79 Best Character-driven Movies On Netflix

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

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!

Genre: Drama, Romance

Actor: Alex Lehmann, Clu Gulager, James Andrews, Mark Duplass, Sarah Paulson

Director: Alex Lehmann, Alexandre Lehmann

Rating: Not Rated, Unrated

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.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Bass Dhem, Déborah Lukumuena, Farid Larbi, Houda Benyamina, Jisca Kalvanda, Kevin Mischel, Majdouline Idrissi, Maryama Soumare, Oulaya Amamra, Yasin Houicha

Director: Houda Benyamina, Uda Benyamina

Rating: N/A, Not Rated

In Aftersun, Sophie recalls a holiday she took as an eleven-year-old in the ‘90s with her father. Video recordings help jog her memory, but she’s looking for more than just a blast from the past. Rather, she seems to be seeking answers to fill in the gaps between who she knew as her father and who he really was: an immensely nice but deeply troubled man.

At first, Aftersun looks like a simple but beautiful story about father and daughter bonding over the course of a summer trip. But within minutes, it’s clear that there are layers to Aftersun, emotionally and editorially, that aren’t always explained but nonetheless enrich the movie with profound meaning. Stirring, complex, and surprisingly inventive, it’s not surprising that Aftersun is one of the most beloved films of the past year. 

Genre: Drama

Actor: Celia Rowlson-Hall, Frankie Corio, Harry Perdios, Kieran Burton, Paul Mescal, Sally Messham, Sarah Makharine, Sophia Lamanova, Spike Fearn

Director: Charlotte Wells

Rating: R

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

The film stars Jake Gyllenhaal as Lou Bloom, an impromptu freelance videographer who begins covering the crime world in LA for a local TV station. Almost as dark as a mystery can get, it is disturbing, and plays out as a combination of "Drive" and "The Network". The film is visually stunning as well as immensely suspenseful. It then becomes almost impossible to look away, even when you're the most horrified by just how far Bloom is willing to go to reach success. Gyllenhaal's performance is widely compared to that of Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver, which should give you an idea of its caliber.

Genre: Crime, Drama, Mystery, Thriller

Actor: Alex Ortiz, Ann Cusack, Bill Blair, Bill Paxton, Bill Seward, Carolyn Gilroy, Chris Wolfe, Christina De Leon, Dale Shane, Dan Gilroy, Dig Wayne, Eric Lange, Holly Hannula, Jake Gyllenhaal, James Huang, Jamie McShane, Jonny Coyne, Kathleen York, Kent Shocknek, Kevin Dunigan, Kevin Rahm, Kiff VandenHeuvel, Leah Fredkin, Marco Rodriguez, Merritt Bailey, Michael Hyatt, Michael Papajohn, Myra Turley, Pat Harvey, Price Carson, Rene Russo, Rick Chambers, Rick Garcia, Riz Ahmed, Sharon Tay, Stephanie D'Abruzzo, Viviana Chavez

Director: Dan Gilroy

Rating: R

Leave No Trace is the amazing new movie from the director of Winter's Bone, Debra Granik. It's the story of a father and his daughter who live completely off the grid in a national park in Portland, and their quiet quest to not be separated and remain off the grid. It's not the sensational, tear-jerker story that you'd expect something with this premise to be. Rather, and like Winter's Bone, it chooses a humane and realistic approach to the subject matter. The decision to live outside society is almost irrelevant to this movie. More so, its inevitability for certain people with certain mindsets is what is interesting. A stunningly quiet movie, really well-acted too.

Genre: Drama, Mystery

Actor: Alyssa McKay, Art Hickman, Ayanna Berkshire, Ben Foster, Dale Dickey, Dana Millican, Debra Granik, Derek John Drescher, Isaiah Stone, Jeff Kober, Jeffery Rifflard, Michael Draper, Michael J. Prosser, Spencer S. Hanley, Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie, Thomasin McKenzie

Director: Debra Granik

Rating: PG

, 2019

In The Sun, a family of four is dealt with tragedy after tragedy, beginning with the younger sun A-ho's sudden incarceration. The mother is sympathetic but the father all but shuns him as he chooses to throw all his affection to A-hao, the older brother, and his med school pursuits instead. Themes of crime, punishment, family, and redemption are then explored in gorgeous frames and mesmerizing colors with director Chung Mong-hong doubling as the film's cinematographer. 

Despite itself, The Sun never falls into cliche melodrama territory. Its heavy themes are undercut by naturalistic acting and poetic shots, resulting in a deeply emotional but balanced film. Rich in meaning and beauty, The Sun will surely stay with you long after your first watch.

 

Genre: Crime, Drama, Family

Actor: Apple Wu, Chang Han, Chen Yi-wen, Chen Yiwen, Chen-Ling Wen, Chien-Ho Wu, Chih-ju Lin, Greg Hsu, Guan-Ting Liu, Han Chang, Huang Hsin-Yao, Ivy Yin, Ko Shu-Chin, Kuan-Ting Liu, Li-Tung Chang, Liao Hui-Jen, Lin Chih-ju, Liu Kuan-ting, Lung Shao-Hua, Ming-Shuai Shih, Samantha Ko, Samantha Shu-Chin Ko, Shao-Huai Chang, Shu-Chin Ko, Shu-qin Ke, Siu Wa Lung, Wang Ko-Yuan, Wen Chen-ling, Wu Chien-ho, Wu Tai-ling, Yi-Wen Chen, Yin Shin

Director: Chung Mong-hong, Mong-Hong Chung

Rating: N/A

To Leslie follows the eponymous Leslie (Andrea Riseborough), a Southern woman who finds herself at the bottom of the barrel after finally using up every penny of her $190k lottery win. Out of work, friends, and family, she drowns herself in alcohol—that is until a kind soul in the form of motel owner Sweeney (Marc Maron) takes her in and gives her a shot.

To Leslie starts off a bit slow, and its premise may seem like it’ll give way to weepiness, but it’s worth sticking by till the end. The film only gets better, especially with the arrival of Maron, whose presence lends the film a much-needed buoyancy. It's also worth noting that unlike many of its kind, To Leslie avoids the poverty porn trap by depicting issues like addiction and indigence with nuance, honesty, and humanity.

Genre: Crime, Drama

Actor: Alan Trong, Alan Wells, Allison Janney, Andre Royo, Andrea Riseborough, Arabella Grant, Blake Robbins, Brandee Steger, Catfish Jean, Chris Coy, Derek Phillips, Drew Youngblood, Jack O'Connor, James Landry Hébert, Jeanette O'Connor, John Gilbert, Juan Carlos Cantu, Lauren Letherer, Mac Brandt, Maggie Carney, Marc Maron, Matt Lauria, Micah Fitzgerald, Owen Teague, Paula Rhodes, Pramod Kumar, Scott Peat, Scott Subiono, Sewell Whitney, Stephanie Wong, Stephen Root, Tom Virtue

Director: Michael Morris

Rating: R

Stand By Me follows four young friends as they journey around their small town searching for a rumored dead body. On the surface, it moves like an adventure story. The boys narrowly avoid guard dogs and leeches, speeding trains and tough teen gangs. But along the way, they also learn much about each other, in particular about the stark reality of their home lives and the growing depths of their inner struggles, so that beneath all the small-time thrill is a beating coming-of-age story. 

Based on a novella by horror master Stephen King, Stand By Me is terrifying in its ability to evoke the unique thorniness of passing through the gates of adulthood, but also warm and comforting in its reminder of the universality of this feeling.

Genre: Adventure, Crime, Drama

Actor: Bradley Gregg, Bruce Kirby, Casey Siemaszko, Chance Quinn, Corey Feldman, Dick Durock, Frances Lee McCain, Gary Riley, Jason Naylor, Jason Oliver, Jerry O'Connell, Jerry O'Connell, John Cusack, Kent W. Luttrell, Kiefer Sutherland, Korey Scott Pollard, Madeleine Swift, Marshall Bell, Matt Williams, O.B. Babbs, Richard Dreyfuss, River Phoenix, Scott Beach, Wil Wheaton, William Bronder

Director: Rob Reiner

Rating: R

The Kings of the World is a surreal coming-of-age movie that follows Rá, Culebro, Sere, Winny, and Nano, street kids who are on their way to claim land that’s rightfully theirs. Their one goal is to finally make a home after living without one for so long, but they’re hindered by the inevitable tragedies that befall kids of their kind: impoverished, alone, and abandoned.

The title is ironic, but it also hints at their state of mind: these boys are unstoppable, rabble-rousers who live like there’s no tomorrow. They tear down private property and invade inns not out of spite, necessarily, but out of a knowledge that whatever they do they’re gonna be put down anyway, so they might as well live without rules.

Tackling powerful themes like land restitution and youth neglect, The Kings of the World is one of the most agonizing movies you'll ever see. It’s also Colombia’s official Best Foreign Language Film entry in the 2022 Academy Awards.

Genre: Adventure, Drama

Actor: Brahian Acevedo, Carlos Andrés Castañeda, Cristian Campaña, Cristian David Duque, Davison Florez

Director: Laura Mora

Rating: TV-MA

David Fincher's return to form almost ten years after Gone Girl turns the eponymous French graphic novel series into a stone-cold stunner. The Killer can be described as a crime thriller and a neo noir, but it's perfectly Fincherian in the ways it withholds information from the viewer, building up suspense in a masterful rhythm. The film opens on the inside of a construction site—a WeWork office to-be—where our Killer stalks his pray across the street. A rather static beginning, where nothing much happens: one may question the thriller qualities of the film during its first act for similar reasons, but just give it time; that's exactly what The Killer would say. But little does he know that time is something he doesn't have much of...

Genre: Crime, Thriller

Actor: Arliss Howard, Bernard Bygott, Brandon Morales, Carlos Rogelio Diaz, Cécile Coves, Charles Parnell, Daran Norris, Emiliano Pernia, Endre Hules, Erik Hellman, François Patissier, Gabriel Polanco, Ilyssa Fradin, Jack Kesy, Jérôme Keen, Julia Rowley, Kellan Rhude, Kerry O'Malley, Kev Morris Sr., Leroy Edwards III, Lía Lockhart, Michael Fassbender, Monique Ganderton, Nikki Dixon, Sacha Beaubier, Sala Baker, Sophie Charlotte, Stéphane Vasseur, Tilda Swinton

Director: David Fincher

Rating: R

What’s great about this highly inventive film is that it doesn’t look like it was shot through three iPhone 5s. Instead of using shaky cameras and static shots, Tangerine glides us through saturated, orange-toned scenes that evoke the Los Angeles sunset. Launching director Sean Baker into prominence, Tangerine is an innovative film that, at heart, is a nuanced comedy about the trans sex worker community. Newcomers Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor run the show, and their performances create a vivid, electric drive that powers the whole movie. But it’s the quieter moments, the moments after betrayal, the moments of recovery, that make this movie truly special.

Genre: Comedy, Drama

Actor: Alla Tumanian, Ana Foxxx, Arsen Grigoryan, Chelcie Lynn, Chris Bergoch, Clu Gulager, Darren Dean, Graham Mackie, Ian Edwards, James Ransone, Jason Stuart, John Gulager, Josh Sussman, Julie Cummings, Karren Karagulian, Katja Kassin, Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, Luiza Nersisyan, Melanie Booth, Mickey O'Hagen, Mickey O'Hagan, Mya Taylor, Richard-Lael Lillard, Scott Krinsky, Scott Lyons, Shih-Ching Tsou

Director: Sean Baker

Rating: R

This movie is a dramatic masterpiece and a tribute to loving middle-aged women everywhere. It is unparalleled in the way it portrays its characters and the subtlety with which it tells their stories. The events are centered around a 52-year-old Georgian woman who decides to leave her family home and live alone without much of a notice. She trades chaos and domestic disputes for solitude, and the prospect of sad old age for an opportunity to build a new life for herself. In other words, she trades being the secondary character to her mother, husband, and children, to being the hero of her own story. A genuine and beautiful film. If like me you grew up with a mother who sacrificed everything for you, this will hit very close to home.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Berta Khapava, Dimitri Oragvelidze, Giorgi Khurtsilava, Giorgi Tabidze, Goven Cheishvili, Ia Shugliashvili, Mariam Bokeria, Merab Ninidze, Nana Ekvtimishvili, Simon Gross, Tsisia Qumsishvili

Director: Nana Ekvtimishvili, Simon Groß

Rating: N/A

, 2023

Just based off its title, Mutt is already a film that tackles a state of in-between, and perhaps what makes it already precious is how honest and personal it can get, while remaining a good fictional story. This striking debut took Chilean-Serbian filmmaker Vuk Lungulov-Klotz more than six years to make, at least from the initial stages of the script as he was working through his own transition, how that felt and how he dealt with it in life and art. That said, Mutt is a film that stands on its own feet, without the need for any such context: the script, the performances, the frantic pacing of it, they are all top-level stuff. A generous, open film that has its trans protagonist be who they are, whatever that may be, and gives as much insight as it allows for curiosity and empathy. If Mutt is educational in any way, it is through it's apt storytelling and truthfulness that bleeds through the screen; its significance for trans cinema cannot be overstated, but it is also once of the most accomplished debuts of 2023.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Alejandro Goic, Cole Doman, Jari Jones, Jasai Chase-Owens, Lio Mehiel, MiMi Ryder, Sarah Herrman

Director: Vuk Lungulov-Klotz

Rating: NR