Total Recall

Rank Tom Hanks' 10 Best Movies

In this week's Total Recall, we look back at some of the most acclaimed films featuring the star of The Post.

by | January 10, 2018 | Comments

Co-starring in a short-lived sitcom about cross-dressing friends generally isn’t the most direct path to superstardom, but there’s an exception to prove every rule — only one, though; sorry, Peter Scolari — and after racking up over $3 billion in domestic ticket receipts, winning a mantel full of awards (including back-to-back Best Actor Oscars), and starring in some of the best-reviewed films of the last 25 years, Tom Hanks has demonstrated that he’s pretty darned exceptional. With his latest project, Steven Spielberg’s historical drama The Post, arriving in theaters this weekend, we decided now was the perfect time to pay tribute to an impressive body of work by twirling the dials on the Tomatometer, making a list of Hanks’ best-reviewed films, and playing Total Recall!


1. The Toy Story Movies

(Photo by Buena Vista Pictures)

The mathematical incongruity of the movie’s key catchphrase notwithstanding, Pixar came awfully close to going “to infinity and beyond” with Toy Storys maiden full-length voyage, both in terms of box office returns ($361 million on a $30 million budget) and, as the first all-CGI theatrical release, in its impact on animation in general. Hanks, then riding high with audiences and critics after a remarkable three-year run that included A League of Their OwnSleepless in SeattlePhiladelphiaForrest Gump, and Apollo 13, was a natural fit for the role of Woody, the classic talking cowboy doll whose gentle Everyman appeal gave the film a human heart to match its computer-generated visuals — which he kept beating in 1999’s equally well-received Toy Story 2 and again more than a decade later in Toy Story 3. As Peter Stack argued for the San Francisco Chronicle, “Even though computer animation may seem like the coldest, least organic art form, the characters pulse with more humanity than most live actors can muster in a dozen mainstream movies.”


2. Big (1988) 97%

(Photo by 20th Century Fox Film Corp.)

There were a number of age-swapping comedies at the box office in the late 1980s, including Vice Versa (starring Judge Reinhold and Fred Savage as a father and son who switch bodies), 18 Again! (in which George Burns plays an 81-year-old millionaire who trades souls with Charlie Schlatter), and Like Father Like Son (Dudley Moore and Kirk Cameron — ’nuff said). Big, released in June of 1988, came after all of them, but rather than being dismissed as excessively similar to a bunch of movies that hadn’t done all that well at the box office, it went down as one of the year’s most successful films, piling up over $150 million in worldwide grosses and earning Hanks some desperately needed box office mojo after his appearances in The Money PitNothing in Common, and (shudder) Dragnet. Though it would be awhile yet before Hanks really found his stride as a leading man — he still had Joe Versus the Volcano ahead of him, after all — his sweetly comic performance here did not go unnoticed by critics like the New York Times’ Janet Maslin, who wrote, “for any other full-grown actors who try their hands at fidgeting, squirming, throwing water balloons and wolfing down food in a huge variety of comically disgusting ways, this really is the performance to beat.”


3. Catch Me If You Can (2002) 96%

(Photo by DreamWorks courtesy Everett Collection)

After closing out the 20th century as one of the most prolific — and arguably the most bankable — movie star in America, Hanks started to favor roles that either sublimated his much-ballyhooed Jimmy Stewart-style likeability — such as 2002’s Road to Perdition and 2004’s The Ladykillers, or left the heavy lifting to his co-stars, as with 2002’s Catch Me if You Can. Hanks doesn’t get the lion’s share of the screen time, but as Carl Hanratty, a fictionalized version of the FBI agent who pursued the infamous real-life con artist Frank Abagnale, Jr. (played here by Leonardo DiCaprio), he acts as the force that keeps his quarry (and therefore the story) moving — as well as a surprisingly sympathetic ear for the film’s ne’er-do-well protagonist. A Spielberg film with two huge stars and a Christmas Day release, Catch Me if You Can was virtually predestined to be a hit — and it was, grossing more than $350 million worldwide and earning a slew of positive reviews from critics who, although they were loath to rank it with Spielberg’s best work, nonetheless largely fell in line with the New York Observer’s Andrew Sarris, who called it “that rarity of rarities, a mainstream American feel-good movie with both charm and intelligence.”


4. Apollo 13 (1995) 95%

(Photo by Universal Pictures courtesy Everett Collection)

Hanks reunited with his Splash director, Ron Howard, for 1995’s Apollo 13, a dramatization of NASA’s aborted 1970 lunar mission that combined one of Hanks’ biggest personal passions — space travel — with Hollywood’s favorite thing: a blockbuster prestige picture. With a cast that featured a number of similarly prolific actors (among them Kevin Bacon, Bill Paxton, Ed Harris, and Hanks’ Forrest Gump costar Gary Sinise), Apollo probably would have made decent money even if it had played fast and loose with the real-life details of the launch, but Howard and his crew strove for verisimilitude, going so far as to shoot portions of the film in actual zero gravity. The result was a summertime smash that restored some of space travel’s luster for a jaded generation — and made for an exceedingly good filmgoing experience according to most critics, including Roger Ebert, who called it “a powerful story, one of the year’s best films, told with great clarity and remarkable technical detail, and acted without pumped-up histrionics.”


5. Captain Phillips (2013) 93%

(Photo by Hopper Stone/Columbia Pictures)

The mark of a great ripped-from-the-headlines movie is an ability to invest the audience in its story even though they already know exactly how things are going to turn out in the end — and on that count, Captain Phillips delivers in spades. Dramatized from Captain Richard Phillips’ account of his container ship’s 2009 hijacking at the hands of Somali pirates, this almost unbearably tense thriller offers riveting drama enriched by a thoughtful examination of 21st century global politics, anchored by powerful three-dimensional performances from a cast led by Hanks and Barkhad Abdi. “Over and over in this movie we hear variations on the phrase ‘everything’s going to be OK,'” wrote Wesley Morris for Grantland. “It’s just impossible to head out of the theater and back into the wider world believing that’s actually true.”


6. That Thing You Do! (1996) 93%

(Photo by 20th Century Fox Film Corp.)

Some moviegoers who went to see That Thing You Do! expecting another “Tom Hanks movie” may have come away disappointed with his relative lack of screen time — his character, the slick A&R executive known as Mr. White, is the textbook definition of a “minor but pivotal” role — but if they paid attention to the credits, they saw that it had Hanks literally written all over it: he made his writing/directing debut with That Thing, which follows the speedy rise (and equally speedy fall) of a rock band in 1966. Though it wasn’t a huge hit, the movie did spin off a medium-sized hit on the pop charts (“That Thing You Do,” written by Fountains of Wayne’s Adam Schlesinger and sung by future power pop demigod Mike Viola) and enjoyed highly favorable reviews from the likes of Desson Thomson of the Washington Post, who wrote, “first-time writer/director Tom Hanks stays about a half-beat ahead of the clichés with rim shots of boyish enthusiasm and deft comedy.”


7. Saving Private Ryan (1998) 92%

(Photo by DreamWorks)

American directors have been making movies about World War II since 1940, and even as early as the 1980s, it was a genre associated by many with Norman Rockwell revisionism and John Wayne machismo. By 1998, for a movie about the war to add anything new to the dialogue, it would have to be something truly special — but with Spielberg behind the cameras and a cast led by Tom Hanks, an actor as quintessentially American as apple pie, Saving Private Ryan was off to a pretty good start even before the first roll of film had been shot. The end result, of course, was one of the best-reviewed films (and biggest hits) of the year — a $481 million hit that arrived perfectly timed to coincide with a new wave of interest in what Tom Brokaw dubbed “The Greatest Generation.” Lauded for its sometimes shocking realism, Ryan was eventually nominated for 11 Academy Awards, and helped prompt Hanks’ involvement (along with Spielberg and many others) in HBO’s 10-part World War II documentary, Band of Brothers — an important film, in other words, and one that, despite a few dissenting opinions (Andrew Sarris called it “tediously manipulative”), earned high praise from critics like Richard Schickel of Time, who applauded it as “a war film that, entirely aware of its genre’s conventions, transcends them as it transcends the simplistic moralities that inform its predecessors, to take the high, morally haunting ground.”


8. Splash (1984) 90%

(Photo by Buena Vista Pictures)

Starring in a frothy romantic comedy as a man who falls in love with a mermaid may not seem like the surest path to starting a film career, but then, 1984’s Splash was no ordinary movie — in fact, it started a lot of things, among them an entire studio (Touchstone Pictures, created to allow Disney the ability to release more “adult” fare without sullying its name brand), a surge in the number of girls named Madison, and, supposedly, a name change for the Disneyland ride that eventually became Splash Mountain. Not bad for a movie featuring a pair of largely untested stars (Hanks was fresh from Bosom Buddies, and Daryl Hannah was known mainly for her role in Blade Runner) and a director — Ron Howard– most people still thought of as Opie Taylor (or Richie Cunningham). Nearly $70 million in domestic receipts (and one Academy Award nomination) later, and Hanks was on his way to stardom, thanks in part to positive critical buzz that has proven surprisingly durable; Empire’s Ian Freer held it up as “the movie that really showed Tom Hanks’ promise as a deliverer of great comedy and heart-warming pathos.”


9. Bridge of Spies (2015) 91%

(Photo by Jaap Buitendijk/Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)

There’s nothing quite like a good Cold War thriller for deliciously tense, espionage-driven drama — and with 2015’s Bridge of Spies, director Steven Spielberg proved that even a quarter of a century after the fall of the Berlin Wall, that old-fashioned formula had lost little of its effectiveness. The story of a lawyer (Hanks) pressed into action as the nominal defense attorney in what’s supposed to be a slam-dunk case against a captured Soviet spy (Mark Rylance), Bridge absorbingly returns viewers to a bygone era while subtly holding it up as a mirror against modern-day politics. “Spielberg can’t help but make the kind of inspiring, classically constructed drama that we keep being told Hollywood doesn’t produce anymore,” wrote the Washington Post’s Ann Hornaday. “Thank goodness he still does.”


10. Cast Away (2000) 90%

(Photo by 20th Century Fox Film Corp.)

If there was ever any doubt as to the strength of Tom Hanks’ appeal, it was thoroughly answered with 2000’s Cast Away, a movie that asked viewers to spend over an hour watching its star wander an island with little to do and only a volleyball for companionship. He didn’t just topline it, Hanks essentially was the film, absorbing a percentage of screen time that, in lesser hands, would have amounted to an endurance test for audiences. Happily, he proved up to the task, as attested by Cast Away’s healthy $429 million worldwide gross — not to mention the scores of overwhelmingly positive reviews from critics like Margaret A. McGurk of the Cincinnati Enquirer, who praised Hanks for rising to the challenges of the script: “The challenge to the character is matched by the challenge to the actor; for most of the movie Mr. Hanks is the only human being we see or hear. He tackles the job with stunning confidence in a performance stripped of gimmicks and driven by need.”

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