From the moment I first saw Robert Downey Jr. play Cybill Shepherd’s reincarnated husband in Chances Are, I’ve considered him one of my favorite actors. Early in his film career, he charmed us with his handsome face, his winning smile, and his witty humor. In more recent years, he’s played a variety of roles, many – but not all – of them more serious than the romantic comedy leads that first brought him fame. After watching The Soloist last month, I was reminded of not only what a great actor RDJ is, but how much I love him! So in the spirit of fandom, I’m counting down my Top Ten Favorite Robert Downey Jr. Movies. I’ve even tried to rank them!
- 10. Soapdish (1991) – I haven’t seen this movie in years, but from what I remember, and from the impressive cast roster (RDJ was joined by Sally Field, Kevin Kline, Whoopi Goldberg, Teri Hatcher, etc.), I am certain that it was entertaining and amusing. I’ve always found real soap operas very comical (mainly because they are so bad), so I am a fan of a movie that uncovers humor behind the scenes of a soap. Robert Downey is in the center of the action as producer of the fictional soap The Sun Also Sets. Much hilarity ensues. I need to watch this one again!
- 9. Heart and Souls (1993) – Someone must have been trying to capitalize off the popularity of Chances Are by making another “life after death” fantasy movie. In Chances Are, Robert Downey was the one who died and returned to earth in another body. In Heart and Souls, he plays a regular guy (Thomas) who has four guardian angels, who have been “attached” to him since the night they died in a bus crash while he was being born. The plot revolves around Thomas helping his angels take care of unfinished business before they can move on to the afterlife, and during that process he learns a thing or two about himself. This isn’t Oscar material, but it is a feel good story with likable characters and a few great songs (most notably “Walk Like a Man”). Another plus is that the story takes place in San Francisco, one of my favorite movie settings. Downey and Elisabeth Shue have good chemistry as the romantic leads as well.
- 8. Good Night, and Good Luck (2005) – Robert Downey looks good in black and white! Actually, he looks good in just about anything. He has a timeless appeal, whether he’s playing a Renaissance character in Restoration, a silent movie icon in Chaplin, or a McCarthy-era journalist in this movie. The George Clooney directed Good Night, and Good Luck was surprisingly good, and had a timely message about the role and responsibilities of the news media. Robert Downey portrayed real life CBS journalist Joe Wershba, and the most significant aspect of his character was his secret marriage to co-worker Shirley (secret because of CBS’ policy at the time that no co-workers should be romantically involved). Downey and Patricia Clarkson brought these characters to life, and this subplot humanized an otherwise issue-oriented film.
- 7. Wonder Boys (2000) – This is one of those offbeat, at times bizarre movies that is difficult to describe to someone who hasn’t seen it. It deals with writer’s block, the theft of Marilyn Monroe memorabilia, a transvestite named Antonia, and everything in between. As a story about the difficulties and adventures that come with being a writer, it’s enjoyable. As a tale of lost souls who are searching for companionship, validation, and a sense of belonging, it’s fascinating. Robert Downey, Jr. plays Grady Tripp’s (Michael Douglas) editor, Terry Crabtree. They have worked together for years and so understand each other. Terry is one of the more unconventional characters that Downey has played. Terry brings Antonia, a transvestite he met on the plane, as his companion for a weekend visit to take a look at Grady’s unfinished book. Before long, though, he dismisses Antonia when he becomes infatuated with James Leer (Tobey Maguire), one of Grady’s creative writing students. Katie Holmes also stars, as James’ friend Hannah, who is interested in Grady. But Grady is too busy juggling ex-wives and and a current lover – who is pregnant, and married to his boss – to reciprocate. What follows is a series of misadventures that lead these characters toward their own forms of resolution. A year after this movie was released, Downey’s problems with the law and substance abuse started to subside, as he successfully completed a drug rehab program, and his career had a resurgence (after a slump during his late ’90s personal problems). Wonder Boys, then, marked the beginning of Downey’s rise to critical acclaim that has continued throughout this decade (we’ll pretend like The Shaggy Dog never happened).
- 6. Iron Man (2008) – What a fun surprise this movie was! In addition to being a fantastically entertaining action movie with impressive special effects, it proved that Robert Downey can play any role he sets his mind to. I was more than a little skeptical when I heard he was playing the lead in an action hero movie. My thoughts included, “Don’t those roles usually go to younger, buffer actors? Isn’t he like 40? That’s just weird!” But, it so wasn’t! He was his usual charming self as Tony Stark, billionaire genius and inventor. And in the tradition of comic heroes, we saw how he evolved from a self-centered playboy to an iron-clad beast saving the world. And I needed not be skeptical about Downey’s age or physique. He looked awfully good in his tux and his Iron Man suit. 🙂 Click here to read my full review of Iron Man.
- 5. Zodiac (2007) – This movie about the 15+ year investigation into the real life Zodiac killer is part horror, part mystery, part drama, but they all add up to one solid, excellent movie. The murder scenes are some of the most disturbing ones I’ve seen, but as long as you can make it through those, you are in for a gripping account of this criminal investigation, and the toll it took on those involved. Robert Downey, Jr. plays Paul Avery, a crime reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, who becomes wrapped up in the mystery of the Zodiac killer. This unidentified killer starts sending clues to the newspaper through letters with encrypted codes. This draws the attention of political cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), who becomes obsessed with deciphering the codes. Both men eventually connect with Detective Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo), who has been assigned to the case, and this trio struggles over several years to unravel the mystery of the Zodiac killer. I love all three of these actors, so this movie was a joy for me to watch. They all did an excellent job with their roles, but especially Robert Downey. We see Avery go from a spirited, ambitious journalist to a downtrodden, substance abusing recluse over the course of the investigation. So, no, this isn’t a feel good movie. But as a factual account of the Zodiac investigation, it is intriguing, and as a study of the cost of obsession and professional ambition, it rings true and has me engaged from beginning to end. Another winner for Robert Downey!
- 4. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005) – I watched this movie for the first time when it came on TBS last summer. Why didn’t I watch it sooner?! It was simply a delightful breath of fresh air! It is billed as a comedy mystery thriller, and I would stress the comedy part of that equation. Most private detective movies are very dark, with only the most deadpan of humor thrown in the mix. I loved how this movie didn’t take itself seriously – at all – and Robert Downey was largely to thank for its fun, quirky tone. He plays Harry Lockhart, a small time thief who stumbles upon an acting audition while trying to evade the cops, at which point he begins posing as an actor who shadows a private eye (Val Kilmer) to prepare for a new role. The ensuing chain of events reunites him with a childhood friend, and involves him in a murder mystery. What makes this movie so entertaining is Harry’s voice over narration, through which he points out the humor or irony of various parts of the story, interjects random sidebars, and occasionally backtracks. Here’s one example of his sarcastic narration: “Don’t worry, I saw Lord of the Rings. I’m not going to end this 17 times.” I love it when Robert Downey plays witty, irreverent characters!
- 3. The Soloist (2009) – Of all the character types that Downey has played, I think I like him best as a journalist. He plays tenacious reporter very well, no matter the decade. (1950s in Good Night and Good Luck, 1970s-80s in Zodiac, and 2000s in The Soloist.) And his character in The Soloist, L.A. Times columnist Steve Lopez, is very likable. He has a strained relationship with his son and wife (Catherine Keener), from whom he is separated. When he isn’t in the office or tracking down his next story, he lives a life of solitude in an apartment where he has never unpacked his moving boxes, and where his only solace is writing his column and listening to old records. Enter Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx), a homeless, schizophrenic musical prodigy, who Lopez encounters on the street and proceeds to develop an unlikely friendship with during the course of collecting information for his column. The more I think about this movie, the more I like it. Like I said before, Downey’s character is very likable, flaws and all. He is a lonely, troubled, but good-hearted man who you root for during the movie just as much as you do for Foxx’s character. I love movies that introduce us to lonely or isolated characters, and show what happens when they let down their guard long enough to let someone else in. Other movies in this category include The Visitor and The Station Agent. Go see The Soloist! It is well worth two hours of your life.
- 2. Chances Are (1989) – This is an odd little movie, but an enjoyable one nonetheless. Robert Downey plays Alex Finch, a college aged guy who is living in his car when he meets Miranda, who happened to be his daughter in a previous life. Not realizing that, he becomes interested in her, but before long she introduces him to her mother, Corinne, who coincidentally was his wife in a previous life. When they meet, something clicks in his head, and he starts to remember his previous life. The rest of the movie finds humor in young Alex acting like a father figure to Miranda, Corinne trying to figure out if Alex is really her Louie or if he’s just crazy, and family friend Philip trying to finally successfully romance Corinne. The Cher/Peter Cetera duet “After All” is perfect at the end of the movie, and ignoring the potential incest topic, the story wraps up nicely. Robert Downey is at his most charming and funny in this movie. Click here to read my thoughts in a previous post about Chances Are and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, which I watched during the same weekend last summer.
- 1. Only You (1994) – Drumroll please……. and the winner is Only You! So why does a silly ’90s romantic comedy earn the #1 spot on my list of favorite Robert Downey, Jr. movies? Well, first of all, it really is a good movie – entertaining, funny, sweet, beautiful… Secondly, I have a nostalgic attachment to this movie. I watched this movie several times when I was in high school. I had the soundtrack. I had a celebrity crush on two of the actors (RDJ, of course, and Billy Zane). A few years later, I spent a summer semester in Rome, Italy, which inspired me to watch the movie again, since many of its scenes take place in Rome and other locations in Italy. This is probably my favorite romantic comedy of all time. All the actors are great for their parts: Bonnie Hunt, Fisher Stevens, Marisa Tomei, and most importantly, Robert Downey, Jr. He plays Peter, a charming man who knows a lot about shoes but doesn’t always tell the whole truth about everything else. I enjoyed the fantastical adventures that Peter, Faith, and Kate experience in bella Italy. Click here to read more of my thoughts on Only You.
So there you have it. My top ten favorite Robert Downey, Jr. movies. It looks like he has some more good ones coming up, including Sherlock Holmes and Iron Man 2. I’ll just pretend like Tropic Thunder never happened, since it’s about the only black spot on the last decade of his career. And, actually, Downey’s character was the best thing about that movie! It’s funny to me that he was nominated for an Oscar for that role, but I suppose he did play it well. Kudos to Robert Downey, Jr., for always doing an outstanding job with any role he is given, for always being thoroughly entertaining, and for overcoming his personal struggles to continue his successful and memorable acting career.