This article was originally published in 2016 and has been updated to include Tom Hanks’s recent work.
You might say there’s a unified theory of Hanks: The actor contains multitudes, but is always Tom Hanks. As a result, he’s often accused of playing one character: the fundamentally decent, good-hearted, noble but humble all-American Everyman. There’s some truth to this, of course — Hanks wouldn’t work as Travis Bickle, no matter how hard he tried. But it’s not fair to paint Hanks as playing the same character over and over, and it certainly wouldn’t be fair to say that he doesn’t challenge himself or take chances. Hanks has transformed himself from the party dude of Bachelor Party to the romantic lead of Sleepless in Seattle to the war hero of Saving Private Ryan to the six different characters he plays, amusingly, in Cloud Atlas. The guy might only play a certain number of notes, but he always manages to make them sound unique.
Thus, we present you with our complete ranking of Tom Hanks’s 47 movies, up to and including this week’s Greyhound. A note: We limited our guide to live-action movies only, meaning Hanks’s superb turns in the four Toy Story films aren’t on the list. It goes without saying that there’s never a bad time to watch a Toy Story movie.
47. Angels and Demons (2009)
Hanks always looks a little ridiculous in these movies — and they’ve always felt like his one way to assure himself a studio hit; outside the Toy Story movies, they’re the only sequels he has ever done — but this one is preposterous and flimsy. Hanks gives low-key performances all the time, but this is the only time he has looked actively bored.
46. He Knows You’re Alone (1981)
Hanks’s movie debut was a slasher film that’s an obvious Halloween knockoff, right down to the mask and music. It’s cheapo schlock, but it’ll live forever because of Hanks’s appearance as a student who’s skeptical that the protagonist is really being stalked. His dialogue clearly sets him up to be murdered, but the filmmakers liked him so much that they decided to let his character live. Even in his first movie, Hanks was charming everybody.
45. The Man With One Red Shoe (1985)
An instantly forgettable “comedy thriller” in which Hanks plays a doofus concert pianist thrust clumsily into a murder mystery. He’s clearly dialed up a little too high in order to carry a thin, empty premise, but still, check out the supporting cast: Dabney Coleman, Charles Durning, Jim Belushi, Edward Herrmann, and a finally-done-playing-Leia (for another 30 years, anyway) Carrie Fisher.
44. The Circle (2017)
How Dave Eggers’s smart novel about technology got turned into this total mess of a movie remains a little baffling two years after its release. James Ponsoldt is a smart director who would seem to have a natural affinity to this material, the cast is once-in-a-lifetime great (Emma Watson! John Boyega! Patton Oswalt! Bill Paxton’s last role!), and the time would seem right for a good hard look at what exactly the human tolls of massive corporate tech really are. Unfortunately, the movie is a fiasco from the start, confused, disorganized, and often nonsensical; this one just appears to have gotten away from Ponsoldt. Hanks could have been a perfect fit as the supposedly wise, benevolent Steve Jobs–type character who is secretly a supervillain, but the movie can’t focus enough on him to let him do much more than make a couple of speeches and then sneer lightly when he gets his comeuppance. It’s a shame: This would have been a great Tom Hanks bad guy performance if the movie had just let it happen.
43. The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990)
“I did everything I could to make it work,” Hanks said in 1992 about this Brian De Palma debacle. “And the fallout from it was that it makes you reflect for a while. You question yourself. But what can you do? You take your shots and you swing away.” Yes, this adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s Zeitgeist-y novel was a failure, but it’s an interesting failure in lots of ways, not least of which is watching Hanks trying to play the story’s Master-of-the-Universe Wall Street operative. He has the character’s All-American features but not the toxic spirit, which fatally wounds the entire film. It’s but one problem with a high-profile bust that at least inspired a pretty good behind-the-scenes tell-all.
42. Inferno (2016)
The Robert Langdon movies are generally Hanks at his worst — not bad, necessarily, but his most complacent and going through the motions — and while this one isn’t the worst of the bunch, he doesn’t give it much extra oomph. As our colleague Jackson McHenry noted, Inferno provides a slight twist on “the young woman following Robert Langdon through historical landmarks” formula, but not in any way that justifies its existence. Please, let Hanks be done with these now.
41. The Money Pit (1986)
There were times, early on, when Hanks’s white-bread geniality would be forced to do too much of the heavy lifting, and this strained comedy with Shelley Long is a great example. The one-joke premise is that the dream house Hanks and Long have bought is falling apart, and the movie keeps trying to find new ways to make that exact point, with diminishing results. Hanks doesn’t look bored with this lane yet, but he is starting to seem a little exhausted.
40. Every Time We Say Goodbye (1986)
This was Hanks’s first attempt at “stretching” in a saccharine love story set during World War II in which he plays a soldier who loses his true love. Hanks hadn’t quite figured out how to calibrate Comedy vs. Serious yet, so he responds to this “serious” challenge by basically shutting down his charisma altogether. He would get much better at finding the balance.
39. The Great Buck Howard (2008)
In this mostly dull bauble about a kid (Colin Hanks) who works for a possibly fraudulent huckster magician (John Malkovich), Hanks shows up briefly as a skeptical dad. This is the first and only time Hanks plays the father of his real-life son Colin, and he’s amiable enough to show up and then get out of his kid’s way.
38. The ‘Burbs (1989)
A theoretically “dark” comedy about a bored suburban dad who begins to think his neighbors are murderers. There’s a lot to be mined here, but Hanks and his director, Joe Dante — who would go on to till this field far better in other movies — go way too broad way too often. The movie dissolves into nonsense by the end. In 1989, Hanks made this and that dog movie … and then wisely moved in a whole new direction.
37. Nothing in Common (1986)
Hanks plays an advertising executive whose life is turned upside down — this is the exact description of many Hanks roles at this time — when his parents (Jackie Gleason and Eva Marie Saint) get divorced and he has to take care of both of them. This is high-concept and tiresome, and Gleason, in particular, hams it up every time he’s onscreen, but this was the start of Hanks’s pivot toward a more “serious” screen persona. He’s not particularly funny in the film; he’s trying to play this one straight. Nothing in Common wasn’t the appropriate vehicle for that, but the instinct was right.
36. Volunteers (1985)
It’s tough for Hanks to play a total jerk, but he’s definitely a snobby jerk in this Nicholas Meyer comedy about a rich kid who has to escape angry creditors pursuing a gambling debt by joining the Peace Corps. There’s not much here — it was the end of an aborted Hanks-and-Candy comedy team — but it is where Hanks met his wife Rita Wilson, so there’s that.
35. Turner & Hooch (1989)
The buddy cop-with-a-dog movie that, despite being a hit, famously inspired Hanks to start reevaluating his career — making the pivot that would win him multiple Oscars — Turner & Hooch isn’t that terrible. (Well, it’s not any worse than Tango & Cash, how about that?) However, proceed with caution: If you get sad when a dog dies in a movie, you will cry a lot. (Er, spoiler alert?)
34. The Polar Express (2004)
Amazingly, this is one of two movies in which Hanks plays six characters. The technologically groundbreaking but narratively uneven Polar Express animates Chris Van Allsburg’s children’s book through what was a fancy new innovation at the time: motion-capture. The dead-eyed look of the film’s characters still haunts our dreams, but we also object to Hanks’s overly cutesy performances as the conductor, Santa Claus, and others. It’s a fine line when acting in a movie that’s meant to be magical: You get the balance wrong, and the whole thing ends up feeling aggressively adorable and self-satisfied.
33. The Da Vinci Code (2006)
Hanks and Ron Howard’s adaptation of Dan Brown’s blockbuster novel is by-the-numbers and uninspired, but it’s professionally done in a way that’s mostly inoffensive. Still, these are two ambitious and creative people, and it feels like a waste to have them going through the paces of this sort of hackery.
32. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2011)
There are many, many reasons people hate this 9/11 drama, but it’s hard to put the blame on Hanks. That’s largely because he’s barely in it, playing the dead father of the film’s autistic young hero (Thomas Horn) who goes on a quest across the city to solve a riddle his dad left for him. In flashbacks, Hanks is more than credible as a man who fears for his sensitive son, but the overt preciousness of this Oscar-nominated enterprise makes it hard to see that sincerity through the aggressive pretension.
31. Larry Crowne (2011)
Hanks’s second film as director was a bust: a well-intentioned look at working-class Americans who were rocked by the 2008 financial collapse that ended up playing patronizing and glib. He plays Larry, a normal joe who gets fired from his Walmart-like job and has to reinvent himself, falling in love with Julia Roberts’s college professor in the process. Larry Crowne is the sort of movie that makes you understand why conservatives go off on tirades about out-of-touch, liberal Hollywood stars. There isn’t a whiff of reality to this story, and Hanks is like an alien trying to play an everyman — he’s rarely seemed so uncomfortable and unconvincing.
30. Dragnet (1987)
The closest Hanks will ever come to playing Poochie, the skateboarding dog from The Simpsons. Hanks is the young, “cool” cop contrasting with Dan Aykroyd’s Joe Friday impression, and he has as much fun as you can in a silly movie in which Aykroyd considers himself the star. The major takeaway is a deeply disturbing “rap” video Aykroyd and Hanks made to promote the film. Watch at your own peril. “I’m here tonight, to rap about your rights.” Yikes.
29. Bachelor Party (1984)
Your mileage is going to vary on a lot of the Tom Hanks, Disposable Lead of Dopey ’80s Comedies, entries, but this one is definitely one of the silliest, dumbest and, amusingly, most eternal: There are movies from this time period that Hanks can hide from now, but this is definitely not one of them. After all, this is a movie in which a donkey does cocaine. Don’t see that every day.
28. That Thing You Do! (1996)
Hanks’s directorial debut — which includes his Bosom Buddies co-star Peter Scolari, plus Rita Wilson, Colin Hanks, and Elizabeth Hanks — is modest and pleasant, like you would expect it to be, even if it doesn’t add up to much. Hanks plays the world’s most benevolent music promoter, and it’s the sort of movie you dance along to; nice little background music while you do something else. If they were all like this, the world would be a much friendlier place.
27. Saving Mr. Banks (2013)
Tom Hanks playing Walt Disney in the story of how Mary Poppins got turned into a beloved film feels like money in the bank. So, what happened? Saving Mr. Banks isn’t bad so much as it’s uninspired and safe — probably an inevitable result considering that the Disney studio was behind the biopic and wanted to make sure it stayed on-brand. Still, the disappointment extends to Hanks’s portrayal. He’s a more-than-credible Walt, amplifying the man’s megawatt showmanship and gregariousness, but it doesn’t zig or zag in any interesting directions. The movie wants us to think that Disney was a super-swell genius, which pretty much guarantees that nuance, curiosity, or wit aren’t going to be part of the equation.
26. A Hologram for the King (2016)
Hanks provides some pathos to his role as a washed-up American businessman trying to close a deal in Saudi Arabia, but A Hologram for the King can’t escape the fact that it’s approximately the 1,428,721st drama about a depressed, middle-aged white guy at a spiritual crossroads. The star brings his all, but the whole enterprise is hamstrung from the start — although Hanks gets to show off his romantic leading-man side for the first time in a while opposite a very appealing Sarita Choudhury.
25. Punchline (1988)
Punchline confused audiences and critics when it came out because it was a movie about stand-up comedy that was not all that funny. That was by design, though, and the film has aged better than you might think. Hanks plays a struggling stand-up comedian who comes across a housewife (Sally Field) trying out on open-mic nights who turns out to be pretty good. Hanks resents her success but also cares for her — and, as the movie hints, he has some emotional instability issues of his own. Hanks isn’t much of a stand-up comic — you never buy that he’s any good — but he gets at the desperation at the heart of showbiz. It’s a better performance, and movie, than people appreciated at the time.
24. Road to Perdition (2002)
A hit man with soul, Michael Sullivan must protect his son (future Everybody Wants Some!! star Tyler Hoechlin) after the mob wants to rub them both out. Road to Perdition got a lot of press at the time for the fact that, hey, look, Hanks is playing a bad guy. Of course, the character isn’t really bad: He’s a gruff but concerned parent who lives by a strict moral code. Director Sam Mendes’s period crime film is suffocated by its finely manicured production design and gorgeous Conrad Hall cinematography, which gives the actors very little room to breathe. As a result, we get an intriguing curveball of a performance from Hanks, but not a great or even a particularly revealing one.
23. Cloud Atlas (2012)
Pitched to him by the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer as a combination of Moby-Dick and 2001: A Space Odyssey, Cloud Atlas is easily the most audacious film Hanks has ever made: a gonzo sci-fi epic that spans eras and languages, casting him in multiple roles. It’s also probably his most divisive, its strengths and weaknesses hopelessly linked and at war with one another. That’s just as true of Hanks’s performances, which are a warning that bad wigs and weird makeup do not good characters make. Hanks has never let loose quite the way he does in Cloud Atlas, and consequently there’s something oddly riveting about the risks he takes. But he falls flat on his face a whole lot here — and he should never, ever play a cockney again.
22. Greyhound (2020)
With its hints of Captain Phillips and Saving Private Ryan, Greyhound is a perfectly respectable Tom Hanks vehicle as he reaches his mid-60s. Playing Captain Ernest Krause, who must lead an Allied convoy during the harrowing Battle of the Atlantic, Hanks digs into this World War II drama’s righteous earnestness. (He wrote the screenplay, based on C.S. Forester’s novel.) Like the film itself, Hanks is no-nonsense as a commander who reveals little about himself between barking orders and offering steely words of encouragement to the inexperienced, frightened young men around him. Greyhound is a Dad Movie through and through, but who better to lead on this journey than America’s Beloved Father Figure? This may be glorified B-movie material about Honor and Sacrifice and American Know-How, but Hanks’s decency and quiet authority sell the damn thing very nicely.
21. The Ladykillers (2004)
Hanks’s one Coen Brothers film is perhaps their most divisive and disliked one — it’s pretty broad, even for the Coens, and it really just has one joke — but it’s not Hanks’s fault. His Goldthwaite Higginson Dorr — the character is as subtle as the name — is cartoonish and silly and way way way over the top, but Hanks is clearly having a blast playing him. Hanks’s sincerity was never going to be a good fit with the Coens, but he does his best to get on their wavelength in a goofy, game-for-anything performance. The real problem here is that Hanks brings his A-game to a period of transition for the Coens, when they weren’t quite sure what their next step was going to be. (They figured it out.)
20. You’ve Got Mail (1998)
Sleepless co-stars Hanks and Ryan went back to the rom-com well in 1998, with lesser results. Hanks gets to play the romantic hero with a little bit more of an edge this time — he’s a big-time bookstore-conglomerate CEO trying to shut down cute Meg Ryan’s little independent bookstore — but he’s still gooey in the middle and easily palatable to the older white audience that ate this up. Suffice it to say, the AOL-centric narrative hasn’t aged well, but hey … is that Dave Chappelle?
19. The Terminal (2004)
Steven Spielberg’s doodle about an optimistic, good-hearted Eastern European tourist who gets stuck in bureaucratic limbo and thus lives at New York’s JFK Airport for nearly a year is maybe a little too cute by half, but Hanks still makes you root for the guy, even when Spielberg is drowning in whimsy. That said, this has to be the most forgettable movie these two ever made together.
18. Joe Versus the Volcano (1990)
John Patrick Shanley’s funky, off-kilter romantic comedy was a little too weird for audiences at the time, but it has aged well: This story of a man (Hanks) who decides to kill himself by throwing himself into a volcano before being interrupted by a series of increasingly odd events has its own goofy rhythm that Hanks steadies and smooths out, though maybe a little too much. The fact that Hanks toplined the movie may have given the impression of its being more conventional that it is, causing people to reject it outright. It’s worth a revisit.
17. The Green Mile (1999)
The Green Mile is the sort of bloated awards-bait that doesn’t work at all unless you’ve got somebody like Tom Hanks piloting the ship. Even then, he can only do so much with the role of Paul Edgecomb, a predictably good-hearted prison guard who befriends Michael Clarke Duncan’s death-row prisoner with strange powers. The syrup is pretty thick in this three-hour-plus (!) Frank Darabont adaptation of a Stephen King inspirational drama, and thankfully Hanks steered away from this kind of mawkishness in subsequent years. Soon, he’d be traveling into weirder and darker terrain.
16. Sully (2016)
Playing Sully Sullenberger, Hanks gives a calmly assured performance that’s easy to underrate — he does a whole lot by doing not much of anything. In Clint Eastwood’s spare drama, Sullenberger has just piloted his crippled US Airways flight into the Hudson, avoiding tragedy, but now he must answer to federal investigators who question his strategy. Sully never questions the man’s heroism, but Sully himself does, and Hanks’s portrayal is one in which self-doubt eats away at the character — which, coupled with having just survived a horrifying ordeal, leaves him feeling discombobulated and adrift. Sullenberger comes across as haunted, shaken, trying to put himself back together, and Hanks makes that healing feel quietly inspiring.
15. Philadelphia (1993)
No matter the good intentions of everyone involved in this activist drama — to say nothing of its social importance — there’s no denying that Philadelphia isn’t exactly scintillating cinema. The same goes for Hanks’s performance as a lawyer diagnosed with AIDS. To be sure, it’s lovely and full of feeling, but he risks making Andrew Beckett almost too saintly, which made some sense in an era when homosexuality was viewed as a scary “other.” Hanks’s natural likability attacked that bigotry directly, and for that the performance remains incredibly meaningful. But Andrew is more symbol than great character — a significant time-capsule relic slightly diminished by the fortunate evolution of human thinking about sexuality and AIDS.
14. Catch Me If You Can (2002)
You could argue that Hanks’s character is only the third-most interesting in this Steven Spielberg biopic about professional con man Frank Abagnale. (Rising star Leonardo DiCaprio has the showier role as Abagnale, and Christopher Walken, playing his hard-luck father, got the Oscar nomination.) But Hanks does commendable supporting work as a nerdy FBI agent on Abagnale’s trail — essentially playing the sort of conventional square whose mediocre life frightens the restless, rootless Abagnale. What’s funniest about Catch Me If You Can is how it represented a permanent shift in Hanks’s persona: The bratty upstart from Dragnet was now old enough (and established enough) to be the just-the-facts-ma’am law-and-order type. Still, there’s a twinkle in Hanks’s eye. Even as a square, he’s so damn likable.
13. Splash (1984)
A massive hit that essentially launched the film careers of Hanks, Daryl Hannah, and Ron Howard, Splash is funny and sharp, particularly when it takes its fish-out-of-water premise literally and lets Hannah’s mermaid try to interact with mid-’80s New York City. There are some parts that might be called “problematic” today — and there’s always been an argument that Hanks and sidekick John Candy should have switched roles — but this, as much anything else, was what initially sold everyone on Hanks. Even when he’s being a jerk (and he’s a jerk a lot in the movie), you can’t help but be on his side.
12. Sleepless in Seattle (1993)
If movies like Sleepless in Seattle were all Hanks ever made, we wouldn’t hold the actor in such high esteem. And yet, c’mon, it’s so hard to resist him as Sam, the puppy-dog widower who will fall for a newspaper reporter (Meg Ryan) with a fondness for An Affair to Remember. Sprinkled with fairy dust and charm by late director Nora Ephron, Sleepless in Seattle is the epitome of feel-good, wish-fulfillment Hollywood love stories, and Hanks gives it a grounding that it very much needs. He’s sensitive and appealing — as unthreatening as the nice guy next door with a decency and cuteness that made him crush-worthy.
11. Charlie Wilson’s War (2007)
Charlie Wilson was a hard-partying, womanizing Texas congressman who helped arm the mujahideen against the invading Russians during the 1980s. It’s a too-good-to-be-true real-life tale, and Hanks (who also produced) has a ball playing a sonuvabitch who’s been wasting his life until he finds a cause worthy of his talents. Charlie Wilson’s War is deeply flawed — director Mike Nichols and writer Aaron Sorkin oversell the movie’s “colorful” world of vulgar CIA operatives and sassy Texas socialites — but Hanks gives the cartoonish story a moral center without sacrificing the tale’s more unbelievable moments and its dark punch line: Wilson’s seemingly patriotic actions will sow the seeds for Middle Eastern terrorism against the West.
10. Bridge of Spies (2015)
Hanks’s innate decency plays a part in several films, but it’s delivered in a different way in this underrated Cold War drama. Hanks is Donovan, an insurance lawyer asked to defend a Russian spy (Oscar winner Mark Rylance), in the process learning that he alone wants to be sure the accused gets a fair trial. Bridge of Spies is a movie about negotiation and compromise — about what principles we’re willing to sacrifice and which ones we can’t — and Donovan is heroic not because he’s the guy with the halo but because he’s shrewder and more determined than everyone he comes across. This is Hanks as World-Weary Veteran Movie Star, and he gives it an effortless swagger.
9. A League of Their Own (1992)
Beefing up for his role as Jimmy Dugan, the alcoholic manager of a women-only baseball team, Hanks gets to play the lovable crank, the kind of part he didn’t do much after becoming a major movie star. A League of Their Own catches the actor in an interesting in-between spot in his career — he was rebounding from the failure of Bonfire of the Vanities, but not yet at the stage where he’d win back-to-back Oscars — and as such, it’s kind of a hoot to see him just bark at characters and be downright ornery. Of course, Dugan’s got a good heart underneath, and it’s the sort of one-note character that could have easily drifted into caricature, but Hanks elevates him through sheer force of his charisma and sweetness.
8. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019)
Mr. Rogers is not in fact the main character in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood — that would be Matthew Rhys’s self-hating magazine journalist with daddy issues — and the movie benefits accordingly: Mr. Rogers, as played by Hanks, is so alien and unchanging and downright odd that building a plot around him would leave the movie nowhere to go. But that supporting shot of Hanks is the perfect amount: Hanks might be a little bit too big and a little bit too modern to truly inhabit Rogers, but the way he conjures his spirit, that quiet grace, is uncanny and even quite moving. Hanks never reaches for effect and remains spiritually and physically calm: His Mr. Rogers is unknowable, unfathomable, but absolutely irresistible. When a Mr. Rogers movie was announced, Hanks was such a logical choice the film nearly cast itself. But his performance, like the movie, has more going on than just stunt casting: It’s rigorous, well thought through, and just lovely.
7. The Post (2017)
Late in his career, Hanks has become such an instant audience surrogate — a quiet subtext to his performances is always Tom Hanks is here so it’s going to be okay — that you can almost overlook how strong he is as Ben Bradlee here. He’s taking over the role that Jason Robards won an Oscar playing in All the President’s Men, and while he has a little bit of the Robards gristle, he adds that special Hanks ingredient: sincerity. You never once believe Tom Hanks is on the wrong side here; that Hanks’s Bradlee is willing to question himself — is willing to admit his own mistakes — makes him that much easier, and important, to cheer for. Hanks has added a bit of lovable irascibility in his later roles, and he wears it well. It’s actually sort of amazing he has never played a journalist before: It fits him like a lightly rumpled old suit.
6. Big (1988)
This was the one that made everybody realize: Oh, Hanks isn’t just a comedy guy, he could maybe be the biggest movie star in the world. As the boy who gets his wish to be big, Hanks gives a glorious, hilarious, and sweet performance as a 12-year-old in a grown-up’s body. He’s limber and wild and untethered — it’s one of his best physical comedy performances — but he never lets you forget there’s a scared little kid in there. Hanks didn’t win Best Actor* for this performance, even though the movie was a huge hit, which was seen by many at the time as a sign that comedy was never going to be given a break by the Academy. Nevertheless, this performance is guaranteed to bring a smile to your face.
5. Apollo 13 (1995)
There is a chance that, if you haven’t seen this Best Picture nominee in a while, all you remember of it is Hanks’s Jim Lovell saying, “Houston, we have a problem.” Go back and watch Apollo 13 and you’ll see Hanks eschewing the flash of his then-recent Oscar-winning portrayals for a no-nonsense turn as a mission commander who is bound and determined to keep his crew (Bill Paxton, Kevin Bacon) focused as they and Mission Control figure out how to get their crippled vessel home. This is a performance that’s easy to shortchange, but Hanks imbues it with endlessly stirring, stripped-down authority. He makes not losing your shit in the midst of a crisis feel heroic.
4. Cast Away (2000)
The closest Hanks has gotten to a Robert De Niro–like physical transformation, Cast Away found the star playing a FedEx executive who goes through a personal metamorphosis after he’s the lone survivor of a plane crash. Taking time off from shooting so that he could lose a massive amount of weight for the island sequences, Hanks exudes the sense of spiritual isolation that first maroons the character but then gives him a new reason to go on living. This might be his most intimate and elemental performance, his primary scene partner being a volleyball, and Hanks finds a raw, slightly terrifying urgency within his good-guy persona that suggests that even the best of us have a breaking point.
3. Forrest Gump (1994)
This Best Picture winner’s litany of famous lines — “Run, Forrest, Run,” “Life is like a box of chocolates,” “Jenny” — risks reducing the movie to a series of quotables as simple as the man Hanks played to earn his second Oscar. But the beauty of his performance is in how it both satirizes a divisive period in American history while also underlining the sincerity and optimism that’s always been part of our national character. Sure, that’s a corny notion, but it took an actor who could transform that sentimentality into something stirring and true, and nobody on the planet was better suited for the role than Hanks.
2. Captain Phillips (2013)
Hanks’s terrified, vulnerable turn as the eponymous Captain Phillips is another prime example of his ordinary men in extraordinary circumstances.* Hanks’s Phillips is a good captain but also a flawed one, and one who is constantly adjusting to events that are entirely out of his control. He does his best just to stay alive, but when the ordeal is finally over and he is able to take stock, he breaks down in the most raw, wrenching scene of Hanks’s whole career. It’s a measured, calculated performance that builds to a moment of almost overwhelming power.
1. Saving Private Ryan (1998)
When we first see Captain Miller, his hands are shaking as he puts his canteen to his lips before beginning the D-day assault on Normandy. He’s scared, as would anyone be in that situation. The greatness of Saving Private Ryan can be measured in many ways — the harrowing brilliance of its opening battle sequence, the stunning desaturated images of war rendered by cinematographer Janusz Kamiński — but it’s ultimately a very human story, which is why Steven Spielberg cast Hollywood’s most reliable and relatable everyman star in the role. As the film pounds along and the body count builds, we learn that Miller was the kind of American hero World War II probably produced a lot of: an ordinary guy back home who turned himself into a leader of men because the fate of the planet hung in the balance. Hanks is as stripped-down as the landscape, hoping that rescuing Ryan will be enough to get him home and forget all this terrible killing. His death in the final moments haunts you long after the film’s over, with Hanks paying tribute to a lot of good soldiers who went off to safeguard freedom and never saw America again.