Say what you want about Tom Cruise — it's probably true. The best Tom Cruise movies also happen to be some of the best movies period. He's the one of the greatest living actors. He's overrated. He's underrated. He's way too old to be doing his own stunts. He's got short-man's syndrome. Scientology. Motorcycles. He's an anachronism. He's immortal.
You can argue for and against any and all of those things — and that's just for starters. But it's hard to argue that Tom Cruise (you have to use his full name every time — I don't make the rules) hasn't been one of the most fascinating actors of a generation. Maybe not as prolific as, say, Kevin Bacon (the two are but four years apart in age) — but right up there in terms of range.
From the sweaty cliche that is Top Gun (and presumably the upcoming and equally sweaty sequel) to the likes of the nearly indescribable Vanilla Sky or Eyes Wide Shut, dude has range — even if it seems like in my ways he's merely playing different versions of himself. But that's what makes a good actor. We know that it's Tom Cruise in a fighter jet, or as a Vietnam War veteran. Or as an oversexed doctor. Or as a Pre-Crime cop. Or a hotshot lawyer backed by one hell of a lawyer.
Or maybe you can argue that Tom Cruise is even better at choosing roles than he is an actor. Maybe that's what distinguishes our list of the best Tom Cruise movies.
In any case, it's one hell of a list. Let's go through it, in no apparent order.
Risky Business (1983)
What's your first memory of Tom Cruise? Is it of the young man in an Oxford shirt and briefs, falling for (and falling under the spell of) the one and only Rebecca De Mornay? If so, you're absolutely not alone.
But it's also easy to forget that Risky Business isn't Tom Cruise's first movie. Even if it's a standout in a sea of memorable roles.
Top Gun (1986)
I feel the need ... the need ... to quote this movie within an inch of its life. It's not that it's the world's worst movie, or the world's best movie. Or even Tom Cruise's best movie. But there's just something about the swagger actors like Tom Cruise and Val Kilmer and Tom Skerritt playing fighter pilots that's ridiculously badass.
And let us not forget the late, great Goose — Anthony Edwards with hair! And James Tolkan and his threat to have Maverick flying a cargo plane full of rubber dog shit out of Hong Kong. And Michael Ironside reminding us that you never — ever — leave your wingman.
But you know what? Top Gun may well have worked had it just been the opening flight deck scenes for two hours with that chime resonating in your chest over and over again. It would have worked. Or the volleyball scene. Or the bar scene. But Tom Cruise made it better.
Cocktail is what you get if you combine Risky Business with Top Gun. Tom Cruise is just a guy looking to make his way in the world, but intent on doing it his own way. That's right, bartender man. He is ... dangerous.
Don't let anyone tell you Cocktail isn't a good movie. I mean, they're not necessarily wrong. But it's a not-great movie in which Brian Brown serves as an excellent mentor. Yeah, it didn't work out so well for Douglas Coughlin — but it worked out just fine for Brian Flanagan.
All the Right Moves (1983)
Released the same year as "Risky Business," "All the Right Moves," is often overshadowed by its slicker, sexier cousin. It shouldn't be.
For teens who grew up in coal and steel towns like this — or in any one-company, one-industry town — this movie was the celluloid version of the struggle to make a different path in a place that only offers so many choices.
This Tom Cruise hero has flaws and he doesn't just skate on that big smile. Plus he has a great foil in the criminally underrated Craig T. Nelson.
The last thing Charlie Babbitt needs is a brother — let alone one with a developmental disability. But that's the hand Tom Cruise was dealt in Rain Man.
It's Tom Cruise being serious and charming and awful and all those things. And it's him doing it alongside Dustin Hoffman. There's no way this movie wasn't going to work.
Days of Thunder (1990)
It's Top Gun on four wheels. Cole Trickle may just be the most NASCAR name ever. And this may well be the most Tom Cruise movie of them all. Speed. Danger. Silly names. Nicole Kidman. (As in the future ex-Mrs. Tom Cruise.)
Plus Robert Duvall. Randy Quaid before he went off the deep end. Carey Elways, just a couple years out from The Princess Bride and sandwiched between Glory and Hot Shots!. And the ageless Michael Rooker.
And probably the best use of the Spencer Davis Group in a film — right when Steve Winwood was getting big as a solo act.
A Few Good Men (1992)
One of the most memorable movie scenes ever comes from this flick — and it wasn't even Tom Cruise's line that capped it off. That's OK — if you've got to play second fiddle to someone, let it be Jack Nicholson.
The military courtroom drama is a little tough for anyone who knows anything about courtrooms to watch — there's absolutely no way a lawyer anywhere would be allowed to behave that way. But art doesn't always imitate life, and so a little deus ex machina and dialog by one of the best in the business — Aaron Sorkin — gave Tom Cruise yet another notch on his dramatic acting belt.
Plus an insolent (is there any other kind?) Kiefer Sutherland, the always awesome J.T. Walsh, Kevins Bacon and Pollak, Demi Moore, and a baby Noah Wyle.
The cadets of Bunker Hill Academy love their school, and when condo developers plan to bulldoze it, the cadets become the ultimate NIMBYs. They occupy the school, ending in a real-live war game these young men might not have bargained for.
This is not a "Tom Cruise" movie in the sense that his name is not above the fold. It's a George C. Scott and Timothy Hutton (with a little Sean Penn thrown in for lagniappe) movie on that score.
But the hotheaded, gung-ho David Shawn that Cruise delivers one of his rare bad guys, a hint that there is more behind those eyes than endless variations on Joel from Risky Business.
With the exception of Magnolia, no one since has really had Cruise dig into the wound-too-tight, jagged edges he shows here.
Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
What the hell is this movie about? Is it about Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman? (Very much so.) Is it about some weird secret sex party society in New York? (Most definitely.) Is it about the fallout between those two things? (Yep.)
It's also about this being Stanley Kubrick's final film before he died. And it's about Chris Isaak's baby doing a bad, bad thing.
What it is not, however, is about the sex.
It is, as Kidman's character says in the final line, about the fucking.
Edge of Tomorrow (2014)
There's just something about this movie that makes it watchable every time it's on. Maybe it's Tom Cruise as a PR flak in the military as it's combating a crazy alien invasion. Maybe it's Emily Blunt and her badass triceps. Maybe it's the late Bill Paxton's drawl. "Edge of the knaaaaaaf."
You know how this movie is going to turn out. You know Tom Cruise will be OK and save the day and everything will work itself out. And you know that look he gives at the very end of the movie means something — you just don't know what. (That's where the sequel may eventually lead us.)
Or maybe it's just the mere idea of Tom Cruise ending up in a situation in which he's not in total control and doesn't know what's going to happen.
Vanilla Sky (2001)
This is one of those trailers that absolutely does not do the movie — or Tom Cruise — justice. (Same goes for Cameron Crowe, who wrote it.) Sure it captures the Tom Cruise who can do no wrong, get any woman he wants, drive the coolest car — you know, standard Tom Cruise stuff. And, sure, it captures the broken and confused Tom Cruise. And it captures the nexus between those things.
But damned if I can make sense of it two decades later. Still, it's an excellent Tom Cruise movie.
Jerry Maguire (1996)
This is the epitome of mid-1990s movies. Tom Cruise stars as Tom Cruise. Renee Zellweger is the new hotness of the decade. (Or the back half of it, anyway.) Cameron Crowe does his thing with the script and behind the camera.
And it has that Sorkin-esque speech that feels like it was made for Tom Cruise. Plus Cuba Gooding Jr. in a role that makes you wonder where the rest of his career went.
Mission: Impossible (1996)
There's something about the first movie in this franchise reboot that maybe doesn't hold up so well 25 years later. But that's OK. Tom Cruise holds his own as Ethan Hunt alongside (and against) the likes of Jon Voight, Jean Reno and Ving Rhames. And it paved the way for something like 17 sequels, with casts that have morphed over two decades.
But it still manages to keep the soul of the original movie — and of the original M:I series.
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