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The 11 Best Things Coming to HBO’s Max in December

Oprah revisits ‘The Color Purple,’ Cate Blanchett and Judi Dench square off in a tense thriller, plus enough Jack Ryan and Pink Panther flicks to fill a Christmas stocking

spinner image Harrison Ford holding a piece of wood in a scene from the film "Clear and Present Danger."
Harrison Ford stars as Jack Ryan in "Clear and Present Danger."
Paramount Pictures/Getty Images

A gander at this month’s offerings on the popular streamer proves there’s a method to HBO’s Max-ness. For franchise-philes, there are deep dives into Jack Ryan political thrillers and Inspector Clouseau romps. For award-season aficionados, 2006’s Notes on a Scandal — with the dynamic duo of Cate Blanchett, 54, and Judi Dench, 88 — feels like an appetizer for 2023’s May December. On the other hand, American Masters: Leonard Bernstein is a delightful nightcap to Maestro. But it’s the HBO Original Documentaries that own a month that starts with a three-part series about a headline-grabbing, race-fomenting murder and ending with Oprah returning to The Color Purple, with music this time. Set your holiday calendar to catch these 11 best things coming to Max this month.

Coming Dec. 1

Clear and Present Danger (1994, PG-13)

Tom Clancy’s CIA analyst Jack Ryan is a quadruple threat this December. Alec Baldwin, 65, plays Ryan in 1990’s The Hunt for Red October, the first of many adaptations of Clancy page-turners. Ben Affleck, 51, tries his hand at Ryan in 2002’s The Sum of All Fears. Chris Pine introduces a new generation to the operative in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014). But if you’re looking for the pitch-perfect version of intelligence work tempered with integrity, Harrison Ford, 81, is the guy. Ford stars in his second outing as Ryan (interim deputy director of the CIA) who learns that the president has launched a covert war in Colombia.

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Denial (2016, PG-13)

The courtroom drama — based on Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt’s 2005 memoir — stars Rachel Weisz, 53, as Lipstadt, a scholar taken to British court for libel by author David Irving (Timothy Spall, 66). Irving refutes the role of Auschwitz in the extermination of Jews and takes umbrage when Lipstadt calls him a liar. It would have been easy for the film to launch into legal pyrotechnics. Instead, it pivots on nuanced acting and incisive writing (by David Hare, 76). Sometimes the understated is just what the moment requires.

The Lovers (2017, R)

With grace, moments of gravity and humor, Debra Winger, 68, and Tracy Letts, 58, elevate this entertaining marriage story by writer-director Azazel Jacobs, 51. The acting aces portray a couple who cheat on each other, then double down on their infidelity by stepping out on their younger paramours — with each other.

Notes on a Scandal (2006, R)

Sometimes you just want to see the best go at it. If that describes your mood, look no further than this British melodrama/psychological thriller that pits Judi Dench against Cate Blanchett (each received an Oscar nom). Only high school art teacher Sheba Hart (Blanchett) has little idea how darkly enamored fellow teacher and self-described “battle-ax” Barbara Covett (Dench) is with her. When Barbara spies Sheba in a liaison with a student, things get very twisted, indeed. And, as Sheba’s husband, Bill Nighy, 73, speaks the outrage of both a properly shocked spouse and us viewers.

A Shot in the Dark (1964, PG)

There’s no pussyfooting around when it comes to the original Pink Panther flicks: This sequel in which Inspector Clouseau (Peter Sellers) doubts the guilt of the chief suspect (Elke Sommer, 83) is arguably the best of the bunch at balancing Sellers’ physical shtick with Clouseau’s clumsy, yet effective, crime detecting. But don’t take our word for it: Four other Sellers-led romps stream throughout the month. The movie’s original trailer, featuring a talking bullet, is a goofy joy unto itself.



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Coming Dec. 4

Murder in Boston: Roots, Rampage & Reckoning

A golden rule of police procedurals and actual police work: The first suspect in a wife’s murder is always the spouse. Unless you’re Charles Stuart in 1989 and you and your pregnant wife, Carol, are white and shot in a Black neighborhood in Boston, a city with decades of racial animus. In this engrossing (and infuriating) three-part documentary, director and Boston-area native Jason Hehir (The Last Dance) deftly recounts one of those “crimes of the century” that exposes how racism and bias worked (and still do) to upend lives and undermined grander ideals.

Coming Dec. 5

Great Photo, Lovely Life: Facing a Family’s Secrets

In this HBO documentary, a family reckoning with the crimes of the father proves that a picture isn’t always worth a thousand words. Sometimes it’s resolutely mum and masks secrets, lies and crimes. Juxtaposing a family trove of home movies and still photos with interviews, photojournalist Amanda Mustard and codirector Rachel Beth Anderson delve with notable compassion into the legacy of silence about sexual abuse crimes by Mustard’s grandfather that haunt the filmmaker, her sister and their mother.

Coming Dec. 20

spinner image Composer Leonard Bernstein
Leonard Bernstein
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PBS American Masters: Leonard Bernstein: Reaching for the Note

Keeping up with the Oscar race? If so, you know Bradley Cooper is sure to be in the running for best actor. His portrayal of Leonard Bernstein in Maestro — which he directed — is mesmerizing and intimate. See it, then watch Susan Lacy’s insightful 1998 documentary about the conductor, composer and captivator of young audiences, which delves into Bernstein’s musical genius and reach even more than the biopic.

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Coming Dec. 24

Spirited Away: Live on Stage

In 2022, the Oscar-winning Spirited Away — by master animator Hayao Miyazaki, 82 — got a well-received theatrical treatment in Japan. Now that charming stage production is getting its close-up. Will 10-year-old Chihiro be able to free her parents from the world of kami? Knowing the answer won’t change how captivating and timeless the story is. And, given the timing, why not start a new tradition with the grandkids?



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Coming Dec. 28

spinner image Oprah Winfrey smiles while attending the 2023 Essence Festival of Culture
Oprah Winfrey
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Oprah and The Color Purple Journey

In 1985, Oprah Winfrey (now 69) portrayed the boldly unbent character Sofia in the Steven Spielberg-directed version of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (also coming to Max, Dec. 1). The role netted the talk-show titan her first Oscar nomination and launched her movie career. Winfrey continues to repay that debt: producing the Broadway musical, its revival and now a film version of the musical opening on Christmas Day. Peek behind the scenes with this documentary on the latest phase of this enduring work.

Coming Dec. 30

Time Bomb Y2K

Prince’s appeal “to party like it’s 1999” took on a darker vibe as New Year’s Eve 1999 approached. In a winkingly perfect world, Max would begin showing this documentary about the madness that swirled around the Y2K bug on Dec. 31 — but Dec. 30 is close enough. Directors Brian Becker and Marley McDonald have assembled an entertaining, thought-provoking look back with archival footage likely to make you feel your age.

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