13 Movies Like The Last Samurai (2003) On Max (HBO Max)

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One of Shakespeare’s most indelible works is brought roaring to life in this explosive adaptation. The action is transposed from the 1400s to brutalist 1930s England, with the bloody civil war between the houses of Lancaster and York being waged by tanks and planes instead of cavalry. The switch isn’t merely cosmetic, though: in an inspired move, usurper Richard is reimagined here as the fascist head of an army of Nazi-esque Blackshirts (an analog of real militant far-right leader Oswald Mosley). Ian McKellen, who also co-wrote the screenplay, gives an odious but brilliant performance as the titular Machiavellian schemer who will stop at nothing to seize the crown, even betraying his own blood.

McKellen is joined by a gluttony of acting talent: Maggie Smith plays the King's despairing mother, Annette Bening and Robert Downey Jr. are the unfortunate American queen and her brother, while the likes of Jim Broadbent, Bill Paterson, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Jim Carter fill up the royal court. All the richness of Shakespeare’s original writing is retained, charging the performances and the film around them with a grand sense of drama. Peter Biziou’s ostentatious cinematography is a perfect frame for it all, and helps cement this as much, much more than a piece of filmed theater.

Genre: Drama, War

Actor: Adrian Dunbar, Andy Rashleigh, Annette Bening, Bill Paterson, Christopher Bowen, Denis Lill, Derek Lyons, Dominic West, Donald Sumpter, Edward Hardwicke, Edward Jewesbury, Ian McKellen, James Dreyfus, Jim Broadbent, Jim Carter, John Wood, Kate Steavenson-Payne, Kristin Scott Thomas, Maggie Smith, Marco Williamson, Michael Elphick, Nigel Hawthorne, Robert Downey Jr., Roger Hammond, Tim McInnerny, Tres Hanley

Director: Richard Loncraine

Rating: R

Asif Kapadia, the genius of biopics who gave us Senna, is back with this documentary on an even bigger sports personality: Argentinian soccer player Diego Armando Maradona. Considered as possibly the best soccer player of all time, Maradona's footage on the pitch is pure wizardry, and you'll feel that way whether you are a soccer fan or not. But that's not the focus of this documentary. What happens outside the pitch is more interesting: from Maradona's modest beginnings to the passionate hatred (and love) that entire countries develop of him. And it doesn't make his story less interesting that during his time in Naples he was affiliated with the mafia.

This is an excellent documentary that distills 500 hours of footage into 2, giving you all you need to know about a character who captured the imagination of a big part of the world for decades. 

Genre: Documentary

Actor: Alberto Bigon, Ciro Ferrara, Claudia Villafane, Corrado Ferlaino, Dalma Maradona, Diego Armando Maradona, Diego Maradona, Gonzalo Bonadeo, Maria Rosa Maradona, Pele

Director: Asif Kapadia

Rating: TV-14, TV-MA

Biographical documentaries tend to depict exceptional people– people who are so great that everyone wants to know about them, and people who are so terrible that they serve as a warning. Great Photo, Lovely Life depicts a serial sexual abuser in photojournalist Amanda Mustard’s family, able to get away with nearly all his crimes each time he skips over state lines. It’s not an easy film. It’s deeply uncomfortable. There are certain interviews that will trigger anger, despair, and bewilderment over how someone so evil can remain out of bars all his life. Great Photo, Lovely Life doesn’t provide any easy, comforting sequence as a balm to sexual abuse survivors around the world, but it’s an urgent reminder of the consequences of maintaining silence.

Genre: Documentary

Actor: Amanda Mustard

Director: Amanda Mustard, Rachel Beth Anderson

This charming documentary about one of the most brilliant, groundbreaking comedians alive strikes a delicate balance between accessible and deeply appreciative, making it both a great gateway for those yet to be uninitiated into the Albert Brooks fan club and a satisfying retrospective for us confirmed devotees. It’s directed and fronted by Rob Reiner, celebrated director himself and one of Albert Brooks’ oldest friends, and the choice is perfect: his rapport with Brooks is warm and easy, extracting real sincerity from the famously deadpan comedian-writer-actor-director.

Defending My Life features plenty of talking heads gushing about Brooks’ dazzling multi-hyphenate talents (among them Steven Spielberg and Sharon Stone), a standard convention for documentaries of this kind. But what elevates this into a portrait worthy of its subject are the scenes from a dinner shared by Brooks and Reiner, during which the former opens up about his childhood, reflects on his career, and divulges the autobiographical elements that informed his work. Their tete-a-tete flows with all the unforced rhythm of conversation between good friends; Reiner’s presence coaxes illuminating insight from Brooks, which makes watching the documentary feel as close to pulling up a seat at their table as you’d hope for. The 90 minutes just fly by.

Genre: Documentary

Actor: Alana Haim, Albert Brooks, Anthony Jeselnik, Ben Stiller, Brian Williams, Chris Rock, Conan O'Brien, David Letterman, James L. Brooks, Jon Stewart, Jonah Hill, Judd Apatow, Larry David, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Nikki Glaser, Rob Reiner, Robert De Niro, Sarah Silverman, Sharon Stone, Steven Spielberg, Tiffany Haddish, Wanda Sykes

Director: Rob Reiner

Rating: PG-13

If Katrina Babies seems like a somewhat disjointed account of the myriad responses to Hurricane Katrina and the U.S. government's horrible, anti-poor response to the disaster, director Edward Buckles Jr. uses this structure with much more intent. For once this is a documentary that feels like citizen reporting and not a sanitized report from experts who have little to no real personal stake in the subject. As the film swings from one talking point to the next, you get the sensation of just how much the people of New Orleans are still trying to comprehend; the loose structure brings to this film a sense of helplessness that, for some, just can't be overcome.

Genre: Documentary

Actor: Arnould Burks, Calvin Baxter, Cierra Chenier, Damaris Calliet, Quintina Thomas Green

Director: Edward Buckles

Rating: R

The Automat is a charming documentary about the historic place it names—a spacious self-service cafeteria that fed thousands of people during a good part of the 20th century. Through nostalgic footage and delightful interviews with the likes of Mel Brooks, Howard Schultz, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, The Automat successfully convinces you that more than just some gimmick, it was a cultural landmark, a piece of Americana whose existence alone taught an entire generation integral values like democracy, diversity, and hard work. It’s also straight-up hilarious, especially when Brooks attempts to direct the film himself, or other subjects salivate as they recall the Automat’s unbeatable menu. It’s more anecdotal than academic, so if you’re looking for a sweet, sentimental, and simple watch, this is it.

Genre: Documentary, Drama, History

Actor: Carl Reiner, Colin Powell, Elliott Gould, Howard Schultz, Mel Brooks, Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Director: Lisa Hurwitz

Rating: TV-PG

Featuring cannily edited filmography excerpts and interviews with friends and ex-lovers of Rock Hudson — the Golden Age matinee idol who became the first major celebrity to die of AIDS — this documentary lifts the lid on the closeted gay star’s double life. Though its first third draws chiefly on biographers to paint a serviceable picture of the homophobic context Hudson rose to fame in, it’s in later interviews with members of his inner circle that the film comes to life. These contributors give us a more closely informed picture of Hudson, who seemed to accept Hollywood’s compromise: he could live out his professional dreams so long as he didn’t rock the boat.

Some aspects of the film’s approach do raise an eyebrow, such as a risqué conversation that seems to have been surreptitiously recorded. These inclusions lend the film a tabloid scoop’s salaciousness in places, but, thanks to its final third, it’s largely a touching testament to Hudson. As it movingly argues, however reluctant he was to disclose his diagnosis (and, in doing so, his sexuality), he played a pivotal role in changing the tide of public attitudes towards AIDS, and thus to fundraising efforts — making him an unwitting LGBTQ+ hero.

Genre: Documentary

Actor: Allison Anders, Armistead Maupin, Bea Arthur, Burt Lancaster, Doris Day, Douglas Sirk, Elizabeth Taylor, Esther Shapiro, Howard McGillin, Illeana Douglas, James Dean, Joan Rivers, Kathleen Hughes, Lee Garlington, Linda Evans, Lucille Ball, Peter Kevoian, Piper Laurie, Richard Hodge, Rock Hudson, Tim Turner

Director: Stephen Kijak

Rating: PG-13

A wonderful homage to the woman, actress, and mother based largely on her own archives and interviews with her four children. Bergman was an avid photographer, filmographer and letter writer. What emerges is a loving portrait of an adventurous, driven, complex, and loving woman. Not to be missed.

Genre: Documentary, History

Actor: Alan Marshal, Alberto Sordi, Aldo Fabrizi, Alfred Hitchcock, Alicia Vikander, Alma Reville, Anatole Litvak, Anna Magnani, Anthony Perkins, Cary Grant, Cecil Parker, Clark Gable, Ed Sullivan, Ernest Borgnine, Fiorella Mariani, Gregory Peck, Humphrey Bogart, Ingmar Bergman, Ingrid Bergman, Isabella Rossellini, Isotta Rossellini, Jack Weston, Jean Renoir, Jeanine Basinger, Jennifer Jones, Liv Ullmann, Lyle Talbot, Mel Ferrer, Merv Griffin, Mervyn LeRoy, Pia Lindström, Roberto Rossellini, Sigourney Weaver, Spencer Tracy, Victor Fleming, Ward Bond, Yul Brynner

Director: Stig Björkman

Rating: Not Rated

Most computer screen films take the horror film route as a cautionary tale about technology and how we use it. However, when the world was on lockdown, one screenlife film takes a look at its positive side. Simple, straightforward, and comforting, Language Lessons celebrates technology as a means for connection. Through surprise Spanish lessons purchased by his husband, Adam (Mark Duplass) forms a friendship with his instructor Cariño (Natalie Morales). At times, watching the film feels like listening into someone else’s Zoom call, however, their back-and-forth feels engaging because of Morales and Duplass’ chemistry. And when loss hits, on both sides, it’s only natural that their relationship deepens as they console each other. Expressive without being melodramatic and intimate without being too pushy, Language Lessons is a rare optimistic take towards the way we connect to each other through technology.

Genre: Comedy, Drama, Romance

Actor: Desean Terry, Mark Duplass, Natalie Morales

Director: Natalie Morales

Rating: Not Rated

Even if it doesn't provide the most comprehensive information about treatment and care for multiple sclerosis (MS)—especially for those who can't afford a ridiculously expensive stem cell transplant—this isn't really the point of Introducing, Selma Blair. This is still mostly a biographical documentary about a (self-confessed) "not-so-famous" celebrity, who gets to be incredibly honest about some of the privilege she enjoys, and how that privilege still doesn't make MS any easier. Blair's determination, her sense of humor, and her articulate way of expressing herself keep the film from descending into total sadness, but it also never shies away from the uglier, more difficult parts of her journey.

Genre: Documentary

Actor: Selma Blair

Director: Rachel Fleit

Watch this if you like weird movies. And don't be fooled by the first half, which serves just to set Jesse Eisenberg's character and the monotone life he leads. It's the calm before the storm, during which that character is attacked by a violent gang and decides to take self-defense classes in an unusual club. This is a movie about modern manhood and how it can lead to some pretty strange situations. Great performance from Eisenberg as usual.

Genre: Action, Comedy, Drama, Thriller

Actor: Alessandro Nivola, Apollo Bacala, Caroline Amiguet, Dallas Edwards, Davey Johnson, David Zellner, Frederic Spitz, Hauke Bahr, Imogen Poots, Jason Burkey, Jesse Eisenberg, Josh Fadem, Katherine Smith-Rodden, Leland Orser, Lena Friedrich, Louis Robert Thompson, Mike Brooks, Phillip Andre Botello, Steve Terada

Director: Riley Stearns

Rating: R

If you’ve ever been puzzled by “Greek life”, this documentary will go some way to demystifying that somewhat baffling phenomenon of American college culture. Bama Rush follows four hopefuls as they “rush” the University of Alabama’s sororities, a TikTok-viral weeklong recruitment process so cutthroat some candidates spend months preparing for it. The documentary digs deep into why these young women put so much time, energy, and money into joining what the film hints is a largely unforgiving and reductive element of campus life. What it finds is pretty affecting: they’re really just looking for acceptance and belonging.

Threaded throughout are director Rachel Fleit’s reflections on her own history with those motivations, having grown up with alopecia. Though it does illustrate that rushing isn’t so dissimilar from other quests for acceptance, this parallel is sometimes clunkily drawn — and can seem somewhat self-indulgent in places, given the documentary’s comparatively surface-level exploration of more systemic issues. A late development shifts Bama Rush into an even deeper self-reflexive mode, as the film itself becomes a contentious issue in the process it’s documenting. Despite its flaws, turns like this — and its participants’ extraordinary candor — help make Bama Rush an often illuminating look into an opaque world. 

Genre: Documentary, Drama

Director: Rachel Fleit

Composed of archival footage of the titular musical legend and testimonials from those who worked with him or whose lives were profoundly impacted by his courage, Little Richard: I Am Everything feels comprehensive but is also oddly lacking. The documentary makes a bold, confident claim: that all popular music today can be directly traced to his work. And when the film lets itself get into full music nerd mode, it's easy to be convinced. But after you accept that perspective on Little Richard, the rest of the movie seems like it's just spinning its wheels, covering key moments in the artist's life and career without really challenging or substantiating long-held ideas about him.

Chief among these is Little Richard's shifting feelings toward his own queerness—proudly expressing his true self one year, then openly denouncing his own homosexuality the next. This subject matter is ripe for difficult but insightful analysis, which the film just never gets around to. It begins to feel like the believes there is no more discussion to be had about him. And that may very well be true; he deserves the flowers that were denied him for so long. But this attitude doesn't necessarily make for the best documentary.

Genre: Documentary, Music

Actor: Alan Freed, Billy Porter, Elvis Presley, John Lennon, John Waters, Little Richard, Mick Jagger, Nile Rodgers, Nona Hendryx, Pat Boone, Paul McCartney, Tom Jones, Valerie June

Director: Lisa Cortés