Few of us will ever have the opportunity to hang out with Mark Ruffalo in real life, but he’s one of those actors whose screen presence feels so honest and effortlessly down-to-earth that you can’t help feeling like you sort of know him. All that charm may not help his latest release, Now You See Me 2, achieve Certified Fresh status, but no matter — we’re using its arrival as our long-overdue excuse for taking a fond look back at some of his brightest critical highlights. It’s time for Total Recall!
With 2007’s Once, writer-director John Carney proved himself a deft hand with musically driven romantic drama — and then he went and did it again seven years later with Begin Again. Sunnier and poppier than its predecessor, it finds Carney telling the tale of a record exec (Ruffalo) who’s at loose ends in his personal and professional lives when he happens across a rough-edged singer/songwriter (Keira Knightley) whose gifts inspire him to… well, you get the idea. It’s sweet, crowd-pleasing stuff, and if it hits some of the same beats Carney played with Once, they land with irresistible sincerity. “There are times when the thing you want most is not a big, important movie but a simple, beautiful story told with sensitivity, warmth, humor and a big heart,” observed TheWrap’s Steve Pond. “Times when you don’t need a movie to save your life, you just need a movie to make you feel good.”
Michael Mann’s Collateral was largely sold as a two-hander pitting Tom Cruise (as a hitman hired to murder witnesses and a prosecutor in a court case) against Jamie Foxx (as the cab driver he hires to drive him to the killings). Really, though, this sleek thriller took more than a couple of big-name stars — for one thing, as in other Mann productions, Los Angeles essentially served as a supporting character, and for another, Cruise and Foxx were ably abetted by a talented ensemble that included Jada Pinkett Smith, Javier Bardem, and (as the cop who ends up on their tail) Mark Ruffalo. It all added up to what the Washington Post’s Stephen Hunter called “The best kind of genre filmmaking: It plays by the rules, obeys the traditions and is both familiar and fresh at once.”
Moneyball director Bennett Miller brought his knack for adapting real-life stories to bear on a decidedly darker tale with 2014’s Foxcatcher, which dramatizes multimillionaire heir John E. du Pont’s stranger-than-fiction descent into mental illness — and the terrible impact it had on the lives of Olympic wrestling champion Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) and his brother Dave (Ruffalo). Joined by Steve Carell as du Pont, Ruffalo and Tatum anchored a film whose painful conclusion can be felt from the first few moments, but still exerts an inexorable grip. As Peter Rainer wrote for the Christian Science Monitor, “It’s rare to see an American movie that explores, let alone acknowledges, the class system in this country, or one that gets so far inside the abyss of the ethic that drives so many men to succeed — and to implode when they don’t.”
In the hands of an ordinary filmmaker, any attempt to tell the story of the Zodiac Killer might have been equal parts conjecture and garden-variety gore — after all, the serial murderer who terrorized the San Francisco Bay Area for years in the 1960s and 1970s, taunting the police with a series of cryptic letters, eventually disappeared, never to be identified. For director David Fincher, though, the truly interesting story didn’t lie so much with the Zodiac as it did with the men and women who devoted themselves to apprehending him — particularly Robert Graysmith (played by Jake Gyllenhaal), the San Francisco Chronicle cartoonist who broke the Zodiac’s code and eventually became an asset to the investigation led by police detective Dave Toschi (Ruffalo). Gyllenhaal and Ruffalo led the viewer on a darkening spiral of dead ends, wild goose chases, and grim obsession — and anchored a showy cast that included Robert Downey, Jr., Chloe Sevigny, and Anthony Edwards. Unfortunately, the words “David Fincher” and “serial killer drama” sparked hopes that Fincher was returning to his Se7en roots, and the studio’s marketing campaign did nothing to set filmgoers straight; ultimately, despite a strongly positive reaction from critics, Zodiac was a non-starter at the box office, and by the time awards season arrived, this March release was all but forgotten. It deserved better, according to writers like the Toronto Star’s Geoff Pevere, who argued, “It makes you want to study it even more closely, in search of things you might have missed, trailing after leads that flash by in the relentless momentum of going nowhere fast. If you’re not careful, it might make you obsessed.”
The Hulk is a creature of mindless rage and limitless strength who lurks within a mild-mannered scientist horrified by his own alter ego — all of which sounds like it should be more than compelling enough for its own film franchise. Yet after a pair of somewhat underwhelming attempts at a Hulk movie, it became obvious that it was going to take more than simply hiring a leading man and a fleet of CGI programmers to turn the comics legend into big-screen big green. The answer, as presented by Marvel’s The Avengers, was to turn the Hulk into a supporting player — and one whose human face was played by Mark Ruffalo. Over a pair of Avengers movies, Ruffalo breathed new life into his character’s cinematic fortunes, turning the split-personality brute into something much more than a wrecking ball — and although he’s just one cog in the smoothly running Marvel machine, more than a few fans have clamored for a standalone Hulk feature in the MCU. “Never,” warned CNN’s Tom Charity, “underestimate the entertainment value of the Hulk Smash.”
Ruffalo received a BAFTA nomination for his work in this Lisa Cholodenko dramedy, which traces the messy fallout after a boy (Josh Hutcherson) enlists his sister (Mia Wasikowska) to find the sperm donor responsible for siring the two of them — thus setting off a chain of events that brings the man in question (Ruffalo) into the domestic orbit of the women who raised the kids (Annette Bening and Julianne Moore). It’s just as messy as it sounds, yet thanks to Cholodenko’s empathetic work — and the fine efforts of her incredible cast — The Kids Are All Right never teeters into indie caricature. As Ann Hornaday wrote for the Washington Post, “Just about everyone who has been a parent, child or partner will find resonance in its bittersweet depiction of the joys and trials of lifelong intimacy.”
Ruffalo’s critically acclaimed turn in 2000’s You Can Count on Me didn’t immediately lead to a major increase in his Hollywood profile — he’d been working steadily for years leading up to the film, and he continued to log supporting turns for a few years after, many of them in ill-remembered efforts like Committed and The Last Castle. He picked a winner, though, in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which found him logging screen time with Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet (not to mention Kirsten Dunst and Elijah Wood) in Charlie Kaufman and Michel Gondry’s endearingly bizarre drama about love lost and the nature of memory. The result, wrote Owen Gleiberman for Entertainment Weekly, “may be the first movie I’ve seen that bends your brain and breaks your heart at the same time.”
Ruffalo earned a slew of nominations (and a SAG Award) for his portrayal of an activist in director Ryan Murphy’s HBO adaptation of the Larry Kramer play, which takes a hard street-level look at the dawn of the public’s awareness of the AIDS crisis in the early 1980s. Surrounded by a sterling cast that included Julia Roberts and Alfred Molina, Ruffalo helped dramatize agonizing events that impacted real people — some of whom directly inspired the characters in the film. “You should watch,” wrote David Wiegand of the San Francisco Chronicle, “because Larry Kramer’s play is so much more than an agitprop relic from the early years of AIDS — it is a great play that has become an even greater television film.”
Ruffalo found relatively steady work during his early years in Hollywood, but mainly via roles in films like The Dentist and a couple of Mirror, Mirror sequels. It wasn’t until he developed a working relationship with writer-director Kenneth Lonergan that things started to pick up — most notably with 2000’s You Can Count on Me, a small-scale, character-driven drama, written and directed by Lonergan, that eventually served as a critically lauded calling card for himself, Ruffalo, and Laura Linney (who earned a Best Actress Oscar nomination for her work). Ruffalo doesn’t get to smash in this story about a ne’er-do-well brother whose sudden reappearance proves a mixed blessing for his sister and nephew, but his performance is infused with the same quiet soulfulness that Joss Whedon has relied on to help ground some of the Avengers movies’ more meaningful moments. Observed Michael Dequina for the Movie Report, “Linney and Ruffalo’s rapport is warm but raw and unsentimental, capturing the unconditional tough love dynamic that can only exist between siblings.”
Investigative reporting isn’t typically exciting work, but you’d never know it from watching Spotlight. Director/co-writer Tom McCarthy commanded an imposing ensemble cast for this Best Picture Academy Award winner — including Michael Keaton, Liv Schreiber, Rachel McAdams, Stanley Tucci, and (of course) Mark Ruffalo — to tell the sadly fact-based tale of the Boston Globe reporters who fought their way past systemic corruption and indifference to unearth decades of child abuse at the hands of the city’s Catholic priests, all allowed to continue while the church turned a blind eye or actively covered it up. Despite the inherently uncinematic nature of the work, and the fact that most filmgoers knew the end of the story going in, Spotlight proved positively gripping stuff — and a critical and commercial hit that racked up nearly $90 million at the box office on its way to earning six Oscar nominations (including Best Supporting Actor for Ruffalo).