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Jerry Maguire, Photograph: Courtesy Columbia TriStar
Jerry Maguire

The 21 best Tom Cruise movies

Over 35 years, the Hollywood power icon has been in a shocking number of decent films—and a few truly great ones

By Joshua Rothkopf and Time Out contributors
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Tom Cruise is not slowing down: Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, an action sequel, is now in theaters, and the 54-year-old megawatt star has no fewer than three more movies in various states of pre- or post-production. Casting over his body of work, one finds classic action movies, Academy Award-winning dramas and plenty of high-prestige sci-fi. He’s worked with the best of the best and that’s got to have rubbed off somewhere. Put aside the Scientology stuff for a sec and take a look at the 21 best Tom Cruise movies.

Tom Cruise movies

21. Austin Powers in Goldmember (2002)

Movies Comedy

It's the tiniest of cameos, so consider this a bonus pick. But in less than a minute of screen time, Cruise makes the film’s opening gag work, combining a glossy Hollywood version of Austin’s British befuddlement with his own maniacal grin. Cruise murmurs, “Shall we shag now…or shag later?” and turns it in a passable piece of Bond dialogue.

20. Legend (1985)

Movies Fantasy

As Chris Isaak sang, Cruise did a “bad, bad thing” in Eyes Wide Shut. Here’s another bad, bad thing he did: a dumb yet enjoyably dorky fantasy adventure in which Cruise plays an elfin sprite out to save a princess from Tim Curry’s Lord of Darkness. It’s not exactly director Ridley Scott’s finest moment (especially right after Blade Runner), but you can’t blame his leading man.

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19. The Outsiders (1983)

Movies

Francis Ford Coppola may not have done his best work in the ’80s, but he hadn’t lost his eye for new talent. This moody adaptation of S.E. Hinton’s novel featured the little-known Cruise (in a tiny supporting role) alongside the likes of Matt Dillon, Patrick Swayze, Rob Lowe and Ralph Macchio, the latter who gets to utter the immortal “Stay gold, Ponyboy.”

18. Taps (1981)

Movies

Even from the start (this was Cruise’s second film role), he had dramatic ambitions in mind. In this thriller about a military academy gone rogue, Cruise is basically a bad guy—an uptight, deranged cadet captain—but his craziness registers deeply: “It’s beautiful, man—beautiful!” he screams, firing his rifle at innocent people. A supporting part, but a promising one.

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17. War of the Worlds (2005)

Movies Action and adventure

Cruise’s work with Steven Spielberg is curious: The films have an undeniable sci-fi panache but the actor himself is guarded. Spielberg, a genius director, can’t coax warmth or realness from Cruise, who here plays a divorced dock worker who awakens to a greater sense of responsibility during an alien attack. Dakota Fanning runs away with this movie.

16. Top Gun (1986)

Movies Action and adventure

This one’s the turning point: the moment when Tom Cruise became the biggest star on the planet, with a year-end No. 1 movie to prove it. Seen in the cold light of day, Tony Scott’s movie is ridiculous: endless aerial dogfights, tons of shirtless bro brooding, a soundtrack on steroids, Cruise playing volleyball on the beach—in jeans. He’s better in other movies.

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15. Interview With the Vampire (1994)

Movies Fantasy

The role of the vampire Lestat in Ann Rice's  treasured horror novel was pursued by several A-list actors. When it finally went to Cruise, the author was said to be crushed. Still, while the movie has its problems, Cruise isn't one of them. He's lacquered, mysterious, and mroe alive than Brad Pitt, a little out of his depths. Both were outperformed by 10-year-old Kristen Bunst.

Vanilla Sky
Photograph: Everett/REX Shutterstock

14. Vanilla Sky (2001)

Movies

This dark psychodrama is mainly remembered as being the film that emptied out Times Square for a so-so fantasy scene—it was also the beginning of the end for writer-director Cameron Crowe, once a critic’s darling with movies like Almost Famous and Jerry Maguire. But Cruise, scarred behind a white plastic mask, fully commits to his character’s unraveling.

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13. Mission: Impossible (1996)

Movies Action and adventure

Should you choose to accept it? Sure. Auteur-for-hire Brian De Palma makes the first entry in Cruise’s espionage series thrilling (if occasionally a little workmanlike) and the movie has a classic scene with Cruise suspended from the ceiling by wires that’s part of the actor’s legend. But there’s not a lot of room here for subtlety. Shouting and running? Plenty of room for that.

12. Minority Report (2002)

Movies Science fiction

Radically adapted from a Philip K. Dick short story published in 1956, this sci-fi thriller is an elaborate whodunit, with detective Cruise tagged as a potential murderer by the Pre-Cogs (mutant psychics who foresee potential homicides before they occur). Like Harrison Ford in Blade Runner, Cruise goes a little mopey; much of the film’s kick comes from Spielberg.

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11. A Few Good Men (1992)

Movies

Can you handle the truth? Remember: It’s Cruise who gets Jack Nicholson to that place, yelling “I want the truth!” As a crusading military lawyer, Cruise doesn’t quiet drop his smooth playboy side, but at least he’s attempting something a little more ambitious. He’s not the best mouthpiece for Aaron Sorkin’s word spew, but this shouty role was a step in the right direction.

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