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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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"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" (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

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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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