The 50 Best Character-Driven Movies to Watch Now

The 50 Best Character-Driven Movies to Watch Now

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Great films don’t require great characters at their center; sometimes an evocative audiovisual experience is all you need. Which is why it still feels like a minor miracle when a film can create a compelling, fully-realized person within an average span of 90 minutes to two hours. Through smart, efficient writing and performances that bring out complex humanity from what’s written on the page, great film characters often become the prism through which a movie’s ideas are explored. So if you enjoy watching people both unique and ordinary grapple with the myriad conflicts that movies can bring, we’ve prepared a list of 50 high-quality but under-seen films with strong characters driving them forward.

30. Vortex (2021)

best

8.6

Country

Belgium, France

Director

Gaspar Noé

Actors

Alex Lutz, Corinne Bruand, Dario Argento, Françoise Lebrun

Moods

Challenging, Character-driven, Dark

Vortex, Gaspar Noé’s haunting exploration of death and dementia, begins with a dedication: “to all those whose brains will decompose before their hearts.” The statement sets the heartwrenching tone of the film, which follows an elderly couple—one with dementia and the other with a heart ailment—during their last days together. Noé cleverly depicts all this in a split-screen design, which evokes the fractured pattern of old-age thought. 

Noé’s mother struggled with dementia, and Noé’ himself suffered from a brain hemorrhage that nearly killed him, so Vortex is clearly a personal film. But even without knowing this, Vortex feels effortlessly dear and deeply intimate, like it could’ve only been done by a person with a first-hand experience of this tragedy. At once personal and universal, Vortex is a haunting and inventive ode to love, death, and everything in between.

29. Happening (2021)

best

8.6

Country

France

Director

Audrey Diwan, Female director

Actors

Alice de Lencquesaing, Anamaria Vartolomei, Anna Mouglalis, Cyril Metzger

Moods

Challenging, Character-driven, Dark

It’s heartbreaking to realize that Happening, a film set in 1960s France tracking a young woman’s journey to dangerously and desperately terminating her pregnancy, is still very much relevant and relatable to this day. Around the world, abortion is still inaccessible, if not completely illegal, and women still struggle to lay full claim to their bodies. A lot of girls grow up with pregnancy statistics meant to instill fear, but Happening brings all that to brilliant life in intimate and unrestrained detail. The fears and wants of our protagonist Anne (played precisely by Anamaria Vartolomei) are palpable throughout. Nothing is held back in this film, and if you find yourself sick in parts, then it has achieved its goal of realistically conveying what it’s like to stay alive in a society that fails to recognize your needs. 

 

28. A Sun (2019)

best

8.6

Country

Taiwan

Director

Chung Mong-hong, Mong-Hong Chung

Actors

Apple Wu, Chang Han, Chen Yi-wen, Chen Yiwen

Moods

Character-driven, Dark, Depressing

In The Sun, a family of four is dealt with tragedy after tragedy, beginning with the younger sun A-ho’s sudden incarceration. The mother is sympathetic but the father all but shuns him as he chooses to throw all his affection to A-hao, the older brother, and his med school pursuits instead. Themes of crime, punishment, family, and redemption are then explored in gorgeous frames and mesmerizing colors with director Chung Mong-hong doubling as the film’s cinematographer. 

Despite itself, The Sun never falls into cliche melodrama territory. Its heavy themes are undercut by naturalistic acting and poetic shots, resulting in a deeply emotional but balanced film. Rich in meaning and beauty, The Sun will surely stay with you long after your first watch.

 

27. Oslo, August 31st (2011)

best

8.6

Country

Denmark, Norway, Sweden

Director

Joachim Trier

Actors

Aksel Thanke, Anders Borchgrevink, Anders Danielsen Lie, Hans Olav Brenner

Moods

Character-driven, Discussion-sparking, Dramatic

This masterpiece from Norwegian director Joachim Trier is a clear-eyed movie that takes place in one day in the life of a 34-year-old. Anders, a recovering drug addict, gets to leave his rehab facility for the first time to take a job interview. He visits friends, tries to meet his ex, and goes to the interview. With every interaction, you get to know him more and understand that what he’s going through is shared with everyone he meets. At 34, Anders feels it is too late to turn his life around, and so do his friends. He just happens to be a drug addict.

26. Leave No Trace (2018)

best

8.6

Country

Canada, United States of America

Director

Debra Granik, Female director

Actors

Alyssa McKay, Ayanna Berkshire, Ben Foster, Dale Dickey

Moods

Character-driven, Touching, Well-acted

Leave No Trace is the amazing new movie from the director of Winter’s Bone, Debra Granik. It’s the story of a father and his daughter who live completely off the grid in a national park in Portland, and their quiet quest to not be separated and remain off the grid. It’s not the sensational, tear-jerker story that you’d expect something with this premise to be. Rather, and like Winter’s Bone, it chooses a humane and realistic approach to the subject matter. The decision to live outside society is almost irrelevant to this movie. More so, its inevitability for certain people with certain mindsets is what is interesting. A stunningly quiet movie, really well-acted too.

25. Nightcrawler (2014)

best

8.6

Country

United States of America

Director

Dan Gilroy

Actors

Alex Ortiz, Ann Cusack, Bill Blair, Bill Paxton

Moods

A-list actors, Challenging, Character-driven

The film stars Jake Gyllenhaal as Lou Bloom, an impromptu freelance videographer who begins covering the crime world in LA for a local TV station. Almost as dark as a mystery can get, it is disturbing, and plays out as a combination of “Drive” and “The Network”.

The film is visually stunning as well as immensely suspenseful. It then becomes almost impossible to look away, even when you’re the most horrified by just how far Bloom is willing to go to reach success. Gyllenhaal’s performance is widely compared to that of Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver, which should give you an idea of its caliber.

24. Boys State (2020)

best

8.7

Country

United States of America

Director

Amanda McBaine, Female director

Moods

Character-driven, Discussion-sparking, Emotional

What starts out as as a summer camp of teenage boys not taking anything seriously grows into a rousing portrait of their hopes and dreams for the future. You wouldn’t expect a documentary like this—shot like a reality TV show—to carry so much weight, but Boys State knows how to unearth the values that drive each of its incredibly well-rounded characters. So by the time these young men have assembled their mock governments and are casting their votes, it feels like the spirit of an entire generation is on the line. This is powerful, entertaining, and ultimately tear-jerking filmmaking that shows us how much work we still have to do and how much hope there still is.

23. Maborosi (1995)

best

8.8

Country

Japan

Director

Hirokazu Kore-eda

Actors

Akira Emoto, Hidekazu Akai, Hiromi Ichida, Makiko Esumi

Moods

Character-driven, Depressing, Emotional

Director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s feature debut is nothing short of a masterpiece, his style of serenity apparent from the get-go. With Kore-eda’s still frames and touching, relatable stories, it’s almost impossible not to find yourself caring for his characters like they are your own family. 

In Maborosi, Yumiko (Makiko Esumi) is haunted by one loss after another and struggles to accept these tragedies and move on with her life. Her story is probably the toughest Kore-eda has had to tell, yet there is still a certain beauty to it, especially in its quietness and moody atmosphere. Not forcing any of his characters’ feelings on the audience, Kore-eda manages to tell a harrowing tale in the gentlest of ways.

22. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009)

best

8.8

Country

Denmark, Germany, Norway

Director

Niels Arden Oplev

Actors

Alexandra Pascalidou, Annika Hallin, Barbro Enberg, Bjorn Granath

Moods

Character-driven, Smart, Suspenseful

The original Swedish mystery thriller that was later remade by David Fincher. It’s the same story of a wealthy man hiring a journalist and scrappy hacker to solver a murder, but told better. This version is slower, has more attention to detail and pace. In casting, authenticity triumphs over good looks. In staging, aesthetics are given as much importance as thrills. And in the story, intelligence wins over plot. This gives the main character of Lisbeth Salander (played by Noomi Rapace) better space to deploy her full mysticism and enigmatic nature. Danish director Niels Arden Oplev masterfully brings everything together to make for a movie that will forever be remembered.

21. Philomena (2013)

best

8.8

Country

France, UK, United Kingdom

Director

Stephen Frears

Actors

Amber Batty, Anna Maxwell Martin, Barbara Jefford, Cathy Belton

Moods

Character-driven, Feel-Good, Heart-warming

An inspired by true events tale about an elderly Irish woman trying to find the child she was forced to give up many years earlier. Steve Coogan co-wrote the script and, though the base story is a tragic one, his special brand of very subtle, wry wit is apparent in the dialogue throughout. Judi Dench plays the mother who had kept her “sinful” past a secret for fifty years and, being Judi Dench, I don’t need to bother going on about her exemplary talent, suffice to say she’s charming beyond measure in the role. Steven Frears directs, as usual, deftly, and keeps the story compelling scene after scene, intensifying the emotions inherent to each, whether they be heart-warming, comedic, or outright enraging. Whoever decided to let Steve Coogan have his way with the script, it was a brave and wise choice and together this cast and crew have produced a wonderful and important piece of cinema.

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