HBO is often thought of as the greatest television network of the time; HBO shows like The Wire, The Sopranos, The Leftovers, Game of Thrones, True Detective, Succession, and many more weren’t just brilliant artistic achievements, but they were shows that fundamentally changed the nature of how television was seen as a medium equal to film. However, HBO has more than just television, and the network and its streaming services have amassed an impressive library of titles.
Although many of the popular titles on HBO are ones that are designed to draw in large numbers of viewers and skew towards massive hits, there are also a great number of underseen films that deserve to be rediscovered. Those with an HBO subscription may want to take a break from enjoying “Peak TV” to enjoy some of these great films. Here are ten great recent movies on HBO you may have missed.
10. The Station Agent
Peter Dinklage is one of HBO’s biggest stars thanks to his critically acclaimed role as Tyrion Lannister on Game of Thrones, but prior to that breakout role, Dinklage gave many great performances in independent dramas. Dinklage’s greatest film role to date has been in The Station Agent, where he plays the lonely train enthusiast Finbar McBride. Finbar’s best friend dies and leaves him to inherit an abandoned train station, where he begins a peculiar friendship with local residents Olivia Harris (Patricia Clarkson) and Joe Oramas (Bobby Cannavale).
Dinklage is phenomenal in a role that requires him to be quite reserved, as he didn’t come to the station looking for a community and is generally suspicious of people with seemingly pure intentions. Dinklage is able to show Finbar’s opening up gradually, and he’s helped by the memorable side performances; Clarkson brings a signature effervescent sweetness to her character, and Cannavale excels as a humorously fast talking, yet good natured average guy.
Noah Baumbach was a recent Oscar favorite for Marriage Story, and some of his films such as The Squid and the Whale, Frances Ha, and The Meyerowitz Stories have gained him a strong following. However, one of Baumbach’s most underrated films to date is Greenberg, the first film in which he collaborated with Greta Gerwig. Gerwig stars as Florence Marr, a house sitter who begins to fall for her employer’s brother (Ben Stiller) when the two are left to take care of the house.
Gerwig leaps off the screen with an idiosyncratic performance that set the precedent for her later success; not only is her comedic timing perfect, but she’s able to hint at more serious elements of her character without ever losing the comic grace. Stiller is often underrated for his dramatic chops, and here he gives a perfectly subdued take on a middle-aged artist who has lost touch with both his youthful bliss and his artistic sense of purpose.
8. Half Nelson
Ryan Gosling is without a doubt one of the most exciting actors working today, and has starred in many of the greatest films of the past decade. Gosling’s first great performance was in Half Nelson, an uncomfortably realistic drama where he plays Dan Dunne, a teacher at a Brooklyn middle school who suffers from an intense drug addiction. Dunne is an engaging teacher who entertains students who are mistreated by the larger educational system, but his private life is filled with a never ending cycle of trauma and relapses.
Gosling is able to portray this dynamic character brilliantly, and utilizes his signature charisma for the classroom scenes before showing the emotional impact of his breakdowns. Dunne is a character who is used to hiding his secrets, and Gosling is able to show the character’s deception through an engaging performance. Filmmakers Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden, who would go on to direct the underrated Mississippi Grind and the superhero film Captain Marvel, announce themselves as a duo who can focus on small, intimate moments to build a compelling narrative.
7. American Splendor
Comic book movies are more popular than ever now, but the world of great comic book movies extends far beyond just superheroes. One such example is the underrated gem American Splendor, which tells the story of Harvey Pekar (Paul Giamatti), an underground comic book artist that inspired a passionate fan base. The film is told non conventionally, as it includes interview footage with the real Pekar, as well as extended documentary and animated sections.
This approach proves to be very effective, as it shows the fluidity of the story and focuses on how elements of Pekar’s life came to influence his work and define his personality. Giamatti gives one of his best performances ever, and is able to capture the spirit of an average guy who just wants to tell his story, yet fears the corporatization and corruption of his vision.
Indignation takes a stage like approach to the coming of age story, lifting the words from Phillip Routh’s beloved 2008 novel and isolating its characters’ journey to key conversations. The film follows Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman), the son of a Jewish butcher shop owner who is accepted into a private Christian school as he tries to avoid being drafted to fight in the Korean War. Marcus feels isolated at school, but his worldview changes when he meets Olivia (Sarah Gadon), a free-spirited classmate who begins to engage with him romantically.
Olivia and Marcus are both stung by societal pressure regarding sexuality, religion, and free thought, and their seemingly perfect romance begins to collapse as they both become persecuted for who they are. This tragic loss of innocence is told intimately; each scene in the film is dragged out in a play like fashion, showing the extent of the characters’ anxieties. Lerman gives one of his best performances, capturing Marcus’s inability to freely express himself, and the film also features a memorable supporting role from Tracy Letts as the university’s conservative Dean.