The 10 Best Character-Driven Movies on Netflix

Updated May 18, 2024 • Staff

Movies don't always have the time to craft truly memorable characters; they don't have the space that television allows to get into a person's full background and their relationships and interactions with other characters. And there's nothing wrong with that—but when a movie does come along that can immerse you into the mindset and the point of view of a compelling character, that's something worth cherishing. If you want access to a number of great cinematic characters right at your fingertips, you can already get started on Netflix. Here are 10 of these somewhat lesser-known cinematic creations that you can watch on the streaming giant.

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10.

The Killer (2023)

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...

Our staff rating: 8.4/10
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
Go to Netflix
9.

Stand By Me (1986)

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.

Our staff rating: 8.5/10
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
Go to Netflix
8.

To Leslie (2022)

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.

Our staff rating: 8.5/10
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
Go to Netflix
7.

Nightcrawler (2014)

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.

Our staff rating: 8.6/10
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
Go to Netflix
6.

Leave No Trace (2018)

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.

Our staff rating: 8.6/10
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
Go to Netflix
5.

A Sun (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.

 

Our staff rating: 8.6/10
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
Go to Netflix
4.

Philomena (2013)

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.

Our staff rating: 8.8/10
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
Go to Netflix
3.

Divines (2016)

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.

Our staff rating: 9/10
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
Go to Netflix
2.

Blue Jay (2016)

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!

Our staff rating: 9.1/10
Genre: Drama, Romance
Actor: Alex Lehmann, Clu Gulager, James Andrews, Mark Duplass, Sarah Paulson
Director: Alex Lehmann, Alexandre Lehmann
Rating: Not Rated, Unrated
Go to Netflix
1.

Fruitvale Station (2013)

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.

Our staff rating: 9.7/10
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
Go to Netflix

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