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.

10. Divines (2016)

9.0

Country

France, Qatar

Director

Female director, Houda Benyamina

Actors

Bass Dhem, Déborah Lukumuena, Farid Larbi, Houda Benyamina

Moods

Character-driven

Winner of a Camera d’Or, the debutant’s prize at the Cannes Film Festival, Director Houda Benyamina’s first feature film is fast-paced and full of energy. Deep in the impoverished suburbs of Paris, the infamous banlieues, it tells the story of Dounia (played by Oulaya Amamra), a mouthy teenager who is not content with what society is prepared to hand out to her. She’s angry; she wants more. And so, together with her best friend Maimouna (Déborah Lukumuena), she decides to finally make some cash as a runner for a drug dealer. While there’s obviously some feminism in there somewhere, that’s not at the heart of what this film is about. It’s about the economic reality in a world of poverty and about two friends and their desire for freedom—no matter what the cost. An exhilarating and thought-provoking debut helped along by Amamra’s amazing acting.

9. Blue Jay (2016)

best

9.1

Country

United States of America

Director

Alex Lehmann, Alexandre Lehmann

Actors

Alex Lehmann, Clu Gulager, James Andrews, Mark Duplass

Moods

Character-driven, Grown-up Comedy, Romantic

Being an intimate, black-and-white portrayal of just two people, it is worth mentioning the two leads in the very first sentence: Blue Jay stars the incredibly versatile Sarah Paulson, who most of you will know from her depiction of Marcia Clark in The People vs. O.J., and Mark Duplass from Creep. In this incredibly intricate dialogue-driven drama, he is of course named Jim, a regular guy with some issues, who runs into his high-school sweetheart Amanda at the grocery store. She is only in town briefly because her sister is having a baby. Amanda agrees to have coffee with him, later they get beer and jellybeans, and find themselves recreating silly tapes at his late mother’s house that they use to make when they were still at school. This could quickly become a soppy affair if it wasn’t for the heart-felt realness of the acting, for lack of a better term, and all the fine details that the two leads bring to the screen. The chemistry between them is something to behold!

8. The Broken Circle Breakdown (2012)

best

9.1

Country

Belgium, Netherlands

Director

Felix Van Groeningen

Actors

Bert Huysentruyt, Blanka Heirman, Geert Van Rampelberg, Jan Bijvoet

Moods

Character-driven, Dramatic, Emotional

Bittersweet like Belgian chocolate, this is a coming-home movie. It will leave you raw and empty as well as full of life, and it will most certainly have you appreciate the mournfulness of bluegrass music. Based on a play co-written by Johan Heldenbergh, who also stars as Didier, the male lead, this is intricately written, thoughtfully directed, viscerally acted cinema. Bluegrass enthusiast and band leader Didier falls passionately in love with Elise, a spirited tattoo artist. They sing together, start a life together. But when their little girl falls gravely ill, everything changes. Because this gem of a film by director Felix van Groeningen excels at creating intimacy and empathy between us viewers and this beautiful family’s fate, you will feel everything you see. Incredibly well-made and gut-wrenching drama.

7. The Station Agent (2003)

best

9.2

Country

United States of America

Director

Tom McCarthy

Actors

Bobby Cannavale, Jase Blankfort, Jayce Bartok, Jeremy Bergman

Moods

Character-driven, Sunday, Sweet

The Station Agent is about loneliness, change and friendship. Sounds corny right? It’s not. The characters are developed, they have their own reasons for the choices they make and nothing feels forced, neither actions or conversations. It’s a small and wonderful movie about a little man that moves out of the city and his comfort zone when his only friend dies, moves to said friend’s old train station and sets his life there. From there on it follows his social interactions with a slew of people, the relationships he forms with them. Oh, and the little man? Peter Dinklage (Tyrion Lannister), who pulls off a great performance, albeit a quiet one.

6. Head-On (Gegen die Wand) (2004)

best

9.3

Country

Germany, Turkey

Director

Fatih Akin

Actors

Adam Bousdoukos, Aysel Iscan, Birol Ünel, Catrin Striebeck

Moods

Character-driven, Raw, Romantic

Winner of a Golden Bear and a slew of awards at the European Film Awards in the early noughties, Head-on is named after the suicide attempt of Cahit Tomruk (played by the late Birol Ünel), a Turkish-born German in his mid-40s. At the psychiatric clinic where he is treated, he meets the equally damaged Sibel Güner who is also of Turkish descent. (The first ever feature film of famous German actress Sibel Kekilli, who you might know from Game of Thrones.) Sibel persuades him to marry her in an attempt to break away from her traditional-minded parents.

If you think this plot summary was tough stuff, it gets even grimmer from there. Directed by famous German filmmaker Fatih Akın, the intensity with which Kekilli and Ünel perform the character’s unhinged self-hatred is as raw as it gets. Head-on is a brutal, gritty, and heart-wrenching story about the violence of love and hedonism – and the struggle of third-generation Turkish immigrants in Germany.

5. After the Wedding (2006)

best

9.3

Country

Denmark, Norway, Sweden

Director

Female director, Susanne Bier

Actors

Anne Fletting, Christian Tafdrup, Claus Flygare, Erni Arneson

Moods

Character-driven, Dramatic, Emotional

Danish films somehow have a unique approach to emotions that are rarely matched and this Susanne Bier-directed drama is no exception. Its protagonist is Jacob Peterson, a driven idealist played by Mads Mikkelsen, who runs a fledgling orphanage in India. Close to giving up, Peterson returns to Copenhagen to meet a billionaire, who is offering to fund his charity project. However, there is a dark secret at the heart of this relationship, throwing Peterson into disarray. This elegant and Academy-Award-nominated Danish film has it all: fantastic cast, great direction, and a few special ingredients that turn a good drama into a thrilling one!

4. You Can Count on Me (2000)

best

9.4

Country

United States of America

Director

Kenneth Lonergan

Actors

Adam LeFevre, Amy Ryan, Betsy Aidem, Gaby Hoffmann

Moods

Character-driven, Heart-warming, Warm

Written and directed by Academy-Award-winning Kenneth Lonergan (Manchester by the Sea, Gangs of New York), you can certainly count on the qualities of this subtle, beautiful, and moving drama about two siblings growing apart and reuniting later in life.

An Academy-Award-nominated Laura Linney plays Sammy, a single mother in a small town who is extremely protective of her 8-year-old son. When her younger and somewhat troubled brother Terry (played by the ever-reliable Mark Ruffalo) visits her out of the blue, Sammy has to deal with a slew of contradicting emotions towards her brother, whose appearance threatens to upend her life as she knew it.

Straight, thoughtful, and beautifully crafted, You Can Count on Me is an honest and genuine exploration of unconditional love in celluloid form. Think of it as much more hopeful The Skeleton Twins.

3. The Worst Person in the World (2021)

best

9.5

Country

Denmark, France, Norway

Director

Joachim Trier

Actors

Anders Danielsen Lie, Anna Dworak, Gisle Tveito, Hans Olav Brenner

Moods

Character-driven, Emotional, Heart-warming

The film opens with Julie in her early twenties, longing to pursue a career in medical school. But after briefly testing the waters, she switches over to psychology, only to drop completely out of school and transform her hobby of photography into a professional career. This indecisiveness carries over in most aspects of her life, including and especially in romance, where impulse and desire drive her to run after what she believes to be love. The movie follows Julie as she navigates adulthood in modern Oslo—at once a specific yet universally relatable story about the growing pains of growing up.

With The Worst Person in the World, Joachim Trier scores again with another life-changing Norwegian drama about longing, love, grief, and finding your place in the world. His films can be quite sad but amidst all the drama, moments of happiness and hope are scattered throughout, as it is in real life.

2. I, Daniel Blake (2016)

best

9.5

Country

Belgium, France, UK

Director

Ken Loach

Actors

Briana Shann, Dan Li, Dave Johns, David Murray

Moods

Character-driven, Depressing, Emotional

Revealing the gaps in the social safety net, I, Daniel Blake, is a tale centered around a blue collar worker navigating the welfare system in England. At a time where class and social mobility could not be more politically salient, this film calls into question the notion of the “citizen” and exposes the inaccessibility to the social protections in which one presumes entitlement.

At the forefront of this, is a heart-warming parable of paternal companionship between Daniel (played by Dave Johns) and a single mother – Katie – (played by Hayley Squires) who is wading through similar terrain. The acting in the film is unfathomably raw which cultivates the deepest source of gut wrenching compassion. Ken Loach has created a film that exposes the true power of empathy, leaving you feeling helplessly human.

1. Fruitvale Station (2013)

best

9.7

Country

United States of America

Director

Ryan Coogler

Actors

Ahna O'Reilly, Alessandro Garcia, Ariana Neal, Caroline Lesley

Moods

Character-driven, Dramatic, Thought-provoking

This is the true story of Oscar Grant III, a 22-year-old Black man in Oakland, California, who was shot dead by police in the morning hours of New Year’s Day 2009. Incidentally, 2009 was also the time when smartphones started going mainstream, and so the incident was not only captured by CCTV but also many private cell phone cameras. The murder went viral.

Grant is superbly played by Michael B. Jordan in what now counts as one of his breakthrough roles, when many only knew him as Wallace in the now-legendary crime drama The Wire. Director Ryan Coogler went on making two more movies with him, including Black Panther in 2018.

Produced by Academy Award winner Forest Whitaker and compassionately told, Fruitvale Station surpasses the sadness of its subject matter and amounts to an extraordinary celebration of life. A must-watch.

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