548 Best Character-driven Movies to Watch

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.

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.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Ahna O'Reilly, Alessandro Garcia, Ariana Neal, Caroline Lesley, Chad Michael Murray, Chris Riedell, Christina Elmore, Denzel Worthington, Destiny Ekwueme, Joey Oglesby, John Burke, Jonez Cain, Keenan Coogler, Kevin Durand, Laurel Moglen, Liisa Cohen, Maleah Nipay-Padilla, Melonie Diaz, Michael B. Jordan, Nicole Maxali, Noah Staggs, Noah Zavala, Octavia Spencer, Robert Ajlouny, Ruben Rivera, Ryan Coogler, Tamera Tomakili, Trestin George, William Armando

Director: Ryan Coogler

Rating: R

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.

Genre: Comedy, Drama, Romance

Actor: Anders Danielsen Lie, Anna Dworak, Gisle Tveito, Hans Olav Brenner, Herbert Nordrum, Ine Jansen, Maria Grazia Di Meo, Marianne Krogh, Renate Reinsve, Ruby Dagnall, Sofia Schandy Bloch, Thea Stabell, Vidar Sandem

Director: Joachim Trier

In both documentaries and films, adoptees meeting their biological parents for the first time is an event often painted in a sweet light. Never mind the child’s mixed feelings about it or the tragic reality that caused the split in the first place—it’s a reunion between family members, so it must be unequivocally special. In Return to Seoul, director Davy Chou doesn’t just debunk that myth, he subverts it by making the adoptee, Freddie, as unapologetically complex and emotionally enigmatic as possible. She resists affection but wallows in loneliness. She craves reinvention but stays in the same place for years. She’s in constant motion while being absolutely stuck in life. In other words, she’s a realistic embodiment of a person struggling to find some semblance of home. Chou displays an intimate understanding of the foreign experience, and he couples it with captivating cinematography, a rousing soundtrack, and fantastic performances across the board to make a daring, inventive, and thoroughly exciting film. 

Genre: Drama

Actor: Guka Han, Heo Jin, Hur Jin, Kim Dong-seok, Kim Sun-young, Louis-Do de Lencquesaing, Oh Gwang-rok, Oh Kwang-rok, Yoann Zimmer

Director: Davy Chou

Rating: R

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.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Briana Shann, Dan Li, Dave Johns, David Murray, Dylan McKiernan, Hayley Squires, Kate Rutter, Kema Sikazwe, Ken Loach, Li Dan, Malcolm Shields, Natalie Ann Jamieson, Sharon Percy, Shaun Prendergast, Stephen Clegg, Steven Richens, Viktoria Kay

Director: Ken Loach

Rating: R

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.

Genre: Drama, Family

Actor: Adam LeFevre, Amy Ryan, Betsy Aidem, Gaby Hoffmann, Halley Feiffer, J. Smith-Cameron, Jon Tenney, Josh Lucas, Kenneth Lonergan, Laura Linney, Lisa Altomare, Mark Ruffalo, Matthew Broderick, Michael Countryman, Nina Garbiras, Rory Culkin, Whitney Vance

Director: Kenneth Lonergan

Rating: R

Monster is a deceptively simple story about growing up and the many misunderstandings that come with it. It’s told through different points of view, a technique that could easily feel gimmicky in the hands of a lesser director. But with director Hirokazu Kore-eda at the helm, it feels natural and inevitable, as if there was no other way to tell this specific story. It’s a masterful mystery, but Monster is less about suspense and answering the whodunnit question than it is about navigating the murky waters of truth and real life. As corny as it sounds, watching Monster is an experience unto itself: you’ll find yourself believing something one moment and dismantling it the next, learning and unlearning in a span of two hours. But as with past Kore-eda films, it’s the story’s heartwarming sensitivity that trumps everything. You’ll likely come for the mystery but stay for its heart.

Genre: Drama, Thriller

Actor: Akihiro Kakuta, Ayu Kitaura, Daisuke Kuroda, Eita Nagayama, Hinata Hiiragi, Kayo Noro, Mitsuki Takahata, Moemi Katayama, Pee, Ryu Morioka, Sakura Andô, Shidô Nakamura, Soya Kurokawa, Yûko Tanaka

Director: Hirokazu Kore-eda

Rating: PG-13

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.

Genre: Drama, Romance

Actor: Adam Bousdoukos, Aysel Iscan, Birol Ünel, Catrin Striebeck, Cem Akin, Demir Gökgöl, Feridun Koç, Güven Kiraç, Hermann Lause, İdil Üner, Maceo Parker, Mehmet Kurtuluş, Meltem Cumbul, Mona Mur, Orhan Güner, Philipp Baltus, Ralph Misske, Selim Erdoğan, Sibel Kekilli, Stefan Gebelhoff, Tim Seyfi, Tugay Erverdi, Tulga Serim, Zarah Jane McKenzie

Director: Fatih Akin

Rating: R

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!

Genre: Drama

Actor: Anne Fletting, Christian Tafdrup, Claus Flygare, Erni Arneson, Henning Jensen, Henrik Larsen, Ida Dwinger, Jonatan Spang, Julie R. Olgaard, Mads Mikkelsen, Marie-Louise Coninck, Mona Malm, Neel Rønholt, Neeral Mulchandani, Niels Anders Thorn, Rita Angela, Rolf Lassgård, Rolf Lassgård, Sidse Babett Knudsen, Stine Fischer Christensen, Swini Khara, Tanya Sharma, Thomas Voss, Troels II Munk

Director: Susanne Bier

Rating: R

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.

Genre: Comedy, Drama

Actor: Bobby Cannavale, Ileen Getz, Jase Blankfort, Jayce Bartok, Jeremy Bergman, Joe Lo Truglio, John Slattery, Josh Pais, Lynn Cohen, Maile Flanagan, Marla Sucharetza, Michelle Williams, Patricia Clarkson, Paul Benjamin, Paula Garces, Peter Dinklage, Raven Goodwin, Richard Kind

Director: Tom McCarthy

Rating: R

With cardboard houses, sugar winters, and broccoli trees, No Dogs or Italians Allowed at first seems lighthearted, playful, and not too serious. Alain Ughetto casts himself asking his grandmother Cesira about his family, but we only see his hands moving and interacting with the characters as if he was crafting clay model miniatures. However, the whimsical approach sugarcoats the very tragedies that struck his family– from the multiple wars to the discrimination they’ve faced as immigrants– with excellent animation and puppetry that feels much more lifelike than 3D CGI. In telling his family’s story, Ughetto also retells 20th century European history, reframing the worldwide events and movements through a personal perspective.

Genre: Animation, Drama

Actor: Alain Ughetto, Ariane Ascaride, Bruno Fontaine, Christophe Gatto, Diego Giuliani, Laura Devoti, Stefano Paganini

Director: Alain Ughetto

Thirty years after its release, the first ever Chinese language Palme d’Or winner has finally been made more accessible through Criterion Channel through its uncut 4K restoration. Farewell My Concubine is one of those classical epics that is considered essential viewing, but even with its near 3 hour runtime, the film still holds up all these decades later with its startlingly heartrending love story and depiction of the tumultuous shifts of 20th century China. Director Chen Kaige masterfully balances both sides, tapping into the pain Dieyi (Leslie Chung) chooses as he clings to the classical opera, the very art form that allows him a sliver of his unrequited love to be realized, but that is also limited depending on whichever government is in charge at the moment. It’s possibly one of the most beautiful and most miserable films ever made.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Dan Li, David Wu, Fei Zhenxiang, Ge You, Gong Li, Huang Lei, Jiang Wenli, Lei Han, Leslie Cheung, Lu Qi, Yang Lixin, Ying Da, Zhang Fengyi, Zhi Yitong

Director: Chen Kaige

Rating: R