"Magnolia" (1999)
The end of the last century saw Cruise really chase after acting glory with two potentially controversial, sexually-charged roles. One was with one of cinema's most-acclaimed auteurs, Stanley Kubrick, in what sadly turned out to be the director's final film. The other was with a new kid on the block: Paul Thomas Anderson, who'd broken out two years earlier with the outstanding "Boogie Nights." Among Anderson's Altman-esque tapestry of LA lives drawn together by happenstance, Cruise was the biggest star by far, but it's a testament to his skills (and the director's canny use of his star power in the casting) that Cruise more than holds his own in an ensemble that includes Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, John C. Reilly and many more. The star plays Frank T.J. Mackey, a Neil Strauss-like self-help speaker coaching men on how to (in his words) "tame the cunt," who's also the estranged son of dying T.V. producer Earl Partridge (Jason Robards). His monologue to an adoring crowd is a show-stopper (it's hard not to see the DNA of the performance in the recent "Rock of Ages"), but we also see the wounded boy ditched by an unloving father years ago, in an emotional final scene that still marks Cruise's finest piece of screen acting. It's a testament to the collaboration that, despite Anderson's latest film riffing on Scientology, the director and star seemingly remain friends.

Minority Report

"Minority Report" (2002)
Now a decade old (and increasingly prescient, it would seem), this heady, ambitious sci-fi is notable not only for being the last truly entertaining, satisfying and even thought-provoking whizz-bang piece of filmmaking from Steven Spielberg (sorry, "War of the Worlds" was marred by gaudy sentimentalism) but also for being the final role of Phase 1/pre-Matt Lauer meltdown/pre-couch jumping Tom Cruise. And not surprisingly, the film is Cruise at his Cruiseiest. Set in an Orwellian future where "precogs" can see crimes before they happen, allowing police to arrest perpetrators before they commit the crime, Cruise plays a lawman who fully believes in the system until he's accused of murdering a man he's never met and doesn't seemingly have any ties to. The set up is pretty much the ultimate everyman-in-crisis role that Cruise circled in lesser or more workmanlike films like "The Firm" or "A Few Good Men." But here, aided by a great, smart and ambitious script, and, of course, guided by the sure lens of Spielberg at the top of his game, the performance is one of an A-list actor at the height of his powers. Cruise is magnetic here, and as a man still wounded by the death of his son, and winded by the revelation that the institution he loves has turned out to be a corrupt sham, the actor finds the perfect center of vulnerability and gritty determination to see justice done. Watching the film, there is simply no denying what makes Cruise both a bonafide star and an actor with chops -- he gets us on his side and takes us on one helluva ride.


"Collateral" (2004)
While Cruise's career has always been marked mostly by smart and subtle shifts in his persona — playing a misogynistic womanizer in "Magnolia" or throwing his hand in the comedy game with his Les Grossman character — none have been as satisfying as his turn as the assassin for hire in Michael Mann's minimal, sleek thriller "Collateral." Co-starring a subdued Jamie Foxx (one of his best turns so far), the film's story is very simple: Cruise plays Vincent, a killer who hires a cab to drive him around Los Angeles for the night, dragging Foxx's driver into his murderous schemes. Unlike other A-list actors who often overact and flail about in "bad guy" roles (ie. Denzel Washington in "Training Day"), Cruise goes in the opposite direction. Vincent is both compelling and creepy, a minimalist, almost animal-like turn; it's hard not to see the coyote that he's so mesmerized by as a twin of a kind. Cruise is particularly good when Vincent tries to rationalize his behavior, practically bringing the audience over to his point of view. Even if the film doesn't stick the landing, turning into a disappointingly conventional shoot-em-up by the end, this is a side we don't see often enough from Cruise; a role that finds hims out on the ledge without relying on the fallback of his Cruise persona to catch him, and it's one we always hope to see more of.

Honorable Mentions: While the film is far from Cruise's finest, one can absolutely see why his winning turn in "Risky Business" made the actor a star. He's pretty solid in "Rain Man" too, playing nicely off co-star Dustin Hoffman, and picked up his first Oscar nomination for "Born on the Fourth of July," although it felt a little too Oscar-grabby in retrospect to include in this list.

He also hit his movie-star stride in the early '90s, and performances in "A Few Good Men," "The Firm" and the first "Mission: Impossible" look effortless, and it's hard to imagine many other stars taking them on. He's also pretty good in "Eyes Wide Shut," if overshadowed a little by then-wife Nicole Kidman, and contributed a memorable and unrecognizable cameo to Ben Stiller's "Tropic Thunder," which in part helped to rehabilitate him in the public's eyes.

-- Oliver Lyttelton, RP, Kevin Jagernauth