A brilliant detective. A legendary actor who created comedy without sound. A sly criminal. A dedicated journalist. And a genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist.
If you can say one thing about Robert Downey Jr.’s career, it’s that the man sure can spread his talents across the spectrum of cinema. He plays on multiple playgrounds, ones that include action, drama, and comedy. He sometimes elicits them out inside one performance.
The truth is Downey Jr.’s greatest work exists far from the screen. That happened around a decade and a half ago when he got clean and sober after a life spent battling alcohol and drug addiction. A battle that was at times very public due to his job and got very dirty and shameful in the courts. A man destined to bury himself, along with his immense talent, found a way out thanks to fine group of family and friends, including his longtime collaborator and friend, Jon Favreau, and his wife and producing partner, Susan Downey.
It’s that recovery that led to his enormous and quite stellar run of success over the past 13 years. People can take a dump on his biggest bomb, “Dolittle,” but every big actor has a stinker in his career. A performer can only walk around the cinematic desert for so long without stepping on a landmine. But let’s focus on his greatest roles. While 5 was an initial thought, picking ten roles is more appropriate with this guy’s body of work.
This may have some sort of established order to it, or it could just be rolling off the top of my head. Remember, though, these are my favorites and not yours. That is what the comment section is for. Let’s get started.
10) “Home for the Holidays”
Downey played both the best and worst brother, Tommy Larson. For Holly Hunter’s Claudia, he was a lifeline, a fellow reckless traveler to bounce bad days off. For Cynthia Stevenson’s Joanne, he was the thorn in her side. He was fire for one and a haven for another, and Downey Jr. played both to a tee. Made back in 1995, this was right in the middle of the actor’s addiction-plagued years. He was clearly under the influence of drugs while making it, and many were worried about him. But this role still sings 25 years later. Without him, the film is not one of my favorite holiday films.
9) Tropic Thunder
Who else could play an Australian actor who portrays a black man in a Vietnam film? The answer is no one. Downey Jr. stole the show here, earning an Oscar nomination for a role that people still talk about. A ferociously method actor who truly doesn’t know where the parts end and he begins. This one will live on.
8) “Less Than Zero”
This is a film that truly unveiled RDJ’s talent to the world. A conflicted yet charismatic young man battling addiction amid the turbulence of a teenage wasteland out on the coast. Released in 1987 and featuring one of his biggest roles to that date, Downey Jr. stood out among the cast as someone you should keep an eye on. A mixture of his real-life persona, struggles, and ability all in one.
While Downey Jr. was nominated for an Academy Award for his work as Charlie Chaplin, I don’t look back on this role as fondly as I used to. It’s one of those biopics that an actor props up with their talent and ingenuity, but the overall picture rings hollow and doesn’t reveal a lot about the man. He made a lot out of a little here, cobbling together a performance in a film that was all show and no tell.
6) “Charlie Bartlett”
This one sneaked up on and floored me. Released quietly in 2007 and starring the late Anton Yelchin, Downey Jr.’s role seemed minor at first but grew as the film aged. Nathan Gardner was the principal at Bartlett’s (Yelchin) school, a complicated guy trying to keep his job and a stranglehold on his life. I loved every scene the two actors shared, because it illuminated each other of their talents. Yelchin holding his own with an award-caliber actor, and Downey Jr. injecting new life in the familiar role of father figure. Also, Hope Davis was great in this as well.
5) “Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang”
This the small film that started his comeback. A very funny and highly enjoyable film about a criminal working with a private investigator and a dancer to solve a murder in Los Angeles. Val Kilmer offered up his best performance since “Tombstone” and Michelle Monaghan was great as well, but this was Downey Jr.’s show all the way. Written and directed by Shane Black, who would go on to direct Downey Jr. in “Iron Man 3,” this is exactly the kind of film he should do these days: an indie-type thriller that played like one of those cheesy yet edgy detective novels. And he also sings a fine tune in the credits.
4) “The Soloist”
There was something not quite perfect about Joe Wright’s drama involving a struggling journalist (Downey Jr.) and a homeless musical prodigy (Foxx), but one couldn’t miss the sublime nature of this story. Two unlikely souls finding, and rescuing, each other from their pasts. While Foxx got the juicier role, Downey Jr. made the most of his charismatic and good-intention-holding writer trying to help someone who didn’t exactly ask for it. This film moves to its own beat, but still sings a good tune.
David Fincher’s hard-hitting drama about the infamous San Francisco killer featured great performances across the board, from Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Edwards-but Downey Jr. was the guy I wanted to spend more time with. Once again, Paul Avery wasn’t an honest, humble guy. He had demons and issues, but he was also quite the character, and this let RDJ run wild with his talent. Working with Fincher was a key to unlocking one of his better-and not as talked about-supporting performances.
2) “Sherlock Holmes”
With some apologies to Benedict Cumberbatch (Downey Jr.’s co-star in the Marvel universe), I’d put money on RDJ’s interpretation of the legendary British detective who loved drugs and booze almost as much as he liked complicated crimes. The camaraderie formed between Jude Law and Downey Jr. in these films lends a lot of weight to the overall satisfaction of the adventure/thriller. It turned Guy Ritchie’s big budget blockbuster into a personal tale about friendship due to their work. A third film is coming sometime soon. One can chalk it up to Downey Jr.’s star power and talent pushing the stick forward. He’s Sherlock 100% here, enlivening all its idiosyncrasies and bad habits.
1) Tony Stark/”Iron Man”
This is a no-doubter. After ten films and truckloads of money later, I can easily say, I love Tony Stark 3,000. The MCU doesn’t happen without Downey Jr.’s trailblazing commencement in 2008’s “Iron Man.” If that film fails, the idea burns up right there. It was the gutsy casting decision of guys like Favreau and other friends that got him the role, but it was Downey Jr.’s full-bodied and multi-faceted performance as Stark/Iron Man that grounded the CGI-laden film every time he was on screen. He only better as the movie stacked up, culminating in his soulful performance in last year’s “Endgame.” No one else should ever play that role, and no one assuredly will ever be half as good as RDJ was. He made Marvel’s plan and big scope credible. The end.
“Good Night, Good Luck”
“A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints”
“A Scanner Darkly”
Robert Downey Jr. has played a part in 93 productions in his career, with the first dating back to 1970 in his dad’s film. A chip off the old block is one way to put it. A maestro crash-landing onto Hollywood, stumbling a bit, and rediscovering his genius is more like it.
He’s 55 today, but I hope there’s a lot more to come. After all, in Hollywood, that’s only your prime.