, only to be menaced by preternatural forces and apparitions as the house gradually begins to take on a life of its own. Oddball comedy meets architectural horror in what is likely to be one of the most hilarious and memorable movie experiences you’ll ever have. —TE
The blockbuster movie that sparked a three decade-spanning franchise, Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park is marvel of late 20th century special effects that dazzle audiences to this day for its memorable performances as well as its stunning visuals. The film follows paleontologist Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill), along with paleobotanist Dr. Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern), who is recruited by eccentric industrialist John Hammond to serve as consultants on his latest venture: a secluded Costa Rican theme park that houses genetically resurrected dinosaurs. Filled with horror, suspense, action, and adventure, Jurassic Park is more than just a thriller movie; it’s a bonafide classic and arguably one of Spielberg’s best. —TE
Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx
Based on Kazuo Koike’s popular manga series of the same name, The Lone Wolf and Cub series is an undisputed classic of Japanese cinema. Tomisaburo Wakayama, in his most iconic role, inhabits the assassin-turned-itinerant-ronin-warrior Ittō Ogami, who travels the countryside of feudal Japan righting wrongs, felling foes, and raising his young son Daigorō. You honestly can’t go wrong with any installment of the Lone Wolf and Cub series (they’re held up as classics for a reason, after all), though most fans and film scholars would hold up 1972’s Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx as the high-water mark for the series, with Ogami tasked with assassinate a Shogunate rogue while pursued by a formidable clan of relentless female assassins. If you’re a fan of either Samurai Jack or the Wu-Tang Clan, you owe it to yourself to sit down and watch the Lone Wolf and Cub series. —TE
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
Director Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy remains one of the most peerless cinematic works of our time. Though there’s no choosing one favorite out of the bunch, The Fellowship of the Ring, which kicks things off as hobbit Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) begins his quest to save Middle Earth, is perhaps the most evenly built. Fellowship is certainly the most light-hearted, as its characters diving into trouble rather than being caught in the middle of it. If you haven’t watched the series recently, give it a whirl, then dive into our year-long tribute to the Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens’ series, which we call “Year of the Ring.”
After a recent rewatch of this pop riff on French history, I’m convinced Sofia Coppola is the reason Instagram exists. Starring Kirsten Dunst as the young queen and Jason Schwartzman as her husband, Louis XVI, the movie chronicles the rise and fall of a queen swept up in regal activity and the pressure of life in the spotlight. Coppola was granted access to the actual Versailles grounds to shoot her intoxicating drama, but it’s the way she plays with pastel colors, contemporary music tracks, and modern visual flourishes that allow Marie’s bursting personality to bleed into every ounce of the frame. Though it’s a construct of fiction, the biopic feels like the ultimate overshare, casting the audience as voyeurs who, in today’s language, basically scroll through every picturesque (or tragic) moment in a massive celebrity’s life. —Matt Patches
Mikey and Nicky
In the 1970s, Elaine May was known for laughs. Much like her Nichols and May partner Mike Nichols, May leveraged her sketch comedy career into a life of acting, writing, and directing. She starred in her own directorial debut, 1971’s A New Leaf, opposite Walter Matthau, and soon found commercial success with the Neil Simon adaptation The Heartbreak Kid. So there’s reason to think 1976’s Mikey and Nicky, which pairs longtime collaborators John Cassavetes and Peter Falk, would be a romp across a seedy mob setting. Nope! May’s film is a nuclear attack on toxic masculinity, and among the more challenging films I’ve ever watched.
In the middle of the night, Nicky (Cassavetes) calls Mikey (Falk) and begs for his help. He’s stolen money from a mob boss, and now he’s convinced he’s as good as dead. And he’s right — in fact, Mikey is actually assisting the hitman (Ned Beatty) assigned to take out his best bud by coaxing Nicky out of a barricaded apartment. Something of a coward, Mikey won’t pull the trigger himself, so the two wind up cavorting around Philadelphia for the night. Their exploits are a maelstrom of rancid, brutal, paranoid behavior. A stop at a bar in a predominantly Black part of town immediately gets ugly. A bus driver winds up a target of their misplaced aggression. A meetup with Nicky’s girlfriend turns to sexual violence, even from Mikey, who is, in theory, the clear-headed of the two. It’s a nightmare, and May traps viewers inside it.
Mikey and Nicky is hard to recommend — it’s not enjoyable — but like great art, the film peers into the shadows of everyday life that we all know exist, but rarely see in mainstream storytelling. The film was shot in 1973, around the time Mean Streets hit theaters, and it now feels like the ultimate condemnation of how Martin Scorsese’s films (perhaps unintentionally) glamorized mob violence and life. These are terrible men doing terrible things. They are familiar, and the women in their orbit are trapped. That’s not the kind of character study most people want out of a laid-back night at the movies. But it’s necessary. Seeing is believing. —MP
One Hour Photo
The late great Robin Williams stars in Mark Romanek’s 2002 psychological thriller One Hour Photo as Seymour “Sy” Parrish, a lonely and unhinged photo technician who develops a fascination with a middle-class family whose photos he has taken care for years. Following an incident at work, Sy’s fascination dips over into full-blown obsession as his desire to grow closer to the family escalate to increasingly more harrowing, and terrifying, extremes. Williams here is masterful; an against-type display of dramatic performance that ranks among the most consummately impressive of his career. —TE
Garry Ross’ 1998 fantasy comedy-drama Pleasantville stars Tobey Maguire (Spider-Man) as David, an introverted high schooler who yearns for the simple idyllic family and social life of his favorite ’50s sitcom Pleasantville. After crossing paths with a mysterious TV repairman, played by the late Don Knotts (The Andy Griffith Show), he and his sister Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon) are transported into the world of the show following a freak thunderstorm. As the siblings attempt to meld into the literal black-and-white status quo of their newfound home, the nuances of their behaviors begin to trigger inexplicable consequences that open the small town to a world of brave and terrifying possibilities. —TE
Punisher: War Zone
Lexi Alexander’s 2008 superhero action film Punisher: War Zone, the first Marvel adaptation directed by a woman, stands today as one of the best cinematic interpretations of the character ever created. Ray Stevenson (Thor) stars as Frank Castle, an ex-military man turned ruthless vigilante, who stalks and murders an entire mob family — with the exception of their top enforcer, Billy Russoti (Dominic West). Severely disfigured by the torture he suffers under Castle’s hands, Billy rebrands himself as a deranged crime boss known as Jigsaw who will not stop until he exact his cold-blooded revenge on the Punisher. Packed to the brim with blistering action, erratic cinematography, and profuse gore, Punisher: War Zone is not for squeamish, but it certainly will wet the appetite of any diehard fan of the character. —TE
Christopher Nolan’s latest film is more than a typical mind-bender; a spy premise given the sci-fi twist of “inverted time” gives way to a purposefully confounding experience where plot falls away and the director’s explosive imagery envelops the viewer. It’s a wild and polarizing experience. Luckily, John David Washington and Robert Pattinson are charismatic enough to bring it all together. Read our full review from last summer for the full download on this one-of-a-kind blockbuster. —MP
Princess Mononoke is one of Studio Ghibli’s best films. The lush, dark fairy tale follows cursed Prince Ashitaka as he leaves his village seeking a cure. In his quest, he finds himself in Irontown, a village of outcasts led by Lady Eboshi, whose deforestation techniques put the town at odds with the local forest spirits, including San, a wild girl raised by wolves. Like many Ghibli movies, there is an environmentalist message at the movie’s core, as modernity and progress duel with nature and preservation. Unlike many Ghibli movies, it actually gets pretty gory in order to emphasize its message and doesn’t hold back in the consequences the characters face for some devastating actions. Powerful and movie, Princess Mononoke lingers in the way many Ghibli films do, with the same sort of bittersweet poignance. — Petrana Radulovic