Tom Cruise's Best Movie Performance From Every Decade Since The '80s

Tom Cruise in Tropic Thunder
(Image credit: DreamWorks Pictures)

Mickey Rourke made headlines not too long when he said some not-so-nice things about Tom Cruise's career. But, upon creating this list, I'd have to disagree with Rourke's opinion that Cruise has been playing "the same effing part for 35 years," because honestly, he really hasn't. 

In fact, Tom Cruise actually has a pretty diverse list of roles in his filmography. So much so, that I'm kind of blown away by just how many unique roles the superstar has taken on over the past 40 years or so. Plus, with movies like Top Gun: Maverick, which is still making plenty of money at the box office, and the upcoming Mission: Impossible 7, where it legit looks like Tom Cruise came close to dying a few times, he doesn't look to be ending his career anytime soon. So, here are the best Tom Cruise movie performances from every decade since the '80s. How many of these classics have you seen?     

Tom Cruise in Born on the Fourth of July

(Image credit: Universal Pictures)

'80s: Born on the Fourth of July (1989) 

In Oliver Stone's second movie in his Vietnam trilogy, Tom Cruise got his first Oscar nomination for Best Actor, though he lost to Daniel Day Lewis in My Left Foot. That said, Cruise's portrayal of a gung-ho, all-American boy who wants to fight in Vietnam, only to ultimately become paralyzed and disillusioned with his country is a performance for the ages. 

Tom Cruise goes through a wide range of emotions throughout the movie, from victim to activist, and it just goes to show that Cruise isn't just an actor who stiffly runs away from explosions. He's the real deal! 

'80s movie runner up-Rain Man (1988) 

When we did our list of 10 Tom Cruise movies that prove he's more than an action star, the one movie that really sticks out to me is Rain Man. And that's because even though everybody likes to point out Dustin Hoffman's Oscar-winning performance, it's Tom Cruise who's really carrying that movie. Cruise plays a selfish, egotistical car dealer who, throughout the course of the film, learns to drop his guard and let his brother back into his life. Yes, Hoffman is incredible in his performance, but it's Tom Cruise's character who has the biggest change, and thus, it’s really his story in the end.    

Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman in Eyes Wide Shut

(Image credit: Warner Bros.)

'90s: Eyes Wide Shut (1999) 

Fun fact, but Eyes Wide Shut is the first Rated-R movie that I ever saw in the theaters by myself. I mean, how could I not? Stanley Kubrick made some of the best movies ever, so it was an honor to see Kubrick's very last film on the big screen. But, I had no idea at the time that Tom Cruise could play such a jealous, sex-starved man who would willingly try to get into a secret society where people wear masks and have orgies.   

But, he did do a movie like that, and it's Eyes Wide Shut. Kubrick's final film is one of Cruise's best performances since the whole movie is a maddening erotic thriller, and Cruise plays the part of the jealous husband who is both titillated and terrified by this new world he's entering. Nicole Kidman -- who was married to Tom Cruise at the time -- is also excellent in it, making it both a time capsule of their marriage, and also showcasing a time when Tom Cruise didn't mind shedding his movie star image for something dark and sinister.  

'90s movie runner-Jerry Maguire (1996) 

And then, on the complete opposite side of the spectrum is Cameron Crowe's Jerry Maguire, a romantic comedy sports drama about an agent who fails in both love and work, but ultimately wins out in the end. Jerry Maguire is absolute proof of Tom Cruise's range as an actor when juxtaposed with Eyes Wide Shut, since he's actually lovable and fun in Jerry Maguire, as opposed to being distant, and borderline misanthropic in Eyes Wide Shut. There's a reason why he was nominated for Best Actor for this film. You can't not love him in this movie.  

Tom Cruise in Collateral

(Image credit: DreamWorks Pictures)

2000s: Collateral (2004) 

Very likable Tom Cruise had definitely played unlikable characters in the past, like the doctor in Eyes Wide Shut, or the motivational speaker in 1999's Magnolia, but he never played an all-out villain like he did in Michael Mann's Collateral. In the film, Cruise played a hitman who gave a taxi driver (Jamie Foxx) the night from hell as he assassinated his targets one by one. 

Cruise played a stone cold killer in the movie with aplomb, and it was actually quite terrifying to see how easily he could slip into the role of a killer. To this day, I still want to see more villainous turns out of Tom Cruise. He's really good at it!

'2000s movie runner up: Tropic Thunder (2008) 

Tom Cruise has been in comedies before -- I mean, one of his biggest early roles was Risky Business back in the '80s. But, he's always been cool, no matter what movie he was in. Well, in 2008's satirical comedy, Tropic Thunder, Tom Cruise was definitely not cool as studio exec, Les Grossman. In the role, he pounded down Diet Cokes and cursed a lot.

The performance is also completely fearless in making himself look like a tremendous jerk. When Tom Cruise finally decides to pack it all in and leave acting for good, I'm pretty sure that Les Grossman will be the role that shows that Tom Cruise, for at least one movie, could be utterly unlikable, but hilarious at the same time. 

Tom Cruise in American Made

(Image credit: Universal Pictures)

'2010s: American Made (2017) 

Tom Cruise once spoke about his interest in being in American Made and how he was fascinated by the real-life figure that the film was based off of, Barry Seal. That said, if you actually research Seal, you'll find that he and Cruise couldn't be any further apart when it comes to looks. That said, the story of Barry Seal is so larger-than-life that it feels like only a bona fide star like Tom Cruise could possibly play the part.

And he plays it with gusto! Cruise makes Seal, who is said to have been working for the CIA as a pilot, into a likable rogue. He's our entry point into this world of crime, and he is an excellent entry point at that. You feel safe with him in these very unsafe conditions, and if that isn't acting, then I don't know what is. 

'2010s movie runner up-Mission: Impossible-Rogue Nation (2015) 

And lastly, I want to talk about the Mission: Impossible movies, since this is the kind of action-heavy stuff that Mickey Rourke may have been referring to when he commented on Cruise's career, but honestly, Cruise is GOOD at doing action movies, and the Mission: Impossible films are consistently excellent.  

I want to focus on Mission: Impossible-Rogue Nation, which our very own Mike Reyes called "the best film of the summer" at the time of its release. And I tend to agree with Mike, especially since Rogue Nation arguably had Cruise's most intense stunt at the time of him hanging onto the side of a plane as it was taking off. The fact that Cruise is not only willing to act his heart out, but also put his safety on the line for our entertainment just goes to show how lucky we are to have Tom Cruise in our lives. He's done it all! 

And, that's the list. But, what is your favorite Tom Cruise performance over the years? For more news on Cruise and other great actors, make sure to swing around here often.  

Rich Knight
Content Producer

Rich is a Jersey boy, through and through. He graduated from Rutgers University (Go, R.U.!), and thinks the Garden State is the best state in the country. That said, he’ll take Chicago Deep Dish pizza over a New York slice any day of the week. Don’t hate. When he’s not watching his two kids, he’s usually working on a novel, watching vintage movies, or reading some obscure book.