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Every Tom Hanks Movie, Ranked Worst to Best

From WWII heroes to hired killers, Forrest Gump to Fred Rogers — we rank every one of the Oscar winner’s roles

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When Brian Grazer was recently asked by the New York Times to say a few things about Tom Hanks, the producer recalled a conversation he was having with some colleagues about a project they were putting together in the mid-’90s. They wanted to retell the story of Apollo 13’s perilous, aborted journey to the moon; common sense and studio suits dictated that they get not just a star in the role, but the kind of matinee-idol, action-movie posterboy that would get people cheering in the aisles and spilling their popcorn. Grazer listened to everyone weigh in, then asked them: Who does the world want to save the most? The unanimous answer: Tom Hanks.

For decades now, the 63-year-old actor has been the movies’ A-list everyman of choice, Hollywood’s Mr. Nice Guy, one half of a showbiz power couple and the kind of real-life Good Samaritan that inspires by example. When he announced via Instagram that he and his wife Rita Wilson had contracted the coronavirus when he was in Australia filming Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis biopic (Hanks was cast as Colonel Tom Parker), it not only made the pandemic suddenly feel horribly real but became a national drama: America’s dad has COVID-19? Not Tom! And when they finally made it back to Los Angeles after inching down the road to recovery, surprise-hosting a remote SNL episode and giving a commencement speech via Zoom, you could practically hear a collective sigh of relief. You can’t go yet, Tom. We still need you.

He’s such a beloved figure, in fact, that it’s easy to forget the multiple Oscar-winner is more than just the sum of his sweet attributes, and is not just a movie star — i.e., the kind of marquee name that you go to for the same comfortable screen qualities time and again — but one hell of a versatile performer as well. And he’s such a totem of modern American filmmaking that it’s just as easy to forget he was not always on Hollywood’s version of Mt. Rushmore — this is also the guy who made those Dan Brown blockbusters, costarred in a buddy-cop with a slobbering pooch and has had his share of career low points. It hasn’t all been Forrest Gump fun and games. You do not spend four decades in this industry without a Dragnet or two.

Given his recovery and the fact that the three — three! — movies we were supposed to get from him in 2020 (the WWII drama Greyhound, the sci-fi headscratcher BIOS, and the Western News of the World) may not screen until next year, we figured it was time to look back at Hanks’ career as a whole and re-view the good, the bad, and the occasionally ugly.

Here are the man’s movies ranked from worst to best — the goofy comedies and award-winning dramas, the franchise-starring turns and cameos in indies, the cheerworthy and the cringeworthy. (We judged the rankings via a combination of how good the movie was overall; how good the actor was in the film specifically, and several random consultations of the I Ching.) Hanks for the memories, sir. We’re so glad you’re feeling better.

From Rolling Stone US


‘Forrest Gump’ (1994)

It ain’t easy playing a holy fool, much less one who has to passively float through the turbulent waters of the 20th century. There is a whole hell of a lot to take issue with in regards to Robert Zemeckis’ Oscar-winning, stupid-is-as-stupid-does riff on Candide, from its reductive spin of complex political events to drowning its narrative in heavy-handed irony and cringeworthy aphorisms (if we have to hear about life being like a box of chocolates one more time…). Tom Hanks’ portrayal of the title’s American idiot-cum-success story, however, is not one of those things. This may be one of the greatest reactive screen performances ever, with the star deadpanning, 1000-yard staring and/or wide-eying his way through history — sometimes literally, courtesy of a VFX team that drops Hanks into yesteryear’s grainy newsreel footage. Yet he somehow makes Forrest feel like a fleshed-out character, even if he is a guy who blindly lucks into meeting presidents, getting a “right on” from Abbie Hoffman and becoming a ping-ping champion and a fitness guru. Gump’s inability to comprehend the world around him doesn’t hinder his loyalty to friends, or his unconditional love for Robin Wright’s take-advantage-of-the-new-freedoms martyr; Hanks gets that the no brains, all heart aspect of this hapless hero plays like a feature and not a bug in Eric Roth’s script. Whether you think that’s an effective prism through which to view three decades of American life is a subjective call. But a lot of actors would have been tempted to play Gump bumbling and broad. Hanks plays him like a blank slate, and somehow makes the tour guide of an often shallow film feel remarkably deep.


‘Cast Away’ (2000)

Ask yourself this question: How many actors can believably best-buddy bond with a volleyball? Hanks and Robert Zemeckis reunited for this survivalist tale of a Fed-Ex analyst whose flight crashes into the Pacific Ocean. Washing up on the shore of a deserted island, he’s forced to spend years going full Robinson Crusoe. Never known as a Method-y actor, Hanks decided to gain an extra 40 pounds before shooting started; for his last months on the island, production shut down so he could then lose roughly 70 pounds and grow an appropriately scraggly, unkempt beard. What’s more impressive than his physical transformation, however, is the way Hanks singlehandedly shoulders the bulk of the drama. He’s the only person onscreen for over half the movie’s running time — his main costar is that aforementioned ball named Wilson, and even those man-meets-sporting-goods sequences are heartbreaking. Most folks key in to his big scenes — the dancing around the fire, the reunion with Helen Hunt, the “Keep breathing” speech — but even Hanks’ little moments are gems. Observe the look on his face when, after years of crafting handmade tools, he’s handed a Swiss Army knife. Priceless.


‘Catch Me If You Can’ (2002)

Steven Spielberg’s portrait of a scam artist — not just any con man, but Frank Abagnale Jr., who successfully floated checks and impersonated an airline pilot, a lawyer and a doctor — is a genuine fake-it-til-you-make-it epic, and a reminder that this is a filmmaker who loves a good feature-length chase (see: Duel, The Sugarland Express, Jaws.) Leonardo DiCaprio’s handsome, resourceful smooth criminal is our “hero” here, while Hanks gets to play the square authority figure: FBI agent Carl Hanratty, who’ll stop at nothing to catch his prey. He’s the Javert to his Leo’s Jean Valjean, the fly in the forger’s ring-a-ding ointment. But he was also someone who ended up counterbalancing Frank Sr.’s criminal influences, and a sort of photo-negative father figure to Abagnale — which allows Hanks to take this character to some interesting places. You see the doggedness in the cat-and-mouse games Hanratty takes part in and the exasperation as his man keeps slipping through his fingers. But you also see sympathy, a begrudging respect, possibly even a smidge of envy and a paternal concern by the end. That’s courtesy of Hanks. You dig how DiCaprio lets you ride next to this professional faker, but you admire how his costar keeps bringing him back down to earth. The older actor is the real deal here.


‘Captain Phillips’ (2013)

This true-life tale of a U.S. freight-ship being captured by Somali pirates — with its captain, Richard Philips, taken hostage by his captors as they flee the authorities — is one nerve-jangling hijacking procedural, courtesy of director Paul Greengrass’ you-are-there method of filmmaking. But make no mistake: This is Hanks’ movie, and for all of the shaky-cam sound and fury, the actor never plays second fiddle to stylistics. Quite the opposite — he dominates every moment he’s up there, outwitting and/or appealing to his abductors. You can see Philips’ mind at work as he realizes what’s happening, and keeps trying to outmaneuver the pirates’ skiff; then, once he begins bargaining with his Somali counterpart (played by Oscar-nominated Barkhad “I Am the Captain Now” Abdi), you can see him try to camouflage the mental chess game he’s playing in order to save his crew and survive. It’s an extraordinary push-pull of a performance, and one that hits its apex in what’s arguably Hanks’ finest three minutes onscreen: a climactic (and chillingly realistic) portrait of a PTSD breakdown.


‘Philadelphia’ (1993)

“My screen persona is pretty much non-threatening,” Hanks recalled in the documentary The Celluloid Closet, regarding his part in Jonathan Demme’s drama. “And because of that, this idea of a gay man with AIDS is not scary…[and] part of it is Li’l Tommy Hanks is playing the role.” This studio movie about an AIDS-afflicted lawyer suing his firm for wrongful termination was partially designed to put a human face on the epidemic, which meant the star essentially had to flesh out a character and become the mainstream’s symbolic martyr for every person who was living with (and died from) the disease. Yet for all of the movie’s gravitas, you never feel like Hanks is giving a heavy-handed performance — there’s a surprising deftness to his scenes of confronting politely delivered prejudices, or making peace between his lover Antonio Banderas and the unforgiving world around them, and sparring with Denzel Washington’s homophobic attorney. Even those who thought the movie was merely a Hollywoodized representation of the plague admired the portrayal. Hanks deserved the Oscar (his first) that he won for it. Philadelphia gives the actor plenty of stage on which to rage, notably an appreciation of a Maria Callas aria that the star matches beat for operatic beat. But it’s a close-up of Hanks — and few directors were more adept at using close-ups than Demme — as he leaves Washington’s office and the hope drains out of his eyes, that truly breaks you in half.


‘Splash’ (1984)

It’s your run-of-the-mill boy-meets-mermaid love story — only the mermaid is Daryl Hannah (who you may now notice has experienced some odd hair growth), the boy is one half of the wacky duo from Bosom Buddies, and Ron Howard’s romantic fantasy was anything but typical. The part of Allen Bauer, the produce-business schlub who is reunited with the gorgeous sea creature who saved his life as a boy, had already been offered to a host of big-time actors; even though Hanks had got to know Howard through his Happy Days connections, he wasn’t the producers first choice. And when he did his first table read, Hanks had apparently pitched all of his dialogue at “sitcommy” level. Howard told him his job wasn’t to get laughs but, per the star, “to love the girl.” It turned out he could do both really, really well, and overnight, that guy from the TV show leveled up. You can still see some some of the boob-tube broadness in his acting, especially in his scenes with John Candy as his sleazy playboy brother (it’s a crime these guys only made two. movies together). But once he and Hannah pair up, his inner leading man immediately starts shining through — it’s like a screwball-era Cary Grant and Harold Lloyd had a kid. By the time the pair are rushing through the streets of New York to get his lady love back to the water, he’s no longer the guy who wore a dress at 8pm on Thursday nights. A movie star is born.


‘Sleepless in Seattle’ (1993)

It’s been a year since his wife passed, and Sam Baldwin (Hanks) is still wallowing in his grief. On Christmas Eve, his worried, precocious eight-year-old son Jonah (Ross Malinger) calls a national radio show and puts his dad on the air. Nicknamed “Sleepless in Seattle,” Sam becomes the recipient of thousands of proposals; it’s the letter from a Baltimore Sun reporter named Annie (Meg Ryan), moved by the broadcast, that catches Jonah’s attention. Never mind the thousand of miles between them, or her fiancé, or this potential new flame Dad’s started dating, or what their respective best friends (played by Banterin’ Rob Reiner and Quippin’ Rosie O’Donnell) say, or the fact that men don’t understand the eternal appeal of An Affair to Remember. These two have a date with destiny on the observation deck of the Empire State Building. Hanks had already established his romantic comedy bona fides, but this is where he officially becomes the genre’s sex symbol du jour. He knows exactly how to make Sam sympathetic without being a total sad sack, and how to be lovelorn without seeming louche. May we all find someone who looks at us the way Hanks looks at Ryan when he first sees her in the airport, unaware of she is. And though they spend extremely little screen time together, their chemistry in the film’s final scenes demonstrates why people loved them as a screen couple. His costar (and Nora Ephron’s script) brings out the best in him.