6. Zodiac (David Fincher, 2007)
Faithfully adapted from the real life investigation of the Zodiac murders, Fincher’s film is a slow moving but incredibly tense and powerful mystery film. It stars Jake Gyllenhaal as Robert Graysmith, a political cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle who tries to decode the killer’s messages. Robert Downey Jr. plays crime reporter Paul Avery who teams up with Graysmith to solve the puzzle and catch the murderer. Also starring in the film are Mark Ruffalo and Anthony Edwards who play the lead detectives on the case.
In a realistic style, the film chronologically analyzes the frequent killings and simultaneous investigations going on, showing the cunning of the Zodiac as well as the increasing frustration of those involved. The film remains true to the facts, laying them out as they happened without embellishment.
While the serial killer aspect of the film is captivating enough, the real brilliance is in Fincher’s depiction of the lives of the investigators and how their lives are affected by the investigation. Graysmith becomes obsessed with the case, causing his wife and kids to leave him while Downey’s Avery turns to alcohol and eventually has to leave the city when it becomes too much to handle.
Zodiac is one of the greatest serial killer films of all time, as well as one of Fincher’s most focused and powerful films. Its feeling of realism as well as the unconventional focus on the solving of the crime instead of on the killer garnered the film and its main actors much acclaim. Maybe not as thrilling as Se7en, Fincher’s other serial killer film, Zodiac is an arresting and in-depth exploration of one of America’s most notorious murderers.
5. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (Shane Black, 2005)
Shane Black, seasoned writer of action films like Lethal Weapon, makes his directorial debut with this witty and action packed homage to the pulpy espionage novels and gumshoe detective films.
Robert Downey Jr stars as the robber-turned-private investigator Harry Lockhart who, when apprenticing under real investigator “Gay” Perry, played by Val Kilmer, gets swept into a web of corruption and murder. Also wrapped up in the case is Harry’s old high school crush Harmony Lane, played by Michelle Monaghan, and her twin. The mystery takes many turns, culminating in a dark and shocking conclusion.
This dark comedy buddy flick is highlighted by the playful, snide chemistry between Downey and Kilmer. Harry Lockhart is a deeply flawed, recovering criminal who is in way over his head. Downey’s portrayal is desperate, manic and irrational as well as touching and human.
Kilmer, although in more of a supporting role, also shines in one of his funniest roles to date as the calm, and confident professional. Their clashing personas make for excellent energy and banter between the two, lightening the film and giving it its unique atmosphere. More than just another detective movie, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is a smart, funny and calculated thriller with brilliant writing and acting.
4. Less Than Zero (Marek Kanievska, 1987)
Based on, but barely resembling, Brett Easton Ellis’s debut novel of the same name, Less Than Zero is an extremely powerful depiction of drug abuse in 1980s culture. The film follows Clay, played by Andrew McCarthy, who returns from college to find that his best friend Julian and his girlfriend Blair have been sleeping together.
Julian, played by Robert Downey Jr, has also become dangerously addicted to cocaine and is homeless after being kicked out by his parents. Julian also owes $50,000 to their ex-classmate and drug dealer Rip, excellently portrayed by James Spader. As Blair an Clay try and build their relationship and lives back together, Julian sinks deeper into his depression and dependence.
Robert Downey Jr is downright scary in this film as a completely lost and helpless kid, stuck in the oversaturated facade of 1980s Beverly Hills. His portrayal of addiction is one of the most compelling of any to appear in film and his downward spiral that the film tracks is hard to watch.
The brief flashbacks we see of him before the drugs enhance even further the heavy transformation of his character and the concern that his friends are feeling for him. Although Spader is in top form, and McCarthy and Jami Gertz, who plays Blair, give decent performances, Downey steals every scene he is in, elevating the film to a great level.
Less Than Zero, while originally written off by many critics, has aged well, even garnering the approval of the author Ellis who accepts the film’s differences and its own unique message. The film is beautifully shot in bright and vibrant lights showing the flashy, but ultimately empty environment that the characters live in. Though not a perfect film, Less Than Zero is extremely powerful and is worth seeing, if only for Downey’s first meaningful, and one of his most powerful, performances.
3. Chaplin (Richard Attenborough, 1992)
This biopic of the classic Hollywood icon is held together by Robert Downey Jr’s uncanny performance of the comedy legend.
It follows Chaplin from his childhood in the streets of London to his rise as the biggest star in showbiz and all the tumultuous events in between. His romances and friendships with celebrities like Douglas Fairbanks are explored in depth, showing the inspiration behind his classic films like Modern Times and The Great Dictator. This eventually leads to his conflict with J. Edgar Hoover who drives out Chaplin on the grounds of Communism, and the latter section of his life in Switzerland.
Chaplin is a thoroughly well produced film with stunning art direction and a well crafted story. Downey’s Academy Award nominated portrayal is one of the most convincing and powerful of his career, capturing both Chaplin’s personal flaws and character, as well as the comic skills of the tramp. The supporting cast, which includes Dan Aykroyd, Kevin Kline, Anthony Hopkins, James Woods and Chaplin’s own daughter Geraldine Chaplin, also give convincing performances, balancing out the film.
Attenborough’s film has fallen under some scrutiny for the needless historical inaccuracies, but the Chaplin’s story and persona are still well represented. Exquisite in conception and formation, the rare glimpse into one of film’s most recognizable figures is fascinating. While more focus on the actual film making would have been interesting, his rise and fall from stardom makes a captivating story built around Downey’s dedicated performance.
2. Tropic Thunder (Ben Stiller, 2008)
In this hilarious showbiz comedy, five actors, who are filming a war movie, are left stranded in a jungle inhabited with a drug cartel. Robert Downey Jr plays Kirk Lazarus, an acclaimed Australian actor who, for film-within-the-film, has undergone a skin pigmentation operation in order to play the Sgt. Lincoln Osiris, and will only talk in “Black English” until the film is done.
The other stars stranded are action star Tugg Speedman, played by Ben Stiller, comedy star Jeff Portnoy, played by Jack Black and rapper Alpa Chino, played by Brandon T. Jackson. The fact that Chino is actually black creates a lot of racial tension between him and Lazarus. As the actors think they are being tested by the director who wants added realism, the dangerous drug gang stumbles upon them, forcing the actors to take immediate, and hysterical, action.
Tropic Thunder is one of the funniest films of last decade, as well as one of the most politically incorrect projects. Downey’s, as well as the other performances, address the film’s controversial themes that make the film dangerous and uproarious. The rest of this all star comedy cast includes, Jay Baruchel, Matthew McConaughey, Steve Coogan and Tom Cruise in one of his most original roles.
The masterful farce not only criticizes the machine of Hollywood but the ego of the actors involved, with everyone involved poking fun at themselves. The entire film is an irreverent romp with Downey enjoying it the most, creating one of the most ignorant offensive characters in recent memory. Tropic Thunder is a must watch for all fans of comedy.
1. Iron Man (Jon Favreau, 2008)
Iron Man is both Robert Downey Jr’s most iconic role and one of the most influential films on the landscape of contemporary Hollywood. Its unanticipated success spawned two sequels as well as the entire Disney/Marvel film universe which includes all of the Avengers films, making superhero films a trend.
The main reason for the film’s success is due to Downey’s brilliant portrayal of billionaire playboy Tony Stark with serious flaws and his transformation into the now famous hero. Although Downey’s role as Stark already appeared on this list in The Avengers, the dynamic and purpose of the character is very different in each film, warranting separate listings.
Like most superhero movies, Iron Man starts with the origin story when Stark is captured by terrorists and is forced to make them weapons, but instead creates a powerful exoskeleton allowing him to escape. Then Stark begins to perfect his machine while conquering the demons of his past, trying to keep a healthy relationship with his smart assistant Pepper Potts, played by Gwyneth Paltrow, and dealing with the threat of terrorists.
One of the reasons that Favreau wanted Downey for the role was that he understood the character’s dilemma between his public and private life. Downey’s past experience with drug addiciton helped to let him understand Stark’s actions and insecurities, creating the quick witted, charming and ultimately flawed character.
In the role that catapulted him to a blockbuster movie star, Downey creates not only a memorable and iconic character, but also kickstarts the Marvel film universe which now rules the blockbuster season.
Author Bio: Matthew Benbenek is an undergraduate Mechanical Engineering student at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. He has a passion for film, music and literature and, when not watching movies, is an amateur director and violin player.