Characters are often the most integral, complex parts of a film script. I’ve often felt, experienced and come to believe that a film with finely etched out characters often stays in your mind more than films that focus solely on the plot. While there could be films with gripping plots as well as intriguing characters, I’ve always had this inclination towards films that are almost entirely character driven. There have been numerous occasions that left me spellbound when the filmmakers make masterful use of the characters to tell their stories. This is when they chronicle a character’s journey that shapes up the heart of the film’s story. And more often than not, character driven films push actors to their extreme limits resulting in sensational performances. With that said, here is my list of some of the top character driven films ever. You can watch some of these best character study movies on Netflix, Hulu or Amazon Prime.
1. Citizen Kane (1941)
The greatest American film ever made also happens to be one of the most character driven films of all time. ‘Citizen Kane’ chronicles the life of Charles Foster Kane, a big shot newspaper publisher, whose mysterious last word happens to interest a newspaperman as he sets out to discover its meaning. A film that revolutionized almost every aspect of filmmaking, ‘Citizen Kane’ is a staggering character study of a human being. The soul of a human being that was once brimming with ambitions and desires. Kane’s life is revealed to us through interviews in flashbacks as we see him go from being an idealistic young man to a cutthroat business tycoon. It is the mystery behind the man, his journey, his dreams, his emotions and desires that forms the heart and soul of the film. And more than 7 decades later, Charles Foster Kane yet remains as one of the most enigmatic figures in cinema.
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2. Taxi Driver (1976)
Probably no other film has managed to captivate, engage and disturb its viewers the way ‘Taxi Driver’ has in a way that it has very little to do with the plot but is all about its central character’s journey as he is pulled into the web of madness and paranoia. Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece is a silent roar about Vietnam and a generation that witnessed and endured the madness, the chaos and been through hell in the jungles of Vietnam. And Scorsese, with his cinematic prowess, portrays a man’s alienation from civilization all through the eyes of De Niro’s Travis Bickle. It is Travis’ survival in a world that was once his but now feels alien that forms the crux of the film’s story.
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3. Raging Bull (1980)
‘Raging Bull’, to my mind, is the ultimate biopic. It is riveting, compelling and heartbreaking. The stark contrast of a man’s life outside and within the ring makes Jake LaMotta for an immensely fascinating character study. His obsessions, his ambition, his desires, his love, his rage. The film makes us go through a plethora of emotions as we witness a man who makes a hell out of his life by turning away people who loved him the most and his constant battle with his own self and his inner demons that have tormented his soul throughout his life. Life and people aren’t just about being black and white. It’s those incredibly layered colors that are inherent in all of us that ultimately makes us human beings. ‘Raging Bull’ could just be the perfect film If you are set out on exploring character driven films.
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4. The Godfather (1972)
‘The Godfather’ is a classic example of how deftly a film can blend its plot and the character as they both become one and the same. The film’s plot follows an old, powerful mafia don getting shot by his rival gangsters demanding his youngest son to step up and rise to the occasion for the sake of protecting his family. This is a plot that demands a lot of character development. Francis Ford Coppola first introduces Michael as a young, charming, idealistic war hero with a seemingly high sense of morality who distances himself from his family business. However the events that take place over the course of the film gradually pull Michael into the dark, tragic world of crime and violence as he goes on to become the most ruthless, immoral don of the family. It is Michael’s transformation from an innocent college boy to a cold-hearted mobster that is the central focus of the story in ‘The Godfather’.
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5. The Godfather Part II (1974)
Segregating the first two Godfather films is an incredibly hard task not because the second installment doesn’t qualify as a standalone but because of how interdependent they are in terms of story and character development. However, it is only in the series’ second installment do we get to see the characters as fully fledged ones. Coppola further explores his protagonist’s psyche and questions his morality in the film’s sequel by drawing parallels with the narrative of his father’s flashback and his rise to power. The portrayal of the rise of Vito as a gangster and the fall of Michael as a human being makes ‘The Godfather Part II’ as one of the most character driven films in cinema.
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6. The Master (2012)
Paul Thomas Anderson, arguably the best contemporary American filmmaker, is a master when it comes to character work. And in his 2012 Scientology mocking satirical drama, Anderson went to extensive lengths with his characters in a film that barely had a plot. The film plays out like a beautifully orchestrated musical event for two highly skilled classical musicians, Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman. It’s the brilliantly bizarre manner in which Anderson has placed the two contrasting characters of Freddie Quell and Lancaster Dodd that makes the film incredibly exciting, intoxicating and addictive.
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7. There Will Be Blood (2007)
One of the finest films to have come out of Hollywood this century, ‘There Will Be Blood’ is an epic tale of greed, power, ambition and is at its heart a pure, classic American tragedy. The film focuses on the journey of Daniel Plainview who is driven towards extremities by his deranged ambitions. Paul Thomas Anderson’s sheer brilliance at character work once again comes into play here as the opening 15 minutes of the film with not a single line spoken, establishes the character of Plainview as a hard working man looking to make it big in the oil business. The entire film is ambiguous about the character’s emotions, thoughts and inner conscience as Plainview is a man who has made a world all for himself and shuts people off when he discerns them sneaking into his realm of congenital hatred and utter disdain for humanity. Daniel Plainview is a character for the ages. One that will be discussed, debated and analyzed for the years to come.
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8. Magnolia (1999)
Well, no surprises again. As I said, no contemporary filmmaker would come close to Paul Thomas Anderson when it comes to characterization. ‘Magnolia’ could well be regarded as his best work. Anderson consummates his relationship with cinema in this film that is an intense study of characters in search of happiness, forgiveness and meaning. Perhaps no other American film from the last 20 years has managed to impact us with such emotional profoundness in the way that ‘Magnolia’ has. Those ecstatic moments of pure bliss, the tender moments of love, the agony and the heartbreaks that the characters endure in the film make this one of the most immensely satisfying yet harrowing character studies of all time.
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9. Boyhood (2014)
When Richard Linklater’s name comes up you know that the film will not have anything to do with a plot but will be all about life and his characters’ journey in it over the course of time. Linklater’s eccentricities with regards to the use of real time in cinema and allowing his actors to age naturally over the course of many years give his films a distinctive touch and exhilarating cinematic experience. His 2014 magnum opus, ‘Boyhood’ depicts 12 years in the life of a boy from being a little kid to a college going teenager. An astonishing feat in cinema, Linklater shot the film over a period of 12 years so that he could get his actors to age naturally an portray their characters well. The film put off many traditional cinegoers due to its lack of plot. But Linklater asks us. Do our lives have a plot? We are all mere characters in lives. We go through the various stages and emotions and there is no need for things to happen in our lives for life itself is the biggest thing that could happen to us. And to quote Shakespeare, “All the world’s a stage. And all the men and women merely players”.
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10. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
Milos Forman’s eternal classic is a saddening tale of human spirits wrecked by the tyranny of an evil soul in a mental institution. Jack Nicholson’s unforgettable Randle McMurphy symbolized freedom, revolution and rebellion for a generation. The film is replete with solid, fascinating, well etched characters and it is this brilliance in the writing aspects that makes it an engrossing watch despite apparently lacking a clear plot. McMurphy takes us on a ride with him and in his journey we learn about the beauty of human spirits, the true meaning and the essence of happiness and unfeigned human emotions of love.
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