24 Best Well-acted Movies On Max (HBO Max)

Staff & contributors

Usually, a good movie and great performances go hand-in-hand. If you’re looking to be blown away by acting talent, look no further. Here are the best movies and show featuring great acting.

Dorky kid Greg Gaines (played by the brilliant and unlikely named Thomas Mann) has severe issues with closeness (he calls his best friend a “co-worker”) and is instructed by his mother to befriend Rachel (Olivia Cooke), a girl recently diagnosed with cancer. Far from being an indie tear-jerker, though, “this isn't a touching romantic story”, as Greg's narration reminds us. This is not least to the quirky nature of the film and the third titular character Earl, Greg's closest co-worker, who acts as the moral glue between Greg and Rachel.

In addition to hilarious writing and amazing performances, the film is laced with pop-cultural references by way of the movies that Greg and his Earl shoot in their spare time – spoofy takes on cult movies with titles like Sockwork Orange. Moving without being melodramatic, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is a charmingly off-kilter fish-out-of-water plot about making friends, dealing with death, and enjoying life best as one can.

Genre: Comedy, Drama

Actor: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, Bobb'e J. Thompson, Chelsea Zhang, Connie Britton, Etta Cox, Hugh Jackman, Jeremy Long, Joe Fishel, Jon Bernthal, Katherine Hughes, Masam Holden, Matt Bennett, Molly Shannon, Nick Offerman, Olivia Cooke, RJ Cyler, Thomas Mann

Director: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon

Rating: PG-13

Ex Machina is the directorial debut of Alex Garland, the writer of 28 Days Later (and 28 Weeks Later). It tells the story of Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson from About Time), an IT developer who is invited by a billionaire CEO to participate in a groundbreaking experiment—administering a Turing test to a humanoid robot called Ava (Alicia Vikander). Meeting the robot with feelings of superiority at first, questions of trust and ethics soon collide with the protagonist's personal views. While this dazzling film does not rely on them, the visual effects and the overall look-feel of Ex Machina are absolutely stunning and were rightly picked for an Academy Award. They make Ex Machina feel just as casually futuristic as the equally stylish Her and, like Joaquin Phoenix, Gleeson aka Caleb must confront the feelings he develops towards a machine, despite his full awareness that 'she' is just that. This is possibly as close to Kubrick as anyone got in the 21st century. Ex Machina is clever, thrilling, and packed with engaging ideas.

Genre: Drama, Science Fiction

Actor: Alex Garland, Alicia Vikander, Chelsea Li, Claire Selby, Corey Johnson, Domhnall Gleeson, Elina Alminas, Gana Bayarsaikhan, Oscar Isaac, Sonoya Mizuno, Symara A. Templeman, Symara Templeman, Tiffany Pisani

Director: Alex Garland

Rating: R

One of the most thrilling biographical films to come out of Hollywood in the 2020s, Shaka King's exhilarating take on a truly remarkable leader within the Black Panther Party—and the young man who would eventually be twisted into betraying him—also provides a respectful, honest space to voice out progressive views that still aren't fully embraced in the United States. Much of the film is made up of beautiful, powerful rhetoric, contrasting in fascinating ways with scenes of violence or deception that only remind us how ahead-of-his-time chairman Fred Hampton was and still is. And in a thunderous, Oscar-winning performance, Daniel Kaluuya brings all of Hampton's words roaring to life while still reminding us of how tragically young this inspirational figure was at the time of his death.

But Judas and the Black Messiah tells an equally powerful second story over this one: that of FBI informant William O'Neal who reluctantly agrees to sell Hampton to the feds, and quickly realizes that he's been scammed too. Rivaling—and, arguably, besting—Kaluuya's performance is LaKeith Stanfield, whose tortured and increasingly despairing performance as O'Neal is the stuff of pure Shakespearean drama. Together, both stories ask us what real freedom looks like, and that we believe we can still fight for it.

Genre: Drama, History

Actor: Algee Smith, Amari Cheatom, Amber Chardae Robinson, Ashton Sanders, Caleb Eberhardt, Chris Hahn, Daniel Kaluuya, Darrell Britt-Gibson, Dominique Fishback, Dominique Thorne, Graham Lutes, Ian Duff, Ikechukwu Ufomadu, James Udom, Jermaine Fowler, Jesse Plemons, Khris Davis, Lakeith Stanfield, Lil Rel Howery, Linda D Gaines, Martin Sheen, Nicholas Velez, Nick Fink, Raymond Seay, Robert Longstreet, Terayle Hill

Director: Shaka King

An inspired by true events tale about an elderly Irish woman trying to find the child she was forced to give up many years earlier. Steve Coogan co-wrote the script and, though the base story is a tragic one, his special brand of very subtle, wry wit is apparent in the dialogue throughout. Judi Dench plays the mother who had kept her “sinful” past a secret for fifty years and, being Judi Dench, I don’t need to bother going on about her exemplary talent, suffice to say she’s charming beyond measure in the role. Steven Frears directs, as usual, deftly, and keeps the story compelling scene after scene, intensifying the emotions inherent to each, whether they be heart-warming, comedic, or outright enraging. Whoever decided to let Steve Coogan have his way with the script, it was a brave and wise choice and together this cast and crew have produced a wonderful and important piece of cinema.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Amber Batty, Amy McAllister, Anna Maxwell Martin, Barbara Jefford, Cathy Belton, Charissa Shearer, Charles Edwards, Charlie Murphy, Elliot Levey, Florence Keith-Roach, Frankie McCafferty, Gary Lilburn, Judi Dench, Kate Fleetwood, Mare Winningham, Marie Jones, Martin Glyn Murray, Michelle Fairley, Nicholas Jones, Nika McGuigan, Paris Arrowsmith, Peter Hermann, Ruth McCabe, Sara Stewart, Sean Mahon, Simone Lahbib, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Steve Coogan, Wunmi Mosaku

Director: Stephen Frears

Rating: PG-13

Director Jim Jarmusch audaciously combined the DNA of French noir classics with that of samurai and mafia movies to produce this utterly original film. As advised by the ancient Japanese manual it often quotes, though, Jarmusch’s movie also “makes the best” out of its own generation by adding hip-hop into its wry genre blend. The results are more than the sum of their parts, especially because the film is so eccentric: no matter how au fait with its inspirations you are, you still won’t see “Forest Whitaker plays a lonely hitman who wields and whooshes his silencer pistol like a samurai sword, lovingly tends pigeons, and can’t even speak the same language as his best friend” coming.

Ghost Dog’s strangeness is never jarring, though, thanks to Whitaker’s cool, collected performance, an atmospheric score by Wu-Tang Clan's RZA, and the cinematography’s tendency to use smooth double exposures for scene transitions. It almost feels like we’re in another world: Jarmusch zooms in on the Bushido code obsessions of Whitaker’s single-minded character and the mafiosos’ dying laws, blurring out everything else so the movie becomes a meditation on the impulse to moralize one’s misdoings by subscribing to rigid definitions of “honor.” Not an exercise in surface style, then, but a bone-deep reflective masterpiece.

Genre: Crime, Drama

Actor: Alfred Nittoli, Angel Caban, Camille Winbush, Chuck Jeffreys, Clebert Ford, Cliff Gorman, Damon Whitaker, Forest Whitaker, Frank Adonis, Frank Minucci, Gano Grills, Gary Farmer, Gene Ruffini, Harry Shearer, Henry Silva, Isaach De Bankolé, Jamie Hector, Jerry Todisco, John Tormey, Jonathan Teague Cook, José Rabelo, Joseph Rigano, Paul Diomede, Renee Bluestone, Richard Portnow, Roberto Lopez, RZA, Scott Bryce, Sharon Angela, Tony Rigo, Tracy Howe, Tricia Vessey, Victor Argo, Vince Viverito, Vinny Vella

Director: Jim Jarmusch

Rating: R

A slow-burning US political drama, The Ides of March is a character-driven film with great performances from Ryan Gosling, Philip Seymour Hoffman and George Clooney (who is also the director and in part the writer) among many others. Taking place during the last days of the primaries, Stephen Meyers (Gosling) is an aspiring campaign staffer who uncovers a dirty truth about his candidate (Clooney). When Meyers confronts his boss (Hoffman), moral issues arise that collide with the political profession but which are not only limited to it. A smart film, The Ides of March is less of a political thriller and more of a really well made drama that delivers.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Alvin Chea, Amy Keys, Carmen Carter, Charlie Rose, Chris Matthews, Danny Mooney, David McConnell, Evan Rachel Wood, George Clooney, Gregory Itzin, Jeffrey Wright, Jennifer Ehle, Josef Powell, Loretta Higgins, Lori Perry, Marisa Tomei, Max Minghella, Maya Sayre, Michael Ellison, Michael Mantell, Neal Anthony Rubin, Nita Whitaker, Paul Giamatti, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rachel Maddow, Robert Mervak, Rohn Thomas, Ryan Gosling, Tiffany Sander McKenzie, Yuriy Sardarov

Director: George Clooney

Rating: R

The sunniest installment of Éric Rohmer’s Tales of the Four Seasons series is a sly, slow burn of a character study. Everything looks sensuously beautiful in the honey-toned French sunshine, except for the ugly egotism of Gaspard (Melvil Poupaud), the full extent of which is gradually revealed over the film’s runtime to amusing — if maddening — effect.

A brooding twenty-something, Gaspard has the traumatic task of having to decide between three beautiful and brilliant young women while vacationing alone on the French coast one summer. He dithers and delays his choice, each woman appealing to a different insecurity of his — but, as frustrating and plainly calculating as he is, you can’t help but be charmed by Gaspard. That’s partly because of Poupaud’s natural charisma, but also because Rohmer grants Gaspard as many searingly honest moments as he does deceitful ones. These come through Rohmer’s hallmark naturalistic walking and talking scenes (a big influence on the films of Richard Linklater), coastal rambles that produce conversations of startling, timeless candor. That inimitable blend of breeziness and frankness is never better matched in the director’s films than by the summer setting of this one, the sharp truths going down a lot smoother in the gorgeous sunlight.

Genre: Comedy, Drama, Romance

Actor: Aimé Lefèvre, Amanda Langlet, Aurelia Nolin, Gwenaëlle Simon, Melvil Poupaud

Director: Éric Rohmer

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

Sisters Martine and Filippa, daughters of a founder of a religious sect, live a simple and quiet life in a remote coastal village in Denmark. Throughout the course of their lives, they reject possible romances and fame as part of their commitment to deny earthly attachments. This is upended by the sudden arrival of a French immigrant named Babette, who served as their house help to escape the civil war raging in her country.

Babette’s Feast is an inquiry into simplicity and kindness, and whether these would be sufficient to achieve a life of contentment. The religious undertones perfectly fit with the film’s parable-like structure, where bodily and spiritual appetites are satisfied through a sumptuous feast of love, forgiveness, and gratitude.

Genre: Comedy, Drama

Actor: Asta Esper Hagen Andersen, Axel Strøbye, Bendt Rothe, Bibi Andersson, Birgitte Federspiel, Bodil Kjer, Cay Kristiansen, Ebbe Rode, Else Petersen, Finn Nielsen, Gert Bastian, Ghita Nørby, Ghita Nørby, Holger Perfort, Jarl Kulle, Jean-Philippe Lafont, Lars Lohmann, Lisbeth Movin, Pouel Kern, Preben Lerdorff Rye, Stéphane Audran, Stéphane Audran, Therese Hojgaard Christensen, Thomas Antoni, Vibeke Hastrup, Viggo Bentzon

Director: Gabriel Axel

Rating: G

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

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

The Square is a peculiar movie about a respected contemporary art museum curator as he goes through a few very specific events. He loses his wallet, his children fight, the art he oversees is does not make sense to an interviewer... Each one of these events would usually require a precise response but all they do is bring out his insecurities and his illusions about life. These reactions lead him to very unusual situations. A thought-provoking and incredibly intelligent film that's just a treat to watch. If you liked Force Majeure by the same director, The Square is even better!

Genre: Drama

Actor: Anna-Stina Malmborg, Annica Liljeblad, Christopher Læssø, Christopher Laesso, Claes Bang, Daniel Hallberg, Denise Wessman, Dominic West, Elijandro Edouard, Elisabeth Moss, Emelie Beckius, Geica Pruteanu, Jan Lindwall, Johan Jonason, John Nordling, Julia Sporre, Lilianne Mardon, Linda Anborg, Lise Stephenson Engström, Lise Stephenson Engström, Madeleine Barwén Trollvik, Marina Schiptjenko, Martin Sooder, Moa Enqvist Stefansdotter, Nicki Dar, Pauline Hansson, Peter Vitanen, Sarah Giercksky, Sofie Hamilton, Stefan Godicke, Terry Notary

Director: Ruben Östlund

Rating: R

, 2015

At the same time a fun, crazy, and meaningful movie about Malcom and his friends, high school teenagers and proud geeks who suddenly find themselves immersed in the underground LA drug scene. It's a 2015 Superbad meets Boyz in the Hood. But in its essence it mostly resembles another beautiful film, Juno, in the way it evolves around a character played perfectly who you get to know, agree and disagree with, and ultimately learn from and relate to. Above all it's an outright enjoyable film, a smart one too, with a great soundtrack to boot.

Genre: Comedy, Crime, Drama

Actor: A$AP Rocky, Alex Urbom, Allen Maldonado, Amin Joseph, Ashton Moio, Benjamin Levy Aguilar, Blake Anderson, Bruce Beatty, Chanel Iman, Christopher Glenn, De'Aundre Bonds, Emmanuel Manzanares, Forest Whitaker, Jeremy Marinas, Josh Meyer, Julian Brand, Keith Stanfield, Kiersey Clemons, Kimberly Elise, Lakeith Stanfield, Larnell Stovall, Lidia Porto, Michael Flores, Milton T.J. Taylor, Mimi Michaels, Quincy Brown, Rakim Mayers, Rick Famuyiwa, Rick Fox, Ricky Harris, Roger Guenveur Smith, Shameik Moore, Tony Revolori, Tyga, Vince Staples, Zoe Kravitz

Director: Rick Famuyiwa

Rating: R

Although it opens on Janet Frame’s first steps as a baby, this Jane Campion-directed biopic of the celebrated New Zealand writer doesn’t take an exhaustive approach to its subject’s life. We frequently only learn of milestones — the many awards she won, the death of her mother — later on and in passing. In a beautiful gesture that feels like a tiny righting of the many wrongs done to Janet, it’s her perspective that guides the film. 

That embedded approach also makes the emotions that come with her heartbreaking yet uplifting story more profound. And there is much heartbreak here: alongside the several tragic losses Janet experienced as a child, she was misdiagnosed as schizophrenic as a young woman and spent eight harrowing years in psychiatric hospitals. Throughout all of this, she wrote fiction and poetry, work that saved her life in more ways than one: as well as being a rare constant source of joy, it won her a literary prize just days before she was scheduled for a lobotomy, prompting her doctors to reconsider. Neither Campion nor Janet allowed this experience to define her, however, and the film empathetically grants her real moments of joy and choice throughout — making for a deeply sensitive and uplifting watch.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Alexia Keogh, Alison Bruce, Alistair Douglas, Andrew Robertt, Brenda Kendall, Brian Flegg, Celia Nicholson, Collette Cooper, David Letch, David Stott, Edith Campion, Elizabeth McRae, Faye Flegg, Fiona Kay, Francesca Collins, Gerald Bryan, Iris Churn, Jessie Mune, Jim Rawdon, Julia Calvo, Karen Fergusson, Katherine Murray-Cowper, Kerry Fox, Kevin J. Wilson, Lilian Enting, Mark Clare, Mark Morrison, Martyn Sanderson, Melina Bernecker, Natasha Gray, Paul Norell, Peter Needham, Robert Jayne, Ruth Dudding, Sarah Smuts-Kennedy, Sheryl Stewart, Tiffany de Castro, Timothy Bartlett, Willa O'Neill

Director: Jane Campion

Rating: R

A relatively straightforward story of a village of Sotho people building the courage to resist unwanted development on their land and the erasure of their culture, the rousingly titled This Is Not a Burial, It's a Resurrection wastes no time on the oppressors' point of view. For director Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese, there is no debate: these people are more important than any markers of progress hoping to displace them. Their struggle is rendered in some of the most crisp and colorful cinematography you could hope to see, with a powerful performance by the late, great Mary Twala front and center, channeling so much sadness into fury and determination.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Jerry Mofokeng, Jerry Mofokeng Wa, Makhaola Ndebele, Mary Twala, Siphiwe Nzima-Ntskhe, Tseko Monaheng

Director: Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese