"Collateral" (2004)
While Cruise's career has always been marked mostly by smart and subtle shifts in his persona — playing a misogynistic womanizer in Paul Thomas Anderson's "indie" "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, pre-"Ray" 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. 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, and Cruise is so good that when Vincent tries to rationalize his behavior he practically brings the audience over to his point of view. 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.

"Minority Report" (2002)
Though it is just shy of being a decade old, this heady, ambitious sci-fi is notable not only for being the last truly entertaining, satisfying whizz-bang piece of filmmaking from Steven Spielberg (sorry, "War Of The Worlds" was marred by gaudy sentimentalism, while the less said about 'Indy 4' the better) 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; magnetic, heroic and determined, he gets us on his side and takes us on one helluva ride.

"Top Gun" (1986)
While were generally philosophically opposed to Cruise playing the hero/tough guy role, if there's one turn which is the apotheosis of this archetype we still love it's his embodiment of the rogue Navy cadet Maverick. Granted, much of the enjoyment of the film is due to many factors, Tony Scott's over-the-top direction, the macho ensemble cast who take every perspiring moment oh-so-deliciously-serious (Val Kilmer, Tom Skerrit, Michael Ironside, Barry Tubb as Wolfman, Rick Rossovich as Slider) and the gloriously over-the-top score and songs (thank you Harold Faltermeyer, Steve Stevens and Kenny Loggins). However, grinding and sweating it out with his peers and credulously portraying an unreliable, mercurial stud on the precipice of either washout failure or greatness, hell the performance and the movie, while delectably cheesy in moments, is still eminently watchable and captivating.

"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 year); 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).