Since coming to prominence in the mid-‘80s, two-time Academy Award nominee Robert Downey Jr. has been considered one of the best actors of his generation by critics and fellow actors alike, and it’s easy to see why. Not only has he proven himself to be a versatile and powerful force in the industry, he’s also starred in quite a variety of films.
His filmography still continues to show exceptional range, in regards to both range and genre. From heart-wrenching drama to biting satire, from frothy romantic comedy to character-driven dramas, he’s done it all. Most recently, he starred in the Hangover-reminiscent comedy Due Date and will star in the sequel Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows later this year.
10. Chances Are (1989; director: Emile Ardolino)
Downey rarely lends his talents to romantic comedies, but this is one of those unique exceptions. He holds his own against dual love interests Mary Stuart Masterson and Cybill Shepherd.
9. Sherlock Holmes (2009; director: Guy Ritchie)
Downey leads this quirky take on the hero of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s literary classics. His performance manages to be both caustically humorous and intensely brutal. He develops some hysterical rapport with token sidekick Watson, played by Jude Law, and anchors the film to save it from its otherwise inevitable missteps.
8. Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang (2005; director: Shane Black)
It might seem like a wannabe Woody Allen film on paper, but that’s not the case at all. In fact, it’s one of the few films in the past several years to successfully combine the genres of comedy, mystery, and action. Downey’s performance and his chemistry with co-stars Val Kilmer and the always radiant Michelle Monaghan deserve much of the credit, but it all works thanks to Shane Black’s incomparable skill as a writer and director. Can’t wait to see what that duo has in store for Iron Man 3.
7. Chaplin (1992; director: Richard Attenborough)
Chaplin is considered by most to be Downey’s most impressive acting gig, and that’s a fair argument. The film gets saved on the strength of his leading performance alone, but it works much better as a performance piece than as a narrative motion picture. One can’t deny Downey’s absolutely perfect interpretation of Charlie Chaplin.
6. The Soloist (2009; director: Joe Wright)
Joe Wright helms this drama about the friendship of a journalist and schizophrenic Juilliard student, taking a huge departure from his two previous films (Pride and Prejudice and Atonement). It doesn’t fit into the Hollywood cliché by boasting a confection-store-ready-sweet ending but rather employs a more realistic resolution. Downey’s performance here easily ranks as one of his best leading efforts, though Jamie Foxx’s supporting role might be the more powerful one. Too bad that the film was pushed from its initially planned late-2008 release; the Best Actor Oscar would have easily gone to Downey.
5. Iron Man (2008; director: Jon Favreau)
The film that put Downey back on the map as one to watch in Hollywood. It’s might feature weaker fighting choreography than Spider-Man, and it might not be as psychological and socially insightful as The Dark Knight, but it doesn’t need to be. It’s a marvel (pun intended) because it manages to be a fast-paced, occasionally humorous, and well-acted action film; it’s everything a blockbuster should be. This film also holds a special place in my Downey-admiring heart, as this was my introduction to his extraordinary talent.
4. Tropic Thunder (2008; director: Ben Stiller)
The trailer for Tropic Thunder presents us with what looked to be a Farrelly Brothers film. Sure, there’s nothing wrong with that (unless it’s Hall Pass), but we’re instead treated to a fusion of the brothers’ traditional gross-out humor and a bitingly satirical look at Hollywood. Downey picked up second Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of Australian method actor Kirk Lazarus, and Tom Cruise’s Les Grossman nabbed a Golden Globe nomination.
3. Home for the Holidays (1995; director: Jodie Foster)
Jodie Foster already nabbed two Oscars for her screen acting before stepping behind the camera to helm this touching family drama. She does a superb job of crafting a realistic portrait of the modern family, deftly avoiding stereotypes and clichés with her characters. Downey in particular provides one of the film’s more intriguing character narratives.
2. Less than Zero (1987; director: Marek Kanievska)
Putting Downey on the map for the first time in his career is his haunting performance as rich druggie Julian Wells in this drama based on the Bret Easton Ellis novel of the same name. It’s unfortunate that this role foresees events that would later take place in his own life.
1. One Night Stand (1997; director: Mike Figgis)
Director Mike Figgis perhaps remains a household name for his Oscar-winning drama Leaving Las Vegas, but this is his real masterpiece. In his first of two Downey collaborations, Wesley Snipes expertly leads this engaging and fascinating character drama alongside Nastassja Kinski. They share a one night stand, seemingly destined to never meet again, but fate might have other plans.
Here Downey turns in what may be his finest performance to date as a gay man dying of AIDS. He grips at the emotions (keep a box of tissues near you while watching) and provides the real heart of the story.
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