Decades later, it’s still a telling fact that one of Tom Hanks’ key breakout roles was as an overgrown kid in Penny Marshall’s Big. That’s the Tom Hanks I’ve seen on the late night shows, the one who decides to star in the video for Carly Rae Jepsen’s “I Really Like You” and lip synch much of the cheesy lyrics in the same year that he does some of his best work to date in Steven Spielberg’s undervalued Bridge of Spies. He’s still a kid in an adult’s body, but he’s become better at acting like an adult when he needs to, more able to act serious when it’s called for and discuss “adult” subject matter when asked about such things. Underneath it all though, there is an exuberance that hasn’t quit in three decades that is at the heart of why he remains one of the most bankable movie stars out there.
Mind you, this honed adult routine has not always benefitted him. When he plays the self-serious, charmless detective of Ron Howard’s astoundingly misguided Dan Brown adaptations, he feels cold, as if he’s put himself on autopilot just to get through the shooting days. And though his acting in something like Saving Mr. Banks is still dutiful and endearing in a certain way, it reveals a level of business-minded blindness in how he picks his scripts, as one needs to stretch the imagination mighty far to believe Walt “I Heart Hitler” Disney as such a fluffy concoction of character. In comparison, the theatrical-bordering-on-cartoonish extravagances of his myriad performances in the Wachowski siblings’ Cloud Atlas feels adventurous and attuned to a more ambitious part of his instinct as a A-list Hollywood actor.
Adulthood hasn’t always steered him completely wrong (see: Saving Private Ryan, Captain Philips, etc.), but his most vital performances have balanced the duties and responsibilities of being a husband and/or father with the strangeness and inventiveness that’s often tied to youthful energy, which is so often bonded to boundless thought. This is the acting we’ve seen in such blockbusters as Cast Away and A League of Their Own, as well as out-and-out oddities like Joe Dante’s The ‘Burbs and the Coen brothers’ undervalued remake of The Ladykillers. There’s palpable anxiousness with the serious tenants of adulthood in all these films, a wanting to subvert the vision of stern masculinity through madness, corruption, and curiosity. And with very few exceptions, including his long-awaited teaming with Clint Eastwood on Sully, that’s the Tom Hanks I look forward to showing up in movies: the man who refuses to fully embrace the popularly accepted vision of an adulthood that he nevertheless seems well-suited to.
So in celebration of this beloved actor, I decided to rank and explain my top ten favorite performances by Hanks.
[Note: This feature was initially published at a prior date, but we’re pushing it again to celebrate Hanks’ birthday today.]