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)

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.

This list was most recently updated on May 4, 2021.

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2001: A Space Odyssey

2001: A Space Odyssey

Keir Dullea
Keir Dullea
Screenshot: 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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The 39 Steps

The 39 Steps

Illustration for article titled The best movies on HBO Max
Screenshot: 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 / 135

4 Little Girls

4 Little Girls

Illustration for article titled The best movies on HBO Max
Screenshot: 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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The 400 Blows

The 400 Blows

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Screenshot: 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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8 1/2

8 1/2

Marcello Mastroianni
Marcello Mastroianni
Screenshot: 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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Adam’s Rib

Adam’s Rib

Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn
Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn
Screenshot: 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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Adventureland

Adventureland

Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart
Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart
Screenshot: Adventureland

In Adventureland, Jesse Eisenberg stars as a kinder, gentler version of the insufferable faux intellectual he played in The Squid And The Whale, a deep thinker in a superficial ’80s world where artsy pretensions don’t survive a long, boozy, pot-scented season in purgatory working at a second-rate amusement park. Eisenberg’s innocence is nicely matched by the coltishness of suddenly ubiquitous Twilight breakout star Kristen Stewart. Watching Eisenberg fall in love with Stewart is like watching the mating rituals of photogenic wild animals who care about books and interesting films. Greg Mottola’s follow-up to Superbad casts Eisenberg as a virginal recent college graduate who gets a shitty job running games at an amusement park as a way of passing time before his real life begins. At work, Eisenberg falls helplessly in love with a co-worker (Stewart), a brooding, intense young woman stuck in a go-nowhere affair with married man Ryan Reynolds. Mottola digs into the repertory company of Superbad producer Judd Apatow to score juicy supporting turns from Bill Hader, Kristen Wiig, and especially Martin Starr, who steals the film as Eisenberg’s acerbic friend. [Nathan Rabin]

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The Adventures Of Robin Hood

The Adventures Of Robin Hood

Errol Flynn
Errol Flynn
Screenshot: 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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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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All Is Lost

All Is Lost

Robert Redford
Robert Redford
Screenshot: All Is Lost

American movies don’t come much bolder than All Is Lost, which dares to dispense with no fewer than three of the medium’s apparent essentials. First, its sole cast member is Robert Redford, who spends the entire film completely alone, interacting exclusively with inanimate objects. Second, it’s 99-percent dialogue-free, the only spoken words being a short letter read in voiceover at the outset, a futile effort to contact someone via radio in the middle, and some hoarse shouts near the end. Unlike Tom Hanks’ castaway, Redford’s desperate sailor doesn’t narrate his thoughts to a volleyball, or to anything else; he’s knowable only by his actions. Which brings us to the third, most audacious, and most crucial omission: All Is Lost features no backstory whatsoever. Writer-director J.C. Chandor (Margin Call) begins the film at the very instant that crisis strikes, then moves relentlessly forward, without the usual needless bids for pathos involving the protagonist’s troubled past. (For a current example, see Sandra Bullock’s daughter in Gravity.) Not every drama would benefit from being pared down to its essence in this way, but many surely would. [Mike D’Angelo]

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All The President’s Men

All The President’s Men

Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman
Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman
Screenshot: All The President’s Men

To call All The President’s Men a “political thriller” is to acknowledge a different kind of thrill than the one provided by the era’s other sterling genre examples. Like every other movie highlighted this week, Alan J. Pakula’s 1976 procedural reflects a general disillusionment with government, mirroring the distrust of the times, while unraveling an insidious conspiracy. But while those films are fictional fantasies, variably plausible in their paranoia, All The President’s Men draws inspiration from a very real source—namely, a nonfiction account by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, the Washington Post reporters whose investigation into Watergate helped break the scandal to the public. More than that, however, the movie is also a credibly mundane vision of muckraking, in which exposing wrongdoing comes down less to car chases and daring espionage than to making cold calls, going door to door for interviews, and spending long hours pouring over potentially pertinent documents. Being “thrilled” by the film depends on being excited by the legwork of hard-hitting journalism. [A.A. Dowd]

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American Beauty

American Beauty

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

In a nod to Sunset Boulevard, Kevin Spacey narrates from the hereafter, describing in hilarious deadpan the dreary suburban rituals that serve as a “commercial for how normal we are.” Flashing back to a year before his murder, Spacey laments his faceless job as an ad-copy writer, his horrible marriage to brittle real-estate agent Annette Bening, and his fantasies about goth daughter Thora Birch’s underage friend (Mena Suvari). The early scenes in American Beauty crackle with tension, as the manners and behavioral codes that govern this family’s life begin to crumble from the pressure of their bottled-up frustration and denial. Each retreats to different avenues: Spacey quits and tries to relive his glory days as a careless, wasted teenager, Bening pursues an affair with smug “king of real estate” Peter Gallagher, and Birch takes an interest in next-door neighbor Wes Bentley, a voyeuristic misfit obsessed with his video camera. American Beauty levels the usual broadsides at rotting social institutions—the marital spats between Spacey and Bening seem based on lost pages from Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?—but it’s Bentley’s disquieting video footage that lends the film its humane, mesmerizingly sad tone. Mendes and screenwriter Alan Ball, both making their feature debuts, resort to a few heavy-handed tactics to get their points across, but their sheer audacity is so exhilarating it hardly matters. American Beauty circles around its titular subject and reimagines it in funny, touching, and startlingly original ways. [Scott Tobias]

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American Splendor

American Splendor

Paul Giamatti
Paul Giamatti
Screenshot: 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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Andre The Giant

Andre The Giant

Andre The Giant versus “Macho Man” Randy Savage
Andre The Giant versus “Macho Man” Randy Savage
Photo: HBO (Courtesy of WWE)

“Before there was CGI, there was Andre The Giant.” So says David Shoemaker, wrestling historian, trying to describe what it was like for audiences in the 1970s the first time they saw the enormous Frenchman André René Roussimoff, either in person or on their TV sets. As Shoemaker explains in Jason Hehir’s documentary Andre The Giant—debuting Tuesday night on HBO at 10 p.m. Eastern—when Roussimoff came to the United States, televised wrestling was still a regional business, with stars who mostly stayed within a small multi-state circuit. The sports’ fans might’ve seen pictures of André The Giant in a magazine, but they were unprepared for how impressive the man could be in the flesh. He was better than any special effect. Those who knew him personally have said that hanging out with him after an event was like palling around with folklore—sort of like being friends with Paul Bunyan. [Noel Murray]

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Annabelle: Creation

Annabelle: Creation

Annabelle: Creation
Annabelle: Creation
Photo: Warner Bros.

Once upon a time, a monster hit like The Conjuring, James Wan’s dubiously fact-based but highly effective spin on the haunted-house movie, would have inspired a series of lesser sequels and nothing more. But we’re living now in the age of the expanded universe, when franchises don’t follow a single forward path, instead stretching outward in multiple directions like the gnarled branches of the spooky tree on the film’s poster. Annabelle: Creation, a prequel to the spin-off they already made about that unholy plaything with the pigtails, pallid complexion, and unnervingly large peepers. Earning its shared-universe keep, the film finds a way not just to tie itself back to the two movies that spawned it, but also to plant a small seed for one of two other spin-offs on the way by randomly alluding to that spectral nun from The Conjuring 2. Will these ghastly attractions be forming some kind of Avengers-style supergroup? The Boo Crew, perhaps? Honestly, all that interconnected mythology is easy to ignore. What matters is that Annabelle: Creation, much more than its immediate predecessor, adheres to the bump-in-the-dark horror fundamentals that made The Conjuring such a good time and a gold mine. [A.A. Dowd]

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Argo

Argo

Ben Affleck and Brian Cranston
Ben Affleck and Brian Cranston
Screenshot: Argo

On November 4, 1979, a group of Iranian protesters and militants stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran. Still filled with the revolutionary fervor that toppled the regime of the Iranian monarchy that spring, they sought to make a statement against the influence of the country where the exiled, ailing Shah had taken up residence, the country that helped put him into power, and ousted a democratically elected government in 1953. In the process, the statement got bigger. Rather than simply occupying the embassy for a while and departing, the protesters took 52 hostages and held them with the approval of the country’s new leader, Ayatollah Khomeini. Six others, however, got away, eventually finding their way back to America through an unlikely route. Ben Affleck’s third directorial project, Argo, recounts their odd escape, made possible by the efforts of a CIA agent (Affleck) with Hollywood connections and an inspired notion about how to put them to work: create a phony science-fiction film named Argo as a cover story, travel to Iran as a producer scouting for locations, and return with the Americans in tow disguised as a Canadian film crew. [Keith Phipps]

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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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Assault On Precinct 13

Assault On Precinct 13

Illustration for article titled The best movies on HBO Max
Screenshot: Assault On Precinct 13

John Carpenter uses Rio Bravo as the template for his 1976 sophomore directorial effort Assault On Precinct 13, a neo-Western about a police station under attack from a Los Angeles gang known as Street Thunder. That barrage is motivated by a series of events that Carpenter stages with mounting tension, and suggests a world ensnared in a ceaseless cycle of slaughter. In response to faceless cops murdering their comrades, gang members go on the prowl, looking to retaliate against innocent bystanders. They eventually settle on an ice-cream truck driver and—in an infamous, still-shocking scene—a young girl, whose fatal bullet to the chest is filmed straight on, fully establishing Street Thunder’s (and the film’s) ruthlessness. Violence begets violence in Assault On Precinct 13, as the father of the slain girl guns down her killer, and then flees to a precinct in slummy Anderson, California, that’s in the process of being shut down (hence few weapons or staffers), and under the command of newly assigned Lieutenant Bishop (Austin Stoker). Complicating matters further, a trio of convicts, on its way to another prison, has made a pit stop at Precinct 13. They’re led by Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Joston), a cocky, wisecracking criminal whose recurring requests for cigarettes and refusal to explain the origins of his first name provide a strain of smart-ass humor. [Nick Schager]

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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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Babe: Pig In The City

Babe: Pig In The City

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

Behind The Candelabra

Michael Douglas in Behind The Candelabra
Michael Douglas in Behind The Candelabra
Photo: HBO

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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Belle De Jour

Belle De Jour

Illustration for article titled The best movies on HBO Max
Screenshot: 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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Best In Show

Best In Show

Fred Willard and Jim Piddock
Fred Willard and Jim Piddock
Screenshot: Best In Show

Normally, filmmakers shouldn’t be encouraged to make the same movie twice, but Christopher Guest has recycled the cast and the “mockumentary” format of Waiting For Guffman, switched his fat target from community theater to dog breeding, and pulled off the equally hilarious Best In Show. As with Guffman and This Is Spinal Tap, Guest has a rare ability to drape heavy improvisation around a skeletal script without letting the individual sketches, or the comedy as a whole, fall slack. [Scott Tobias]

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Bicycle Thieves

Bicycle Thieves

Bicycle Thief
Bicycle Thief
Photo: Criterion

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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Big Fish

Big Fish

Illustration for article titled The best movies on HBO Max
Photo: Big Fish

Big Fish is a Daniel Wallace adaptation and visual feast that recaptures the fairy-tale simplicity and wrenching emotional power of Edward Scissorhands. Told largely in flashbacks, Big Fish stars Albert Finney as a larger-than-life Southern patriarch who never lets the truth get in the way of a good yarn. Like his Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, director Tim Burton’s Big Fish largely takes place in a kaleidoscopic, fully formed, utterly benevolent universe that seems to have originated in its protagonist’s vivid imagination–which in this case isn’t that far from the truth. With such a world-class fantasist in the director’s chair, the question of which side of the fantasy/fact divide Big Fish will fall on is never in doubt. But Burton and company make an unbeatable case for the life-affirming power of make-believe. [Nathan Rabin]

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Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure

Bill & Ted
Bill & Ted
Photo: Michael Ochs Archives (Getty Images)

Comedy writers Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon were performing in a makeshift improv troupe in Los Angeles when one day they spontaneously started talking in funny, exaggerated California teenager voices. The characters they came up with—“Bill” and “Ted”—weren’t exactly stoners, surfers, or valley guys, but rather two good-hearted, not-too-bright suburban “dudes” who’d spent their whole lives baked in sunshine. Matheson and Solomon loved pretending to be Bill and Ted, who were so enthusiastic and congenial—like the best aspects of their creators, but simplified—so they kept imagining new situations for the characters. When they came up with the idea of Bill and Ted interacting with historical figures, they turned out a movie script in less than a week. When Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure was released in 1989, the low-budget comedy became a surprise hit and home-video favorite. There are multiple reasons why Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure is such an entertaining movie even now, but the biggest is that Matheson, Solomon, and director Stephen Herek found the perfect Bill and Ted in Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves, two young actors with just the right boyish energy. [Noel Murray]

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Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey

Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey

Illustration for article titled The best movies on HBO Max
Screenshot: Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey

Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey almost sounds like a parody of a sequel, starting with the title swapping in one synonym and one antonym. The film certainly lacks the loopy purity of its predecessor, where two metalhead slackers must travel through time to gain historical knowledge, pass their history exam, and preserve a future where their bumbling two-man rock band, Wyld Stallyns, saves humankind. On one level, Bogus Journey offers more of the same, as a future terrorist sends robot doubles of Bill (Alex Winter) and Ted (Keanu Reeves) back in time to destroy them and finish off Wyld Stallyns once and for all. (Amusingly, despite all the fuss, Bill and Ted remain the weak links in their own band; the medieval princesses they courted in the first film have grown into stronger musicians.) But in execution, Bogus Journey doesn’t rehash the original so much as one-up it. [Jesse Hassenger]

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The Bishop’s Wife

The Bishop’s Wife

Illustration for article titled The best movies on HBO Max
Screenshot: The Bishop’s Wife

When Bishop Henry Broughman (David Niven) puts up a prayer for help with building a new cathedral, he receives an answer in the ever-charming guise of Cary Grant as the angelic Dudley. Dudley hasn’t come to Earth to pitch in on construction, though: He’s there to help patch up the cracks forming between Henry and his family—an unstated mission that grows complicated when the heavenly visitor starts falling for the titular bishop’s wife, Julia (Loretta Young). [Erik Adams]

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The Bitter Tears Of Petra Von Kant

The Bitter Tears Of Petra Von Kant

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

Black Dynamite

Mike Jai White
Mike Jai White
Screenshot: Black Dynamite

Another blaxploitation parody/homage might have seemed a little redundant after I’m Gonna Git You Sucka and Undercover Brother, but the clever new spoof Black Dynamite justifies its existence with amazing cultural specificity and uncanny attention to detail. Working from a script he co-wrote with star Michael Jai White, director Scott Sanders has created a genre pastiche every bit as loving and meticulous as Far From Heaven or The Good German, though this time it’s in service to a film boom defined by wooden dialogue, terrible acting by models and ex-athletes, and filmmaking that can charitably be called charmingly homemade, or not so generously derided as incompetent. In a potentially star-making performance, accomplished martial artist White stars as the titular badass, an ex-CIA operative who now whiles away his days destroying sparring partners with his devastating moves, making sweet love to an overflowing harem, and generally kicking ass. But when mysterious forces kill his brother, White roars back into action, battling evildoers on an epic quest that takes him from the mean streets of L.A. to Kung Fu Island to expose a conspiracy whose tentacles reach the highest levels of American power. [Nathan Rabin]

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Black Girl

Black Girl

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

Black Orpheus

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

Blindspotting

Blindspotting
Blindspotting
Photo: Lionsgate

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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The Blob

The Blob

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

Blood Simple

Blood Simple
Blood Simple
Photo: Corbis Historical (Getty Images)

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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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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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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Bound

Bound

Jennifer Tilly
Jennifer Tilly
Screenshot: 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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48 / 135

Boogie Nights

Boogie Nights

Mark Wahlberg and John C. Reilly
Mark Wahlberg and John C. Reilly
Screenshot: Boogie Nights

Director Paul Thomas Anderson’s second film is a sprawling, energetic, audacious look at the porn industry of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Mark Wahlberg, in a performance that allows even “Wildside” to be forgiven, plays a young stud, with a talent clearly outlined by his tight jeans, who rises to the top of the industry only to let success go to his head. A large and universally excellent cast (Burt Reynolds, Julianne Moore, John C. Reilly, Don Cheadle, Heather Graham, William H. Macy) plays the extended family he joins. Though it’s incredibly stylish, Anderson and his cast never let Boogie Nights stray from its human center. For example, as a porn producer with artistic aspirations, Reynolds plays a character that could easily have been a caricature, but he conveys sleaze with heart so well that the threat never comes close to materializing. By taking on the porn industry, Anderson has chosen a subject that could easily be mined for cheap laughs. But while it’s very funny, Boogie Nights taps into something much deeper with its on-target depiction of the shifting political and social tides of the ‘70s and ‘80s and thoughtful relationships between characters. It’s a deeply satisfying movie. [Mike D’Angelo]

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Boys Don’t Cry

Boys Don’t Cry

Hilary Swank and Chloë Sevigny
Hilary Swank and Chloë Sevigny
Screenshot: 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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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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Bringing Up Baby

Bringing Up Baby

Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn
Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn
Photo: ohn Springer Collection/Corbis via Getty Images

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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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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53 / 135

Chimes At Midnight

Chimes At Midnight

Orson Welles
Orson Welles
Screenshot: Chimes At Midnight

Cut and pasted from the texts of five different plays (plus snippets of Holinshed’s Chronicles, the Bard’s main source on English history), Chimes At Midnight puts larger-than-life John Falstaff, Shakespeare’s most popular comic role, center-stage, only to dwarf him with cathedral and castle interiors. Orson Welles made innovative use of low angles in his debut, Citizen Kane, reinventing ceilings as backdrops; here, in his final trip into the corridors of power, they seem so far above as to be unreachable. Even Chimes At Midnight’s brutal, celebrated Battle Of Shrewsbury sequence—a hurricane of medieval violence that has remained a key Hollywood reference point for decades—finds time to cut back to Falstaff, wobbling around in a suit of armor like a lost astronaut roaming the moonscape of history. A big chunk of Welles’ body of work could be divided up into movies about power (e.g. Citizen Kane, Macbeth) and movies about powerlessness (e.g. The Lady From Shanghai, The Trial), and Chimes At Midnight fits squarely into the latter category. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

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54 / 135

A Christmas Story

A Christmas Story

Peter Billingsley
Peter Billingsley
Screenshot: A Christmas Story

A Christmas Story got where it is because of TV, and it’s not hard to see why. The movie made its TV debut on HBO in 1985, then slowly made its way toward channels more people had, popping up on WGN and Fox on either Thanksgiving night or the night after Thanksgiving a few times before eventually making its way into the hands of the Ted Turner empire, where it was destined for great things. Even in the ’90s, TV ratings were beginning the long process of splitting into smaller and smaller niches, and networks of all shapes and sizes understood that one of the vital pieces of any year-round ratings puzzle were holiday specials. TNT and TBS bet big on A Christmas Story, showing it more often every year, until arriving at the day-long marathon on TBS that will air again this year beginning Tuesday night. The networks took a good movie that people had responded to and turned it into an event, even as NBC was limiting Wonderful Life airings to one or two per year. A Christmas Story became the de facto American Christmas movie and hasn’t looked back. [Emily VanDerWerff]

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Corpse Bride

Corpse Bride

Illustration for article titled The best movies on HBO Max
Screenshot: 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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56 / 135

Crazy Rich Asians

Crazy Rich Asians

Constance Wu and Henry Golding
Constance Wu and Henry Golding
Photo: Warner Bros.

Constance Wu stars as Rachel Chu, a practical NYU economics professor who’s shocked to learn that the man she’s been dating for the past year is basically Singaporean royalty. Hunky boyfriend Nick Young (Henry Golding) isn’t just rich; he’s the 1 percent of the 1 percent. And since he’s set to inherit the family’s real estate empire and expected to marry the right sort of woman to sit by his side, there’s a metric ton of pressure on Rachel’s shoulders when she joins Nick in Singapore for his best friend’s wedding and meets his family for the first time. Nick’s intimidating mother, Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh), immediately disapproves of her son’s choice. And Rachel—who was raised in the U.S. by a hard-working Chinese immigrant single-mom—is treated to a crash course in cultural differences, not just between the rich and the middle class, but also between Asian and Asian-American cultures. There’s a version of this film that holds Nick more accountable for thrusting Rachel into an overwhelming world without much in the way of guidance. Crazy Rich Asians doesn’t take that route. Instead, Nick remains a dashing Prince Charming (Golding more than fits the bill), and the threats to his relationship with Rachel are external rather than internal. There are plenty of heartwarming, tearjerking romantic moments to keep rom-com fans happy, but Crazy Rich Asians is first and foremost the story of Rachel struggling against the complex dynamics of Nick’s insular family. It’s also a surprisingly thoughtful meditation on wealth and womanhood. [Caroline Siede]

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57 / 135

Death Becomes Her

Death Becomes Her

Goldie Hawn and Bruce Willis
Goldie Hawn and Bruce Willis

Robert Zemeckis let his interest in special effects eclipse his interest in characters many years ago, and Death Becomes Her finds him on the cusp: As a high-concept comedy full of shrill caricatures, it lets the Oscar-winning visual effects drive the minimal plot. But it does have some Beetlejuice-esque bizarre humor, and plenty of fun mocking its high-profile stars. Goldie Hawn gets grotesque in a fat suit, cramming frosting from a tub into her face as she mourns losing Willis. Meryl Streep, already a two-time Oscar-winner, gets to do physical comedy and walk around with her head smashed so far into her torso, she looks like she’s wearing a turtleneck made out of her own chest. And Bruce Willis gets to play meek, impotent, and frustrated, though in the end, he shows more spine than any of the principal players. Even as a wuss, he’s a bit of a hero. [Tasha Robinson]

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Deerskin

Deerskin

Jean Dujardin in Deerskin
Jean Dujardin in Deerskin
Photo: Greenwich Entertainment

For Georges, the unmoored fortysomething divorcé Jean Dujardin plays in the demented French comedy Deerskin, midlife crisis takes the form of a fashion statement. That, anyway, is one explanation (maybe the sanest) for the man’s sudden obsession with a prized possession: a vintage jacket made entirely from the skin of a deer. Standing before a full-length mirror, having just forked over several thousand euros for this new addition to his wardrobe, Georges radiates an almost romantic satisfaction with his purchase. He loves how he looks and feels. He loves the jacket. He might love love it, even. Locked out of the joint bank account he shares with his ex-wife (the fringed coat cost a nest egg, somehow), Georges drifts into a remote alpine town, talking his way into a room at the local lodge. Here, he ends up masquerading, on a bullshitting whim, as a filmmaker. He then becomes an actual filmmaker (using the digital camera that came, rather inexplicably, with the jacket), though it’s all just a means to an end, a roundabout route to a quick buck and a way to feed his late-blooming addiction to suede. As played by Dujardin, Oscar-winning star of The Artist, Georges is a precise caricature of deluded self-regard. He’s so pathetic, in fact, that everyone—characters and viewers alike—might presume him harmless. It’s around the time Georges starts carrying on conversations with his favorite winter wear, inspiring a quest to rid the world of all other jackets, that we recognize the dangerous depth of his detachment. [A.A. Dowd]

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59 / 135

Defending Your Life

Defending Your Life

Albert Brooks watching Albert Brooks
Albert Brooks watching Albert Brooks
Screenshot: Defending Your Life

For whatever reasons (The end of the Reagan era? The recession and the dying of the yuppie dream?), the transition from the ’80s into the ’90s produced a quick succession of movies about lustily embracing life, from Dead Poets Society to Ghost to Field Of Dreams. By comparison, and in keeping with the comic persona of its maker, Albert Brooks’ Defending Your Life is a dry, low-key film about screaming “carpe diem.” But it’s no less effective in its appraisal of what it means to really live. That said, the most memorable thing about it is Brooks’ vision of what happens when we die: Brooks plays an ad executive who croaks and goes to a Palm Springs resort-like purgatory called Judgment City, where the weather’s always perfect, the food is plentiful and delicious (and you’ll never gain a pound), and the only thing intruding on the vacation fun is the little matter of having to go over every mistake you’ve ever made before a tribunal of celestial judges. [Sean O’Neal]

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Divorce, Italian Style

Divorce, Italian Style

Illustration for article titled The best movies on HBO Max
Screenshot: Divorce, Italian Style

Federico Fellini favorite Marcello Mastroianni stars in Divorce Italian Style as a Sicilian baron undergoing a midlife crisis. He feels smothered by his wife Daniela Rocca, a lightly mustachioed woman with a witchy laugh and a ravenous sexual appetite, and he still sees himself as a desirable catch, able to turn young ladies’ heads with his wealth and good looks. Mastroianni is especially attracted to his teen cousin Stefania Sandrelli, but being Catholic, he can’t do much about it. His best bet is to catch his wife with another man, kill her, and plead “crime of passion.” So he goes looking for a man who might want to sleep with Rocca. That plot description could fit farce or noir, and Divorce Italian Style is a little of both, with the noir elements coming through Mastroianni’s whispered flashback narration and dark fantasies. [Noel Murray]

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61 / 135

Down By Law

Down By Law

Illustration for article titled The best movies on HBO Max
Screenshot: Down By Law

The key statement made by Jim Jarmusch’s 1984 masterpiece Stranger Than Paradise, one which defined and resonated through independent cinema for years afterward, was that American films don’t have to be defined by propulsive stories, or even by dynamic characters. It was achievement enough simply to evoke a small corner of the world as specifically and flavorfully as possible, preferably one that the audience rarely gets a chance to see. In this respect, Jarmusch’s superb 1986 follow-up Down By Law can be described as many things–a minimalist fairytale, a modern twist on ’30s prison dramas, an existential comedy–but it’s memorable first and foremost as a richly textured look at old New Orleans and the enchanted bayou surrounding it. With music and songs by stars John Lurie and Tom Waits, and stark black-and-white photography by the great Robby Müller (Paris, Texas), the film breaks off from the tourists on Bourbon Street and finds inspiration in the city’s decaying underbelly–”a sad and beautiful world,” as Waits neatly poeticizes it. [Scott Tobias]

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62 / 135

Eating Raoul

Eating Raoul

Illustration for article titled The best movies on HBO Max
Graphic: Eating Raoul

For Mary and Paul Bland, the protagonists of Eating Raoul, the world never stops offending. A sexless but happily married couple played by former Warhol star Mary Woronov and her frequent on-screen partner Paul Bartel—the film’s director and co-writer with Richard Blackburn—the Blands dream of opening an old-fashioned country restaurant, but can’t seem to get ahead, held back by bills and unexpected unemployment. (Turns out the corner liquor store employing Bartel didn’t need a healthy supply of expensive French wine.) So they’re stuck instead in their tastefully retro apartment in the middle of one of Los Angeles’ most tasteless corners, surrounded by swingers who, gasp, even invite them to loosen up and join their party. But when one violates their home, and attempts to violate Woronov, they kill him, pick his pockets, and hit on an idea: Why not take out an ad in a sleazy local newspaper to attract sexual perverts and repeat the process until they have money enough to get out? After all, who’s going to miss a few swingers anyway? [Keith Phipps]

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63 / 135

Emma

Emma

Gwyneth Paltrow
Gwyneth Paltrow
Screenshot: Emma

Sanding down some of its source material’s sharper edges, Emma remains the epitome of the mid-’90s Miramax period piece; it’s a light, fluffy confection whose liveliness and good humor outweigh its lack of depth. Adapting Jane Austen’s revered novel, screenwriter-director Douglas McGrath takes a spirited approach to the 19th-century English tale of young Emma Woodhouse (Gwyneth Paltrow), who spends a year attempting to play matchmaker for a number of acquaintances, the most prominent being Harriet Smith (Toni Collette), a new friend just starting out in high society. Emma’s efforts to set up Harriet with local minister Mr. Elton (Alan Cumming) help kick-start a roundelay of romantic pairings and partings, which eventually come to include Emma’s own relationships with both Frank Churchill (Ewan McGregor), the coveted son of her governesses’ new husband, and George Knightley (Jeremy Northam), her close family friend. McGrath stages his story with little aesthetic flair, and from today’s perspective, his film’s production design proves far less convincing than that of Downton Abbey. Still, the director’s fondness for extended takes allows Austen’s memorable characters, and his cast’s uniformly compelling performances, to command center stage, and his script effectively channels the novel’s atmosphere of amorous anticipation, longing, and confusion. [Nick Schager]

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Emma.

Emma.

Anya Taylor-Joy in Emma.
Anya Taylor-Joy in Emma.
Photo: Focus Features

For the final novel published during her lifetime, Jane Austen set out to write “a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.” Unlike the noble underdogs of Pride And Prejudice and Sense And Sensibility, Emma Woodhouse is a wealthy, entitled young woman whose problems are largely of her own making. “The real evils, indeed, of Emma’s situation,” Austen explains, “were the power of having rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself.” In her curiously punctuated adaptation, prolific music video helmer Autumn de Wilde pushes her protagonist’s haughty unlikeability even further. De Wilde’s stylish, stylized Emma. doesn’t rewrite the Austen playbook, but it shakes it up a bit—emphasizing the stakes of Emma’s careless meddling and adding a spiky 21st-century sensibility to Austen’s 19th-century ode to checking your privilege. De Wilde’s boldest choice is using the tone to reflect Emma’s arc from intelligent but dispassionate meddler to a young woman bowled over by her flaws and her capacity for love. [Carolie Siede]

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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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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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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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68 / 135

The Five-Year Engagement

The Five-Year Engagement

Emily Blunt and Jason Segel
Emily Blunt and Jason Segel
Screenshot: The Five-Year Engagement

The Jason Segel-co-written, Judd Apatow-produced romantic comedy The Five-Year Engagement is an unusually pure hang-out movie. Like its protagonists, it’s in no hurry to get down to business, unless the business in question is luxuriating in the camaraderie and ebullient good humor of an unusually likeable group of friends and associates played by a band of ringers that includes Mindy Kaling, Kevin Hart, Brian Posehn, Alison Brie, Chris Pratt, Chris Parnell, and Rhys Ifans, in addition to the perfectly matched, perfectly cast leads, Segel and Emily Blunt. The Five-Year Engagement’s purposefully meandering plot finds the wedding of inveterate charmers Segel and Blunt perpetually delayed due to the demands of Blunt’s career in academia. The happy couple gets uprooted from San Francisco to Ann Arbor when Blunt is accepted into graduate school at the University of Michigan. The initially game, indulgent Segel grows increasingly resentful when circumstances force him to put his own professional aspirations aside to support Blunt’s thriving career. Segel sinks into a prolonged funk and adopts a hirsute mountain-man persona after he takes up hunting and bonds with a house-husband (a very funny Parnell) who’s equally devoted to killing and eating large animals, and knitting. Meanwhile, Blunt becomes close with a charismatic mentor (Ifans) who takes a more-than-professional interest in his gorgeous, effervescent protégé. [Nathan Rabin]

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69 / 135

Fort Tilden

Fort Tilden

Clare McNulty and Bridey Elliott
Clare McNulty and Bridey Elliott
Screenshot: Fort Tilden

“It’s authentically distressed,” says Allie (Clare McNulty) of the barrel she and her friend Harper (Bridey Elliott) find lying in the sand near the end of Fort Tilden. Like so many lines in Sarah-Violet Bliss and Charles Rogers’ caustic comedy, it’s a sharply double-edged observation. Not only is the chipped wooden container in question more genuinely weathered than the one the women had already purchased as a conversation piece before beginning their trip to the beach, but Allie’s observation also stands as a piece of inadvertently pointed self-analysis. Harper and Allie are indeed damsels in distress, and not just because they can’t efficiently navigate the way from a Brooklyn loft to the Rockaways (a disastrous, distended day trip to hook up with some boys, which makes up the film’s entire plot). They’ve been shaped by a parentally subsidized lifestyle that permits neo-bohemian arrogance without the threat of actual starving-artist poverty; their family ties simultaneously insulate them from harm while rendering them defenseless against the smallest challenges to their egos and routines. Far from the exercise in vicarious hipster-voodoo-doll skewering its basic setup suggests, Fort Tilden is at once less sentimental and more incisive about privilege and its discontents than the recent films of Noah Baumbach. It’s also funnier. [Adam Nayman]

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Friends With Money

Friends With Money

Jennifer Aniston, Catherine Keener, Joan Cusack
Jennifer Aniston, Catherine Keener, Joan Cusack
Screenshot: Friends With Money

Like its title, Friends With Money has a strangely ingratiating way of being simultaneously coolly casual and disconcertingly blunt. Writer-director Nicole Holofcener is especially perceptive in exploring how our culture’s obsession with youth makes aging gracefully nearly impossible, and how money wriggles into relationships regardless of whether the people involved want it to. Catherine Keener, the star of Holofcener’s previous films, returns as a successful screenwriter whose marriage to writing partner Jason Isaacs has entered a bleak endgame in which a single thoughtless remark unleashes decades of pent-up resentment. Meanwhile, her pal Jennifer Aniston wanders through life in a stoned depressive haze and enters into an ill-advised fling with a cheerfully superficial personal trainer, expertly played by a funny Scott Caan. Frances McDormand’s unhappiness manifests as rage rather than depression, while Joan Cusack is strangely short-changed dramatically as the fourth longtime friend. Like Curb Your Enthusiasm, Friends With Money is an unmistakably Los Angeles comedy of manners. But rather than pushing conflicts and misunderstandings into the realm of dark comedy like Enthusiasm, or throttling them into lurid melodrama like Crash, Holofcener’s film remains rooted in keen observations about everyday life. [Nathan Rabin]

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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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Happy-Go-Lucky

Happy-Go-Lucky

Illustration for article titled The best movies on HBO Max
Screenshot: Happy-Go-Lucky

The opening scenes of Mike Leigh’s latest slice-of-life dramedy Happy-Go-Lucky introduce a protagonist who appears psychologically disordered at worst, and highly annoying at best. Sally Hawkins plays an incessant chatterbox with no apparent understanding of how her attempts to spread sunshine are being received by the shopkeepers and passersby who suffer through them. We later learn that Hawkins is a primary school teacher, which is no surprise, since she’s the kind of childlike free spirit who relates well to kids. But it is surprising to learn that she’s such a conscientious teacher, who goes the extra mile to figure out what’s wrong with one of her more violent pupils. And it’s reassuring to discover that she has such close friends, including a cynical roommate who rolls her eyes at Hawkins’ optimism, but obviously prefers Hawkins just as she is. [Noel Murray]

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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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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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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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High Fidelity

High Fidelity

John Cusack
John Cusack

The Chicagoans at Rob’s (John Cusack) store, Championship Vinyl, are “professional appreciator”s from afar who can barely hold it together in conversation with rising singer-songwriter Marie De Salle (Lisa Bonet). It’s a much more grown-up male adolescent fantasy (i.e. Rob winds up having a one-night stand with Marie) where the specters of age, responsibility, and purpose are always hovering around while only occasionally impeding on Rob’s daytime routine of listening to music and rattling off personal top five lists, or his off-hours regimen of listening to music and rattling off personal top five lists. High Fidelity is a film colored by a love of music, but it’s also about love love, the complexities of romantic relationships and the path toward becoming a better, fuller person. [Erick Adams]

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77 / 135

Hobson’s Choice

Hobson’s Choice

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

Hot Fuzz

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

Writer-director Wright and writer-star Pegg’s loving send-up of action comedies suggests that its makers got more out of Bad Boys II and Point Break—two of its tongue-in-cheek touchstones—than most filmmakers get out of Citizen Kane and The Grand Illusion. Pegg here trades in his bong for a badge as an overachieving London bobby whose crime-fighting heroics make his peers seem lazy by comparison. As punishment, he’s unceremoniously shipped off to a seemingly tranquil, boring small town and partnered with loveable slob Nick Frost, a fleshy-faced hedonist who looks like a giant drunken toddler. But Pegg discovers his new beat is nowhere near as sleepy as it first appears, as bodies start piling up and no one seems particularly interested in looking for answers. [Nathan Rabin]

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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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House Party

House Party

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

House Party premiered at the 1990 Sundance Film Festival, part of a pack of extremely promising debut features that also included Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan, Hal Hartley’s The Unbelievable Truth, and Wendell B. Harris Jr.’s Chameleon Street, which took home the top prize. But House Party was different: It didn’t aim for the arthouse crowd, but for multiplex audiences. The fact that it became a very profitable hit, spawning sequels and imitators, didn’t have much to do with the fact that it had picked up awards at Sundance for writer-director Reginald Hudlin and cinematographer Peter Deming, later known for his work with David Lynch. (Coincidentally, Lynch’s own debut, Eraserhead, gets name-checked.) With the exception of a homophobic tangent—which the movie’s been rightly called out on since it first hit Park City—it’s as fun as unapologetic teensploitation gets. Hudlin didn’t subvert or reinvent a form that had been around since enterprising drive-in producers figured out they could cash in on rock ’n’ roll. He just did it better: a sort of clean-cut early ’60s movie for the R-rated early ’90s, right down to the shaggy-dog plot, the bully villains, and the cast of high schoolers who all look like they’re in their mid-to-late 20s. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

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82 / 135

I Used To Go Here

I Used To Go Here

Gillian Jacobs
Gillian Jacobs
Photo: Gravitas Ventures

Kris Rey’s good-natured, sharply observed indie stars Gillian Jacobs as Kate, a 35-year-old writer whose dreams of becoming a published novelist have come true but not in the way she was hoping. Her book is getting bad reviews and turning in poor sales reports, so much so that her publisher cancels the book tour. Her fiancé dumped her after she added a smug nod to their domestic bliss on the book jacket—the insult to that injury is that she also hates the cover art. In short, Kate is vulnerable, leading her to accept an invitation from her undergraduate writing teacher David (Jemaine Clement) to come give a talk at her old college in downstate Illinois. Adulation from a handful of starry-eyed students isn’t enough to satiate Kate’s neediness, however, and so she stops by her old college house for a quick hit of nostalgia. A better adjusted person would realize that the place was a shithole and just go back to their hotel. But Kate quickly inserts herself into a messy love triangle with Hugo (Josh Wiggins), the teenager who now sleeps in her old bedroom, and his girlfriend, April (Hannah Marks). The setup has the potential for broad, raunchy comedy, and I Used To Go Here does provide Jacobs and her under-21 crew—including the endearingly dorky, aptly named Tall Brandon (Brandon Daley)—some fun pratfalls and exaggerated whispers in a midnight surveillance scene later in the film. But for the most part, Rey’s execution is, for lack of a better word, more adult than all that; her sharp dialogue lampoons male sexual entitlement, and there are subtle visual gags that underline Kate’s immaturity and the existential absurdity of her dilemma. (A scene where she holds up her book next to a lineup of friends posing with their pregnant bellies is at once cringeworthy and hilarious.) [Katie Rife]

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83 / 135

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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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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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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86 / 135

L’Argent

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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87 / 135

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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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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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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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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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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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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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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Little Shop Of Horrors

Little Shop Of Horrors

Rick Moranis
Rick Moranis
Screenshot: 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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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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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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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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