16 Best Inspiring Movies On Max (HBO Max)

Staff & contributors

Some of the best entertainment can spark revelations or the motivation to take action in our lives. If you want to stir up some encouragement, here are the best inspiring movies and shows to stream now.

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.

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, Hafid Abdelmoula, 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

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.

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

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.

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

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.

Genre: Documentary, Drama

Actor: Laverne Cox, Michael Bloomberg, Rudolph Giuliani, RuPaul

Director: Kristen Parker Lovell, Zackary Drucker

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.

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

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. 

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

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.

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

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.

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

The Harry Potter movies undoubtedly changed the lives of its young stars forever — but a stuntman whose future the films had more tragic consequences for is the deserved focus of this moving documentary. David Holmes was just 17 when he was hired as Daniel Radcliffe’s stunt double, a role he held throughout the series. The two formed a close brotherly bond on set, growing up alongside one another for 10 years until a terrible accident during the final movie’s filming left him paralyzed from the chest down, a condition that has deteriorated over the years following post-surgery complications. 

This doc is an inspiring portrait of David, from his fearless childhood and dream-fulfilling work to the incredible resilience he’s shown since the accident. It’s also, though, a poignant testament to the loving, supportive community that Holmes inspired at work — friendships that only reached greater depths following the accident and the end of the movies. The doc’s focus empathetically expands from Holmes’ story to include its impact on his bond with Radcliffe (who features prominently here) and Holmes’ fellow stunt doubles — and, while the sheer force of Holmes’ personality would make for a compelling documentary on its own, it’s the tenderness and honesty that all of these participants show that makes this so poignant.

Genre: Documentary

Actor: Andy Holmes, Bonnie Wright, Chris Columbus, Daniel Radcliffe, David Holmes, David Yates, Emma Watson, Greg Powell, Marc Mailley, Rupert Grint, Sue Holmes, Tolga Kenan, Tom Felton

Director: Dan Hartley

Rating: PG-13

, 2021

A music documentary with its star as one of its main talking heads runs the risk of coming off like cheap PR, but Tina Turner's own articulate insights never restrict this retrospective on her life. If anything, she assists directors Dan Lindsay and TJ Martin in expanding the film's scope to cover the origins of rock music and the struggles of so many women in the public eye who only ever seem to be defined according to their abusers. Even if Tina is still ultimately a conventional doc that relies on interviews and archival footage, it has a strong emotional core that gives the film a relatively unique psychological edge.

Genre: Documentary, Music

Actor: Angela Bassett, Erwin Bach, Katori Hall, Kurt Loder, Oprah Winfrey, Roger Davies, Tina Turner

Director: Daniel Lindsay, T. J. Martin

Rating: R

If you’re familiar with the upscale Chinese restaurant chain owner, or that Chinese boy in old 60s British films, or with his paintings, Aka Mr. Chow might surprise you because they’re one and the same. Born with two names, Zhou Yinghua and Michael Chow, Mr. Chow is just so cool that telling his life story is already interesting. From the tough immigrant experience, living alone as a boy, to his current worldwide success in film, food, and painting, it’s interesting to know that it’s possible. But the documentary dives into it, using the film medium to mirror his own creative style and artistic sensibilities. The film is able to link each of his opinions, not just with his life, but also with the historic changes in his home country. It’s an intriguing approach, if a bit superficial in certain areas, but it’s very entertaining.

Genre: Documentary

Actor: Brian Grazer, Cecilia Zhou, China Chow, Ed Ruscha, Fran Lebowitz, Julian Schnabel, Maximillian Chow, Peter Blake

Director: Nick Hooker

Even if it doesn't provide the most comprehensive information about treatment and care for multiple sclerosis (MS)—especially for those who can't afford a ridiculously expensive stem cell transplant—this isn't really the point of Introducing, Selma Blair. This is still mostly a biographical documentary about a (self-confessed) "not-so-famous" celebrity, who gets to be incredibly honest about some of the privilege she enjoys, and how that privilege still doesn't make MS any easier. Blair's determination, her sense of humor, and her articulate way of expressing herself keep the film from descending into total sadness, but it also never shies away from the uglier, more difficult parts of her journey.

Genre: Documentary

Actor: Selma Blair

Director: Rachel Fleit

Those familiar with John Green’s many book-to-movie adaptations (The Fault in Our Stars, Paper Towns) will recognize the author’s signature quirks in Turtles All the Way Down. There are kids who spout out quotable quotes and love interests too gorgeous to be real. But just the same, teenagers are given a fuller and deeper understanding here, which is Green’s best trademark and true strength. Helped by Director Hannah Mark’s strong vision, Turtles All the Way Down is a relatable and heartwarming look into the gnawing pain that can come with growing up. Specifically, the film invites us into the troubled mind of Aza, who suffers from debilitating OCD. It’s a realistic (and never pitiful) assessment of how anxious teens navigate love, friendship, and maybe most notable of all, money. There’s a focus on economic realities here that feels fitting and wise in this day and age. Many people forget how keenly aware young people are of money, and it’s refreshing to see it play out here, even if it’s just in the peripheral.

Genre: Drama, Romance

Actor: Cree Cicchino, Debby Ryan, Felix Mallard, Hannah Marks, Isabela Merced, J. Smith-Cameron, John Green, Judy Reyes, Kevin Crowley, Maliq Johnson, Poorna Jagannathan, Tim Gooch

Director: Hannah Marks

Rating: PG-13

To call Going to Mars a somewhat shapeless documentary isn't a criticism. If anything, its flexibility of structure feels entirely appropriate for the woman at its center, who doesn't necessarily defy categorization so much as she remains on the pulse of history as it continues to shift in unexpected ways. Nikki Giovanni is a person who knows who she is and knows that she stands for the essential dignity of Black people, and it's inspiring to see how she not only remains hopeful and articulate through every critical moment, but that she insists on being ambitious for what Black people deserve to achieve in the future. As her son tells her at a speaking engagement, Giovanni doesn't just dream of going to space; she feels that it is her people's imperative to be there.

Directors Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson tell her (still ongoing) life story in a strikingly impressionistic way—cleverly playing with archival footage, but more importantly having Giovanni's candid words blending seamlessly into her poetry. This is a credit to how connected to the milieu Giovanni's work actually is, of course, but the film does a very good job defining her as someone who can bring beauty and grace out of every experience.

Genre: Documentary

Actor: Kai Giovanni, Nikki Giovanni, Novella Nelson, Taraji P. Henson, Thomas Giovanni, Touré Neblett, Virginia Fowler

Director: Joe Brewster, Michèle Stephenson

, 2013

Chadwick Boseman who you might now know as the Black Panther had his break out role in 42, the true story of the first Black major league player Jackie Robinson. A story of expected struggle but also a humbling and humane account that is full of warmth. Jackie Robinson's coach is played by Dustin Hoffman, adding to the caliber of amazing performances in this movie, all put together by Oscar-winning writer/director Brian Helgeland (Mystic River, L.A. Confidential). From the baseball sequences to the personal life of Jackie Robinson, and of course his confrontation with racism, this is a powerful and uplifting movie.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Aaron Farb, Alan Tudyk, André Holland, Andre Holland, Andrew C. Mullins, Anthony S. Goolsby, Ari Blinder, Barry Suttle, Brad Beyer, Brett Cullen, Chadwick Boseman, Cherise Boothe, Christopher Meloni, Colman Domingo, Danny Vinson, Dax Griffin, Derek Phillips, Dusan Brown, Gino Anthony Pesi, Hamish Linklater, Harrison Ford, Hunter Clowdus, Jackson Walker, James Pickens Jr., James Rackley, Jamie Ruehling, Jayson Warner Smith, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Jesse Luken, Joe Inscoe, Joe Knezevich, John C. McGinley, Jon Kohler, Jud Tylor, Karole Foreman, Kelley Jakle, Kenny Cook, Linc Hand, Lou Criscuolo, Lucas Black, Marc Gowan, Mark Harelik, Matt Clark, Maury Covington, Max Gail, Michael H. Cole, Monnae Michaell, Nicole Beharie, Peter Jurasik, Peter MacKenzie, Rhoda Griffis, Ryan Merriman, T.R. Knight, Tobias Michael Finn, Toby Huss, William Flaman

Director: Brian Helgeland

Rating: PG-13