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The Essentials: The 5 Best Tom Cruise Performances

by The Playlist Staff
July 3, 2012 11:00 AM
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Tom Cruise turns 50 today, and he's probably had better birthdays. His latest film, "Rock of Ages," was a box office disappointment, and on Friday, it emerged that Katie Holmes, his third wife and mother of his daughter Suri, was filing for divorce. Just as things were seemingly starting to get back on track after a difficult half decade -- last year's "Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol" was his biggest hit ever -- it looks like the actor is hitting another rough patch.

And while we've had our fun with him, it's frustrating, because behind all the craziness and rumors, Cruise is a solid gold movie star, and a good (to sometimes great) actor who all too often lets the bullshit overshadow his talents. To mark Cruise turning half-a-century old, we've picked out our five favorite performances from across his thirty-year career. Let's keep our fingers crossed that there's more of these to come, and fewer questionable public outbursts and scurillous personal rumors. And you can fight for your favorite personal Cruise turn in the comments section below.

"The Color of Money" (1986)
While works like "Raging Bull" and "Goodfellas" receive more shine, one of the most undersung films in the Martin Scorsese oeuvre is his 1986 picture, "The Color of Money." And while the true star of the picture is Paul Newman, reprising the role of Fast Eddie Felson in the sequel to "The Hustler," also vastly underrated in the movie is Tom Cruise as the pompadoured, cocky upstart pool player Vincent Lauria who Felson takes under his wing, only to ultimately be betrayed by him. Arguably Newman elevates their tête-à-têtes, but Cruise answers the challenge in a big way. In his first serious dramatic role since becoming a star (released less than six months after "Top Gun" became a smash), he fares much better than Leonardo DiCaprio did in his first collaborations with Marty. As became his wont, he performed much of the pool sequences himself, giving it an a easy authenticity, and is every part the strutting, glorious embodiment of youth that Felson left behind long ago; the scene of Vincent doing his thing to the tune of Warren Zevon's "Werewolves of London" is still one of Cruise's most iconic movie star moments. It's intriguing to think of an alternate world where Cruise became a regular Scorsese collaborator in the way that DiCaprio has become; it's clear from "The Color of Money" that he would have been right at home.

"Jerry Maguire" (1996)
Cruise may have given better acting performances, but he's never shone as much as a movie star as he did in his first collaboration with Cameron Crowe, "Jerry Maguire." It doesn't get the best rep now, thanks to the cultural penetration of its catchphrases ("Show me the money," "You complete me," etc.) and its omnipresence on TV, but rewatching it, it's still a great film, and Cruise is as terrific as he's ever been (and deservedly picked up an Oscar nomination for his trouble). The part was allegedly written for Tom Hanks, but it's impossible to imagine anyone except Cruise; his yuppie charisma is perfect for the role from the start, keeping Maguire from feeling like too much of a dick, and you buy every second of his moral awakening. But there's also a big hint of crazy in the character (something we've seen far too much of from the star in recent years); when Cuba Gooding Jr.'s Rod Tidwell tells him "You are hanging on by a very thin thread," you wouldn't disagree. Aside from Cruise, the movie still vies with "Almost Famous" for Crowe's best, Gooding Jr. and Renee Zellwegger have never been better, and the soundtrack's pretty great too (forget the CD release, the choice cuts, from the likes of The Replacements and Gram Parsons, weren't on it).

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  • tom john | September 25, 2012 8:01 PMReply

    Tom Cruise was not in any of thesemvies

  • cyndi | July 4, 2012 9:07 PMReply

    What about TAPS? An early film but, let us know he was going to be a star!

  • datdude | July 4, 2012 1:33 PMReply

    Personally I like Cruise in The Last Samurai. That was a good movie.

  • Tom Cruise | July 3, 2012 11:45 PMReply

    by Xenu, I totally rock.

  • Danny Escobedo | July 3, 2012 8:24 PMReply

    Vanilla Sky, Without the sour, the sweet aint as sweet. My favorite movie of all time

  • Ivan | July 3, 2012 6:17 PMReply

    "He's also pretty good in "Eyes Wide Shut," if overshadowed a little by then-wife Nicole Kidman" - I think he was ECLIPSED by Nicole Kidman.

  • Mike | July 3, 2012 2:51 PMReply

    Nice job mentioning Minority Report, the film was plenty acclaimed but it seems like most people write his performance off as that of an action star alone, it's the best of both worlds for him as he gets to show off his action star persona paired with a heartbreaking performance. Definitely his most underrated. Collateral is perfect as well, Magnolia due but doesn't need my input. The one I think you really left out is Lions for Lambs, not a great movie but watching Cruise & Streep go toe to toe was electrifying in performances that involve nothing more than talking back & forth on the opposite sides of a desk.

  • ralch | July 3, 2012 1:55 PMReply

    His best may well be in Tropic Thunder.

    No, I'm not kidding.

  • hank | July 3, 2012 1:51 PMReply

    his finest performance was in "Born on the 4th of July" .. this list is irrelevant without it.

  • Xian | July 3, 2012 1:38 PMReply

    "Minority Report" is slowly, but surely, becoming a science fiction classic on par with "Blade Runner" (as influential in its vision of the future as Sir Ridley's famous film). Not only one of Spielberg's best latter-day films, but one of the best science fiction films period.

  • Dee | July 5, 2012 10:28 PM

    Yes! One of my favorite sci-fi film of recent times, after Gattaca. It's thrilling and the performances and tone are near perfect. Not even the requisite final voice over by Spielberg managed to eclipse it.

  • bob hawk | July 5, 2012 3:12 AM

    MINORITY REPORT is one of my favorites, wherein he gives his character an emotional depth not usual in this genre (something that Harrison Ford does in BLADE RUNNER as well). I also give Cruise a lot of points for the central scene with the great actress Lois Smith, one that is essential in explaining the crucial plot point of the film. It's her only scene in the film, and he graciously -- and wisely -- was generous enough to give it over to her.

  • dudeabides | July 3, 2012 1:03 PMReply

    there is no argument at all. eyes wide shut. never been a bad performance in a kubrick film. but collateral and magnolia are up there too

  • Les | July 3, 2012 12:31 PMReply

    Tom strutting in his underwear to Bob Seger in Risky Business is much more iconic than him playing pool to Werewolves of London. The character (and movie) is better too.

  • Tom | July 3, 2012 11:54 AMReply

    I'm always surprised by how much I love Minority Report. I guess Spielberg ain't all bad.

  • kris | July 3, 2012 11:48 AMReply

    i think he's quite good in last samurai too.

  • Jesse | July 3, 2012 11:33 AMReply

    His best perfomance is Lestat in Interview with the vampire. Enough said.

  • bob hawk | July 5, 2012 2:48 AM

    Yes, I would have added Lestat to the list as well, but -- including the honorable mentions -- you pretty much covered his best and brightest.

  • Sven | July 3, 2012 7:37 PM

    I agree. It's also a role that was a bit risky (a gay vampire!) for a superstar like him, so I'd call it an essential.

  • Bogart | July 3, 2012 7:18 PM

    I don't know if I'd call it his best performance, but it's definitely in my Top 5 Cruise performances.

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