Now that HBO Max is live, it's time to settle in and watch the best HBO Max shows and movies. With social distancing still a thing, HBO Max brings even more streaming entertainment into your home from WarnerMedia's vast archives. 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.
HBO Max is hoping to become one of the best streaming services, right up there with Netflix and Disney Plus, by offering a vast library culled from its iconic brands, including Warner Bros. film and television studios, CNN and the Turner suite of cable networks (i.e. TNT, TBS, TCM). Our HBO Max review, however, explains where the service needs to improve to be taken seriously.
That's just the tip of the iceberg. 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 all eight Harry Potter 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 11 seasons of time traveling goodness (from the modern era revival, excepting the most recent one that aired in early 2020), 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
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
Best HBO Max movies
All 8 Harry Potter movies
Something wizardy and witchy this way comes on HBO Max — surprise! The Harry Potter franchise wasn't expected to be on the new streaming service, even though it was produced by Warner Bros., since NBCUniversal has the rights to it through 2025. But it seems like HBO Max conjured up a bunch of gold Galleons to be able to stream all eight films.
That's great for HBO Max subscribers. The Harry Potter movies are great, family-friendly fare and beloved by millions of fans everywhere. And with all eight films available, you can watch stars Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint grow up before your very eyes in one long binge sesh. — Kelly Woo
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
The quintessential summer movie is here just to kick off the season ... spent indoors. Well, some beaches in some states are opening up, so if you are spending time in sand and surf, make sure to watch out for what's in the water. 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
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
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
Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle
You don't need to be a cannabis enthusiast to enjoy this tale of friendship. Yes, it might help you laugh even harder, but the preferred substance of Harold Lee (John Cho) and Kumar Patel (Kal Penn) is purely a gateway to the tasty steamed hams sold at their not-exactly-local White Castle in Cherry Hill, NJ. Along the way, the two explore and combust ethnic stereotypes, bicker like an old married couple and deal with the worst customer service this side of Clerks. Oh, and they meet Neil Patrick Harris (playing himself, in a career-remaking moment) who is an utter pest. — Henry T. Casey
Some Kind of Wonderful
Ah, the joys and terrors and awkwardness of high school. Some Kind of Wonderful, penned by John Hughes, is a sort of reverse Pretty in Pink, with blue-collar misfit Keith (Eric Stoltz) pining for popular girl Amanda (Lea Thompson). When he works up the nerve to ask her out, his tomboyish best friend Watts (Mary Stuart Masterson) realizes she's in love with him. But trouble looms over Keith's special date with Amanda in the form of her rich jerk of an ex-boyfriend.
Stoltz, Thompson and Masterson are all in the flush of young stardom, while the script is typical witty, snarky Hughes. Some Kind of Wonderful is an underrated gem among teen dramas. — Kelly Woo