An epic guide for movie lovers who have mixed feelings about movie theaters
Best Streaming Services for Movie Lovers
I'm a bit of a couch grouch when it comes to watching movies. I love movies but have mixed feelings about the movie theater experience.
It's 2023 and I can finally admit that I really do prefer to stream movies from the comfort of my smart home rather than drive a few miles to sit in the dark with strangers.
Even if luxury recliners are involved. Maybe especially if luxury recliners are involved—they can be sweaty and sticky in the summer, and even at their best, a comfy chair in dim lighting can knock me out faster than a couple Benadryl.
And recent trends in movie ticket sales tell me I'm not alone.
Movie ticket sales have been declining for decades
The Numbers, an independent research firm tracking movie ticket and box office data since 1995, reports that 721.3 million movie tickets were sold in 2022. According to the same data, 2023 is pacing towards roughly 867.9 million tickets sold.
That might sound like an upward trend towards a return to normalcy for movie theaters, but it's only a fraction of 2002 (the peak of movie ticket sales since 1995), when there were 1.6 billion—yes, with a B!—movie tickets sold.
So while movie ticket sales might be rebounding from the COVID years of 2020–22, it does look like fewer people are going to the movies overall in the present era than ever before.
The Numbers's data show that movie ticket sales were already dwindling for years before COVID, and I suspect the rise of smart home technology—streaming in particular—has something to do with it.
The competitive reality facing movie theaters today is different than it was in 2002.
- Consumers can choose from more streaming services than ever before. According to Reviews.org's research on streaming habits, some would say there are too many streaming services.
- High-definition TVs are bigger and cheaper than ever before. The latest research from NPD's TV Ownership Report shows that a 50-inch UHD television is rapidly becoming the household standard since the pandemic.
- High-speed internet is widespread and consistently fast enough (if you're willing to pay for it) to deliver HD content to HD devices both in terms of quality and quantity like never before.
Throw in the ability to hit Pause at will and choose your own snacks without going into debt, and theaters have a lot to compete with these days.
The 3 tiers of streaming services for movie lovers
To make it easier for fellow movie-lovers to pick and choose streaming services, I've grouped my recommendations using a pyramid or tier structure.
- At the base of the pyramid are the must-have streaming services for movie lovers. For my money, that tier includes Max (formerly HBO Max), Disney+, Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime Video.
- The middle tier of the pyramid are the nice-to-have streaming services for movie lovers. I put Peacock, Paramount+, and Apple TV+ in this tier.
- And lastly, at the tippy-top of the pyramid we have the experts-only streaming services for movie lovers, which includes The Criterion Channel for art house and international cinema nerds and Shudder/AMC+ for the ghouls who can't get enough horror movies.
Must-have streaming services for movie lovers
These are the essential streaming services that every movie lover will want to subscribe to. These are all familiar, household brands at this point. That's why they make up the base of our pyramid.
Max (formerly HBO Max): The streaming service no movie lover can live without
If you want just one streaming service to feed your cinephilia, we recommend Max, which is the new name for HBO Max as of May 23, 2023.
HBO stands for Home Box Office, and while HBO may no longer be in the name, Max really delivers on HBO's history by offering the most reliable catalog of quality films from the past and the present while catering to the broadest range of audiences in terms of age and genres.
Whatever your age or interests are, there will be a movie for you on Max. That's why when I'm in the mood for a movie I haven't seen before, I almost always start with Max first.
Max's biggest edge might be its selection of new and prestige movies. If you're waiting for the latest blockbuster to appear on a streaming service, chances are it's going to be on Max.
Max includes a variety of hubs, and I think movie lovers will especially want to check out the Turner Classic Movies (TCM) hub. Like its name suggests, TCM provides a rotating lineup of films that are universally regarded as classics. This is where you'll find your film noirs, musicals, and westerns, even some silent movies, but it's also the hub for newer classics like The Da Vinci Code. (Yes, The Da Vinci Code is considered a classic, and that doesn't make me feel old AT ALL.)
Max is also the Batcave of streaming services—it's the digital home of Batman and the rest of the DC Extended Universe. While recent DC movies like Joker, Justice League, and The Batman have rightfully earned a reputation for a more adult-focused approach to superhero movies, it's worth remembering that DC has a substantial catalog of kid-friendly animated movies too.
Prices and plans
Max offers three plans that price out pretty closely to Netflix's:
- $9.99 a month or $99 a year for ad-supported Max Ad Light
- $15.99 or $149.99 for Max Ad Free (two concurrent streams)
- $19.99 or $199.99 for Max Ultimate Ad Free (four concurrent streams)
I'll be going with Max Ad Free because I don't need all the extra concurrent streams.
If you've got a family full of divergent tastes, you might need the Ultimate plan to ensure everyone can watch what they want when they want to.
Pro tip: Before subscribing, check to see if you already have Max
But before you sign up for a new Max subscription, you should check to see if you already have access through your cable provider or another service that includes it.
Their website lists these main service providers who include free Max access with certain plans:
If you are a subscriber of one of the services above, double-check with them to see if you get Max as part of your package.
There are lots of other ways you might already have access Max without signing up for a subscription. Check out this complete list of Max providers from the Max help center to learn more.
Disney Plus: Best cinematic universes in the entire world
On Disney+, you'll find Disney movies, Pixar movies, Star Wars movies, Marvel movies, and Muppet movies. Those are pretty much the main cultural pillars of modern American society, which makes Disney+'s movie catalog "impressive … most impressive," to quote the Sith lord formerly known as Anakin Skywalker.
If you picked just one streaming service for movies, Disney+ would be a solid choice simply because of these five mega franchises.
In fact, if the majority of your household movie lovers are actually minors, then we might recommend Disney+ over Max as the top choice.
But its greatest strength could also be its greatest drawback. Outside of these five cinematic universes, there just aren't a lot of great movie options in the Disney+ catalog. You'll need to switch over to its sibling service Hulu if you want a more diverse selection of films.
That's why I'm excited about Bob Iger's plan to move Hulu content into Disney+.
Prices and plans
Disney+ costs $7.99–$13.99 a month or $139.99 for a year, and we think the Disney+, Hulu, and ESPN+ bundle is one of the best streaming deals out there.
Netflix: Incredible line-up of exclusive Originals
Netflix offers a solid library of quality movies from a variety of time periods and for a broad range of tastes. Familiar classics, recent hits, award-winners from the US and overseas. Big-budget studio films and out-of-the-way indie gems. There's a reason why Netflix subscribers rarely cancel. Throw in all the outstanding TV shows, and there's simply too much good stuff in one place to go without Netflix.
Beyond the basic library of movies, however, Netflix Originals are how the streaming giant really stands apart from the movie theater.
True, some of the most prestigious films, like Roma or Mank, play for a short time in theaters. But Netflix's goal is to get you to log hours screening movies on Netflix, not in the theater (stack those monthly users, baby!), so it's trying to build an advantage against theaters with a crop of films that simply can't be found there.
Netflix Originals have brought us a little bit of everything, including the following exclusives:
- The Irishman: Not sure how I feel about this movie. The de-aging technology is … unsettling. But Scorsese movies are like pizza—even when they're bad they're good.
- The Stranger: An eerie cat-and-mouse thriller set in Australia. Joel Edgerton and the creepy underbelly of the Land Down Under have gone hand in hand in my mind ever since Animal Kingdom. Netflix also has The King, a medieval epic that reunites the Animal Kingdom brain trust with Michod directing, Edgerton co-writing and starring in the Falstaff role, and some dweeb named Timothee Chalamet as the titular king.
- A bevy of popcorn action movies like The Gray Man, Red Notice, Spiderhead, Extraction, and the upcoming Extraction 2, featuring a variety of Hollywood's most eligible Chrises and Ryans.
- The Old Guard: A hidden gem starring Charlize Theron riffing on the demigod-as-superhero theme in a world that's pleasantly far, far away from the main comic book scene.
Forming a popular subgenre of the Netflix Original, Netflix is the primary streaming home of Adam Sandler movies. You can mock them, you can call them lowbrow, but you can't say Adam Sandler's movies aren't fun.
I recently watched Murder Mystery 2, and hot take alert: I think it's more fun than Glass Onion (also on Netflix!), the sequel to the insanely popular Knives Out. Murder Mystery 2 is almost like Glass Onion's looser, goofy cousin. And Murder Mystery 2 is better than the first Murder Mystery, so it's kind of like The Godfather Part 2 of Adam Sandler movies that way.
Oh, and there's a slew of family-friendly movies to choose from, too, for those rare nights when everyone gets together to watch the same, one screen.
Prices and plans
Netflix pricing has been the source of much consumer agita because the formerly never-ads streamer finally caved to market pressure and started offering an ad-supported tier.
I'm on the Netflix Premium Plan for $23.99 a month. I picked that plan because it gives me the right mix of no ads, HD streaming, and simultaneous streams for when family comes to visit and nobody can agree on a movie to watch.
Hulu: Brings that old-school video shop vibe
We spend so much time talking about Hulu in the context of TV series, live TV, and live sports, but I admit that I was sleeping on Hulu's movie selection until I started researching the first version of this article.
When I started poking around Hulu's movie library, it gave me a real sense of nostalgia for the old-school video shop experience. Like a Blockbuster Video, the movie selection here is vast but very mainstream. Hulu stocks crowd-pleasers, eminently rewatchable movies. Everything boasts bright packaging and familiar stars.
The first thing I noticed (and liked) was the number of movies available. That's key for movie lovers—we've seen a lot of movies already, so we need a broad selection to make a streaming service worth it.
The next thing I noticed was the breadth and depth of the library. Like Max, there are movies for every age range and from every genre. If you're looking to watch movies with the whole family, Hulu has plenty to choose from.
Hulu is the streaming home of 20th Century Fox Studios, so you'll see a fair amount of prestige films in the mix here too. Of course, that means a lot of Oscar-worthy fare:
- Slumdog Millionaire
- Black Swan
- Little Miss Sunshine
- The Shape of Water
So if there are so many great movies on Hulu, why didn't I put this at the top of the list?
Well, the blockbusters are a wee bit lackluster. They feel like the kinds of movies I used to see in actual video shops back in the day.
The major franchises you'll find on Hulu are Alien, Predator, and Die Hard. I grew up in the '80s, so I love those movies, but it remains to be seen if they remain relevant with today's crowd.
Hulu really shines if you like offbeat, indie comedies like Palm Springs or Fire Island. If those sound like your jam, then Hulu's Original films might be right up your alley. These are the types of mid- to low-budget comedies that we rarely see in the theaters anymore.
Prices and plans
Hulu has two plans, and the difference is ads or no ads—Basic has limited ads and Premium has zero ads.
If you're watching a movie, the ad experience is pretty mild—usually just 120 seconds before the film starts. Sadly, no previews.
Just bear that ad experience in mind when considering that the Basic Plan is just $7 per month and Hulu Premium is $12.99 per month.
Amazon Prime Video: Originals not quite as good as Netflix's
Amazon Prime Video is one of the world's largest online stores of digital media. You can buy or rent pretty much every movie from Amazon. The best movies, the worst movies—Amazon has it all. Have you heard of it? Kidding.
If we're going to talk about Amazon in the context of streaming for movie lovers, then we should really focus on Amazon Originals. And if we're talking Amazon Originals, it's hard not to compare them directly to Netflix Originals.
Amazon might have more movies, but not necessarily better movies than Netflix.
Because in this movie lover's opinion, Amazon Originals can't quite compete with Netflix's. Amazon Originals are good, but I wouldn't call them great. They're, I don't know, fine?
Chris Pine was fine in the spy thriller All the Old Knives. One of those other Chrises was fine in the sci-fi mindbender The Tomorrow War. Adam Driver was sufficiently dramatic in The
Torture Report. Amazon even tried its hand at the non-Marvel/DC superhero game with The Samaritan, starring Sylvester Stallone, and it was … (wait for it) … fine.
My favorite Amazon movie of the year so far has to be Air. It's a really enjoyable movie that manages to be fun and even dramatically suspenseful even though we all know that the positive and very lucrative outcome for everybody is assured from the outset. Should Amazon be concerned that its best original movie in recent memory is the biography of a shoe? I think they'll be fine.
But I'd take Netflix over Amazon in a head-to-head matchup for the best movies.
Prices and plans
The easiest way to get Amazon Prime Video is to subscribe to Amazon Prime, which includes Prime Video as part of the price.
While the exact number of Amazon Prime subscribers is not known, reliable estimates usually peg it around 60% of the US adult population. That means more than half of you reading this article are probably already subscribed to Prime Video. Which is a bit bonkers.
But this is the moment when I have to out myself as a non-Prime member. Listen, my Amazon abstention is complicated, so let's not get bogged down in the intracacies of my personal consumer ethos.
What's important is that I can attest first-hand that you can subscribe to Amazon Prime Video as a standalone service without a full-on Amazon Prime subscription for just $8.99 a month. So now we all know that's how much it costs to buy my soul.
Nice-to-have streaming services for movie lovers
So you've mastered the must-have tier and you're ready to level up? This next group of nice-to-have streaming services are better known for their TV show lineups and live sports, but there are some hidden gems here for movie lovers too.
Peacock: Great for those who love sports and movies equally
Peacock offers a lot of the breadth and depth of selection that movie lovers look for. In that regard, it's like Max or Hulu from the must-have tier. There is something for everyone here, and that goes for kids too.
Peacock is the streaming home of Universal films, so if you're a blockbuster hunter, then there are two T Rexes here: the Jurassic Park (now World) and The Fast and the Furious properties live on Peacock. But you'll need to pony up for a premium plan to stream the newest releases.
Universal is streaming its new films on Peacock 45 days after the theatrical release (again, you'll need the Premium Plus plan to watch them).
If you are willing to pay for the Premium Plus plan, the exclusive movie offerings are worth it. Here are a few of the movies currently streaming exclusively on Peacock:
- Cocaine Bear
- Knock at the Cabin
- Puss in Boots: The Last Wish
- Megan (theatrical and unrated versions)
- Armageddon Time
That covers a pretty broad range of tastes from action-comedy to children's animation to prestige cinema.
In addition to its killer TV shows like Poker Face, the impressive selection of new movies fresh from the theaters is why Peacock should appeal to movie lovers.
Prices and plans
Peacock comes in two plans: Peacock Premium Monthly ($5.99/mo.), and Peacock Premium Plus ($11.99/mo.).
I'm subscribed to Premium Plus, so I can access the greatest amount of content without ads.
If you love sports as much as you love movies, then it's a no-brainer subscription because you get access to Football Night in America for NFL games, plus a bunch of WWE, soccer, and motorsports.
Paramount Plus: Best with Showtime included
Paramount+, which used to be known as the CBS All Access streaming service, is ramping up its content offerings, but it already has a pretty stellar stable of movies to watch.
The Paramount back catalog includes crown jewels like the Indiana Jones and Star Trek franchises and most of Martin Scorsese's films. Paramount+ will also be the streaming home for new Paramount productions like Top Gun: Maverick and the fifth Indiana Jones film.
When I wrote this article in 2022, Paramount+ was pretty new, and I called it a streaming service that movie lovers should keep their eye on. Looking at it in 2023, I'd say I was right!
Paramount+ has a pretty solid lineup of new releases right now, including the latest Scream and, best of all, Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, which is easily one of my favorite movies of the year.
And it's the exclusive home of 80 for Brady, if that's your sort of thing. (I'm not judging you—you're judging you.)
There are two tiers for Paramount+, both of which can be enhanced with the Showtime add-on.
I'm on the Premium + With Showtime plan for $11.99 a month because it gives me maximum access to the latest movies with no ads.
And I really, really need Showtime because I can't imagine life without Yellowjackets.
Apple TV Plus: Limited options for movie lovers
Like Amazon, Apple TV+ hasn't quite figured out Netflix's recipe for consistently delivering great original movies.
They definitely can book the big names, though. Tom Hanks, Will Smith, Zac Efron, Chris Evans, Ana de Armas—they've all done star turns for Apple TV+ original movies, but I can't say any of the flicks themselves were truly great. The exception is, of course, the Oscar-winning movie CODA, a remarkably poignant film about the deaf community that took home three Academy Awards a couple years ago.
The reality is Apple TV+ has better TV shows but not the best movies.
In fact, when it comes to watching movies, my favorite thing about the Apple TV+ app doesn't require a subscription at all. It's the ability to add movies from a variety of streaming services to my Up Next queue.
Prices and plans
I pay $6.99 a month for my Apple TV+ subscription, but I've also been able to score some free months whenever I've bought an Apple device.
Apple TV Plus doesn't cost a lot, so I'm willing to carry it month to month, if only out of professional interest.
But if I had to start cutting streaming subscriptions, Apple TV+ would probably be at the top of the list to eliminate.
Experts-only streaming services for movie lovers
To borrow skiing terminology, this is the black diamond run for streaming movies. You better know what you're signing up for with these services, otherwise you might get hurt. OK, that might be a bit dramatic, but so are the movies you'll find on these next streaming services.
The Criterion Channel: Best for aspiring directors
If you love world and art house movies—you know, the kind of films that coffee-guzzlers in black berets would call "cinema"—then you must check out the Criterion Channel. Though if you really do love movies, we suspect that you probably already know about Criterion.
For those who haven't heard about it, the Criterion catalog of films (known as the Criterion Collection among movie nerds) is … well, I'll let them describe it:
So, yeah—it's extensive.
It's probably my personal favorite streaming service for watching movies because it has everything you would need to watch to qualify for an advanced degree in film history. I especially love all the French and Japanese films. These are just a few of the world cinema classics that even casual movie lovers may have heard of:
- Seven Samurai
- Paris, Texas
- The Seventh Seal
- Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me
But it can be overwhelming. If we think of streaming services as ski runs, this one is definitely a black diamond—for experts only. That's why I put it at the bottom of the list—it's awesome as it is, it caters to a very specific taste.
Prices and plans
The Criterion Channel costs $10.99 per month or $99.99 for an annual subscription, which is actually quite the bargain when you consider that buying a single Criterion DVD will run you more than that. For example, the newly released 4K UHD edition of Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity is around $40 on its own!
Shudder: Best for those whose thirst for fake blood cannot be quenched
People who love horror movies really love horror movies. It's not just a like—it's a lifestyle.
Shudder caters to those who simply can't get enough stabbing and slaying and watching people make bad decisions that lead to more stabbing and slaying.
Not only does Shudder have a massive collection of horror movies, new horror movies premiere weekly. Not just Halloween weekly—every week.
That's why we call Shudder an experts-only streaming service. It's definitely not for the casual horror movie fan, and certainly not for the faint of heart.
If you want to know more about it, we have an in-depth review of Shudder here.
One cool feature of Shudder's library is that it claims to be all curated, meaning the movies are selected by real humans, not an algorithm. Or ghosts.
Prices and plans
You can get Shudder on its own for a monthly price of $5.99 or an annual price of $56.99 (or $4.75 a month). Shudder has a free 7-day trial if you want to scope it out first.
You can also get Shudder as part of the AMC+ package, which is available as a channel via Apple TV or Roku. AMC+ costs $8.99 a month, and includes all the AMC content, Shudder, and the IFC and Sundance Channels (which means even more movies!).
I recommend the AMC+ approach because the additional content is well worth the few extra bucks a month. Just think of all the great TV shows from AMC—Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul, The Walking Dead universe—and the extra movies from Sundance and IFC.
So unless all you care about is scary movies (in which case, RU OK?), spend a few more dollars and go with AMC+ over Shudder as a standalone service.
Choosing a device for streaming movies
All of the streaming services I've discussed in this article are available on the most popular streaming devices—Apple TV, Roku, and Amazon Fire. Many of them are even available through traditional cable TV and internet providers like Xfinity, Spectrum, and Cox.
Choosing which streaming device is best for movies comes down to a few factors based on how you've built your smart home.
I'm already so deep in the Apple ecosystem, I really had no choice but to go with an Apple TV box. I bought the 4K Apple TV even before I had a 4K TV because I knew eventually I would have to upgrade.
So while I'm an Apple TV guy, if I were starting from scratch, I would strongly consider a Roku or Amazon Fire TV device.
To determine the best streaming services for movies, I relied on my experience because I've been streaming hundreds of movies on a bunch of different services and devices for many years. It's really that simple.
If it helps establish my stream cred (yeah, I just made up that term), let me lay some numbers on you.
- According to my Letterboxd statistics, I've watched and rated 596 movies since joining.
- If Letterboxd had existed my entire life, I'm sure that number would be larger. And that number represents only a fraction of the true total of movies I've streamed in my life.
- For 2023, I've watched 31 movies (and I still have a handful I haven't logged yet) for a total of 57.8 hours.
- Roughly 15% of those are new movies from this year.
- About 50% are movies I've seen before.
I have a near-mint VHS copy of Christmas Vacation on the desk where I wrote this very article, so you know my movie-loving skillz are on point.