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.

50. The Swimmers (2022)

best

8.0

Country

Turkey, United Kingdom

Director

Female director, Sally El Hosaini

Actors

Ahmed Malek, Alfredo Tavares, Ali Soliman, Ali Suliman

Moods

Character-driven, Discussion-sparking, Dramatic

The Swimmers tells the true story of sisters Yusra and Sara Mardini (played by fellow sisters Nathalie and Manal Issa), Syrian swimmers trained to compete at the Olympics. When their athletic goals and overall safety are threatened by the increasing presence of war, the girls decide to take a chance and migrate to Europe, where they hope to live out their dreams and reunite with their family someday.

The Swimmers is a touching family drama that does right to center on the love and tension between the siblings. Yusra and Sara’s relationship perfectly encapsulates the envy and resentment but also the deep love and loyalty that are present in every sister bond. It’s tender in these moments, but it can also be equally searing—as a refugee drama, it chillingly tracks the complicated and inhumane processes of fleeing one’s country for a safer future.

49. Herself (2021)

best

8.0

Country

Ireland, United Kingdom

Director

Female director, Phyllida Lloyd

Actors

Cathy Belton, Clare Dunne, Conleth Hill, Ericka Roe

Moods

Character-driven, Depressing, Discussion-sparking

Herself tells the story of Sandra (Clare Dunne), a single mother who runs away from her abusive husband to start a new life with her children. When welfare and charity prove to be insufficient with their help, she takes things into her hands by building a house of her own.

This Irish movie, co-written by star Clare Dunne, may be small in scale and budget, but it is affecting in big and powerful ways. Despite what girlbosses might tell you, chasing full independence isn’t always as easy or even empowering as it looks, especially when you’re stuck in the lower rungs of society like Sandra; Herself takes the honest approach by showing us the unglamorous side of making it on your own. It also has meaningful things to say about marriage and divorce, so if you were moved by Marriage Story or Kramer vs Kramer, you may feel the same about Herself, which references the latter two’s iconic courtroom scenes.

48. All or Nothing (2002)

best

8.1

Country

France, UK, United Kingdom

Director

Mike Leigh

Actors

Alan Williams, Alex Kelly, Alison Garland, Badi Uzzaman

Moods

Character-driven, Depressing, Slice-of-Life

Grounded by Lesley Manville and Timothy Spall’s powerhouse performances, this gut-wrenching family drama from Mike Leigh is an acting juggernaut. Penny and Phil are a working-class couple whose marriage is rapidly deteriorating and pushed to the brink when their son, played by a young James Corden, is hospitalized. 

While Manville and Spall are centered as the leads, Leigh draws a staggering amount of depth from Corden as well as a young Sally Hawkins who plays a neighbor. Despite being one of Leigh’s grimmest films, there is still a profound sweetness lingering at the edges as the story teeters between despondency and hope.

47. Mid-August Lunch (2009)

best

8.1

Country

Italy

Director

Gianni Di Gregorio

Actors

Alfonso Santagata, Gianni Di Gregorio, Maria Calì, Marina Cacciotti

Moods

Character-driven, Grown-up Comedy, Lighthearted

Director Gianni Di Gregorio’s gorgeous debut is an understated masterpiece about a bachelor who is his mother’s caregiver. The movie takes place almost entirely in Di Gregorio’s family home in central Rome, a beautiful, big, and well-furnished apartment that his character can’t afford any longer. 

To catch a break from rent, he agrees to host the landlord’s mother while the landlord goes on holiday. The same for his and his mother’s medical bills, and the doctor shows up with yet another elderly woman.  

Di Gregorio finds himself running an impromptu elderly home, with conflicts rising about who gets to watch TV and whose dietary restrictions should be respected. But his calm demeanor, love for cooking, and a lot of white wine make him the perfect man for the job.

46. Camp X-ray (2014)

best

8.1

Country

United States of America

Director

Peter Sattler

Actors

Cory Michael Smith, John Carroll Lynch, Joseph Julian Soria, Julia Duffy

Moods

Challenging, Character-driven, Thrilling

This is Kristen Stewart’s proof that she is more than a lip-biting, vampire-loving teenager. Reactive and emotive, she will not disappoint you here. Rather, expect an electrifying and exceptional performance. Paired with Payman Moaadi, they both make of this work an emotionally poignant movie that questions the notion of freedom in the unlikeliest of places: Guantanamo Bay.

45. Fish Tank (2009)

best

8.1

Country

Netherlands, UK, United Kingdom

Director

Andrea Arnold, Female director

Actors

Anthony Geary, Carrie-Ann Savill, Charlotte Collins, Grant Wild

Moods

Character-driven, Raw

A sincere portrayal of the gritty British working class life through the coming-of-age story of a girl who loves rap music and dancing to it. It features a stunning and powerful performance from newcomer Katie Jarvis who had no acting experience whatsoever, and who was cast in the street after she was spotted fighting. She plays Mia, a 15 year old teenager whose world changes drastically when her mother’s new boyfriend (played by Michael Fassbender) turns his eyes to her. Don’t watch this movie if you are looking for a no-brainer, definitely do watch it if you are interested in films that realistically portray others’ lives and let you into them.

44. The Fabelmans (2022)

best

8.2

Country

United States of America

Director

Steven Spielberg

Actors

Alex Quijano, Ari Davis, Chloe East, Connor Trinneer

Moods

A-list actors, Character-driven, Dramatic

The Fabelmans is often described as director Steven Spielberg’s semi-autobiographical movie about his inauguration into filmmaking, and while it certainly is that, I’d venture to say that it also functions as a universal coming-of-age tale, with protagonist and Spielberg stand-in Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle) learning harsh truths about identity, family, and passion for the first time.

Here, we see how so much of filmmaking is intertwined with his life, and how the movies inspire his personality (and vice versa). Whether you’re a fan of Spielberg or not, this movie will surely win you over with its beautiful imagery, impressive technique, and big, big heart.

43. Paddleton (2019)

best

8.2

Country

United States of America

Director

Alex Lehmann, Alexandre Lehmann

Actors

Alana Carithers, Alexandra Billings, Bjorn Johnson, Christine Woods

Moods

Character-driven, Depressing, Dramatic

There are three big reasons to watch Paddleton. The first two are Ray Romano and Mark Duplass, who play the two neighbors at the center of the story. And the third is Alexandre Lehmann, the director, who also is responsible for Blue Jay (on Netflix as well).

These two misfit neighbors find themselves together when one of them is diagnosed with cancer. They embark on a trip to the nearest pharmacy (a six-hour drive) which turns into an adventure.

This premise gives Paddleton a lot to play on: it’s a comedy, but it’s also a drama about a fatal disease. It’s a bromance, but it’s about a fragile friendship. All these contradictions make Paddleton a great slice-of-life movie. And again, both actors are amazing. Watching it just for them is worth it.

42. Still Alice (2015)

best

8.2

Country

France, UK, United States of America

Director

Richard Glatzer, Wash Westmoreland

Actors

Alec Baldwin, Daniel Gerroll, Eha Urbsalu, Erin Darke

Moods

Challenging, Character-driven, Well-acted

Still Alice is a drama about a renowned linguistics professor (Julianne Moore) who slowly begins to lose words and find herself lost in familiar places, leading to an unexpected diagnosis of Early Onset Alzheimer’s Disease. Alice’s husband (Alec Baldwin) and three grown children subsequently struggle to maintain balance as her condition deteriorates, even as she steadfastly strives to maintain her self-composure. Interestingly, Alice uses her professional skills in communication to employ innovative ways to maintain her language and memory as well as possible, despite her ongoing decline. It’s a melancholy yet wonderfully touching film that feels thoroughly honest and real every step of the way. Julianne Moore is superb throughout—a role that earned her a well-deserved Best Actress Oscar for her performance.

41. Joe (2013)

best

8.2

Country

United States of America

Director

David Gordon Green

Actors

Aaron Spivey-Sorrells, Adriene Mishler, Brenda Isaacs Booth, Brian Mays

Moods

Character-driven, Dramatic, Emotional

Casting is Joe’s strong suit, with the notable case of the character of a homeless alcoholic man played by a real-life homeless alcoholic man, as the abusive father of beyond-his-age, responsible 15-year-old Gary. It doesn’t stop there either, because Nicolas Cage’s performance is one of his career’s best (so you can rest assured as far as that is concerned), and somehow still manages to be matched by Tye Sheridan’s (as Gary). This added to the bleak and bold Southern-themed script make for a hard-hitting, moving, and compelling tale of growth, and how father figures fit into it. Joe is a proud entry to the genre of powerful, yet enjoyable father-figure dramas, right next to its equally impressive brother-movie Mud.

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