When we think of movies and stories in the traditional sense, we often focus on the story. A lot of the time, it’s the “what” and “how” of the film that captures our attention.
But what about the “who”?
Movies that focus less on the plot and more on the characters, or just one character, are known as character study films. These movies often get attention from award shows and gain critical acclaim because they make us feel what it’s like to be these people portrayed on screen.
In this article, we’ll be counting down 10 of the best character study movies to get you started on this intriguing subgenre (and one we can often all relate to!)
While you are here, we have now launched the first social TV discovery platform for you to explore – The Bob App.
What Makes a Character Study?
In simple terms, a character study is when a film, book, or show is driven not by the external plot but by the internal struggles of the main character (think Joker, Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour or Ripley in Alien). As you can see it can also be an entirely fictional protagonist or a dramatised version of a real person or people.
Instead of a movie being driven by a single goal (such as saving the world, winning the championship, or beating the villain), the character study movie genre is more focused on what the characters want. It often takes a deep dive into their motivations and the emotions that drive them.
Most of the time, after you’ve watched this type of movie, you come away with a better understanding of the protagonist’s internal journey rather than whatever plot they were involved in.
So what are some examples of films that do this really well? You can probably come with quite a few with a bit of thought but we homed in on these (but which is the best in our opinion?).
Here’s Our Ten Essential Character Study Movies
The great thing about character study movies is that they can range across all genres and time periods. Let’s take a look at 10 such movies that truly define this category here:
Taxi Driver (1976)
When Joker caught a lot of Oscar and media buzz in 2019, we saw many people comparing it to a few Martin Scorsese classics. One popular comparison was his 1976 film Taxi Driver.
Often seen as both Scorsese and actor Robert DeNiro’s breakout film, this psychological thriller takes a disturbing look into the mind of a mentally ill Vietnam War vet in the 1970s. It’s a classic thriller that all film lovers should experience at least once.
Director: Martin Scorsese
Talk about an Oscar snub! This 2014 thriller directed by Dan Gilroy puts the audience into the mind of Lou Bloom, a freelance videographer not afraid to do some seedy things to get authentic crime footage.
An all-time performance by Jake Gyllenhaal elevates this type of movie to new heights. Let’s just say you’ll know and understand Lou a little too much by the end of the film.
Director: Dan Gilroy
A star-making performance by Charlize Theron is the big talking point of Monster, but it’s also a fantastic character study. This 2003 film tells the real-life story of Aileen Wuornos, her serial murders, and her subsequent trial.
Theron and director Patty Jenkins gave us a superb look into the mind of Wuornos here. A true-crime thriller for the ages, this film fascinates and disturbs us to this day.
Director: Patty Jenkins
Lady Bird (2017)
Going in a more light-hearted direction, we now take a look at Greta Gerwig’s 2017 coming-of-age classic, Lady Bird. This warm, honest, and often hilarious film looks into the life of a quirky teenager struggling to find a purpose in her middle-class high school life.
In a long list of character studies about serial killers and detectives, Lady Bird gives us a relaxing detour to a far more relatable persona. Check this out if you’re looking for an insightful teen flick!
Director: Greta Gerwig
No lists about these types of movies are complete without mentioning Charlie Kaufman. While he was already known for his eclectic writing style for movies like Being John Malkovich, Adaptation was something else entirely.
Delving into the psyche of his own mind by writing a fictional version of himself and a fake brother (both played by Nick Cage), Kaufman dials up the character study-ness in this 2002 classic. Watch this if you’re looking to get a little avant-garde with your film palette.
Director: Spike Jonze
Black Swan (2010)
Going back to the psychological, Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan shows us what it’s like to have a complete mental breakdown. Natalie Portman plays Nina, a young ballerina struggling to navigate the pressure of playing the leading role in a production of Swan Lake.
Black Swan‘s uncomfortably detailed look into the follies of self-doubt and pressure is something to behold. If you check this one out and like it, we also recommend Satoshi Kon’s Perfect Blue, the film which directly inspired Black Swan.
Director: Darren Aronofsky
The Master (2012)
Director Paul Thomas Anderson is no stranger to character studies (as you’ll see later in the list), and The Master is one of his finest works. This film is interesting in that audiences get to delve into the minds of two characters.
Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddie Quell is a slightly unhinged war veteran looking for meaning in life. The late Phillip Seymour-Hoffman plays Lancaster Dodd, a spiritual leader trying to understand Quell.
The film depicts the two powerhouse actors squaring off scene after scene as we get to see how each man functions. The Master isn’t an easy watch, but it’ll stick in your mind and psyche for longer than you might expect.
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
American Psycho (2000)
This cult classic directed by Mary Harron might be considered a farce or straight-up horror film more than a character study. However, American Psycho‘s often-parodied monologues and Christian Bale’s unhinged performance would argue otherwise.
Bale plays a homicidal maniac stuck in his own paranoia and obsessions as he struggles to hide his homicidal tendencies underneath his fake Wall Street persona. The way the movie unravels this character gives American Psycho an undeniable charm, so we have to recommend it here.
Director: Mary Harron
Raging Bull (1980)
We revisit another Scorsese classic for our number 2 pick with Raging Bull. Some say this is the best collaboration between Marty and his pal DeNiro, and there’s no denying that this is an excellent character study.
The duo expertly brings boxer Jake LaMotta to life, a deeply insecure and angry man whose personal life mirrored the violent and tumultuous path of his professional career. Real-life studies of character rarely get any better than this.
Director: Martin Scorsese
There Will Be Blood (2007)
We told you Paul Thomas Anderson would be back! We’re not saying that There Will Be Blood is the best character study of all time. Rather, it’s the most emblematic film of the entire genre.
Daniel Day-Lewis is practically the king of this movie genre, and he shows off his acting moves aplenty in this 2007 classic. By playing fictional oil mogul Daniel Plainview, we see what makes him tick, his motivations, and his ruthless ambition.
The result is an all-time stand-out performance and a film that’ll stick in your mind long after the credits roll.
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
We hope we’ve given you a few ideas in our best character study movies list for what to watch next. Also, just a reminder that we have now released our social movie and tv discovery platform, the bob app. Find more movies like these, there.
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