From Irish folklore to ’60s New York, from culture clashes to meteors, here is a list of the very best films on Apple TV+ so far.
You can divine the company’s best impulses by seeing the best films it acquired, from arcane, auteurist curiosities and thoughtful genre pieces to documentaries that attempt to break free from the usual niches.
Best movies on Apple TV+
Since its launch in November of 2019, Apple TV+ has produced a small number of original movies compared to a lot of the competition. And though this means Apple hasn’t necessarily made the splash of a Netflix or a Hulu, it means that the decision-making has been more calculating, which may pay off in the long run.
Heck, it even won the Oscar for Best Picture with CODA (which, incidentally, didn’t make this list).
There have been grave missteps along the way, like 9/11: Inside the President’s War Room and Cherry, bizarre artifacts of right-wing populism bookending 20 years of the increasing militarization of the American cinema. But the successes have been rich and strange indeed.
Here’s a look at the best films Apple TV+ has given us so far.
Watch if you like: Beauty & The Beast, Spirited Away, Pixar movies
With Wolfwalkers, Cartoon Saloon — the Irish animation studio responsible for the beautiful likes of The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea — produced its best work to date. The film centers on a young English girl who makes friends with a temporarily orphaned Irish outcast in 1650 Kilkenny.
Her father has been tasked with killing the wolves that terrorize the people, but what young Robyn discovers is that one man’s awful myth is … well … one man. So to speak. Stupendously illustrated and animated, the film is as adorable as it is heartbreaking. It offers a compelling look at a beautifully defined friendship between little girls — and a piercing description of what happens to society when it’s ruled by fear of the other.
Read our full review: Wolfwalkers is the best animated film of the year
Stream now: Wolfwalkers on Apple TV+
The Tragedy of Macbeth
Watch if you like: the movies of Orson Welles, The Man Who Wasn’t There, William Shakespeare
Joel Coen (of the Coen brothers) went solo for The Tragedy of Macbeth. His Apple TV+ debut is a gorgeous and haunting adaptation of Shakespeare’s Scottish play. Coen’s vision of the Bard’s world as a psychological netherworld stands as a potent choice, and lets him pick and choose his influences like he was pulling previous adaptations off the display rack, trying them on and putting them back.
Magnificently interpreted by an A-list cast (Denzel Washington! Brendan Gleeson! Frances McDormand! Corey Hawkins!), the film contains more star turns than it knows with what to do. Kathryn Hunter as the three witches is the centerpiece. But amazing work from the lesser-known likes of Alex Russell, Bertie Carvel and Brian Thompson fill every corner of Coen’s geometrically perfect frames. And that keeps every second captivating.
Read our full review: With The Tragedy of Macbeth, something wickedly inventive this way comes
Stream now: The Tragedy of Macbeth on Apple TV+
The Velvet Underground
Genre: Music documentary
Watch if you like: Velvet Goldmine, I Shot Andy Warhol, Songs for Drella
The Velvet Underground director Todd Haynes tangled with legends of classic rock before. Bob Dylan (I’m Not There) and David Bowie (Velvet Goldmine) became figures of mythic abstraction in his hands. So, for his first documentary, the Carol director decided to try something different, something more purely historical.
Interviewing the surviving members of New York’s downtown arts enclave, the people who frequented the scenes organized by art provocateur Andy Warhol (who “invented” the band The Velvet Underground), Haynes builds a world of vision and sound, a kind of concrete counterpoint to the surrealism and noise art that emerged as the era’s defining aesthetic.
The resulting film serves as a slideshow of the greatest of early American popular avant-garde as well as a document of a band’s rise to immortality. It’s also a good window into the building blocks of modern art as represented by the director.
Read our full review: The Velvet Underground pays tribute to the ’60s coolest band
Stream now: The Velvet Underground on Apple TV+
Fireball: Visitors From Darker Worlds
Filmmaker Werner Herzog and volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer have thus far collaborated on three of the best documentaries of the new millennium. The first was Encounters at the End of the World, one of enigmatic crowd-pleaser Herzog’s best films. The second was the marvelous Into the Inferno about volcanic eruptions. The third is this Apple TV+ marvel, about the creation of the Earth as measured by the destruction of large pieces of it.
Herzog came of age in a moment where German cinema was redefining, through absence and degenerate art, a new identity to go with a tumultuous struggle for reconstruction. The world watched as Germany was split and accosted by a vicious state-sponsored surveillance and interrogation program.
While Herzog’s best-known works are fabulist critiques of authoritarian colonialism, he’s made some of the great documentaries about the natural world. He searches for meaning in the destructive and unpredictable natural world, especially as it concerns human interference in ecosystems. Fireball is thus something of an apotheosis of his nonfiction thesis: Man can make whatever it pleases, but the unfeeling infinite can destroy it in seconds.
Read our full review: Fireball: Visitors From Darker Worlds will fill you with wonder
Stream now: Fireball on Apple TV+
What looks on paper like a standard-issue sci-fi drama becomes altogether more special in the hands of a performer as gifted and thorough as actor Mahershala Ali. The Oscar-winning star of Moonlight can imbue even the most dreadfully written and superficial characters (see: Green Book) with a dignity and complicated interiority.
In Swan Song, he plays a man dying of a rare disease who learns there might be a way to save his family the pain of losing him. A company will grow a clone, teach it how to live like him, and then release him into his home to seamlessly take over — no harm, no foul.
The film isn’t really about any of that stuff, though. It’s about the impossibility of saying goodbye. The best scene is when Ali breaks protocol to enjoy one last hour with his son. The film stops being just another science fiction morality tale whenever we get to see an actor of this caliber simply behave.
Read our full review: Swan Song is smart sci-fi done right
Stream now: Swan Song on Apple TV+
On the Rocks
Sofia Coppola, daughter of America’s most operatic cinema stylist, became one of our great modernists. Her visions of disaffection have already proven they’ve stood the test of time. Even the weakest of her works (like Lost in Translation) have ardent defenders and confirmed spaces in America’s canon.
At her best, Coppola represents an all-too-infrequently nourished space in American art: lacerating looks at alienation. The world in which she spends time was created by Italian filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni, who first showed the rich losing their sense of self in long takes and lavish environments. Coppola transposes this cinema of longing to new and beautiful places, from Marie Antoinette’s court to the press junkets and hotel rooms frequented by stars on their way to obscurity.
On the Rocks is the first of her films you could, without reservation, classify as a comedy (though The Bling Ring is a stone-cold riot). In this Apple TV+ comedy, Rashida Jones suspects husband (played by Marlon Wayans) is stepping out on her. So she accidentally enlists her ne’er-do-well father (Bill Murray) in an espionage mission to uncover the truth.
Filled with perfect comedic setups and stunning locations, On the Rocks is a hilarious midlife crisis without the high blood pressure.
Read our full review: On the Rocks is a warmhearted comedy about all kinds of infidelity
Stream now: On the Rocks on Apple TV+
I forget where I first heard this particular idea, but I think there’s truth to it: Representation that matters is watching people of all races, ethnicities and sexualities absolutely making a mess of their lives. That means letting characters be real people — not heroes who must stand in for a whole culture.
American cinema is the worst place to go for representation because our artists too often chase awards. But occasionally something genuinely thorny breaks through. Case in point is writer/director Minhal Baig‘s Hala, based on her own short film.
In the drama, incandescent Geraldine Viswanathan plays a Muslim girl who wants nothing so bad as to skateboard away from her parent’s cloying expectations. When she meets a white boy (Jack Kilmer) who loves poetry as much as she does, she hides it from her folks, just as she discovers the world of adult betrayals and emotions.
Hala exhibits an unemphatic gracefulness, looking at the girl with no judgment as she looks at an increasingly cruel world with more of it than she knew she possessed.
Stream now: Hala on Apple TV+
Beastie Boys Story
Genre: Music documentary
Watch if you like: Being John Malkovich, Beastie Boys music videos, Shut Up and Play the Hits
Spike Jonze showed up to film a beautiful two-man theatrical experience at the end of the last decade, in which his old friends Mike Diamond and Adam Horovitz, the two surviving Beastie Boys, talked about their career. Jonze directed some of the group’s best-known music videos back in the early ’90s, most notably “Sabotage.” So who better to capture his collaborators reminiscences than he?
Jonze’s camera hangs back to catch Diamond and Horovitz (or Mike D and Ad-Rock, as they were known onstage and wax) talking about their classic albums, their prankster image, the people they loved and left along the way, and, of course, their dear, departed friend Adam Yauch, MCA, the third Beastie Boy.
The survivors do their best to reckon with their legacy, which was not all good times and platinum-selling party albums. The combined effect proves quite stirring.
Read our full review: Beastie Boys Story relives the beer-soaked glory days of hip-hop’s original hell-raisers
Stream now: Beastie Boys Story on Apple TV+
Bruce Springsteen: Letter To You
Genre: Music documentary
Watch if you like: The Last Waltz, Stop Making Sense, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band
Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band has had to adapt to quite a lot in the last decade and change. The deaths of Clarence Clemons and Danny Federici, the men behind the iconic sounds of the group’s best-known hits (you can’t imagine “Thunder Road” without the saxophone or glockenspiel the men provided, respectively), fundamentally changed the way Springsteen thought about songwriting.
The Boss realized he couldn’t rely on the old strengths of a changed band. In Letter to You, he assembles the original E Street Band for a recording session in the New Jersey countryside. And filmmaker Thom Zimny was there to capture it in beautiful, monochrome images. If not exactly a probing, informative career encapsulation, it is nevertheless a warm and inviting look into the way a band of lifers collaborate.
Read our full review: You’ll want to open Bruce Springsteen’s Letter to You again and again
Stream now: Letter to You on Apple TV+
Watch if you like: The West Wing, The Morning Show, Pod Save America
A few thematic strands connect a lot of Apple TV+ programming, but the disparate likes of On the Rocks and Fireball can make it difficult to find a through line. Why buy this and not that? Well, in the case of Boys State, a documentary whose purchase by Apple TV+ certainly shocked me, it’s because someone with buying power in the company is fascinated with the idea of state constructs.
Apple TV+ series and movies as disparate as Central Park, 9/11 Inside the President’s War Room, For All Mankind, Foundation, Lincoln’s Dilemma, The Problem With Jon Stewart and The Banker are all about interrogating the chain of command behind epochal decisions and legislation and world events.
And then there’s Boys State — a documentary about kids cosplaying senate hearings with an eye to one day take their places in the U.S. government. The film stands as the clearest enunciation yet of the company’s attitude toward policy and process. The film offers a fairly damning look at what has happened to the idea of political discourse among young people. It’s as hard to watch as it is to look away.
Read our full review: Boys State is a timely and terrifying political documentary
Stream now: Boys State on Apple TV+
Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the author of Cinemaphagy: On the Psychedelic Classical Form of Tobe Hooper, the director of 25 feature films, and the director and editor of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.