25. Far & Away (1992)
Far and Away was slammed by critics in 1992 for being a shallow, simplistic American epic. There’s some truth there, as director Ron Howard seems more interested in telling a weepy love story than he is in actually examining this particular period of history. However, that also sells short everything else the film has to offer. It’s beautifully shot, particularly the final land grab sequence. The score is memorable and moving. Cruise and Kidman’s natural chemistry elevates an otherwise very old-fashioned romance story. This isn’t anyone’s best work, but it’s still worth revisiting. You just have to look past Cruise’s very, very, very bad Irish accent.
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24. Oblivion (2013)
Credit to Oblivion for attempting to do something new — even if the whole thing feels wholly familiar. It’s a kind of pastiche of the genre. The movie is visually stunning and the effects are great. Though as the story begins to lay out its cards, you realize that it’s all in service to an unsatisfying narrative. Tom Cruise is fine here playing a familiar version of Tom Cruise, but that’s not enough to elevate this above being a somewhat enjoyable but extremely average science fiction movie.
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23. Days of Thunder (1990)
They weren’t trying to reinvent the wheel with this one. Tony Scott teams back up with Tom Cruise to essentially remake Top Gun, trading out fighter jets for stock cars. It doesn’t quite reach the same heights as their first outing, but there’s still a lot of good here. The supporting cast is fantastic, bringing depth to what were pretty stock characters on the page, and every scene with Cruise behind the wheel is thrilling. It’s arguably one of the best racing films ever made.
Days of Thunder is dumb, loud and tons of fun.
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22. Born on the 4th of July (1989)
Tom Cruise earned his first Oscar nomination for his performance in Born on the 4th of July. It totally makes sense — as this is exactly the kind of role that the Academy notices. It is a BIG swing from Cruise, and he spends the entire 145 minute runtime capital ‘A’ acting. Unfortunately, the rest of the movie doesn’t live up to his performance. Oliver Stone is completely unsubtle and heavy-handed here (even for him), and leaves us with an experience that is ultimately less than the sum of its parts. This is a good movie that should have been great.
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21. Interview With a Vampire (1994)
Interview With a Vampire is more of a vibe than a movie. Credit not only to Director Neil Jordan, but also the cinematographer, production designer and costume designers for creating a gothic feast for the eyes. The strong tone and sense of place is probably why this is one of the few performances where Tom Cruise is actually able to (at times) disappear into his role. There are moments where we are not watching Tom Cruise the movie star — but rather the seductive vampire Lestat.
Good thing, too, since there isn’t much of an actual plot.
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20. Mission: Impossible III (2006)
If you made a “best of” list for the Mission: Impossible franchise, Mission: Impossible 3 would chart near the bottom. It’s still an above-average action thriller, but the latter entries in the series have topped it in nearly every way.
I say nearly because Mission: Impossible 3 happens to have the most compelling villain that has ever crossed Ethan Hunt and the IMF. We see the villain in the form of a ruthless arms dealer portrayed by the inimitable Philip Seymour Hoffman. He brings such an intensity to the performance that even scenes where he’s monologuing are as tense and thrilling as any sequence where Cruise jumps out of a plane. That’s reason enough to seek out this movie.
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19. Vanilla Sky (2001)
Tom Cruise’s second collaboration with writer-director Cameron Crowe, Vanilla Sky, is a tough movie to pin down. I’ve seen it called an “erotic science fiction thriller”…only its not very erotic — and the science fiction is introduced very late in the game. There are some nice performances here, and Crowe knows how to write deeply human characters. However, the movie seems less interested in them than it is in teasing the audience with its mind-bending twist. For some, Vanilla Sky is an instant favorite. For others, it’s a forgettable snooze.
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18. The Last Samurai (2003)
There aren’t many new ideas in The Last Samurai, but it is still a solid period epic that explores the tension between tradition and modernity. The film seems to take great care in trying to portray late 1800’s Japanese culture as accurately as it can, and it manages to mostly avoid falling into that western romanticized trap. The cast is solid. Credit to Ken Watanabe who not only turns in a stellar performance, but also comes off as an equal to Cruise. None of this works if Watanabe gets overshadowed by the sheer star power of his co-star.
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17. Rain Man (1988)
Let’s set aside to what extent Dustin Hoffman’s performance is or isn’t problematic. Simply taken as a piece of acting, it hasn’t aged particularly well. Perhaps it’s because “Raymond” has been parodied to death, but the whole thing comes off as very one-note and unobserved. Thankfully (despite all of the accolades going to Hoffman) Rain Man is Tom Cruise’s movie, and he is fantastic in it. Cruise weaponizes both his inherent smarminess and infinite charisma to get us to hate — and then slowly understand the deep flaws in this human being. Rain Man is a flawed but mostly enjoyable road movie.
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16. Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation (2015)
This is the fifth entry in the franchise, and the first directed by longtime Cruise collaborator Christopher McQuarrie.
It’s the one with the Vienna Opera House sequence. It has the moment where Ethan Hunt hangs off of an airplane as it takes off. How about that motorcycle chase on the Marrakesh Highway? I’ll never forget the underwater stunt where Ethan retrieves a computer chip. It’s insane that Cruise performs most of these stunts himself.
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15. War of the Worlds (2005)
There are moments in Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of War of the Worlds that stay with you long after the movie ends. The panic on the Hudson River ferry, the sea of humanity that swarms our lead family’s van, Tom Cruise covered in ash evoking memories of 9/11. It is at times as much a horror film as it is action sci-fi. It’s nearly the perfect alien invasion movie until it enters the 3rd act and limps to the finish (the source material has a clever but cinematically disappointing conclusion).
It’s also a nice change of pace for Cruise, who typically plays someone who is the best at their chosen field. Here, he’s not the best at anything, just a regular guy trying his best to be a decent father.
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14. Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol (2011)
This is the fourth entry in the franchise, and is adroitly directed by Brad Bird.
It’s the one where they infiltrate the Kremlin and then later it explodes. It has the scene where Ethan Hunt has to free climb the Burj Khalifa. How about that chase through the middle of a sandstorm? I’ll never forget when Hunt runs down the Burj Khalifa and ends up hanging out of a window. It’s insane that Cruise performs most of these stunts himself.
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13. Risky Business (1983)
There is a moment during Risky Business when you can actually see Tom Cruise transform from a promising 20-year-old actor to a bonafide movie star. No, it isn’t the scene you’re thinking of. The most iconic scene from the film is of course Cruise sliding into frame and dancing to Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock & Roll”. This is a moment that immediately entered pop culture and was parodied to death for decades. But the moment when Cruise truly becomes a star comes near the end of the film. Finishing a failed interview with a Princeton recruiter, he slaps on a pair of iconic Ray-Ban Wayfarer’s and, with a toothy grin, declares “Looks like it’s University of Illinois!” I think actual dollar signs appear on screen.
Risky Business is a solid teen comedy. Very much of it’s time. I’m not sure if it entirely holds up for modern audiences, but it’s an important movie in charting Tom Cruise’s rise to fame.
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12. The Firm (1993)
Remember legal thrillers? There was a time when Hollywood would produce something like a dozen of these a year. They were typically solid, enjoyable movies made for adults. Some were better than others, a few were occasionally great. The Firm is an above-average entry in the genre, buoyed by one of the best casts ever assembled. There’s not a poor performance to be found in this film, and Tom Cruise anchors the proceedings as an upwardly-mobile but morally conflicted young lawyer caught up in something much larger than himself.
The Firm is also notable as having some of the finest examples of the “Tom Cruise run.”
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11. The Color of Money (1986)
Anyone who tells you that The Color of Money is “mid-level Scorcese” doesn’t know what they’re talking about. I dare you to watch the opening scene of the film and not find yourself on the hook to finish. Cruise is perfectly cast as Vincent, a ball of chaotic energy/pool savant. Paul Newman is doing some of the best work of his long and esteemed career playing Fast Eddie for a second time.
Martin Scorcese and cinematographer Michael Ballhaus are masterful, drawing us into every game and making nine-ball pool feel as exciting as a boxing match. The Color of Money is as good as any of Scorcese’s best films.
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10. Mission: Impossible — Fallout
This is the sixth entry in the franchise, and the second directed by longtime Cruise collaborator Christopher McQuarrie.
It’s the one with the Halo jump (that they did for real). It has the moment where Ethan Hunt hangs off of a long line attached to a helicopter. How about that motorcycle chase through Paris? I’ll never forget the wild helicopter spiral in the final act. It’s insane that Cruise performs most of these stunts himself. Does anyone else get the feeling that Cruise wants to die on camera?
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9. Top Gun (1986)
There’s more to Top Gun than just the aerial combat. Maverick’s rivalry with Iceman, a steamy romance between Cruise and Kelly McGillis, beach volleyball…but the dogfighting sequences are so incredible. They’re well-crafted and edge-of-your-seat thrilling. You could replace the other stuff with industrial footage and Top Gun would still be one of the best action movies of all time. Director Tony Scott’s kinetic style of “doing the most” is well matched here with this look into the high-velocity world of elite pilots. It is never a bad time to throw this movie on and enter the Danger Zone.
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8. Collateral (2004)
If you stop at any time during Collateral to think about the story, you will realize that it is quite ridiculous. Taking place over one night, a cab driver is forced to ferry around an assassin on a killing spree — the motivation of which connects directly to a fare the driver had picked up earlier that night. In a city as big as Los Angeles, what are the odds? What makes it all work, though, are the two central performances. Both men are playing against type, Cruise as a nihilistic hired gun and Fox the meager everyman. They have great chemistry together, and their conversations as they move from hit to hit are engrossing. This is a slick, effective thriller with a great script (if you can get past some of the contrivances).
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7. Edge of Tomorrow (2014)
You might also know this movie as Live. Die. Repeat.
Whatever you want to call it, this is an incredible science-fiction action film. The movie brilliantly combines the Groundhog Day gimmick with a big budget war film, where half the fun becomes watching all of the different ways it can manage to kill its protagonist. There’s enough humor here to keep things from getting too grim, especially as we see Tom Cruise’s incredulous public affairs officer adjust to his new reality of living like he’s playing an arcade shooter with an infinite supply of quarters. Exciting, inventive and fun. What more can you ask for?
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6. A Few Good Men (1992)
A Few Good Men is one of the great afternoon cable movies, able to grab you no matter if you’re watching from the beginning — or you find it halfway over while flipping through channels on a lazy Sunday. The story is uncomplicated but elevated by its cracking script from Aaron Sorkin. It also has some peak performances by a murderers row of actors. Cruise holds his own, even opposite titans like Jack Nicholson. It’s a shame Tom didn’t play more military officers in his career, the man looks damn good in a uniform.
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5. Minority Report (2002)
Who doesn’t like a good old fashioned high concept neo-noir action sci-fi whodunit?
This is A.I. and Raiders of the Lost Ark smashed together, with a mystery added for flavor. Minority Report ranks among director Steven Spielberg’s best films. That he manages to pack so much into the 145-minute runtime while never feeling like any moment is rushed through or short changed is an achievement. The movie is creatively unrelenting, just scene after scene of inventive thrills. Even more amazing is that the movie still has a heart and a brain beneath all those set pieces. Tom Cruise’s cop-on-the-run shows great depth as he grapples with the film’s central theme of free will versus fate. This is a must-see.
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4. Jerry Maguire (1996)
One of the great romantic comedies? Or one of the best sports movies of all-time? Why not both.
Tom Cruise is at the peak of his powers here, weaponizing his nuclear grade charm and charisma. Jerry Maguire is a broken man, furiously trying to keep his head above water and plastering over any cracks in his crumbling façade with a wink and a smile. Cameron Crowe’s script is razor sharp and immensely quotable, and as a director he has surrounded Cruise with a stellar cast. Jonathan Lipnicki, Cuba Gooding Jr. and Renee Zellwegger all give career performances. Jerry Maguire is the right blend of sappy and cynical. Oh, and the soundtrack is excellent to boot (this is a Cameron Crowe film after all).
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3. Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
This is without a doubt the most esoteric film in Tom Cruise’s vast filmography. There are layers of meaning here to unpack and sift through. Tom Cruise gives a fine performance, but one wonders if Stanley Kubrick cast him not because of his acting talents, but because of who he is as a person. One reading of the film is that it is a deconstruction of the type of masculinity that Tom Cruise represents. I’ll leave that up to you. Like most of Kubrick’s films, it rewards re-watching.
Eyes Wide Shut wasn’t as well received upon release by audiences or critics, likely because it was advertised as an erotic thriller (and it is only partially playing in that genre). This isn’t an easy movie to watch, but it is absolutely worth watching.
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2. Magnolia (1999)
Though Magnolia is a true ensemble film, it ranks high on this list because it features the finest performance of Tom Cruise’s career. Frank Mackey, a distasteful and misogynistic motivational speaker promoting pickup artistry, twists Cruise’s natural charm and shows us a darker side. He presents us with a deeply damaged man, covering old wounds with false confidence. The final scenes with this character, where Mackey confronts the source of his pain, shows us some of the finest acting in any Paul Thomas Anderson film.
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1. Mission: Impossible (1996)
The first Mission: Impossible film isn’t as outrageous as the latter entries. The set pieces are smaller, the stakes are lower, there’s less tech. What it does have, though, is the bold and stylistic direction of Brian De Palma. This Mission: Impossible is less obsessed with having its protagonist jumping off of increasingly tall buildings, and instead focuses on creating tension and paranoia both in the story and its set pieces. Like Ethan Hunt in the film, the audience never knows who to trust. We’re left constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop. The CIA headquarters heist sequence remains the high point of the franchise, even though it’s also the series at its quietest and most deliberate. Selfishly, I wish the franchise would return to its slow burn spycraft roots.
The first Mission: Impossible is the best of the franchise and Tom Cruise’s best film.
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