The Best Movie Ever: Tom Cruise

Tom Cruise: a handsome leading man, a talented actor, and now – for a variety of reasons we won’t even bother listing here – a pop culture joke. But he keeps on going, keeps on delivering one solid film after another. He’s been acting for over 30 years and he’s made more classics than even his detractors can deny.

But which of them is The Best Tom Cruise Movie Ever? That’s the question we posed to CraveOnline‘s critics William Bibbiani, Witney Seibold, Fred Topel and Brian Formo. Two of them agreed on a single film, two of them skewed off in different directions, but all of them chose thought-provoking films that demonstrated that for all of his charisma and action movie prowess, Tom Cruise can be a real, honest to goodness, great actor.

Check out the films they selected, vote for your own favorites below, and come back next Wednesday for the next exciting installment of The Best Movie Ever.

Brian Formo:

Tom Cruise has never seemed approachable. He’s got the startling good looks, the vacant eyes and, apparently, an unforgivable miscalculation of exuberance about how great his life is. So for my selection of the Best Tom Cruise movie I’m going to go with the one where, at a certain point, everyone tells him to get lost: Born on the Fourth of July.

And get lost he does. Nothing Cruise made before Born on the Fourth of July suggested that he had the ability to lose himself in a role like this. He certainly had classic smiles and good spirits in Risky BusinessAll the Right Moves, Top Gun, Cocktail and Rain Man, but all of those roles were just natural progressions of his dreamboat status: high school all-star, adrenaline pilot, hunky bartender and a successful man who learns to love his mentally deficient brother.

At the start of Born on the Fourth of July Tom Cruise is all of those Tom Cruise things: Captain Teen America. But what Cruise and director Oliver Stone achieve in Fourth of July is remarkable. It plays up the All-American small town pride and the desire for the kids of the greatest generation to replicate American war glories. Stone and Cruise are very earnest, and although the film shifts from light to brutal, it never plays the small town ideals as something to malign or celebrate. They just use it to contrast a generational shift on American ideals that pivoted with the fallout of America’s involvement in the Vietnam War.

When Ron Kovic (Cruise) returns from Vietnam, he’s paralyzed from the chest down. In an understaffed hospital, Kovic screams for a medic to help save a leg he’ll never be able to use, but he doesn’t want to lose even more to that war. He can’t make love to a woman. He’s given a hero’s hometown parade, but his rage and drinking make his parents ask him to move out. For a movie that tosses two paralyzed veterans (Cruise and Willem Dafoe) into a Mexican ditch, July does earn one helluva a happy payoff. Our past history said being wounded in war made one a hero, but for many who came home from the Vietnam War, standing up and saying that what they were trained to do damaged an entire generation made them a hero. 

Witney Seibold:

Tom Cruise is a talented actor, and brings a great deal of commitment and intensity to his roles. But, more importantly, Tom Cruise possesses that ineffable “it” quality that separates mere actors from MOVIE STARS. When you see a Tom Cruise movie, you may be enjoying his performance, but more than that, you are enjoying merely watching Tom Cruise and all his charm, his appeal, his baffling magnetism. He always selected a wide variety of roles throughout the 1980s and 1990s, and it wasn’t until 1996’s Mission: Impossible that he would begin to position himself as an action hero. Even then, he selected auteur Brian DePalma to direct, and not some usual action director. Tom Cruise’s career, while never at an ebb, was likely at its artistic and creative height in 1999. His best performance in Magnolia cemented him as continuing creative force, and it also saw the release of his best movie. (For the record, his second-best performance was in Michael Mann’s Collateral.)

Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut is a movie that requires analysis, conversation, and maturity. It deals with adult sexuality in a dream-like fantasy of constant near infidelity, wild nighttime orgies, and a blank slate hero (played by Cruise) who seems to live in a world soaked with sex, sex he cannot ever touch. I could write several essays worth of material dissecting this movie. At the film’s center, Tom Cruise is playing essentially a version of himself. His fame, how well we know his face, how well we know about his marriage to co-star Nicole Kidman, what we think of the man going in, all factor into the warmly lit New York evenings that his character wanders through. Tom Cruise is an mysterious actor, open and closed at the same time, lost in a world that keeps reacting to him as an authority, a movie star, and a sex symbol. When, perhaps at the heart of it, he doesn’t know how to grasp (or perhaps isn’t interested in grasping) the fame/hedonism at his fingertips. One of the many ways to interpret Eyes Wide Shut is an analysis of Tom Cruise’s own public persona. Kubrick was certainly thinking of such things when he cast Cruise in the role. 

And even if that is a cockeyed interpretation, there is still so much more going on in Eyes Wide Shut that it remains endlessly fascinating.

William Bibbiani:

Tom Cruise has starred in an absolutely ridiculous number of great and classic films. Whatever you think about him or his religion, he’s a talented performer with (mostly) great taste in projects. It was hard not to pick Collateral or Jerry Maguire or Top Gun or Minority Report or Magnolia or A Few Good Men or Born on the Fourth of July or even Mission: Impossible III (I still think it’s the best in the series), but the best Tom Cruise movie ever is Eyes Wide Shut, and not just because it’s a Stanley Kubrick movie. Although obviously it helped.

I didn’t get Eyes Wide Shut when it first came out. I blame my youth. I had never experienced true romantic jealousy or psychosexual paranoia. But I have now (and let’s just leave at that), so Eyes Wide Shut makes more than sense, it makes poetry. It takes a simple marital confession – Tom Cruise learns his wife was once so sexually attracted to a stranger that she’d have wrecked their marriage in a heartbeat just to sleep with him (and she didn’t even go through with it) – and transforms it into a quiet but terrifying nightmare about shattered self-confidence and coitus interruptus. Tom Cruise leaves to take a house call (he’s a doctor), and winds up wandering the streets, reacting to every conceivable sexual advance imaginable: the kinky, the cruel, the heartless, the alluring, the illegal, the challenge to his sexual orientation, and he’s perpetually incapable of sealing the deal. He is Tantalus, forever reaching for fruit that escapes his grasp, forever kneeling for water that recedes from his touch.

How fitting that Tom Cruise, a silver screen icon and worldwide sex symbol, should come to represent sexual failure in all of its forms. The hints about his impotence, the inability to act on his jealous desires, the enigmatic nature of his sexual preferences… he goes for it. He embodies a failed libido despite his image, while simultaneously standing in impressively as an object of desire. His frustration and his confusion plays in every scene. It’s a fantastic performance made all the more amazing in that he’s acting like the least impressive person imaginable, a subconscious projection of our own sexual and romantic hang-ups. It’s the best Tom Cruise movie ever, damn it, although Jack Reacher is really good too. I almost forgot to mention that.

Fred Topel:

But how great would it be to pick Cocktail, right? As amazing as it was that Cruise’s charisma could make a movie about bartending awesome, he has done so many quality movies, I can’t even pick Rain Man or A Few Good Men. The Best Tom Cruise Movie Ever is almost not even a Tom Cruise movie, but he is very prominent and memorable. My pick is the ensemble Magnolia, and if you just isolated Cruise’s parts of the epic there’s probably a full 90 minute Tom Cruise movie. I haven’t done that math yet.

Cruise plays Frank “T.J.” Mackie, proponent of the “Seduce and Destroy” method of picking up women. We never see it in practice, but we can tell by the hormonal oafs in his audience that he is appealing to their worst insecurities and frustrations. The thing is, he’s so charming about it, you kind of believe him. During an interview during his seminar’s intermission, we learn what secrets and insecurities Mackey himself is hiding, and how he eventually ties in with the rest of the film’s ensemble. Magnolia is just a great, moving film full of human stories and a touch of surreality. I like every main story in the piece, whereas most ensemble movies only have a few highlights. It is a powerful Cruise performance, using his star power and charisma to portray something insidious, yet sort of related to the Hollywood icon he is. We worship these heroes who quite often abuse and manipulate their supporting characters. This is what it looks like in real life. 

Perhaps in the 15 years since Magnolia I’ve thought a little bit more about oppression and the oppressed. Gandhi said you have to love your oppressors because they are oppressing because they have no love. Nelson Mandela and Mother Teresa believed that too. Mackey’s response to a lack of love is to oppress women, and to teach men how to oppress them. Perhaps if he were treated with love, not sexual love but familial love and friendship, and valued for his worth, he wouldn’t see half the population as his enemy. At least it would be the beginning of a conversation. As Magnolia shows, the interviewer’s confrontation only makes him shut down and lash out further.

Yeah, I just went from Cocktail to Gandhi. 

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