The List: Tom Cruise’s Best Films

The List is a way of organizing our thoughts on a certain topic into an easily digestible post. Topics may range from ranking films of a certain actor who has an upcoming release, to even something as simple as listing our breakfast cereals of choice. Anything is game. Length will vary depending on the individual writing said list, and jumping from one topic to the next may leave you feeling a little dizzy, but FUN (from our perspective at least) is our weapon of choice.

With the release this Friday of the latest Tom Cruise vehicle Oblivion, I felt it was a good time to jump into one of my favorite obsessions, ranking the films of a given actor’s career. Cruise, for me, is one of Hollywood’s best-kept secrets. Yes, I’m calling one of the few remaining actual movie stars a secret, but what I’m referring to is that he’s not just a star, he’s a damn good actor. When most people think of Cruise, they think of big-budgets, spectacle, sci-fi and action. Here, I’m hoping to cast light on some of his lesser-known work, films that prove he is not only a star but that prove he is one of the finest actors of his generation. For this list, I am ranking the films in terms of overall quality, but thankfully for the most part this list includes the best performances of Cruise’s career.

Although I am not really anticipating Oblivion, the presence of Cruise as the film’s star definitely causes me to give it a second look and if the reviews are decent enough I may just find myself in the theater this weekend. But for now, this list of six films (because I couldn’t choose between the last few) will have to do.

Note: For some reason I have not seen The Color of Money. This will change imminently.

Honorable Mentions: Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011) , Jerry Maguire (1996) , Rain Man (1988) , Risky Business (1983)

6. Born on the Fourth of July (1989)

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“People say that if you don’t love America, then get the hell out. Well, I love America.”

Cruise’s first Oscar nomination came for his role as paralyzed Vietnam War vet Ron Kovic in Oliver Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July. The film charts Kovic’s life from his high school days, through the war, and eventually to his post-war days as an anti-war political activist. What is most startling about Cruise’s evolution from a kid with so much hope to a beaten and tormented adult soul was that he was still widely viewed as that heartthrob pilot from Top Gun. Although roles in Risky Business and Rain Man certainly set the stage for his move into more dramatic material, there was nothing quite as challenging as taking on the life of a man deteriorating both physically and mentally right before our eyes.

5. Collateral (2004)

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“Guy gets on the subway and dies. Think anybody’ll notice?”

Cruise’s last truly great dramatic role came as contract killer Vincent in Michael Mann’s neo-noir cab ride through LA. Over the course of one night, cabbie Max (Jamie Foxx) evolves from unknowing simple-minded driver to a man of heroic action all thanks to a chance encounter with Cruise’s maniacal hitman. One of the great joys of the film is watching Cruise and Foxx bounce off each other, but it is Mann’s digital camerawork that brings it all together. And if there was ever to be a ringing-endorsement for going grey, it’s Cruise’s performance here.

4. A Few Good Men (1992)

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“Don’t call me son. I’m a lawyer, and an officer in the United States Navy, and you’re under arrest you son of a bitch.”

The first script from future Oscar winner Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network) centers on Lt. Daniel Kaffee (Cruise), a cocky Navy lawyer who has yet to see the inside of a courtroom. This all changes when he is assigned a case to defend two Marines accused of murdering a fellow Marine. This all leads to an epic courtroom showdown between Kaffee and the man his defendants claim to have ordered the action that led to the killing, Col. Nathan Jessup (Jack Nicholson). A tour-de-force of acting and snappy dialogue, it’s no wonder that so many of even the most minor cast members went on to bigger and better things. It is Cruise, however, whose show this truly is as the brash and inexperienced lawyer turned true seeker of justice. The last set piece in the courtroom will forever remain one of the most entertaining and well acted the legal thriller has ever seen. Throw in a defiant Nicholson performance and you’ve got something special.

3. Minority Report (2002)

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“Goodbye, Crow.”

One of Spielberg’s absolute best, this sci-fi thriller stars Cruise as an officer of the Pre-Crime unit, a group of law enforcement pros who have the ability to see crimes that have yet to occur through three gifted individuals called Pre-Cogs. This is Cruise at his best in an action film, using his star power and dramatic chops in equal parts. He is not only jumping off flying vehicles and running from his own unit as an accused man, but is also tortured by the loss of his son some years prior. We feel this, and it is films like Minority Report that do much more than simply entertain us. They make us question what we see on screen, but more importantly, they make us question our own human nature.

2. Magnolia (1999)

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“What am I doing? I’m quietly judging you.”

Perhaps Cruise’s finest achievement as an actor comes as part of the ensemble in Paul Thomas Anderson’s meditation on love, loss, and forgiveness in the San Fernando Valley. As Frank T.J. Mackey, misogynistic self-help guru to men looking for love, Cruise is a force of nature. His performance is both exhilarating and heartbreaking, as he is once again playing a character tortured by his past, in this case an estranged relationship with his now dying father. When he is finally confronted with the man on his deathbed, we are witness to one of the most convincing emotional breakdowns ever put to celluloid. None of this is to even mention writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson, my personal hero, who crafts a film so difficult and confounding that to recommend the film is to expose yourself as someone who actually ‘gets it’. And yes, the fact that Cruise did not win the Oscar for this role haunts me to this day.

1. Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

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“No dream is ever just a dream.”

And now we come to the master: the one and only Stanley Kubrick, who passed away before this, his last film, was even released. In my opinion, he saved the best for last. Starring then couple Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman as a married couple tortured by their own sexual fantasies, Eyes Wide Shut focuses on Cruise’s character Dr. Bill Harford’s nightlong journey through the streets of New York City. This journey leads him to a meeting of a secret society interested in sexual exploration, and safe to say, Dr. Bill is out of his element. What makes the film so powerful is its hypnotic nature, from the score to the cinematography; everything about it sets us on edge. It’s eerie, creepily so, and as we move with Cruise through the night, we fear that we might just lose ourselves right along with him. Eyes Wide Shut also has the great honor of having my favorite line of dialogue to close any film ever. It’s a doozy, just like the filmmaker behind it, and it remains one of my absolute favorite films.

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