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The 25 Best Hidden Gems on HBO Max

El Planeta. Photo: Carlos Rigo Bellver/Courtesy of Sundance Institute
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Since its launch in 2020, HBO Max has quickly risen to the top tier of the streaming giants, delivering Emmy winners, exclusive access to Oscar winners, and one of the richest catalogs of classic films anywhere online. With so much to see on HBO Max, it’s easy to lose track of the best stuff to watch on the streaming service, especially for films that never had that high of a profile to begin with. We’re here to help with a guide to the great films that never really broke into the national conversation but are definitely still worth your time. Dig a little deeper with one of these 25 excellent movies.

‘71

Yann Demange directed a tight and taut retelling of an event in Belfast during the height of The Troubles in 1971. The great Jack O’Connell (Godless) plays a new recruit in the British Army who has basically been stranded behind enemy lines after a violent encounter and is forced to fight his way home. O’Connell is fantastic in a film that increases the tension with each subsequent scene by really placing you in the middle of the chaos. You won’t be able to catch your breath.

Bad Education

Hugh Jackman gives one of his best performances ever in the 2019 Sundance flick that got kind of buried when HBO picked it up and didn’t promote it much. Based on a 2004 New York magazine article, Cory Finley’s film tells the story of a superintendent named Frank Tassone (Jackman) and his assistant superintendent Pam Gluckin (Allison Janney), who were accused of stealing millions of dollars from the school district by a student who uncovered their scams for her school paper. A smart little comedy, it also includes great turns from Geraldine Viswanathan, Alex Wolff, and Ray Romano.

Beyond the Black Rainbow

If you’re digging into a list like this one, you’ve probably already seen the f-ed up chaos that is Mandy, starring Nicolas Cage. Well, Beyond the Black Rainbow is an earlier effort from the same director, and arguably even more insane. Panos Cosmatos’s feature debut takes place at a remote institute where people are trying to rip apart the very fabric of time and space. A crazy doctor has kidnapped a telepathic girl and…you know, there’s no point in describing this movie. You just need to experience it.

Birth

One of Oscar winner Nicole Kidman’s most daring performances came in the 2004 drama/thriller that was largely ignored when it was released but has developed a serious cult following over the years, ready for more to reappraise its out-there ambition. Jonathan Glazer (Under the Skin) directs the story of a woman named Anna (Kidman), who feels that a ten-year-old boy (Cameron Bright) is the reincarnated soul of her dead husband Sean. It also stars Danny Huston and Lauren Bacall.

Cameraperson

Kirsten Johnson was a cinematographer on some of the most essential documentaries ever made, including The Oath, Citizenfour, and Fahrenheit 9/11. She has spent much of her life looking through a camera, and she used that unique perspective to craft one of the best films of 2016, a movie that interrogates how we see the world and how we document it. Cameraperson is a smart, riveting piece of non-fiction filmmaking and Johnson would go on to make the more widely known Dick Johnson is Dead. If you liked that, you’ll love this.

Capturing the Friedmans

Long before true crime documentaries were an industry of their own, Andrew Jarecki made waves with the 2003 HBO documentary that played out like a thriller with twists and turns that no one could see coming. It started with an investigation into the life of Arnold Friedman, a New Yorker who was accused of physical and sexual abuse of minors. But what makes Jarecki’s film so unusual is how much of it consists of home movies of the Friedmans as they come to terms with the monster that may have been sitting at their table for so many years.

Cronos

Long before winning awards for Pan’s Labyrinth and The Shape of Water, the brilliant Guillermo del Toro made his directorial debut with his 1993 Mexican vampire film. A low-budget stunner, itannounced Del Toro as an instantly major voice in the genre and started his working relationship with Federico Luppi and Ron Perlman. The cool thing about watching Cronos three decades after its release is to see how it set the foundation for so many great works to come from one of the best living filmmakers.

El Planeta

El Planeta is a wonderfully wacky little film that premiered at the 2021 (largely virtual) Sundance Film Festival and announced an interesting new talent in Amalia Ulman, who directed, wrote and starred in this quirky character study. Ulman stars alongside her real mother Ale Ullman as the pair struggles with making ends meet in post-crisis Spain while they face eviction. They try to scam their way to a better life in a film of episodic comedy vignettes that really feels like nothing else on HBO Max.

Identifying Features

Another Sundance gem on the list, this drama won the Audience Award and took home a Best Screenplay award when it played in the World Cinema Dramatic program way back in 2020. It is a harrowing study of the plight of immigrants who often disappear on their way from their birthplace to the United States and primarily about mothers trying to find their missing kids. It’s a window into lives not often seen on the big screen or streaming services like HBO Max.

Irma Vep

The great Olivier Assayas (Personal Shopper) is remaking his own 1996 film into a mini-series starring Alicia Vikander for HBO Max. Why not go back and see the badass original, a quirky film that stars Maggie Cheung as herself, an actress traveling to France to remake a classic silent serial by Louis Feuillade called Les Vampires. Everything goes wrong under the direction of a middle-aged French director played by Jean-Pierre Leaud in this stylish behind-the-scenes skewering of the French film industry. Maggie Cheung rules.

The Killing of Kenneth Chamberlain

Character actor Frankie Faison does his best leading man work in the riveting and tragic true story of a man who was shot by New York police officers in November 2011. Kenneth Chamberlain was a veteran with serious mental health issues who accidentally triggered his medical alert bracelet and then refused to let the cops in because he was scared of what would happen next. Instead of de-escalating the situation, the officers intensified things until tragedy happened. It’s a study of how a system that addresses every conflict with force is a broken system.

Listening to Kenny G

Yes, that Kenny G! The great documentarian Penny Lane directed a 2021 study of the jazz musician that’s way more than just a traditional music bio-doc. Lane and Kenny himself know that his legacy is a complicated one and that he’s often the butt of criticism and even jokes. He sells millions of records but also feels hated by millions at the same time. How does that happen? Lane’s film becomes a wonderful study in loving what you love and not caring about what other people think.

Mogul Mowgli

Riz Ahmed earned raves and an Oscar nomination for his tender work in Sound of Metal, but it’s not his only recent drama about a musician struck down by an unexpected blow. He also starred in and co-wrote the 2020 drama about a British-Pakistani rapper who discovers that he has a degenerative disease. More than Sound of Metal, Mogul Mowgli is about how setbacks can allow those to see people around us in a different light, especially our parents.

Monsters

Can you make a riveting monster movie without really seeing the monsters? That is the challenge of this low-budget gem that introduced the world to Gareth Edwards long before he would go on to helm an actual King of the Monsters movie in 2014’s Godzilla. Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able star as travelers on an Earth forever changed by the arrival of giant tentacled monsters. It’s a study in forced perspective, allowing viewers to imagine a world dominated by creatures instead of actually showing it to them.

Ondine

Neil Jordan (The Crying Game) wrote and directed a 2009 drama that features a subtle, character-driven performance from Colin Farrell. It’s a variation on the selkie myth that has inspired everything from The Little Mermaid to Christian Petzold’s Undine. Farrell plays a fisherman who is trawling off the coast of Ireland when he comes upon a woman caught in his net. Named Ondine (Alicja Bachleda), she changes his life forever. Irish myth and romantic drama get entangled in this unique fairy tale.

Pariah

Almost a decade before directing the Oscar-nominated Mudbound, Dee Rees made waves at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival with a film that instantly felt important to everyone in Park City, Pariah. Adepero Oduye stars as a young teenager coming to embrace her lesbian identity. Stories about young gay people have rarely been rendered so empathetically, and there are even fewer of these films made about non-white youth. Even a decade later, Pariah feels special, tender and believable in ways American independent drama still isn’t often allowed to be.

Shiva Baby

Emma Seligman wrote and directed what would become one of the most beloved indie comedies of 2021, but the film seems to be stuck in its fan base, not breaking out to the wider audience it deserves. Largely a single-setting comedy, the film unfolds at a shiva attended by Danielle (Rachel Sennott), a bisexual Jewish woman whose house of cards is about to come tumbling down in front of everyone when her sugar daddy (Danny Deferrari) shows up with his wife (Dianna Agron). It doesn’t help that Danielle’s ex-girlfriend (Molly Gordon) and parents (Fred Melamed, Polly Draper) are in the mix too. It’s the funniest movie on HBO Max that you probably haven’t seen.

Splinter

Splinter might be the most underrated action/horror movie of the new millennium. Toby Wilkins directed a 2008 low-budget flick that stars the great Shea Whigham (Gaslit) as an escaped convict who ends up at a gas station in the middle of nowhere at the worst time. A John Carpenter-inspired tale of people trapped inside while something unimaginable hunts them from outside, this is a gem. Darkly humorous and remarkably vicious, it’s the closest to The Thing that recent horror filmmaking has gotten.

Stranger Than Paradise

Check out one of the projects that cemented John Lurie’s reputation and helped put Jim Jarmusch on the map, where he would reshape the landscape of independent cinema. A minimalist dramedy, Stranger Than Paradise stars Richard Edson and Eszter Balint in a loosely structured road trip movie. Sorta. It’s comprised entirely of long single takes, reshaping indie drama as a place where just hanging out with unique characters can be enough.

Sweetie

Jane Campion finally got her Oscar in 2022, but she’s been working hard for over three decades. Check out one of the films that put her on the international movie map way back in 1989, when Sweetie premiered at the Cannes Film Festival before eventually winning Best Foreign Film at the Independent Spirit Awards in 1991. Co-written by Campion, it’s the story of a woman in something of a quarter-life crisis and the relationship she has with her emotionally unstable sister. It’s a wonderfully bizarre debut from a filmmaker who would make headlines for generations to come.

The Tale

Laura Dern gives arguably the best performance of her career in the 2018 Sundance film that was picked up by HBO and broadcast in time for Emmy consideration that May. Something of a hybrid between memoir and unpacking of the power of telling our stories, The Tale features writer/director Jennifer Fox examining the details of her own childhood sexual abuse. Dern plays a reporter who discovers an essay she wrote when she was 13 that forces her to consider a relationship from that time in an entirely different light. It’s a daring drama that’s hard to watch but worth the effort.

Timecrimes

Before he would go on to direct Colossal, Nacho Vigalondo wrote and helmed a wonderful little indie horror film starring Karra Elejaide as a man who basically becomes trapped in a time travel loop. If you like movies that are constantly one step ahead of the viewer, shifting and changing your expectations as they unfold, Timecrimes is the one for you. Consistently clever and thrilling, Vigalondo’s film was getting buzz from the minute after its premiere at Fantastic Fest in 2007 but still should have a bigger following. It’s a hell of a good…time. (Sorry.)

Wanda

Barbara Loden never really got her flowers. Passing away in 1980, she couldn’t have known how many people would be praising her 1970 film so many years later, including it being added to the Criterion Collection. What’s special about Wanda? It feels true. Written, directed by, and starring Loden, it’s the story of a woman in the coal region of Pennsylvania who feels like life has given her no options, sending her on the run with a bank robber. A largely improvised film, it’s one of the ‘70s dramas that didn’t get attention until many years later and that you probably haven’t seen.

Weathering with You

So you’ve worked through all of the masterpieces in the Studio Ghibli section of HBO Max and are ready for something different in the Japanese animation department? Try the 2019 drama from the phenomenal Makoto Shinkai, the genius behind Your Name, one of the best animated films of the 2010s. Weathering with You may not be quite as good as that one, but it’s a beauty, a story of a high school boy who runs away from home and meets an orphan who can actually control the weather. The script has some issues, but it’s a film of so much visual beauty that you won’t mind.

Welcome to Chechnya

In Chechnya in the late 2010s, the brutal government began anti-gay purges and rounded up suspected homosexuals who would never be seen again. The daring filmmaker David France made a film about this under-reported horror, and the people trying to get men and women out of the country of Russia through a network of activists and safehouses. It’s a moving documentary that also features an incredible technological breakthrough in that France uses deep-fake technology to change the faces of his subjects so they don’t face repercussions.

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The 25 Best Hidden Gems on HBO Max