What Are Robert Downey Jr.'s Best Movies?

Robert Downey, Jr. made his film debut at five years old in his father’s 1970 film Pound. He has been working consistently ever since. He gained attention for a series of coming-of-age films in the '80s, then won acclaim playing the title role in 1992's Chaplin. In the '90s, he gained notoriety for his off-screen problems involving drugs and alcohol. His luck and life changed when he landed the role of Marvel’s Iron Man. The film grossed $100 million on its opening weekend and restarted Downey’s career in a most fitting manner.

Here are 10 of Downey's best movie roles.

01
of 10

'Iron Man' (2008)

Iron Man
Iron Man. Impawards

The role of Tony Stark – a smart-alecky, womanizing, brilliant entrepreneur – seems custom designed for Downey. Downey makes Stark a rakish playboy with a quick wit but also a flair for introspection – at least after he’s been blown up and held hostage. With Iron Man, Downey proved that he’s a seriously talented actor who can also have a lot of fun with a role. Director Jon Favreau said he wanted it to feel like Robert Altman was directing a comic book movie so Downey was allowed to improvise many of his lines.

(To make room for other movies, we won't include Downey's other great performances as Tony Stark. Consider the Iron Man sequels and the Avengers movies honorable mentions!)

Robert Downey, Jr. was a teen heartthrob in films like The Pick Up Artist, but he started to garner real praise with this adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ bestseller. Downey plays Julian, a young man with an out-of-control drug habit. This is also the first film where he is officially listed as "Robert Downey, Jr." Before this, he was simply "Robert Downey."

Jim Carrey was reportedly considered to play Charlie Chaplin in this biopic. Thankfully the role went to Downey instead. Downey won his first Best Actor Oscar nomination playing the Little Tramp. The role helped him move up from his youth roles and brat pack status to be taken more seriously as an actor.

Robert Downey, Jr. plays himself so to speak in this eccentric indie documentary. Downey (also credited as writer) is set loose at the 1992 Democratic Convention. He comes across as a bit crazy but also something of an inspired genius as he interviews an odd spectrum of people and even runs around in his underwear. The film is difficult to track down, but it reveals Downey as more than just an actor.

Americans doing Shakespeare is often looked down upon, especially in a production mounted by a bunch of British actors. But Sir Ian McKellen cast Annette Bening and Robert Downey, Jr. to play characters who were meant to be outsiders in the royal court. The film is one of the best adaptations of the Bard, and Downey proves adept at Shakespeare’s verse. McKellen offered Downey the role after working with him in Restoration, but apparently thought the American star would turn him down since the part was small -- however, Downey jumped at the opportunity.

The Singing Detective
The Singing Detective. Paramount Classics

Proving yet again that he was not interested in conventional stardom, Downey took the lead role in Dennis Potter’s Americanization of his acclaimed British TV series. Downey plays a man afflicted by a condition that makes his skin so cracked and raw that any movement is excruciating; it’s a condition similar to extreme psoriasis that often debilitated Potter in real life. In the film, characters lip sync to songs as a means of escaping their real life. More »

Downey plays a crook masquerading as an actor and Val Kilmer is a gay private eye in Shane Black’s witty, intricate riff on Los Angeles noir. The film delivers genre clichés as it deconstructs them and has a grand time doing both. To thank Black for taking the chance on him, Downey later recommended Black direct Iron Man 3.

Let’s get animated! Downey plays James Barris in Richard Linklater’s animated adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s novel. It took less than a month to shoot the live action with the actors, but then it took 18 months to use the interpolated rotoscoping techniques to create the unique animation style.

09
of 10

'Zodiac' (2007)

Zodiac
Paramount Pictures

Downey plays one of three men obsessed with tracking down the infamous real-life Bay Area serial killer of the 1970s. The Zodiac killings were never solved and David Fincher’s film delivers a taut period procedural. Downey plays a journalist whose reporting makes him a Zodiac target and Downey's future Avengers co-star Mark Ruffalo is the tough homicide cop.

Tropic Thunder
DreamWorks SKG

Downey nabbed his second Oscar nomination, this time for Supporting Actor, for his role as “the dude playin' the dude, disguised as another dude!” He’s Kirk Lazurus, an Australian actor playing an African-American in a Vietnam War film. Downey stole the show with his hilarious performance as a method actor who doesn’t “read the script, the script reads me.” Downey maintained the character for a mockumentary about the making of the film called Rain of Madness. The mock-doc is as hilarious as the feature film. Make sure to check out both. More »