These “best of lists” always present a unique task when they’re as broad as a whole streaming service. Lists are always subjective of course, but you want to find a wide breadth of films without leaning too hard into one genre. That’s mostly to say that no, the below won’t just be all superhero and horror movies! (They are there, though.)
HBO and HBO Max – who have basically the same catalogue at this point – have a wide breadth of feature films, documentaries, series, etc. So far as streamers go, it’s hard to argue that they’ve got the most impressive lineup. Part of that’s due to the fact that the Warner Media pockets are deep and they can pay for the rights of the big names. The rest is that it’s HBO and they know that’s what their viewers have come to expect from the channel (and now service).
While comedy surrounding the holocaust was prevalent in the decades following WWII as nations found a way to heal their hurts, it’s generally not a subject we’re supposed to laugh at. Some folks went into Taika Waititi’s film thinking that humor was what it was trying to bring. There are some laughs, to be sure, but every moment of Jojo Rabbit is meant to provide commentary, not to punch down.
The film looks at war – specifically the horrors of WWII – through the lens of a child. What happens to the most impressionable among us when they grow up in a world of propaganda and no one stands in the way of it? What, then, can occur when someone shows up to challenge the perceptions built on a life of lies? This beautiful film is wrapped in layers of satire, to be sure, but it only adds to it.
After Jordan Peele floored the world with Get Out, it seemed unlikely he’d be able to wow us in the same way with his sophomore feature. We were all wrong to doubt. Us and Get Out couldn’t be more different from one another, but they’re certainly the same level of exceptional. Frightening commentary on the duality of the world and what we’ll allow to happen behind closed doors (or right under our noses) meets a narrative woven with clever references to scripture, pop culture, and more.
Us brings out the best in all of its cast, wowing viewers with incredible death scenes, ethical conundrums, complicated emotional bonds, and questions of how we view the “other” when we’re all “others” ourselves.
Birds of Prey
Birds of Prey was a balm after The Suicide Squad. While both snatch your attention with colorful set pieces and absolute bangers for soundtracks, they couldn’t be farther from each other in tone. Cathie Yan’s picture (penned by Christina Hodson) is exactly what happens when you give women the opportunity to tell female stories. The male gaze is replaced with choppy bangs and the fierce emancipation of one Harley Quinn. Though the title gave them some struggles – both because of its original length and because this is no way the Birds of Prey team – everyone involved put together one hell of a film focused on both female empowerment and kicking all kinds of ass. The hair tie scene is al all-timer.
Bryan Stevenson has spent his whole life fighting for human rights. Last year, his memoir Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption was adapted into this film. Just Mercy stars Michael B. Jordan as Stevenson himself as he fights for the freedom of Walter McMillan (Jamie Foxx). McMillan was wrongfully accused of murder in 1988 and remained on death row for six years. The story passionately depicts his struggles, as well as the fight from Stevenson to free a man from a corrupt system. It’s an exceptional film no matter the time, but if you’ve found yourself surrounded by loved ones still questioning police corruption after all of the evidence presented, fiction (or in this case, romanticization) can be a good kick in the empathy. Even if that’s not the case, Just Mercy is difficult, beautiful, and a good reminder of what the outcome can be when we fight.
Rise of the Guardians
This might be a Christmas movie, but it doesn’t have to be. Rise of the Guardians didn’t get the eyes it deserved when it released, but rest assured that it is every bit as exceptional as the rest of the entries on this list. It’s beautifully animated and follows a story that’s bound to lift even the most cynical spirits. Jack Frost (Chris Pine) and the rest of the guardians must fight the evil Pitch (Jude Law) as he launches an all-out assault on Earth and the innocence of its children. It’s hopeful and kind and features a stacked cast of voice actors. Also? Buff, tattooed, Santa. What else could you possibly want?
La La Land
The life fact that you can commit no errors and still fail (thanks, Captain Picard) is a tough pill to swallow. When that idea is put into practice with love, it gets even harder. La La Land has its flaws. A white dude constantly going on about jazz in a film that would have been very white even without that plot point isn’t the best foot to put forward, and there’s no judgement if that’s not something you’re able to separate from the rest of the film. However, if you can, what you’ll find is an exceptionally told story following the love of two people that may not be meant to be together.
Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling have incredible chemistry as Mia and Sebastian as they sing and dance their way through sunny LA. The music is adequately written and the story is the kind that will successfully tug at the heart strings of anyone who’s ever been anywhere close to being in love. If you want to know what if feels like to be heartbroken while tapping your toes along to as song, this is the one to check out.
Along with lovely animation and a fun, spunky and clever female protagonist is the feature’s incredible soundtrack. Not a lot of animated features outside of the Disney sphere get the kid of attention that this one did (we love you, Prince of Egypt), but Anastasia nailed its music so well that it would become a Broadway staple over two decades later.
Two animated features on one “best of” list? Heresy! But you’ll find no apologies here. If they had a wider animated catalogue there would be the chance for several more, even. Anastasia, often confused as a Disney film but most definitely 20th Century Fox (yes, we all know they’re owned by Disney now), is one of the best animated features of its time. The film follows the orphan Anastasia (Meg Ryan) as she quests to find where she belongs in the world. She’s joined by companions Dimitri (John Cusack) and Vlad (Kelsey Grammar), and yes, the rest of the voice cast is just as impressive.
Grimdark has its place in superhero media. The issue with the beginning of DC’s cinematic run was that it was all they offered. A Superman film should be hugely different in tone from a Batman one, and vice versa, but that wasn’t the case in the early stages of the DCEU. Movies like Aquaman (also available on HBO Max) Shazam, Birds of Prey and Wonder Woman have done their best to shift both in tone and lighting on their sets, but Shazam arguably manages to nail that as well as the quintessentially fun vibe that (some) comic properties should have the best.
It’s the kind of story that you think of as darling. There are plenty of stakes in the film, with a whole lot of other-worldly spookies acting as antagonists to Billy Batson and Shazam (Zach Levi), but at its core it is meant to drive home hope and the importance of family.
Ready or Not
Ready or Not might be a horror movie, but it’s the kind that is less about scares and more about having a ridiculous amount of fun. Don’t take that the wrong way – there are plenty of gruesome kills and murderous adventures, you’re just going to laugh a lot while it all unfolds. Samara Weaving shines as Grace, the newest member of the le Domas gaming empire via marriage to her softboy husband, Alex (Mark O’Brien). What takes place over the rest of the film’s quick 95 minute runtime is a whole lot of hilarious horror adventure. Stables, secret passageways, a whole lot of dead maids… this one’s got everything.
Warning: you will get tonal whiplash if you for some reason watch this list in order and double feature Ready or Not and Uncle Buck. Both will definitely make you laugh, but that’s about the end of their similarities. We all miss John Candy, and sometimes we’ve gotta sit down and remind ourselves of all the joy he brought us back in the day. The awkward and kinda messy Uncle Buck heads to his brother’s house as a last-resort babysitter for a cranky teen and her two younger siblings. What transpires is the exact kind of pure and hysterical fun you’d expect from a late-eighties John Hughes flick.
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