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Best shows and movies on HBO Max in October 2021

MICHAEL GANDOLFINI as Teenage Tony Soprano and ALESSANDRO NIVOLA as Dickie Moltisanti in The Many Saints of Newark
(Image credit: Barry Wetcher)

The top movies and best shows on HBO Max deliver high-quality streaming entertainment from the comfort of your home — no need to get up from the couch. HBO Max launched over a year ago and has become our favorite streaming service thanks to a deep library of great content culled from WarnerMedia's archives. And this can't be beat: Warner Bros. is releasing all of their 2021 movies on HBO Max on the same day as they open in theaters. 

The best HBO Max shows and movies offer something for everybody. Watch prestige dramas from HBO like White Lotus, animated comedies, feel-good reality shows, gripping documentaries and stand-up specials. They've also got their own originals, too, like the uproarious Jean Smart comedy Hacks and the Notting Hill-meets-Fleabag rom-com Starstruck.

HBO Max has as much to offer as any of the other best streaming services, right up there with Netflix and Disney Plus. It's able to compete thanks to top-notch content from 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 shows on HBO Max 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.

HBO Max

HBO Max is one of the new kids on the streaming block but it's already got a ton to offer, including all of HBO's prestige series, like Game of Thrones, The Sopranos and The Wire. Plus, the service has its own originals like American Pickle and The Flight Attendant. HBO Max costs $15 per month but they added a plan with ads that's just $10.

Best new movies and shows on HBO Max

The Many Saints of Newark

The Sopranos is one of the best and most beloved series of all time. It kicked off a new golden era of television — call it the godfather of prestige TV. When the show began on HBO, Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) was already an established mob boss. But how did Tony become who and what he is? Creator David Chase lays the foundation for his rise in this prequel film, which goes back to the late 1960s. Tony is a young man (played by Michael Gandolfini, an almost uncanny match to his dad) and not the central character. That’s Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola), Tony’s uncle and mentor. He’s also father to Christopher (Michael Imperioli), who acts as narrator. Much like his nephew does a few decades later, Dickie juggles family problems with his work as a violent mobster. Newark’s race riots of 1967 serve as a backdrop and catalyst, as Dickie faces off against his onetime associate Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom Jr.).

The Other Two

The comedy about fame was never a huge hit when it aired on Comedy Central, so a lot of people haven’t even heard of it. Now, the show has moved to HBO Max, where I hope it can find more of an audience because it’s genuinely funny. To catch you up, it follows two siblings — gay aspiring actor Cary (Drew Tarver) and former pro dancer Brooke (Heléne Yorke) — after their younger brother, Chase (Case Walker), suddenly become a YouTube-famous singer. Season 2 finds mom Pat (Molly Shannon) bringing in the big bucks as a daytime talk show host. Cary is working as the video host of a gossip segment and has a boyfriend. Meanwhile, Brooke scours TikTok, looking for a rising star she can manage. Are they famous? Kinda, sorta. Are they happy? It’s complicated.

Best shows on HBO Max

Starstruck

Take Notting Hill, center it around a Fleabag-style hot mess and you've got this endlessly charming romantic comedy. Jessie (Rose Matafeo) is a twentysomething New Zealander who's living in London and working odd jobs as a nanny and a cinema clerk. On New Year's Eve, she meets a handsome stranger who turns out to be movie star Tom Kapoor (Nikesh Patel). Their one-night stand becomes something more, though misunderstandings and obstacles get in the way. 

The White Lotus

The cast of White Lotus

(Image credit: HBO)

Mike White returns to HBO, a decade after he created Enlightened for the network, with a new satirical comedy set at a lush, decadent resort. On the surface, it’s paradise; but darker things are happening behind the scenes. Resort manager Arnomd (Murray Bartlett) and his team of quirky employees welcome a new round of oddball guests, played by a dream cast including Jennifer Coolidge, Connie Britton, Steve Zahn, Jake Lacy and Alexandra Daddario. The show is the perfect vehicle for the creator's signature blend of comedy and drama, realism and eccentricity — and we can't wait for White Lotus season 2.

Hacks

Hannah Einbinder and Jean Smart star in Hacks on HBO Max

(Image credit: HBO Max)

The Jean Smart-aissance is here and we are loving it. She steals every scene she's in, even from Kate Winslet, on Mare of Easttown (more on that show below). In Hacks, one of the best HBO Max shows, she takes center stage as aging comedian Deborah Vance, whose Vegas residency needs some freshening up. Her agent sends millennial comedy writer Ava (Hannah Einbinder) to help her brainstorm jokes, but the two women immediately clash. Yet, their snarky banter and acid repartee could be the inspiration that both need for their careers.

Mare of Easttown

Kate Winslet stars in Mare of Easttown, one of the best shows on HBO Max

(Image credit: HBO)

If you liked Broadchurch, Mare of Easttown will be right up your small-town murder alley. Kate Winslet deploys an excellent Pennsylvania accent as Detective Mare Sheehan, who is investigating the death or a teen mom. The case seems to involve every person in her orbit, since everyone in the area knows or is related to everyone else. Oh, and Mare's personal life is in shambles. There's nothing new or groundbreaking here, just well-written and well-performed work that will keep you absorbed every Sunday night.

Made for Love

Cristin Milioti in Made for Love on HBO Max

(Image credit: HBO Max)

Cristin Milioti starred in one of Black Mirror's best episodes, USS Callister, and her new HBO Max comedy has a similar vibe and theme. She plays Hazel, who flees her tech billionaire husband Byron Gogol (Billy Magnussen) after learning he's implanted his latest tech gadget in her head. It essentially creates a "network for two," so that couples can share (and monitor) each other's every thought and feeling. Yeah, super messed up. Hazel runs away, back home to her estranged father (Ray Romano), but escaping isn't easy when Byron can read her mind.

The Investigation

Pilou Asbæk and Søren Malling in The Investigation on HBO

(Image credit: Henrik Ohsten/HBO)

HBO ported over the BBC's Scandinavian police drama based around the real-life murder of Swedish journalist Kim Wall in 2017. You may have seen the headlines then, as the case was rather sensational: Danish entrepreneur Peter Madsen invited her to ride on his homemade submarine, killed her, dismembered her body and sunk various parts into the ocean. The Investigation never shows Madsen; instead, the show focuses solely on the thorough police work led by chief inspector Jens Møller (Søren Malling) and subsequent legal doings by  prosecutor Jakob Buch-Jepsen (Pilou Asbæk). The six episodes unfold methodically and rather slowly, but the story is still entirely gripping. 

The Flight Attendant

Kaley Cuoco starts in The Flight Attendant

(Image credit: The Flight Attendant/HBO Max)

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)

Lovecraft Country

Courtney B. Vance, Jonathan Majors and Jurnee Smollett in Lovecraft Country on HBO

(Image credit: HBO)

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)

Euphoria

Hunter Schafer and Zendaya in Euphoria

(Image credit: HBO)

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 stars in documentary Expecting Amy

(Image credit: HBO Max)

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

The characters of Adventure Time

(Image credit: Cartoon Network)

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)

Friends

The cast of Friends

(Image credit: NBC)

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

Elmo hosts Not Too Late Show With Elmo

(Image credit: HBO Max)

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

Sean Bean as Ned Stark in Game of Thrones

(Image credit: HBO)

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

Anthony Bourdain sits on a boat in Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown

(Image credit: CNN)

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)

The O.C.

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

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)

Chernobyl

Stellan Skarsgård and Jared Harris look from a rooftop in Chernobyl

(Image credit: HBO)

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 movies on HBO Max

The Suicide Squad

Best HBO Max movies: The Suicide Squad

(Image credit: Warner Bros.)

The 2016 Suicide Squad movie cleaned up at the box office, but later became reviled for failing to deliver on the promise of the premise — a team-up of super villains. DC and Warner Bros. clearly didn’t want to let this IP languish, hence this quasi-sequel, quasi-reboot. They turned to Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn to do an extreme movie makeover — and he’s done it. The Suicide Squad 2021 is earning positive reviews from critics and fans alike for its chaotic energy, gory violence and satirical irreverence. Plus, the general consensus is that it’s fun, which is not a label put on most DC movies. Stick around for the Suicide Squad post-credits scenes.

In the Heights

Anthony Ramos and Melissa Barrera dance in In the Heights

(Image credit: Warner Bros.)

After gifting us with Hamilton last summer, Lin-Manuel Miranda delivers another treat — the adaptation of his first Broadway musical, In the Heights. Director Jon M. Chu oversees a large cast, led by Anthony Ramos in the lead role of bodega owner Usnavi. He and fellow residents of Washington Heights dream of improving their lives. The neighborhood is undergoing many changes, as businesses close, new ones open and people move on up ... or out of NYC altogether. As for Usnavi, he feels pulled back to the Dominican Republic, but a blossoming romance tempts him to stay put.

An American Pickle

Seth Rogen looks down the street in An American Pickle on HBO Max

(Image credit: HBO Max)

If you're a fan of Seth Rogen, you can order up a double helping in An American Pickle, one of the best HBO Max movies that's also an original. 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

The cast of Birds of Prey

(Image credit: Claudette Barius)

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

Totoro, Satsuki and Mei eat watermelon in My Neighbor Totoro

(Image credit: Studio Ghibli)

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)

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)

Batman movies

Posters of Batman, Batman Returns and Batman Forever on HBO Max

(Image credit: HBO Max)

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)

Kelly Woo

Kelly covers streaming media for Tom’s Guide, so basically, she watches TV for a living. Previously, she was a freelance entertainment writer for Yahoo, Vulture, TV Guide and other outlets. When she’s not watching TV and movies for work, she’s watching them for fun, seeing live music, writing songs, knitting and gardening.