Apple TV+ is one of the strangest streamers out there, with almost no licensed TV or film content and a small number of originals. Apple is clearly taking a “quality over quantity” approach, with its money spread across genres and targeted at making its subscribers (many roped in with a deal that came with one of the company’s tech products) treat it like a real contender. It also helps that it’s only $4.99 a month, or free for a year if you’ve just purchased a new (and eligible) device.
With films from up-and-comers like Minhal Baig, arthouse favorites like Sofia Coppola and Werner Herzog, some A-list music docs and one of the best animated movies of the 2020s, Apple TV+ is actually making the case that it belongs in the conversation alongside the more established services. As long as it keeps adding good movies to its roster, that is. It recently snagged all the Charlie Brown specials to compliment its ongoing deal with the Peanuts folks as it churns out Snoopy-starring series, so that’s helping things along.
Here’re our ranked picks for the best ten movies on Apple TV+ right now, updated for February 2021. You can also find our ranking of the best Apple TV+ original series.
Beastie Boys Story, a filmed version of the live stage adaptation of the memoir Beastie Boys Book (did you follow all that?), won’t shed much new light for Beastie Boys diehards but it’s still fun to hang out and simply, as the band says in the film, “bullshit.” An extended and eccentric Behind the Music hosted by Ad-Rock and Mike D., whose easy rapport overcomes their stagey teleprompter reading, the Spike Jonze-directed joint is just as rakish and stuffed with boyish enthusiasm as the Boys themselves as it takes us through the band’s history. Peppered with music videos and unafraid to assess the dickishness that comes along with being some of the biggest musicians in the country before you could legally drink, the film drops—and hits—all the right beats. Managing to maintain a sense of rebellion and friendship even with Ad-Rock and Mike D. doing more of a Ted Talk than a concert, Jonze’s subtle doses of anarchy and stagecraft keep things lively even when the Boys’ energy falters.—Jacob Oller
The Tom Hanks-written and starring Greyhound is a tense game of Battleship drenched in naval jargon and the overwhelming elements of WWII battle. Thanks to a brief runtime and a knack for pulling out an exciting or eerie moment right when things are getting dull or repetitive (which they threaten to get often), the film manages to avoid the various torpedoes that commonly take down war movies of its ilk. The story of an isolated captain (Hanks) and those immediately around him as they escort a supply convoy is punctuated by a few particularly compelling moments of combat, some very sore feet and an utterly chilling radio call from the pack of German U-boats closing in. Some of these incidents unfortunately wear out their welcome as Hanks’ script threatens to fall into routine, but Aaron Schneider’s capable direction keeps things from drifting too far off course. Greyhound succeeds in highlighting the reliance on tactics and training in the heart of war, which turns soldiers into components of a machine—though even those components need someone from which to take their commands, be it from a captain or a higher power.—Jacob Oller
Filmed over the course of four years, The Elephant Queen follows revered matriarch Athena and the herd she shepherds across the unforgiving terrain in search of food and water. Like any nature doc worth its salt, the film is a gorgeous visual journey through what have come to be perilous times for the world’s charismatic megafauna, something never made explicit in the script narrated by a staid Chiwetel Ejiofor. Unsure whether it wants to be more Planet Earth or pure Disney fare, The Elephant Queen’s message is mixed as it chronicles Athena’s long journey. Early on, Alex Heffes’ whimsical score delights alongside footage of creatures found “a toenail height” to the elephants, including a particularly frightened frog whose pond the herd start stomping around in. But there is also an extremely difficult sequence not too much later that more coolly details the death of the herd’s youngest member from starvation. The Elephant Queen is messy, but it’s still a worthwhile nature watch that educates viewers on how important elephants are to the biomes across which they traverse and why. The documentary struggles to narratively incorporate a gaggle other creatures encountered throughout, be they avian or amphibian, although just meeting these beings and learning a little more about their own life cycles is justification enough for their inclusion. There is a rawness and a beauty to the production that should be appreciated even through some of its more questionable choices. Because when there is a call to action at the very end of the film, I was ready to answer it. Sharing this story is one way to help Queen Athena protect her herd.—Allison Keene
Writer/director Minhal Baig’s Hala is an intimate coming-of-age drama held up by its personal writerly touches and a star-making turn from Geraldine Viswanathan as the title character. Hala’s struggling with the same kinds of things we normally see high school characters struggle with: What to do after graduation, how to manage a relationship with her parents that’s not quite adult and not quite childish, and (of course) boys. Viswanathan’s understated quiet and the warmth in which the situations are shot (almost always centered on her face)—be they at a family dinner or a walk in a Chicago park or a reading of a high school English assignment—make the dramatic ricochet of Hala’s minor rebellion rattle us all the harder. Her relationship with a poetry-loving floppy-haired boy, her parents’ imperfections and a boatload of baggage brought from Pakistan (including the threat of arranged marriage) create a compelling portrait of a family that overcomes Baig’s sometimes sleepy direction. While there’s a lot, probably too much, going on around Hala—to the point that the movie threatens to shake apart—and the film tends to raise issues it’d rather not see through to any sort of conclusion, some striking shots, realistic dialogue (even in that heightened “everything’s the end of the world” way that teens can have) and Viswanathan’s ability to sell it all make the film a worthy and unique entry into the coming-of-age canon.—Jacob Oller
The tendency to read too much into Boys State as a representative of American politics—contemporary, functional, broken and otherwise—doesn’t quite line up with the event itself, in which every year the American Legion sponsors a sort of mock government sleepaway camp in Texas for high school boys (girls get a similar program of their own), where attendees join parties, run for office, craft platforms, run campaigns, hold debates, then ultimately exercise their right to vote. As one candidate for fake boy office explains, “My stance on abortion would not line up with most guys’ out there. So I changed my stance. That’s politics…I think. You can’t win on what you believe in your heart.” Money has no place in their policies, nor do women, immigration, or anything that isn’t gun control or abortion. They aren’t much interested in exploring U.S. governmental systems and lawmaking as they are in reinforcing an ideal of obsolescing democratic rule. There is no representation here, there are only screaming masses of peachfuzz and popularity contests. Instead of taking a divided nation’s temperature through its puberty-ridden youth, Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine’s documentary becomes a dramatic account of modern American masculinity in the making, blisteringly hormonal and desperate to be taken seriously. —Dom Sinacola
Sofia Coppola’s new movie On the Rocks starts out as a story of possessive fatherhood, with Felix (Bill Murray) narrating to his teenage daughter, Laura: “And remember, don’t give your heart to any boys. You are mine until you get married. Then you’re still mine.” The girl laughs off the declaration as a jape, which turns out to be a catastrophic tactical mistake. In her womanhood, Laura (Rashida Jones), does indeed get married to a man, Dean (Marlon Wayans), and they have two beautiful daughters of their own, eldest Maya (Liyanna Muscat) and youngest Theo (Alexandra Mary Reimer). Dean is spearheading his own startup, a company that provides vaguely sketched-out services but which keeps him not only busy but in constant motion. Laura stays at home with the girls and, when she’s afforded rare moments of peaceful alone time, attempts to write a book the way Sisyphus attempts to push a boulder up a hill. She’s in a rut. Dean’s on the rise. He’s so often cross-country that the yawning gap between them is visible from the stratosphere, and then along comes Felix to sweep Laura up and indulge her fear that Dean in fact might be plowing his assistant, Fiona (Jessica Henwick), a knockout at least 10 years her junior. So begins a caper as Felix, protective by way of outmoded patriarchal charm, endeavors to prove Dean’s infidelity to prop Laura back up using all of his cunning and a not insignificant chunk of his wealth and social capital. On the Rocks suggests that men grown old are really just babies with an insatiable need for the world to love them, their kids—their daughters—in particular. Their childishness is revealed by the volume of their charisma: the taller the tales, the costlier the tab, the more blatant the flirt, the more extravagant the lifestyle, the more a man’s insecurity is revealed. Laura is at once drawn to and repelled by Felix. In light of Felix’s screed to young Laura, this is the inevitable crest of their bond, but Coppola’s gentle, yearning filmmaking generates sympathy for the father and empathy for the daughter. —Andy Crump
The black-and-white behind-the-scenes documentary accompaniment to Bruce Springsteen’s album of the same name, Bruce Springsteen’s Letter to You is a beautiful and companionable tour through the music and its making from an American master. Director Thom Zimny buys into the album’s concept, which focuses on just how long Springsteen’s been at this thing. Poignant juxtaposition with archival footage and pictures emphasizes just how long the E Streeters have been at this—and reminds us of who and what was lost along the way. It’s unabashedly emotional throughout and illuminating on occasion, but it’s mostly dedicated to giving Springsteen fans more of the album’s experience: Letter to You’s development is of minor importance in the film, but its performance is exceptional. In between tracks, Springsteen’s intense voiceover hovers over all the right imagery, with funerals, trains, snowy forests and lots of other muscular American iconography flitting by before another song starts up. The design of the documentary may be a bit repetitive, but the musicality is masterful and there’s nothing like letting The Boss extend a hand, inviting us to join in the campfire kind of collaboration with which this album was constructed and the lovely melancholy with which it appreciates the passing of time.—Jacob Oller
Werner Herzog will show you multiple clips from Mimi Leader’s Deep Impact for no other reason than because he likes them, he finds them well-done and evocative—he says as much in that even-keeled, oddly accented voice over—then soon after chastise “film school doctrine” when complimenting a field video shot by a South Korean meteor specialist in Antarctica. Like Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin, his documentary from earlier in the year, Fireball (co-directed with Clive Oppenheimer, with whom he made 2016’s Into the Inferno) is less about what it’s about (meteorites, shooting stars, cosmic debris—and the people who love them) than it is about Werner Herzog’s life, which is his filmography, which is a heavily manipulated search for ultimate truth. This is all he makes movies about anymore: himself, navigating falsehood until he can master it, which is basically what he sees as moviemaking anyway. Unlike Nomad, Fireball is partly shot by Herzog’s trusted cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger, which rewards majestic drone shots—now Herzog’s old man bread and butter—with casual sublimity as often as despairing humor. Together they follow tangents all over the world, ridiculing the depressing Mexican town where a meteorite destroyed the dinosaurs and today stray dogs’ dreams rot from their heads, or collecting microscopic space rocks from the roof of an Oslo sports arena. All is at the mercy of Herzog’s curiosity, ravenous and insatiable. —Dom Sinacola
We could get into plenty of arguments over which Charlie Brown animated special is best, but A Charlie Brown Christmas is my favorite pull of the bunch. Charlie Brown’s confrontation with the Christmas season’s commercialism (back in 1965 no less) and a sad little fir tree make this a cartoon classic, as the ultimate funny-pages shlimazel suffers endless social indignities (no Christmas cards) and the holiday blues. The film remains a touching, funny 25 minutes that connects to kids both young and grown—capturing the spirit of Charles Schulz’s amusingly downer strip—ornamented with slapstick gags and the delightful jazzy Christmas score from the Vince Guaraldi Trio that’s become synonymous with the Peanuts crew. The animation might be a little jagged and repetitive—the child voice acting hit and miss—but the ragtag production helps make it extra endearing, as if the precocious children at the core of the holiday film had a real hand in putting it together. You’re not going to knock this film for those kids doing their weird dances on a loop and neither am I. It just wouldn’t be Christmassy of me.—Jacob Oller
Wolfwalkers is filmmaker and animator Tomm Moore’s latest project out of Cartoon Saloon, the animation studio he co-founded in 1999 with Paul Young, and the capper to his loosely bound Irish folklore trilogy (begun with 2009’s The Secret of Kells and continued with 2014’s Song of the Sea). At first blush, the film appears burdened with too much in mind—chiefly thoughts on everything from English colonialism to earnest portraiture of Irish myths, the keystones of Moore’s storytelling for the last decade. Linking these poles are a story of friendship across borders and social boundaries, a dirge for a world pressed beneath the heels of men, a family drama between a willful girl and her loving but overprotective father, and a promise of what life could be if strangers reached across those borders and boundaries to find, if not love, then at least common ground. How Moore and his collaborators Ross Stewart and Will Collins created such a robust screenwriting economy that each of these threads not only fit into Wolfwalkers’ 103 minutes, but feel entirely essential to its vibrance, is likely a whole narrative unto itself. Their collective achievement speaks for itself, of course: Wolfwalkers is a stunning effort, the best of Moore’s career and the best Cartoon Saloon has produced to date. Every detail here, every flourish, has a purpose, whether splashes of red on flower petals, soft edges around dusk-lit trees, or three-panel split screen sequences that read like the pages of illuminated manuscripts brought to life. The effect is magic, and that magic is profound and breathtaking. —Andy Crump