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Tom Cruise’s Best Performances — IndieWire Critics Survey

We asked our panel of critics to pick Tom Cruise's best roles, and the range of answers that came back is a true testament to his talent.

american made

“American Made”

Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of film critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best film in theaters right now?”, can be found at the end of this post.)

Last weekend saw the release of the latest Tom Cruise vehicle, “American Made,” and critics are raving that it’s better than “The Mummy!” In honor of this great achievement, we ask: What is Tom Cruise’s greatest performance?

E. Oliver Whitney (@cinemabite), ScreenCrush.com

Magnolia

“Magnolia”

NEW LINE / THE KOBAL COLLECTION / SOREL, PETER

The greatest Tom Cruise performance of all time happened on Oprah’s couch in 2005. But in the movies? “Magnolia.” It’s the best, but it’s also the “most” Cruise performance. His batshit insanity just barely holds together the fragile insecurity of the man beneath the horndog motivation speaker. I mean, can you imagine anyone else fist pumping in his underwear while saying “I’m Batman. I’m a fucking action star!” then panting like a dog in the middle of an interview?

Christy Lemire, RogerEbert.com, What the Flick?!, @christylemire

“Magnolia”

“Magnolia.” I love Tom Cruise best when he’s not trying to make us love him — when he’s willing to go to dark, dangerous places emotionally. I like him in “Collateral” for the same reason. As much of a blast as an “American Made” is — and as pleasingly Tom Cruisey of a Tom Cruise role as that is — I’m always impressed with him even more as an actor when he stretches outside his charismatic comfort zone.

Charles Bramesco (@intothecrevasse), freelance for Vulture, Nylon, the Guardian

“Magnolia”

The only plausible answer is “Magnolia,” right?

Candice Frederick (@ReelTalker), Vice, Thrillist, Hello Beautiful, Harper’s Bazaar

“Jerry Maguire”

“Jerry Maguire.” In the hands of a lesser actor, the title role of a ruthless sports agent-turned-charming f**kboi suffering from an attack of conscious would have been an misogynistic, irritating mess. But the ever charismatic Cruise embodies all the elements of this character, flaws and all, and still makes you want to root for him. He so viscerally portrays the internal conflict of a man who in his quest to put his heart in the game, abandons love in other areas of his life. And for the first time ever it’s being demanded of him. It’s a performance that is effectively vulnerable, frustrating, yet captivating.

Karen Han (@karenyhan), Freelance for The Daily Beast, Slashfilm, Vulture

“Jerry Maguire”

There’s no competition for “Jerry Maguire.” The “Mission Impossible” movies are great, sure, but “Jerry Maguire” is still the Tom Cruise holy grail. Everything about his performance as Maguire is pitch-perfect, particularly in how it plays against every other role he’s ever taken in how all that manic charm is both his saving grace and his albatross, and in how quickly director Cameron Crowe is willing to knock him down peg after peg. Basically, watch “Jerry Maguire” if you haven’t. Cruise is a good actor beyond how willing he seems to be to put himself in mortal danger for the sake of our entertainment, and “Jerry Maguire” is the best proof of that.

David Ehrlich (@davidehrlich), IndieWire

“Jerry Maguire”

Oh, I’m so glad you asked. It’s “Jerry Maguire.”

Richard Brody (@tnyfrontrow), The New Yorker

“Eyes Wide Shut”

Bros/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

I haven’t seen all of Tom Cruise’s films and, when I’m picking movies for pleasure, am not inclined to see a film by the sole fact (first typed “sold fact,” Freudian slip) that he’s in it; his grin is the closest thing to animatronics that Hollywood has to offer. But in “Eyes Wide Shut,” Stanley Kubrick leaves Cruise’s callow and shallow persona with answers to questions he’d never asked and questions that he never wants answered; the director gives–not the actor or the character, but the persona–an Ambersonian comeuppance. From then on, all bewilderment is intentional. That’s my grown-up answer; my real one is: jumping on Oprah’s couch, which delivers more mystery and surprise than I’ve seen in his movies.

Max Weiss (@maxthegirl), Baltimore magazine

Tom Cruise in Top Gun

“Top Gun”

A part of me wants to say “Top Gun” because it is Tom Cruise at the peak of his Tom Cruiseness, giving us the best damn Tom Cruise we could possibly hope for.

But I assume you’re talking more about Tom Cruise the thespian than Tom Cruise the megawatt movie star, so I’m going to go with “Born on the Fourth of July.”

To be honest, I’ve never thought Cruise was a naturally gifted actor. He just tries harder than anyone else—he’s the equivalent of that student who gets straight As not because he’s the smartest, but because he studies his ass off. But his performance in “Born on the Fourth of July” was genuinely moving. Stone cast him so cannily here. Something about Cruise positively gleams with cheerful entitlement and reflexive patriotism and to see that confidence slowly stripped away was heartbreaking. Also, Cruise was at the peak of his heartthrob years when he made the film, making it doubly jarring to watch him get jaded and paunchy and bald. If you want to cast a guy to embody the loss of American innocence, you could do a lot worse than Cruise.

Christopher Campbell (@thefilmcynic) Nonfics and Film School Rejects

“Far and Away”

As the guy who always answer with a documentary I have to go with that Scientology promotional video, right? Or his narration for “Space Station 3D?” Too bad, his greatest performance is in “Far and Away.” Not his best acting, mind you, but his most entertaining.

Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@chrisreedfilm), Hammer to Nail/Film Festival Today

“Rain Man”

Choosing the best Tom Cruise performance is tough, because despite the revulsion I feel towards Scientology, I almost always enjoy the man on screen. He is a very reliable movie star, consistently compelling, except when the material, itself, is terrible beyond saving (as in, yes, “The Mummy”). I am, in other words, a reluctant fan of the actor, if not the man. His skills are on particularly fine display in his many action films (as per the “Tom Cruise running” meme), and among those, my favorites are the last two “Mission: Impossible” films (“Ghost Protocol” and “Rogue Nation”), and “Edge of Tomorrow.” I am old enough (though younger than the apparently ageless Cruise) to have been just the right age to feel completely overwhelmed by the temptations offered in his first big hit, “Risky Business.” I feverishly hoped that every high-school party I held when my parents were away might favorably compare. But if I had to choose just one performance to hold up as a model of what the man can do, I would pick Barry Levinson’s 1988 Oscar-winning “Rain Man.” He has the far less showy part, opposite that year’s Best Actor-winner, Dustin Hoffman, yet holds his own playing what is initially a deeply unsympathetic character. Moving and engaging, and demonstrating enormous range, he generously anchors the film, allowing Hoffman’s own performance to shine. Good stuff.

 

Edward Douglas (@EDouglasWW), The Tracking Board

“The Firm”

I know it would be more “cool” or “hip” to pick Cruise’s Oscar-nominated role in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Magnolia” — I walked out of that movie the first time I saw it —  but honestly, I prefer the Tom Cruise of “The Firm” where he wasn’t put into fantastic situations and made it believable that he was in danger at all times. In the same vein, “Eyes Wide Shut” might not be his best movie but Kubrick got something out of Cruise we haven’t seen from him before or since.

Question: What is the best film currently playing in theaters?

Answer: “mother!” and “Lucky” (tie)

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