A Man Called Tom Hanks: ranking the best performances from everyone's favorite movie star

A Man Called Tom Hanks: ranking the best performances from everyone's favorite movie star

From Splash and Big to Forrest Gump and Saving Private Ryan, we're counting down the 22 finest performances from one of Hollywood's most beloved actors

We may earn a commission from links on this page.
AVClub Tom Hanks film performances ranked
(Clockwise from bottom left:) Tom Hanks in Cast Away (Courtesy of Photofest), Saving Private Ryan (Paramount Pictures), A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood (Sony Pictures Entertainment), Big (20th Century Fox), Toy Story (Courtesy of Mubi)
Graphic: The A.V. Club

Few Hollywood stars are more beloved than Tom Hanks, whose screen legacy ranks alongside the all-time greats, encompassing feel-good classics like Big and A League Of Their Own as well as momentous dramas such as Saving Private Ryan and Philadelphia. Since his 1984 breakout in Splash, the two-time Oscar winner has dazzled, devastated, and delighted audiences with performances that are not just consistently relatable but showcase his remarkable range. As Hanks’ newest film, A Man Called Otto arrives in theaters nationwide, we’re ranking his 22 best big-screen performances. Combing through these humane, transfixing, and iconic roles, it’s easy to see why so many consider Hanks to be their favorite actor and/or movie star.

Advertisement

2 / 24

22. Punchline (1988)

22. Punchline (1988)

Punchline 1988 Movie

1988 would be a pivotal year for Hanks, starting with Punchline—an underrated comedy-drama about two stand-up comics at various stages of their career (Sally Field and Hanks). As they struggle with life and their quest for laughs, the performers forge an unlikely friendship. Punchline’s melancholic edge defies Hollywood’s usual approach to subject matter like this, and it’s refreshing to watch how committed Field and Hanks are to servicing the tricky material. Punchline argues that it takes more than just a good sense of humor to stand alone on a stage and pin your livelihood on laughter from strangers; the charm and vulnerability Hanks brings to this role is both sobering and uplifting. [Phil Pirrello]

Advertisement

3 / 24

21. Road To Perdition (2002)

21. Road To Perdition (2002)

Road to Perdition (2002) Trailer #1 | Movieclips Classic Trailers

It’s a rare thing to see Hanks break bad, but when we do, it’s quite a sight to behold. In Sam Mendes’ Road To Perdition, Hanks plays against type as mob enforcer Michael Sullivan. What begins as a story of vengeance becomes one of redemption, with Hanks carrying the weight of a man who has done terrible things—a man who people have feared, but who is also trying to make amends in the eyes of his god and his son. What makes the film work as well as it does is that Hanks doesn’t play Sullivan as a stereotypical mobster, the kind you can easily imagine a number of actors slipping into. Rather, we see Sullivan as a father trying to do better, despite the lack of stability and normalcy he’s provided his son as a result of his profession. It is the normalcy found in teaching his son to drive, survive, and ultimately lead a better life than he did that makes Sullivan relatable despite his circumstances. Hanks’ performance is encapsulated by the final lines of the film in which Sullivan’s son Michael recalls that when asked if his father was a good man he simply says, “He was my father.” [Richard Newby]

Advertisement

4 / 24

20. Joe Versus The Volcano (1990)

20. Joe Versus The Volcano (1990)

Joe Versus The Volcano (1990) Official Trailer - Tom Hanks, Meg Ryan Comedy HD

When we think of cinema’s best on-screen couples, we think of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Jane Fonda and Robert Redford, and Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks. Joe Versus The Volcano set Hanks and Ryan on track to become a star pairing—and it’s still one the most avant-garde films either have made. The plot is a wild ride. While stuck in a dead-end job, an average Joe (Hanks) discovers he has a terminal diagnosis and travels to a small island, Waponi Woo, to jump into a volcano. (The appropriation and jokes about Pacific Island culture are rough.) Hanks plays Joe in each of the three acts, while Ryan plays three different characters. Hanks’ Joe completely transforms from lifeless and bland to awkward and sheepish to rugged and loveable. You can see Hanks shedding layers of Joe’s self-consciousness to become the man he wants to be. It’s astonishing how good a young Hanks is at playing up multiple emotions at once. It’s an early taste of what’s to come, the first time he really gets to flex. You can’t help but root for Joe (and Hanks) to get the girl and save the world. [Dana Elle Salzberg]

Advertisement

5 / 24

19. The Green Mile (1999)

19. The Green Mile (1999)

The Green Mile (1999) Official Trailer - Tom Hanks Movie HD

By 1999, Frank Darabont’s beloved prison drama The Shawshank Redemption had rocketed from box office bomb to one of the most-rented home videos of the decade. So you can’t blame the director for integrating much of the same crew, actors, and themes into his follow-up, The Green Mile. One addition, though, is Hanks, who’d passed on Shawshank’s lead role of Andy Dufresne to star in Forrest Gump. As prison warden Paul Edgecomb, Hanks portrays an ethical man in a brutal institution, unable to stomach his colleague’s sadism yet unflinching as he executes his inmates. He maintains a quiet gravitas while dancing between dramatic and comedic scenes, but Hanks is at his best when his authority and small stature are juxtaposed against Michael Clarke Duncan’s gentle giant, John Coffey. It’s that interplay that’s affirmed this as a tragedy gut-wrenching enough to transcend generations. [Matt Mills]

Advertisement

6 / 24

18. Charlie Wilson’s War (2007)

18. Charlie Wilson’s War (2007)

Charlie Wilson’s War Official Trailer #1 - Tom Hanks Movie (2007) HD

Leave it to Hanks to find a way to bring sympathy to the story of real-life congressman Charles Wilson, who helped muster support for Afghans against the Russians invading their country in the 1980s. Charlie Wilson’s War features Hanks as the hard-drinking, Hugh Hefner-lite representative. Working from a sharp, witty script by Aaron Sorkin, director Mike Nichols deftly explores how this little-known figure’s efforts helped shape the last four decades of conflict in the Middle East. On paper, Hanks seems miscast in this political dramedy. But in action, Hanks’ Wilson emerges as a lovable sinner looking for more to his legacy than booze and boobs. What he finds, however, is a marquee role in one of the United States’ darkest chapters. [Phil Pirrello]

Advertisement

7 / 24

17. Saving Mr. Banks (2013)

17. Saving Mr. Banks (2013)

Saving Mr. Banks Official Trailer #1 (2013) - Tom Hanks Movie

In telling the story of P.L. Travers’ emotionally tumultuous journey of handing over the rights to Mary Poppins, Walt Disney needed to be both a charismatic genius (the visionary many elevate to God-like status) and a flawed businessman; controlling, obsessive, possessive. Enter Tom Hanks, a man that radiates charisma from every pore, and thus is able to express his more selfish underlying intentions with a spoonful of sugar. In Saving Mr. Banks, Disney finds his match in Emma Thompson’s Travers, who isn’t sold on his charm that usually wins the rest of the world over. She’s resistant to notes, unwilling to turn her beloved character into a sparkly cartoon. As an actor, Hanks must navigate the slow breakdown of Disney’s public persona as he grows more frustrated with Travers. It’s like seeing your favorite uncle get angry for the first time. But at the heart of the movie are two people yearning to bring their own vision to life. Two people whose emotional connection to their art goes to such deep levels, that any small change is seen as a personal attack. When Hanks is able to tap into that sentiment, it wins over Travers, and the rest of us. [Jorge Molina]

Advertisement

8 / 24

16. Sully (2016)

16. Sully (2016)

Sully - Official Trailer [HD]

Sully, director Clint Eastwood’s adaptation of Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger’s memoir, Highest Duty, feels far more like a docudrama than a rah-rah Hollywood movie. Hanks modulates his performance as Sully accordingly, and to profound effect (plus tremendous critical and box office success). Looking older and distinguished with white hair and a mustache, Hanks gives a remarkably restrained, unshowy performance that feels real and lived in. You’re with Sully—just a man doing his job, and doing it well—as he begins to pilot US Airways Flight 1549, as he calmly lands the damaged craft in New York City’s Hudson River, and as others, notably the National Transportation Safety Board, question his decisions, despite the fact that 155 souls survived what could have been an outright tragedy. Hanks barely raises his voice throughout the drama’s 96 minutes, yet he commands every frame of it. [Ian Spelling]

Advertisement

9 / 24

15. Catch Me If You Can (2002)

15. Catch Me If You Can (2002)

Catch Me if You Can (2002) Trailer #1 | Movieclips Classic Trailers

In a delicious subversion of the roles we typically associate with him, Hanks is the antagonist in Catch Me If You Can. He plays Carl Hanratty, an FBI Agent trying to capture the hero—or rather the anti-hero, Frank Abagnale (Leonardo DiCaprio), a con artist and a criminal. In lesser hands, Carl could have been a cartoon villain hell-bent on ruining Frank’s fun. (It’s hard to root against Leo, even if he is illegally flying planes.) In a scene that embodies Hanks’ greatness, Frank calls Carl on Christmas Eve. When Carl realizes that Frank only called him because he has no one else to call, he laughs. It’s a mean laugh, reminiscent of a high school bully, too harsh even for someone who deserves it. But Carl only picked up the call because he was alone too. Both are in search of family and something more. In one moment, a lonely Hanks wants revenge; he’s hysterical and thrilled—you don’t know if he’s happy or losing it, and neither does he. It’s a performance that demands a slew of emotions, often simultaneously. And yet, when Carl finally catches Frank, Hanks shows us a tantalizing moment of relief that Carl is a safe place for Frank to land. [Dana Elle Salzberg]

Advertisement

10 / 24

14. The Post (2017)

14. The Post (2017)

The Post | Official Trailer [HD] | 20th Century FOX

Meryl Streep’s performance may be the highlight of The Post, its marquee moment the astonishing scene in which her Katharine Graham decides to publish the Pentagon Papers in The Washington Post. But not to be overlooked is the crucial ingredient that is Hanks’ turn as the newspaper’s executive editor, Ben Bradlee. He’s billed as the co-lead of this Steven Spielberg drama, but in essence, he’s the quintessential supporting actor, electrifying every interaction with a murderer’s row of talent from Sarah Paulson to Matthew Rhys to Bradley Whitford. His performance here is one that rewards rewatching; he’s rarely been more warily receptive to his scene partners—and riveting doing so. Bradlee seems razor sharp, almost dangerous, in the actor’s capable hands. It’s a bone-deep portrayal of a man for whom his job and doing the right thing are two sides of the same coin. [Jack Smart]

Advertisement

11 / 24

13. Splash (1984)

13. Splash (1984)

Splash - 1984 Trailer

If we don’t count the horror film He Knows You’re Alone, then Hanks’ first major film was Splash, a charming, shaggy comedy that showcases his burgeoning big-screen presence. Hanks plays Allen Bauer, an unlucky-in-love average Joe who falls for a mermaid named Madison (Daryl Hannah). Hanks had just graduated from his star-making stint on the television sitcom Bosom Buddies and he was still—albeit sweetly, relatably, and entertainingly—playing just a bit broadly for the camera at this stage in his career. And he was so thin and gangly!

Still, you can’t help but fall for Allen as he falls for Madison, and Hanks’ chemistry with Hannah is off the charts, making their journey to a happy ending a pure joy. Speaking of joy, it’s also a pleasure to watch Hanks bounce off John Candy (as Allen’s bull-in-a-china-shop brother, Freddie) and Eugene Levy (as Dr. Kornbluth, the villainous scientist determined to reveal to the world that Madison is a mermaid). Hanks lets the high-energy Candy and bombastic Levy chew the scenery, while he brings real humanity to one of the film’s most touching lines: “All my life I’ve been waiting for someone. And when I find her, she’s a fish.” [Ian Spelling]

Advertisement

12 / 24

12. Bridge Of Spies (2015)

12. Bridge Of Spies (2015)

Bridge of Spies Official Trailer #1 (2015) - Tom Hanks Cold War Thriller HD

Screenwriters the Coen Brothers tag-teamed with Hanks and director extraordinaire Steven Speilberg to create this Cold War espionage thriller for the ages. Bridge Of Spies sees the siblings once again tap into their tried and tested “trade gone wrong” narrative, telling the story of James B. Donovan (Hanks) as he negotiates a prisoner exchange between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Hanks portrays yet another incorruptible figure here, who’s determined to give his Russian client the best defense he can. Naturally, in barely post-McCarthy America, it’s a conviction that leads to widespread harassment of both him and his family. Yet he refuses to relent. Hanks maintains the calm authority he’s carried since Saving Private Ryan and The Green Mile, giving him and Mark Rylance’s even more unperturbed Rudolph Abel a wonderful rapport. Ultimately, Rylance took home the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor thanks to his performance, and his back-and-forth with Hanks is the highlight of his screen time. [Matt Mills]

Advertisement

13 / 24

11. A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood (2019)

11. A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood (2019)

A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD - Official Trailer (HD)

Few figures in media are as beloved as Fred Rogers, who revolutionized children’s television and made it accessible across class and race. The only figure who arguably even comes close in perceived infallibility is Tom Hanks. Thus, the casting of Hanks as Mr. Rogers in Marielle Heller’s A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood was a no-brainer, a casting decision that was immediately met with praise despite how little Hanks resembles Rogers. Hanks channels Rogers’ warmth but also his penetrating gaze, the ability he had to make each and every child (and adult) feel as though he could see them and was listening intently to every word they said. Rogers is one of Hanks’ most delicate performances, one that could have so easily slipped into the realm of parody or the uncanny but remains genuine. While it’s all too easy to depict men like Rogers as saint-like and devoid of faults, anger, or moments of depression, Hanks reminds us of Rogers’ humanity, all while remaining empathetic and engaging as he cuts through a world of cynicism and skepticism towards ordinary kindness. [Richard Newby]

Advertisement

14 / 24

10. Sleepless In Seattle (1993)

10. Sleepless In Seattle (1993)

Sleepless in Seattle (1993) Trailer #1 | Movieclips Classic Trailers

After establishing that Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan are one of the best on-screen couples of all time, their second go-round kept them almost entirely apart—a choice that miraculously works. It’s striking how well Sleepless In Seattle, inspired by An Affair To Remember, has aged. Annie (Ryan) hears Sam (Hanks) on a radio show and falls for him. She writes him a letter (her friend secretly sends it), which today would be a DM slide. Hanks plays not only a perfect man on paper: a widower who deeply loved his wife, a newly single dad, who is, of course, an architect, but also has the ineffable quality and magic with Annie that her fiancé Walter (Bill Pullman) does not. Credit is due to director and writer Nora Ephron for her ability to have Annie and Sam only mutually see each other once, say “hello,” and have their longing silently play out on the actors’ faces. Thousands have glanced at each other, yet Hanks and Ryan’s chemistry rises above. You immediately understand why Annie had to find Sam. He just has to look at her and you know it’s love. [Dana Elle Salzberg]

Advertisement

15 / 24

9. A League Of Their Own (1992)

9. A League Of Their Own (1992)

There’s No Crying in Baseball - A League of Their Own (5/8) Movie CLIP (1992) HD

“There’s no crying in baseball!”

Next to “Life is like a box of chocolates” and “Wilson!!!”, this reprimand is the most immortal line in the Hanks cinematic canon. And everything that makes his A League Of Their Own performance one of his most enduring and endearing can actually be found in his outraged line delivery. Even when Hanks is in curmudgeon mode, as he is with drunken manager Jimmy Dugan, he’s still Tom Hanks; there are few stars more inherently likable and few actors better at utilizing that charm. So even as director Penny Marshall lets Hanks push his character into despicable territory as he takes on the management of a wartime baseball team of women (based on the real-life All-American Girls Professional Baseball League), it makes his inevitably redemptive arc toward begrudging respect all the sweeter. And while Hanks has proven time and time again that he can generate chemistry opposite female co-stars, his rapport opposite Geena Davis’ fabulous assistant manager Dottie is crucially platonic, a relationship built on their mutual passion for their sport. But before he shows us Jimmy’s inner soft side, this most pleasing of crowd pleasers allows Hanks and his physical comedy to, please forgive me for using the term, swing for the fences. [Jack Smart]

Advertisement

16 / 24

8. Toy Story (1995)

8. Toy Story (1995)

Toy Story (1995) Trailer #1 | Movieclips Classic Trailers

Toy Story changed the game for animation. It was Pixar’s first film and the first completely computer-generated animated feature film. It also, thanks partially to Hanks, changed voiceover acting. Animated films today are littered with A-list talent. Before Toy Story, that wasn’t so. While Robin Williams’ Genie in Aladdin broke down the door for stars in animation, Hanks and co-star Tim Allen ensured that it would become a trend.

Director John Lasseter said that Hanks “has the ability to take emotions and make them appealing.” Calling Hanks a good actor has never been novel, but in 1995, taking his emotion and mining it in this new way was. Hanks voices Woody, a toy cowboy, his owner Andy’s favorite. But what does your favorite toy sound like? A toy that’s always there for you, who roots for you, who champions you? What voice sounds like every kid’s best friend? The answer is Tom Hanks, whose voice crystalized Woody’s emotional duality—he’s a happy leader and terrified of being left behind. Hanks balances Woody’s journey, the fun and the fear, in this instant classic and its equally great sequels. [Dana Elle Salzberg]

Advertisement

17 / 24

7. Big (1988)

7. Big (1988)

BIG Trailer (1988) Tom Hanks

For nearly 35 years, Big has been as synonymous with Hanks as Forrest Gump. Director Penny Marshall’s hit fantasy comedy, about the consequences of teenage Josh’s wish to be a “big” adult, is as hilarious as it is poignant. At the center of it all is Hanks’ effortless performance as an adult-sized boy, working at a toy company, who experiences the world of grown-ups through a very “be careful what you wish for” lens. From playing “Heart and Soul” on the now-iconic oversized piano for laughs to pulling on our heartstrings with the movie’s bittersweet ending, Hanks gives this ’80s classic the exact amount of whatever it and the audience needs. [Phil Pirrello]

Advertisement

18 / 24

6. Apollo 13 (1995)

6. Apollo 13 (1995)

Apollo 13 | “Houston, We Have a Problem”

Ron Howard’s based-on-a-true-story thriller about three astronauts fighting against all odds to get home is, at its core, a movie about people being good at their jobs. It’s about using pure determination and skill to overcome tremendous obstacles. And as Apollo 13 mission commander Jim Lovell, Hanks harnesses his place as one of America’s most steadfastly winning leading men, mastering that delicate process. His Lovell is, like Hanks himself, charming and energetic and brimming with a sense of warmth for his family and fellow astronauts. But it’s the quieter moments of Apollo 13's story, when Hanks is staring out at the void of space with a sense of wonder and respect, which make his turn really resonate all these years later. It’s a very balanced performance, one in which you can feel the respect of the real-life Lovell shining through even the darkest sequences, and that makes it enduring, even if it’s not one of Hanks’ flashier pieces of work. [Matthew Jackson]

Advertisement

19 / 24

5. Captain Phillips (2013)

5. Captain Phillips (2013)

Captain Phillips (2013) - I’m the Captain Now Scene (4/10) | Movieclips

Every once in a while, Hanks delivers a performance that reminds us that we should never take him for granted, no matter how many times he goes back to voice Sheriff Woody or puts in an appearance in a charming, inoffensive middle-of-the-road film. These performances are to be treasured not just because they’re proof of Hanks’ continued versatility, but because it’s truly thrilling to see him let it all go and push himself into darkness and unfiltered emotion for the sake of his craft. As the title character in Captain Phillips, a man who spends nearly the entire movie beset by incomprehensible levels of fear, Hanks is a nerve-shattered open wound, a man who has to push himself through even the simplest of actions because each one could mean his death. By the end, when he’s screaming and wailing with the relief of rescue, you’re not just feeling the pure adrenaline of the moment, but the sense of naked human openness that comes off the screen in waves. It’s a latter-day Hanks gem, and proof that he’s not done surprising us. [Matthew Jackson]

Advertisement

20 / 24

4. Philadelphia (1993)

4. Philadelphia (1993)

Philadelphia (1/8) Movie CLIP - I Have A Case (1993) HD

In recent times, Jonathan Demme’s crime thriller The Silence Of The Lambs has been reassessed as transphobic, thanks to the deranged serial-killing crossdresser Jame Gumb. However, whether or not you consider the 1992 Oscar Best Picture winner to be problematic, Demme’s next project was one of the most progressive moments of contemporary Hollywood, addressing homosexuality and AIDS with a tenderness that eschewed scaremongering and stereotypes. Hanks leads Philadelphia as Andy Beckett, an attorney who’s fired from a law firm due to, he believes, prejudice against his orientation and illness. Homophobic lawyer Joe Miller (Denzel Washington) is the only person willing to represent him in the ensuing lawsuit. Beckett’s physical deterioration is presented by underrated makeup mastery and a dynamic performance from Hanks. Plus, the actor bounces off of his co-lead so well, often in searingly intimate closeups, that he inarguably deserved that Best Actor Oscar this portrayal won him. [Matt Mills]

Advertisement

21 / 24

3. Saving Private Ryan (1998)

3. Saving Private Ryan (1998)

Saving Private Ryan (1998) Trailer #1 | Movieclips Classic Trailers

Captain John Miller is, by all outward appearances, a cold man, a problem solver who grits his teeth and runs the mission, no matter what the mission is, because each battle is one step closer to going home. It’s easy to imagine another actor thrust into the center of Steven Spielberg’s harrowing epic who would have played Miller as completely, brutally closed off, even in the moments of vulnerability granted by the scripts. But this is Hanks we’re talking about, one of those actors who can imbue even the stoniest personality with a sense of raw, unfiltered human yearning. He excels at Saving Private Ryan’s action sequences, because we like seeing someone like Hanks solve problems, and he even excels when it’s time to berate his men and teach them life-and-death lessons about leaving dead weight behind. But the real meat of his performance is lurking just behind his eyes, in the moments of quiet, constant pain which linger in Miller’s memory when he thinks of all the men he’s ordered to their deaths over the course of one war. It’s a remarkably human performance in a film that’s often about the deeply inhumane things we can do to each other. [Matthew Jackson]

Advertisement

22 / 24

2. Forrest Gump (1994)

2. Forrest Gump (1994)

Forrest Gump - Trailer

There are people who consider Forrest Gump among the best studio films ever produced, and there are folks who consider it perhaps the most overrated Oscar winner in history, up there with Crash and Around The World In 80 Days. Whether you love or hate the Robert Zemeckis-directed, decades-spanning dramedy, Hanks delivers a remarkable performance, investing himself fully in Forrest’s, well, everything: his physicality, naivete, honesty, chameleon-esque nature, yearning, adaptability, love for family and friends, and, yes, that accent. It’s a low-key tour de force that anchors the proceedings for the film’s expansive 142-minute running time. You buy fully into Forrest connecting with regular people all along his quirky journey, but also with Abbie Hoffman, John Lennon, and Richard Nixon. The most remarkable element of Hanks’ work isn’t that he sparked with Robin Wright, Sally Field, Mykelti Williamson, and especially Gary Sinise, but that he integrated his performance so seamlessly with Zemeckis’ Zelig-on-steroids CGI magic to make the aforementioned scenes with Hoffman, Lennon, Nixon, etc., so convincing. [Ian Spelling]

Advertisement

23 / 24

1. Cast Away (2000)

1. Cast Away (2000)

Cast Away (2000) Trailer #1 | Movieclips Classic Trailers

In terms of how MUCH Hanks you get in a film, one can’t deny the allure of Cast Away, in which he’s the only person on screen for around 90 percent of its runtime (all due respect to Wilson the volleyball). The plot of a FedEx employee named Chuck Noland (oof, that surname) being stuck on an island for four years could have been dour or simply too dull to cause a stir with another actor. But in Hanks’ hands, it became one of his biggest-ever cinematic hits, at Christmastime no less. The reveal of “desert island Chuck” at the film’s midpoint remains an astonishing moment to behold, as the actor lost over 50 pounds and grew his hair out to illustrate his four years of island life—the sort of commitment one normally reserves for playing a real-life character as opposed to the lead in a multi-genre audience pleaser. And as a little bonus for those who had been fans since he first popped up in the horror flick He Knows You’re Alone, our hero’s impromptu root canal is more unnerving than a dozen Saw sequels. The man truly knows how to please everyone. [Brian Collins]

Advertisement

24 / 24