14 Best Intense Movies On Max (HBO Max)

Staff & contributors

When it comes to great entertainment, it’s all about the scenes that grip both your attentiion and emotions with full force. Whether you’re into suspenseful thrillers or emotional dramas, we’ve rounded up the best intense movies and shows to stream.

Told in urgent fashion with first-hand accounts from cyber professionals from around the globe, Zero Days is a fascinating and alarming documentary about the Stuxnet computer virus. Originally codenamed “Olympic Games” by the people that fathered the worm, Stuxnet is a virus in the true sense of the word. It not only maliciously feeds off the host, but it also replicates itself as soon as it is implanted, which is exactly what it did when it was used by the US and Israeli secret services to sabotage centrifuges inside Iran's Natanz nuclear plant—making them spin out of control. All this is brilliantly unpacked by renowned documentary maker Alex Gibney (Going Clear, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room), who manages not only to detail the complexities of advanced coding in a remarkably evocative manner, but also to send out a well-researched alarm call about the future of war. Ultimately, the message here is that cyber warfare is very much part of our new shared reality. This film deserves to be seen by anyone who is even remotely concerned about global security in the 21st century.

Genre: Documentary

Actor: Allison Cohn, Barack Obama, Benjamin Netanyahu, David Sanger, Emad Kiyaei, Eric Chien, Eugene Kaspersky, George W. Bush, Hillary Clinton, Joanne Tucker, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Mikhail Gorbachev, Ronald Reagan, Sergey Ulasen, Tadashi Mitsui, Vitaly Kamluk, Yossi Melman

Director: Alex Gibney

Rating: PG-13

With his final film, octogenarian master filmmaker Robert Bresson found the violent, chilling truth in that old cliché, “money is the root of all evil.” L’Argent extends the simplicity of its title (literally, “Money”) into the fabric of the film, using an extremely bare style to track the devastating domino effect that a childish ruse has on one man’s life. When a shopkeeper realizes two schoolboys swindled him out of 500 francs with a counterfeit note, he decides to pass the problem on by paying delivery man Yvon (Christian Patey) with the false note. But when Yvon tries to pay for his lunch with the money, the police are called and his life unravels.

This is just the start of L’Argent’s clinical exploration of the meanness and littleness of man’s greedy spirit. Yvon’s downfall is chronicled with matter-of-fact coldness: everything onscreen is minimal, from the precise cinematography and frugal editing to the non-professional actors’ expressionlessness. This detached style encourages us to absorb all the bitter emotion of the story, which feels — in such an economical format as this — like a moral tale as old as time, but no less cutting.

Genre: Crime, Drama

Actor: Alain Aptekman, Caroline Lang, Christian Patey, Didier Baussy, François-Marie Banier, Gilles Durieux, Jean-Frédéric Ducasse, Jeanne Aptekman, Michel Briguet, Sylvie Van Den Elsen, Vincent Risterucci

Director: Robert Bresson

Based on the Austrian novel, The Piano Teacher is as brilliant and as disturbed as its protagonist. The film follows Erika Kohut (Isabelle Huppert), the repressed masochist in question, and the trainwreck of a relationship that she develops with her student Walter Klemmer (Benoît Magimel). Their dynamic is undeniably toxic. Austrian auteur Michael Haneke frames each scene with clinical detachment, but it is absolutely brutal how the two characters try to assert control over each other, engage in sadomasochism, and repeatedly violate each other’s boundaries. Huppert’s heartrending performance fully commits to the merciless treatment Erika receives. But more tragic is the way Erika’s unusual relationship could’ve freed her, could’ve helped her process her abuse, and instead, reinforces her repression. It’s scary to make yourself vulnerable by admitting your desires, only for them to be used against you.

Genre: Drama, Romance

Actor: Anna Sigalevitch, Annemarie Schleinzer, Annie Girardot, Benoit Magimel, Cornelia Köndgen, Dieter Berner, Eva Green, Gabriele Schuchter, Georg Friedrich, Gerti Drassl, Isabelle Huppert, Karoline Zeisler, Klaus Händl, Liliana Nelska, Luz Leskowitz, Martina Resetarits, Michael Schottenberg, Petra Reichel, Philipp Heiss, Rudolf Melichar, Susanne Lothar, Thomas Auner, Thomas Weinhappel, Udo Samel, Vivian Bartsch, William Mang

Director: Michael Haneke

Rating: R

Rosetta begins fiercely, with a shaky handheld camera chasing the eponymous teenager (Émilie Dequenne) as she storms across a factory floor and bursts into a room to confront the person she believes has just lost her her job. The film seldom relents from this tone of desperate fury, as we watch Rosetta — whose mother is a barely functioning alcoholic — fight to find the job that she needs to keep the two alive.

As tough as their situation is, though, Rosetta’s fierce sense of dignity refuses to allow her to accept any charity. A stranger to kindness and vulnerability, her abject desperation leads her to mistake these qualities for opportunities to exploit, leading her to make a gutting decision. But for all her apparent unlikeability, the movie (an early film from empathy endurance testers the Dardenne brothers) slots in slivers of startling vulnerability amongst the grimness so that we never lose sight of Rosetta’s ultimate blamelessness. Its profound emotional effect is corroborated by two things: that it won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, and that it helped usher in a law protecting the rights of teenage employees in its setting of Belgium.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Anne Yernaux, Bernard Marbaix, Émilie Dequenne, Fabrizio Rongione, Frédéric Bodson, Mireille Bailly, Olivier Gourmet

Director: Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne

Rating: R

, 2016

Here’s a based-on-a-true-story courtroom drama that transcends the limits of its genre by virtue of an incisive and unexpectedly prescient script. Twenty years before 2016 sent us hurtling through the looking glass and into a post-truth era, the idea that you could deny the facts as you pleased teetered terrifyingly on the brink of legitimacy when author David Irving (a suitably odious Timothy Spall) brought a UK libel suit against Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz), an academic whom he claimed had defamed him for calling him exactly what he was: a Holocaust denier.

The case was complicated by the fact that, at the time, the UK placed the burden of proof on the defendant — in other words, Lipstadt’s hotshot legal team needed to prove that the Holocaust happened and that Irving had wilfully misrepresented evidence demonstrating this. Denial captures that terrifying farcicality and the defense’s cleverly counterintuitive strategy: not allowing Lipstadt or Holocaust survivors to speak. If that sounds unsatisfying — this is the rare courtroom drama with no grandstanding speech from the protagonist — that’s the point, something the film’s title cleverly alludes to. Perhaps unexpectedly, Denial’s relevance has ballooned since its release, a fact that might hobble its hopeful ending but that only makes the rest all the more powerful.

Genre: Drama, History

Actor: Abigail Cruttenden, Alex Jennings, Amanda Lawrence, Andrea Deck, Andrew Scott, Caren Pistorius, Daniel Cerqueira, Edward Franklin, Elliot Levey, Harriet Walter, Helen Bradbury, Hilton McRae, Ian Bartholomew, Jack Lowden, Jackie Clune, Jeremy Paxman, John Sessions, Lachele Carl, Laura Evelyn, Mark Gatiss, Max Befort, Mick Jackson, Nicholas Tennant, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Paul Bailey, Paul Hunter, Pip Carter, Rachel Weisz, Sally Messham, Sara Powell, Sean Power, Timothy Spall, Todd Boyce, Tom Clarke Hill, Tom Wilkinson, Will Attenborough, Ziggy Heath

Director: Mick Jackson

Rating: PG-13

While being known for co-writing the Dogme 95 manifesto, Lars von Trier’s first film after breaks his rules with built sets and music added in post. Still, Breaking the Waves has plenty of von Trier’s thematic preoccupations, challenging the notions between faithfulness and sexuality by positing a married couple who cannot indulge in marital pleasure, due to being paralyzed. While the premise leads to explicit scenes, it’s more harrowing than sexy, really. It’s terribly heartbreaking as Bess does all she can for her marriage, first by praying for her husband’s return, and then following his perverse wish, partly from guilt, but partly from pleasure, even when it goes contrary to her repressive church and community. Breaking the Waves may not be an easy watch, but regardless of what you personally feel about the morality of Bess’ actions, von Trier will nevertheless bring you to empathy.

Genre: Drama, Romance

Actor: Adrian Rawlins, David Bateson, Dorte Rømer, Emily Watson, Finlay Welsh, Gavin Mitchell, Jean-Marc Barr, John Wark, Jonathan Hackett, Katrin Cartlidge, Mikkel Gaup, Phil McCall, Robert Robertson, Roef Ragas, Sandra Voe, Stellan Skarsgård, Udo Kier

Director: Lars von Trier

Rating: R

Biographical documentaries tend to depict exceptional people– people who are so great that everyone wants to know about them, and people who are so terrible that they serve as a warning. Great Photo, Lovely Life depicts a serial sexual abuser in photojournalist Amanda Mustard’s family, able to get away with nearly all his crimes each time he skips over state lines. It’s not an easy film. It’s deeply uncomfortable. There are certain interviews that will trigger anger, despair, and bewilderment over how someone so evil can remain out of bars all his life. Great Photo, Lovely Life doesn’t provide any easy, comforting sequence as a balm to sexual abuse survivors around the world, but it’s an urgent reminder of the consequences of maintaining silence.

Genre: Documentary

Actor: Amanda Mustard

Director: Amanda Mustard, Rachel Beth Anderson

A crazy, anxiety-inducing thriller that turns Adam Sandler into a thrill-generating machine, which in its own speaks volumes about the rhythm of this movie. It follows a jeweler who gets himself in trouble with what feels like all of New York - a gang, Kevin Garnett (the NBA player), other jewelers, his family, odd twins that appear out of nowhere - everyone. This all happens in the backdrop of him feeling he has “hit big” and is on the verge of receiving a lot of money.

If you watched Good Time, you know what to expect from directors Safdie brothers: excruciating tension that keeps building up when you thought it wasn’t possible. And that might be the only problem with Uncut Gems; the tension doesn't feel that different from Good Time, and having watched one you can guess where the other one is going.

Genre: Crime, Drama, Thriller

Actor: Abel Tesfaye, Adam Sandler, Alexander Gilkes, Andrea Linsky, Anthony Mecca, Ara Daglian, Aren Topian, Arthur Borukhov, Benjy Kleiner, Chad Neves, Damany Eastman, Debbie DeLisi, Eric Bogosian, Glenn 'Doc' Rivers, Greg Yuna, Hailey Gates, Idina Menzel, Jake Ryan, Jennifer Venditti, Jeremy Sample, John Amos, Jonathan Aranbayev, Josh Ostrovsky, Judd Hirsch, Julia Fox, Keith William Richards, Keith Williams Richards, Keren Shemel, Kerwin Frost, Kevin Garnett, Lakeith Stanfield, Larry Sloman, Liang Wei-Hei Duncan, Liang Wei-Hui-Duncan, Louis Anthony Arias, Maksud Agadjani, Marcia DeBonis, Marshall Greenberg, Mesfin Lamengo, Michael A. Sollecito, Mike Francesa, Mitchell Wenig, Natasha Lyonne, Noa Fisher, Paige Neuenschwander, Paloma Elsesser, Pom Klementieff, Ricky Barksdale, Robbie DeRaffele, Roman Persits, Roza Babekova, Sahar Bibiyan, Sean Ringgold, Shemsi Selimaj, Shiv Pai, Suin Zhi Hua-Hilton, Sun Zhi Hua-Hilton, The Weeknd, Thomas Kominik, Tilda Swinton, Todd Vulpio, Tommy Kominik, Trinidad James, Ursula Triplett, Victor Plajas, Wayne Diamond

Director: Benny Safdie, Josh Safdie

Rating: R

Acerbic diary excerpts provide the narration for this taut psychological thriller, but don’t be fooled: as Notes on a Scandal teases, single schoolteacher Barbara (Judi Dench) might not be filling these pages with the truth — at least, not intentionally. There are early tells that she might not be as reliable a narrator as we expect, given her reputation as a no-nonsense battleaxe: for one, her characteristic surliness dissolves alarmingly quickly upon meeting Sheba (Cate Blanchett), an idealistic young art teacher. Notes on a Scandal doesn’t overplay this hand, though: until its explosive climax, the psychological drama is mostly read between the lines, as we watch Barbara enthusiastically pursue a “friendship” with her younger colleague. 

What makes Notes doubly gripping is that Barbara isn’t the only one hiding dark secrets: as she soon discovers, the married Sheba has begun a sexual relationship with a 15-year-old student. That disturbing revelation gives Barbara an upper hand, a means of manipulating Sheba into validating her delusions about their relationship. What follows is a gripping twin character study, one that plays out in the heightened realm of a melodrama as their sordid secrets become entwined. Darkly camp and spanning just 92 perfectly paced minutes, this is an intense immersion into two very ugly psyches.

Genre: Drama, Romance

Actor: Adrian Scarborough, Andrew Simpson, Anne-Marie Duff, Barry McCarthy, Benedict Taylor, Bill Nighy, Cate Blanchett, Debra Gillett, Derbhle Crotty, Emma Kennedy, Gabrielle Brooks, Jill Baker, Joanna Scanlan, Judi Dench, Julia McKenzie, Juno Temple, Kevin Hudson, Michael Maloney, Miranda Pleasence, Phil Davis, Shaun Parkes, Stephen Kennedy, Tameka Empson, Tom Georgeson, Wendy Nottingham

Director: Richard Eyre

There’s a cyclical tragedy at the heart of Bad Education, that starts with love, then continues in separation, and ends with hoping to redeem one’s self, and it would have felt repetitive if it wasn’t for the metafictional framing of Pedro Almodóvar. It boldly tackles the sexual abuse occurring in Catholic boarding schools, from which Almodóvar was educated under. It also explores it through a series of brilliant twists, as each reveal essentially repeats again and again, with each remix increasing the stakes, weaving a new layer to the love triangle, and exacerbating the consequences. Bad Education blends Enrique’s, and perhaps Almodóvar’s, life with fiction, with the brilliance and style Almodóvar is best known for.

Genre: Crime, Drama

Actor: Agustín Almodóvar, Alberto Ferreiro, Daniel Giménez Cacho, Fele Martínez, Francisco Boira, Francisco Maestre, Gael García Bernal, Javier Cámara, José María Yázpik, Juan Fernandez, Leonor Watling, Lluís Homar, Nacho Perez, Pau Poch, Petra Martínez, Pol Monen, Raul Garcia Forneiro, Sara Montiel

Director: Pedro Almodóvar

Rating: NC-17

See, usually, when American violence in media is critiqued, it’s usually through analytic studies or overly exaggerated lectures stirring moral panic. Instead of doing this, however, auteur Michael Haneke decided to surpass the crime genre, playing with the form and emotions in Funny Games. It’s terrifying, not because it immediately delves into the violence, but because it starts off with an ordinary, innocuous visit, that gradually escalates into an unpredictable home invasion where two teenagers inflict needless violence in such a scary yet spectacular way, even involving the viewer into their shenanigans. Ironically, this led to Haneke creating a shot-for-shot American remake of this same story, but Funny Games’ break in form made Haneke a director to remember, as he started to film outside his native Austria after the standout thriller.

Genre: Drama, Horror, Thriller

Actor: Arno Frisch, Doris Kunstmann, Frank Giering, Stefan Clapczynski, Susanne Lothar, Ulrich Mühe

Director: Michael Haneke

Rating: R

Fright Night wastes no time confirming that, yes, that handsome new neighbor is a vampire, and yes, he has to be defeated. By cutting to the chase, the film refreshingly lets its heroes and villains spend a lot of time together, goading each other on in a battle of wills. But apart from that, Fright Night sticks to the reliable '80s-horror formula, full of spectacular makeup effects, cheesy thrills, and delightfully over-the-top performances. Chris Sarandon is irresistible as the evil vampire Jerry Dandrige, while Roddy McDowall's heartfelt performance as the fraud vampire hunter Peter Vincent gives us a redemption arc worth rooting for.

Genre: Comedy, Drama, Horror

Actor: Amanda Bearse, Art Evans, Bob Corff, Chris Hendrie, Chris Sarandon, Dorothy Fielding, Ernie Holmes, Heidi Sorenson, Irina Irvine, Jonathan Stark, Nick Savage, Pamela Brown, Prince Hughes, Roddy McDowall, Stephen Geoffreys, Stewart Stern, William Ragsdale

Director: Tom Holland

Rating: R

Survivors are often painted in a brave light; they’re applauded for their resilience and toughness, and in the case of school shootings, many of them are also expected to take up arms and fight the good fight. While this is of course laudable, many survivors are simply trying to get by. Unable to process trauma and inexplicable loss, they become withdrawn, depressed, and reckless—not exactly noteworthy traits, but understandable and equally deserving of empathy.

The Fallout shifts the focus on this side of survival by following Vada in the aftermath of a school shooting. Unlike her peers, she fails to cope positively and becomes increasingly self-destructive. But it's through this unsentimental portrayal that The Fallout achieves a frankness and rawness that few films like it have. 

Genre: Drama

Actor: Austin Zajur, Christine Horn, Elliott Roca, Jenna Ortega, John Ortiz, Julie Bowen, Lumi Pollack, Maddie Ziegler, Niles Fitch, Shailene Woodley, Will Ropp, Yindra Zayas

Director: Megan Park

Rating: R

From its title and premise, the hope for this kind of documentary would be for it to show some respect for the people who died from the Floridian opioid epidemic. At the very least, the film should dissuade people from the crimes documented here, by emphasizing the consequences of these actions. American Pain does not do this. It’s interesting to view how quickly the business gets out of hand for these unethical entrepreneurs – director Darren Foster reveals each development with enough style and flourish to be entertaining – but the film is clearly more fascinated with how the twins got away with drug dealing for so long. It’s a fun watch… if you forget people died from the events of this film.

Genre: Documentary

Director: Darren Foster

Rating: TV-MA