18 Best Movies & Shows Released in 2023 On Max (HBO Max)

Staff & contributors

Find the best movies and show to watch from the year 2023. These handpicked recommendations are highly-rated by viewers and critics.

At one point in the documentary, director Kristen Lovell says, “I wanted to archive the movement that was building between transwomen and sex workers,” and that’s exactly what she achieves with The Stroll, a well-researched, creatively edited, and deeply moving account of the trans-sex-work experience that defined New York for a good chunk of the 20th century. It’s both historical and personal, touching and rousing, as it recounts a history that’s often been forgotten even among the LGBTQ+ community. To do this, Lovell digs up archival footage, brings to life long-buried data, and strikes up heartfelt conversations with survivors of The Stroll, that street in New York where Lovell and her fellow homeless escorts used to pick customers up. Thanks to Lovell’s hard work in telling this extraordinary story of struggle and success, there isn’t a moment in this film where you’re not shocked, frustrated, or exhilarated along with them.

Genre: Documentary, Drama

Actor: Laverne Cox, Michael Bloomberg, Rudolph Giuliani, RuPaul

Director: Kristen Parker Lovell, Zackary Drucker

The story of the Von Erich family is excruciatingly sad, but Iron Claw doesn’t dive right into the tragedy. Instead, it takes care to paint a picture of a close-knit family that’s filled with just as much warmth, jealousy, affection, and resentment as the next bunch. Durkin masterfully draws you into their circle so that everything that happens next is sure to cut deep. The choreography, chemistry, color—everything is carefully and beautifully set up, but the casting is what stands out the most. This wouldn’t have worked as well if it weren’t for the inspired move to pair Zac Efron, Jeremy Allen White, Harris Dickinson, and Stanley Simons as brothers and partners. On the internet, people have been dubbing The Iron Claw as “Little Women and The Virgin Suicides for men” and it’s not hard to see why. Apart from the sibling bond over glory and growing pains, all these films are also powerful explorations of gender. Iron Claw is a vicious takedown of toxic masculinity, while also being a searing family drama and an incredible showcase for Efron and company.

Genre: Drama, History

Actor: Aaron Dean Eisenberg, Brian Hite, Cazzey Louis Cereghino, Chad Governale, Chavo Guerrero Jr., Chelsea Edmundson, Christina Michelle Williams, Garrett Hammond, Harris Dickinson, Holt McCallany, Jeremy Allen White, Jim Gleason, Jullian Dulce Vida, Kevin Anton, Kristina Kingston, Lily James, Maura Tierney, Maxwell Friedman, Michael Harney, Michael Papajohn, Mike Dell, Ryan Nemeth, Scott Innes, Stanley Simons, Zac Efron

Director: Sean Durkin

Rating: R

A 100-minute highlight reel of the audacious 24-hour performance staged by artist Taylor Mac in 2016, this concert film succeeds not only in capturing the show's eclectic mix of songs, drag costumes, and interactive audience segments, but in capturing the emotional atmosphere conjured up in that Brooklyn warehouse. The very premise of the performance is ripe for analysis: a history of America starting from 1776, progressing one decade every hour, represented by selections of popular music of the time—which Mac questions at every turn, reinterpreting and reclaiming them for a contemporary queer audience. It begins as a creatively educational exercise, but gradually becomes more and more personal, until the audience is fully involved in the performances themselves.

Even the 24-hour format transcends its gimmick. That the show becomes an endurance test is deliberate, with bonds forming in real time and the exhaustion of this ever-changing drag performance conveying the weight of all this history on the most vulnerable and misrepresented sectors—who've already endured continuous losses decade after decade. And still there is cause for celebration, and genuine warmth among the people slowly becoming more vulnerable with each other over 24 hours. It's a beautiful, intelligent, frequently funny, and ultimately moving experience in a class all its own.

Genre: Documentary, Music

Actor: Anastasia Durasova, Heather Christian, Machine Dazzle Flower, Matt Ray, Niegel Smith, Taylor Mac

Director: Jeffrey Friedman, Rob Epstein

Rating: PG-13

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

There’s a lot to think about in Dream Scenario, which posits the possibility of collectively seeing the same real man in your dreams. Norwegian filmmaker Kristoffer Borgli drops the painfully ordinary Paul (Cage) in an extraordinary reality to show us how easily one can spiral into insanity, how dangerous groupthink can be, how fickle cancel culture is, and how anything can happen to anyone, even to someone as unsuspecting as Paul. But Borgli doesn’t just experiment with ideas here, he also expertly plays with sounds and transitions, sometimes even cutting a scene before someone is done talking, to capture the skittish and unreliable language of dreams. More impressively, he takes into account how this phenomenon would play in our real, profit-oriented world. The capitalistic urge to make Paul an advertising tool, for instance, or to create tech that makes it possible for others to appear in dreams too, is both uncanny and depressingly realistic. Some might feel that Borgli is biting off more than he can chew but there’s a balance and ease to Dream Scenario that makes it feel inevitable. That’s thanks to Borgli’s brilliant direction but also, in no small part, to Cage’s inspired performance as a pathetic but harmless loser.

Genre: Comedy, Fantasy, Horror, Science Fiction

Actor: Agape Mngomezulu, Al Warren, Amber Midthunder, Ben Caldwell, Conrad Coates, David Klein, Domenic Di Rosa, Dylan Baker, Dylan Gelula, James Collins, Jennifer Wigmore, Jeremy Levick, Jessica Clement, Jim Armstrong, Jordan Raf, Josh Richards, Julianne Nicholson, Kaleb Horn, Kate Berlant, Krista Bridges, Lily Bird, Lily Gao, Liz Adjei, Maev Beaty, Marc Coppola, Marnie McPhail, Michael Cera, Nicholas Braun, Nicolas Cage, Nicole Leroux, Nneka Elliott, Noah Centineo, Noah Lamanna, Philip van Martin, Ramona Gilmour-Darling, Richard Jutras, Sofia Banzhaf, Star Slade, Stephen R. Hart, Tim Meadows, Will Corno

Director: Kristoffer Borgli

Rating: R

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

The Harry Potter movies undoubtedly changed the lives of its young stars forever — but a stuntman whose future the films had more tragic consequences for is the deserved focus of this moving documentary. David Holmes was just 17 when he was hired as Daniel Radcliffe’s stunt double, a role he held throughout the series. The two formed a close brotherly bond on set, growing up alongside one another for 10 years until a terrible accident during the final movie’s filming left him paralyzed from the chest down, a condition that has deteriorated over the years following post-surgery complications. 

This doc is an inspiring portrait of David, from his fearless childhood and dream-fulfilling work to the incredible resilience he’s shown since the accident. It’s also, though, a poignant testament to the loving, supportive community that Holmes inspired at work — friendships that only reached greater depths following the accident and the end of the movies. The doc’s focus empathetically expands from Holmes’ story to include its impact on his bond with Radcliffe (who features prominently here) and Holmes’ fellow stunt doubles — and, while the sheer force of Holmes’ personality would make for a compelling documentary on its own, it’s the tenderness and honesty that all of these participants show that makes this so poignant.

Genre: Documentary

Actor: Andy Holmes, Bonnie Wright, Chris Columbus, Daniel Radcliffe, David Holmes, David Yates, Emma Watson, Greg Powell, Marc Mailley, Rupert Grint, Sue Holmes, Tolga Kenan, Tom Felton

Director: Dan Hartley

Rating: PG-13

The particulars of the scandal are enough to shock, enrage, and move anyone, but the directors of BS High also put Johnson in the hot seat and skewer the guy until they wring all ego and delusion out of him. The result is a compelling and terrifying look into a con man’s mind. Johnson alternates between justifying and denying his fraudulent ways and even tries to draw empathy from the audience by explaining his upbringing. But cleverly, the directors intercut his wild speeches with heartfelt testimonies from the real victims of this scam: the young recruits who were promised a better life if they played in Johnson’s team, only to be abused and marked for life. It’s impossible not to feel for the young men, who even up until the documentary’s end, wonder out loud how they could possibly move on from such a traumatic experience. 

Genre: Documentary

Director: Martin Desmond Roe, Travon Free

Initially, A Revolution on Canvas is about the Nodjoumi family’s quest to retrieve the patriarch’s missing paintings in post-Islamic Revolution Iran. Necessarily, it goes through Nodjoumi’s troubled childhood and shocking life as a resilient revolutionary. But the documentary eventually evolves into a knotty and heartbreaking tale about family, specifically about the sacrifices the partner of a rebel genius like Nodjoumi has to make to let the other shine. Nodjoumi’s daughter, Sara, confronts her father about his absence during their family’s formative years and, more importantly, shines a light on the sacrifices her mother--the artist Nahid Hagigat--had to make to keep them all afloat. The documentary could’ve easily been a straightforward portrait of Nodjoumi, but because it's told through such a specifically intimate lens, it’s elevated into something even more relatable and revealing.

Genre: Documentary

Actor: Nahid Hagigat, Nicky Nodjoumi, Sara Nodjoumi

Director: Sara Nodjoumi, Till Schauder

Rating: NR

"Imagine a nightmare when you had to relive your adolescence," says Cecilia Aldarondo at the beginning of her third film, You Were My First Boyfriend. Indeed, the scene recalls a teen prom that could easily be yours (if you were one of the unpopular girls): neon lights, prettier dresses that are never yours, disapproving looks, and the impression that everyone around you is having the time of their lives, while you sit awkwardly in a corner. This image sets the tone for a self-exploration in documentary form that relies on a simple, yet imaginative premise, what if you could re-enact the formative events from back then, but do so today, by directing actors to step in for your past selves. Aldarondo approaches the topic sincerely and with curiosity. Not a pang of nostalgia there, but the heartfelt doc manages to reflect on the pasts that shape us in a witty way to promote self-acceptance and, ultimately, healing.

Genre: Documentary, Drama

Actor: Cecilia Aldarondo, Gabriel Kristal, Laura Gallegos, Melissa Baker, Sarah Baker Butterfield

Director: Cecilia Aldarondo

Rating: 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

If you’re familiar with the upscale Chinese restaurant chain owner, or that Chinese boy in old 60s British films, or with his paintings, Aka Mr. Chow might surprise you because they’re one and the same. Born with two names, Zhou Yinghua and Michael Chow, Mr. Chow is just so cool that telling his life story is already interesting. From the tough immigrant experience, living alone as a boy, to his current worldwide success in film, food, and painting, it’s interesting to know that it’s possible. But the documentary dives into it, using the film medium to mirror his own creative style and artistic sensibilities. The film is able to link each of his opinions, not just with his life, but also with the historic changes in his home country. It’s an intriguing approach, if a bit superficial in certain areas, but it’s very entertaining.

Genre: Documentary

Actor: Brian Grazer, Cecilia Zhou, China Chow, Ed Ruscha, Fran Lebowitz, Julian Schnabel, Maximillian Chow, Peter Blake

Director: Nick Hooker

Alexandra, daughter of Nancy Pelosi, has been working as an documentary filmmaker for HBO for more than 20 years now and the theme of her newest work does not surprise. Turning the camera on several Jan Sixers, she asks them about that day, and whether their belief in Trump and the conservatives has changed following their jail time. Her way of being in the film, though, is very present: physically and with her voice. Pelosi places herself not just as an interviewer, but as an interlocutor, probing their statements and more often than not exclaiming "You still believe in X?!" in one way or another. The Insurrectionist Next Door is colloquial, it's comedic tragedy with a hope to bridge the gap between two opposing political beliefs: a synecdoche for America as a whole.

Genre: Documentary

Director: Alexandra Pelosi

Rating: PG-13

To call Going to Mars a somewhat shapeless documentary isn't a criticism. If anything, its flexibility of structure feels entirely appropriate for the woman at its center, who doesn't necessarily defy categorization so much as she remains on the pulse of history as it continues to shift in unexpected ways. Nikki Giovanni is a person who knows who she is and knows that she stands for the essential dignity of Black people, and it's inspiring to see how she not only remains hopeful and articulate through every critical moment, but that she insists on being ambitious for what Black people deserve to achieve in the future. As her son tells her at a speaking engagement, Giovanni doesn't just dream of going to space; she feels that it is her people's imperative to be there.

Directors Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson tell her (still ongoing) life story in a strikingly impressionistic way—cleverly playing with archival footage, but more importantly having Giovanni's candid words blending seamlessly into her poetry. This is a credit to how connected to the milieu Giovanni's work actually is, of course, but the film does a very good job defining her as someone who can bring beauty and grace out of every experience.

Genre: Documentary

Actor: Kai Giovanni, Nikki Giovanni, Novella Nelson, Taraji P. Henson, Thomas Giovanni, Touré Neblett, Virginia Fowler

Director: Joe Brewster, Michèle Stephenson

Last Stop Larrimah is the rare true-crime doc in which not a single tear is shed throughout its substantial two-hour runtime. That’s because the assumed-dead 70-year-old around whom it's centered had a lot of enemies: nearly all of his neighbors in the titular tiny Outback outpost he lived in, in fact. As the doc reveals, Larrimah — population: 10 (11 before Paddy Moriarty disappeared in 2017) — was a pressure cooker of big personalities roiling with animosity. 

Given the town’s tiny population, the film has the uncommon privilege of being able to explore the potential motives of every possible suspect — and it does, diving into vicious feuds over meat pies, hungry pet crocodiles, and the million grievances Paddy’s neighbors apparently harbored. But, though it presents all motives as equally plausible, it turns out one explanation is much more likely than the rest. That’s the problem here: like so many other true-crime docs, by the end, you can’t help but feel that the journey this takes is ultimately exploitative. Though it’s an entertaining portrait of eccentric Aussie characters, the film is much too devoted to doing just that — entertaining — at the expense of all its participants (including the unremarkable local police, for some reason), and so its late pivot into emotional profundity feels markedly insincere.

Genre: Documentary

Director: Thomas Tancred