The Best Tom Cruise Movies, Ranked

We're assessing his most iconic performances, from the 'Mission: Impossible' movies to 'Eyes Wide Shut.'

best tom cruise movies
Design by Chineme Elobuike for Thrillist
Design by Chineme Elobuike for Thrillist

When people say celebrities are just like us, they're definitely not talking about Tom Cruise. A man who's spent 40-plus years (and counting) at the tippy-top of the A-list, Cruise has endured a lifetime of stratospheric fame. From his early-'80s debut in Endless Love, Taps, and The Outsiders, he quickly became one of Hollywood's most bankable blockbuster stars while finding time to swerve into unhinged weirdo territory (e.g., Magnolia) and chew on meatier roles (e.g., Born on the Fourth of July) to prove his acting chops beyond the archetypical action-movie protagonist with a death wish. (Yes, the man flies his own aircraft carriers and leaps off his own cliffs—if there's a life-threatening stunt, he's going to do it his damn self.) At the same time, we've also probably seen too much of his life through his many high-profile relationships and breakups, the infamous couch-jumping, and of course the Scientology of it all. But despite everything that makes him an unrelatable freak, at the end of the day he's just a guy who wants to get back to the movies. And what better way to get butts into theaters than one more fly-by as one of the Navy's finest fighter pilots?

With Top Gun: Maverick—the long, long-awaited sequel to the 1986 classic—barrel-rolling into theaters May 27, we're looking back at Tom Cruise's best performances.

tom cruise in vanilla sky
Paramount Pictures

21. Vanilla Sky (2001)

As a mind-bending puzzle-box mystery, Cameron Crowe's Vanilla Sky doesn't always click together. A remake of the 1997 Spanish thriller Open Your Eyes, the movie speeds through a series of twists involving a men's magazine publishing industry playboy (Cruise) who gets his beautiful face smashed up following a series of encounters with women played by Cameron Diaz and Penolpe Cruz. Crowe's chatty style, perfected in movies like Jerry Maguire and Almost Famous, doesn't exactly lend itself to metaphysical science-fiction. But underneath the occasionally ponderous dreams-within-dreams structure, there's a fascinating meditation on Crusie's own stardom here, an often funny treatise on persona and fame and celebrity. Like many of the best Cruise movies, the filmmaker is putting the star's charm and vanity under the knife. —Dan Jackson

tom cruise in tropic thunder
DreamWorks Pictures/Paramount Pictures

20. Tropic Thunder (2008)

Listen: If Tom Cruise is gonna cameo in your movie, you'd better let him create his own character. That's exactly what happened when Tropic Thunder invited him aboard, casting him as "Rick Peck," Ben Stiller's character's obsessive agent, but Cruise had another idea. He suggested a different type of character, which became Les Grossman, the screamy, profane studio executive producing the movie-within-a-movie. The role required that Cruise wear a fat suit, comically giant fake hands, and a bald cap for the scenes in which he shrieked expletives at anyone unfortunate enough to be on a phone call with him, and the result is perhaps the least like Tom Cruise that Tom Cruise has ever looked on screen. The role was supposed to be kept secret until the movie opened, but paparazzi photos leaked online ruined that plan. If only they'd had Marvel Studios' spoiler lockdown measures way back in 2008. —Emma Stefansky

tom cruise in war of the worlds
Paramount Pictures

19. War of the Worlds (2005)

Sporting a Yankees baseball cap and a leather jacket, Cruise goes into dad mode for this gripping tale of alien invasion inspired by the H.G. Wells classic. One of the most frightening post-9/11 disaster movies, War of the Worlds finds director Steven Spielberg again putting a broken family unit in a state of great peril. From the opening drive away from the invading space crafts to the face-off with a paranoid prepper played by Tim Robbins, these are some of the most unnerving set-pieces the Jurassic Park filmmaker has ever staged. What's most striking about this particular adventure is how often the movie frames Cruise's desperate father as simply another face in a crowd, a flawed man caught in the tide of history. He's not super-spy Ethan Hunt here. There's a level of vulnerability that doesn't always sneak into Cruise's action work. —DJ

tom cruise in the outsiders
Warner Bros. Pictures

18. The Outsiders (1983)

Cruise wouldn't truly break big until Risky Business came out in the fall of 1983, but just a few months earlier he co-starred in Francis Ford Coppola's adaptation of S. E. Hinton's The Outsiders (now a middle-school English class classic). While his character Steve Randle is a more minor member of the group of young "greasers'' who make up the core cast, his poufed hair and turned-up jean vest—as well as his "what the hell" attitude—provide the blueprint for the types of characters Cruise would play in his first few years as a megastar. He bounds and whoops his way through his scenes, sinking so deeply into the role of a punchy, disaffected teen boy that you forget you're watching the future superhero secret agent Ethan Hunt. —ES

tom cruise in Interview with the Vampire
Warner Bros. Pictures

17. Interview with the Vampire (1994)

However you feel about this grandiose vampire movie, you can't deny that Tom Cruise is having a hell of a time in that wavy blond wig and pointy dental implants as Anne Rice's hundreds-of-years-old vampire Lestat de Lioncourt. His is a livelier performance than Brad Pitt's Louis de Pointe du Lac, who mopes around as a tormented soul, who refuses to drink human blood, brought to the other side. Cruise acts circles around him, having a blast as the evil, flamboyant Lioncourt through the centuries. —Craig D. Lindsey

tom cruise in rain man
MGM/UA Communications Co.

16. Rain Man (1988)

Cruise really seemed to want an Oscar in the '80s, starring in awards-caliber dramas before turning into a full-blown franchise star. Barry Levinson's Rain Man was one of those dramas, sweeping the 1989 Academy Awards with four major wins but no nomination for Cruise. While Dustin Hoffman's attentive performance as Raymond, an autistic savant, may be the standout, the buddy road movie is carried just as much by Cruise's smarmy yet thoughtful role as Ray's estranged brother Charlie, who re-enters Raymond's life when he's left with their father's estate. As a condescending, desperate wheeler-dealer who comes around to caring for his brother and ultimately learns Las Vegas schemes aren't what's best for him, Cruise plays his cards delicately throughout Charlie's emotional journey. It may be a controversial film, with its portrayal of an able-bodied actor playing a disabled character, but there's certainly an earnestness to Cruise and Hoffman's chemistry that makes this a tearjerker to remember. —Sadie Bell

tom cruise in the firm
Paramount Pictures

15. The Firm (1993)

As the legal thriller fades from the big screen, the glossy John Grisham adaptation The Firm only looks stranger. How weird is Cruise in this movie? He backflips through the streets of New Orleans, runs through the halls of his shady employer's office, beats up Wilford Brimley with a briefcase, and eventually outsmarts his mentor-turned-nemesis (Gene Hackman). He's often sweating and always going for it. Cruise's performance as attorney Mitch McDeere might be the best example of how his trademark intensity, a liability in certain films, can elevate a project. In this case, a well-crafted middlebrow piece of pulp gets the full Cruise treatment, and every other actor, from Garey Busey to Holly Hunter, feels like they are feeding off of his energy. Even at 154 minutes, the movie vibrates to its star's off-kilter presence. —DJ

tom cruise in top gun
Paramount Pictures

14. Top Gun (1986)

Tom Cruise is improbably gifted at playing total dickheads you can't help but root for, and nowhere is he better at this than as young Pete "Maverick" Mitchell, a top US Navy aviator with a knack for pulling off impossible midair maneuvers, who's thrown into the TOPGUN program to jockey with the best of the best. As Maverick, Cruise is self-assured to a fault, bandying words with his rivals yet fiercely loyal to his flying partner Goose (Anthony Edwards) and more than a little romantically inclined towards the group's hot teacher. Top Gun is a fantastic action movie, intercutting white-knuckle jet flying scenes between examinations of male bravado, but Cruise is the one who gives it that spark of greatness. Him, and the sweaty beach volleyball. —ES

tom cruise in edge of tomorrow
Warner Bros. Pictures

13. Edge of Tomorrow (2014)

Edge of Tomorrow—bizarrely retitled Live. Die. Repeat. when released on home media—gives Groundhog Day a sci-fi spin. Cruise is William Cage, a US Army public-affairs officer recruited for a combat mission meant to stave off menacing aliens that are able to rewind time when killed. Reliving the same day over and over is an inspired conceit for Cruise, who blends Cage's frustrations with a humorously relentless determination to excel. The Doug Liman film, at the time considered only a modest hit, leans into Cruise's playful side while remaining a propulsive action thriller worthy of canonization. —Matthew Jacobs

tom cruise in mission impossible ghost protocol
Paramount Pictures

12. Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011)

After the J.J. Abrams-directed third entry, the Mission: Impossible series got a jolt of adrenaline via Incredibles filmmaker Brad Bird, who re-emphasized the teamwork aspect of the series while pushing the stunt work to new levels of live-action cartoonery. For all its white-knuckle suspense and unbearable tension, the most memorable moments of Ghost Protocol are comedic: Cruise failing to make a jump from one part of a skyscraper to another, struggling to get a mask made in time, and hurling a car off a parking structure like it's a boomerang. Bird and Cruise understand that seeing the hero screw up is often more exciting than watching him succeed. In the opening sequence, Bird stages a prison escape like a musical number, letting Ethan Hunt crack skulls to the tune of Dean Martin's "Ain't That a Kick in the Head." Yes, there's still plenty of spy intrigue, including some amusing twists involving Jeremy Renner's younger agent, but the movie really works best as a series of escalating gags, like a Jackass movie with a more convoluted plot. By the end, you don't know whether to howl with laughter or sigh with relief. —DJ

tom cruise in risky business
Warner Bros. Pictures

11. Risky Business (1983)

Risky Business, easily the most stylishly directed teen sex comedy ever made, is the movie that made a star out of Tom Cruise, sliding on hardwood floors in white tube socks, a white button-down shirt, and Ray-Bans while lip-syncing to Bob Seger. Living in a bougie suburb of Chicago, his nerdy main character Joel Goodsen is all ready to ship off to Princeton come fall, but when his parents go out of town, Joel gets a taste of the wild life courtesy of Rebecca De Mornay’s reckless sex worker Lana. They have sex on Chicago's L train. He drives a Porsche into Lake Michigan. Wild parties get thrown. Watching Risky Business now is like taking a line back to the excess and macho heterosexual teenage dream of the early '80s, and even for all of its dated material, you gotta admit: That young Tom is charming as hell. —CDL

tom cruise in a few good men
Columbia Pictures

10. A Few Good Men (1992)

Of course Rob Reiner's A Few Good Men, based on an Aaron Sorkin script, is best known for Jack Nicholson bellowing "you can't handle the truth," but it's Cruise's needling that gets him there. Sorkin's athletic dialogue is a great match for Cruise, a man who is always pushing himself to the brink. As Kaffee, Cruise makes a classic turn as a man who gains a soul. He's first the disaffected military lawyer who wants to make a plea deal with the two men accused of killing their fellow marine, but when doubt seeps in, he gains his righteousness. Cruise's slipperiness allows him to traverse these modes, and he's maybe the only movie star of his generation who can truly go up against Jack. —EZ

tom cruise in fallout, tom cruise in mission impossible fallout
Paramount Pictures

9. Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018)

It would be so easy for the modern Mission: Impossible movies to become stunt showcases for Cruise's pathological commitment to realism at the expense of a good story, but, luckily for us and cinema itself, that hasn't happened yet. The most recent installment in the franchise sets Cruise's Ethan Hunt against the Apostles, a spinoff terrorist faction of those he and his team fought against in the previous films, who are dead-set on obtaining a bunch of plutonium and doing some terrible things with it. It would be tough for Cruise, reunited with director Christiopher McQuarrie, to top Ghost Protocol's Burj Khalifa climb, but Fallout makes up for in sheer ridiculous quantity what it lacks in mind-boggling height. The film throws Cruise and co-star Henry Cavill out of an airplane, closes on an insane dangling helicopter chase scene, and contains one of the best street chases ever put to film, with Cruise driving, motorbiking, and, at last, running pell-mell on a breakneck tour of Paris. —ES

tom cruise in the color of money
Buena Vistas Pictures Distribution

8. The Color of Money (1986)

Here's the most important thing to remember about Cruise in The Color of Money: During one of the movie's best scenes, he shoots pool as Warren Zevon's "Werewolves of London" plays on the soundtrack and he wears a black T-shirt with his character's name "Vince" printed out in white letters. The scene of a young shark in his element, dancing and preening for a crowd while performing a difficult physical feat, remains perhaps the purest distillation of the entire Cruise schtick. Letting the camera glide around his star, Martin Scorsese films the scene in a way that lets you buy into the character's swagger while still finding him a little ridiculous. That Cruise still manages to get out-gunned and out-acted by Paul Newman, reprising the role of Fast Eddie from 1961's The Hustler, is part of the movie's appeal. One of the most tantalizing aspects of watching The Color of Money is thinking about what it would be like for Cruise to attempt to reprise the role in the same manner Newman did. Does he have what it takes? Or is he going to keep cranking out Mission: Impossible movies until he flies directly into the sun? —DJ

tom cruise in mission impossible
Paramount Pictures

7. Mission: Impossible (1996)

The Mission: Impossible franchise keeps reaching new heights as Cruise attempts progressively daring stunts, but Brian De Palma's inaugural installment set the template. If you think the original is any less thrilling, think again. Ethan Hunt is at his nerviest in his first adventure, wherein his entire IMF team—including the likes of Kristin Scott Thomas and Emilio Estevez—are dispatched and he's framed for the murders and sent on the lam. Playing this younger version of a character with whom he would age and evolve, Cruise is jitterier and less sure of himself, even as he expertly executes the now-iconic scenes, like his suspended break-in at Langley. De Palma's angular direction lends the proceedings a sense of unease that would fall away as these movies became more bombastic, but all the set pieces in the world can't beat Cruise uttering, "Kittridge, you've never seen me very upset." —EZ

tom cruise in Minority Report
Minority Report | 20th Century Fox

6. Minority Report (2002)

The tagline for this movie was "Everybody runs," but, truly, no one runs like Cruise. Critics have pontificated at length about what makes watching the actor in motion so uniquely pleasing: the way his arms move, the sense of panic creeping into his eyes, and the compact physical structure of his body. But the effectiveness of a given Cruise running sequence really comes down to the emotional and psychological stakes, which are always ratcheting up in this science-fiction neo-noir based on a Philip K. Dick short story. Cruise plays John Anderton, a pre-crime detective who finds out the technology he uses to stop murders before they happen just pulled his name. Anderton wants to prove his innocence, which would upend the ethics of the system he's devoted his life to. In his first project with Steven Spielberg, Cruise found the perfect collaborator, a filmmaker equally as obsessed with showmanship, virtuosity, and momentum. —DJ

tom cruise in collateral
DreamWorks Picturse

5. Collateral (2004)

Some of the best Tom Cruise roles recognize that there is something, well, a little bit off about this guy, an uncontainable energy that verges on dangerous. Michael Mann used this to great effect in Collateral, casting Cruise as Vincent, a hitman who essentially hijacks Jamie Foxx's cab driver Max for a night. It's a supreme use of Cruise's volatility. Vincent has a devilish charm that sucks Max in, but he can snap at a moment's notice. Outfitted with silver hair that contradicts Cruise's desire to always appear youthful, the actor is like a coyote prowling around Mann's LA, ready to lunge. —EZ

tom cruise in Eyes Wide Shut
Eyes Wide Shut | Warner Bros. Pictures

4. Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

Few can say that they were in the iconic director Stanley Kubrick's final film, but Tom Cruise can. An actor known for blockbusters, it might not seem like Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut, an erotic psychodrama, would be the best fit for Cruise. But pairing him with his then-wife Nicole Kidman was a stroke of genius. Playing Dr. Bill Hartford, the film follows his sexual shennanigans during the holidays after finding out his wife almost had an affair the year before. Cruise blusters around the New York night, clapping his hands while he stalks the streets, interacting with prostitutes, looking for clues for that orgy at bars. It's a role that seemingly tapped into another side of Cruise—not the heroic fighter pilot, but something a little seedier and greasier. —Kerensa Cadenas

tom cruise in magnolia
New Line Cinema

3. Magnolia (1999)

Cruise landed Magnolia after calling Paul Thomas Anderson to congratulate him on Boogie Nights and inviting the young director to the set of Eyes White Shut. The resulting performance, as a bumptious lothario who gives seminars about seducing women, feels as coked-up as any Boogie Nights character, even if we never see Cruise’s Frank T.J. Mackey snort lines. Mackey’s arrogance is a front, a performance put on by an insecure grifter who compares himself to Batman and pounds his chest while lecturing about "respecting the cock." The fact that Cruise did Eyes Wide Shut and Magnolia back-to-back—repressed in one, flagrantly uninhibited in the other—marked a thrilling departure for an actor defined by crowd-pleasing blockbuster glory. —MJ

tom cruise in Born on the Fourth of July
Universal Pictures

2. Born on the Fourth of July (1989)

Cruise landed his first Best Actor Oscar nod playing Ron Kovic, a real-life Vietnam veteran who comes back home paralyzed, disillusioned, and determined to let America know that their war vets aren't being treated well. This film proved that Cruise wasn't an actor who could only do vapid, pretty-boy parts. If you gave him good material, he could get in deep with the best of them. It was a risk—the second of Oliver Stone's trio of Vietnam War films following Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July was highly political and bombastic, a direction Stone would expand more and more in the years to come (and one Cruise would shy away from until Lions for Lambs). —CDL

tom cruise in jerry maguire
Sony Pictures Releasing

1. Jerry Maguire (1996)

Can Tom Cruise play an everyman? Jerry Maguire proves the answer is yes… and no. The movie is both Cruise's and director Cameron Crowe's masterpiece, a portrait of a man adrift that could only be portrayed by one man. Something just works about Cruise as a careerist losing it, like Jerry does when he's fired from his sports agency and his only allies become bombastic football star Rod Tidwell (Cuba Gooding Jr.) and secretary Dorothy Boyd (Renée Zellweger). And yet his desperation is inherently relatable, which is where the Cruise magic comes in. Though many movies have tried and failed to make him a romantic lead, here you understand why he has Dorothy at "hello." He's a man who will do anything for his job, just like Cruise will. —EZ

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