55 Best Character-driven Movies On Kanopy (Page 3)

Staff & contributors

If you're less about adventurous plots, and more about the emotional journey and relationship arcs, we've got you covered. Here are the best character-driven movies and shows to stream right now.

Find the best character-driven movies to watch, from our mood category. Like everything on agoodmovietowatch, these character-driven movies are highly-rated by both viewers and critics.

This fiery coming-of-age drama has an unlikely origin story: director Jonas Carpignano was first introduced to the sprawling Roma clan that makes up most of the movie’s cast when one of them stole his car while he shot another film. The charismatic Amato family made such an impression on him that he decided to center a movie around their real lives, naming it for the insular neighborhood they live in on the outskirts of a Southern Italian town.

The Amatos are part of a much-maligned ethnic minority, but not the only one in the film. The Ciambra pokes at the idea of solidarity between the Amatos and local African migrants: while his elders are quick to reject the idea, plucky 14-year-old Pio (Pio Amato) flits across these invisible borders and bonds with Ayiva (Koudous Seihon). But Pio is desperate to win the respect of the men in his family, who might then allow him to take part in their criminal exploits — a crisis point The Ciambra chronicles with raw emotion. This is a movie whose grit and bleakness often recall the uncompromising gaze of neo-realist classics, as a child is heartbreakingly forced to declare his allegiances in the dog-eat-dog world his elders can’t imagine an alternative to.

Genre: Crime, Drama

Actor: Damiano Amato, Iolanda Amato, Koudous Seihon, Patrizia Amato, Pio Amato

Director: Jonas Carpignano

Michael Jackson’s death triggers the sudden unraveling of a young imam’s buttoned-up life in this idiosyncratic Egyptian character study. The news of the singer’s passing sets Khaled (Ahmed El-Fishawy) straining against reawakened memories of his youth as a mullet-sporting MJ fanatic, before his joyful creative spark was stamped out by two disparate forces: a mocking, macho dad who punished Khaled for his vulnerability and the conservative uncle who took him under his wing.

Sheikh Jackson mostly takes place across two intertwining timelines: Khaled’s free-spirited adolescence and his adulthood, which has so far been defined by a self-flagellating, fire-and-brimstone brand of Islam. These two strands form a neat illustration of the binary options Khaled was led to believe he had to choose from — but, as the movie’s title hints, he might not have to choose at all, a revelation that doesn’t come easy because it flies in the face of everything he’s been taught. Free from the judgemental impulses of Western cinema when it comes to characters like Khaled, Sheikh Jackson is both an introspective portrait of the universal struggle of defining one’s own identity and a refreshingly nuanced look at how that experience might play out in the modern Arab world.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Ahmed Al Fishawy, Ahmed Malek, Amina Khalil, Basma, Dorra, Hazem Ehab, Ibrahim Farah, Maged El Kedwany, Mahmoud Al Bezzawy, Mahmoud Gomaa, Omar Ayman, Salma Abu Deif, Yasmin Raeis

Director: Amr Salama

There’s an intriguing meta appeal to this drama, the plot of which is a thinly veiled reference to the scandal that erupted around South Korean director Hong Sang-soo and star Kim Min-hee’s extramarital affair. Here, Kim plays an actress who flees to Germany amidst a media storm swirling around a similar relationship and then returns home to skirt prying questions from friends and — maybe — confront her now-distant lover.

But beyond its references to salacious real life, On the Beach at Night Alone is also a fascinating conversational movie, one that explores with gentleness all the messy feelings that Kim is having in her physical and professional exile (offers of acting roles having dried up because of the scandal). That tone isn’t permanent, though, because the film reaches a violently emotional crescendo with two extremely raw and strange outbursts at dinner parties — a strangeness echoed by the lightning bolts of surreality that break up what is otherwise a naturalistic film (and filmography, for Hong). This might make an unconventional entry point if you’ve never seen a Hong film before (he’s averaged two films a year since 2017, so there are plenty of other options), but it’s an illuminating introduction for newcomers all the same, and a fascinating evolution for confirmed fans.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Ahn Jae-hong, Gong Min-jeung, Han Ja-i, Jung Jae-young, Kang Tae-u, Kim Min-hee, Kwon Hae-hyo, Moon Sung-keun, Seo Young-hwa, Song Sun-mi

Director: Hong Sang-soo

At the height of the 1997 Asian financial crisis, a small Singaporean family scrambles to keep their middle-class status afloat. The parents shave their expenses and work extra-long hours, but their busyness causes them to neglect their misbehaved son. When his misdemeanors prove to be too much, the mother is forced to hire a stay-at-home nanny, and her presence (along with other external pressures) brings about a change in the house. Suddenly, everyone becomes a bit more aware of their limitations and potential, and from this, a shared empathy grows. In other hands, this story might come off as bare and forgettable, but under first-time-feature director Anthony Chen’s helm, Ilo Ilo comes to life in rich detail, thoughtful shots, and captivatingly natural performances. Despite its many heartbreaking scenes, the film rarely dwells in sentiment, and it's this restraint that makes Ilo Ilo all the more gripping to watch. 

Genre: Drama, Family

Actor: Angeli Bayani, Chen Tian Wen, Chen Tianwen, Jialer Koh, Jo Kukathas, Koh Jia Ler, Peter Wee, Stephanie Kiong, Tian Wen Chen, Yann Yann Yeo, Yeo Yann Yann

Director: Anthony Chen

Rating: Not Rated, PG-13

This movie originally caught my eye for all the attention it got at the Cannes festival, but I assure you, all of the hype is more than warranted. Two Days, One Night takes you on an emotional journey with Sandra, recovering from depression and ready to get back to work, when she discovers that her co-workers, having to choose between receiving a bonus and Sandra keeping her job, hold her fate in their hands. And thus, barely convinced herself and with her husband as her only support, she sets out on an unlikely mission to convince the people to vote against the bonus so that she still has a salary. This movie will strike a chord for anyone who has encountered depression or even simply tried to understand the abstract concept that it is. Marion Cotillard flawlessly portrays through Sandra the desperate struggle of having to put up a fight despite the utter hopelessness that she finds herself drowning in. At strife with herself, watching her try even though every cell in her body has given up, is gut-wrenching and awe-inspiring at the same time. Before long Sandra's fight on the lay-off and on her own hopelessness seem to blur together. Whether she wins, is what keeps you hooked to the very end.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Alain Eloy, Baptiste Sornin, Batiste Sornin, Ben Hamidou, Catherine Salée, Christelle Cornil, Christelle Delbrouck, Fabrizio Rongione, Laurent Caron, Marion Cotillard, Morgan Marinne, Myriem Akeddiou, Myriem Akheddiou, Olivier Gourmet, Philippe Jeusette, Pili Groyne, Simon Caudry, Tom Adjibi, Yohan Zimmer

Director: Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne

Rating: PG-13

, 2014

Theeb is set in the Hejaz (now part of Saudi Arabia) on the eve of the Great Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire in 1916 — but you don’t need to be clued up on its historical backdrop, because its protagonist isn’t. Jacir Eid plays the titular adolescent (the name meaning “wolf”), the youngest son of a now-dead Bedouin leader. When his older brother Hussein (Hussein Al-Sweilhiyeen) is called upon to help guide a suspiciously tense British soldier (Jack Fox) to a well, Theeb disobeys an order to stay put and follows them into the unforgiving desert. Then, tragedy strikes in the middle of nowhere, throwing him into an uneasy alliance with an enemy, without whom he won't survive the treacherous journey home.

Era-ending political machinations are unfolding all around him, but Theeb lends the film his childlike perspective so that it plays out more like the coming-of-age story of a young cub than a Lawrence of Arabia-style epic. Even as it boldly subverts that classic, though, Theeb's cinematography mirrors the haunting, hostile beauty of David Lean’s film — making the desert feel as much a character as the boy. Deftly balancing a sense of earth-shattering personal stakes with one of looming historical portent, Theeb earned a well-deserved nomination at the 2016 Oscars.

Genre: Adventure, Drama, Thriller

Actor: Hassan Mutlag, Hussein Salameh, Jacir Eid, Jack Fox, Marji Audeh

Director: Naji Abu Nowar

The film for which Kristen Stewart became the first American actress to win the César Award. The Twilight star turned indie prodigy plays next to another award favorite, Juliette Binoche, as her assistant. When rehearsing for the play that launched her career many years earlier, Binoche's character, Maria, blurs the line between fiction and reality, her old age and her assistant's young demeanor, and the romance story portrayed in the play and her own life. The movie itself is stylized as a play, adding another interesting layer of artistic creativity to the complex plot line. A film for film lovers.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Aljoscha Stadelmann, Angela Winkler, Benoit Peverelli, Brady Corbet, Caroline De Maigret, Chloë Grace Moretz, Claire Tran, Gilles Tschudi, Hanns Zischler, Jerry Kwarteng, Johnny Flynn, Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, Lars Eidinger, Luise Berndt, Nora von Waldstätten, Nora Waldstätten, Ricardia Bramley, Sean McDonagh, Steffen Mennekes

Director: Olivier Assayas

Rating: R

Vague statement alert: Burning is not a movie that you “get”; it’s a movie you experience. Based on a short story by Murakami, it’s dark and bleak in a way that comes out more in the atmosphere of the movie rather than what happens in the story. Working in the capital Seoul, a young guy from a poor town near the North Korean border runs into a girl from his village. As he starts falling for her, she makes an unlikely acquaintance with one of Seoul’s wealthy youth (played by Korean-American actor Steven Yeun, pictured above.) This new character is mysterious in a way that’s all-too-common in South Korea: young people who have access to money no one knows where it came from, and who are difficult to predict or go against. Two worlds clash, poor and rich, in a movie that’s really three movies combined into one - a character-study, a romance, and a revenge thriller.

Genre: Drama, Mystery, Thriller

Actor: Ah-in Yoo, Ban Hye-ra, Cha Mi-Kyung, ChoI Seung-ho, Jang Won-hyung, Jeon Jong-seo, Jeon Seok-chan, Jeong Da-yi, Jong-seo Jun, Jun Jong-seo, Kim Shin-rock, Kim Shin-rok, Kim Sin-rock, Kim Soo-kyung, Lee Bong-ryeon, Lee Joong-ok, Lee Soo-jeong, Min Bok-gi, Moon Sung-keun, Ok Ja-yeon, Song Duk-ho, Soo-Kyung Kim, Steven Yeun, Yoo Ah-in

Director: Chang-dong Lee, Lee Chang-dong

Rating: Not Rated

Ever wondered how much your life will change when faced with the reality that death is about to come? That’s normal, and not nearly as life-altering as being told you only have a few more moments to live. Because of a terminal illness, Uxbal (Javier Bardem) is driven to this situation and tries to right his wrongs in the wake of modern Barcelona. This melodrama is supercharged by Bardem’s unearthly performance as the story’s only hero, demonstrating the selfless love of a destroyed and dying father to his children – paired with cinematography unlike any other, this film is exceptionally beautiful. Directed by González Iñárritu' (Babel, Birdman, The Revenant).

Genre: Drama, Romance

Actor: Adelfa Calvo, Alain Hernández, Ana Wagener, Cheikh Ndiaye, Cheng Taishen, Diaryatou Daff, Dunia Montenegro, Eduard Fernandez, Félix Cubero, George Chibuikwem Chukwuma, Guillermo Estrella, Hanaa Bouchaib, Isaac Alcayde, Javier Bardem, Jin Luo, Karra Elejalde, Luo Jin, Manolo Solo, Maricel Álvarez, Nasser Saleh, Rubén Ochandiano, Sophie Evans, Taisheng Chen, Tomás del Estal, Violeta Pérez

Director: Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Alejandro González Iñárritu

Rating: R

More than a decade before she made Toni Erdmann, German filmmaker Maren Ade turned her eye on a small-town school, a socially awkward teacher, and the inarticulate in between. Even with her debut, Ade showcased a talent for spotting the hidden comic potential of situations that can be wounding, turning vulnerabilities into power through comedy. The Forest For the Trees is a dilemma-film, in the ways in which it both invites and rejects identification with Melanie. A frighteningly optimistic person, she misreads most if not all social cues and finds herself in embarrassing situations. Even more, her devotion to making it all work, after moving away from the big city for said teaching job, is something a lot of viewers can recognize and support, but her borderline unlikeability is sometimes too hard to ignore. However, a majestic finale crowns the film with a scene that is worth rewatching again and again, like a dream you wish to appropriate for yourself.

Genre: Comedy, Drama

Actor: Daniela Holtz, Eva Löbau, Ilona Schulz, Jan Neumann, Robert Schupp

Director: Maren Ade

This coming-of-age story starts in the present time, where Elle Marja, now a grandmother, reluctantly goes to her sister's funeral held by her old indigenous Sámi community in Northern Sweden. Understanding her reluctance requires going back to when Elle Marja was 14 and was preparing to go to boarding school with her little sister. These schools were racist establishments meant to integrate the Sámi children into Swedish culture and language, while at the same time limiting their prospects of seeking further education. Elle Marja and her sister chose to respond to this discrimination in two completely different ways that this movie explores without judgment. The central performance of the young girl is incredible.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Ánne Biret Somby, Maj-Doris Rimpi, Olle Sarri

Director: Amanda Kernell

, 2019

This drama is about two friends attempting to rave in 1994 Scotland, after a recent Thatcher-era law banned the act and all music “characterized by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats”.

Johnno and Spanner, one living in fear of his older brother and the other of his stepfather, want to turn things around by joining their first and probably last rave. They’re introduced to the world of illegal parties, a movement as influential as punk, that in the 1990s was born in reaction to the U.K.’s oppressive policies.

Genre: Comedy, Crime, Drama, Music

Actor: Amy Manson, Anthony Anderson, Ashley Jackson, Brian Ferguson, Chris Robinson, Christian Ortega, Dave East, Emayatzy Corinealdi, Gemma McElhinney, Kevin Mains, Khalil Everage, Laura Fraser, Lorn Macdonald, Martin Donaghy, Megan Sousa, Neil Leiper, Paul Walter Hauser, Rachel Jackson, Ryan Fletcher, Seandrea Sledge, Stephen McCole, Uzo Aduba

Director: Brian Welsh, Chris Robinson

Rating: N/A

Given that hookups are inherently quick and casual and impersonal, they are rarely portrayed in a romantic light. But Weekend flips the script on one-night stands by giving its two lovers enough time and space to explore how far their feelings can take them. While both Russell (Tom Cullen) and Glenn (Chris New) are gay, they have more differences than similarities with each other. Russell is reserved, awkward, and not entirely open, while Glenn is the exact opposite. 

This makes for intriguing conversations, which then makes for a smart, thought-proving watch. It’s talky but meaningful, and slow but assured. But most of all it’s romantic, and it’s sure to pull at your heartstrings the whole time. 

Genre: Drama, Romance

Actor: Kieran Hardcastle, Tom Cullen

Director: Andrew Haigh

The Way He Looks revolves around Leonardo, a blind teenager, as he navigates the complexities of high school life and explores his budding feelings for Gabriel, a new classmate. The chemistry between the characters feels genuine, and the slow-burning romance between Leonardo and Gabriel unfolds with a sense of tenderness and vulnerability. Director Daniel Ribeiro crafted a comfortable watching experience and a true slice-of-life story that doesn't divulge more than this sliver of time in these teens' lives. Director Daniel Ribeiro's debut is a hopeful take on a queer, disabled romance that feels natural, sensitive, and refreshing.

Genre: Drama, Romance

Actor: Bárbara Pereira, Daniel Ribeiro, Eucir de Souza, Fábio Audi, Ghilherme Lobo, Guga Auricchio, Isabela Guasco, Júlio Machado, Lúcia Romano, Matheus Abreu, Naruna Costa, Pedro Carvalho, Selma Egrei, Tess Amorim, Tess Coelho, Victor Filgueiras

Director: Daniel Ribeiro

Rating: Not Rated

Don't let the title and poster fool you—Riders of Justice isn't the testosterone-filled action flick you'd expect going in (though it does get ridiculous at some points). It centers on deployed military man Markus, played by the appropriately masculine Mads Mikkelsen, who has to return home to his teenage daughter Mathilde after his wife dies in an accident. Instead of coping normally and sticking with his daughter to get through the tragedy, he goes down a rabbit hole discovering how the accident that killed his wife is more than just bad luck and may have been collateral damage from a gang orchestrating an assassination.

Surprisingly, director Anders Thomas Jensen injects this violent film with a lot of gentle moments about trauma and togetherness. Mikkelsen and the rest of the cast play off of each other very well, using dark humor to bring together a bunch of characters who are, in oversimplified terms, "fucked up but trying their best."

It may seem like the guns, blood, and badass moments are a front for this film that, at its core, shows men who badly need therapy banding together to cope with the harshness of life. Extremely funny and deeply moving, it qualifies as a heartwarming Christmas movie, believe it or not.

Genre: Action, Comedy, Drama, Thriller

Actor: Albert Rudbeck Lindhardt, Alice E. Bier Zandén, Anders Nyborg, Andrea Heick Gadeberg, Anne Birgitte Lind, Anne Fletting, Christina Ibsen Meyer, Gustav Dyekjær Giese, Gustav Lindh, Henrik Noël Olesen, Jacob Ulrik Lohmann, Jesper Groth, Jesper Ole Feit Andersen, Johanne Dal-Lewkovitch, Kaspar Velberg, Lars Brygmann, Mads Mikkelsen, Morten Suurballe, Nicolas Bro, Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Omar Shargawi, Peder Holm Johansen, Raivo Trass, Rigmor Ranthe, Rikke Louise Andersson, Roland Moller

Director: Anders Thomas Jensen