Top 10: Best Tom Cruise Performances

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Tom Cruise may not be the biggest star in Hollywood, but he is certainly one of the most recognizable. Since his first onscreen appearances in “Endless Love” and “Taps” in 1981, Cruise has appeared in more than 40 films. More than 40 films that have grossed nearly $4 billion. He has been nominated for three Academy Awards and seven Golden Globes, where he won three.

He is best known for his action movies, from racing cars in “Days of Thunder” to saving the world in “Edge of Tomorrow.” He has played spies, military officers, and a dad trying to protect his kids during an alien invasion. But between rock stars and pool sharks, it is sometimes easy to miss that Tom Cruise is more than just a pretty face that runs a lot. He has given some really great performances. And even in his less acclaimed movies, he is still fun to watch.

With so many films to consider, there were many that couldn’t make the cut. The sweeping landscapes of “Far and Away” were rivaled by the electricity between Cruise and his then-wife Nicole Kidman. His playboy bartender in “Cocktail” was charming, but not good enough to be considered among his best. He was a surprise as the vampire named Lestat in “Interview With the Vampire.” Likewise, he stood out in “Taps.” But both of those films were really more about his co-stars.

Very nearly missing were the strangely cerebral “Vanilla Sky,” the legal thriller “The Firm,” and the futuristic “Minority Report.”

But, we narrowed it down to ten films that really stand out from the bunch in different ways.

This week, to celebrate the release of his new film, “The Mummy,” we are counting down the Ten Best Performances by the one and only Tom Cruise.

10. Joel Goodsen, “Risky Business”

Tom Cruise was just 21 when he danced his way into the hearts of audiences everywhere as high school senior Joel Goodsen. In fact, the dance scene was so iconic that it has been mimicked many times throughout pop culture. It even became a verb on the 80s-era TV series, “The Goldbergs.” He was nominated for his first Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Musical or Comedy. His charisma was palpable in every scene. And his leading man status was forever sealed the minute he put on those Ray-Bans and said, “Sometimes, you gotta say, what the f—.”

9. Lt. Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, “Top Gun”

Tom Cruise

“Top Gun” is all about cocky pilots, competitions, and male bravado. But Cruise manages to inject a lot of heart and passion into his character, Maverick. Of course, there are awesome flying stunts and that infamous beach volleyball scene. And yet, it is in the quiet moments, with a subtle click of the jaw or a turn of the head that conveys more than simply a “need for speed.” Plus, it’s impossible to ignore the film that launched him into superstardom.

8. Vincent, “Collateral”

“Collateral” may have earned a Best Supporting Actor nomination for co-star Jamie Foxx, but Cruise’s villainous hit man Vincent is equally compelling. Normally the hero of his films, this time he is so good at being bad that one might almost wish he’d do so more often. He is menacing, but also exudes a certain alluring presence. You want to trust him, all while knowing he wouldn’t hesitate to put a bullet in your forehead if you cross him. Playing the villain is a bit of a departure for him, but when he takes the chance, it works.

7. Charlie Babbitt, “Rain Man”

It would have been the epitome of category fraud to campaign Tom Cruise in the Supporting Actor category for his leading role in “Rain Man.” But, when his co-lead was Dustin Hoffman in one of the best performances of his career, it makes sense that Cruise missed out on a nomination in 1988. Here, Cruise’s Charlie Babbitt starts out as a spoiled, selfish man-child who cares only about getting whatever he thinks his father owes him. By the end, though, he has gone through a complete transformation. While there is one particular scene where he learns something significant that alters everything he thought he knew about his childhood, the transformation really progresses naturally. You can see him growing up gradually. And because of this progression, the ending feels ultimately satisfying, rather than overly sentimental.

6. Les Grossman, “Tropic Thunder

Tropic Thunder

When the Ben Stiller/Jack Black/Robert Downey, Jr comedy was released, Tom Cruise’s small role was not part of the marketing. He didn’t appear in the trailer. His character almost qualifies as a cameo because his appearance is so brief. When he first showed up onscreen, his trademark good looks hidden beneath prosthetics, a bald cap, excessive body hair and oversized hands, audiences did a double-take. The vulgar, ruthless movie producer Les Grossman was a character of Cruise’s own creation. Although there is speculation that he is based on a particular real-life producer. The part may have been small, but it was big enough to draw attention. There was even talk of a Les Grossman spin-off film, though that has yet to materialize.

5. Ethan Hunt, “Mission: Impossible III”

Each film in the “Mission: Impossible” franchise is distinct. And the character of Ethan Hunt is very good in all of them. In the first film, he assembled a team of disavowed agents to clear his name as a mole. The second ramped up the action. “Ghost Protocol” is the highest rated on Rotten Tomatoes, followed very closely by “Rogue Nation.” But it is in “Mission: Impossible III” where Hunt has the most to lose as his new bride is inadvertently pulled into his secret life of espionage. Sparring with the best Impossible Villain, Philip Seymour Hoffman, there are some moments in the third film that particularly stand out when looking past impressive acrobatic skills and foot chases.

4. Ron Kovic, “Born on the Fourth of July”

Just one year after missing out for “Rain Man,” Cruise was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor in the Oliver Stone-directed biopic of Vietnam Veteran Ron Kovic. This would be the first fully dramatic role for him, and it paid off. He embraced the character so completely that he sometimes almost disappears into it. He conveys the levity of the subject matter with confidence and dignity. His performance so impressed his real-life counterpart that, on the last day of filming, Kovic presented him the actual Bronze Star he had been awarded in Vietnam.

Also, the title was almost true for Cruise. He was born on the third of July.

3. Lt. Daniel Kaffee, “A Few Good Men”

Although Aaron Sorkin originally wrote “A Few Good Men” for the stage, it feels as though the role of Danny Kaffee was written just for Tom Cruise. He capitalizes on his boyish looks and crooked grin, mixed with delicious Sorkin dialogue. He is appropriately relaxed and unruffled when he needs to be. And then he assumes an intensity that perfectly demonstrates Kaffee’s maturing into full-fledged trial attorney. He is magical in his scenes with Jack Nicholson. And his Nicholson impression was entirely ad-libbed.

2. Frank “TJ” Mackey, “Magnolia”

Tom Cruise has never, and probably will never, play a character like Frank Mackey. He is the antithesis of everything the star is purported to be. Mackey is a self-help guru, building a career on helping men pick up women in the most demeaning ways possible. It is an ensemble film, but the role is so different for Cruise and he plays it so well that he earned another Academy Award nomination for it. He also won the Golden Globe that year for Best Supporting Actor. Mackey’s self-help seminar is intercut with scenes of a tense interview with a female reporter. All of this culminates at the bedside of Mackey’s dying father. Through it all, Cruise plumbs the depths of human emotion, allowing true pain to betray Mackey’s confident facade. It truly is one of the defining performances of his career.

1. Jerry Maguire, “Jerry Maguire”

Tom Cruise

Only one film can complete this list. It is the film that earned Tom Cruise his second Academy Award nomination. Despite some big, loud moments, particularly involving co-star Cuba Gooding, Jr. as Rod Tidwell, “Jerry Maguire” is a bit of a quiet film. Jerry’s character arc is ultimately an emotional journey as he learns for the first time how to care about people. This is a film devoid of special effects. The only running happens on a football field or in an airport terminal. Jerry has two significant relationships in the film, one with Tidwell, and the other with Dorothy Boyd (Renee Zellweger). Both of those relationships have low points and high points and Cruise handles each of them to perfection. The resolutions to both of those relationships offer so much depth that no amount of repeat viewings can stop the tears from forming.

Not a single scene feels wasted. If a film can ever truly be perfect, “Jerry Maguire” comes pretty close.

Tell us: What is your favorite Tom Cruise performance? Comment below or join the message boards!

  • Kevin

    Such an underrated actor. I wish he’d do more dramas. And glad to see someone else really likes him in MI3, that performance and movie is dismissed too often.

    I’d actually go Collateral number one. He’s outstanding in that role.

  • Joey Magidson

    1. Magnolia
    2. Jerry Maguire
    3. A Few Good Men
    4. All The Right Moves
    5. Born on the Fourth of July
    6. Eyes Wide Shut
    7. Risky Business
    8. Tropic Thunder
    9. Vanilla Sky
    10. Lions for Lambs

    • I really went back and forth a lot between Jerry Maguire and Magnolia, and which to rank first. In the end, I ultimately went with Jerry Maguire mostly because there’s so much more of him. He definitely packs a lot into his limited screen time in Magnolia. So it was a tough call. But that “you complete me” scene kills me every time.

      • Joey Magidson

        No argument here.

  • Tee

    In my personal quest to go through time and look at what my ballots for Oscars would be, Tom Cruise is actually the most nominated actor so far with a total of seven nominations, two of them being wins.

    1. Magnolia (1999, win)
    2. Jerry Maguire (1996, win)
    3. Born on the Fourth of July (1989, nomination)
    4. Rain Man (1988, nomination)
    5. Tropic Thunder (2008, nomination)
    6. A Few Good Men (1992)
    7. The Color of Money (1986, nomination)
    8. The Last Samurai (2003, nomination)
    9. Top Gun
    10. Edge of Tomorrow
    HM:
    Collateral
    Mission Impossible franchise