Tom Cruise’s 10 Greatest Movie Roles

tom cruise oblivion Tom Cruises 10 Greatest Movie Roles

You know what’s awesome about Tom Cruise? No matter what people think of his religious affiliations, his sometimes questionable public behavior, his romantic relationships, his various eccentricities, most are still fans of his movies. He makes seriously solid movies, frequently, consistently, dependably. He’s an actor who brings it to each role he takes on, whether he’s carrying a film like Mission: Impossible or working as a bizarre supporting player like in Rock of Ages.

What may be most remarkable is his longevity, being able to handle roles that have thrown him into dangerous stunts and dramatic moments alike for 30 years now. That’s kind of hard to believe. But indeed, his first big lead role was in 1983 with Risky Business, which landed him his first Golden Globe nomination at the mere age of 21. He’s gone on to work with some of the biggest and best directors in history, such as Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick. With his new sci-fi movie Oblivion hitting theaters this weekend, he’s not exactly showing signs of slowing down.

He’s been nominated for seven Golden Globes, winning three of those, and is a three-time Oscar nominee. But that doesn’t even do justice to a decades-spanning career that has shown remarkable range and ability. Here are what are probably the 10 best roles Tom Cruise has played in his (first) thirty years on the silver screen.

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1) Born on the Fourth of July

Born on the Fourth of July Tom Cruises 10 Greatest Movie Roles

I’ve tried to order these roles loosely by rank but honestly, any of the numbers could be interchangeable, so screw it. The first one I find worth mentioning though, and maybe Tom Cruise’s best performance, came back in 1989 in Oliver Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July. He had rose to prominence thanks to Top Gun, gained some further credibility in Rain Man the year previous, but he found some real balls working with Oliver Stone, back when Stone was in his element, making movies informed by his experiences in the Vietnam War.

Cruise played Vietnam veteran Ron Kovic, who is inspired to join the Marines, has some traumatic experiences in Vietnam, and returns home permanently constrained to a wheelchair due to wounds inflicted in the war. We see him change as the world around him changes, and as he experiences it, and the change is fascinating for the character and for Cruise’s wide-ranging emotional performance. It’s a heart wrenching film that is absolutely devastating at times, and Cruise is the anchor of it all, struggling with pain of all kinds for years before finding a way to channel that pain into action that is intended to help prevent others from experiencing the pain he has undergone. He goes from naïve to disillusioned very quickly, and he masters these transitions and complicated emotions like we had never seen Cruise master before, and perhaps since.

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2) Magnolia

Tom Cruise Magnolia Tom Cruises 10 Greatest Movie Roles

Ten years later, Tom Cruise had grown up, and was taking on more mature roles (well, roles for older men let’s say) but maintaining the intensity that had become his trademark. There was still this element of a boy in a man’s body to a lot of his work, though. And Magnolia harnessed this popular impression and turned it into one of the most compelling characters Cruise has ever played, an intense self-help guru who leads courses to help men be more confident and pick up women.

Watching this movie today with the knowledge of Cruise’s prominence within the Church of Scientology makes his turn as a kind of cult leader with a following of aggressive-minded men eerie just because it seems to be the image we’ve been led to believe about his religious role today. When questioned by an interviewer in Magnolia, he becomes incredibly hostile. Now, in real life it’s not for folks like me to speculate what Cruise is like when it comes to believing in whatever, but his character here is pretty cynical. He plays him with this magnetism that only a star of his caliber could harness most likely, but also reins it in when faced with the impending death of his father. There’s a ton of layers to this character and Cruise brings them out while completely inhabiting this weirdo. It’s impressive.

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3) Vanilla Sky

Vanilla Sky Tom Cruises 10 Greatest Movie Roles

Cruise’s second collaboration with Cameron Crowe, following Jerry Maguire, came in 2001 with Vanilla Sky. Now this is a real mind-melting movie, interweaving various dream realities with real realities and interchanging characters in and out of the mind of Cruise’s protagonist character. This role is demanding in the sense that he’s carrying the whole of the movie on his back and much of it is taking place in his character’s mind, and Cruise does a terrific job of depicting a man coming completely unraveled in the wake of information that would make any person go a little nuts.

What may be most impressive about Cruise as David Aames in Vanilla Sky are the scenes where he’s wearing a mask, so we’re unable to see his face (obviously), but that’s significant because so much of the work you’d see from Cruise or most any other actors comes in the eyes, especially for someone who typically plays characters with the level of intensity that Cruise does. He steps up his body language instead, communicating the character’s anxiety and distress, through vocal signals but also with movement. It gives a movie that relies heavily on working the mind a little extra heart.

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4) Collateral

Tom Cruise in Collateral Tom Cruises 10 Greatest Movie Roles

This movie has a look and feel to it that is very specific and unique, especially for its time, and having a guy like Cruise playing this badass hitman guy seems like it could have potentially created some dissonance. Instead, he seamless melds with the tone of the movie and with co-star Jamie Foxx. This is, at times, another one of Cruise’s less verbal roles, and it’s also somewhat less kinetic; he doesn’t do a lot of chasing after guys and making that trademark Tom Cruise running face. Instead, he’s in the back seat of the cab going from place to place, acting much more subtly and restrained than Ethan Hunt or Jack Reacher would.

The subdued nature of the role, and Cruise’s excellence at capturing it, was a contrast to a lot of roles he had been taking previous to Collateral, where they were mostly star vehicles. This one symbolized a recommitment to a less up front but just as important endeavor to fulfill the vision of a real auteurist filmmaker, in this case Michael Mann. One of the pleasures of seeing the roles Tom Cruise takes is that although most of his movies are star vehicles, he’ll occasionally share the spotlight with some other capable players and he’s extremely good working with other talented people in addition to carrying a film basically all by himself.

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5) Tropic Thunder

Tom Cruise Tom Cruises 10 Greatest Movie Roles

In 2008, Tom Cruise was going through a bit of a rough patch, suffering from a small wave of bad publicity and general public discontent, which was strange for someone who was formerly one of the most beloved movie stars in the world. In what was either a stroke of luck or a stroke of genius, he signed on for the absurd Ben Stiller war comedy Tropic Thunder, playing a character who would somehow go on to be this iconic figure in comedy for years to come: the film studio executive Les Grossman.

Cruise is hysterical as the unpredictable and visually ridiculous Grossman because he seems to treat him with the same intensity and seriousness that he would bring to a non-comedic part. So when you see him in his weird fat suit with his giant hands and bald head, there’s a couple of seconds before you recognize him, and when you do, there’s that moment of “Omg it’s Tom Cruise” that is compounded when he keeps going and shouting into his phone without any impression that anything he’s doing is as hilarious as it is for us. It’s no wonder people came flocking back to the Cruisewagon after seeing him as Les Grossman. It was a reminder that he can take a break from taking himself uber seriously and also that he’s just so damn good at acting.

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6) Jerry Maguire

Jerry Maguire Tom Cruises 10 Greatest Movie Roles

Jerry Maguire was Cruise’s first effort with director Cameron Crowe, and it’s both more and less satisfying than their second collaboration in Vanilla Sky. It’s got the reputation it has today as a cheesy romantic comedy type movie with some reason. There is a lot of cornball and sappy moments that seem a little forced, a little cliché, and a little melodramatic, especially by today’s standards. We tend to hope that Oscar-nominated movies that lay on the romance these days have a pretty strong hook, first of all, but also tread very lightly when it comes to dealing with the romance, keeping it from getting too stale too quickly. Silver Linings Playbook was able to pull this off.

Ultimately, I think Jerry Maguire does too, and it’s as much a credit to Cruise’s lead performance as Bradley Cooper was fundamental to Silver Linings. The infamous “Show me the money” scene could be read as an indicator of the lengths to which Cruise will go to sell himself in a part, although by now he’s been afforded much more success than Jerry and is much less desperate, so it would seem. Cruise handles the emotional beats as well as he does the fast talking sports agent stuff, and brings some realism to a movie that very easily could have veered entirely into the schmaltz ditch.

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7) Rain Man

Rain Man Tom Cruises 10 Greatest Movie Roles

Another of Tom Cruise’s earlier work that demonstrated a depth exceeding some of his contemporaries, Rain Man was one of the first parts where Cruise was able to pull off the whole ’30-something guy acts like a teenager but a thing happens that makes him grow up real fast eventually’ thing, and he does it really convincingly. This is a movie where Dustin Hoffman is the brother who really gets to show off, exhibiting his familiarity with common traits among folks with autism ranging from charming to behaviorally difficult.

It’s a little like The Fighter where Christian Bale gets to be the eccentric one and puts in a performance that ignites the movie. Tom Cruise is Rain Man’s Mark Wahlberg: the straight man having to deal with Raymond’s unique abilities and inabilities. The depth he shows here has to therefore also be more subtle, and Cruise makes the bond between the two brothers emotionally real. The emotions are where he gets to be over the top, because Raymond doesn’t have the social skills to express his in an understandable way. It’s beautiful the way Raymond and Charlie balance each other here, and the same goes for Hoffman and Cruise in their work together.

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8) A Few Good Men

A Few Good Men Tom Cruises 10 Greatest Movie Roles

By 1992 we had seen Cruise work with Dustin Hoffman and Paul Newman, giants among film actors (not literally, but you know), and in A Few Good Men he does some work opposite another mammoth Hollywood figure, Jack Nicholson. Their pairing is interesting because they both have a unique brand of passion in their roles and remarkable firepower when called for. Seeing them go head to head is therefore akin to the whole irresistible force-immovable object mumbo-jumbo.

Of course he also has a script by Aaron Sorkin at his disposal, meaning he is afforded a number of delicious quips and grandiose statements, and the precise rhythm with which Sorkin writes is handled predictably well by Cruise. It’s not usually among the movies listed as his best but it’s a terrific story that depends largely on his strong performance, and he brings it.

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9) Minority Report

Minority Report Tom Cruises 10 Greatest Movie Roles

Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise seem like a natural team, and they finally proved it in 2002 with the release of Minority Report, a movie that, is it just me, or has it aged rather well? It blended weird moral and philosophical questions with gripping action and conspiracy the way only a Philip K. Dick adaptation can. It’s yet another guy-at-the-end-of-his-rope role for Cruise. But in this pattern we’re able to identify, it’s noteworthy that a) he’s able to pull it off time and time again, combining an ability to make action incredibly gripping and intense, enhancing the experience for the audience just with his presence and energy; and b) that he makes the occasional divergence and pulls it off in a big way.

So in Minority Report we get a bit of everything from Cruise, from the tenderness he shows he pre-cog played by Samantha Morton, to the rivalry with fellow officer played by Neal McDonough, to the cat and mouse game he plays with Colin Farrell. What we’re left with is quintessential Cruise: delivering a fine enough performance to make the character and story believable, but not upstaging the story, and in this case, the moral quandaries at the heart of that story that is the real source of discussion for people after they’ve seen it. John Anderton isn’t the most memorable hero but his part in a fantastic movie is memorable in its own right.

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10) Top Gun

top gun maverick Tom Cruises 10 Greatest Movie Roles

Finally there’s probably the role that cemented Cruise as a movie star for generations to come. Although he has reinvented himself a few times and continued to keep himself relevant by taking on new challenges and demonstrating a kind of consistency that is rare in an industry as vicious as Hollywood, to many, Cruise will always hold a special place as Maverick, the brash young pilot who wants to prove to Val Kilmer that he is indeed the one flyer who is cock of the walk despite Kilmer’s insistence that he is cock of nothing.

Ambiguous homoeroticism aside, Cruise’s attitude is the driving force behind the Maverick character and the film works on the merits of his balls, and Kilmer’s jealousy of his balls. Ok so maybe it’s impossible to dismiss the gay stuff entirely. Gay or not, the prowess and bravado Cruise shows whether he’s singing at a bar with a bunch of his guy friends (to a LADY, don’t forget!) or strutting his stuff in tight jeans on the beach volleyball court (the Top Gun high five is iconic) is magnetic and loads of fun to watch.

With Oblivion sure to become the latest launching pad for the Tom Cruise missile, it doesn’t look like he’ll be leaving the danger zone any time soon. I think we’ll all be just fine with that.

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  • Lamdog

    Vanilla Sky: Please, I play the movie when a party goes to long and I want the house cleared.