24 Best Character-driven Movies On Max (HBO Max)

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

One of the most thrilling biographical films to come out of Hollywood in the 2020s, Shaka King's exhilarating take on a truly remarkable leader within the Black Panther Party—and the young man who would eventually be twisted into betraying him—also provides a respectful, honest space to voice out progressive views that still aren't fully embraced in the United States. Much of the film is made up of beautiful, powerful rhetoric, contrasting in fascinating ways with scenes of violence or deception that only remind us how ahead-of-his-time chairman Fred Hampton was and still is. And in a thunderous, Oscar-winning performance, Daniel Kaluuya brings all of Hampton's words roaring to life while still reminding us of how tragically young this inspirational figure was at the time of his death.

But Judas and the Black Messiah tells an equally powerful second story over this one: that of FBI informant William O'Neal who reluctantly agrees to sell Hampton to the feds, and quickly realizes that he's been scammed too. Rivaling—and, arguably, besting—Kaluuya's performance is LaKeith Stanfield, whose tortured and increasingly despairing performance as O'Neal is the stuff of pure Shakespearean drama. Together, both stories ask us what real freedom looks like, and that we believe we can still fight for it.

Genre: Drama, History

Actor: Algee Smith, Amari Cheatom, Amber Chardae Robinson, Ashton Sanders, Caleb Eberhardt, Chris Hahn, Daniel Kaluuya, Darrell Britt-Gibson, Dominique Fishback, Dominique Thorne, Graham Lutes, Ian Duff, Ikechukwu Ufomadu, James Udom, Jermaine Fowler, Jesse Plemons, Khris Davis, Lakeith Stanfield, Lil Rel Howery, Linda D Gaines, Martin Sheen, Nicholas Velez, Nick Fink, Raymond Seay, Robert Longstreet, Terayle Hill

Director: Shaka King

An inspired by true events tale about an elderly Irish woman trying to find the child she was forced to give up many years earlier. Steve Coogan co-wrote the script and, though the base story is a tragic one, his special brand of very subtle, wry wit is apparent in the dialogue throughout. Judi Dench plays the mother who had kept her “sinful” past a secret for fifty years and, being Judi Dench, I don’t need to bother going on about her exemplary talent, suffice to say she’s charming beyond measure in the role. Steven Frears directs, as usual, deftly, and keeps the story compelling scene after scene, intensifying the emotions inherent to each, whether they be heart-warming, comedic, or outright enraging. Whoever decided to let Steve Coogan have his way with the script, it was a brave and wise choice and together this cast and crew have produced a wonderful and important piece of cinema.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Amber Batty, Amy McAllister, Anna Maxwell Martin, Barbara Jefford, Cathy Belton, Charissa Shearer, Charles Edwards, Charlie Murphy, Elliot Levey, Florence Keith-Roach, Frankie McCafferty, Gary Lilburn, Judi Dench, Kate Fleetwood, Mare Winningham, Marie Jones, Martin Glyn Murray, Michelle Fairley, Nicholas Jones, Nika McGuigan, Paris Arrowsmith, Peter Hermann, Ruth McCabe, Sara Stewart, Sean Mahon, Simone Lahbib, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Steve Coogan, Wunmi Mosaku

Director: Stephen Frears

Rating: PG-13

Director Jim Jarmusch audaciously combined the DNA of French noir classics with that of samurai and mafia movies to produce this utterly original film. As advised by the ancient Japanese manual it often quotes, though, Jarmusch’s movie also “makes the best” out of its own generation by adding hip-hop into its wry genre blend. The results are more than the sum of their parts, especially because the film is so eccentric: no matter how au fait with its inspirations you are, you still won’t see “Forest Whitaker plays a lonely hitman who wields and whooshes his silencer pistol like a samurai sword, lovingly tends pigeons, and can’t even speak the same language as his best friend” coming.

Ghost Dog’s strangeness is never jarring, though, thanks to Whitaker’s cool, collected performance, an atmospheric score by Wu-Tang Clan's RZA, and the cinematography’s tendency to use smooth double exposures for scene transitions. It almost feels like we’re in another world: Jarmusch zooms in on the Bushido code obsessions of Whitaker’s single-minded character and the mafiosos’ dying laws, blurring out everything else so the movie becomes a meditation on the impulse to moralize one’s misdoings by subscribing to rigid definitions of “honor.” Not an exercise in surface style, then, but a bone-deep reflective masterpiece.

Genre: Crime, Drama

Actor: Alfred Nittoli, Angel Caban, Camille Winbush, Chuck Jeffreys, Clebert Ford, Cliff Gorman, Damon Whitaker, Forest Whitaker, Frank Adonis, Frank Minucci, Gano Grills, Gary Farmer, Gene Ruffini, Harry Shearer, Henry Silva, Isaach De Bankolé, Jamie Hector, Jerry Todisco, John Tormey, Jonathan Teague Cook, José Rabelo, Joseph Rigano, Paul Diomede, Renee Bluestone, Richard Portnow, Roberto Lopez, RZA, Scott Bryce, Sharon Angela, Tony Rigo, Tracy Howe, Tricia Vessey, Victor Argo, Vince Viverito, Vinny Vella

Director: Jim Jarmusch

Rating: R

A slow-burning US political drama, The Ides of March is a character-driven film with great performances from Ryan Gosling, Philip Seymour Hoffman and George Clooney (who is also the director and in part the writer) among many others. Taking place during the last days of the primaries, Stephen Meyers (Gosling) is an aspiring campaign staffer who uncovers a dirty truth about his candidate (Clooney). When Meyers confronts his boss (Hoffman), moral issues arise that collide with the political profession but which are not only limited to it. A smart film, The Ides of March is less of a political thriller and more of a really well made drama that delivers.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Alvin Chea, Amy Keys, Carmen Carter, Charlie Rose, Chris Matthews, Danny Mooney, David McConnell, Evan Rachel Wood, George Clooney, Gregory Itzin, Jeffrey Wright, Jennifer Ehle, Josef Powell, Loretta Higgins, Lori Perry, Marisa Tomei, Max Minghella, Maya Sayre, Michael Ellison, Michael Mantell, Neal Anthony Rubin, Nita Whitaker, Paul Giamatti, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rachel Maddow, Robert Mervak, Rohn Thomas, Ryan Gosling, Tiffany Sander McKenzie, Yuriy Sardarov

Director: George Clooney

Rating: R

The sunniest installment of Éric Rohmer’s Tales of the Four Seasons series is a sly, slow burn of a character study. Everything looks sensuously beautiful in the honey-toned French sunshine, except for the ugly egotism of Gaspard (Melvil Poupaud), the full extent of which is gradually revealed over the film’s runtime to amusing — if maddening — effect.

A brooding twenty-something, Gaspard has the traumatic task of having to decide between three beautiful and brilliant young women while vacationing alone on the French coast one summer. He dithers and delays his choice, each woman appealing to a different insecurity of his — but, as frustrating and plainly calculating as he is, you can’t help but be charmed by Gaspard. That’s partly because of Poupaud’s natural charisma, but also because Rohmer grants Gaspard as many searingly honest moments as he does deceitful ones. These come through Rohmer’s hallmark naturalistic walking and talking scenes (a big influence on the films of Richard Linklater), coastal rambles that produce conversations of startling, timeless candor. That inimitable blend of breeziness and frankness is never better matched in the director’s films than by the summer setting of this one, the sharp truths going down a lot smoother in the gorgeous sunlight.

Genre: Comedy, Drama, Romance

Actor: Aimé Lefèvre, Amanda Langlet, Aurelia Nolin, Gwenaëlle Simon, Melvil Poupaud

Director: Éric Rohmer

Rosetta begins fiercely, with a shaky handheld camera chasing the eponymous teenager (Émilie Dequenne) as she storms across a factory floor and bursts into a room to confront the person she believes has just lost her her job. The film seldom relents from this tone of desperate fury, as we watch Rosetta — whose mother is a barely functioning alcoholic — fight to find the job that she needs to keep the two alive.

As tough as their situation is, though, Rosetta’s fierce sense of dignity refuses to allow her to accept any charity. A stranger to kindness and vulnerability, her abject desperation leads her to mistake these qualities for opportunities to exploit, leading her to make a gutting decision. But for all her apparent unlikeability, the movie (an early film from empathy endurance testers the Dardenne brothers) slots in slivers of startling vulnerability amongst the grimness so that we never lose sight of Rosetta’s ultimate blamelessness. Its profound emotional effect is corroborated by two things: that it won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, and that it helped usher in a law protecting the rights of teenage employees in its setting of Belgium.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Anne Yernaux, Bernard Marbaix, Émilie Dequenne, Fabrizio Rongione, Frédéric Bodson, Mireille Bailly, Olivier Gourmet

Director: Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne

Rating: R

While being known for co-writing the Dogme 95 manifesto, Lars von Trier’s first film after breaks his rules with built sets and music added in post. Still, Breaking the Waves has plenty of von Trier’s thematic preoccupations, challenging the notions between faithfulness and sexuality by positing a married couple who cannot indulge in marital pleasure, due to being paralyzed. While the premise leads to explicit scenes, it’s more harrowing than sexy, really. It’s terribly heartbreaking as Bess does all she can for her marriage, first by praying for her husband’s return, and then following his perverse wish, partly from guilt, but partly from pleasure, even when it goes contrary to her repressive church and community. Breaking the Waves may not be an easy watch, but regardless of what you personally feel about the morality of Bess’ actions, von Trier will nevertheless bring you to empathy.

Genre: Drama, Romance

Actor: Adrian Rawlins, David Bateson, Dorte Rømer, Emily Watson, Finlay Welsh, Gavin Mitchell, Jean-Marc Barr, John Wark, Jonathan Hackett, Katrin Cartlidge, Mikkel Gaup, Phil McCall, Robert Robertson, Roef Ragas, Sandra Voe, Stellan Skarsgård, Udo Kier

Director: Lars von Trier

Rating: R

Acerbic diary excerpts provide the narration for this taut psychological thriller, but don’t be fooled: as Notes on a Scandal teases, single schoolteacher Barbara (Judi Dench) might not be filling these pages with the truth — at least, not intentionally. There are early tells that she might not be as reliable a narrator as we expect, given her reputation as a no-nonsense battleaxe: for one, her characteristic surliness dissolves alarmingly quickly upon meeting Sheba (Cate Blanchett), an idealistic young art teacher. Notes on a Scandal doesn’t overplay this hand, though: until its explosive climax, the psychological drama is mostly read between the lines, as we watch Barbara enthusiastically pursue a “friendship” with her younger colleague. 

What makes Notes doubly gripping is that Barbara isn’t the only one hiding dark secrets: as she soon discovers, the married Sheba has begun a sexual relationship with a 15-year-old student. That disturbing revelation gives Barbara an upper hand, a means of manipulating Sheba into validating her delusions about their relationship. What follows is a gripping twin character study, one that plays out in the heightened realm of a melodrama as their sordid secrets become entwined. Darkly camp and spanning just 92 perfectly paced minutes, this is an intense immersion into two very ugly psyches.

Genre: Drama, Romance

Actor: Adrian Scarborough, Andrew Simpson, Anne-Marie Duff, Barry McCarthy, Benedict Taylor, Bill Nighy, Cate Blanchett, Debra Gillett, Derbhle Crotty, Emma Kennedy, Gabrielle Brooks, Jill Baker, Joanna Scanlan, Judi Dench, Julia McKenzie, Juno Temple, Kevin Hudson, Michael Maloney, Miranda Pleasence, Phil Davis, Shaun Parkes, Stephen Kennedy, Tameka Empson, Tom Georgeson, Wendy Nottingham

Director: Richard Eyre

Minari is a film written and directed by Lee Isaac Chung, about a Korean-American family in search of the so-called American Dream. It is an intimate drama that is powerful yet quiet, and filled with moments of innocence. With dreamlike scoring, unique characters, and a captivating climax, this movie tugs on the heartstrings, and serves as a great reminder of the beauty of gratitude.

Thanks to these, plus winning performances across the board, Minari earned plenty of nominations at the 2021 Oscars, with Youn Yuh-jung eventually bagging the Best Supporting Actress award—a monumental first for South Korea.

Genre: Drama, Family

Actor: Alan Kim, Ben Hall, Chloe Lee, Darryl Cox, Debbi Tucker, Ed Spinelli, Eric Starkey, Ernie Robinson, Esther Moon, Han Yeri, Jacob Wade, James Carroll, Jenny Phagan, Kaye Brownlee-France, Noel Kate Cho, Scott Haze, Skip Schwink, Steven Yeun, Tina Parker, Warren Lane, Will Patton, Youn Yuh-jung

Director: Lee Isaac Chung

Rating: PG-13

There’s a cyclical tragedy at the heart of Bad Education, that starts with love, then continues in separation, and ends with hoping to redeem one’s self, and it would have felt repetitive if it wasn’t for the metafictional framing of Pedro Almodóvar. It boldly tackles the sexual abuse occurring in Catholic boarding schools, from which Almodóvar was educated under. It also explores it through a series of brilliant twists, as each reveal essentially repeats again and again, with each remix increasing the stakes, weaving a new layer to the love triangle, and exacerbating the consequences. Bad Education blends Enrique’s, and perhaps Almodóvar’s, life with fiction, with the brilliance and style Almodóvar is best known for.

Genre: Crime, Drama

Actor: Agustín Almodóvar, Alberto Ferreiro, Daniel Giménez Cacho, Fele Martínez, Francisco Boira, Francisco Maestre, Gael García Bernal, Javier Cámara, José María Yázpik, Juan Fernandez, Leonor Watling, Lluís Homar, Nacho Perez, Pau Poch, Petra Martínez, Pol Monen, Raul Garcia Forneiro, Sara Montiel

Director: Pedro Almodóvar

Rating: NC-17

Most people aspire to have families, deciding to form their own by marrying, bearing children, and if fertility makes that impossible, adopting one. The Official Story is centered on upper middle class Alicia, who’s already made the idyllic family life, with the last piece completed with her adoption of Gaby, but there are secrets held from her, or rather, there are realities that she chose not to listen to because of the painful implications. Writer-director Luis Puenzo juxtaposes the family secret to the violent ones the Argentine junta government kept from its citizens. It's not a subtle comparison– Puenzo makes it obvious– but it's an effective one, as Alicia has to reckon with the fact that she lies in bed with a stranger, as Argentina has to reckon with the remaining junta members and enablers.

Genre: Drama, History

Actor: Analia Castro, Andrea Tenuta, Aníbal Morixe, Augusto Larreta, Carlos Weber, Chela Ruíz, Chela Ruiz, Chunchuna Villafañe, Chunchuna Villafane, Fabián Rendo, Guillermo Battaglia, Héctor Alterio, Héctor Alterio, Horacio Erman, Hugo Arana, Jorge Chernov, Jorge Petraglia, Lidia Catalano, María Luisa Robledo, Marcos Woinsky, Maria Luisa Robledo, Norma Aleandro, Oscar Ferrigno Jr., Pablo Rago, Patricio Contreras, Paula Canals, Tony Middleton

Director: Luis Puenzo

Rating: Not Rated, NR

What Lynne Ramsay's Ratcatcher intentionally refuses to give you by way of plot or resolution, it more than makes up for in sharp visuals, a beautifully sparse score, and an unscratchable feeling of restlessness. It's a downer for sure, watching 12-year-old James hounded by guilt as he navigates the mundane bleakness of his everyday life. But in every detail and in every interaction he has in this rundown scheme in Glasgow is a window into the simple joys James wishes he could be enjoying. The more trouble the boy walks into, the more the guitar string tightens, and the more you wish something could finally break the cycle. There's still beauty even in these conditions, Ratcatcher tells us—but it isn't right that anyone should have to live like this.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Jackie Quinn, James Ramsay, John Comerford, Leanne Mullen, Lisa Taylor, Mandy Matthews, Mick Maharg, Molly Innes, Robert Farrell, Rory McCann, Tommy Flanagan

Director: Lynne Ramsay

With a driver protagonist, trying to reintegrate with the rougher parts of his home city, forming a connection with a woman way out of his league, Soho-based Mona Lisa has spawned comparisons to the New York-classic Taxi Driver (1976), but this British neo-noir has a completely different tone and spirit, with a completely different conclusion. Mona Lisa has, of course, Nat King Cole crooning the similarly named tune, and as George gets enamored with Simone, both roles played fantastically by Bob Hoskins and Cathy Tyson respectively, they both keep their cards to their chest, as if similar to the famous painted smile. The ending may be a tad abrupt, but Mona Lisa has a lot of compassion and hope for these two trying to make a better life for themselves, a lot more than expected from the genre.

Genre: Crime, Drama, Romance, Thriller

Actor: Bob Hoskins, Cathy Tyson, Clarke Peters, David Halliwell, Dawn Archibald, Gary Cady, Hossein Karimbeik, Jack Purvis, Joe Brown, Kate Hardie, Kenny Baker, Maggie O'Neill, Michael Caine, Pauline Melville, Perry Fenwick, Raad Rawi, Richard Strange, Robbie Coltrane, Rod Bedall, Sammi Davis, Zoë Nathenson

Director: Neil Jordan

Rating: R

When thinking about one’s family, we tend to remember our parents as parents, and rarely as people of their own. Ethel & Ernest, based on Raymond Briggs’ beloved graphic memoir of his own parents, instead focuses on two ordinary spouses in extraordinary times, sharing some of the day-to-day moments that show their affection, but is clearly marked by the times they’re in, materially and politically. The watercolor design is a cleaner, more modern update of the original illustrations, while Briggs’ handwritten speech bubbles still retain their character through Jim Broadbent’s and Brenda Blethyn’s voices. It’s just a loving, but still honest, depiction of one’s parents, one that makes you think about your own.

Genre: Animation, Drama, War

Actor: Alex Jordan, Brenda Blethyn, Duncan Wisbey, Gillian Hanna, Harry Collett, Jim Broadbent, June Brown, Luke Treadaway, Pam Ferris, Peter Wight, Raymond Briggs, Roger Allam, Simon Day, Virginia McKenna

Director: Roger Mainwood