Hanks Ranks: 20 of Tom Hanks’ Best Performances

One of the most beloved actors in screen history, Tom Hanks has won widespread acclaim from critics and audiences alike for his humane and thoughtful performances. Although he started his career making mostly broad, audience pleasing comedies, Hanks started branching out into the early 90s, becoming one of the most sought after and prestigious dramatic performers of our time.

Like many of the best actors in cinematic history, not even Hanks can have a 100% success rate with critics or at the box office, but with one (The Bonfire of the Vanities) or two (The Circle) exceptions, Hanks was rarely bad or miscast. He’s the kind of talent that can turn something trite or idiotic (the Robert Langdon thrillers) into enjoyable yarns. He’s not a cinematic miracle worker, but he’s the closest thing the world has to one.

Hanks’ hit-to-miss ratio is astounding, and through it all he carries an everyman sort of likability. His characters usually exemplify the best of humanity or, at the very least, a light that can shine through darkness. He’s the kind of actor where ten different people could name ten different Hanks films as their favourites, and there wouldn’t be an incorrect answer (unless that answer is The Circle).

In honour of Hanks’ 62nd birthday this week and Cineplex’s celebratory Hanksfest – a month long showcase of four Hanks classics returning to cinemas for week long runs – let’s try to do the impossible and arbitrarily rank his twenty best performances to date.

And before I get started, know that this is strictly a ranking of Hanks’ performances, not the overall quality of the movies. That list would look considerably different.

20. Dragnet

This seems like an odd choice to kick off what’s likely to be a list crammed with prestige projects and “Oscar bait,” but this oddball 1987 re-boot-slash-parody of the granddaddy of all cop show procedurals has aged remarkably well. With Hanks playing the ludicrously named Pep Streebeck, the devil-may-care partner of co-writer and star Dan Aykroyd’s straight-laced, by-the-book Joe Friday surrogate, Dragnet spins a ridiculous sounding plot involving wealthy pagans (led by Christopher Plummer) into something eerily prescient. It’s one of Hanks’ best turns from his early, more bluntly comedic career, and his chemistry with Aykroyd’s stick in the mud is one of the most inspired buddy cop pairings of a decade filled with way too many buddy cop movies. Hanks’ manic comedic energy and Aykroyd’s deadpan go a long way here, but viewed through a current political lens, Dragnet strikes as something that was some thirty years ahead of its time. Also, the film’s accompanying music video deserves its own slot on this list.

19. Sleepless in Seattle

It’s no small feat to craft a noteworthy performance in a romantic comedy, but writer-director Nora Ephron was able to offer stars Hanks and Meg Ryan plenty of emotional material to work with, creating one of the best examples of the genre. Hanks’ widower and single dad is the heartbeat at the centre of Ephron’s work, and the rare example of a straight skewing rom-com that’s built more around the male lead’s internal pain instead of a female perspective. Hanks’ performance is the key to the film’s success. Hanks has to make Ryan’s long distance infatuation mean something, which means that the audience has to fall in love with him. He does exactly that. Hanks and Ryan would team with Ephron again several years later for You’ve Got Mail, which was fine and unexceptional, probably because everyone knew there would be no way to top this (even though it’s not the only Hanks/Ryan collaboration to make this list).

18. The ‘burbs

Of all the films on this list, Joe Dante’s The ‘burbs, a tale of next door neighbours becoming paranoid that their street’s new residents are mass murderers, has the largest cult audience appeal. Dante (Gremlins, Small Soldiers, Matinee) has maintained an off-key, cartoonish sort of sensibility that’s intoxicating to behold and sometimes difficult to reason with. The ‘burbs is no exception, and Hanks throws himself headlong into Dante’s suburban craziness, proving that no one can play annoyed, put upon, and frazzled quite like Hanks. It’s also one of the best examples of Hanks’ exceptional gift for physical comedy. Of all the films from his first boom period in the 1980s, The ‘burbs gives Hanks the most to do.

17. Toy Story (all of them)

Woody, the pull-string cowboy from Pixar’s lucrative and game changing animated franchise, is a rarity in the world of voice work. Few actors who do animated voice work – outside of those contracted to work on television series, naturally – get the chance to show the emotional and intellectual evolution of a character, but that’s precisely what Hanks does with Woody. More paranoid about his place in the world than his somewhat oblivious cohort and former rival Buzz Lightyear (in the best role Tim Allen has ever been given), Hanks’ Woody provides the Toy Story films with their moral and dramatic centre. Woody has always been an imperfect hero. He’s a bit of a blowhard whose well intentioned plans often backfire miserably, but he’s always quick to learn from his mistakes. Using Hanks’ impeccable comedic timing and the actor’s ability to turn on an emotional dime if called upon, the Toy Story movies might be underrated when one talks about Hanks’ skills. He doesn’t appear on screen as an actor, but his talents loom large.

16. Saving Mr. Banks

This biopic about the creation of Mary Poppins is more of a star vehicle for Emma Thompson’s understandably disgruntled P.L. Travers than it is for Hanks’ performance as Walt Disney. It’s also not a very good movie, often giving in to pandering clichés and references instead of allowing Travers’ narrative to unfold organically and unforced (not to mention that it’s openly rewriting established history to fit a brand’s specific perspective). Qualms about perspective and storytelling aside, Hanks still manages to deliver one of his best performances here, simply because he’s not doing an outright impersonation of Walt Disney. Hanks isn’t trying to adopt Disney’s iconic visage or cadence more than is needed, preferring instead to focus on the legendary entrepreneur’s humanity and complexity. It’s always a far more satisfying approach to watch someone embodying someone a famous figure on an emotional level rather than watching an outright note-for-note impersonation, and even if Hanks’ emotional marching orders are coming from a savvy, image conscious corporate entity as they are here, he’s too good at his job to feel anything less than genuine.

15. Sully

The pairing of Hanks with director Clint Eastwood should have happened much sooner than it ultimately did. While Eastwood is making some of the most fascinating and artful films of his career these days, they’re not as polished as what the actor turned director was producing at the peak of his talents. The film from the past several years that comes closest to capturing Eastwood at his level best is this biopic of famed hero pilot Sully Sullenberger, who made headlines by purposefully crash landing a plane on the Hudson River, saving the lives of everyone on board through methods some branded as reckless and foolish. Eastwood wants to get into the mind of Sully instead of rehashing his heroism, and Hanks is more than willing to oblige with one of his most cerebral and nuanced performances. When Hanks is called upon as an actor to showcase a character’s internal and external discomfort, he’s usually quite good, but Eastwood’s single-take directing style allows for something a lot more instinctual and subtle. Appropriately, it’s a story of heroism told from the perspective of someone who doesn’t want to be recognized or questioned for doing what he felt was right. It’s a perfect marriage of a director, a star, and the right material.

14. The Post

Hanks’ most recent collaboration with Steven Spielberg cast him as Ben Bradlee, an iconic newsman and former editor-in-chief of The Washington Post who went to war with the U.S. government and his paper’s owner (Meryl Streep) in a fight to publish excerpts of the infamous Pentagon Papers. While the film’s centre is Streep’s embattled owner, it’s Hanks’ perpetually riled Bradlee who rallies the troops at the paper to do their jobs and do them well. His character has to be both Streep’s colleague and antagonist throughout, but Hanks is asked to do so without betraying Bradlee’s journalistic integrity and business sense. Such a character could have become either unlikable or distracting within a story that has larger issues on its mind, but Hanks has always been a performer capable of finding balance between a character’s charm and their hubris. Pairing Hanks with Streep and Spielberg at the same time was a “can’t miss” proposition that turned a decent enough story of journalistic intrigue into something far more satisfying.

13. Joe Versus the Volcano

While The ‘burbs is the early Hanks’ film with the most cultural cache as a hidden gem, it’s John Patrick Shanley’s aggressively strange and bizarre fable Joe Versus the Volcano that should be regarded as the actor’s most divisive and therefore cult worthy title. Hanks plays Joe, a depressive, white collar office drone from Staten Island who’s already dreary life is altered forever when he’s diagnosed with an inoperable brain condition that will eventually kill him. In a bid to spend his last days in luxurious comfort and end it all quickly, Joe agrees to help a multinational corporation win mining rights on a pacific island by offering himself as a human sacrifice the locals can use to appease a fire god that lives in a volcano… and I sound insane just typing all that out, but trust me when I say that it kinda works. Shanley’s unique and uncompromised vision feels like a biting parody of self-help and self-actualization techniques that have been taken to outlandish extremes. It’s far smarter than critics gave it credit for back in 1990, with it emerging as a film that some love and defend ardently and others claiming it as the biggest folly in the careers of all involved. I’m assuredly in the former category, mostly because Hanks’ performance mines the character’s self-inflicted tragedies for deadpan comedic gold. It’s the driest of Hanks’ comedies, and also the strangest, but that doesn’t make it any less fascinating. Also of note is Meg Ryan (in their first collaboration) playing not one, but three different women in Joe’s life. I don’t think a blurb could encapsulate how weird Joe Versus the Volcano truly is, but it’s well worth checking out for yourself.

12. Bridge of Spies

Another recent Hanks/Spielberg collaboration that makes the most of Hanks’ everyman charms is this historically minded thriller about an American lawyer tasked with defending a captured Russian spy (Oscar winner Mark Rylance) in court at the early height of Cold War tensions. This one ranks highly not because Hanks has to put any sort of new spin on his previously established on screen persona, but because there’s no one else on earth better equipped to play this sort of role and play it well. If there was a part on this list that could be pointed to and said that it feels like it was tailor made for Tom Hanks’ dramatic and comedic abilities, it would be this one. Bridge of Spies might not be Hanks or Spielberg’s best film in their revered careers, but it’s the best example of Hanks’ specific qualifications as a performer; a film that could be shown to someone who’s never heard of the actor before that showcases the best he has to offer.

11. Charlie Wilson’s War

Rhyming nicely with Spielberg’s aforementioned Cold War thriller is this final film from director Mike Nichols, a decidedly lesser, but still fascinating dark comedy that marks the rare occasion where Hanks was allowed to play a charming cad. Written by Aaron Sorkin – the current king of staccato, complex, snappy dramadies (for better and for worse) – Charlie Wilson’s War casts Hanks as the real life titular Texas congressman who tirelessly tried to aid the Afghan cause in their 1980s battle with invading Russian forces. Making the most of his often awkward, socially climbing politician’s squishy moral centre, Hanks’ throws himself at the chance to play a character that’s both oblivious to what’s going on around him and resolutely convinced that he’s doing the right thing. It’s a classic Hanks-ian sort of role, but one that comes loaded with political and moral subtext that moves far beyond the film’s period trappings. It’s far from a perfect film, and the messages being conveyed by Sorkin’s screenplay are often trite and obvious, but Hanks keeps it riveting and watchable throughout.

10. Forrest Gump

Robert Zemeckis’ mega-blockbuster Forrest Gump is simultaneously one of the most overrated and underrated film in Hanks’ career, which is rather surprising considering its status as one of the highest grossing films of the 20th century. Hailed by mainstream audiences upon its 1994 release as a masterpiece of American cinema, this adaptation of Winston Groom’s once obscure bestselling novel has received a not altogether unfair critical reassessment in recent years. In hindsight, the plot involving an intellectually stunted hayseed who bounces around various key moments in world history might be too cute and convenient by half, and Zemeckis and screenwriter Eric Roth are assuredly tap dancing around any political or ethical connotations the material might have. That doesn’t change the film’s game changing technical mastery or the fully committed performances from Hanks and his fellow collaborators. It’s a testament to Hanks and his co-stars that the characters in Forrest Gump feel realistic when the rest of the plot is so resolutely outlandish. Outside of Zemeckis’ technical wizardry, it’s Hanks that anchors the film and makes it into the piece of popcorn(y) entertainment that mainstream audiences loved at the time. It might have lost some of its initial lustre thanks to closer examination and mounting cynicism towards such a fluffy, feel good prospect, but in Hanks’ career, few roles will shine brighter than the rest.

9. Apollo 13

Speaking of films where Hanks provides the emotional and dramatic anchor for a story, let’s talk about Ron Howard’s Apollo 13, a historical drama looking back at the botched titular mission to send more U.S. astronauts to the moon. As the ship’s commander, Jim Lovell, Hanks provides the calm, cool, and professional middle ground that Howard’s exemplary ensemble cast takes their cues from. While Hanks might have received the bulk of the film’s acclaim upon the film’s 1995 release, he’s a generous enough performer to allow co-stars Kevin Bacon, Bill Paxton, Ed Harris, and Kathleen Quinlan ample room to shine and find their own characters. Like most dangerous scientific missions, the needs of many outweigh personal comforts, and this remains the most generous and low-key performance of Hanks’ stellar 90s output. It’s also Howard’s best film by a pretty wide margin.

8. Catch Me If You Can

Grating BAW-SHTONE accent aside, Hanks’ role as FBI agent Carl Hanratty proves that there are few actors who can more credibly play a stern, but hopeful surrogate father figure. Again proving to be one of Spielberg’s best collaborators, Hanks shines in his supporting role as a federal agent tasked with bringing youthful forger and con man Frank Abignale to justice. The moral dance and constant game of one-upmanship that unfolds between Hanks and Leonardo DiCaprio’s charismatic, but flawed main character isn’t a stock tale of good and evil, but rather a far more poignant story of a young man yearning for acceptance and a sympathetic officer of the law who’s willing to understand the pain at the heart of a criminal. Hanks takes a back seat for much of the film, but he’s also the surrogate for most members of the audience. It’s hard to play a cop who has sympathy for the criminal he’s chasing, but Hanks makes viewers see in Frank what the character doesn’t see in himself. It’s some of both actors’ most moving work.

7. Road to Perdition

Hanks rarely gets cast in dark, borderline nasty projects, probably because no one really sees the actor as an imposing presence. That didn’t stop Sam Mendes from casting Hanks in this 1930s set thriller as a hitman trying to protect his twelve year-old son from ruthless mobsters. An adaptation of a much better graphic novel source, there’s something decidedly off about Mendes’ direction here, which is too self-serious and self-aware to be fun, thrilling, or even all that thoughtful. Most of Road to Perdition – which was a minor hit in 2002 and is almost never discussed now – plods along at a monotonous, less than pulse raising pace that consistently undercuts the tension at the heart of the story. But that’s not Hanks’ fault, and the actor relishes the chance to play with darker material alongside equally odd casting choices Paul Newman and Jude Law. The performances in Road to Perdition raise an otherwise bland mob thriller into something interesting. It’s the best case of Hanks (and his co-stars) saving a film through acting ability alone. The fact that this is such an atypical role for Hanks only makes the efforts more appreciated.

6. A League of Their Own

As hard as it might be to believe today, Hanks was once in danger of falling out of favour with audiences in the late 80s and early 90s. After turning heads and perking industry eyebrows with Big, films like Punchline, The ‘burbs, and Joe Versus the Volcano underperformed at the box office and confused some audiences and critics alike. The high concept, but tiresome buddy cop picture Turner and Hooch did well, but was awful and remains unquestionably one of Hanks’ worst overall films by a country mile. And Brian De Palma’s megaton bomb Bonfire of the Vanities miscast nice-guy Hanks as the kind of slickster asshole that the actor wasn’t yet ready to play. It was his role as the put upon, washed up coach of an all women’s baseball team circa World War II in Penny Marshall’s A League of Their Own that almost singlehandedly saved Hanks’ career, setting the actor on an upward career trajectory that he sustains to this day. Gruff and sarcastic without being flat out unlikable or irredeemable, Hanks’ drunken skipper is a delicate, humorous depiction of fragile masculinity; one that comes with a somewhat earned and nuanced story arc. He’s wisely never made the main focus by Marshall, but his contribution to one of the best baseball films ever made is some of his best work.

5. Captain Phillips

It baffles me that people don’t talk enough about Hanks’ performance in the Paul Greengrass’ tense hostage thriller Captain Phillips more often. It’s a performance that would be career defining if any other actor could have pulled it off, but because it’s Hanks that we’re talking about, it’s merely regarded as being pretty good. That’s greatly underselling what Greengrass (who I honestly think hasn’t made a better film) and Hanks are trying to accomplish with this true life inspired story of an ocean liner captain whose boat is hijacked by Somali pirates. Hanks’ titular captain has to remain calm under pressure, developing subtle cracks the longer the ordeal plays out. Phillips seems unflappable, but obviously stressed. It’s a film built around a performance that’s meant to incrementally amp up, leading to a moment that’s both harrowing and cathartic, and – in my opinion – the best singular moment of Hanks’ career. That moment wouldn’t have had nearly the same impact if the film and his performance hadn’t already been stellar to that point. In terms of crafting a performance, Hanks’ work here is a bit of a long con, but once it arrives at its final emotional destination, it’s absolutely devastating.

4. Saving Private Ryan

Although Spielberg’s World War II epic is still best known for its breathtakingly brutal opening hour assault, Hanks’ performance as a squadron leader determined to carry out a potentially lethal rescue mission is an example of the actor’s uncanny ability to internalize emotions to great effect. Hanks’ Captain Miller rarely lets on when something is bothering him, and moments when the character speaks up to voice his fears and frustrations are appropriately cathartic and well spaced out. It’s a unique, but wholly believable portrait of an unlikely leader. There aren’t many flaws to Hanks’ character here, mostly because displaying them would be immaterial and distract from the sense that these men have been dragged into their desperate situations as a unit, not as individuals. It might be an ensemble cast backing Hanks up in Saving Private Ryan, but this assuredly remains a Hanks anchored film made from Spielberg at his bleakest. Here, Hanks is both a likable light in a storm, and credibly someone that’s worth literally and figuratively following into battle.

3. Cast Away

Hanks has had a few roles in his career where he’s taken a bit of a method approach, but to portray stranded FedEx executive Chuck Nolan in Robert Zemeckis’ survival drama Cast Away, it feels wholly necessary. Losing so much weight to appear gaunt and barely hanging on, Hanks accidentally gave himself diabetes in the process. That’s more than a little unfortunate, but the commitment to depicting Chuck’s withering mental and physical state was necessary when one considers that Zemeckis’ film has one actor and minimal dialogue. It’s an almost entirely visual film, meaning that Hanks’ scraggly and craggy visage has to carry the story. He looks believably endangered, and the actor has nothing more than a volleyball to play off of. He somehow creates dramatic and comedic chemistry with a volleyball and makes the audience invest in their relationship every step of the way. I can’t think of many actors who would be crazy enough to attempt something with such a high degree of difficulty and even fewer that could pull it off. To date, it was the last performance from Hanks to garner an Oscar nomination, and it was a well deserved one.

2. Big

Hanks was first noticed by many critics and peers as a serious acting talent with his turn as Josh Baskin in Penny Marshall’s Big; a thirteen year old who finds himself in an adult body after wishing to be treated like an adult. Today, Hanks’ work holds up as one of the actor’s very best performances. Marshall’s film is a high concept, wish fulfillment fantasy for the first half, and a devastating drama in the second half that will make viewers wish they never grew up in the first place. At the heart of this admittedly strong material is Hanks, who fully embodies the irrepressible spirit and big emotions of a kid in his early teens. It’s a completely egoless performance in every respect, relying almost purely on timing, instinct, and childlike wonder. Hanks carries the film, and he’s never had a leading performance better than the one given to him by Marshall here. Many thought he deserved his first Oscar for this film, and those people would be absolutely correct. It’s a perfect overlap of Hanks’ comedic work and his dramatic abilities, and a cultural signpost where – like a teenager leaving for high school – Hanks would start setting childish things aside for increasingly mature fare.

1. Philadelphia

Several years after Big, Hanks would get his first Oscar for portraying Andrew Beckett, a gay lawyer suffering from AIDS who sues his former employer for wrongful dismissal. It was Hanks first fully transformative performance on a visual level, and it was probably why the Oscars were more likely to take notice of his work here than they did with the more lighthearted Big. Philadelphia wasn’t the best film from late, underrated director Jonathan Demme. It isn’t even that subtle of a motion picture, often going after easily digestible points about bigotry, economic inequality, and the skewed American judicial system. Much of Philadelphia is comprised of fence swinging posturing, designed to make sure the audience catches onto what’s truly at stake here instead of leaving anything ambiguous. One doesn’t have to look further than Denzel Washington’s fiery supporting turn as Beckett’s initially homophobic counsel to see the level of “prestige project” that Philadelphia has been pitched at. So why is this Hanks’ best performance? Because in spite of the film’s other various faults and unsubtle notes, whenever Hanks’ character speaks up and voices his concerns, everything else going on around him stops. Philadelphia is an unabashed message picture, but one where the main character constantly reminds the audience that his life is at stake, and that’s all of the fighting doesn’t make him any less afraid or vulnerable. Much like his turn in Big, a lot of Hanks’ work here relies on a balance of strength and vulnerability, and both films would only be successful if the leading actor was capable enough of creating a commanding presence. Every moment of Hanks’ performance here is transfixing to a point where everything else around the character disappears when he speaks. It’s a personal and intimate piece of work, and one that should be remembered as one of the actor’s absolute best performances.

A League of Their Own, Apollo 13, Big, and Forrest Gump will screen for one week engagements at select Cineplex locations across Canada as part of Hanksfest, now running until August 2. A League of Their Own is now playing until Thursday, July 12. Big opens on Friday, July 13, Apollo 13 on July 20, and Forrest Gump on July 27. Tickets are $6.99 each, or $5 each when purchasing tickets for three or more films in the series. For a full list of Cineplex locations taking part in Hanksfest and for tickets, please visit their website.

Andrew Parker
Andrew Parker fell in love with film growing up across the street from a movie theatre. He began writing professionally about film at the age of fourteen, and has been following his passions ever since. His writing has been showcased at various online outlets, as well as in The Globe and Mail, BeatRoute, and NOW Magazine. If he's not watching something or reading something, he's probably sleeping.

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