10 Inspirational Movies to Watch on Max

Updated May 27, 2024 • Staff

With HBO's focus on high production values and mature themes, "inspirational" content might seem a little frivolous for the network. But even with a content library that's been fluctuating in quality due to decision-making by new management, Max still offers a slate of films that should serve as a good pick-me-up, in contrast to the heavy movies and TV shows they're usually known for. And thanks to HBO's high pedigree, these inspiring films come from a variety of sources, proving that motivation and the triumph of the human spirit doesn't only have one face, and that there can be something extraordinary in the ordinary, too.

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10.

Albert Brooks: Defending My Life (2023)

This charming documentary about one of the most brilliant, groundbreaking comedians alive strikes a delicate balance between accessible and deeply appreciative, making it both a great gateway for those yet to be uninitiated into the Albert Brooks fan club and a satisfying retrospective for us confirmed devotees. It’s directed and fronted by Rob Reiner, celebrated director himself and one of Albert Brooks’ oldest friends, and the choice is perfect: his rapport with Brooks is warm and easy, extracting real sincerity from the famously deadpan comedian-writer-actor-director.

Defending My Life features plenty of talking heads gushing about Brooks’ dazzling multi-hyphenate talents (among them Steven Spielberg and Sharon Stone), a standard convention for documentaries of this kind. But what elevates this into a portrait worthy of its subject are the scenes from a dinner shared by Brooks and Reiner, during which the former opens up about his childhood, reflects on his career, and divulges the autobiographical elements that informed his work. Their tete-a-tete flows with all the unforced rhythm of conversation between good friends; Reiner’s presence coaxes illuminating insight from Brooks, which makes watching the documentary feel as close to pulling up a seat at their table as you’d hope for. The 90 minutes just fly by.

Our staff rating: 7.9/10
Genre: Documentary
Actor: Alana Haim, Albert Brooks, Anthony Jeselnik, Ben Stiller, Brian Williams, Chris Rock, Conan O'Brien, David Letterman, James L. Brooks, Jon Stewart, Jonah Hill, Judd Apatow, Larry David, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Nikki Glaser, Rob Reiner, Robert De Niro, Sarah Silverman, Sharon Stone, Steven Spielberg, Tiffany Haddish, Wanda Sykes
Director: Rob Reiner
Rating: PG-13
Go to HBO Max
9.

A Most Violent Year (2014)

Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac star in this slow-burning but impeccable crime thriller.

Abel Morales (Isaac) owns a fuel distribution company in 1980s New York. His competitors are violent and corrupt, and the feds are after him. The temptation to resort to unlawful methods is high, especially that his wife (Chastain) is the daughter of a mobster.

A Most Violent Year is about how this temptation of corruption unfolds and whether Abel will surrender to it or not.

Our staff rating: 8/10
Genre: Crime, Drama, Thriller
Actor: Albert Brooks, Alessandro Nivola, Annie Funke, Ashley Williams, Ben Rosenfield, Bill Walters, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Chester Jones III, Chris Cardona, Christopher Abbott, Daisy Tahan, David Margulies, David Oyelowo, Elizabeth Marvel, Elyes Gabel, Giselle Eisenberg, Glenn Fleshler, Jason Ralph, Jerry Adler, Jessica Chastain, Jimmy Palumbo, John Dinello, John Douglas Thompson, John Procaccino, Kathleen Doyle, Linda Marie Larson, Lorna Guity Pruce, Lorna Pruce, Matthew Maher, Myrna Cabello, Nat DeWolf, Nick Bailey, Oscar Isaac, Patrick Breen, Peter Gerety, Pico Alexander, Quinn Meyers, Robert Clohessy, Russell G. Jones, Stephen Reich, Susan Blackwell, Suzanne Cerreta, Taylor Richardson, Teddy Coluca, William Hill
Director: J. C. Chandor
Rating: R
Go to HBO Max
8.

Eddie the Eagle (2016)

Michael “Eddie” Edwards (Taron Egerton) was a man with big glasses and even bigger dreams. As a physically disabled child-turned-oddly determined young adult, he tried his hands at all kinds of sports to earn himself a place in United Kingdom’s Team, only to be shunned and rejected more times than one can count. While his coming home a hero can easily be attributed to Great Britain’s lack of a ski jumper representative to the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics, the world has Eddie’s perseverance and never-say-die attitude to thank. A story about conquering greater heights and just taking flight, Eddie the Eagle shows the world how winning doesn’t always mean taking home the crown.

Our staff rating: 8.4/10
Genre: Adventure, Comedy, Drama, History
Actor: Ania Sowinski, Anthony Chisholm, Aria DeMaris, Christopher Walken, Daniel Ings, Daniel Westwood, Daz Black, Dexter Fletcher, Dickon Tolson, Edvin Endre, Graham Fletcher-Cook, Hugh Jackman, Iris Berben, Jessica Allain, Jim Broadbent, Jo Hartley, Joachim Raaf, Jozef Aoki, Keith Allen, Mads Sjogard Pettersen, Marc Benjamin, Mark Benton, Matt Rippy, Rune Temte, Taron Egerton, Tim McInnerny, Tom Costello
Director: Dexter Fletcher
Rating: PG-13
Go to HBO Max
7.

Diego Maradona (2019)

Asif Kapadia, the genius of biopics who gave us Senna, is back with this documentary on an even bigger sports personality: Argentinian soccer player Diego Armando Maradona. Considered as possibly the best soccer player of all time, Maradona's footage on the pitch is pure wizardry, and you'll feel that way whether you are a soccer fan or not. But that's not the focus of this documentary. What happens outside the pitch is more interesting: from Maradona's modest beginnings to the passionate hatred (and love) that entire countries develop of him. And it doesn't make his story less interesting that during his time in Naples he was affiliated with the mafia.

This is an excellent documentary that distills 500 hours of footage into 2, giving you all you need to know about a character who captured the imagination of a big part of the world for decades. 

Our staff rating: 8.4/10
Genre: Documentary
Actor: Alberto Bigon, Ciro Ferrara, Claudia Villafane, Corrado Ferlaino, Dalma Maradona, Diego Armando Maradona, Diego Maradona, Gonzalo Bonadeo, Maria Rosa Maradona, Pele
Director: Asif Kapadia
Rating: TV-14, TV-MA
Go to HBO Max
6.

Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)

Hayao Miyazaki is no stranger to the fantastical. Howl’s Moving Castle and Spirited Away conjure worlds of spirits and demons, monsters and witches, imaginary wars and extraordinary heroes. But in Kiki’s Delivery Service, the real magic arises from the mundane.

The titular teenaged Kiki leaves home, setting out to become a better witch. She arrives in the idyllic seaside town of Koriko with only her broom and best friend, a black cat named Jiji. When she serendipitously meets Osono, the gentle owner of a bakery, Kiki begins a delivery service as part of her training.

Kiki’s Delivery Service may be one of Miyazaki’s more understated films, but it’s a beautiful reminder that believing in oneself is a magical act of courage that we should all undertake.

Our staff rating: 8.5/10
Genre: Adventure, Animation, Drama, Family, Fantasy
Actor: Akio Otsuka, Chika Sakamoto, Haruko Kato, Hiroko Maruyama, Hiroko Seki, Kappei Yamaguchi, Keiko Toda, Kikuko Inoue, Kôichi Miura, Koichi Yamadera, Michihiro Ikemizu, Mieko Nobusawa, Mika Doi, Minami Takayama, Rei Sakuma, Shinpachi Tsuji, Takashi Taguchi, Takaya Hashi, Tomomichi Nishimura, Yoshiko Asai, Yoshiko Kamei, Yûko Kobayashi, Yûko Maruyama, Yuko Tsuga, Yuriko Fuchizaki, Yuuko Kobayashi, 丸山裕子
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Go to HBO Max
5.

The Stroll (2023)

At one point in the documentary, director Kristen Lovell says, “I wanted to archive the movement that was building between transwomen and sex workers,” and that’s exactly what she achieves with The Stroll, a well-researched, creatively edited, and deeply moving account of the trans-sex-work experience that defined New York for a good chunk of the 20th century. It’s both historical and personal, touching and rousing, as it recounts a history that’s often been forgotten even among the LGBTQ+ community. To do this, Lovell digs up archival footage, brings to life long-buried data, and strikes up heartfelt conversations with survivors of The Stroll, that street in New York where Lovell and her fellow homeless escorts used to pick customers up. Thanks to Lovell’s hard work in telling this extraordinary story of struggle and success, there isn’t a moment in this film where you’re not shocked, frustrated, or exhilarated along with them.

Our staff rating: 8.5/10
Genre: Documentary, Drama
Actor: Laverne Cox, Michael Bloomberg, Rudolph Giuliani, RuPaul
Director: Kristen Parker Lovell, Zackary Drucker
Go to HBO Max
4.

Shiva Baby (2021)

A young bisexual woman attends a shiva, caught between her parents and their expectations, her ex, and her sugar daddy. Rachel Sennott’s Danielle is yet to find her path in life and everyone is determined to remind her of that. Taking place almost entirely in real-time, the film’s sharp wit is contrasted with constant anxiety, complemented by Ariel Marx’s horror-like score, full of discordant pizzicato that sounds like every last bit of sanity snapping. 

It’s a sex-positive take on 20-something life, treating bisexuality as wholly unremarkable and passing no judgment on Danielle’s sugar daddy income. Its specificities about Jewish customs and traditions are non-exclusionary, while its social claustrophobia is achingly universal. It’s comforting in the way it portrays the social horrors we all face, the feeling that everyone but you has life figured out, and that – ultimately – those who matter will pull through, eventually. One of 2021’s best.

Our staff rating: 8.6/10
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Actor: Ariel Eliaz, Cilda Shaur, Danny Deferrari, Deborah Offner, Dianna Agron, Fred Melamed, Glynis Bell, Jackie Hoffman, Molly Gordon, Polly Draper, Rachel Sennott, Richard Brundage, Rita Gardner, Sondra James, Ted Seligman
Director: Emma Seligman
Rating: Unrated
Go to HBO Max
3.

The Farewell (2019)

Many things clash in this beautifully layered, semi-autobiographical film of American director Lulu Wang: cultures, morals, and emotions. The result is a type of comedy that is complex and bittersweet⁠—and based on a true lie: this is the story of a Chinese grandma whose family won't tell her that she is fatally ill. Instead, they organize a fake wedding in China, where everyone gets together to bid a farewell to the unwitting matriarch (played by Zhao Shuzhen). The fake wedding is, in fact, a premature funeral for a person unaware that she is going to die. Played by rapper and comedian Awkwafina, Billi, a New-York-based Chinese-American with a complicated relationship to China, embodies the cultural and moral question at the heart of this story: is it right or wrong not tell grandma? It is thanks to Wang's deft writing and Awkwafina's outstanding performance that The Farewell homes in on answers without ever being melodramatic. Warm, honest, and beautiful.

Our staff rating: 9.1/10
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Actor: Aoi Mizuhara, Awkwafina, Chen Han, Diana Lin, Gil Perez-Abraham, Hong Lu, Ines Laimins, Jiang Yongbo, Jim Liu, Lu Hong, Shuzhen Zhao, Tzi Ma, X Mayo, Yang Xuejian, Zhang Jing, Zhao Shuzhen
Director: Lulu Wang
Rating: PG
Go to HBO Max
2.

Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond – Featuring a Very Special, Contractually Obligated Mention of Tony Clifton (2017)

After his first serious role in The Truman Show in 1998, Jim Carrey got a shot at playing his idol, the late comedian and performance artist Andy Kaufmann, in Man on the Moon in 1999. When he got the role, a role of a lifetime, Carrey decided to honor Kaufmann's legacy by transforming into him (and his alter ego Tony Clifton) and, in true method-acting fashion, never to leave character. Jim & Andy is the result of 100 hours of behind-the-scenes footage shot at the Man on the Moon set, which was withheld for 20 years over fears of Universal Studios that people would think Carrey was an a**hole. While Carrey was a complete and utter imposition to the film's director, Miloš Forman, and everybody else on set, including Danny DeVito, his transformation (or obsession) was a unique, transformative experience for Carrey, who had been sick of fame and acting before he took on this gig. Whether you buy into this view or see it as a vanity piece of a complete maniac, this is one of the most unique and insane documentaries on Netflix. A mind-blowing portrayal of a complex mind.

Our staff rating: 9.2/10
Genre: Comedy, Documentary
Actor: Andy Dick, Andy Kaufman, Bob Zmuda, Carol Kane, Chris Smith, Courtney Love, Danny DeVito, David Letterman, Elton John, George Shapiro, Hugh Hefner, Jerry Lawler, Jim Carrey, Jon Lovitz, Judd Hirsch, Michael Stipe, Milos Forman, Paul Giamatti, Peter Bonerz, Randall Carver
Director: Chris Smith
Rating: TV-MA
Go to HBO Max
1.

Captain Fantastic (2016)

Former activists Ben Cash (Viggo Mortensen) and his wife Leslie drop out from modern consumerist society to raise their six children in the wilderness of the Pacific Northwest. They teach them how to raise and kill their own food, to survive in nature through boot-camp-like workouts, and homeschool them in literature, music, and left-wing philosophy. Instead of Christmas, they celebrate Noam Chomsky's birthday. Then, one day, this unusual family life is shaken by a phone call and they are forced to leave their life of adventure to reintegrate into American life.

Directed by Matt Ross, who also brought you Good Night, and Good Luck, the film offers a poignant look at alternative living, the effects of modern technology, and the nature of good parenting. Viggo Mortensen is indeed fantastic as the grizzled father and was rightly nominated for a Golden Globe and the Academy Award for Best Actor. George MacKay and the entire cast of “children” also deliver terrific performances. As emotionally raw and thought-provoking as it is funny, Captain Fantastic will have the viewer decide if Ben Cash is the best father in the world or the worst.

Our staff rating: 9.5/10
Genre: Adventure, Comedy, Drama
Actor: Alan Humphrey, Ann Dowd, Annalise Basso, Charlie Shotwell, Elena Stecca, Elijah Stevenson, Erin Moriarty, Frank Langella, George MacKay, Greg Crooks, Hannah Horton, Kathryn Hahn, Matt Ross, Mike Miller, Missi Pyle, Nicholas Hamilton, Rex Young, Richard Beal, Samantha Isler, Shree Crooks, Steve Zahn, Teddy Van Ee, Trin Miller, Viggo Mortensen
Director: Matt Ross
Rating: R
Go to HBO Max

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