Did you choose to subscribe to HBO Max when Warner Bros. put its entire 2021 film slate on a day-and-date release schedule? If so, that was a good call. This month alone, Godzilla vs. Kong and the new Mortal Kombat reboot are the big event releases. But the true value of HBO Max isn’t simply a series of stunt releases, it’s the vast library of Hollywood films that go back nearly a century. Some of the greatest classics and modern hits are readily available — if you can find them. To make things easier for you, we’ve put together a list of the 20 best movies on HBO Max right now.
The Mask of Zorro (1998)
There’s no shortage of superheroes on HBO Max, but Zorro is one of the pulp heroes who predates all of them. The Mask of Zorro also happens to be a nearly perfect reintroduction to the classic character. Anthony Hopkins plays the original Zorro, Don Diego de la Vega, as he is exposed and imprisoned for decades. Fortunately, Don Diego finds an ally named Alejandro Murrieta (Antonio Banderas), whom he trains to be the new Zorro. Along the way, Alejandro falls for Elena Montero (Catherine Zeta-Jones), Don Diego’s long-lost daughter, who was raised by his greatest enemy, Don Rafael Montero (Stuart Wilson).
Rotten Tomatoes: 82%
Genre: Action, Adventure
Stars: Antonio Banderas, Anthony Hopkins, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Stuart Wilson
Director: Martin Campbell
Runtime: 137 minutes
Black Dynamite (2009)
Black Dynamite is a modern sendup of ‘70s blaxploitation films, but it’s also a really terrific example of the genre. Michael Jai White stars as Black Dynamite, a Vietnam veteran and former CIA operative who comes home and takes it upon himself to avenge his brother and clean up the streets. Alongside his new love, Gloria Gray (Salli Richardson), and his ally, Cream Corn (Tommy Davidson), Black Dynamite discovers a government plot that sends him off to Kung Fu Island to confront an old nemesis. And the film only gets wilder as it goes along.
Rotten Tomatoes: 84%
Genre: Action, Comedy
Stars: Michael Jai White, Tommy Davidson, Salli Richardson
Director: Scott Sanders
Runtime: 84 minutes
La Bamba (1987)
Ritchie Valens is more famous for the way he died than for the music he created, but La Bamba flips the script by largely focusing on how Ritchie lived. Lou Diamond Phillips stars as Ritchie, as he navigates his contentious relationship with his half-brother, Bob (Esai Morales). The story also explores Ritchie’s romance with his eventual wife, Donna Ludwig (Danielle von Zerneck). As Ritchie’s star rises, his fears threaten to overwhelm him. Yet his indomitable spirit allows him to rise above and become one of rock’s first superstars.
Rotten Tomatoes: 91%
Genre: Romance, Drama, Biographical
Stars: Lou Diamond Phillips, Esai Morales, Rosanna DeSoto, Elizabeth Peña, Joe Pantoliano
Director: Luis Valdez
Runtime: 108 minutes
A League of Their Own (1992)
A League of Their Own is the fictionalized story of the women’s baseball league that emerged during World War II. Geena Davis stars as Dorothy “Dottie” Hinson, a catcher who would have turned away from her chance at baseball stardom if not for her sister and fellow player, Kit Keller (Lori Petty). Former Cubs player Jimmy Dugan (Tom Hanks) is tasked with managing the sisters on the Rockford Peaches, which also includes Doris Murphy (Rosie O’Donnell) and Mae Mordabito (Madonna). Just remember, there’s no crying in baseball. But there is a lot of heart.
Rotten Tomatoes: 78%
Genre: Comedy, Drama, Sports
Stars: Geena Davis, Tom Hanks, Madonna, Lori Petty, Jon Lovitz
Director: Penny Marshall
Runtime: 128 minutes
Gone Baby Gone (2007)
Ben Affleck’s comeback hit its stride with Gone Baby Gone, his feature-length directorial debut. However, it’s Affleck’s younger brother, Casey Affleck, who headlines the film as private investigator Patrick Kenzie. Patrick and his partner, Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan), are drawn into the case of a kidnapped four-year-old girl, Amanda McCready (Madeline O’Brien). Amanda’s mother has connections to organized crime, which forces Patrick and Angie to enlist Remy Bressant (Ed Harris) and his partner, Nick Poole (John Ashton), to back them up. But the case is anything but straightforward, and finding Amanda proves to be far more complicated than anyone expected.
Rotten Tomatoes: 94%
Genre: Drama, Thriller
Stars: Casey Affleck, Michelle Monaghan, Morgan Freeman, Ed Harris, John Ashton
Director: Ben Affleck
Runtime: 114 minutes
The Muppets creator Jim Henson explored some of his darkest themes on the big screen. His final film, Labyrinth, fully embraces that aspect of his career — and it’s arguably his best movie. Jennifer Connelly has a dazzling turn as Sarah Williams, a 16-year-old girl who resents her new half-brother, Toby (Toby Froud). When Sarah carelessly wishes that the goblins would take Toby away, it actually happens. The Goblin King, Jareth (David Bowie), offers Sarah a chance to reclaim her infant half-brother if she can survive a journey through the labyrinth in 13 hours.
Rotten Tomatoes: 72%
Stars: David Bowie, Jennifer Connelly
Director: Jim Henson
Runtime: 101 minutes
The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996)
The real Larry Flynt passed away recently, and he seemed like an odd choice to be a free speech icon. But the founder of Hustler was the subject of The People vs. Larry Flynt, with Woody Harrelson in the title role. By challenging the complaints against his porn magazine in court, Larry pushed the boundaries of what could be put into print. Courtney Love also stars as Althea Leasure, Larry’s longtime lover. Additionally, Edward Norton has a terrific turn as Larry’s lawyer, Alan Isaacman. Love him or hate him, Larry Flynt left an impact on this film and beyond.
Rotten Tomatoes: 88%
Genre: Drama, Biography
Stars: Woody Harrelson, Courtney Love, Edward Norton
Director: Miloš Forman
Runtime: 130 minutes
The Color Purple (1985)
Steven Spielberg adapted Alice Walker’s seminal novel The Color Purple to great acclaim in the mid-’80s. Whoopi Goldberg stars as Celie, an African American woman who has been abused and put-upon for her entire life. As Celie endures the abuse of her husband, Mister (Danny Glover), she finds solace and inspiration from two women in her life: Sofia (Oprah Winfrey) and a singer named Shug Avery (Margaret Avery). Through the relationships that Celie forms, she finds the strength to stand up for herself and chart her own path.
Rotten Tomatoes: 81%
Stars: Danny Glover, Whoopi Goldberg, Adolph Caesar, Oprah Winfrey, Margaret Avery, Rae Dawn Chong
Director: Steven Spielberg
Runtime: 153 minutes
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
What if a politician was everything that he or she claims to be? Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is an iconic take on that idea. James Stewart stars as Jefferson “Jeff” Smith, an idealistic young man who is named to the Senate following his predecessor’s unexpected death. Jeff finds a mentor in Senator Joseph Harrison “Joe” Paine (Claude Rains), unaware of the older man’s corruption. When Jeff’s reputation is destroyed by lies and innuendo, he pleads his case on the Senate floor in a classic filibuster scene. This is definitely a fantasy, but it’s nice to believe that happy endings can happen in the political arena.
Rotten Tomatoes: 96%
Genre: Drama, Comedy
Stars: James Stewart, Jean Arthur, Claude Rain, Edward Arnold
Director: Frank Capra
Runtime: 126 minutes
Risky Business (1983)
Who likes that old-time rock and roll? Everyone! The iconic scene of Risky Business may have Tom Cruise dancing in his briefs, but it’s still a great teen comedy after that sequence. Cruise plays Joel Goodson, an overachieving teenager who takes full advantage of his parents’ extended absence. Joel soon befriends a prostitute named Lana (Rebecca De Mornay) and begins a relationship with her. However, Lana’s unsavory pimp, Guido (Joe Pantoliano), causes complications for the young lovers and threatens to derail Joel’s plans for college and his parents’ trust.
Rotten Tomatoes: 92%
Stars: Tom Cruise, Rebecca De Mornay, Joe Pantoliano, Nicholas Pryor
Director: Paul Brickman
Runtime: 99 minutes
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Extended Edition (2003)
Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy was capped off with The Return of the King, which won Best Picture at the Oscars. The Extended Version of the film is now on HBO Max, and it includes several scenes that didn’t make it into the theatrical cut. For example, Saruman’s fate is no longer ambiguous. This is also a thrilling and satisfying wrap-up to the story that began during The Fellowship of the Ring. Just be sure to pace yourself along the way. This one clocks in at nearly four and a half hours, so it can be an endurance test for some. But it’s well worth the commitment.
Rotten Tomatoes: 93%
Genre: Fantasy, Action, Adventure, Drama
Stars: Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Liv Tyler, Viggo Mortensen, Orlando Bloom, Hugo Weaving
Director: Peter Jackson
Runtime: 263 minutes
The Departed (2006)
Would you believe that Martin Scorsese finally won a Best Director Oscar for The Departed? It’s another Best Picture winner on this list as well as a thrilling crime drama starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Billy Costigan Jr. and Matt Damon as Colin Sullivan. Billy is a cop under deep cover within the crime family led by Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson). But Frank also has Colin as a well-placed mole within the police department. As Billy and Colin become aware of each other, it becomes a race to see who can uncover their counterpart’s identity first.
Rotten Tomatoes: 91%
Genre: Crime, Thriller
Stars: Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Mark Wahlberg, Martin Sheen
Director: Martin Scorsese
Runtime: 151 minutes
No Country For Old Men (2007)
The Coen brothers are known for having a deft comedic touch in many of their films. No Country For Old Men is not one of those movies. Instead, this harrowing tale features one of the most terrifying screen villains of recent memory: Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh. After Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) comes across $2 million dollars from a blown drug deal, Anton is hired to retrieve the money at all costs. He leaves a trail of violence in his wake, which forces Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) to question both his faith and whether the world has simply passed him by. There’s no Hollywood ending to be found here, but this is a modern classic.
Rotten Tomatoes: 93%
Genre: Drama, Thriller
Stars: Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin, Woody Harrelson
Director: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Runtime: 122 minutes
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
Three decades passed between the third and fourth Mad Max movies, but that didn’t stop director George Miller from revitalizing the franchise. Mad Max: Fury Road is a brilliant follow up that casts Tom Hardy as Max Rockatansky, a role originated by Mel Gibson. More notably, this film introduced Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), and firmly established Theron as an action icon in her own right. Max and Furiosa find themselves in an alliance of convenience against Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), a would-be dictator in the post-apocalypse. Fury Road’s visceral action sequences are frequently intense and memorable. Very few movies can match the thrills of this one.
Rotten Tomatoes: 97%
Stars: Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult, Hugh Keays-Byrne
Director: George Miller
Runtime: 120 minutes
Pulp Fiction (1994)
Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction doesn’t have a traditional narrative, but it does feature some of the most unforgettable characters of the ‘90s. Hitmen Vincent Vega (John Travolta) and Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson) just can’t seem to stay out of trouble even in the aftermath of an apparent miracle. In another storyline, aging boxer Butch Coolidge (Bruce Willis) tries to skip town after ripping off mob boss Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames). Uma Thurman also steals the movie as Marsellus’ wife, Mia. These seemingly disjointed storylines come together beautifully in Tarantino’s incredibly quotable film, which remains one of his very best.
Rotten Tomatoes: 97%
Genre: Crime, Comedy
Stars: John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, Uma Thurman, Bruce Willis, Tim Roth
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Runtime: 154 minutes
Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993)
There have been many Batman movies, but Batman: Mask of the Phantasm may be the best one ever made. This isn’t an exaggeration, as the creative team and the cast behind Batman: The Animated Series created a new adversary for the Dark Knight while opening up a previously unexplored chapter in the life of Bruce Wayne (Kevin Conroy). In the past, Bruce almost walked away from his destiny as Batman to marry Andrea Beaumont (Dana Delany). But in the present, Bruce’s life is complicated by both Andrea’s return and by the emergence of the Phantasm, a vengeful vigilante whose murder spree has been blamed on Batman himself. Mark Hamill’s chillingly evil Joker is the film’s wild card, and the wonderfully dark animation truly captures the spirit of the comics that inspired this movie.
Rotten Tomatoes: 85%
Genre: Superhero, Action
Stars: Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill, Dana Delany, Hart Bochner
Director: Eric Radomski, Bruce Timm
Runtime: 76 minutes
The Invisible Man (2020)
Universal wisely moved away from its shared universe ambitions with its stand-alone horror flick The Invisible Man. Director Leigh Whannell re-envisioned H.G. Wells’ classic novel into a more modern story of terror. The actual invisible man isn’t the focus at all. Instead, the spotlight drops on Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss), a woman who is desperate to get out of her abusive relationship with the cruel Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), a wealthy entrepreneur. Upon Adrian’s death, Cecilia finds herself haunted by an unseen force that slowly destroys her life and threatens her sanity. The movie is particularly terrifying in the small moments where the audience can discern the Invisible Man’s presence right before he strikes again. The Invisible Man is a triumph, and it’s a horror film that elevates the entire genre.
Rotten Tomatoes: 91%
Genre: Sci-fi, Horror, Thriller
Stars: Elisabeth Moss, Aldis Hodge, Storm Reid
Director: Leigh Whannell
Runtime: 124 minutes
Casablanca, the Oscar-winning film that gave the world the iconic line, “Here’s looking at you, kid,” casts Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman as a pair of star-crossed lovers caught up in the dire events of World War II. Bogart portrays an American expatriate who’s forced to choose between the love of his life and the life he’s grown to love in the city of Casablanca.
Rotten Tomatoes: 99%
Genre: Romance, Drama
Stars: Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Claude Rains
Director: Michael Curtiz
Runtime: 102 minutes
Citizen Kane (1941)
Often cited as the greatest movie ever made, Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane chronicles the rise and fall of fictional newspaper magnate Charles Foster Kane, who rose from poverty to become a prominent player in American politics. Welles directed, co-wrote, produced, and starred in the film, which famously explores its titular character’s life in an attempt to discern the meaning of his dying words.
Rotten Tomatoes: 100%
Stars: Orson Welles, Dorothy Comingore, Joseph Cotten
Director: Orson Welles
Runtime: 119 minutes
Spirited Away (2001)
Acclaimed filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki and the animators at Studio Ghibli crafted this tale of a young girl who finds herself drawn into the fantastic world of Japanese Shinto folklore after an encounter with a powerful witch puts her — and her family — in danger. To date, Spirited Away remains the only hand-drawn, non-English film to win the Academy Award for the year’s Best Animated Feature and was ranked the fourth-best film of the 21st century in a 2016 poll of international film critics. You can also check out the best anime series on Netflix if you’re looking for more like this.
Rotten Tomatoes: 97%
Genre: Fantasy, Family
Stars: Rumi Hiiragi, Mari Natsuki
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Runtime: 124 minutes