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.

20. Thirst (2009)

best

8.9

Country

South Korea, United States of America

Director

Chan-wook Park, Park Chan-wook

Actors

Choi Hee-jin, Choi Jong-ryul, Ériq Ebouaney, Hwang Woo-seul-hye

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.

19. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (2021)

best

8.9

Country

Japan

Director

Ryusuke Hamaguchi

Actors

Aoba Kawai, Ayumu Nakajima, Fusako Urabe, Hyunri

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.

18. Drive My Car (2021)

best

8.9

Country

Japan

Director

Ryusuke Hamaguchi

Actors

Ahn Hwi-tae, Ahn Hwitae, Hidetoshi Nishijima, Jin Dae-yeon

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.

17. 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.

16. Aftersun (2022)

best

9.0

Country

Turkey, United Kingdom, United States of America

Director

Charlotte Wells, Female director

Actors

Celia Rowlson-Hall, Frankie Corio, Paul Mescal, Sally Messham

Moods

Character-driven, Dark, Depressing

In Aftersun, Sophie recalls a holiday she took as an eleven-year-old in the ‘90s with her father. Video recordings help jog her memory, but she’s looking for more than just a blast from the past. Rather, she seems to be seeking answers to fill in the gaps between who she knew as her father and who he really was: an immensely nice but deeply troubled man.

At first, Aftersun looks like a simple but beautiful story about father and daughter bonding over the course of a summer trip. But within minutes, it’s clear that there are layers to Aftersun, emotionally and editorially, that aren’t always explained but nonetheless enrich the movie with profound meaning. Stirring, complex, and surprisingly inventive, it’s not surprising that Aftersun is one of the most beloved films of the past year. 

15. A Brighter Summer Day (1991)

best

9.0

Country

South Korea, Taiwan

Director

Edward Yang

Actors

Alex Yang, Chang Chen, Chang Han, Chang Kuo-chu

Moods

Character-driven, Slice-of-Life, Sunday

At nearly four hours long, A Brighter Summer Day is a sprawling, beautifully composed film that follows young Xiao Si’r and his eventual entanglements in nearly everything, from love to youth gangs to politics. While parts of the story, particularly its bone-chilling climax, are based on true events, the film is largely reconstructed from Edward Yang’s memories of the era he grew up in. As a result, the visuals feel crisp and true, tinged with just the right amount of nostalgia to balance the grittiness of its realism. 

As coming-of-age films go, A Brighter Summer Day is certainly more on the tragic side. It’s also seminal in its specificity and depth—an absolute must-watch for any and all filmgoers. 

14. Fireworks Wednesday (2007)

9.0

Country

France, Iran, United States of America

Director

Asghar Farhadi

Actors

Behshad Sharifian, Hamid Farokhnezhad, Hamid Farrokhnejad, Hedie Tehrani

Moods

Character-driven, Dramatic, Emotional

There are two auteur directors that we recommend more than anyone else on this site. One is Hirokazu Koreeda, the Japanese master of intricate drama, the other is Asghar Farhadi. Mr. Farhadi is an Oscar-winning, Iranian filmmaker and one of the most recognisable directors out there. His third film, Fireworks Wednesdays, paved the way for him to become one of the hidden champions of international cinema. As is often the case with the stories he tells, the film portrays the life of a couple in turmoil, Mozhdeh and Morteza Samiei, played by Hedye Tehrani and Hamid Farokhnezhad. She suspects him of cheating on her with their neighbor, a beautician, and sends the maid, a soon-to-be bride named Roohi, to the salon to spy on her. When Roohi takes matters in her own hands, the couple can’t help but watch things spiraling out of control. This happens against the backdrop of Chaharshanbe Suri, an Iranian holiday celebrated with fireworks on the Wednesday before the Iranian New Year, hence the title. Will it make for an explosive ending? From what you have heard so far, this could easily be melodramatic, but Fahradi is too good. He’s very, very good.

13. Still Walking (2008)

best

9.0

Country

Japan

Director

Hirokazu Kore-eda, Hirokazu Koreeda

Actors

Haruko Kato, Hiroshi Abe, Hotaru Nomoto, Kazuya Takahashi

Moods

Character-driven, Discussion-sparking, Slice-of-Life

Koreeda is a master of the tender gaze. He deals so softly, elegantly, and emphatically with the characters in his films, it will make you feel like you’re watching life itself in all its complex, emotional splendor. Maybe this is particularly true for this movie because it has been inspired by Koreeda’s memories of his own childhood and the passing of his mother. Still Walking is a quietly toned movie spanning a period of 24 hours in the life of the Yokoyama family, as they gather to commemorate the passing of their eldest son. At the center of the story is the father, an emotionally distant man who commands respect both from his family and community. Opposite from him sits the other son, the black sheep, who seeks his father’s validation. Directed, written, and edited by Koreeda, this dynamic is one of many in this slice-of-life movie about how families deal with loss. And, however distant the culture or setting in Japan may seem to the outsider, you’re bound to recognize either yourself or your family among the tender scenes of this masterful drama.

12. Manchester by the Sea (2016)

9.0

Country

United States of America

Director

Kenneth Lonergan

Actors

Anna Baryshnikov, Ben O'Brien, C.J. Wilson, Casey Affleck

Moods

A-list actors, Challenging, Character-driven

Winning him Best Director at the Academy Awards, Kenneth Lonergan’s drama Manchester By the Sea is a delicate and profound study of loss and grief—and a true triumph. Its focus on characters, well-paced unfolding as well as world-class acting are only equal to the very best of European dramas. This type of quiet exploration of the possibility that grief cannot be overcome has rarely been successful in American cinema, if ever. The last best attempt was probably You Can Count on Me. Originally a playwright, this is Lonergan’s third film and Manchester by the Sea is where he unveils his full potential. It follows a depressed handyman, Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), who leads a quiet but angry life. After his brother dies, he returns to his hometown only to discover that he is the only left to take care of his teenage nephew. There, he is confronted with his past and the blue-collar community from which he was raised. Co-produced by Matt Damon, it grossed around $80 million on a budget of $8.5 million. One of the most noted films of 2016.

11. Gook (2017)

best

9.0

Country

United States of America

Director

Justin Chon

Actors

Ben Munoz, Curtiss Cook Jr., David So, Isaiah Jarel

Moods

Challenging, Character-driven, Emotional

Named after a slur for people of Asian descent, this 2017 film put Justin Chon on the map as a director. More than that, he also starred as the main lead in this raw and uncompromising period drama about Asian-Americans and the LA riots in 1992. Shot completely in black and white, it tells the story of Eli, a scrawny Korean-American, who runs his family shoe store with his brother, Daniel (David So), in several vignettes. They strike up an unlikely friendship with Kamilla (Simone Baker), a black kid from around the way, whose family is not happy with her hanging out with the two brothers. Amidst the ubiquitous violence in LA at the time, the Rodney King riots as well as a tragic shooting of a black teenager by a Korean convenience store owner, it shines the light on America’s intra-minority race relations and the more unseen stories behind them. A topic that has come back to haunt America in the 2020s. The film is fierce as it is funny, harsh as it is playful. Uplifting and unsettling.

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