The 50 Best Character-Driven Movies to Watch Now

The 50 Best Character-Driven Movies to Watch Now

May 4, 2024

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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.

21. Inu-oh (2021)

best

9.0

Country

Japan

Director

Masaaki Yuasa

Actors

Avu-chan, Chikara Honda, Gota Ishida, Haruki Nakagawa

Moods

Character-driven, Gripping, Mind-blowing

Inu-oh is a visually stunning and thought-provoking anime that reimagines a Japanese folk tale as it explores themes of artistic freedom, individuality, and the consequences of challenging societal norms. The movie’s striking imagery, original music, and captivating story make it a memorable viewing experience, delving into issues of identity and the prejudices faced by disabled individuals with sensitivity. While the catchy music may not appeal to everyone, the film’s unique blend of ancient and contemporary storytelling creates a creative triumph that anime fans will appreciate, offering social commentary and a reflection on the power of staying true to oneself.

22. Nightmare Alley (2021)

best

9.0

Country

United States of America

Director

Guillermo del Toro

Actors

Bill MacDonald, Bradley Cooper, Caleb Ellsworth-Clark, Calvin Desautels

Moods

A-list actors, Character-driven, Dark

Wise, superbly acted, and gorgeously put together, all of these apply to Nightmare Alley. In a world where remakes are more in vogue than needed, Guillermo del Toro shows us how it’s done. A sumptuous tale of a man’s rise and fall guarantees some spectatorial pleasure, but having both Bradley Cooper and Cate Blanchett in the same film (plus unsung genius Toni Collette and all-round-favorite Willem Dafoe) pushes us into talent overload, in the best possible way. In addition to its thrilling plot and studded cast, Nightmare Alley is also psychologically literate enough to make a carnival out of the human soul. It’s no surprise that in 2022, it got four Oscar nominations, including Best Picture where it certainly would have had my vote.

23. BPM

best

8.9

Country

France

Director

Robin Campillo

Actors

Adèle Haenel, Aloïse Sauvage, Antoine Reinartz, Arnaud Valois

Moods

Character-driven, Instructive, True-story-based

Autobiographical in nature, 120 BPM is French screenwriter Robin Campillo’s first feature film. It revolves around the Parisian chapter of the AIDS advocacy group ACT UP, which Campillo was a member of in the early 1990s, and the love between Nathan, the group’s newest member, who is HIV negative, and Sean, one of its founding and more radical members, who is positive and suffers the consequences of contracting AIDS. Using fake blood and spectacular direct action, ACT UP advocated more and better research of treatment, prevention, and awareness. This was at a time when many, implicitly or explicitly, viewed AIDS as a gay disease, even as a punishment for the gay community’s propensity to pleasure and partying. The latter is reflected by the film’s title, 120 bpm being the average number of beats per minute of a house track. Arnaud Rebotini’s original score echoes the ecstasy-driven house music hedonism of the time with some effective original cuts, albeit with a melancholic streak. Because, for all the love, friendship, and emotion of the ACT UP crew that BPM so passionately portrays, anger and sadness pervade the lives of these young people as the lack of effective treatment threatens to claim the lives of their loved ones.

24. Drive My Car (2021)

best

8.9

Country

Germany, Japan

Director

Ryusuke Hamaguchi

Actors

Ahn Hwi-tae, Ahn Hwitae, Hidetoshi Nishijima, Hiroko Matsuda

Moods

Character-driven, Dramatic, Slow

In Drive My Car, a widowed artist travels to Hiroshima for his latest production. There he meets a young woman enlisted to drive him around the area. They forge an unexpected bond and soon share pithy observations and long-buried secrets, which culminate in a touching scene of catharsis and forgiveness.

Not a lot is said in this three-hour film, but when words (and signals) are shared, they are always underlaid with simple but transcendent truths. Drive My Car is a gripping film that explores love and loss in its own quiet way, at once intense and intimate.

25. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (2021)

best

8.9

Country

Japan

Director

Ryusuke Hamaguchi

Actors

Aoba Kawai, Aoba Kawai 河井清叶, Ayumu Nakajima, Fusako Urabe

Moods

Character-driven, Emotional, Lovely

From Drive My Car director Ryusuke Hamaguchi comes another film featuring long drives, thoughtful talks, and unexpected twists. An anthology of three short stories, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy ponders over ideas of love, fate, and the all-too-vexing question, “what if?” 

What if you didn’t run away from the one you love? What if you didn’t give in to lust that fateful day? What if, right then and there, you decide to finally forgive?

Big questions, but without sacrificing depth, Hamaguchi does the incredible task of making every single second feel light and meaningful. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy will leave you with mixed emotions: excited, startled, dejected, hopeful. But one thing you won’t feel is regret over watching this instant classic of a film.

26. Thirst (2009)

best

8.9

Country

South Korea, United States of America

Director

Chan-wook Park, Park Chan-wook

Actors

Choi Hee-jin, Choi Hui-jin, Choi Jong-ryul, Ériq Ebouaney

Moods

Character-driven, Dark, Gripping

A thirst for love, a thirst for recognition, a thirst for sympathy, a thirst for meaning, a thirst for life, and a thirst for blood. Director Park Chan-wook and actor Song Kang-ho, two of the biggest names in South Korean cinema, join forces for the first time in a modern take on the supernatural. In present day South Korea, Catholic priest Sang-hyun (Song) volunteers himself as a human experiment during the formulation of a vaccine against a deadly virus. When the experiment fails and he is thought to be dead, he resurrects as a conflicted vampire, one whose moral code continually goes against his intrinsic desires. Along with Song and long-time collaborator cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon, Park creates a riveting atmosphere that is both very scary and sad. By blending elements of horror and drama, he also achieves putting a fresh and unique spin on the time-honored vampire film.

27. Osama (2003)

best

8.9

Country

Afghanistan, Iran, Ireland

Director

Siddiq Barmak

Actors

Arif Herati, Malik Akhlaqi, Marina Golbahari, Zabih ullah Frotan

Moods

Character-driven, Depressing, Discussion-sparking

It has become increasingly rare to find films made in Afghanistan, so when a movie like Osama comes along, it becomes nothing short of essential viewing. This is a profoundly depressing but beautifully crafted story of a young girl made to look like a boy so as to go unnoticed by Taliban forces while trying to help her family. It’s a simple film wherein this character’s budding awareness of her girlhood is set against a terrifying backdrop of violence, abuse, and fundamentalist extremism—all of which director Siddiq Barmak keeps off the screen.

Barmak knows exactly what to point his camera at, covering multiple angles of life in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan without calling attention to himself, and still finding ways to show the smallest shreds of sympathy and support hiding within this society. And in the lead role, a teenage Marina Golbahari delivers a towering, heartbreaking performance that never registers as anything but authentic. The fear that she embodies is almost too real to watch without becoming afraid yourself. Osama is incredibly difficult viewing, but it’s a truly valuable work of art that deserves to be preserved.

28. Judas and the Black Messiah (2021)

best

8.9

Country

Canada, United States of America

Director

Shaka King

Actors

Algee Smith, Amari Cheatom, Amber Chardae Robinson, Ashton Sanders

Moods

A-list actors, Character-driven, Discussion-sparking

One of the most thrilling biographical films to come out of Hollywood in the 2020s, Shaka King’s exhilarating take on a truly remarkable leader within the Black Panther Party—and the young man who would eventually be twisted into betraying him—also provides a respectful, honest space to voice out progressive views that still aren’t fully embraced in the United States. Much of the film is made up of beautiful, powerful rhetoric, contrasting in fascinating ways with scenes of violence or deception that only remind us how ahead-of-his-time chairman Fred Hampton was and still is. And in a thunderous, Oscar-winning performance, Daniel Kaluuya brings all of Hampton’s words roaring to life while still reminding us of how tragically young this inspirational figure was at the time of his death.

But Judas and the Black Messiah tells an equally powerful second story over this one: that of FBI informant William O’Neal who reluctantly agrees to sell Hampton to the feds, and quickly realizes that he’s been scammed too. Rivaling—and, arguably, besting—Kaluuya’s performance is LaKeith Stanfield, whose tortured and increasingly despairing performance as O’Neal is the stuff of pure Shakespearean drama. Together, both stories ask us what real freedom looks like, and that we believe we can still fight for it.

29. Licorice Pizza (2021)

best

8.9

Country

Canada, United States of America

Director

Paul Thomas Anderson

Actors

Adam Somner, AJ Carr, Alana Haim, Alex Canter

Moods

Character-driven, Emotional, Funny

Poignant, delightful, and simply gorgeous, Licorice Pizza just might be Paul Thomas Anderson’s best work to date. The period dramedy follows two young people, one in her 20s and one in his teens, as they strike an unlikely but lovely friendship and try to find their place in the world. They may be 10 years apart, but they’re stuck in the same swirl of rejection and confusion that trap a lot of ambitious people like them. The premise is far from original, but Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman turn in captivating performances (made even more impressive by the fact that this is both their film debut). There is an ease and naturalism to both their chemistry and onscreen performances that’s hard not to love.

The thick and wistful patina of the ‘70s, the comedic asides, and the colorful supporting cast all also help paint an overall charming picture that shouldn’t be missed.

30. The Green Ray (1986)

best

8.9

Country

France

Director

Éric Rohmer

Actors

Béatrice Romand, Carita Holmström, María Luisa García, Marie Rivière

Moods

Character-driven, Discussion-sparking, Thought-provoking

Éric Rohmer’s The Green Ray is the kind of film that you come away from being more honest with yourself. That effect is thanks to the contagious directness of its protagonist: Delphine (Marie Rivière), a newly single young French woman whose summer vacation plans have just been unceremoniously upturned after the friend she was going away with takes off with a man instead. Now at a loose end, the indecisive Delphine meanders between her home in Paris and several gorgeous holiday spots, but that old saying — “wherever you go, there you are” — proves true. Neither the beaches of Cherbourg and Biarritz nor the lofty beauty of an Alps resort can soothe her restlessness or give her what she’s looking for, probably because she doesn’t quite know what that is herself.

Delphine’s is an achingly familiar search for anyone who’s ever felt like they’ve drifted off of life’s path, but blessedly, the conversation-driven Green Ray doesn’t leave us wallowing in that despair. That’s partly thanks to its final moments — which rank among cinema’s most stunning — but mostly because Rivière, who improvised much of her incisive dialogue, puts into words things that so many have felt but few would admit. In that sense, The Green Ray feels as much like a miracle as its last shot does.

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