50 Best Must-watch Movies on HBO Max

50 Best Must-watch Movies on HBO Max

June 12, 2024

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Love it or hate it (the latter of which is understandable, considering its buggy interface), HBO Max is one of the best streaming platforms for cinephiles. Thanks to its affiliation with Warner Bros. Studios and Tuner Media, among other production studios, it has a vast collection of blockbusters and classics alike. It even has a hold of international gems, including the vast majority of the Studio Ghibli catalog. 

It’s hard to go wrong when selecting from this platform, but if you’re looking for the crème de la crème of cinema, then we have you covered. Below, we gather the very best, must-watch movies that are on right now, on-demand, on HBO Max.

41. Whisper of the Heart (1995)

best

8.3

Country

Japan

Director

Yoshifumi Kondô, Yoshifumi Kondou

Actors

Issey Takahashi, Kazuo Takahashi, Keiju Kobayashi, Maiko Kayama

Moods

Feel-Good, Lighthearted, Romantic

Studio Ghibli has brought us moving, remarkable animated films such as Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro, and Princess Mononoke. One of Studio Ghibli’s most overlooked movies is Yoshifumi Kondou’s Whisper of the Heart, which finds magic in the ordinary every day. Shizuku is a young girl with great aspirations to become a writer—the only thing stopping her is herself. When she comes across a curious antique shop, she befriends a mysterious boy and his grandfather, who are just the push she needs to look inward and discover her own artistic capabilities.

If you have ever wanted to create something bigger and better than yourself—a story, a song, a poem, a painting, a work of art—then Whisper of the Heart will excite you, will call to you, will remind you to answer your heart’s calling.

42. Babette’s Feast (1987)

best

8.3

Country

d, Denmark

Director

Gabriel Axel

Actors

Asta Esper Hagen Andersen, Axel Strøbye, Bendt Rothe, Bibi Andersson

Moods

Dramatic, Heart-warming, Lovely

Sisters Martine and Filippa, daughters of a founder of a religious sect, live a simple and quiet life in a remote coastal village in Denmark. Throughout the course of their lives, they reject possible romances and fame as part of their commitment to deny earthly attachments. This is upended by the sudden arrival of a French immigrant named Babette, who served as their house help to escape the civil war raging in her country.

Babette’s Feast is an inquiry into simplicity and kindness, and whether these would be sufficient to achieve a life of contentment. The religious undertones perfectly fit with the film’s parable-like structure, where bodily and spiritual appetites are satisfied through a sumptuous feast of love, forgiveness, and gratitude.

43. Moonage Daydream (2022)

best

8.3

Country

Germany, United States of America

Director

Brett Morgen

Actors

Bing Crosby, Catherine Deneuve, Charlie Chaplin, David Bowie

Moods

Mind-blowing, Original

Forget everything you know about the music biopic. One-on-one interviews, chronological storytelling, silent moments with the subjects—Moonage Daydream isn’t that kind of movie. Just as David Bowie isn’t your typical pop star, this documentary about him, directed by Brett Morgen, forgoes the usual beats for something extraordinary and fun.

Moonage Daydream is a concert, a light show, and a masterclass in collage editing. It’s a feast for the senses, a fantastic neon fever dream that paints a picture of Bowie in his own words, drawn from archival footage, interviews, and concerts past.

44. Rosetta (1999)

best

8.3

Country

Belgium, France

Director

Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne

Actors

Anne Yernaux, Bernard Marbaix, Émilie Dequenne, Fabrizio Rongione

Moods

Character-driven, Dark, Emotional

Rosetta begins fiercely, with a shaky handheld camera chasing the eponymous teenager (Émilie Dequenne) as she storms across a factory floor and bursts into a room to confront the person she believes has just lost her her job. The film seldom relents from this tone of desperate fury, as we watch Rosetta — whose mother is a barely functioning alcoholic — fight to find the job that she needs to keep the two alive.

As tough as their situation is, though, Rosetta’s fierce sense of dignity refuses to allow her to accept any charity. A stranger to kindness and vulnerability, her abject desperation leads her to mistake these qualities for opportunities to exploit, leading her to make a gutting decision. But for all her apparent unlikeability, the movie (an early film from empathy endurance testers the Dardenne brothers) slots in slivers of startling vulnerability amongst the grimness so that we never lose sight of Rosetta’s ultimate blamelessness. Its profound emotional effect is corroborated by two things: that it won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, and that it helped usher in a law protecting the rights of teenage employees in its setting of Belgium.

45. Still Alice (2015)

best

8.2

Country

France, UK, United Kingdom

Director

Richard Glatzer, Wash Westmoreland

Actors

Alec Baldwin, Daniel Gerroll, Eha Urbsalu, Erin Darke

Moods

Challenging, Character-driven, Well-acted

Still Alice is a drama about a renowned linguistics professor (Julianne Moore) who slowly begins to lose words and find herself lost in familiar places, leading to an unexpected diagnosis of Early Onset Alzheimer’s Disease. Alice’s husband (Alec Baldwin) and three grown children subsequently struggle to maintain balance as her condition deteriorates, even as she steadfastly strives to maintain her self-composure. Interestingly, Alice uses her professional skills in communication to employ innovative ways to maintain her language and memory as well as possible, despite her ongoing decline. It’s a melancholy yet wonderfully touching film that feels thoroughly honest and real every step of the way. Julianne Moore is superb throughout—a role that earned her a well-deserved Best Actress Oscar for her performance.

46. In the Same Breath (2021)

best

8.1

Country

China, United States of America

Director

Female director, Nanfu Wang

Moods

Instructive, Thought-provoking

The culture of propaganda and cover-ups that kicked off the pandemic is the subject of this compelling documentary by award-winning director Nanfu Wang (One Child Nation). Wang, who traveled with her family to China in January 2020, saw and filmed the pandemic firsthand, and wrote to major newspapers like The New York Times to convince them to write about it. They never did. 

Media and government in both China and the U.S. played down the threat, and this documentary asks how different everything would have gone otherwise. More dauntingly, it’s an examination of how the Communist Party in China managed to use the event to its advantage. 

47. Days of Being Wild (1990)

best

8.1

Country

Hong Kong

Director

Kar-Wai Wong, Wong Kar-wai

Actors

Alicia Alonzo, Andy Lau, Anita Mui, Carina Lau

Moods

Dramatic, Emotional, Lovely

Forlorn longing envelops Days of Being Wild, where the act of dreaming is as valuable as its actual fulfillment. “You’ll see me tonight in your dreams,” Yuddy tells Su Li-zhen on their first meeting, and indeed, this line of dialogue sets the film’s main contradiction: would you rather trap yourself in the trance-like beauty of dreams or face the unpleasant possibilities of reality? Wong Kar-wai’s characters each have their own answers, with varying subplots intersecting through the consequences of their decisions. In the end, happiness comes in unexpected ways, granted only to those brave enough to wake up and dream again.

48. Irma Vep (1996)

best

8.1

Country

France

Director

Olivier Assayas

Actors

Alex Descas, Antoine Basler, Arsinée Khanjian, Balthazar Clémenti

Moods

Discussion-sparking, Raw, Smart

In this film-within-a-film, we and a fictional version of actress Maggie Cheung are brought through the disorienting experience of French filmmaking. The film’s washed-up director wants to remake the classic silent film Les Vampires to revive his career. But as with all plans, everything inevitably goes wrong. On top of depicting the regular chaos of a movie set, this film presents the anxieties of the modern-day French film industry—about how it may be past its prime, and how it can still compete on a global level. And through the steady, inscrutable face of Maggie Cheung, we remember the creative collaborations we’ve had ourselves—the energetic passion, the behind-the-scenes power dynamics, and the pure chaos of the process.

49. Denial (2016)

best

8.1

Country

UK, United Kingdom, United States of America

Director

Mick Jackson

Actors

Abigail Cruttenden, Alex Jennings, Amanda Lawrence, Andrea Deck

Moods

A-list actors, Challenging, Emotional

Here’s a based-on-a-true-story courtroom drama that transcends the limits of its genre by virtue of an incisive and unexpectedly prescient script. Twenty years before 2016 sent us hurtling through the looking glass and into a post-truth era, the idea that you could deny the facts as you pleased teetered terrifyingly on the brink of legitimacy when author David Irving (a suitably odious Timothy Spall) brought a UK libel suit against Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz), an academic whom he claimed had defamed him for calling him exactly what he was: a Holocaust denier.

The case was complicated by the fact that, at the time, the UK placed the burden of proof on the defendant — in other words, Lipstadt’s hotshot legal team needed to prove that the Holocaust happened and that Irving had wilfully misrepresented evidence demonstrating this. Denial captures that terrifying farcicality and the defense’s cleverly counterintuitive strategy: not allowing Lipstadt or Holocaust survivors to speak. If that sounds unsatisfying — this is the rare courtroom drama with no grandstanding speech from the protagonist — that’s the point, something the film’s title cleverly alludes to. Perhaps unexpectedly, Denial’s relevance has ballooned since its release, a fact that might hobble its hopeful ending but that only makes the rest all the more powerful.

50. Breaking the Waves (1996)

best

8.1

Country

Denmark, France, Iceland

Director

Lars von Trier

Actors

Adrian Rawlins, David Bateson, Dorte Rømer, Emily Watson

Moods

Challenging, Character-driven, Dark

While being known for co-writing the Dogme 95 manifesto, Lars von Trier’s first film after breaks his rules with built sets and music added in post. Still, Breaking the Waves has plenty of von Trier’s thematic preoccupations, challenging the notions between faithfulness and sexuality by positing a married couple who cannot indulge in marital pleasure, due to being paralyzed. While the premise leads to explicit scenes, it’s more harrowing than sexy, really. It’s terribly heartbreaking as Bess does all she can for her marriage, first by praying for her husband’s return, and then following his perverse wish, partly from guilt, but partly from pleasure, even when it goes contrary to her repressive church and community. Breaking the Waves may not be an easy watch, but regardless of what you personally feel about the morality of Bess’ actions, von Trier will nevertheless bring you to empathy.

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