One of the most recognizable actors ever to grace the screens of movies, Tom Cruise has come a long way. From his first major breakout in Risky Business to becoming the man, to this day, helming the well-known action franchise Mission: Impossible, few stars in Hollywood are more widely known and loved than Cruise.
In honor of Cruise’s classic film, Top Gun, celebrating its 30th anniversary, as well as slightly celebrating the return of Maverick in 2017 with Top Gun 2, we’re riding into the danger zone of ranking Tom Cruise’s best films. It seems only fitting to start the countdown with the impetus that has had this Top 5 on the calendar for months with the 1986 classic:
5) Top Gun
A movie I watch when I want to have fun, Top Gun has always been a “guy” movie. It’s not overly well-acted, it’s got tons of terribly dated 80’s music, and Tom Cruise is almost everything we never really liked about him; brash, arrogant, and outflying Tim Robbins and Val Kilmer. It lacks character nuance, has a bunch of super cheesy lines, and has a super-awkward love scene that would make John Woo proud? Did I mention the 80’s music like the Oscar-winning “Take my Breath Away” performed by Berlin?
But there is just something about this movie that makes it so awesome. It might be the relationship between Goose and Maverick. It may be the emotional gut-punch of Goose’s death. It could be the adrenaline of seeing some awesome dogfighting between American F-14s and Soviet Migs. Even while you can hardly stand the soundtrack, you’re drawn in by Kenny Loggins, Cheap Trick, Loverboy, and The Miami Sound Machine. There are an ease and confidence permeating the whole movie that emanates from Cruise’s role as Maverick. Even in his most vulnerable moments, Maverick is self-assured.
What draws guys to this movie is both the heart-pounding moments and the braggadocio of Maverick and his fellow pilots. But what it comes down to is the competitive camaraderie. Like any of us who play(ed) sports or vied against other in competition, there is a deep-seated need to beat out your opponents but you hold a begrudging respect for those you compete against. At the end of the day, this movie scratches that “guy” movie itch and few do it better.
Having been an action star for decades, Cruise seemingly had done it all. He was Ethan Hunt, Maverick, and Jack Reacher. As far as everyone is concerned, Cruise could go on making Mission Impossible movies and we wouldn’t need much else. After the moderate to the not-so-good success of Oblivion, Cruise collaborated with Christopher McQuarrie, most famous for writing The Usual Suspects, and director Doug Liman of the Bourne series, to make 2014’s Sci-Fi sensation Edge of Tomorrow.
Clever, original, and unrelenting in its pace, the movie also known as Live.Die.Repeat. is a mystery thriller dressed in Sci-Fi/Action clothing. The premise of the movie is so much fun and original, even if it feels like a Sci-Fi Groundhog’s Day, it leaves you guessing as your heart pounds with every step and misstep Cruise’s Cage makes.
Co-star Emily Blunt brings a muscular confidence to her role as Rita, the hero of Earth’s Special Forces fighting against the alien invasion. However, it is Cruise’s movie and he brings it all to his role. Starting out as the smooth-talking PR man behind the war, he is wholly incompetent when thrust into war and ill-fitting to the role we normally expect out of Cruise in his movies. He is not Ethan Hunt. But as he acclimates and grows, his confident competent returns and by the end Cruise is his same brawny, action-star self and kicking some serious alien butt. The highest virtue of Cruise’s performance is his likability. Even when the movie stalls on the ham-fisted love story between Blunt and Cruise, he remains charming, confident and magnetic. We love Cruise in his roles and true to the meta-reality of this movie, Cruise has adapted and re-invented himself over the decades to remain relevant, bankable, and likable. May it stay that way for decades to come.
The first of two collaborations between Cruise and legendary director Steven Spielberg, Minority Report is far and away the better film than 2005’s War of the Worlds. Based on the short story by famed Sci-Fi writer Philip K. Dick, Cruise plays officer John Anderton. Living in futuristic Washington D.C. where crime is virtually eliminated, Anderson heads up the Precrime unit utilizing three special “Pre-Cogs” who have the ability to see a time before it happens. However, when the Pre-cogs foresee Anderton will commit a crime in the next 36 hours, he seeks out the “Minority Report” which could provide an alternate outcome and prove his innocence.
Like a virtuoso at the top of his craft, Spielberg creates a much more daring, wild thriller that reaches where his previous film, A.I. Artificial Intelligence couldn’t reach for. It’s a tighter story, entertaining throughout, and like Edge of Tomorrow, it leaves you guessing and desperately trying to uncover the clues while your heart sits in your throat.
Likewise, Cruise is daring, raw, and wholly sold out in his role. While Spielberg reaches high and creates the space for this world to come alive, Cruise grabs all of it, shakes it up and ratchets up the intensity. And once again, his likability carries his performance as Anderton. Even when we are suspicious this could end with Anderson in jail and the Pre-cogs vision is the reality at the end of the film, we can’t help but root for him to come out on top. In a movie billed on being a “Spielberg movie” Cruise gets ever so close to stealing this out from under him.
If the first three performances on this list are the best of what we have come to expect from Cruise, the final two movies on this list are when Cruise has been given a chance to shine in a more dramatic role.
In Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1999 movie, Magnolia, the interwoven stories of a cast of characters in Los Angeles follow one twenty-four hour period. It’s a story of confession, forgiveness, love, and existential meaning. to be completely honest, this movie is really weird, really crazy, and really brilliant. Anderson’s films can be seen as overly smart and pretentious, but piecing apart this film is a joy, just as finding the beauty in a work of art is a joy. Robert Ebert called this film an “operatic ecstasy” and it certainly takes its oddity and ramps it up to levels bordering on the insane. Intensity ebbs and flows as people’s stories come together, only to diverge once more. If you have only seen this movie once, go see it again, and I am confident you will appreciate it even more. But don’t ask me about the frogs.
Cruise plays one of the many interconnected components in the movie as Frank TJ Mackey, a fast-talking, big-smiling, machismo-oozing pickup artist selling his pickup system to seduce women in his old hometown of LA. What starts as an almost far-fetched, amped up version of Cruise becomes wholly different as his despicable stud is taken to task by an intrepid, well-researched reporter. Cruise really shines when Mackey’s world starts to crumble and he’s confronted with this hidden past and then a dying father. He falls apart and then comes apart when he goes to see him. What really wows in this performance is how Cruise is far from restrained in these moments, but his intensity fits the operatic tone of the movie and plays so well. Even when he is restrained, it is only momentary before he blows and comes undone. As one of many in the movie, he is not the most over-the-top, but he is the most memorable. It was also the last time he has been nominated for an Oscar, but he did not win. I can only hope he gets another chance to have a role like this and win that elusive Oscar.
1) Rain Man
If going purely on performance, Rain Man is not Cruise’s strongest in comparison to Magnolia or Jerry Maguire. What elevates Cruise’s performance as Charlie Babbitt is the turn his character takes from a selfish yuppie to a caring bother to Dustin Hoffman’s Raymond. As Roger Ebert put it in his review of the movie:
“The changes in the movie all belong to Charlie, who begins the film as a me-first materialist, a would-be Trump without a line of credit. By the end of the film Charlie has learned how to pay attention, how to listen and how to be at least a little patient some of the time. He does not undergo a spiritual transformation; he simply gets in touch with things that are more important than selling cars.”
More than any other movie, more than his turn-on-a-dime emoting in Magnolia, to his convincing romantic lead in Jerry Maguire, and even his less-known today role in Born on the Fourth of July, Cruise has a character that takes a real, human turn. He interacts, appreciates, and is wowed by his autistic brother Raymond and finds a meaningful relationship with someone who is difficult to communicate with and take care of. By the end of the film, he may not have become a new person, but he has discovered a new person in his brother and loves him. This movie gets me every time and I cannot imagine Cruise ever having a better role. Time will tell, but it would be hard to beat this one.