The daunting thing about working on the second half of this post – the first segment, which covers the lesser half of Tom Hanks’ lengthy and eclectic career, can be found and enjoyed here – is knowing that no matter what we say, we’re going to tick someone off. Ironically, that’s also one of the exciting things about writing it – because as graduates of the MamaPop School of Contrarian Typing, we savor the opportunity to
elicit differing opinions engage in productive dialogue exchange opposing viewpoints with mutual respect mock those who disagree with us write absurdly long two-part posts as an excuse to spotlight just how awesome Joe Versus The Volcano is hear your feedback.
That said, we should note (and do so now, with no little pride) that a grand total of ZERO MamaPop readers expressed outrage at the suggestion that The Da Vinci Code kinda sucked. This just goes to prove that you are all readers of great distinction and taste, and subsequently we presume you will all find a plethora of colorful points to agree with in the following definitive list of the 16(ish) best films Tom Hanks ever made. Allons-y!
16. You’ve Got Mail (1998)
On some levels it’s an easy film to mock, because by the time it was released the whole idea of “A romantic comedy starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan” was kind of a cliché – and also because, as it happens, it’s also the least of the three movies they made together. That said… it’s not at all a bad film. Yes, it’s a big budget remake of an old Jimmy Stewart film called The Shop Around The Corner (which, to be honest, I’ve never seen), with the storyline updated to accommodate the up-to-the-1998-minute idea of recasting epistolary romance to incorporate AOL’s then-ubiquity. (Completely unnecessary tangent: do you know anyone who still uses AOL? At this point, it’s like owning a black-and-white TV, right? Just curious.) Yes, on a lot of levels it’s now more interesting to view the plot as an indictment of a time and place when the American economy transformed into Jurassic Park, with T-Rex-sized big box stores suddenly emerging from the mists and gobbling up and/or killing off countless hundreds of thousands of small businesses, rather than as an exercise in “let’s watch as the circumstantial dominoes fall, one by one, leading rich guy Tom Hanks and small biz owner Meg Ryan from hatred to friendship to the sudden !SURPRISE! discovery that they actually love one another and belong together.” (SPOILER WARNING: I just spoiled You’ve Got Mail for you. Sorry if you somehow didn’t see that coming.)
By the same token, it’s also kind of interesting to look at You’ve Got Mail as a turning point in Meg Ryan’s career, as this is the film where I think we all sensed that maybe her cute “squishing her nose and reacting to other people” thing was starting to get a little tired… because right after this, she started dumping her husband (Dennis Quaid) for some surly Aussie dude (Russell Crowe) and making movies like In The Cut and getting really, really awful plastic surgery and… GAH.
Sorry. What were we talking about? Oh, right: You’ve Got Mail. It’s cute. It’s fine. It’s a little forgettable. And for Tom Hanks, it’s about mid-range. Better things lie ahead.
15. A League of Their Own (1992)
It’s a touchstone chick flick, and Tom Hanks’ role in it is little more than comic relief with just a touch of poignancy (he channels late-period Jimmie Foxx as a raging alcoholic/ex-big league star reduced to “managing” a team of skirted ballplayers), but despite that… even I have to admit that this is a pretty good movie. (It’s also the last good thing Penny Marshall ever directed. What the hell happened there?) Not only does it successfully recreate a unique time, place and situation (e.g. the birth and brief life of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League during WWII), but it introduces a huge cast of characters — and then actually makes almost all of them feel real, unique and memorable. That’s a hell of an accomplishment, and one of the qualities that enables the film to transcend easy definition as a chick flick to become a truly worthwhile ensemble comedy (led by Geena Davis (remember when Geena Davis ruled the earth? I miss those days) and Lori Petty (remember her from this and Tank Girl and… uh… (draws a blank)) doing an entirely-believable dueling sisters thing). As a guy, it’s easy to look back on A League of Their Own and remember nothing but the brassiness of Madonna and Rosie O’Donnell. But as a movie fan, that’s a serious disservice to a film that deserves better.
14. Splash (1984)
I was 13 years old when Splash came out, so I think it’s reasonable to say that the sight of Daryl Hannah walking naked out of the water next to the Statue of Liberty was a defining moment in my life. I think I also saw it while I was vacationing on Cape Cod, which transformed the flashback scene where a young boy-who-will-become-Tom-Hanks falls out of a boat and into the water, where he’s rescued by a young mermaid who ultimately becomes Daryl Hannah (naked and otherwise), into something of a life goal for me. At least, a life goal for the week or two that I spent on the Cape. Tragically, I made it through the remainder of my family’s summer vacation without a near-death/rescue by mythological creatures experience, but that did nothing to dim my love for the film – and today, 25+ years later, it’s kind of a surprising joy to see how well it still holds up. In many ways, it’s a crime to realize just how omnipresent and pervasive The Little Mermaid has become in the years since, because it rehashes a lot of the same plot points only without half the charm or humor of Splash: a fabled, fair-skinned beauty of the seas emerges from the waters to grow legs and find true love in the world of man, only to find herself betrayed by those whose ugly, petty jealousies contrast with her own pure loveliness, leading to a happy ending where, in this case, (SPOILER ALERT) Tom Hanks and Daryl Hannah end up happy mer-people, presumably spending the rest of their days feasting on raw conch and trying to avoid drift nets and mega-sharks. See? Same movie.
Anyhow. This is 1984-version Tom Hanks. Young. New to the big screen. And – surprise – fully capable of holding his own as a leading man in a hugely successful romantic comedy. Everything that he became as an actor started right here. Good stuff.
13. Apollo 13 (1995)
I have to admit that when I saw this again recently, I was surprised at just how effectively it works as a thriller (of sorts). In my memory, I’d kind of equated it with the crew-cut Tom Hanks sports as astronaut Jim Lovell: serious, humorless, kind of dull. WRONG! Apollo 13 actually does a terrific job of reminding us just how insanely dangerous those voyages to the moon in the ’60s and early ’70s were… and just how deeply alone three men could be, soaring alone through empty space, one thing after another going terribly wrong, each passing moment diminishing their hopes of ever seeing home and family again. That’s solid filmmaking, people.
12. Philadelphia (1993)
It’s a hard, hard movie to watch – and, as such, is one that probably doesn’t get seen as much as it should. But the elegance of the two lead performances in Philadelphia are nothing shy of astonishing. Tom Hanks, obviously, won a well-deserved Best Actor Academy Award for his portrayal of a prominent Philly attorney who, suffering from AIDS, files a lawsuit against the firm that discriminated against and ultimately fired him. Denzel Washington – also deserving of recognition – plays his advocate, an attorney who (standing in for much of the 1993 audience) must learn to overcome his own fears and assumptions about AIDS and those who suffer from it in order to… well, in order to do what he does. There’s no part of this film that isn’t superbly executed, from Jonathan Demme’s restrained direction and storytelling to Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young’s haunted and haunting contributions to the soundtrack to… damn. It’s just so lovely, and so sad, and so very, very hard to watch.
11. That Thing You Do! (1996)
Joy. The joy of music, of first love and the sudden rush of first success and the sense of risk that comes with making a go of it on your own, with nothing but talent and instinct and hope to guide you… That Thing You Do! is a lot of things (a period comedy, a paean to great early ’60s pop music, a study of art and love and friendship and the weighing of one against the other) but in the end, it’s a movie about joy. And while Hanks isn’t the lead here – he plays a supporting role, as the impressario who oversees the rise and fall of a 1960′s one-hit wonder band – he wrote and directed it, and subsequently that makes this movie every bit as personal and memorable and effective and affecting and, yes, joyful as anything else in the Tom Hanks canon of film. If you’ve already seen this, you know what we’re talking about. If not… go add it to your Netflix queue. Immediately.
10. Cast Away (2000)
Robert Zemeckis has made a career of transforming ambitious concepts into workable films with mass appeal. Sometimes the results have been horrifying (see: The Polar Express. Or, more accurately, don’t see: The Polar Express) or a mixed bag (see: Beowulf)… but on most occasions, the results have ranged from entertaining to full-on fascinating. It may be telling, on some levels, that Cast Away was the last live action film he made before plunging down the rabbit hole of performance-capture animation, because while in a strictly technical terms Cast Away was not even remotely as complex as some of Zemeckis’ other projects… from the vantage point of storytelling, it’s a hugely ambitious thing to take on. Why? Because it’s almost two and a half hours long… and for most of that time, there’s only one living character to work with. That means very little dialogue. No reaction shots, other than those offered by a volleyball. Just Tom Hanks, on a small island, surrounded by fierce waves and an endless horizon of open ocean. Surviving.
There’s a lot you can say about this movie as an acting achievement. You can talk about how Hanks effortlessly holds the screen – and our attention – for such a long stretch of time. How the audience feels for him, and suffers with him, as this normal man is thrust into a surreal challenge and has nothing other than his wits (and a volleyball) (and a magical whale. can’t forget the damned magical whale) to keep him alive and company. How he transformed his body for the role, recalling DeNiro’s work in Raging Bull. But in the end… what matters most, above all else, is the story. And while the trappings of the story are familiar, the remarkable way it’s told and holds us transfixed is what helps to raise Cast Away to Top Ten status.
9. Forrest Gump (1994)
A lot of people hate this movie. I get that. It made unholy gobs of money, and inflicted a plague of Bubba Gump shrimp restaurants on America, and launched a thousand hot-headed debates on the sociopolitical implications of Gump-as-George W. Bush/as-symbol-of-the-dumbing-of-America/as-grotesque-oversimplification-of-American-history-over-the-past-40ish-years. And to be honest, as the father of a child on the autism spectrum, there are elements of Gump-as-holy-fool that make me uncomfortable. But when you remove all that meta-whatever from the conversation… what you’re left with is a hellaciously entertaining film that dances from one unexpected moment to the next with a strange and oddly moving sense of navigation that at once recalls both the flight path of a butterfly (or a feather, to utilize one of the film’s recurring images) and the journey of Chance the Gardener in Being There. Look: if you want a social critique, you’ll find a lot here to criticize. But if you want a film that traces the slow, strange arcs that two lives take across immeasurable time and distance, intersecting only for brief moments time and again, until they come together for what more or less serves as a happy ending… Forrest Gump offers something special.
And that scene? When he arrives at Jenny’s apartment in Savannah and sees the boy for the first time and asks, “Is he smart, or is he..?” and puts his hand on his chest and it’s suddenly a moment of such pure and unfiltered self-awareness and love and limitation and it feels suffocating and heartbreaking and kind of beautiful all at once? You know the scene I’m talking about. Well… damn. Let’s just say the room suddenly gets real, real dusty every time I see that scene. That’s the strength of the movie: not sociopolitics. Not metatextual meaning and import. Just people, doing things that move and stay with us.
8. Turner & Hooch (1989)
Yes, Turner & Hooch. Laugh if you want, but this movie is waaaaaaaaaay better than any movie about a cop who’s partnered with a big, slobbery dog has a right to be. Seriously. Why? Because it’s far smarter than it needs to be. Because Hanks’ character – and, in fact, all the major characters in the film, including Craig. T. Nelson (Mr. Incredible!), Mare Winningham and Reginald VelJohnson – aren’t simply sketches or caricatures, moving from one laff-filled scenario to the next: they’re real characters with depth and humor and prickliness that make them relateable (is that a word? it is now.) on a level you simply don’t expect. And because the mystery that serves as the engine that moves the plot forward does so efficiently and in interesting fashion, so that by the time you reach the end and figure out who the bad guy is… there’s a logic to that discovery, and a sense of satisfaction that comes with it. And because it’s actually, y’know… funny. Honestly: it’s funny. Are movies about giant dogs who destroy homes and get into wacky situations funny, as a rule? No. K-9, Marmaduke, Clifford, Beethoven… all are uniquely horrible movies. Turner & Hooch is NOT one of those movies.
And finally: the dog himself. Hooch. Who is… how can I put this gently? He’s remarkable, and remarkably disgusting. He’s about the size of a pony, and he produces thick ropes of drool that you can imagine serving effectively as an industrial lubricant, and he’s ugly as hell, and yet – by the end of the movie – he’s grown on you. Like a fungus, perhaps, but grown on you nonetheless – so that by the time you reach the climax and (here’s the part where I suddenly get responsible and don’t actually tell you what happens with Hooch at the end, but if you’ve seen the movie YOU KNOW WHAT I’M TALKING ABOUT) you find yourself emotionally engaged in a way you never, ever, ever, ever, ever would have expected to be.
Given which: Turner & Hooch? Seriously? The answer is yes. Seriously.
7. The Green Mile (1999)
When Frank Darabont adapts Stephen King, good things happen. It’s true of The Shawshank Redemption, it’s true of The Mist, and it’s entirely true with The Green Mile. And it’s perhaps no surprise that this adaptation from King’s most effective period as a writer (his early career offered the novels that cemented his reputation, but for pure writing nothing beats his 1996-1999 efforts in The Green Mile, Bag of Bones and The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon for depth and emotional richness) translates so wonderfully to the big screen. From the pitch-perfect cast (Hanks and David Morse alongside Michael Clarke Duncan and Sam Rockwell) to the eerie and entirely believable recreation of time and place (Death Row in a Louisiana prison during the 1930s) to the gentle twists and lurching turns as the plot moves inexorably toward tragedy… it is, in all honesty, tough to think of any way in which this film could have been better made. A tremendous movie that you should probably watch again. Sometime soon, preferably.
6. Road To Perdition (2002)
Is this really the only film where Tom Hanks plays a villain? Well… kind of (see below). But it’s enough of a departure from how Hanks’ characters generally comport themselves that it stands out in his film library – and he’s so good, you’ve gotta wonder: why doesn’t he try it more often? The Road To Perdition – itself an adaptation of a graphic novel, a la A History of Violence and The Crow – offers us Tom Hanks as a Depression-era mob hitman working for boss Paul Newman (terrific, as always, in his last on-camera role) and Newman’s son Daniel Craig (pre-James Bond). Things go wrong, and Hanks suddenly finds himself on the run with his young son, a bad man hiding from bad men (including a terrifyingly charming Jude Law), trying to balance survival and vengeance and fatherhood and… man, it’s dark and complicated and compelling in all the best possible ways. America loves gangster films, and I can’t help but think: this is the gangster film most deserving of being rediscovered and elevated back into the public eye via the magic of non-stop TNT/TBS/AMC reruns. Let’s make that happen.
5. Toy Story/Toy Story 2/Toy Story 3 (1995/1999/2010)
Yeah, I kinda cheated here by combining these three movies into one entry. Sorry – is this post not already long enough for you? In any case, odds are there’s nothing I can tell you about the Toy Story Trilogy that you don’t already know as (I presume) you’ve probably already seen them all multiple times. Each one, on its own, is brilliant. Taken together, they’re on a par with any multi-film series in history. If you saw Toy Story 3 in the theaters last summer and weren’t reduced to whimpering tears by either the incinerator sequence or the final scene? You don’t have a heart.
Peripheral note: he redeems himself by the end of the film, but let’s be clear – for the first 2/3 of Toy Story, Woody is pure villain. End of story.
4. Big (1988)
While it was a huge hit at the time – and justifiably so – it’s a testimony to just how well it was made that the farther away we get from the release of Big, the better a film it seems. The plot is simple: a boy wishes he was bigger, and wakes up the next morning a grown man. He experiences adult life through the eyes of a child, trying to navigate the strange and wondrous and often terrifying challenges of romance and career, before ultimately returning to his own life. It’s comedy, it’s fairy tale, it’s parable. But it’s also entirely wonderful. Hanks’ performance as the boy-man is nothing like obnoxious man-child archetype we’ve become used to seeing on the big screen (thanks to Adam Sandler films of varying quality): it’s a nuanced and instinctaul approach that carefully balances the fascination and excitement a boy might feel given the freedom to live as an adult, unencumbered by the restraints of childhood… and the terror of responsibility; of holding your own in the corporate world and earning a paycheck and being loved by another adult and simply, plainly, not being ready for any of it.
It’s a sensation that mirrors the real experiences and growing pains of countless young men and women who find themselves thrust into adulthood before they are emotionally prepared — and one that translates our perception of Hanks’ performance into an immense and boundless sympathy for a kid – a good kid, someone we know and trust and understand completely – who (like Max in Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are) ultimately wants nothing more than to return to the comfort of his own room, to a place where he is loved and where he might find his own supper, still waiting for him. Beautiful.
3. Joe Versus The Volcano (1990)
If you have never seen Joe Versus The Volcano, chances are you are baffled by this ranking. Chances are, you’ve seen or heard the title and figured it was something goofy or offbeat but ultimately not worth your time to hunt down and actually watch. Chances are… you have no idea what you’ve been missing. Because the fact is that Joe Versus The Volcano is one of the most strange and moving films ever made — a tale of a man (Joe Banks) who lives his life in fear, trapped in the drudgery of a dead-end job in a windowless room, passing the days – one after another after another – as he slowly, incrementally dies by inches. Until. He discovers he is dying, from the rare and tragic brain cloud — an affliction that will not bother him in the slightest until the moment his life slips away. And with that news, he is miraculously freed. To express the wild passions within him. To live like a king, and die like a man. To travel the world, meet wonderful people he never would otherwise have met, ride the waves of the open ocean on the back of a suitcase, and ultimately find love at the mouth of a volcano, in the moments before he will choose to leap in. It is a film of odd humor and unexpected lyricism, following the crooked path that Joe – and, by extension, all of us – follow as life takes us where life takes us… or where life is taken when we choose to take control of our fates, to whatever extent we can.
This is the first of the three films that paired Tom Hanks with Meg Ryan, and it is by far the least seen. She plays three very different people; he plays a single man whose transformation over the course of the film leaves him an entirely different character at the end than he was at the beginning. The whys and wheres and whens of how they intertwine are odd and convoluted and lovely in ways that you never expect, and for some… the resulting impact is as profound and inspirational as that of any film ever made.
It gladdens me to know I’m not alone in loving this film as deeply as I do. And it gladdens me to think that there may be someone out there who’s never seen it, and who may now seek it out and be similarly touched by its strange magic. If that’s you… I envy you the journey ahead.
2. Saving Private Ryan (1998)
The ironic thing here is that Saving Private Ryan isn’t even the best movie about WWII that was released in 1998 — that was and remains The Thin Red Line. Having said that… Saving Private Ryan is an extraordinary film, and the opening D-Day sequence may be the single most relentlessly visceral and powerful battle scene ever captured on celluloid. Of course, that terrifying opening sequence only serves as an introduction to our core cast, a ragtag group who survive that plunge through the surf and across the sand and through the siege of bullets and bombs and blood and horror only to find themselves rewarded with what amounts to a suicide mission: weave their way through the Nazi-infested French countryside to find and rescue a single soldier. “How does it make sense to risk seven lives to save one?” asks one of the soldiers. It is a good and fair question, and the movie answers it in the best way: because what is good and fair is rarely the reality of war — and so these seven men make their way through scenes of fresh battle and deep fear and brief, fleeting moments of calm, when the reality of who they were before the war began drifts to the surface and hovers before them – ephemeral, almost unreal – before dissipating beneath a fresh onslaught of bullets and bombs, struggle and survival.
The cast, beginning with Hanks as the stoic Captain Miller (a onetime schoolteacher who seems to have spent his entire life here, in this fight, filthy and intense and focused in the way you imagine great leaders in war must always be), is outstanding. Will anyone who saw Private Ryan ever forget Barry Pepper as the scripture-quoting sniper, or the wrenching hand-to-hand fight in a ruined hotel between Adam Goldberg and the German soldier the squad had earlier let go? Unlikely — which testifies both to the strength of Robert Rodat’s writing and the flawless pacing and direction of Steven Spielberg.
In 1998, both Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line lost the Academy Award for Best Picture to Shakespeare in Love. It was a surprise then, and today it seems just a cruel joke. But time and distance have a way of adding perspective, and it’s entirely clear now: Saving Private Ryan is a truly great film, and a capstone moment to Tom Hanks’ long and illustrious career.
1. Sleepless in Seattle (1993)
Why? Because it’s the definitive romantic comedy of our time. Because it starts with Tom Hanks and his young son Jonah breaking our hearts, as they bury a beloved wife and mother and leave their Chicago home for a new life in Seattle. And then it makes us laugh as they begin anew… and then break our hearts again, as Jonah recognizes the infinite fissure in his father’s heart and calls in to a radio show hoping to find his dad a new wife. And then it brings us Meg Ryan at her most sunny and warm and lovely and appealing, as a woman on the far side of the country (Baltimore, mais bien sur) engaged to a truly good but fundamentally dull man. And then it hooks us with the idea of… magic. Of love, or the idea of love, as being something strange and magnificent and indefinable and yet as instantly recognizable and impossibly precious as anything this world – or any other – has ever seen.
And then the mechanisms of fate and happenstance begin to work as fate and happenstance do, and we watch as their two stories, on the distant edges of a broad continent, begin a slow, genteel waltz that we hope will ultimately bring them together. And there are moments (many of them, really) that make us laugh deep and hard. And there are moments where the filmmakers recognize our love for film by sharing their own, with references to films of days gone by (An Affair To Remember and The Dirty Dozen) in a way that does not feel forced or unnatural but totally believable, in the way that we all talk about things that happen in our lives and reference the films that they bring to mind. And there are characters we instantly understand and feel affection towards — all of them, not a single villain or simple caricature in the cast, but all people we recognize and know as real.
And there is that recognition: of love as magic. And we watch them, the two of them, and the boy who brings them together, making their way toward the Empire State Building, not rushed or driven but simply moving, naturally, in a way and with a timing that – in the end – feels entirely right.
That’s why Sleepless in Seattle is the greatest romantic comedy of our time. And that’s why it’s the best film Tom Hanks ever made.