The best HBO Max shows and movies deliver quality streaming entertainment right into your home. HBO Max is one of the newest streaming services on the block, but it’s already got an enviable library of content culled from WarnerMedia’s archives. They’ve also got their own originals, too, like the excellent mystery/comedy/thriller The Flight Attendant starring Kaley Cuoco.
The best HBO Max shows and movies offer something for everybody, from prestige dramas, to animated comedies, feel-good reality shows, gripping documentaries and stand-up specials. And Warner Bros. is releasing all of their 2021 movies on HBO Max on the same day as they open in theaters (just like they did with Wonder Woman 1984).
HBO Max is hoping to rank among the best streaming services, right up there with Netflix and Disney Plus, by offering content from its iconic brands, including Warner Bros. film and television studios, CNN and the Turner suite of cable networks (i.e. TNT, TBS, TCM).
With HBO Max, you can binge any of HBO’s acclaimed prestige dramas, like Game of Thrones; the entirety of hit sitcoms Friends and Big Bang Theory; fresh new originals; and Oscar-winning classic films and recent superhero blockbusters.
The best HBO Max shows include popular past favorites, like Fresh Prince of Bel-air and The O.C. The best HBO Max movies range from TCM classics like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Studio Ghibli treats like My Neighbor Totoro to huge franchises like the DC movies.
It’s a lot. So, Tom’s Guide has compiled a list of the best HBO Max movies and shows, so you don’t get lost endlessly browsing through the catalog.
Best HBO Max shows
The Flight Attendant
Kaley Cuoco spreads her acting wings in this dark comedic thriller, playing a hard-partying flight attendant named Cassie Bowden. On a flight to Bangkok, she meets a handsome first class passenger, Alex Sokolov (Michiel Huisman) and ends up spending the night with him. When she finds him murdered in the bed next to her, a hungover Cassie freaks out and runs. That puts her in hot water with both law enforcement and shady business figures.
The zany, mile-a-minute plot twists make The Flight Attendant an easy binge. But it’s the depth of the writing and appealing characters (including Cassie’s BFF Annie, played by Zozia Mamet) that make it one of the best shows on HBO Max. — Kelly Woo (Watch now)
The HBO horror series comes from executive producers Jordan Peele, and J. J. Abrams, so you know the supernatural scares will be very real. Much like its HBO sibling Watchmen, Lovecraft Country is a racial commentary. The show is set in the segregated Jim Crow era of the United States of the 1950s and the characters face all sorts of monsters — both the supernatural kind and the racist human kind.
Lovecraft Country centers on Atticus Freeman (Jonathan Majors), who embarks on a road trip with friend Letitia (Jurnee Smollett) and his Uncle George (Courtney B. Vance) to search for his missing father. Along the way, they encounter vampire-like creatures and menacing cops. The show balances a fantastical tale with the (still) dangerous reality of being Black. — Kelly Woo (Watch now)
Say it with us: Zendaya, Emmy winner. The rising star is the youngest winner ever of the Outstanding Actress in a Drama Series category and she beat out the likes of Jennifer Aniston, Laura Linney and Olivia Colman. She did it with her raw, nuanced, sensitive portrayal of Rue, a recovering drug addict who returns home from rehab to try to navigate “regular” high school life. She forms a bond with new girl Jules (Hunter Schafer) and their roller coaster relationship takes place against a backdrop of sex, drugs, bullying, assault and identity issues. — Kelly Woo (Watch now)
Expecting Amy (docuseries)
Amy Schumer isn’t everybody’s cup of tea, but her fans (myself included) adore her no-holds-barred, filthy, unabashed brand of comedy. She brings that same unfiltered quality to this three-episode documentary about her difficult pregnancy. “I didn’t know that you got so sick for so much of your pregnancy. Is that stupid I didn’t know that?” she jokes in one episode. Schumer actually suffered from hyperemesis gravidarium, an extreme form of morning sickness. The docuseries is mostly made of home footage shot on phones, which gives it a very personal, intimate feeling. And it’s fascinating to see how Schumer remains who she is, while also evolving as she hurtles toward parenthood. — Kelly Woo (Watch now)
Adventure Time — a fantasy animated series — is getting the second life it deserves on HBO Max (just like how Avatar: The Last Airbender is one of the best Netflix shows). The series tracks Jake and Finn (a human and shape-shifting dog, who are somehow brothers) a pair of adventurers who live in The Land of Ooo, and often defend the Candy Kingdom as they work with Princess Bubblegum (Finn’s crush).
Sure, that sounds mighty saccharine, but Adventure Time has a zany sense of humor and smart sensibilities that appeal to both children, parents and kidults alike. Famously, the season 4 episode “Simon & Marcy” is a riff on Cormac McCarthy’s epic novel The Road, as we learn more about the connection between Marceline The Vampire Queen and The Ice King. Somehow, Adventure Time can hit all of the emotions in the dictionary in its 15 minute episodes, and those bite-size portions make it a perfect show to binge watch. — Henry T. Casey (Watch now)
No one told us life was gonna be this way. It hasn’t been our day, our week, our month and it sure hasn’t been our year. You may not be able to see your friends due to the pandemic, but at least we can all see Friends. Everyone wailed and gnashed their teeth when the beloved sitcom left Netflix at the top of 2020. Now, it’s the centerpiece of HBO Max’s content. Relive Ross and Rachel’s first kiss (and infamous “break”), every Thanksgiving episode and “PIVOT!” These Friends will be there for us in these quarantine times. — Kelly Woo (Watch now)
The Not Too Late Show With Elmo
The Not-Too-Late Show With Elmo is shockingly charming, and that’s coming from someone with next to no interest in children’s TV or family friendly content. Not only does Elmo perform the show right before his bedtime, but his parents are there at the start and end of every episode. Elmo’s also approaching the talk show format a bit differently: without the news. That’s probably for the best right now, and I’d much rather have musical guests, like episode 1’s special treat: country western superstar Kacey Musgraves performing a cover of “Rubber Ducky.”
We’re three episodes into The Not-Too-Late Show with Elmo, and if the next episodes are as good as the first few (John Mulaney races Elmo around the office in episode 3), the faux-late night show may prove a sleeper hit… even if parents want to reduce (not grow) Elmo’s presence in their households. The end-of-show bit from Oscar the Grouch is a great callback to how other late night talk shows work. — Henry T. Casey (Watch now)
Game of Thrones
Winter is coming. Well, technically, winter already came and went over the course of eight years on HBO. But now is the perfect time to watch it for the first time if you’re new to HBO Max or revisit it if you’re a longtime HBO subscriber. Even if you haven’t seen the series before, you probably know quite a lot about it — Game of Thrones is one of the last pieces of monoculture around. Millions of viewers couldn’t stop talking about the bloody battles for the Iron Throne, Daenerys Targaryen’s dragons, how the Lannisters pay their debts and the brutal misfortunes of House Stark. Even complete newbies probably heard about the disappointing finale. Still, focus on the well-told, well-made, well-acted journey and you’ll enjoy a fantastic ride. — Kelly Woo (Watch now)
Fresh Prince of Bel-Air
You don’t need to know how to do the Carlton to know it’s not unusual to fall in love with a show as much as America fell in love with The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Will Smith (playing a character of the same name) is the too-funky-fresh teen who lived in West Philadelphia until his mom got scared when he got into a fight, and sent him to live with his auntie (Viv) and uncle (Phil) in the hoity-toity neighborhood of Bel Air Los Angeles.
Throughout the series, the show found humor in exploring class differences and Will’s fish-out-of-water situation, as he charms his way through prep school and other upper class opportunities. While the series will mostly make you laugh, you’ll tear up when Will asks “Why he don’t want me?” — Henry T. Casey (Watch now)
Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown
For 12 seasons, Anthony Bourdain’s CNN show Parts Unknown turned travelougue TV into journalism and there’s never been a better time to travel with Tony. The series sees the chef, host and author bring cameras everywhere across the world, documenting everything from war-ravaged Libya to the scenes of his NYC hometown. All along the way, you get to know who Bourdain is, as well as meet a big cast of world renowned chefs such as Roy Choi, Eric Ripert and Jose Andres.
Bourdain set the standard for the industry, showing folks how to document a culture through what it brings to the table. The series starts with a trip to the recently-made-accessible Myanmar before going to the more casual land of Koreatown in LA. By the end of that season, you’ll go full Heart of Darkness in Congo, and hunt for rare cocoa in Peru. — Henry T. Casey (Watch now)
If you’ve never started this guilty-pleasure teen soap, now’s a good time to get familiar. When bad boy Ryan Atwood (Ben McKenzie) gets taken in by the Cohen family, he’s a little too rough around the edges for the scene, despite everyone’s individual drama. Ryan quickly makes friends with Seth Cohen (Adam Brody), who’s too fast-spoken for his own good, and the two become trouble magnets to a high degree.
The boys quickly develop girl problems with Marissa Cooper (Mischa Barton) and Summer Roberts (Rachel Bilson), and the latter’s antics often steal the show and become memes for their time. Peter Gallagher anchors the series as “Sandy” Cohen, the patriarch who’s also the moral compass of the series. And you’ll keep hitting Play on new episodes, not just to see how Seth and Summer bicker, but to hear the crooning Phantom Planet song “California,” one of the best opening themes. — Henry T. Casey (Watch now)
Doctor Who has everything you’d want in a quarantine binge: Adventure. Sci-fi. Humor. Aliens. Monsters. History. Romance. British accents. And HBO Max has 12 seasons of time traveling goodness (from the modern era revival), so you can settle down with a cup of tea and enjoy the Doctor’s adventures for many hours.
Each of the five Doctors in the revival era (Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant, Matt Smith, Peter Capaldi and Jodie Whittaker) all bring unique takes to their regenerated version of the character. The show can often be deeply silly, but also extremely clever and creative. More than that, it’s so positive and humane — comfort food at a time when the world really needs it. — Kelly Woo (Watch now)
If you shied away from watching the award-winning limited series when it first came out, it’s time to buckle up your grownup pants. Not only is it one of the best HBO Max shows, Chernobyl is a timely piece of extraordinary art that resonates with what’s going on in the world right now. Chernobyl is a truly harrowing tale of disaster and death, compounded by gross negligence of higher-ups, the hesitance and save-face tactics of government officials and a political culture dominated by egos, lies and secrecy. Yes, we all want to escape with mindless entertainment, but it’s also important to use the lens of history to synthesize the current events around us. — Kelly Woo (Watch now)
Best HBO Max movies
An American Pickle
If you’re a fan of Seth Rogen, you can order up a double helping in An American Pickle. The film follows Herschel Greenbaum, a struggling Ashkenazi worker who emigrates from his shtetl to America in 1920. He dreams of building a better life for himself and his family. While working at his factory job, he falls into a vat of pickles and is preserved for 100 years. When he emerges in present-day Brooklyn, Herschel — who hasn’t aged a day — looks for his family. But he’s horrified to meet his only surviving relative, great-grandson, Ben Greenbaum, a mild-mannered computer programmer whom Herschel can’t even begin to understand. — Kelly Woo (Watch now)
Birds of Prey
When, before, has the story of a woman and her favorite sandwich ever sparked more joy? No matter whether you call it by the above (revised) name or its original title (Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn), this film freaking rules. Helmed by a strong, nuanced performance from Margo Robie as the titular Ms. Quinn, BoP is a bop because of an exuberant vibe that jumps through each scene and manages to light up even the most grimly-lit room. — Henry T. Casey (Watch now)
My Neighbor Totoro
Moving to a new city is always rough for kids, but the classic animated film My Neighbor Totoro takes this premise and turns it into a beautiful and trippy delight for the whole family. Siblings Satsuki and Meg find life in the countryside too different for their tastes, but soon a fantastic cast of creatures flip the script. While the gigantic forest spirit Totoro might look intimidating at first, with its giant flaws, its emotive eyes and lovable yawns make fast friends out of these kids and their new ally.
Parents can play a game of spot the voice actor, with the likes of Tim Daly (Wings) and Dakota and Elle Fanning. Everyone in the whole household, however, will likely fall in love with the Studio Ghibli film’s hand-drawn aesthetic and lush colors. And then there’s the Cat Bus, which should inspire folks everywhere. — Henry T. Casey (Watch now)
Steven Spielberg’s 1978 became an instant classic thanks to the foreboding music, memorable dialogue (“you’re going to need a bigger boat”) and the suspenseful choice not to show the shark for the first half of the film. Add the universal setting of a beach and the universal fear of a large predatory creature and it’s no wonder that Jaws helped usher in the blockbuster era. — Kelly Woo (Watch now)
2001: A Space Odyssey
Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film isn’t just one of the best HBO Max movies. It’s one of the greatest films ever made, period. The ambitious story tracks the evolution of mankind from apes to spacefarers, all while exploring themes around artificial intelligence, technological advancement, extraterrestrial life and humanity’s place in the universe. From the monoliths to the computer HAL, there are so many signature elements that provoke thought and discussion.
2001: A Space Odyssey is also hugely influential, within the movie industry and in pop culture overall. The film is celebrated for its painstaking scientific realism, pioneering visual effects and iconic soundtrack. Almost every modern sci-fi movie you’ve ever seen owes a debt to Kubrick’s vision. — Kelly Woo (Watch now)
There’s a new Bat time and a new Bat channel: Whenever you want on HBO Max. The streaming service has the first four Batman films: Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992) with Michael Keaton; Batman Forever with Val Kilmer; and Batman & Robin (1997) with George Clooney.
No, Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy is not available on HBO Max. We’re not sure why, since they’re a Warner Bros. production. Maybe HBO Max is waiting to debut them later as a second-wave subscription push.
While Clooney’s Caped Crusader still gets a lot of flak, Keaton was a genuinely great Batman in his era. And there are several iconic performances in those four films, including Jim Carrey as the Riddler. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Mr. Freeze has his campy charm, too. While we await Robert Pattinson’s turn inside the cowl, we can fondly look back at all the Bat history that came before him. — Kelly Woo (Watch now)