Even The Notebook’s writer, Nicholas Sparks, knew that there wasn’t much to Noah, the romantically deranged, mansion-restoring, beard-growing war veteran in this insipid tearjerker. “It’s a guy who falls in love and then he just kinda does nothing,” he admitted. But director Nick Cassavetes had sound reasons for choosing Ryan Gosling. “You’re not handsome, you’re not cool, you’re just a regular guy who looks a bit nuts,” he told him.

Annoyingly kooky comedy in which the lonely Lars (Gosling) introduces his close-knit Midwestern community to his girlfriend, Bianca, who happens to be a life-sized rubber doll. Avoiding sleaziness by the skin of its teeth – it is only right he and Bianca don’t sleep together, Lars explains, since they’re both religious – this settles eventually for the tone of the self-help manual (“What we call mental illness … can be a way to work something out”).

As the junior manager of a Democrat governor’s presidential campaign, Gosling gets to chart the slow curdling of idealism into disillusionment. He is part of a cast that’s so strong and starry (Philip Seymour Hoffmann, Marisa Tomei, Paul Giamatti, the film’s director, George Clooney) that it takes a good 30 minutes to notice that the film is all gloss and no grit.

Middle-of-the-road, multi-strand romcom with Gosling as the pick-up artist who gives Steve Carell, newly separated from Julianne Moore, lessons in love before himself falling for Emma Stone. Notable for the fizzy rapport between Gosling and Stone in the first of their three collaborations to date.

Click here to watch the trailer for First Man.

Neil Armstrong was notoriously reserved, but there is a thin line between enigmatic and empty, and Gosling, in his second film for La La Land director Damien Chazelle, isn’t always on the right side of it. There is grim humour, though, in the formal, buttoned-up way he addresses his children the night before he makes history: “We have every confidence in this mission.”

Or: The Place Beyond Self-Parody. Gosling descends into feigned inarticulacy and mumbling method madness as a tattooed fairground stunt rider reconnecting with an old flame (played by his real-life wife, Eva Mendes). He is weirdly unable here to suggest the character’s dopiness without winking at the audience. There is just too much self-awareness: the lights are off but there’s still somebody home.

Stone Gosling La La Land

Face the music … Emma Stone and Gosling in La La Land. Photograph: Dale Robinette/Black Label Media/Kobal/Rex/Shutterstock

This retro-flavoured musical reunites Gosling and Stone, but delivers one anticlimax after another: the opening traffic-jam showstopper is like a poor man’s Fame, the songs throughout more Magic FM than magical. But Gosling, who plays a pig-headed pianist earning a crust playing easy-listening standards, gets one of the highlights to himself, casually singing the tentative City of Stars as he strolls along a pier at night.

Gosling’s signature role as a nameless stuntman-cum-getaway-driver. (“What do you do?” someone asks him. “I drive,” comes the Zen reply.) He gets a long way on his mute charisma, those feminine features so unlikely for a male action hero, and the ability to look fetching in a snazzy silver jacket. The film, though, is a bust: all flashy bodywork and no gas in the tank.

Eye-catching early psycho-work from Gosling and Michael Pitt as the young Nietzsche-adoring students conspiring to commit the perfect murder. Sandra Bullock is on their tail in this partial retread of the Leopold and Loeb case that inspired Rope, Compulsion and Swoon.

This modern-day Hamlet, set among US expats in Bangkok, re-teamed director Nicolas Winding Refn with Gosling following the success of Drive. The actor plays Julian, an impotent would-be avenger unable to kill his brother’s murderer; Kristin Scott-Thomas offers bleach-blond comic relief as his taunting, incestuously inclined mother. Gosling’s performance is an exercise in studied blankness: you cannot tell if he’s acting or under anaesthetic.

Gosling’s haunted, sorrowful face is a good fit for this moody sequel. He also has some pleasing chemistry with his blade-running predecessor, Harrison Ford, with whom he trades pointless punches before Ford finally says: “We could keep at this or we could get a drink.” The men duly drop their fists and repair to the bar. Would that more movie dust-ups ended that way.

Ryan Gosling The Nice Guys

‘Delicate and goofy’ … Gosling in The Nice Guys. Photograph: Claudio Carpi

Gosling and Russell Crowe had both played violent, shaven-headed fascists early in their careers (Gosling in The Believer, Crowe in Romper Stomper), but by the time they teamed up for a missing persons investigation in Shane Black’s rambunctious comic thriller, they couldn’t have been more different. Gosling was now delicate and goofy, as light on his toes as a ballerina, while Crowe was an ungainly, unshaven lump. That mismatch lends the film its spark.

With nearly a decade of family-entertainment wholesomeness behind him, it was useful for Gosling to have a calling-card role that drew a line definitively between his Mickey Mouse Club past and his adult future. Nothing could have done the job better than The Believer, an intense psychological thriller based on the real case of a Jewish neo-Nazi. The movie displayed early and incontrovertible evidence of the Gosling USP: an ability to hold a character’s contradictions and conflicts in view at all times.

Gosling and his co-star Michelle Williams lived together while preparing to play lovers on the rocks in Derek Cianfrance’s gruelling marital drama. The fragmentary, non-chronological structure allows them to inhabit the happiness and optimism of the couple’s salad days as emphatically as the despair that later comes to overwhelm them. It’s as pleasurable watching them fall in love as it is excruciating seeing them fall apart.

Ryan Gosling in Half Nelson

Class act … Gosling in Half Nelson. Photograph: Allstar Collection/DreamWorks/Sportsphoto/Allstar

Think of this as Drugged Poets Society or To Sir, With Crack. As the drug-addicted Dan Dunne, a teacher who puts the “high” in high school, Gosling gives a frazzled but nuanced performance whether he is grandstanding in class or slipping into inaccessible corners of his own mind. His friendship with a pupil (Shareeka Epps), and his attempts to save her from a local dealer, provide the core of the drama, but the film is alive with curious, devastating details. Best of all is the scene in which Dan is approached by the father of a former pupil. The man wants to share the good news of his daughter’s recent academic achievement, and to congratulate this teacher who set her on the right path, but from within his druggy funk Dan simply cannot be reached.

First Man is in UK cinemas from 12 October

This article was amended on 11 Oct 2017. A previous version stated that Gosling’s character in Half Nelson was addicted to heroin.