Hanks is often compared to the late actor Jimmy Stewart. Hanks has that same likability, the same everyman quality. But his film career has followed a very different trajectory. Stewart never had the opportunity to work in the variety of film genres that Hanks has explored. Hanks' forays haven't always been successful. His odd performance in the 2004 remake of The Ladykillers, for instance, was painful to witness, and going back further, audiences were turned off by his portrayal of a nasty standup comedian in 1988's Punchline. But the sheer variety of roles evidenced in just his 10 best movies, listed here, makes it abundantly clear how the star has refused to fall back on the qualities that made him a star in the beginning. That's smart, and that more than anything helps explain why Hanks' celebrity has endured. He's worked hard to keep it.
10. Toy Story 1, 2 and 3 (1995, 1999, 2010)
The Toy Story franchise shows up at No. 10 because it only represents Hanks' voice work, and because celebrity voices in animated films are routinely overemphasized. These movies would've been just as popular without Hanks' involvement. Still, the immense popularity of the films, and their obvious quality, say a lot about the actor. Not every movie star chooses wisely every time, but Hanks has made enough strong choices over time to assure himself of one of the longest, and most envied, acting careers in Hollywood today. Few actors have the opportunity to cherry-pick for roles as he does. And few have done it as wisely.
9. A League of Their Own (1992)
It’s not unusual for leading men to take supporting roles, just to mix things up. Hanks has been no exception. He’s always been satisfied with smaller roles if they were good ones, and the baseball manager in this heartwarming flick by Hanks' Big director Penny Marshall was one such role. Hanks' character is older, rude, kind of a slob, everything Hanks himself was not, but he plays the role convincingly. Watching the film, you just smile every time he comes on screen.
8. Splash (1984)
All successful actors have their breakthrough picture, the role that made them a star. It's rare when that film is still remembered fondly, or remembered at all, decades later. Splash feels unmistakably dated today. Watching it, one can't help ponder how far director Ron Howard has come since then, how this is one of the few movies Daryl Hannah is remembered for despite her long film career, and how much the late John Candy is missed. But look at Hanks' performance, and you'll see everything that made him such an endurable talent — his comic timing, his ability to elicit empathy, just the way he holds the screen. He brought it all right out of the gate. No wonder he became a star.
7. Forrest Gump (1994)
Even more remarkable than the fact that this film won six Oscars, including Best Actor for Hanks, is the quality of competition it beat out. Films such as Shawshank Redemption and Pulp Fiction have aged well. Forrest Gump has not, but even the reception it received upon release was decidedly mixed. The story makes us cry when we should laugh, laugh when we should cry. It appears to make fun of the mentally disabled. Some have even compared the title character to Gone With the Wind's Scarlett O'Hara, which just goes to show how hard people have struggled to understand this bizarre movie, or justify why they like it. Still, Hanks gives a perfectly fine performance in it.
6. That Thing You Do! (1996)
Hanks only had a supporting part in the film, but the poor reception for That Thing You Do! still stung, given that it was his writing/directing debut, and because Hanks had to know the movie was pretty good. The rest of the world has now caught up to this as well; such is the strange lifespan a motion picture can sometimes have. The film is not concerned with weighty matters. It follows the arc of a small-time band from Erie, Pennsylvania, in the 1960s, from instant fame to just as immediate oblivion. It's a comedy starring actors mostly unknown at the time, and the direction is nothing special. But the writing is. In the words of the record exec Hanks plays in the film, it's definitely something snappy.
5. Apollo 13 (1995)
Actors make movies for lots of reasons. Yes, often it's for the money. Hanks got involved in this film, about 1970’s aborted moon mission, to work again with Ron Howard, the director who made Hanks a star with Splash, and to engage his passion for space travel. The film was written, directed and acted with such honesty and dedication to the facts, without hyperbole or gimmickry, that it's destined to remain timeless. Hanks, who had by now won two Oscars and was perceived as the quintessential leading man, was aptly cast as commander Jim Lovell. He doesn't disappoint. His portrayal of authority, of grace under pressure, is what being an Apollo astronaut was all about.
4. Big (1988)
Lists like this tend to smooth over the fact that every actor, even top-notch stars such as Hanks, has at least three bad movies on their resume for every superlative one. Big came after Dragnet for Hanks and before Joe Versus the Volcano. It was a mere copycat flick, just another age-shifting comedy when the theaters were full of them in the late 1980s (who can forget Judge Reinhold and Fred Savage in Vice Versa?). The reason Big is remembered is because of its heart. Director Penny Marshall had a lot to do with that, but Hanks' take on young adolescence, minutely observed, honest and real, is instantly recognizable. Quite simply, he found the kid still in all of us.
3. Cast Away (2000)
The mystique of getting stranded on an island is powerful, but it's rarely dramatized on the big screen because, frankly, who wants to watch some guy sit around by himself on an island for two hours? If that man is played by Tom Hanks, lots of people. Although this film was a moderate commercial and critical success, that recognition failed to do justice to Hanks' feat here. Never mind the striking weight loss and the monstrous beard; he successfully carried the entire movie on his shoulders (Wilson the volleyball has no lines). Great storytelling puts us in the characters' shoes, encourages us to ponder how we would respond in such a situation. This film did just that.
2. Saving Private Ryan (1998)
So many films have been made about World War II, dating back to before the war was over, that they had long been a genre by the time Saving Private Ryan came along. And it enjoyed perfect timing. Hollywood wasn't making movies about the conflict in the late 1990s, and Steven Spielberg's Ryan helped draw attention to WWII veterans just as they were passing away at an increasing rate. Like most war films, it's an ensemble piece, with fine work by a great many actors, but Hanks' performance is the heart and soul of the picture. When his secretive Capt. John H. Miller breaks down and tells his men who he was back home it brings a lump to the throat, a moment that is just one of many.
1. Philadelphia (1993)
It's a rite of passage when an actor largely known as a comedian takes that first stab at a dramatic role. Philadelphia was about more than Hanks' first successful dramatic performance, however (1990's The Bonfire of the Vanities is best forgotten); it was the big screen's first look at how AIDS was affecting America's gay population at the time, an important film. Hanks' portrayal of a gay man with AIDS mattered, too, enough to earn him his first Oscar. The speech he gave upon accepting it stands as one of the most eloquent in Academy Awards history.