The best movies on HBO Max

The best movies on HBO Max

Clockwise, from left: Bringing Up Baby (Photo: John Springer Collection/Corbis via Getty Images), 2001: A Space Odyssey (Screenshot: YouTube), Kiki’s Delivery Service (Screenshot: YouTube), Us (Screenshot: YouTube), The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring (Screenshot: YouTube)
Clockwise, from left: Bringing Up Baby (Photo: John Springer Collection/Corbis via Getty Images), 2001: A Space Odyssey (Screenshot: YouTube), Kiki’s Delivery Service (Screenshot: YouTube), Us (Screenshot: YouTube), The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring (Screenshot: YouTube)
Graphic: Erik Adams

Streaming libraries expand and contract. Algorithms are imperfect. Those damn thumbnail images are always changing. But you know what you can always rely on? The expert opinions and knowledgeable commentary of The A.V. Club. That’s why we’re scouring both the menus of the most popular services and our own archives to bring you these guides to the best viewing options, broken down by streamer, medium, and genre. Want to know why we’re so keen on a particular movie? Click the movie title at the top of each slide for some in-depth coverage from The A.V. Club’s past.

The film selection on HBO Max—a streaming service you may already have and not even realize—is vast, so consider this list a work in progress. Be sure to check back often, because we’ll be adding more recommendations as films come and go.

Looking for other movies to stream? Also check out our list of the best movies on Amazon Prime, best movies on Netflix, best movies on Disney+, and best movies on Hulu.

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2 / 94

2001: A Space Odyssey

2001: A Space Odyssey

2001: A Space Odyssey

For decades, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey has stood as a kind of primal mystery, a glimpse at forces beyond comprehension. Within film history, it serves, more or less, the same function that the vast alien monoliths serve in the movie itself. Here it was: This colossal monument to ambiguity, dropped into the middle of a late-’60s culture that must’ve found it baffling and terrifying. But those audiences reached out to touch 2001 anyway, and suddenly, all kinds of vast advancements sparked off. Special effects became headier, slicker, more immersive. Motion picture storytelling branched off into unexplored new dimensions. Mainstream film dove headlong into the psychedelic. [Tom Breihan]

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3 / 94

The 39 Steps

The 39 Steps

The 39 Steps

The McGuffin. The wrong man. An everyman hero who’s at once the pursuer and the pursued. All the classic elements of an Alfred Hitchcock movie are perfectly articulated in 1935’s The 39 Steps, which stands as both the culmination of his career to date in the UK and the genetic material for future masterpieces like Notorious and North By Northwest. Early efforts like the 1927 silent thriller The Lodger had asserted a visual style in line with the German Expressionists, and his 1938 follow-up The Lady Vanishes affirmed his gift for dry, drawing-room wit, but The 39 Steps represents the ultimate distillation of Hitchcock’s strengths. Robert Donat’s dash across the Scottish highlands may anticipate the large-scale pleasures of Cary Grant fleeing crop-dusters and scaling the face of Mount Rushmore, but the film has distinction beyond a mere warm-up. Infused with elements of screwball romantic comedy, it uses a tightly written spy story to explore issues of trust with maturity and cool sophistication. [Scott Tobias]

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4 / 94

4 Little Girls

4 Little Girls

4 Little Girls

4 Little Girls, Spike Lee’s documentary about the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, opens with Joan Baez’s recording of “Birmingham Sunday” and the gravesites bearing the names of the four girls killed in that bombing. That’s all a lot of people know of the event, other than that it served as a turning point in the civil-rights movement, and Lee’s film attempts to correct that oversight. 4 Little Girls tells the story in full, with emphasis on the volatile environment leading up to the bombing. Martin Luther King called Birmingham “the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States,” and within it, the 16th Street Baptist Church played a key role in the mounting protests of the early ’60s. Bombing it was meant to strike a critical blow to the protesters, and part of the reason it didn’t can be found in the resilience evident in interviews with the victims’ families and other survivors. As emotional as most of them get, they also find a way to convey their still-strong dedication to the principles for which the four girls served as unfortunate martyrs. 4 Little Girls is an important act of historical preservation, a focused and effective film that brings back a dark, important moment in history with startling clarity. [Keith Phipps]

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5 / 94

The 400 Blows

The 400 Blows

The 400 Blows

The 400 Blows became, for a time, a de facto mission statement for an entire movement. As it would happen, it also gave the world one of the most beloved recurring characters in the history of the movies. Over the course of five films (four features and one short) and two decades, François Truffaut affectionately chronicled the progress of his fictional alter ego, Antoine Doinel, whose teenage truancy eventually gives way to a reluctant adulthood flush with professional follies and romantic obsessions. The actor Jean-Pierre Léaud—who was a troublemaking eighth-grader himself when Truffaut cast him in The 400 Blows—would go on to become an emblem for the New Wave as a whole, embarking on a host of memorable collaborations not only with Truffaut but also with more formally adventurous and expressly political filmmakers like Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Rivette, and Jean Eustache. [Benjamin Mercer]

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6 / 94

8 1/2

8 1/2

8 1/2

From our Inventory of 14 panicky works about growing older: The title of Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2 refers to the number of titles in his filmography, and the nervous breakdown his alter ego, played by Marcello Mastroianni, suffers in the process of trying to make a new movie. 8 1/2 is understood as one of the great films about filmmaking, a vital and spontaneous expression of the anxiety and creative stasis that can grip even the most imaginative of artists. Yet it’s also tied unmistakably to a fear of death—just as Mastroianni’s ideas threaten to dissipate, and the pressures of playing ringmaster to a cinematic circus are too great to bear, his life could evaporate right along with it. The very existence of 8 1/2 gives Fellini no cause for alarm, since the crisis itself bears another kind of creative fruit, but the film is fraught with a tension and panic that couldn’t entirely be exorcised. Only few years later, Fellini spent a month in a nursing home after experiencing a real nervous breakdown. [Scott Tobias]

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7 / 94

Adam’s Rib

Adam’s Rib

Adam’s Rib

Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy made nine films together, most of them frothy comedies which pitted the lovebirds against each other in games of friendly, stubborn competition. Of these movies, the one everyone seems to remember most fondly is Adam’s Rib. Part of that could be the peerless filmmaking happening around the two stars: The opening scene of a fed-up housewife (Judy Holliday) stalking her cheating husband through New York plays like a vivid snapshot of the city circa the late ’40s, and director George Cukor employs an unusually large number of long takes, often allowing the inspired spats between his leads to play out in unbroken real time. But the much more likely explanation for the film’s enduring popularity has to be the way it took the gender politics underlying many of the duo’s collaborations and made them the full-fledged focus. Hepburn, whose characters sometimes fought for the equal footing they deserved, was here charged with waging cultural war on behalf of all women. The film’s ballyhooed battle of the sexes has real stakes, or at least did in 1949. [A.A. Dowd]

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8 / 94

The Adventures Of Robin Hood

The Adventures Of Robin Hood

The Adventures Of Robin Hood

The Adventures Of Robin Hood brings to life a storybook 12th-century England that, in the absence of crusading king Richard the Lionhearted, is under the sway of Richard’s tax-hungry brother John (Claude Rains) and his henchman Basil Rathbone. Led by Errol Flynn as Robin Hood, a pocket of good-spirited, colorfully attired resisters remains loyal to the true king, and to redistributing the excess wealth of the rich among the poor. It’s easy to see why the tale of a witty, morally committed hero with a particular affinity for the less fortunate would have special appeal as the end of the Great Depression faded into WWII, but taken out of context, The Adventures Of Robin Hood still earns its reputation as studio-created escapism of the first order. Flynn is every inch the movie star in a performance that emphasizes the merriness of the famed merry men, as he traipses through the well-established moments of his character’s legend, but he lets the mirth melt away in his tender moments with Olivia de Havilland’s Maid Marian. [Keith Phipps]

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9 / 94

Ali: Fear Eats The Soul

Ali: Fear Eats The Soul

Ali: Fear Eats The Soul

Made only two years after the calamitous 1972 Olympics in Munich, where Israeli athletes were taken hostage and later killed by Palestinian terrorists after a botched rescue attempt by German authorities, Ali: Fear Eats The Soul openly examines the racial tension between natives and Arab immigrants. In the opening scene, director Rainer Werner Fassbinder introduces a pair of absurdly mismatched dance partners: El Hedi ben Salem, a handsome Moroccan laborer in his 40s, and Brigitte Mira, a dowdy German housecleaner more than 20 years his senior. Ducking into a bar on a rainy night, Mira is shunned by the blonde bartender (Barbara Valentin) and the mostly Arab clientele, but Salem reaches out to her, in a gesture based less on attraction than defiance. Their relationship starts on a dare, but it grows on their shared loneliness and need for companionship, leading to a shotgun marriage that enrages Mira’s grown children and alienates her from her neighbors and coworkers. But just when the two seem cast off as victims, Fassbinder flips the entire premise on its head, showing how their bond relies on (and feeds off of) the same cruel machinations used to pry them apart. The radical turns in Ali’s second half are abrupt and disconcerting, yet they operate on the unshakable logic that no one can be fully extricated from the world around them; even goodhearted folks like Salem and Mira wind up perpetuating the conditions that exploit them. [Scott Tobias]

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10 / 94

Alien

Alien

Alien

Released in 1979 at the tail end of a wave of science-fiction films, Ridley Scott’s Alien filled the future with a monster borrowed from the oldest reaches of the psyche, a pitiless creature dedicated only to devouring and reproducing, designed by H.R. Giger for maximum Freudian implication. Scott has said he set out to make a cross between 2001 and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and his wish is reflected in the result: a nightmare set in the chill of a disappointing future. [Keith Phipps]

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11 / 94

Aliens

Aliens

Aliens

If there’s a glimmer of hope that James Cameron won’t be wasting his talent with four more rounds of Avatar, it lies in the knowledge that this maestro of blockbusters is also, generally speaking, a master of sequels. The director knew how to expand his stone-cold Terminator into an awesome multiplex epic. Before that, he achieved the even more daunting feat of pulling a new sci-fi classic out of the shadow of an old one. Rather than try to replicate the glacial deep-space dread of a Ridley Scott movie arguably even better than Blade Runner, Aliens stomps on the gas, stranding an unfrozen Ripley (tough-as-nails Sigourney Weaver) on an outpost crawling with acid-bleeding creatures, alongside a platoon of over-armed but severely underprepared space marines. Few action or war movies released in the decades since can match Aliens for sheer adrenaline-junkie intensity, but there’s something affecting about its emotional arc, too—about the way Cameron turns the déjà vu storytelling logic of sequels into warped immersion therapy, allowing Ripley to overcome the trauma of Alien (and the loss of her daughter) by rushing back into the monster-blasting fray. It’s not a redo. It’s a rebirth, bursting bloody and triumphant from the cold body of a perfect genre specimen. [A.A. Dowd]

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12 / 94

Alien³

Alien³

Alien³

If Ridley Scott’s deep-space classic Alien and James Cameron’s superlative, action-packed Aliens were perfect genre specimens, Alien³ is something else entirely: gloriously imperfect art, bursting bloody and beautiful from the carcass of a blockbuster boondoggle. By now, the film’s troubled gestation has become the stuff of legend, a Hollywood cautionary tale. Whole screenplays, creative teams, and narrative directions were tossed out before David Fincher, then a music-video veteran with no features under his belt, landed at the helm of this doomed vessel. The director, who sparred with both the studio and star Sigourney Weaver, would end up disowning the movie. Audiences were lukewarm, resulting in lackluster box-office. Reviews were mixed at best. As far as just about everyone was concerned, Alien³ was stillborn. But the film’s flaws, the telltale signs of its tumultuous production, can’t obscure the singularity of its vision. More DOA “mistakes” of franchise extension should be so bold. [A.A. Dowd]

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13 / 94

All Of Me

All Of Me

All Of Me

Steve Martin has called 1984’s All Of Me the beginning of his “mature film career”—a break from the loosely structured assemblages of surreal vignettes like The Jerk and The Lonely Guy, as well as the winking genre homages Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, Pennies From Heaven, and The Man With Two Brains. Unlike those earlier films, Martin said, All Of Me was like an old-fashioned movie, with an actual narrative structure and a character whose complexities went beyond mere idiot or asshole. Martin’s Roger Cobb was a reasonably smart, somewhat ordinary guy whose motivations were both understandable and defined by circumstance, however fantastically absurd. He was a real human, in other words, not just a spoof of one.

That All Of Me also finds Martin getting hit on the head with a magic vase, then accidentally sharing his body with the soul of a sassy woman, illustrates the sliding scale of “maturity” we’re working with here. After all, Martin would still do big, goofball comedies—not just in All Of Me, but subsequent movies like Three Amigos and Little Shop Of Horrors—and it’s a far cry from the augustly serious, playwright-and-art-collector Steve Martin seen in The Spanish Prisoner and Shopgirl. But All Of Me, for the first time, showed that Martin had untapped depth behind his ironic veneer, a sympathetic humanity he would explore to great success in films like Roxanne, Parenthood, and Father Of The Bride before it tipped into the maudlin in myriad early-’90s dramedies. [Sean O’Neal]

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14 / 94

American Splendor

American Splendor

American Splendor

It’s hard to choose the more impressive achievement of Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini’s big-screen adaptation of Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor comics: the assured, casually experimental blend of documentary, animation, and naturalist comedy, or the way Berman and Pulcini assemble 30 years of Pekar stories into one thematically consistent piece, incisively capturing his guiding principle that commoners have as much to say as kings. [Noel Murray]

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15 / 94

Another Earth

Another Earth

Another Earth

Nominally speaking, Another Earth is science fiction, but it’s more concerned with mood and metaphysics than science. When a second Earth appears in the sky, apparently populated by exact duplicates of the people on our planet, no one is concerned with silly practical issues of gravitational forces, orbits, or tides; instead, American society erupts into pained soul-searching, wondering what the event means to humanity, and what it would be like for a person to meet their exact duplicate. The question hangs over the film, making for an introspective journey; this isn’t When Worlds Collide so much as The Double Life Of Véronique in a modern American setting, with a touch of Hal Hartley melancholy, whimsy, and an atmospheric indie soundtrack. [Tasha Robinson]

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16 / 94

Apocalypse Now

Apocalypse Now

Apocalypse Now

When novice filmmakers John Milius and George Lucas hatched a plan to adapt Joseph Conrad’s psychological adventure novel Heart Of Darkness as a Vietnam War movie, shot in Vietnam, they found a backer in Francis Ford Coppola, a committed idealist and godfather of the “film-school brats.” Then the project stalled, and by the mid-’70s, Lucas was making Star Wars, Milius had become a studio hand, and Coppola’s rule-breaking production company American Zoetrope was foundering. So Coppola claimed Apocalypse Now for himself and headed to the Philippines to shoot it with a big cast and big effects, looking to make a semi-improvised art film on a blockbuster budget, and maybe re-spark the imagination of his whole co-opted generation.

Some moments in Apocalypse Now succeed thrillingly at marrying abstraction and money, like the mesmerizing, unblinking opening shot of a jungle going up in flames. But Coppola ultimately bows to the rigid demands of the narrative, which has Special Forces agent Martin Sheen heading upriver to confront unhinged colonel Marlon Brando. The movie is partly about how the U.S. war machine comes equipped with American excess, and as Coppola famously pointed out in his 1979 Cannes press conference, Apocalypse Now’s production mirrored its theme. Too many disposable resources and too much fear of failure corrupted a simple idea, making it simultaneously pretentious and plain. Only occasionally did Coppola let the story’s episodic structure and the crutch of Sheen’s narration (written by war correspondent Michael Herr) give himself license to explore pure cinematic texture, in sequences where the action curdles into absurdity. [Noel Murray]

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17 / 94

Ashes And Diamonds

Ashes And Diamonds

Ashes And Diamonds

Remembered by many as “the Polish James Dean,” Zbigniew Cybulski won international fame in the role of an idealistic young resistance member who takes the post-war assignment of gunning down a mid-level Communist functionary. Wearing dark sunglasses that underline his cool nonchalance, Cybulski spends hours waiting for his target in a hotel, where he bides his time by flirting with a blonde bartender (Ewa Krzyzewska) who immediately captures his heart. Suddenly, his priorities are thrown into disarray: Does he continue to fight for a dubious cause, or abandon his post for love? During the spectacular climactic sequence, set against the celebratory fireworks display overhead, Ashes And Diamonds delivers a supremely ironic answer. [Scott Tobias]

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18 / 94

Autumn Sonata

Autumn Sonata

Autumn Sonata

A chamber piece for a handful of actors, Autumn Sonata stars frequent Ingmar Bergman collaborator Liv Ullmann and first-time Bergman star Ingrid Bergman as a mother and daughter who reunite after seven years to spend a long, dark night turning over their differences. With cinematographer Sven Nykvist, the director turns the film’s theatrical elements—the soliloquies, the long exchanges—into virtues, creating a film that’s alternately warm, claustrophobic, and brutally raw, telling the story largely through long close-ups and close, two-character compositions. It doesn’t hurt that they’re given the remarkable performances of Ullmann and Ingrid Bergman to work with. [Keith Phipps]

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19 / 94

Babe: Pig In The City

Babe: Pig In The City

Babe: Pig In The City

As its title makes clear, Babe: Pig In The City leaves the farm for the more uncertain perils of a sprawling metropolis. Stepping behind the camera after co-writing (with director Chris Noonan) and producing Babe, Miller sacrifices none of the hyperkinetic style he brought to the three Mad Max movies and the underrated Lorenzo’s Oil, which made something operatic out of disease-of-the-week material. Seen through the eyes of his loveable, often Damon Runyon-esque animals, Miller’s urban landscape is an overwhelming, frightening, chaotic, and sometimes cruel place, and the film makes no attempt to soften it up for the younger set. Off the farm, these creatures are as lost as the wayward boys sent to “Pleasure Island” in Pinocchio, though Miller doesn’t manage anything quite as chilling as a curse that transforms young hoodlums into donkeys. [Scott Tobias]

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20 / 94

Bad Education

Bad Education

Bad Education

The first time we see Frank Tassone, the beloved public-school administrator Hugh Jackman plays in Bad Education, he’s striding onto the stage of an auditorium to a roar of applause. It’s his night, a celebration of his achievements—though, as we’ll quickly come to see, he spends most days in the spotlight, too, basking in the admiration of colleagues, students, and parents alike. Frank, who puts the super in superintendent, is head of a Long Island school district that, under his stewardship, has reached the top of the national rankings. Wandering from meeting to meeting in his finely pressed suits, a warm grin perpetually plastered across his face, he has the poise (and popularity) of a Kennedy—and indeed, Frank approaches the job with a politician’s savvy, committing names and interests to memory. But the real key to his success may be that he actually gives a damn. In movie terms, it’s as if one of the carpe diem heroes of an inspirational-teacher drama rose through the ranks, spreading his zeal for education to the whole district.

That, anyway, is how Frank would probably prefer to frame his story. Bad Education tells a different version, ripped from the headlines and shaped into something far removed from the genre of gifted classroom mentors and the young lives they touch. The real Tassone, as some may remember, was at the center of New York’s Roslyn Public Schools scandal, in which a couple of high-ranking administrators embezzled millions of dollars of taxpayer money. Screenwriter Mike Makowsky, who grew up in the community and went to a Rosyln school the year the financial fraud came to light, dramatizes this national news into an engrossing procedural of white-collar crime. Cooking the books may sound like dry subject matter, but the film gives it a jolt of psychological urgency by building a whole house-of-cards narrative around a character of compelling contradiction: a con artist who’s managed to square his genuine commitment to the community (and the future of its children) with his betrayal of it. [A.A. Dowd]

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21 / 94

Batman

Batman

Batman

In a lot of ways, Batman represents fairly pedestrian blockbuster filmmaking. The pacing is slow, the plotting occasionally incoherent. Too many of the action scenes are people wearing black clothes fighting in the dark, and you can’t see shit. There are plenty of sharp, fun character moments, but the movie still feels like it’s lumbering along to its inevitable explosive conclusion—a problem that’s haunted superhero movies ever since. But the thing that makes the movie stand out—the thing that all the critics at the time immediately commented on—was how the movie looked. Because no movie had ever really looked like that before. [Tom Breihan]

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22 / 94

Batman Returns

Batman Returns

Batman Returns

To really enjoy Batman Returns, which is not exactly a difficult thing to do, you have to give yourself over to its triumphant silliness. Before a single word is spoken in the movie, we see an infant Penguin eat a cat as Pee-Wee Herman himself, Paul Reubens, takes a long, resigned drink. Selina Kyle, in her pre-Catwoman harried-secretary guise, has a giant pink-neon “hello there” sign in her apartment—something that could only exist so that she can, in her transformation, smash a couple of letters and turn it into “hell here.” When Christopher Walken’s Max Shreck meets his death by electrocution, he comes out looking like an Iron Maiden cover art. There is nothing about Batman Returns that even nods in the general direction of realism, and that’s why the movie is great. [Tom Breihan]

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23 / 94

The Battle Of Algiers

The Battle Of Algiers

The Battle Of Algiers

Are truth and objectivity sufficient to create a masterpiece? Some think so, certainly—The Battle Of Algiers regularly shows up on lists of the greatest war movies ever made (and sometimes shows up on lists of the greatest movies ever made, irrespective of genre). Dramatically, the film suffers a bit from the same shapelessness that afflicts biopics and other heavily fact-based pictures, registering as a succession of loosely connected events, rather than as a discrete object sculpted from the clay of history. Pontecorvo’s choice to mimic the visual aesthetic of documentaries—at which he succeeded so well that the original American distributor made a point of boasting that not a frame of newsreel footage appears—was both revolutionary and hugely influential; most of today’s roughhewn docudramas have some Algiers in their DNA. It’s that formal genius, along with Ennio Morricone’s anxious, staccato score, that truly endures, and will continue to do so long after heated debates about the phrase “radical Islam” have finally died. [Mike D’Angelo]

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24 / 94

Battleship Potemkin

Battleship Potemkin

Battleship Potemkin

The historical mistreatment of Sergei Eisenstein’s agit-prop classic Battleship Potemkin demonstrates how movies made for express political purposes can be buffeted by the winds of change. Upon its release in 1925, Potemkin was hailed as a masterpiece, as much for the way it dramatized the emotions behind the communist revolution as for its innovative use of montage. But Eisenstein told the story of a sailors’ revolt maybe too well, with too much artistic detail. In a depressed pre-Nazi Germany, officials worried that the film would foment revolt among the military and police. In the Soviet Union, the powers that be gradually whittled away Eisenstein’s original vision by mandating the inclusion of more patriotic music, and the exclusion of quotes by disgraced political leaders. And in the U.S., unadulterated prints were hard to come by, since American distributors could only deal with European companies that had made their own alterations. [Noel Murray]

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25 / 94

Beauty And The Beast (1946)

Beauty And The Beast (1946)

Beauty And The Beast (1946)

From our Inventory of 90 movies that should’ve received an Oscar nomination for Best Picture: The Academy had no separate category to recognize foreign-language films until 1956, so it’s no surprise that Jean Cocteau’s visually striking magical romance Beauty And The Beast went unrecognized. Cocteau, who cut his teeth with such avant-garde fare as The Blood Of A Poet, elevates the classic tale of tormented Belle and cursed Beast by bathing every frame with Freudian imagery or otherworldly opulence. To quote the late Roger Ebert, “Blood Of A Poet was an art film made by a poet,” whereas, “Beauty And The Beast was a poetic film made by an artist.” [Leonardo Adrian Garcia]

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26 / 94

Behind The Candelabra

Behind The Candelabra

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Behind The Candelabra

Steven Soderbergh’s Behind The Candelabra is, like many Soderbergh films, made up of a great many things. There are elements of wry comedy here—particularly from a plastic surgeon played by Rob Lowe—just as there are heartbreaking moments of relationship drama, scenes where Scott (Matt Damon) and Liberace (Michael Douglas) tear each other’s throats out. Yet what’s most impressive about the film is how it creates a sustained argument about the progress of the gay rights movement in the United States. With no actual, legal connection between Scott and Liberace, the two are forced into ever more complicated convolutions, and when the relationship inevitably crumbles, Scott has no legal protection when the pianist takes everything. This is a story about two men who were in love, then gradually fell out of that love, but it’s also a story about how the lack of legal protection for them (as well as Liberace’s terror of how society would react if he were outed) hounded them every step of the way. It’s pitched between quiet, intimate scenes with Scott and “Lee,” as he likes to be called, lounging around, enjoying each other’s company, and that old woman’s stare, with everything that hides behind it. [Emily VanDerWerff]

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27 / 94

Belle De Jour

Belle De Jour

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Belle De Jour

From the outside, Catherine Deneuve’s protagonist in Belle De Jour has everything a Parisian woman of the 1960s could want. She’s married to a comically handsome man (Jean Sorel) whose career as a surgeon allows her tremendous comfort and seemingly endless leisure. They vacation in luxury and enjoy each other’s company. Sex, however, is another matter. He wants it. She doesn’t. Or at least that isn’t all she wants. Directed by Luis Buñuel, Belle De Jour begins by dramatizing one of Deneuve’s fantasies. Riding in a carriage with Sorel, she rejects his advances. He responds by tying her to a tree, flogging her, then telling her coachmen to have their way with her. The expression on her face reveals that the degradation has stirred something deep inside her. Then she wakes up to the less-satisfying real world. [Keith Phipps]

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28 / 94

Belly

Belly

Belly

“Ambitious” doesn’t begin to describe it. Belly is far from a perfect film, but it radiates talent, both from director Hype Williams and the musicians he captured at their commercial and artistic peak. As the tellingly named “Sincere,” Nas plays the conscious, quiet gangster, eventually ditching his life of crime for one in Africa. While the first-time actor struggles hilariously with his more tender lines, he’s right at home musing philosophically to a kid headed down the wrong path. Williams knows exactly how to play to the rapper’s real-life image as a boy-wonder poet, a trick he pulls again with DMX, also making his acting debut, who inhabits his character with a prowling, alpha-male energy. Williams took a risk on the rapper, who had yet to release a record when filming began but ended up releasing a debut just a few months before Belly and a follow-up just a few months after. Both were smashes. His guttural, haunted music was way ahead of its time—every sad SoundCloud rapper on the planet owes him their face tattoos—and Williams captured his star right at its ascendancy. X never recaptured the glory of ’98, but Belly stands as testament to the ferocity and charisma that made him famous. It’s also a testament to the narrative film career Williams might’ve had. Belly can be laughable and it sometimes falls flat on its face, but the movie’s action scenes and sense of place exhibit preternatural skill. And, if it even needs to be said, the director’s love of music is palpable, turning tracks like Sister Nancy’s “Bam Bam” and D’Angelo’s “Devil’s Pie” into moments of bleary, blunt-puffing beauty. [Clayton Purdom]

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29 / 94

Bicycle Thieves

Bicycle Thieves

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Photo: Criterion

Bicycle Thieves

Though Americans generally know the film as The Bicycle Thief, the Criterion edition restores the proper translation of the title, which better suggests the story’s cruel symmetry. As the great French theorist André Bazin noted, the premise wouldn’t warrant “two lines in a stray-dog column”: In a Rome crippled by mass unemployment, Lamberto Maggiorani scores precious work pasting movie posters to city walls, but the job requires a bicycle, and when Maggiorani’s is stolen, he and his son Enzo Staiola search for the thief. At stake is nothing short of his family’s survival, and when his investigation yields no justice, Maggiorani has to make a heartbreaking compromise. [Scott Tobias]

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30 / 94

The Bitter Tears Of Petra Von Kant

The Bitter Tears Of Petra Von Kant

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The Bitter Tears Of Petra Von Kant

If one includes works made for German television, The Bitter Tears Of Petra Von Kant was Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 13th feature… which is damn remarkable, given that he’d only gotten started three years earlier, in 1969, and was still busily working in theater at the time. Indeed, Petra Von Kant is adapted from Fassbinder’s stage production, which had premiered the year before; like the play, the movie is set entirely in its protagonist’s apartment, mostly within a few feet of her bed. Nonetheless, this is arguably Fassbinder’s first film to take full advantage of cinema’s unique qualities—so much so, in fact, that it’s sometimes difficult to imagine how it could have worked onstage. It functions reasonably well as a straightforward, agonized melodrama, but it’s first and foremost a master class—co-taught by famed cinematographer Michael Ballhaus (Goodfellas, The Fabulous Baker Boys, Quiz Show), who got his start with Fassbinder—in the dynamic visual use of a constricted space, and proof that a tiny budget is no excuse. [Mike D’Angelo]

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31 / 94

Black Girl

Black Girl

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Black Girl

Ousmane Sembène’s debut feature, Black Girl, is commonly cited as the first major film to come out of Sub-Saharan Africa, despite the fact that much of the movie is set in France. Its place in film history has less to do with its production (which was French enough to qualify for France’s Prix Jean Vigo, which Black Girl won in 1966) than with its perspective.

Black Girl was the first feature made in Senegal, and the first feature about black Africans to have been written and directed by a black African. No other national or cultural cinema started as confidently. The movie—about a young woman who takes a seemingly cushy job as maid and nanny to a French couple in Dakar, and then accompanies them back to France—is at once a humanist drama, a portrait of Senegalese life in the 1960s, a study of race relations in France, and a personal statement on post-colonial Africa’s relationship to Europe and the rest of the world. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

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32 / 94

Black Narcissus

Black Narcissus

Black Narcissus

In his memoir A Life In Movies, the late British director Michael Powell explained that after WWII, he became interested in the concept of the “composed film,” and began shaping his pictures to have the abstract emotional resonance of great music, rather than the plainness of narrative. His first clear nod in that direction was 1947's Black Narcissus, a spiritual melodrama that climaxes in an exaggerated incident of violence which Powell assembled, he writes, as “an opera, in the sense that music, emotion, image, and voices all blended together into a new and splendid whole.” Black Narcissus was the 11th collaboration between Powell and screenwriter Emeric Pressburger, and the sixth of 12 films that the men would release under the production credit “The Archers.” It remains a rapturous, near-indescribable work of cinematic art, spun from a simple story about nuns who travel to the Himalayas to start a school and a hospital, only to have mountain winds and native mysticism weaken their confidence and their faith. [Noel Murray]

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33 / 94

Black Orpheus

Black Orpheus

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Black Orpheus

It isn’t often that a movie commences with a perfect summary of its own appeal. But that’s exactly what Black Orpheus does. Marcel Camus’ 1959 melodrama opens on a marble statue of its mythological namesake, a tableau of Greek tragedy set to the gentle strum of an acoustic ballad. But after no more than 10 seconds (and immediately following the appearance of the title), this black-and-white image seems to shatter into a hundred star-shaped shards. They fall away to reveal the film’s next and much more illustrative image: men smiling, dancing, and playing music under the Brazilian sun. The first shot prepares you for a funeral. The second one announces a celebration. [A.A. Dowd]

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34 / 94

BlacKkKlansman

BlacKkKlansman

BlacKkKlansman

Based, as the opening credits pronounce, on “some fo real, fo real shit,” Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman is a riotous mess of contradictions: a true story that seems too outrageous to actually be true, a period piece that’s also a red-alert bulletin on current affairs, a very funny comedy about the very unfunny business of white supremacy. Dramatizing the exploits of a black cop who managed to bullshit his way into the Klu Klux Klan, Lee has, for the first time in forever, tapped right into the turbulent spirit of the cultural moment, making a rat-a-tat zeitgeist entertainment that feels as timely as breaking news. [A.A. Dowd]

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35 / 94

Blindspotting

Blindspotting

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Photo: Lionsgate

Blindspotting

If Sorry To Bother You presents a head-trip, music-video vision of trying to get by in Oakland, California, then Blindspotting offers a more grounded tour of the city, addressing some of the same or related problems: racism, gentrification, systemic oppression. Given the proximity of the two movies , Blindspotting has every opportunity to look more staid, earnest, and traditionalist in its approach to the subject matter. As it turns out, this may be why such a small-scale, sometimes predictable drama can still feel, at times, downright revelatory: It crackles to life without a surfeit of surface flash.

That’s not to say that Blindspotting lacks style or energy. Director Carlos López Estrada indulges in quick-hit close-ups but also frequently lets his camera just linger on best friends Collin (Daveed Diggs) and Miles (Rafael Casal) as they walk around Oakland or goof on each other in a locker room. Despite the jocularity, Collin has to be cautious. He’s staring down the last three days of probation, eager to leave his curfew-dependent halfway house and maybe rekindle his relationship with Val (Janina Gavankar), who also works the front desk at the moving company that employs both Collin and Miles. Collin sometimes has to cover for Miles, who will show up late to work or curse out a well-to-do Whole Foods shopper too focused on his phone to notice when he’s blocked the moving truck in. More urgently, Miles is the type of friend who will buy an illegal firearm out of a car with his on-probation buddy along for the transaction, very much against his will. [Jesse Hassenger]

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36 / 94

The Blob

The Blob

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Screenshot: YouTube

The Blob

Whatever its flaws as a film, a none-too-scary monster chief among them, The Blob is a uniquely compelling monster movie. The decision to shoot in Technicolor, largely on real locations in Pennsylvania, invests it with a high-’50s feel money couldn’t buy. The remarkable seriousness the actors, particularly method disciple Steve McQueen, bring to the material makes the film difficult to dismiss as mere camp. So does a finale that unites the entire town, teens and grown-ups alike, in an all-metaphors-aside fight against an alien threat, a moment that seems to confirm historian Bruce Eder’s description of The Blob as “like watching some kind of collective home movie of who we were and who we thought we were.” Or maybe it’s simply the best film ever to pit hot-rodding teens against a mass of silicone. It delivers the goods any way you look at it. [Keith Phipps]

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37 / 94

Blood Simple

Blood Simple

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Photo: Sunset Boulevard (Corbis Historical/Getty Images)

Blood Simple

Imagine two brothers who’ve never set foot on a feature film set showing up on your doorstep and saying, “Hello, we’ve got this trailer, can we project it on your wall? Then maybe you’ll invest in our darkly comic thriller starring an actress you’ve never heard of.” Would you say no? If so, you just missed out on Blood Simple. This trailblazing neo-noir would be significant for its funding strategy alone, but it also launched the careers of Carter Burwell, Barry Sonnenfeld, Frances McDormand, and, yes, the Coen brothers. All off the strength of a trailer for a movie that didn’t exist yet. It boggles the mind. [Allison Shoemaker]

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38 / 94

Body Heat

Body Heat

Body Heat

Even before he drove up the value of the Motown back catalog and set off a nostalgia wave with The Big Chill, writer-director Lawrence Kasdan had already established himself as a savvy recycler of pop culture’s past. Kasdan’s scripts for Raiders Of The Lost Ark and The Empire Strikes Back paid reverent homage to adventure and science-fiction serials, respectively. More importantly, Kasdan helped resurrect the shadowy world of film noir, and he set off a neo-noir boom with his justly acclaimed directorial debut, 1981’s Body Heat.

Set during a Florida heat wave so viscerally conveyed that the film stock itself seems to be perspiring, Kasdan’s loose Double Indemnity redux casts William Hurt as a low-rent lawyer unencumbered by excesses of intelligence or integrity. When Hurt meets unhappily married sexpot Kathleen Turner, his already shaky sense of morality takes a dive, and before long, the hormone-crazed lovebirds are plotting the murder of Turner’s wealthy husband (Richard Crenna). Since the hapless, overmatched Hurt might as well have “patsy” written in permanent ink on his sweat-stained forehead, the suspense comes from seeing how his poorly laid plan will fall apart. In Body Heat’s superior second half, the noose around Hurt’s neck tightens slowly but surely as it becomes apparent just how powerless he’s been from the beginning. Turner’s sly femme fatale allows Hurt to think he’s the master of his own destiny when he’s really just obliviously following her script. [Nathan Rabin]

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39 / 94

Bonnie And Clyde

Bonnie And Clyde

Bonnie And Clyde

An unsettling mix of fleet-footed comedy, mismatched romance, and casual, soul-sapping violence, Bonnie And Clyde has lost none of its unsettling power. Arthur Penn and his star Warren Beatty had studied the New Wave well; their appreciation was apparent in their previous project, 1965’s Mickey One, a paranoid comedy set in Chicago. Here they turned homage into the beginnings of a new American approach to film. It’s the movie without which any of the maverick classics to come couldn’t have happened, but its greatness is all its own. [Keith Phipps]

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40 / 94

Bound

Bound

Illustration for article titled The best movies on HBO Max

Bound

To say Bound is a double-meaning title understates the way the Wachowskis thread the concept into the fabric of the movie, where Jennifer Tilly and Gina Gershon are bound literally, bound to each other, bound to the powerful men who control their destinies, and bound by their own ideas about what intimacy could mean for them. Since this is a crime film, getting unbound involves a plan to steal $2 million in mob money and run off together, but the Wachowskis remain conscious of how their theme is developing, even as they choreograph suspenseful setpieces with a “Look, ma!” flair that’s only occasionally distracting. The stakes are high, but to the Wachowskis’ credit, the question isn’t “Will they get away with the money?” but “Will they make it out together (with their lives and their tenuous trust intact)?” That’s a different level of engagement than the crime genre usually encourages. [Scott Tobias]

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41 / 94

Boys Don’t Cry

Boys Don’t Cry

Illustration for article titled The best movies on HBO Max

Boys Don’t Cry

From our retrospective list of 1999’s best movies: More so than most of the other movies on this list, Boys Don’t Cry feels like a product of a different time. Even the most glowing contemporaneous reviews couldn’t get the pronouns right (they were heavy on deadnaming and talk of “gender confusion”), and elements of the film itself—including having a cis woman, Hilary Swank, play a trans man—are pretty dated, too. All the same, there’s undiminished, howling empathy to Kimberly Peirce’s ripped-from-the-headlines drama about Brandon Teena, who was raped and murdered by acquaintances when they discovered he was transgender. Though Boys Don’t Cry builds, with gut-wrenching inexorability, to Brandon’s death, it’s every bit as sincerely interested in envisioning what his life might have looked like—in investigating his dreams, his rebellious spirit, and how he navigated the rural Nebraska of 1993. And though the casting may look like a mistake from the vantage of our marginally more enlightened now, Swank’s Oscar-winning performance retains its vitality and power, conveying the adrenaline rush of being who you really are, no matter the risk. [A.A. Dowd]

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42 / 94

Breaking The Waves

Breaking The Waves

Breaking The Waves

It’s hard to remember now, but Lars Von Trier had a radically different reputation back in 1996, when Breaking The Waves premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. His previous features, from The Element Of Crime (1984) to Europa (1991, released in the U.S. as Zentropa), had been audacious exercises in pure style, offering viewers little in the way of an emotional foothold. Breaking The Waves, made shortly after Von Trier collaborated on a TV miniseries called The Kingdom (1994), was an act of deliberate reinvention—his experiment to see what would happen if he deprived himself of every cinematic tool he’d relied on throughout his career. This somewhat monastic approach became known as the Dogme 95 movement, but Breaking The Waves isn’t technically a Dogme film (his follow-up, The Idiots, would be); it breaks many of the rules, particularly in its use of breathtakingly artificial chapter stops. All the same, it’s very much in the Dogme 95 spirit, and introduced the world to a Lars Von Trier who was capable of subordinating everything to heart-wrenching truth. [Mike D’Angelo]

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43 / 94

Bringing Up Baby

Bringing Up Baby

Bringing Up Baby

A love story about a paleontologist, a kook, a dog, a leopard, and a dinosaur bone, Bringing Up Baby is packed with so many gags that stars Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn reportedly had trouble getting through takes without laughing, putting the movie behind schedule and over budget. Possessed by an overwhelming sense of comic energy, Howard Hawks’ screwball masterpiece heaps on misunderstandings, misadventures, perfectly timed jokes, and patter to the point that it’s easy to overlook how rich and fluid it is a piece of filmmaking, effortlessly transitioning from one thing into the next. The movie’s stick-in-the-mud/free spirit pair-up would go on to be imitated countless times, but never in a way that managed to capture the original’s sense of movement or its unique balance of pessimism and optimism. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

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44 / 94

Carnival Of Souls

Carnival Of Souls

Carnival Of Souls

Herk Harvey is said to have directed more than 400 movies in his three decades of filmmaking. Almost all of them, however, were educational and industrial training films, which he shot, on time and under budget, for the Centron Corporation in Lawrence, Kansas. The chief exception—and Harvey’s only feature—was 1962’s Carnival Of Souls, an eerie, low-budget horror yarn that’s become a bona fide cult favorite in the half-century since it was first released. The film, about a church organist (Candace Hilligoss) haunted by leering specters after a car accident, approximates the feeling of a nightmare that won’t end. Both David Lynch and George Romero have cited it as an influence on their own early, shoestring shockers, while the twist ending anticipated several decades of climactic rug pulls. But like a lot of cult classics, Carnival Of Souls—a recent inductee of the Criterion Collection—was unappreciated in its own time. Audiences ignored the movie, the distributor went bankrupt, and Harvey returned to his day job, never to make a full-length film again. Centron’s gain was our loss; surely, there were better uses of the director’s talents than warning kids about the dangers of cheating. [A.A. Dowd]

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45 / 94

Corpse Bride

Corpse Bride

Corpse Bride

Like The Nightmare Before Christmas, Corpse Bride is a short, giddily eerie feature made via the same stop-motion method. Taking over for Nightmare director Henry Selick, Tim Burton and co-director Mike Johnson hold to the same breathtaking visual standard, producing a film so smoothly animated and packed with tiny, cunning visual touches that it resembles Pixar’s CGI work on films like Toy Story and The Incredibles. The story is simple enough to describe in a sentence: Shy, bungling Victor Van Dort (voiced by Johnny Depp) is heading for an arranged marriage to sweet Victoria Everglot (Emily Watson), but while rehearsing his vows, he accidentally puts her wedding ring on the hand of a well-meaning but marriage-fixated corpse (Helena Bonham Carter) who claims him as her husband and drags him off to the land of the dead. Much of the rest of the film involves peripheral characters glowering, gallivanting, or just goofing around, and busy, talky Danny Elfman songs that are mostly just for show. But it’s a hell of a show. [Tasha Robinson]

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46 / 94

Europa

Europa

Europa

Shot in moody black-and-white, with occasional flashes of vibrant color, Europa sends an American do-gooder, Leopold (Jean-Marc Barr), to snowy postwar Deutschland, where he secures a position aboard the newly revived Zentropa train line. It’s here, in his capacity as an overnight engine driver, that he becomes torn between two opposing factions: the new German government, eager to forget the sins of the recent past and comply with the American military, and a pro-Nazi, anti-occupation terrorist group, the Werewolves. Complicating matters further is the young man’s romance with the mysterious Katharina (Barbara Sukowa), a femme fatale of the Marlene Dietrich variety. [A.A. Dowd]

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47 / 94

Eyes Without A Face

Eyes Without A Face

Eyes Without A Face

When it was released on American screens, Georges Franju’s elegant 1960 horror film Eyes Without A Face was re-titled The Horror Chamber Of Dr. Faustus and paired with something called The Manster, the macabre tale of a half-man/half-beast with two heads. Beyond the fact that Franju’s film includes neither a horror chamber nor a villain named Dr. Faustus, the double feature must have seemed curious to the drive-in crowd, who had to wonder what these two films could possibly have in common. Yet Eyes Without A Face owes more to the American horror tradition than to French art cinema, which was slow to acknowledge the genre’s legitimacy, much less its potential. Caught between cultures, the film was greeted with scandal in its home country and mistreatment in the U.S., but it endures as a gorgeous fusion of opposing sensibilities, a lyrical monster movie with visceral thrills and moments of unforgettable visual poetry. [Scott Tobias]

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48 / 94

Faces

Faces

Faces

After a brief, unhappy tenure directing Hollywood projects, John Cassavetes spent the rest of his career working in the fragments of that shattered mold. Financed by acting jobs in films like The Dirty Dozen and Rosemary’s Baby, Faces premièred in 1968 and introduced the landscape that Cassavetes would return to again and again: the unquiet inner lives of those new houses that sprung up in the wake of WWII. John Marley and Lynn Carlin star as a couple testing the limits of their unhappy marriage, he with a call girl (Cassavetes’ wife, Gena Rowlands), she with free-spirited gigolo Seymour Cassel. Partly improvised, partly scripted, and partly somewhere between the two, Cassavetes’ films have frequently been likened to jazz. Faces bears the stamp of its particular era’s jazz; it trades in long stretches of chaos, even ugliness, which produce unexpected passages of grace and beauty. As punishing as that ugliness can be, the graceful bits stick in the memory. [Keith Phipps]

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49 / 94

From Up On Poppy Hill

From Up On Poppy Hill

From Up On Poppy Hill

Adapting a graphic novel by Tetsurô Sayama and Chizuru Takahashi, Goro Miyazaki and his screenwriting team (which includes his father, Hayao Miyazaki) focus on the ramifications of a country in transition from the ancient to the modern. From Up On Poppy Hill evokes the charm of creaky old wooden floors, and shows its heroes standing up for longstanding cultural traditions in the face of a society eager to show a new face to the world for the 1964 Olympics. The film is also beautiful in a distinctly Ghibli way, distinguished by dappled light, soft pastels, and the slow-but-constant motion of a port town, with its steep cliff-set roads and ships drifting by. It’s all lovely and sweet, and while this story might’ve been just as engaging in live action, Miyazaki’s animation does clear away the extraneous detail, re-creating the world of 50 years ago and instilling it with the poignancy of a family snapshot. [Noel Murray]

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50 / 94

Häxan: Witchcraft Through The Ages

Häxan: Witchcraft Through The Ages

Häxan: Witchcraft Through The Ages

Like a Hieronymus Bosch painting come to malevolent life, Häxan: Witchcraft Through The Ages remains a silent-era stunner of profane imagery and feverish socio-historical commentary. Danish director Benjamin Christensen’s 1922 film (co-financed by a Swedish production company) combines animation, non-fiction, and fictional elements to investigate the history of witchcraft, and the persecution of women over the course of centuries. That topic is given gloriously demented visual life by Christensen, who drenches his black-and-white vignettes in dark shadows, brimstone fire and smoke, and all manner of unholy sights, from grave robbing and cannibalism to the Devil’s worshippers pledging allegiance to their horned master by kissing his naked ass. [Nick Shager]

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51 / 94

He Got Game

He Got Game

He Got Game

Spike Lee is a fan of professional basketball. It’s possible that he’s better known in some circles for his long-term courtside attendance of New York Knicks games than for his films. It’s fascinating, then, that Lee’s basketball movie He Got Game contains no real athletic competition: not pro, not college, not even high school, where all-star Jesus Shuttlesworth (real-life player Ray Allen) is running out the clock as colleges court him for his enormous talent. This is a movie about sport as a way out, not glory for its own sake. Jesus isn’t just considering where he’ll go to school, but how to best whisk himself and his little sister out of their Coney Island apartment and secure their future. [Jesse Hassenger]

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52 / 94

The Hidden Fortress

The Hidden Fortress

The Hidden Fortress

When Star Wars fans start researching the movie’s origins, one of the first things they discover is that George Lucas was heavily influenced by Akira Kurosawa’s 1958 adventure The Hidden Fortress, which involves a princess whose kingdom has been destroyed, a dashing rogue who’s trying to protect her, and two bumbling idiots—one tall, one short. To some extent, the similarity between the films has been exaggerated, even by Lucas himself; he’s credited the two peasants as the model for C-3PO and R2-D2, for example, but the same basic dynamic can be found in Abbott and Costello, Laurel and Hardy, etc. There’s no Luke Skywalker equivalent in Hidden Fortress, and the dashing rogue’s motives are far more noble than Han Solo’s. Formally, all Lucas borrowed from Kurosawa were his frequent horizontal wipes. Nonetheless, the association is beneficial, because The Hidden Fortress is one of the best possible gateways into foreign films. It isn’t Kurosawa’s best picture, by any means, but it’s almost certainly his most fun. [Mike D’Angelo]

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53 / 94

Hobson’s Choice

Hobson’s Choice

Illustration for article titled The best movies on HBO Max
Screenshot: YouTube

Hobson’s Choice

David Lean is best known for his epic late-period historical dramas exploring the psychological contradictions of outsized figures, like Lawrence Of Arabia, The Bridge On The River Kwai, and Doctor Zhivago. But his directorial career began with eminently British literary adaptations filmed on a smaller scale—Noël Coward’s This Happy Breed, Brief Encounter,and Blithe Spirit; Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist and Great Expectations; and an adaptation of Harold Brighouse’s perennially popular theatrical comedy Hobson’s Choice. Released in 1954, Hobson’s Choice is the last of Lean’s black-and-white films; the following year, he directed Summertime (also originally a play) in glorious Technicolor, and then the huge spectacles began. As befits a film that marks this transition, Hobson’s Choice embodies the very best of the intimate Lean, while anticipating the startling clarity of vision he would later bring to the North African desert and the Russian steppes. [Donna Bowman]

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54 / 94

The Honeymoon Killers

The Honeymoon Killers

The Honeymoon Killers

Leonard Kastle was a professional opera composer whose friend suggested he write a screenplay about the infamous Lonely Hearts Killers, lovers who swindled and murdered several women in the 1940s. Kastle not only had his screenplay produced, he was also was tapped to direct, replacing the studio’s original choice, a filmmaker fired for going over budget. Who knows how the movie would have turned out had that original director—a young Martin Scorsese—kept his job. But Kastle’s film was well regarded and continues to be. It wasn’t much of a box office success, however, so he happily returned to the world of opera, afterwards claiming, “I never made a bad film.” [Mike Vago]

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55 / 94

House

House

House

1977’s House is a classic of what writer Chuck Stevens calls “le cinéma du WTF?!,” and it’s one of our favorites of the genre here at The A.V. Club. (We even inducted it into the New Cult Canon a few years back.) Written by director Nobuhiko Obayashi based on one of his young daughter’s nightmares, House is like an episode of Scooby-Doo directed by Richard Lester while he was utterly zonked out on psychedelics. Or maybe it’s like a ghost story told around the campfire by a precocious preteen who’s also out of her mind on psychedelics. You know what, maybe just watch the trailer. [Katie Rife]

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56 / 94

Ikiru

Ikiru

Ikiru

Akira Kurosawa may be best remembered for his samurai and Shakespearean epics, but the legendary Japanese director never made a film more assured and affecting than Ikiru, his 1952 tale of a Tokyo bureaucrat struggling to confront his own mortality and the legacy he will leave behind. Diagnosed with fatal cancer, Watanabe (the magnificent Takashi Shimura) searches for something that will give his previously meaningless life some purpose—a quest that is stymied by relatives who care little about him (save for the inheritance they will eventually receive), but aided by his relationship with a younger, enthusiastic coworker. In her, Watanabe sees a life beyond the stacks of paper that routinely crowd his desk, in an office where nothing ever seems to get done and no one seems to care very much about it. [Nick Schager]

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57 / 94

Kiki’s Delivery Service

Kiki’s Delivery Service

Kiki’s Delivery Service

Fans of Hayao Miyazaki’s darker movies (Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke chief among them) may find Kiki bland and child-safe; of all the movies he’s written and directed, its features the least conflict and calamity. The worst that happens to the eponymous young witch is that she becomes dangerously depressed and momentarily stops believing in herself: For the most part, her effervescent energy and determination keep her spirits high as she enthusiastically explores her new town and new life. [Tasha Robinson]

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58 / 94

Kwaidan

Kwaidan

Kwaidan

Masaki Kobayashi’s 1964 anthology film Kwaidan (the title translates simply as Ghost Stories) isn’t the kind of movie you watch when you want to be scared out of your wits. None of its four tales of the supernatural goes for the jugular, and several of them deliberately telegraph their chilling conclusion, undermining any suspense. Kobayashi, who adapted all four from collections of Japanese folk tales assembled by Lafcadio Hearn, expected local audiences to be familiar with the basic narratives, the same way that an American audience would know what’s coming in a filmed version of, say, “The Hook.” What makes Kwaidan singular is the combination of Kobayashi’s almost maddeningly patient, methodical approach to drama (as exemplified by 1962’s Harakiri, also available via Criterion) and his expressionistic experiments with color, sound, and theatrical artifice. [Mike D’Angelo]

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59 / 94
















L’Argent

Bresson had a thing for 19th-century Russian literature, having adapted Dostoevsky twice; for his final film, L’Argent, he took inspiration from Tolstoy, transposing the writer’s posthumously published novella The Forged Coupon into modern-day France. The film is non-stop movement; it starts with the handing off of a counterfeit 500-franc note and then rigorously tracks its repercussions, ending with one of the most unsettling murder scenes in film history. Like Bresson’s earlier masterpiece Au Hasard Balthazar, it’s one of those movies that seems to contain a complete vision of the world, informed by a fully formed sense of what filmmaking can and should do—which seems all the more remarkable when you consider that it runs just over 80 minutes. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

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60 / 94

L’Avventura

L’Avventura

L’Avventura

Voted the 21st greatest film of all time in the latest Sight & Sound poll, Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura is a mystery without a resolution. The film begins with Anna (Lea Massari) trying to find her way through a garden. She’s a bit lost emotionally, too. She’s about to reunite with her boyfriend, Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti), after a month apart, joining him for a yachting trip around the Aeolian Islands with friends. But Anna’s anxious. While swimming she cries shark, and Sandro dramatically swims to her side. She confesses to her best friend, Claudia (Monica Vitti), that she made up the shark. But why? They all wander an island for a bit. Anna tells Sandro she wants to separate permanently. And then, not a half hour in, a dissolve passes the time and erases Anna from the plot. What happened to her? Sandro and Claudia spend the rest of the movie searching for her, but there’s never any answer. [Brandon Nowalk]

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61 / 94

La Notte

La Notte

La Notte

The first time we see La Notte’s two protagonists—a long-married couple, Giovanni and Lidia Pontano—they’re so distant from the camera as to seem insignificant. Even those who know that the movie stars Marcello Mastroianni and Jeanne Moreau might have to squint and lean forward, wondering if that’s them. As in his previous film, the groundbreaking L’Avventura, director Michelangelo Antonioni shows more interest in environments than in characters; from 1960 onward, the people in his films are defined less by their words, or even their actions, than by their physical location in the world and the frame. Not for nothing is the film’s opening credits sequence a vertiginous journey down the face of a skyscraper, shifting halfway through to an angle that shows the urban sprawl of Milan in the background. [Mike D’Angelo]

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62 / 94

Lady Snowblood

Lady Snowblood

Lady Snowblood

A pulpy, violent tale of revenge based on a comic serialized in a popular Playboy-esque men’s magazine, Lady Snowblood didn’t have to be art. But director Toshiya Fujita treated it as such, utilizing a complicated flashback structure and expressionistic cinematography to tell the story of Yuki Kashima, a highly skilled assassin trained from birth to find and kill the men (and woman) responsible for murdering her father and raping her mother before she was born. Her nickname, shurayukihime (“carnage snow princess”), is a pun on the Japanese name for Snow White, shirayukihime (“white snow princess”), reflecting her cold, grim beauty. Yuki found her ideal embodiment in Meiko Kaji, early icon of female action stardom and ultimate ice queen, whose huge, deep-set eyes reflect both burning hatred and heartbreaking reluctance. Elegantly dispatching her enemies with a flick of the wrist amid fountains of tempera-paint blood spray—this is one of those movies where blood doesn’t run or drip, it sprays—she’s both human and divine. [Katie Rife]

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63 / 94

The Lady Vanishes

The Lady Vanishes

The Lady Vanishes

Neophytes approaching Alfred Hitchhock’s work for the first time should consider skipping straight to 1938’s The Lady Vanishes, which functions as a point-by-point primer to his touchstones: The twisty plot assembles seemingly irrelevant pieces into a tense whole. Innovative cinematography foregrounds important objects, letting them dominate the frame, while elaborate trick shots give a setbound drama a sense of vast space. There’s the signature director’s cameo, the irritating yet adorable central couple, the unhurried slice-of-life conversations, and the glamorous verve. Above all, The Lady Vanishes contains one of cinema’s most iconically Hitchcockian sequences, as two characters plop down right in front of a key clue to a mystery, then completely miss it for excruciating minutes on end. Nothing’s happening onscreen but banal chatter, yet the tension is unbearable. [Tasha Robinson]

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64 / 94

The Last Metro

The Last Metro

The Last Metro

The title of François Truffaut’s 1980 film The Last Metro comes from the importance of catching the final train of the night for Parisians living under a Nazi-imposed curfew during World War II. While it’s set in a theater where finishing a performance on time takes on a new urgency, Paris’ public transportation doesn’t otherwise factor directly into the plot. In fact, Truffaut limits the action almost entirely to the theater, the block of Montmarte outside its doors, and a few nearby locations. But it’s still the best possible title for the film, connecting directly to the constant state of anxiety of life during wartime under an oppressive regime. The city kept a superficial normality, but one constantly punctuated by the reminder that the enemy had arrived, the neighbors might be collaborators, and survival might demand unthinkable compromises from everyone. [Keith Phipps]

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65 / 94

The Lego Batman Movie

The Lego Batman Movie

The Lego Batman Movie

Several of the seemingly endless supply of movies about Batman have made note of the superhero’s duality. But the likes of Batman Returns and Batman Forever focus primarily on the duality of Bruce Wayne and his cowled, crimefighting alter ego. Batman has plenty of other dualities, some of which are almost paradoxical: He’s a fearsome, lone vigilante who has often been surrounded by a cast of colorful friends and family; he frequently appears in dark, gritty stories that are just as often consumed and beloved by children; and he’s an object of audience wish fulfillment who spends a lot of time being obsessive and miserable. These are aspects that The Lego Batman Movie touches upon, using its irreverence for the character to formulate an original take on him. [Jesse Hassenger]

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66 / 94

The Lego Movie

The Lego Movie

The Lego Movie

In the final third of The Lego Movie, a father and son argue over whether Legos are “just toys” or a “highly sophisticated interlocking brick system.” While one stumps for following instructions to keep everything in rigid order, the other favors letting imagination run wild. As it turns out, they’re both kind of right. This is a surprisingly emotional zenith for what could have been just a feature-length advertisement or vehicle for product placement. Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, the creative team behind Clone High, Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs, and 21 Jump Street, have created another unexpectedly rousing and poignant adaptation of a beloved, seemingly “unfilmable” property. [Kevin McFarland]

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67 / 94

Little Shop Of Horrors

Little Shop Of Horrors

Little Shop Of Horrors

Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s 1986 musical Little Shop Of Horrors eventually ran on Broadway, but arrived there via an unusually long path: It began life as a 1960 Roger Corman horror-comedy, which Ashman and Menken adapted into a stage musical in the early ’80s. The show played off-off-Broadway, then off-Broadway, then in movie theaters as a film adaptation written by Ashman and directed by Frank Oz (a shorter-lived Broadway revival followed years later). The Oz film remains one of the very best modern stage-to-screen transitions, and easily the best to involve a man-eating plant.

As Seymour Krelborn (Rick Moranis) explains in the flashback song “Da-Doo,” he comes upon this “strange and interesting plant” during a stroll through the city streets coinciding with a solar eclipse. The plant helps bring customers into the Skid Row flower shop where Seymour and his crush Audrey (Ellen Greene, who originated the role in the off-Broadway play) both work, but Seymour quickly realizes the flytrap-like plant, which he christens Audrey II, wilts unless it feeds on human blood. Complications ensue, as they often do when human blood is made a vital ingredient in a diet. [Jesse Hassenger]

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68 / 94

The Lord Of The Rings: Fellowship Of The Rings

The Lord Of The Rings: Fellowship Of The Rings

The Lord Of The Rings: Fellowship Of The Rings

In condensing Tolkien’s book to feature length, Jackson and his screenwriters do the necessary pruning while still remaining faithful to the text. Pared down to its Cliffs Notes essence, the story moves forward at a relentless pace, occasionally sacrificing ambience for speed. But only the most expansive imagination could dream up a spectacle of such eye-popping proportions, with Jackson and his technicians constructing kingdoms and monsters with the innovation and joy of top-flight Ray Harryhausens. Setting vast digital armies against towering backdrops, the battle sequences have the visceral kick expected from the director of Dead Alive, as Wood and his motley militia hack through foes like zombies at the business end of a lawnmower. The Fellowship Of The Ring ends with a cliffhanger, but unlike the first Harry Potter movie, its rote annual competitor, it should leave viewers anxious to know what happens next. [Scott Tobias]

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69 / 94

The Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers

The Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers

The Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers

To live up to expectations, The Two Towers only had to be as good as its predecessor–and, astoundingly, it’s better. That’s not simply a matter of exposition giving way to action, although the film has plenty, as soulful hobbits Elijah Wood and Sean Astin make their way toward Mordor, friends Billy Boyd and Dominic Monaghan find unlikely allies deep in a forest, and the dwarf/elf/human team of John Rhys-Davies, Orlando Bloom, and Viggo Mortensen attempts to defend a struggling kingdom from the forces of Christopher Lee. What makes Towers so staggering is the way it brings the full scope of Jackson’s adaptation into focus. Without missing a beat in three hours, the film shifts from epic to lyrical and back. It portrays a harrowingly intense battle one moment, then pauses for a father’s grief over his son’s death the next. It shows in frightening detail the engines of war, then links those engines to the bloodshed they exact and the ecological destruction that made them possible. What Fellowship suggested, Towers elucidates. It’s thrilling as swords clash and arrows fly, but it also never abandons the underlying sadness of Tolkien’s world, in which each victory only forestalls the transition to a meaner age. (And, for all the attendant technophobia, it’s another technical masterpiece. Gollum, voiced by Andy Serkis, may qualify as the first fully fleshed-out performance by a CGI effect.) [Keith Phipps]

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70 / 94

The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King

The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King

The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King

The Fellowship Of The Ring proved that Peter Jackson and his co-screenwriters, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, were more than capable of bringing Tolkien to the screen with an eye toward large-scale spectacle as well as a respect for the original story, characters, and themes. The Two Towers did it one better. Ratcheting up the intensity on every level, it took the series to the same place as Tolkien’s books: the realm of shared cultural myth. Jackson doesn’t buckle under the burden of winding it down with The Return Of The King, either; in fact, he lets the weightiness define the film. As Frodo (Elijah Wood), Sam (Sean Astin), and the treacherous Gollum (a CGI Andy Serkis) progress toward destroying the ring, while Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), Gandalf (Ian McKellen), and the Fellowship’s other surviving members mount a defense against the evil Sauron, every gesture conveys a significance emphasized by Jackson’s slow, portentous approach. In the end, the director pays off the time viewers invested in the first two films with a climax that places equal emphasis on both Wood’s personal struggle and an army-of-millions battle, with a denouement that gives a proper sendoff to characters who have become something like old friends. [Keith Phipps]

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71 / 94

The Manchurian Candidate

The Manchurian Candidate

The Manchurian Candidate

Released a year before John F. Kennedy was assassinated, The Manchurian Candidate held the title of Hollywood’s most paranoid political movie until… well, until Oliver Stone offered up the zillion conspiracy theories of JFK. The story, adapted from a 1959 novel by Richard Condon, ostensibly lampoons McCarthyism, providing one villain in the form of a buffoonish blowhard Senator, Johnny Iselin (James Gregory), who constantly announces that he possesses evidence of numerous Communist infiltrators in the Defense Department. Iselin is lying (and is a puppet, to boot), but in a sense, he’s right. It’s revealed early on that Communists are indeed plotting to overthrow the U.S. government, using a sleeper agent who was brainwashed in Manchuria during the Korean War, a decade earlier. The Manchurian Candidate tweaks our collective fear that the enemy looks exactly like us in much the same way that the original Invasion Of The Body Snatchers does, but with a political doomsday scenario foregrounded rather than (as in Siegel’s film) merely implied. [Mike D’Angelo]

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72 / 94

McCabe & Mrs. Miller

McCabe & Mrs. Miller

McCabe & Mrs. Miller

MASH showed what Robert Altman could do when left unfettered, and it showed there was an audience for his loose, borderline-anarchic approach to cinema. The momentum from MASH carried Altman through the next five years, during which he pumped out good-to-great movies at a fevered pace, roaring through genre revisionism, dream narratives, personal films, and grand sociopolitical statements. And yet Altman found it difficult to replicate MASH’s box-office success, in part because his subsequent work was more esoteric, and in part because he was plagued with bad luck. His melancholic Western McCabe & Mrs. Miller, for example, was marred by bad sound, as Altman went overboard with his mic-everybody-and-then-figure-it-out-in-the-mix method, leaving himself with a soundtrack in which key dialogue is frequently barely audible. Nevertheless, McCabe is nothing short of a masterpiece. It’s the story of two entrepreneurs (Warren Beatty and Julie Christie) building a town on the back of gambling and the sex trade, while sharing different ideas about “class” and human decency, and it’s about the decline of Old West values, the difference between talk and action, and the bitter, awkward pain of unrequited love.

Audiences who put in the effort to understand the dialogue and the who’s-who of the opening scenes tend to develop a deep concern for what’s going to happen to these characters, drawn in also by the snow-globe sense of delicacy of Leonard Cohen’s music and Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography. And Altman is clearly simpatico with the two heroes, who let the citizens of Presbyterian Church believe what they want to believe about them, so long as that earns fearful respect. Then, as often happens in Westerns, the fantasy is sidetracked by reality, as outsiders arrive to challenge the fiction. [Noel Murray]

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73 / 94

My Neighbor Totoro

My Neighbor Totoro

My Neighbor Totoro

American anime connoisseurs were hip to Hayao Miyazaki even when his imaginative, epic adventures were only available on the bootleg market. But average moviegoers (or, more accurately, video renters) first encountered Miyazaki via My Neighbor Totoro, an atypical and arguably non-ideal way to meet the master. Compared to the breathtaking action sequences and elaborate fantasy landscapes of Miyazaki’s early features (not to mention subsequent films like Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away), the genteel, languid Totoro seems at first slight, and even soporific. The sliver of a story—about two girls who move to a small village with their father while their mother recovers from a life-threatening illness—never gets past first gear, and the heroines’ few encounters with the mystical forest spirit Totoro hardly justify the movie’s title. Yet My Neighbor Totoro may be the most enduring entry in Miyazaki’s impressive filmography, because it’s so particular about the nuances of human behavior and emotion. The movie stands up to re-watching, gaining in profundity. [Noel Murray]

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74 / 94

Nausicaä Of The Valley Of The Wind

Nausicaä Of The Valley Of The Wind

Nausicaä Of The Valley Of The Wind

Nausicaä Of The Valley Of The Wind was one of Miyazaki’s earliest efforts; he started it as a long-running comic epic, but in 1984, he produced a two-hour animated version. The visuals are dated by comparison with his more recent works, but all the Miyazaki hallmarks are in place: rapturous explorations of natural vistas, a fascination with flight and flying machines, and a spunky female lead out to change the world, or at least hold her corner of it together through sheer love. Nausicaä is the princess of a rural valley that lives at peace on the edge of a deadly fungal wasteland, until a ship carrying a weapon from a bygone industrial age crash-lands nearby. When warriors from a far country come to retrieve the artifact, their invasion draws Nausicaä and her people into a sprawling political conflict. Part epic adventure, part environmental tract, part early testing ground for the themes and characters of Princess Mononoke, Nausicaä is in some ways a grim and serious film, but it mixes a sweet optimism into its horror-filled lessons. [Tasha Robinson]

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75 / 94

Only Yesterday

Only Yesterday

Only Yesterday

To get what makes Isao Takahata’s 1991 classic Only Yesterday so special, look at the pineapple scene. Based on an autobiographical manga series by author Hotaru Okamoto (with art by Yuuko Tone), the movie follows a 27-year-old Tokyo woman named Taeko, who takes a vacation in the country in 1982. Throughout the trip, she thinks back to 1966, when she was a fifth grader. In one of those memories, her family buys its first-ever fresh pineapple, and saves it for Sunday dinner, so that it’ll be more special. But the fruit isn’t as soft or sweet as the canned kind, so everyone heaves a disappointed sigh and gives their slices to Taeko, who gamely keeps eating, determined to enjoy something she’d been looking forward to all week.

Only Yesterday is animated, but rarely cartoony, in either its design or its storytelling. Most of the movie consists of moments as memorable and as elliptical as the one with the pineapple. Taeko remembers the awkwardness of pre-teen crushes, and the fiercely fought student council debates over lunchroom rules, and that time that she flunked a fractions test and overheard her mother say that she’s “not a normal kid.” These vignettes aren’t meant to be funny, per se. They’re supposed to be real—or at least as real as any drawings can be. [Noel Murray]

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76 / 94

Ponyo

Ponyo

Ponyo

When Disney released its take on Hans Christian Andersen’s short story “The Little Mermaid” back in 1989, some purists griped that in excising most of the story’s agony and tragedy, Disney lost the story’s heart. Those purists won’t be any more comfortable with Ponyo, another animated take on the story, this time from Japanese writer-director Hayao Miyazaki. It’s aimed at particularly young audiences—in the Miyazaki oeuvre, it’s much closer to My Neighbor Totoro than Spirited Away or Princess Mononoke—and it barely has conflict, let alone a sense of menace or threat. It’s essentially a stroll through a fantastically detailed pastel world, in which the plot is little more than an excuse for Miyazaki to dive into a world teeming with colorful (and sometimes prehistoric) life.

Disney’s generally respectful English dub, per usual, populates the story with famous names: Miley Cyrus’ little sister Noah voices the titular character, a willful fish-child who escapes her human-hating magician father (Liam Neeson) and treks to land, where she bonds with Sosuke, a 5-year-old boy voiced by the Jonas Brothers’ younger sibling Frankie Jonas. A surfeit of wild magic activated in the wrong place and time turns Ponyo human and reunites her with Sosuke, while also returning the already lively ocean around Sosuke’s home to the Devonian age, with gigantic, ancient fish-ancestors sporting in the waves. Tina Fey and Matt Damon round out the cast as Sosuke’s parents, but their role is limited in a story that’s mostly about the wonders of being young enough to unquestioningly accept every new surprise that life has to offer. [Tasha Robinson]

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77 / 94

Princess Mononoke

Princess Mononoke

Princess Mononoke

A hero’s mythical journey begins when Ashitaka (Billy Crudup), a prince in feudal Japan, is infected by a giant-boar-turned-demon-monster and sets out to find the evil source responsible. His adventures lead him to Iron Town, an industrial fortress presided over by Lady Eboshi (Minnie Driver), which strips the forest of its vital resources in order to manufacture weapons. This draws the wrath of the wolf gods and the mysterious title character (Claire Danes), leading to a literal battle between man and nature. Miyazaki’s message leaves little to the imagination, but his animation offers plenty of sustenance, especially when he silences the expository dialogue and lets his rapturous images speak for themselves. Highlighted by a sparkling, translucent Forest Spirit that only emerges at night, tiny skeletal creatures with clicking swivel-heads, and a truly magical denouement, Princess Mononoke is still a formidable achievement, if not a resounding success. [Scott Tobias]

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78 / 94

The Secret World Of Arrietty

The Secret World Of Arrietty

The Secret World Of Arrietty

Much like a slightly older-skewed version of My Neighbor Totoro, The Secret World Of Arrietty proceeds through most of its story with little sense of urgency, even when its excitable protagonist is dashing around her giant-sized world at top speed. Ghibli co-head Hayao Miyazaki (writer-director of Totoro, Spirited Away, and many other Ghibli projects) passed on directorial duties for Arrietty to veteran Ghibli animator Hiromasa Yonebayashi, but collaborated on the script, which clearly shows Miyazaki’s storytelling sensibilities. Arrietty is a typical Miyazaki heroine, equal parts innocent cheer, bluster, and submerged melancholy. She’s small enough to use a straight pin for a sword—and enough of a dashing romantic to enjoy that image—but it’s telling that the story never drives her to use her weapon on a living being. Her enemies are generally more abstract, and in no way vulnerable to stabbing. [Tasha Robinson]

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79 / 94

Spirited Away

Spirited Away

Spirited Away

After writing and directing the 1997 animated epic Princess Mononoke, Japanese filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki announced that he was planning to retire. Thank goodness he changed his mind. Spirited Away is a wonderful encore, marked by the painstaking attention to detail and artful balance between terror and joy that make his work unique. Spirited Away centers on Chihiro, a sullen, fearful Japanese girl whose parents are moving so far out into the country that they predict they’ll have to drive to the next town just to shop. While traveling to their new home, they discover an abandoned, disintegrating theme park, which they cheerfully explore in spite of Chihiro’s shrill protests. Suddenly, a boy approaches her and commands her to leave before nightfall. But before she can gather her wayward parents and escape, night does fall, in a breathtakingly eerie sequence that almost subsumes Chihiro’s danger with its technical achievement. Chihiro is trapped in the spirit world, and in order to save herself, her parents, and eventually her new friend, she has to come to terms with herself and her unwitting captors. Gradually, in a series of almost episodic adventures, she learns to be brave and face up to her responsibilities to herself and the people she loves. The baseline material is fairly standard stuff for a child’s adventure story, but the complex trappings and the shape of that story are uniquely Miyazaki. [Tasha Robinson]

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80 / 94

That Thing You Do!

That Thing You Do!

That Thing You Do!

In his not-so-prolific career as a producer, director, and writer, Tom Hanks has frequently immersed himself in the can-do culture of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, both celebrating its spirit and darting through its cool shadows. In That Thing You Do!, Hanks’ sole feature film as a writer-director, every affectionate reference to the feel-good pop-music industry comes counterbalanced by the faded chanteuses and low-rent showmen who populate the movie’s background. Set in the heady months just after The Beatles invaded, That Thing You Do! follows the fictional Pennsylvania garage band The Wonders as they transition from gigging at pizza parlors to appearing on national television. Hanks follows the band from one giddy high to the next, all while sowing the seeds of their demise. [Noel Murray]

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81 / 94

They Came Together

They Came Together

They Came Together

Parody, in its purest form, is an act of both mockery and appreciation. True masters of the practice possess a bone-deep understanding of their targets; they skewer because they love—or at least, because they’ve done their homework. Judging from the sublimely silly They Came Together, director and co-writer David Wain is a closet connoisseur of the modern romantic comedy. About midway through the film, he offers a spot-on approximation of one of the genre’s many tropes: As Norah Jones coos sweet nothings on the soundtrack, the happy couple—played by Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler—canoodle through a Manhattan montage, making pasta for two, swimming through a pile of autumn leaves, and horsing around at a fruit stand. Everything about the scene, from its compositions to its editing to its wordless performances, is uncannily familiar. There are actual jokes, too, including an agreeably absurdist punchline, but they’re almost unnecessary. Seeing clichés mimicked this skillfully is plenty hilarious. [A.A. Dowd]

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82 / 94

They Shall Not Grow Old

They Shall Not Grow Old

They Shall Not Grow Old

Cinephiles of decades past expended a great deal of time and energy fighting colorization, and ultimately more or less won the battle. So it’s ironic that one of 2019’s most acclaimed documentaries—directed (though “assembled and tweaked” would be more accurate in this case) by Peter Jackson—consists entirely of colorized footage shot during World War I, with the addition of color being its primary selling point. In truth, the process, while much improved since the ’80s, still looks ever so slightly fake. What really brings the horrific events of a century ago to life is the soundscape that Jackson and his team devised for these originally silent images—including, in a few cases, dialogue that perfectly matches people’s lip movements, allowing us to “hear” words that were spoken but never recorded. The resulting illusion creates a jarring immediacy unlike any such footage from the era you’ve seen before. [Mike D’Angelo]

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83 / 94

Three Kings

Three Kings

Three Kings

After creating a Freudian black comedy with Spanking The Monkey and reviving screwball in Flirting With Disaster, David O. Russell reinvented himself yet again. George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube, and Spike Jonze star as U.S. soldiers serving in Iraq just after the end of the Gulf War. A refreshingly smart, universally well-acted film with sharp humor (even if the latter creates some jarring shifts in tone), Three Kings, like The Matrix, is everything mainstream Hollywood films can be but usually aren’t: formula-breaking, thoughtful, subversive, exciting, and risky. [Keith Phipps]

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84 / 94

Titanic

Titanic

Titanic

Like any true Hollywood epic, Titanic is long and obscenely costly, bends the truth, and has sweeping vistas and some odd casting choices. What distances it from many other epics, however, is its deft avoidance of much of the sluggishness and dull generalities that often plague similar films. The heavily hyped premise of teenage romance aboard an ocean liner which digitally founders and sinks to a Celine Dion soundtrack may sound like too much for the soul to bear, but Titanic provides an absorbing blend of historical fact and old-fashioned Hollywood tearjerking. That the familiar story of the Titanic disaster is told with suspense is not as surprising as James Cameron’s clear-headed balance of truth and fiction, spectacle and tragedy. [Maria Schnieder]

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85 / 94

The Tree Of Life

The Tree Of Life

The Tree Of Life

Without anchoring himself to a larger historical event—as he did with the Great Depression (Days Of Heaven), World War II (The Thin Red Line), and America’s founding (The New World)—director Terence Malick has made a startlingly direct expression of man’s relationship to the natural world and to other forces beyond human comprehension. In terms of scale, The Tree Of Life recalls the mammoth ambition of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, but it’s also more intimate and personal than Malick’s previous films, rooted in vivid memories of growing up in ’50s Texas. [Scott Tobias]

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86 / 94

Unbreakable

Unbreakable

Unbreakable

Unbreakable was something of an oddity in 2000. It was an origin story when non-comic readers were unfamiliar with them. It was a serious-minded, reality-based superhero movie when there were none. Not only that, but it was an unconventional hero narrative, in which security guard David Dunn (Bruce Willis) is led to believe that he has powers by an osteogenesis-imperfecta-suffering comic devotee, Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson). It was a small-scale origin story not about a hero needing to learn how to use new powers, but one that made a mystery—one unsolved until late in the movie—out of whether its hero even had powers at all. What also distinguished Unbreakable was its greater emphasis on the human parts of its superhuman story. The mystery may drive the film, but in spirit it’s closer to a character drama. [Alexander Huls]

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87 / 94

Us

Us

Us

You know you’re in the hands of a natural born filmmaker when you can feel yourself being tugged, as if by invisible forces, from one shot to the next, into a movie’s diabolical design. That’s the sensation provoked by Jordan Peele’s Us, which begins with a sequence so expertly shot, cut, and orchestrated that you can only submit to the internal, infernal logic of its construction. On the boardwalk of Santa Cruz circa 1986, illuminated by a carnival glow, a small girl (Madison Curry) strays from her parents’ side. She’s drawn, by signs and coincidence, to that enduring symbol of fractured identity, the hall of mirrors. What she finds inside is a different kind of movie monster: a reflection made flesh, a phantom spitting image of self. It’s the audience, though, that’s really being ushered into the funhouse. [A.A. Dowd]

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88 / 94

An American Werewolf In London

An American Werewolf In London

An American Werewolf In London

Rick Baker won the very first Best Makeup And Hairstyling Oscar for his ingenious practical effects work on An American Werewolf In London. His big showcase: the scene where a bitten American tourist becomes a creature of the night—a hilarious/horrifying set piece that required star David Naughton to undergo several different prosthetic permutations (a 10-hour-a-day ordeal), each shot progressing him into a new stage somewhere between man and wolf, while the makeup team stretched rubber torsos and limbs to capture the agonizing, bone-cracking physicality of the change. Interestingly, to do American Werewolf, Baker had to leave The Howling, that other half-comic werewolf movie from 1981. [A.A. Dowd]

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89 / 94

When Harry Met Sally

When Harry Met Sally

When Harry Met Sally

If you were trying to find a consensus pick for the best romantic comedy of all time, 1989’s When Harry Met Sally would definitely be a huge part of the conversation, if not just the clear-cut winner. It’s the rom-com that forever changed the nature of rom-coms, and you can find traces of When Harry Met Sally’s DNA in virtually every romantic comedy that’s been made since. A funny but pessimistic male lead paired with a neurotic but optimistic female one? Check. Quirky supporting characters who have a subplot about falling in love with each other? Check. A climax that ends with someone running through the streets in order to confess their love? Check. Along with the commercial success of 1990’s Pretty Woman, When Harry Met Sally helped kick off the romantic comedy renaissance of the 1990s. And it launched the rom-com career of one of the genre’s most important contributors, Nora Ephron. [Caroline Siede]

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90 / 94

Winter’s Bone

Winter’s Bone

Winter’s Bone

The protagonist of Winter’s Bone, played with unnerving tough-girl conviction by Jennifer Lawrence, lives deep in a backwoods Missouri world of absences, threats, and expectation-freighted good deeds. Forced at 17 to care for two younger siblings and a catatonic mother, she gets by better than might be expected, chopping wood for fuel and preparing meals from canned food, passing wildlife, and the grudging charity of neighbors. But as the film opens, her days of getting by look as if they might come to an end after a policeman informs her that her drug-dealing father has disappeared after putting her family’s modest cabin up as bond. Unfamiliar with the concept of giving up, she sets out to find him. [Keith Phipps]

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91 / 94

X-Men: First Class

X-Men: First Class

X-Men: First Class

There’s something special about origin stories. While sequels have their own compulsive power for studios and filmmakers—mostly the lure of a built-in audience—“becoming” stories, where characters go through their greatest transformations, are so inherently compelling that comics, films, and TV shows frequently restart franchises from scratch just to get a new crack at an old origin. That certainly explains X-Men: First Class, which packs around a dozen origin stories into one crowded, world-spanning, two-hour-plus action film designed to launch a new X-Men trilogy. And yet director Matthew Vaughn and his many screenwriting partners manage to maintain admirable coherence and propulsive pacing throughout. [Tasha Robinson]

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92 / 94

You Don’t Know Jack

You Don’t Know Jack

You Don’t Know Jack

A rare wedding of two talents perfect for a project, You Don’t Know Jack isn’t the most elegantly made film, but for a television movie, it’s extremely well-done, and almost never makes a misstep. Held together by Al Pacino’s tremendous performance and shaded by details about Jack Kevorkian’s life — his parents’ history in the Armenian genocide and his mother’s terrible suffering as a terminal patient, the way he seemed surrounded by people who died too young, his warring instincts to do everything on his own and his determination to win his case in law so as to allow others to carry on his work — the film is likely the best treatment of the man we could expect, and much more even-handed than anyone could predict. [Leonard Pierce]

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93 / 94

You’ve Got Mail

You’ve Got Mail

You’ve Got Mail

Despite the dated dial-up modems and AOL interfaces, 1998’s You’ve Got Mail is remarkably prescient about the fact that the World Wide Web was soon going to have us all writing to each other more than ever before. The film is anchored by the anonymous email correspondence of optimistic Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan) and cynical Joe Fox (Tom Hanks), who meet in an “over 30” chat room. Little do they know that he owns the Barnes & Noble-esque superstore Fox Books, which is trying to put her small independent children’s bookstore out of business. For all its oddities and imperfections, You’ve Got Mail allowed writer-director Nora Ephron to share her literal and metaphorical neighborhood with the world. [Caroline Siede]

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94 / 94

All slides

  1. The best movies on HBO Max
  2. 2001: A Space Odyssey
  3. The 39 Steps
  4. 4 Little Girls
  5. The 400 Blows
  6. 8 1/2
  7. Adam’s Rib
  8. The Adventures Of Robin Hood
  9. Ali: Fear Eats The Soul
  10. Alien
  11. Aliens
  12. Alien³
  13. All Of Me
  14. American Splendor
  15. Another Earth
  16. Apocalypse Now
  17. Ashes And Diamonds
  18. Autumn Sonata
  19. Babe: Pig In The City
  20. Bad Education
  21. Batman
  22. Batman Returns
  23. The Battle Of Algiers
  24. Battleship Potemkin
  25. Beauty And The Beast (1946)
  26. Behind The Candelabra
  27. Belle De Jour
  28. Belly
  29. Bicycle Thieves
  30. The Bitter Tears Of Petra Von Kant
  31. Black Girl
  32. Black Narcissus
  33. Black Orpheus
  34. BlacKkKlansman
  35. Blindspotting
  36. The Blob
  37. Blood Simple
  38. Body Heat
  39. Bonnie And Clyde
  40. Bound
  41. Boys Don’t Cry
  42. Breaking The Waves
  43. Bringing Up Baby
  44. Carnival Of Souls
  45. Corpse Bride
  46. Europa
  47. Eyes Without A Face
  48. Faces
  49. From Up On Poppy Hill
  50. Häxan: Witchcraft Through The Ages
  51. He Got Game
  52. The Hidden Fortress
  53. Hobson’s Choice
  54. The Honeymoon Killers
  55. House
  56. Ikiru
  57. Kiki’s Delivery Service
  58. Kwaidan
  59. Go to slide
  60. L’Avventura
  61. La Notte
  62. Lady Snowblood
  63. The Lady Vanishes
  64. The Last Metro
  65. The Lego Batman Movie
  66. The Lego Movie
  67. Little Shop Of Horrors
  68. The Lord Of The Rings: Fellowship Of The Rings
  69. The Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers
  70. The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King
  71. The Manchurian Candidate
  72. McCabe & Mrs. Miller
  73. My Neighbor Totoro
  74. Nausicaä Of The Valley Of The Wind
  75. Only Yesterday
  76. Ponyo
  77. Princess Mononoke
  78. The Secret World Of Arrietty
  79. Spirited Away
  80. That Thing You Do!
  81. They Came Together
  82. They Shall Not Grow Old
  83. Three Kings
  84. Titanic
  85. The Tree Of Life
  86. Unbreakable
  87. Us
  88. An American Werewolf In London
  89. When Harry Met Sally
  90. Winter’s Bone
  91. X-Men: First Class
  92. You Don’t Know Jack
  93. You’ve Got Mail