Top 10 Robert Downey Jr. Performances

RDJ-RDJ.jpg2008 seems to be the year of Robert Downey Jr. and why not? The man has gone through a lot of hell (it should be pointed out that it was all his own damn fault), but managed to pick himself up and re-establish himself and his career. The year started for him with two smash hits, Iron Man and Tropic Thunder, and now there are people whispering the word “Oscar” about him for his upcoming movie “The Soloist” with Jamie Foxx.

It’s the type of year most performers only ever dream of. But lets not forget that amidst all the turmoil his life has been known for, Robert Downey Jr. has ALWAYS been a top notch actor with some incredible performances to his credit. So as we exit his hugely successful summer, let’s look back for a moment at Robert Downey Jr.’s 10 best performances. Now some of these movies are horrible, but Downey was solid in them all:

RDJ-Kiss.jpg#1 – KISS KISS BANG BANG
A lot of people will find this to be an odd choice considering Downey got an Oscar nomination for Chaplin, but to me he nailed this film and character so perfectly and brought so much life to it I can’t deny it the #1 spot.
RDJ-Chaplin.jpg#2 – CHAPLIN
This movie isn’t even all that old so I’m shocked at home many people haven’t ever seen it. A flat out terrific film and once of Downey’s best performances ever.
RDJ-Zodiac.jpg#3- ZODIAC
Confession time. I didn’t even like this movie. I thought it was a bloated, self important mess that most people gave too much credit too for what it was TRYING to do instead of what it actually accomplished. But that’s just me. Still, Downey nearly saved the whole film for me.
RDJ-Iron.jpg#4 – IRON MAN
With the possible exception of The Avengers or Iron Man 2, this film will probably always be his biggest box office success. And the #1 thing to me that made this movie work (lots of things made it work, but this was #1) was the pure charm and charism Downey brought to Tony Stark.
RDJ-Saints.jpg#5 – A GUIDE TO RECOGNIZING YOUR SAINTS
A film with a loads of film festival acclaim and buzz, but never really caught on for one reason or another. Shame… it’s really solid.
RDJ-Tropic.jpg#6 – TROPIC THUNDER
I nearly spit the pop right out of my mouth the first time I saw the trailer and witnessed Downey as a black man in a war movie. The idea alone is priceless… and it was made even better by the performance Downey brought to it.
RDJ-Ally.jpg#7 – ALLY McBEAL
So shoot me, I know this isn’t a movie, but in all seriousness Robert Downy Jr. was insanely good in this series. It was so good he was poised to make his big comeback… until he screwed it up again with more drugs. Such a shame.
RDJ-Good-Night.jpg#8 – GOOD NIGHT AND GOOD LUCK
Yes, there is no doubt that this was David Strathairn’s movie all the way, but part of what gave this movie so much punch was the great supporting roles, not the least of which was Downey.
RDJ-Scanner.jpg#9 – A SCANNER DARKLY
I’m always amazed by actors who somehow find a way to deliver a solid performance when the movie they are performing is in excessively stylized. You need to do it a little different than you would in a normal flick and it can easily be screwed up. Downey didn’t screw it up.
RDJ-Marshals.jpg#10 – U.S. MARSHALS
This poor pseudo-sequel to “The Fugitive” suffered from a lousy plot… and yet was almost saved by guys like Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Downey Jr. I think Robert needs to do more villains.

So there you have it, my little list of Robert Downey Jr.’s top 10 best performances. It looks like this list will have to be updated once The Soloist comes out (at least I hope it will), but for now it’s good to remember that Robert Downey Jr. was doing great work long before he put on the Iron suit and started blowing up terrorists.

Am I missing anything on this list that you would have included?

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62 thoughts on “Top 10 Robert Downey Jr. Performances

  1. for me it has 2 b 1, sherlock holmes 2, kiss kiss bang bang 3,chaplin 4, tropic thunder 5,iron man 6,iron man 2 6,the soloist 7, one night stand 8,less than zero 9,gothika 10, two girls and a guy i luv every film he has bin in he such a incredibly talented actor n i think he shud b notiiced more for the wrk he has done in the film industry not robert pattison or any of the twilight saga! rdj is in some cases so underated Xxx

  2. Top Ten Chaplin-Restoration-Soap Dish- Iron Man- The Wonderboys-Kiss Kiss Bang Bang-two girls and a guy-dead Again-Tropic Thunder-The Singing detective.

  3. Hey I agree on some of those but where is Soap dish? Great comedy and it was a long time ago now but I thought he was better in this, then Ally Mcbeal and where is Restoration? One of his better performances and a very differnet role for him. I actually think Restoration is up there some of his best films.

  4. i absolutely agree with the number one choice. kiss kiss bang bang is a great movie and i can watch it over and over and still be entertained by r.d.jr’s performance. it was brilliant.

  5. good topic, ive always liked RDJ, may as well add my top 10.

    1-Natural Born Killers
    2-Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
    3-Iron Man
    4-Tropic Thunder
    5-A Scanner Darkly
    6-Chaplin
    7-Wonder Boys
    8-Zodiac
    9-US Marshalls
    10-A Guide to Recognising Your Saints

  6. @HAZMAT_PWNS_ALL: Actually, wherever that stat of 32 movies came from, it’s wrong by about half. By my count, he’s been in at least 50-something films, and I’m probably missing a few in my own count. Not bad for a guy of 43 who lost a couple of years of his prime due to his own excesses (a year in State Prison and close to that in the L.A. County Jail in the late 90s) but has made up for lost time in the past 5 years or so.

  7. Not a bad list, but it’s missing WONDER BOYS, which is a crying shame. I caught U.S. MARSHALS for the first time in years the other night and was reminded of how bad it was (but damn if RDJ doesn’t do his darndest to make his part of it work–IIRC, it was one of his last movies before he was sent off to State Prison for a year.)

    @HAZMAT_PWNS_ALL: IIRC, Downey’s done 32 movies that have been released to date. He’s actually a better actor to play the “Six Degrees” game with than Kevin Bacon; heck, half of today’s stars can be traced back to RDJ in 2 movies or less.

    My own list:

    10) One Night Stand — a movie utterly unwatchable when Downey isn’t onscreen. In an excellent supporting role and sidestory to the main plot thread (Wesley Snipes cheating on Ming-Na with Nastassja Kinski), Downey plays a gay choreographer with end-stage AIDS determined to fight his disease to the end. The quiet earnestness of his plea to best friend Max (Wesley Snipes) to come visit him in the hospital between 5:30 and 5:45 AM because he fears dying before the sun comes up is utterly heartbreaking.

    9) Less Than Zero — Bad 80’s hair, bad 80’s fashion, decent 80’s music, and one knock-em-dead performance from 22-year-old RDJ. RDJ has called this role “The Ghost of Christmas Future”, and he’s probably right: Julian Wells, the cokefiend whose only motivation in life is obtaining more drugs, willing to do practically anything to obtain them. This performance started Downey on a wild upward career path and made Hollywood producers and directors turn a blind eye to his increasing drug problems for over 8 years; it was that electrifying.

    8 ) Soapdish — A cute “chick flick” movie that doesn’t deserve the bad reviews it got. Downey is in peak comic form here as producer David Seton Barnes, who is trying to accommodate the wishes of his girlfriend to be the show’s focal star, keep the show’s Susan Lucci-esque diva happy, deal with the press about soap-opera-like events unfolding within the real lives of his cast, and get the show’s ratings up to please the network bosses. His comic timing here is impeccable, and his expressions wouldn’t be out of place in a classic screwball comedy. If you haven’t seen it, add it to your RDJ collection.

    7) Natural Born Killers — RDJ gives a great supporting performance in one of the most controversial movies of its time. As Australian tabloid TV reporter Wayne Gale, RDJ cracks open his impressions box and pulls out a darn good Aussie accent that never slips or breaks, and does a fantastic job building up the layers of Gale’s obsession with Mickey and Mallory and his hope that their increasing fame will carry him to higher heights in his own.

    6) Kiss Kiss Bang Bang — An overlooked comedy that never devolves into camp. An older-but-wiser RDJ, at the beginning of a four-year grinding workload (16 movies from 2005 to 2008), plays thief Harry Lockhart, who stumbles upon a movie audition line while running from police; Lockhart impresses the producers, and he is cast as a private eye and brought to Hollywood, where a gay private eye is brought in to help Lockhart prepare for his role. Everything Downey does in this film — his innate sense of timing in delivering lines, his facial expressions, his gestures, and his ability to say unspoken but implied dialogue through just a glance at the camera — is pitch-perfect. It is a crime that this film was completely ignored by the major awards.

    5) Chaplin — For most people, THE defining RDJ role. RDJ said in an interview that he’d only ever had to audition for two parts: Charlie Chaplin in Chaplin, and Tony Stark in Iron Man. Looking at the finished film, it’s a wonder he had to audition at all — he’s practically a carbon copy of the man, in both looks and physical mannerisms. (RDJ was once shown a pair of Chaplin’s shoes and asked if he could try one on, and was shocked to discover he and Chaplin had the same size feet.) The movie itself has its problems — like most people, I want the 4-hr. director’s cut NOW — but there’s nothing wrong with the portrayal of the title character. Chaplin got RDJ his first (and so far, only) Oscar nod, but he lost to Al Pacino (I distinctly remember shouting at the TV in a tirade unrepeatable in mixed company). If you ever want to know why Hollywood producers kept giving RDJ work even through the Hell years of 1996-2001, rent Chaplin; you’ll never ask the question again.

    4) A Scanner Darkly — A criminally overlooked film that is perhaps the best treatment ever of a Philip Dick novel. RDJ plays James Barris, drug-addled technology expert who gradually emerges as a sociopathic monster attempting to set up a conspiracy involving housemate Bob Arctor (an undercover cop) and Donna Hawthorne (his drug dealer girlfriend). Even though the film is “animated”, it is done so by taking footage shot with the real actors, digitizing it, and running it through Rotoshop for interpolated rotoscoping; thus, the expressions on the actors’ faces, their movements, even the most subtle gestures are captured with surprising clarity. If you haven’t seen the film yet, rent it or buy it. I find I can’t resist it when it comes on HBO.

    3) Iron Man — The superhero movie for grownups that transformed RDJ from “great actor, former druggie” to “superstar” in the average moviegoer’s minds. RDJ is picture-perfect (literally, he looks like he stepped off the comic book’s pages) as genius munitions inventor and ardent war hawk Tony Stark, who has a change of heart — almost literally — when one of his own rocket-powered grenade explodes beside him during a roadside shootout in Afghanistan where he is taken hostage. To escape from his cave prison, Stark agrees to build the bad guys a missile but instead builds himself a better generator to power the electromagnet that keeps his heart beating and a suit of power armor to allow him to pass through the wall of guards and their Stark Industries weapons. RDJ plays Tony Stark’s transformation — from bored playboy at the beginning of the film to re-energized inventor obsessed with perfecting his power armor to outraged businessman infuriated that his own second-in-command has been selling Stark technology to terrorist groups around the world to fledgling superhero beginning to realize that there is a world beyond his own circle that needs someone to take up their cause — with style and panache, and even manages to use that great sense of comic timing he possesses when needed. I adore this movie, and the only reason it doesn’t make my number one is that two more performances somehow manage to top it.

    2) Tropic Thunder — A brilliant farcical movie-within-a-movie that takes on the movie industry and the many targets within it. RDJ plays 5-time Oscar winner Kirk Lazarus, an Australian method actor who takes his need to bury himself in his characters so seriously that he has a skin pigmentation procedure performed to transform himself into a dark-skinned black man in order to play the character of Sgt. Lincoln Osiris, the black platoon sergeant in the movie Tropic Thunder. To force his cast of overpaid and overpampered actors to actually have to work, director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan) drops them all off in the jungles of Vietnam with only a map and a list of scenes to be shot; hidden cameras all around will capture their acting to finally create the “greatest war movie ever”. But when Cockburn is killed by a mine and the actors discover they have been going the wrong way through the jungle because of star Tugg Speedman’s (Ben Stiller) poor mapreading skills, Lazarus never drops character, buried so deep into the character that he cannot let go of it, even when all the characters reach the reality that they are no longer making a movie. RDJ, who told CBS’s Harry Smith that the inspiration for Kirk Lazarus came from “sadly, my sorry-ass self,” carries the last half of the movie on his shoulders, and his comic timing and ad-lib ability make what could have been an insulting slap at African-Americans a very funny indictment on insufferable method actors who insist on staying in character on the set at all times. This performance is definitely Oscar-worthy, and if it weren’t for the fact that the Best Supporting Actor Oscar already has Heath Ledger’s name engraved on it, RDJ would be a hard candidate to beat.

    1) Wonder Boys — Take 3 past Oscar nominees (Michael Douglas, Frances McDormand, Robert Downey Jr.). Add 2 young up-and-comers (a pre-Spider-Man Tobey Maguire, a pre-Tom Cruise Katie Holmes). Stir in one quirky director (Curtis Hansen) and one writer best known for taking on Harry Potter (Steve Kloves, who wrote the screenplay based on Michael Chabon’s novel). Whistle a merry tune during prep (”Things Have Changed”, performed by Bob Dylan). Bake until well done and serve while hot (February 2000), then reheat and serve again at Thanksgiving (November 2000) to remind the critics how good it was. Watch a very deserving film get no acting Oscar nods, no directing Oscar nods, and only three nominations total (Best Editing, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Song), with only one win (”Things Have Changed”). Grumble loudly at the fact that a fantastically nuanced performance by RDJ (as gay literary agent Terry Crabtree, struggling to hold his career together because his star client Grady Tripp (Michael Douglas) hasn’t released a new novel in seven years) gets ignored completely by the Academy. Get a huge laugh out of the fact that (according to RDJ) eight years later, a scene in Wonder Boys where Crabtree has a one-night stand with the maybe-sexual James Leer (Tobey Maguire) gets a hugely funny payoff in one of the mock trailers for Tropic Thunder (Satan’s Alley, where the Irish monk played by Kirk Lazarus is seduced during prayers by another monk played by Tobey Maguire). Most of all, sit back and enjoy a group of really great actors delivering terrific performances in a sweetly funny comedy about writers and writing, giving up and moving on vs. standing your ground and trying to make that ground better, growing up vs. growing old, and love and its many beautiful, wonderful forms. In 2000, RDJ had not yet hit rock bottom in his drug addiction issues, but the film serves as a reminder of what a tremendous actor he was and still is.

  8. Yeah, I’m going to say Less than zero deserves to be up there way more than fucking Us Marshalls.

    I do agree that Zodiac was a piece of shit that literally put me to sleep as I watching it. People just like to pretend it was awsome because of the director. Finch

  9. I must agree with Lyle and Andrew James…

    “Two Girls and a Guy” is the most versatile, complete performance I have ever seen him in and it is a one set movie that he carries from start to finish.

    Its not big budget or mainstream which is why none but a few here have seen it but if you are going to make a top ten list, please be comprehensive.

    He sings, he dances, he cries, he acts like he cries…

  10. U.S. marshalls ? you gotta be kidding me. he was coked out the whole time. That movies horrible. How do you not put less than zero or wonder boys which he should have received a best supporting actor nomination for. can’t forget natural born killers as well. He’s a great actor but doesen’t always choose good movies. for as long as his career is it’s not that impresive.

  11. U.S. marshalls ? you gotta be kidding me. he was coked out the whole time. That movies horrible. How do you not put less than zero or wonder boys which he should have received a best supporting actor nomination for. He’s a great actor but doesen’t always choose good movies. for as long as his career is it’s not that impresive.

  12. Iron Man? Good Night Good Luck (5 minutes of screen time?), US Marshalls?

    Uh…

    Two Girls and a Guy (easily #1)
    Wonder Boys
    Natural Born Killers

  13. what the hell… here’s my 2 cents:

    01. Less Than Zero
    02. Weird Science
    03. Kiss Kiss Band Bang
    04. Wonderboys
    05. Zodiac
    06. Soapdish
    07. Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus
    08. The Pickup Artist
    09. Good Night, and Good Luck
    10. Chaplin

    This was a great post JOHN! BRILLIANT! you should do (at least) one post a week like this, with a different actor / director / writer everytime.

  14. Definately should have mentioned “LESS THAN ZERO“! He is brilliantly hard to watch in that film… it’s way tragic and the book is even more tragic. Brett Easton Ellis is my favourite author of all time though, so I’m very biased.

    However, there is no denying the impact of Downey’s performance on a person who watches that movie. Plus James Spader is great in it too. The whole cast actually. But, a precurser is that, it is definately a very depressing movie.

  15. Hey Kris,

    If by “Blissfully ignorant” you mean didn’t buy in to the aimless meandering, lack of direction or focus mess… then yes… I am blissfully ignorant and happy to be so.

  16. Mofo Toshio, nailed my thoughts on NBK, never the less, here’s my list.
    ^
    1 -Chaplin
    2- Iron Man
    3- Less than Zero
    4- Tropic Thunder
    5- Air America
    6- Zodiac
    7- Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
    8- Natural Born Killers
    9- Charlie Bartlett
    10- Weird Science

    What a cool post!!!!

  17. Hey Justin,

    Hey… if you’re so easily amused by a bloated piece of crap like Zodiac, I’m not going to tell you ya shouldn’t like it. I’m content just seeing it for what it is. :P

  18. George hit the nail on the head – Zodiac was easily one of the best films of the past decade. You need to unclog your brain and see it again John.

  19. @ Darren J Seeley
    I don’t think overrated is a good word to use for Zodiac
    You didn’t like it , there is no problem here but there is a problem when you said shite about something and the only reason is that you didn’t liked it.
    It was a very well acted movie and Art direction and cinematography rocked also it told its story in a really enjoyable way that i personaly didn’t feel it was that long
    no hard feelings anyway
    BTW good list JOHN I would add singing detective to but not Wonderboys (we are talking about acting not movies) and I really don’t see a point to defend a movie like Natural Born Killers

  20. I loved his role on this year’s earlier “Charlie Bartlett”, also, I want to shout out two early supporting roles: “Back To School” and “Weird Science”. I also agree with the above: the biggest omission is, hands down, “Natural Born Killers”! I’d replace it in ‘Marshals’ stead (despite that in the film TLJ shared a scene with a high school classmate of mine) or perhaps ‘Zodiac’, which I felt was overrated. I also LOVED the film True Believer w/ James Woods.

    Anyway

    1. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

    2. Chaplin

    3. Iron Man

    4. Charlie Bartlett

    5. The Singing Detective

    6. Back To School

    7. True Believer

    8. Less Than Zero

    9. NBK

    10. Weird Science

  21. The REAL list (hehe):

    1. “Natural Born Killers”
    2. “Chaplin”
    3. “Less Than Zero”
    4. “Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus”
    5. “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang”
    6. “Iron Man”
    7. “Zodiac”
    8. “Tropic Thunder”
    9. “Restoration”
    10. “Wonder Boys”

  22. KKBB is indeed AWESOME. His narration is what tips that movie from fun to sheer sexy awesomeness to the tenth power. Fo sho.

    I loved Singing Detective. Fur is wacky, but Downey is the bright spot. And I agree with Shadess about Guide to Recognizing Your Saints. TERRIBLE movie, but Downey is good in it.

  23. A GUIDE TO RECOGNIZING YOUR SAINTS – only good thing about that movie was RDJ. So not really a great movie when it’s totally 100% dependant on one actor.

    CHAPLIN hard to see movie. Not very well available at least where I am, no wonder people haven’t seen him. Oh and it’s about Chaplin so not exactly a huge people magnet.

  24. People need to start seeing some of these movies…ESPECIALLY AGTRYS, and KKBB…both fucking brilliant flicks…

    Also, just a few omissions that may not have made the list, but are still great
    Fur
    The Singing Detective
    Eros (All three parts are phenominal, but his part is called Equillibrium and is directed by Steven Soderbergh…really awesome flick)

  25. Yes, “Wonder Boys” is a great film. It should really be on the list even if he did not “star” in it. But I would say he did.

    Was any one else thinking about his lust in “Wonder Boys” for Tobey Maguire during the “Satan’s Alley” fake preview for “Tropic Thunder.” Classic!

  26. The fact that US Marshals is on here and not Wonder Boys is an insult to Mr. Downey. This film contains some of the best lines from his career…”Jamie, Jamie, Jamie” US Marshals is his attempt to fill a typical action movie role which didn’t allow for his style to be prevalent…aka gave him a nice paycheck. Take it off!

  27. @ Jason:

    I loved “Wonder Boys” as well, although to be fair I suppose it would be a stretch to say that Downey “starred” in it.

    That said, “Wonder Boys” is a GREAT movie (directed by Curtis Hanson) and well worth anyone’s time.

  28. Hearts and Souls is the first film I saw Robert Downey Jr in. I agree with most of your choices John but I would put his performance in Natural Born Killers somewhere in the top 3

  29. Here’s another bad movie, but was redeemed by a great Downey performance, Hearts and Souls, also starring Charles Grodin, Kyra Sedgwick, among others.

  30. I think you got the great performances of the man.
    However, i think the omission of Natural Born Killers was glaring.
    Wayne Gale is one of his best performances easily.

    I just hope that his demons are truly in his past.

  31. I have to disagree with you on U.S. Marshals. I think both he and TJL sold out for this sequel. I would replace that with his cameo in “Bowfinger”.

    1. Melanie, I agree with your choice. Less than Zero has always been one of my favorites. Like you said, too bad he became a drug addict. Supposedly he’s clean now, but who knows.

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