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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 one of the greatest living actors. He's overrated. He's underrated. He's way too old to be doing his own stunts. 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 Malpother Cruise IV hasn't been one of the most fascinating actors of a generation. Maybe not as prolific as, say, Kevin Bacon (the two are just four years apart in age) — but right up there in terms of range.
From the sweaty adrenaline cliché that is Top Gun (and the equally sweaty sequel, Top Gun: Maverick) to the likes of the nearly indescribable Vanilla Sky or Eyes Wide Shut, the dude has range — even if it seems like in many 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 as a hotshot lawyer, backed by one hell of a lawyer.
Maybe you can argue that Tom Cruise is even better at choosing roles than he is as 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. We've chosen date order — because we've got no hope of actually choosing between these babies.
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 added spice) movie on that score. But the hotheaded, gung-ho David Shawn that Cruise delivers is 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.
The Outsiders (1983)
Francis Ford Coppola's coming-of-age teen drama, The Outsiders is a hidden gem with a call sheet featuring the prime of 1980s acting talent including Matt Dillon, Patrick Swayze, Ralph Macchio, C. Thomas Howell, Emilio Estevez, Rob Lowe and Diane Lane. The film, adapted from S.E. Hinton's novel, focuses on the class rivalry between groups from a small town in Oklahoma — the working-class Greasers and the wealthy Socs (short for socials). Tom Cruise only has a small role but, as scrappy greaser Steve Randle, he showcases his ability to switch off his megawatt movie star smile and sink into a character part.
The Outsiders made stars of its young "Brat Pack" talent, including one Tom Cruise — who despite his fleeting appearance in the film would go on to become arguably the biggest movie star in the world.
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.
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 find a different path in a place that only offers so many choices. This Tom Cruise hero has flaws and he doesn't just skate by on that big smile. Plus he has a great foil in the criminally underrated Craig T. Nelson.
Top Gun (1986)
I feel the need ... the need ... to quote this movie within an inch of its life. There's just something about the swagger that actors like Tom Cruise, Val Kilmer and Tom Skerritt have 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.
Cocktail is what you get if you combine Risky Business with Top Gun. Brian Flanagan (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. It's got great Aussie actor, Bryan Brown, as Brian's grizzled mentor, Elisabeth Shue as Brian's long-suffering girlfriend, a tropical island for a backdrop and a cracking soundtrack that includes The Beach Boys "Kokomo". Enjoy.
Rain Man (1988)
The last thing Charlie Babbitt wants is a brother — let alone one with autism. But that's what he discovers he has. In Rain Man, Tom Cruise is slick, charming and awful and yet strangely empathetic. It was a revelation. Not least because he manages to give that masterful performance alongside Dustin Hoffman. The Dustin Hoffman.
Rain Man is a rare example of a box office smash hit that also hits the right note with critics, winning four Academy Awards including Best Picture. Sadly the Best Actor role went to Tom Cruise's acting partner, Hoffman. Good try though.
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. Carey Elwes, just a couple of years out from The Princess Bride and sandwiched between Glory and Hot Shots!. And the ageless Michael Rooker. It's also 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. 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.
Jerry Maguire (1996)
This is the epitome of mid-1990s movies. Tom Cruise stars as Tom Cruise in love. Renee Zellweger does her schtick. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Top Gun Maverick (2022)
A whopping 36 years after the first Top Gun film, Tom Cruise is back with more death-defying aerial action and he hasn't let the fact that he's approaching his 60th birthday slow him down. We've got all the stunts, quips, bonding and spectacle of the first film with added anticipation and nostalgia. In fact, our (spoiler-free) review of Top Gun: Maverick described it as "a stratospheric sequel" where the only negative point was how long we've had to wait for it.
In a crazy world, where not much seems to make sense, watching Tom Cruise back in the saddle as Pete "Maverick" Mitchell is comfortingly familiar yet excitingly entertaining. See it on the biggest screen you can.
More Tom Cruise
- Tom Cruise's best stunts — our picks of his best death-defying feats.
- Top Gun: Maverick guide
- Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning guide
- Edge of Tomorrow review
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