We all love Tom Hanks. All of us. And what’s not to love about one of Hollywood’s greatest, most genuine ambassadors? The stories of Hanks just being a great dude are endless, and the trustworthiness he exudes in his life permeates his screen performances. It’s part of what makes him great. From the charming comedic brilliance of his late 80s career, to his 90s Oscar domination, to where we find him now as a reliably wonderful actor, Tom Hanks’ persona has built an unprecedented level of trust and admiration from audiences. We see Hanks in a film, we accept his role, and we watch him dominate.
Hanks’ 10 greatest performances not only highlight his ability to give us all the feels, they also show his sneaky range. He can make us laugh and cry from see to scene, he can hypnotize us, and he can redefine more than once what it means to be a movie star. Here we go…
CLOSE CALLS: As Carl Hanratty, the tight-assed agent chasing DiCaprio in Catch Me If You Can, as Woody in Toy Story, arguably the most identifiable role in Hanks’ career, and as Paul Edgecomb, the guard in The Green Mile, a mediocre movie that undoes his solid work.
10) James Donovan, Bridge of Spies – It may climb this list over the next few years, as Bridge of Spies appreciates. James Donovan is the embodiment of what we have defined Tom Hanks as over the years, a wholesome and honest family man who uses his decency to navigate a tricky situation: the transfer of prisoners between the American and Russian governments. Bridge of Spies may be “Minor Spielberg,” whatever that possibly mean, but Hanks’ performance is much more layered, and he tells the tale with his eyes just as much as his words.
9) Forrest Gump, Forrest Gump – This is a tricky entry. Forrest Gump has, over the last twenty plus years, run the gamut of Hollywood crowd-pleasing greatness and overcooked, overrated melodrama. I tend to lean towards the latter more these days, but that’s just my 2016 cynicism leaking in. Forrest Gump is an infinitely entertaining film, despite its on-the-nose narrative and troublesome definition of Jenny’s character. And despite its heavy-handed saccharine tone, Hanks absolutely embodies an original film character like very few people have done.
8) Joe, Joe Versus the Volcano – Yet another marginalized comedy starring Tom Hanks, Joe Versus the Volcano also plays up the everyman complacency of Hanks’ character. However, unlike The Burbs’, Joe Versus the Volcano deconstructs a State of Mind. Joe is a beaten company man who discovers he has a brain cloud, and only when he realizes his life may be ending does he allow himself to break free of his downtrodden existence, and his weird adventure begins. This is all told through some brilliant work by Hanks, a spot on late 80s satire.
7) Michael Sullivan, Road to Perdition – Remember Road to Perdition? Where has it been these days, where films of the late 90s and early 2000s are beginning to appreciate? Sam Mendes’ follow up to American Beauty is no less subtle, but its undoubtedly one of the more beautiful films of the 21st century. And it has Tom Hanks playing something different: a killer. Hanks is not a bad family man, but that doesn’t make him a good one. He is a hired gun for his surrogate father, John Rooney (Paul Newman), but when his wife and young son are murdered and his only surviving son endangered, he learns how to become a real father.
6) Jim Lovell, Apollo 13 – Ron Howard’s impressively accurate portrayal of the doomed Apollo 13 mission to the moon has a great performance from Hanks, playing astronaut Jim Lovell. But while it is Hanks in the central role, Apollo 13 succeeds even more in its phenomenal ensemble. Kevin Bacon, Bill Paxton, Gary Sinise, Ed Harris, and Kathleen Quinlan all have wonderful moments init he film, and Lovell appropriately feels like a dog in a wheel that’s spinning out of control.
5) Josh Baskin, Big – Big was a turning point in Hanks’ career. It was a bridge between his straight comedy roles like The Burbs’, Joe Versus the Volcano, and The Money Pit (which is damn funny), and the heights of his career in the 90s. He is Josh Baskin, a 13-year old kid who gets his wish one night, and becomes an adult. Big is the pinnacle of the body switch comedy because of its heart. Serious questions about the pros and cons of childhood and adulthood are addressed, and every time I see Hanks in this one it means something different to me. Because I’m getting older, just like Josh wanted.
4) Chuck Noland, Cast Away – Hanks’ physical transformation is probably what Cast Away is known for more than anything. And while his change from normal looking dude to emaciated, bearded islander is astonishing when you consider the work involved. Cast Away also hits some wonderful thematic notes, about what matters when we have nothing. It’s the most balanced work of Robert Zemeckis’s career, and just a complete performance from Hanks. Who else could make you cry over a volleyball? Not many.
3) Richard Phillips, Captain Phillips – Throughout Paul Greengrass’s thriller Captain Phillips, Tom Hanks’ Richard Phillips is a stoic leader, a worthy captain and a hero to the men on his ship, under siege by Somali pirates. Phillips continually sacrifices his own safety for his men, and it winds with him in a pod on the ocean with the three trigger-happy pirates. Everything is utilitarian in the first 90% of the film. And that’s what makes Hanks’ release in the end, when he sits blood spattered and being examined, so powerful. It’s easily one of the finest few minutes in Hanks’ career, a sorrowful, haunting cry of relief.
2) Captain Miller, Saving Private Ryan – At the center of Steven Spielberg’s sprawling war masterpiece, which manages to expertly handle grand scale and intimate narrative, is Hanks’ Captainn Miller, a purposefully enigmatic platoon leader working dutifully to complete the task given to him. All the while, he must manage his team, growing more resentful with every confrontation as they risk their lives for one man. Hanks plays Miller with a bottled-up intensity that doubles as desperation when he dangerously remembers the life he had back home. It is a heartbreaking, pitch-perfect performance at the center of such madness and bloodshed.
1. Andrew Beckett, Philadelphia – At the center of the AIDS epidemic in America, rose Philadelphia, Jonathan Demme’s social-message movie about a gay man, Hanks’ Andrew Beckett, wrongly terminated for having AIDS. It was an important film at the time, and in many ways has become a relic of a bygone generation. And that is a promising turn of events. Melodrama be damned, Hanks shines, announcing his presence as an actor to be recognized beyond comedy.