The 15 Greatest Tom Hanks Movie Performances

best tom hanks movies

This list springs from Tom Hanks’ s latest appearance on The Late Late show, in which, in a dynamic pairing with James Corden, the couple showcased every Tom Hanks film in under seven minutes. In a flurry of wigs and smeared make up, the majority of Hanks’s career was laid before the watching public and it emphasised both the star’s versatile acting and his appearance in some of the most well-known and influential American films from the past twenty years.

Tom Hanks belongs to the elite strata of Hollywood actors. He has received a vast number of prestigious awards including the Academy Award for Best Actor and a Golden Globe. His films remain some of the highest grossing Hollywood films in the world, estimated around 8.4 million dollars. This list comprises of some of his best known roles from a toy cowboy in the Toy Story franchise, to an astronaut in Apollo 13, a man dying of HIV in Philadelphia to a man stuck on a desert island in Castaway.

He was born in California and acted in a number of school plays as a child. Following a three year job working at the Great Lakes Theater festival in Ohio he moved to New York City and began acting in films. He also appeared in a number of television shows before moving to Los Angeles. Splash proved to be a success but it wasn’t until Big in 1988 that Tom Hanks really drew attention of the critics and audiences.

After a number of successes; Philadelphia, Sleepless in Seattle, The Green Mile, Tom Hanks turned his attention towards collaborations and directing; notably collaborating with Spielberg and starring in Catch me if you Can, and producing My Big Fat Greek Wedding. His latest appearance however was in March of this year in which he appeared in Carly Rae Jepsen’s music video ‘I Really Like You.’ This film list covers Tom Hanks’ most notable performances.


15. Catch Me If You Can (2002) dir. Steven Spielberg


This is one of the many Steven Spielberg films in which Tom Hanks plays a role, this time in this biographical crime film he plays Carl Hanratty an FBI agent who specialises in fraud and is trying to bring Frank Abagnale (Leonardo DiCaprio) to justice. Frank however is a master of fraud, cons, and impersonations despite still being a teenager. Frank runs away from home and after a series of brilliant cons and tricks eventually ends up stealing millions of dollars.

In a brilliant scene Carl unknowingly meets Frank in a hotel and they engage in a lengthy conversation where Frank convinces Carl he is a member of the secret service before he slips away. Carl is furious upon realising his mistake and this scene speaks volumes about Carl’s character. He believes in the law, he hates being fooled, and he will do what he must to catch Frank simply because it is his job.

Hanks plays him as a stiff FBI employee, filled with the sense that he is right because he follows the law, and he will undoubtedly catch Frank because he is a criminal.

As he rips through Frank’s fake wallet and comes to the conclusion he just let Frank slip between his fingers despite initially pointing a gun at him; he realises he never had any power upon entering he room and that Frank will continue to evade him if he doesn’t become even harsher at implementing the law. Carl eventually convinces Frank to work for the FBI and is rewarded by Frank’s loyalty.


14. Big (1988) dir. Penny Marshall

big 1988 movie

In Big Tom Hanks faces the task of playing 12 year old Josh Baskin whom after being denied access to a roller coaster ride and having his dreams dashed of impressing an older girl wishes to be ‘big’.

Josh is hugely startled the next morning when he wakes up in the body of a 30 year old (Tom Hanks) his wish being granted by a now disappeared carnival attraction. He is forced to leave his childhood home and moves to New York where he gets a job at a toy company where he excels. His childish exuberance for playing with toys is misconstrued as an in-depth and dedicated history of toy research and he is swiftly promoted within the company.

Being a 12 year old, Josh fills his new apartment with toys, a bunk bed, a pepsi machine, and a pinball machine. Tom Hanks portrays a 12 year old excellently; he easily laughs, falls over and knocks into objects, and has a daring adventurous side. To convince his friend he is still Josh he runs to his house and desperately sings their made-up rap in one of the most oft-repeated quotes from the film.

Overall it is Tom Hanks’ playful nature that best portrays Josh’s hidden youthful mind and it is this nature that creates some of the most memorable scenes in the film such as the piano dancing scene where Josh and his boss dance upon a toy keyboard to create the ‘Chopsticks’ tune.

Moreover, Josh goes on a date with a co-worker and invites her back to his apartment in a scene where the audience is aware of Josh’s actual age but the co-worker is not. Her increasing confusion while Josh shows off his many toys emphasises by contrast Tom Hank’s skillful ability of capturing the immaturity of a 12 year old.


13. Sleepless in Seattle (1993) dir. Nora Ephron


Tom Hanks starred alongside Meg Ryan (of When Harry met Sally fame) in this romantic drama. Tom Hanks plays Sam Baldwin; a grieving man who after losing his wife to cancer is left alone to raise his young son, Johah. His son however yearns to find his father a new potential wife to make him happy and encourages Sam to discuss how much he misses his deceased wife on a radio show.

Many women write into the show and among them is the engaged Annie (Meg Ryan) who writes a letter because she feels unsatisfied with her engagement and particularly moved by Sam’s speech.

Director Nora Ephron is particularly effective in displaying Annie’s dissatisfaction with a very uncomfortable dinner scene in which Annie’s forced laughter with fiancée Walter is emphasised with a cut to the unlaughing dinner guests. Jonah eventually reads her letter and arranges a meeting between his father and Annie atop the Empire State Building. Unknowingly Sam sees Annie briefly when she arrives in New York and is instantly smitten.

After a series of false starts and near-misses the couple eventually meet and happily depart together. The most endearing quality of this film is Tom Hanks’ character whose innocent bewilderment at entering the dating game once more makes him appear both good-natured and highly amicable. Nora Ephron contrasts his character’s belief in love with his friend’s baffling advice on women to display Sam’s desire to impress and worry that his ideas of love will not match up to the women of today.


12. You’ve Got Mail (1998) dir. Nora Ephron

You’ve Got Mail (1998)

Tom Hanks starred alongside Meg Ryan for the third time in this film (after Joe and the Volcano and Sleepless in Seattle) another romantic comedy, directed by Nora Ephron (Sleepless in Seattle). In this collaboration Joe Fox (Tom Hanks) and Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan) engage in another virtual romantic relationship but this time via emails rather than through letters and the radio station. As their online alter-egos the couple have a charming relationship and a deep connection.

In everyday life however Joe Fox runs ‘Fox Books’ a huge family owned chain of bookstores in New York City that is causing the independent book shop ‘ The Shop Around the Corner’ to slowly go under. Unbeknownst to Joe and Kathleen, Kathleen runs this independent book shop and harbours a particular dislike for ‘Fox Books’.

The film then follows how each of the two characters navigates this online relationship and the everyday realities of life. Joe learns of Kathleen’s identity online and consequent events result in their everyday lives becoming sour before eventually Joe reveals himself to Kathleen. She confesses that she had hoped her online love was Joe.

Hanks plays Joe with a frantic confusion as if he is unable to understand the attraction he feels for Kathleen. When he travels to meet her for the first time he questions himself, yells, and mumbles, before eventually asking his friend to see her first. Hanks wonderfully captures a man who despite longing to finally meet the woman he loves fears revealing what could lie behind a virtual identity.


11. Apollo 13 (1995) dir. Ron Howard


Ron Howard directed Apollo 13 with the aim of making the film as scientifically and technically accurate as possible in the hopes of creating a semi-realistic portrayal of the 1970 Apollo 13 mission. The goal of the mission was to land upon the moon however after an oxygen tank exploded the only goal became securing the three astronauts safe return back to Earth.

Tom Hanks plays Jim Lovell the astronaut in command of the Odyssey and the other two astronauts. Hanks establishes him as a loving father and caring husband. Prior to the mission he and his wife hold a party and their small intimate moments create an affectionate on-screen relationship. Hanks skilfully also depicts Lovell’s other great love, the moon, portraying him gazing at the moon with eyes of wonder while his wife watches nearby.

Hanks’ soft facial expressions change slightly between gazing at his wife and at the moon revealing Lovell’s ambitious nature. Once upon the Odyssey and after the explosion, Hanks depicts Lovell with an initially cool manner but it becomes clear he is heart-broken flying so close to the moon and having his chance to walk upon it brutally taken away by circumstance.

Hanks skilfully depicts Lovell’s realisation his dreams are shattered as the moon visually passes before his eyes before depicting his mounting desperation to return to Earth. He becomes terser and snaps more easily as the astronauts begin to bicker among themselves before finally enforcing a truce. Hanks skilfully captures Lovell’s changing emotional state as he veers from enamoured, joyful, heart-broken and desperate, to the final relief of returning home.


10. Turner and Hooch (1989) dir. Roger Spottiswoode

Turner & Hooch (1989)

The opening of Turner and Hooch encapsulates Tom Hanks’ character so effectively that after watching the opening scene the audience is wholly acquainted with Scott Turner and his mannerisms (Tom Hanks). The friction between Turner and the dog Hooch, caused by the unpredictable nature of Hooch, consequently forms the central focus of the film.

Tom Hanks initially portrays Scott’s highly methodical and rigid daily routine. He is uptight, and follows the rule book to the letter, his house is ordered, and any mistake or mess is quickly and efficiently set straight. As a police officer he investigates the small crimes of his homely small town and when one of the townspeople is murdered his dog becomes the only eye witness.

Scott’s desire to solve the case takes priority over his dislike for the messy, smelly, and rambunctious Hooch and he takes him into his home. Hanks skillfully portrays Scott’s ingrained militaristic tidy nature when he shows Hooch around his home introducing each new living area with a fixed set of rules. However Hooch promptly destroys Scott’s house leading Scott to try and abandon him at a local vets where he meets the beautiful veterinarian.

Hanks depicts Scott’s changing nature from uptight to more open to change by skillfully portraying Scott’s increasing affection for Hooch. Initially Scott is unresponsive to Hooch, he ignores him shouts at him, and cannot communicate with any of Hooch’s signals.

This changes however when Scott opens up to Hooch, and Hanks’ portrayal of Scott’s increasingly affectionate conversations with the dog are some of the best scenes in the film. They also show off Hanks’ acting ability, as he navigates Scott’s changing emotions throughout the scene, both following the curve of the scene whilst reacting to an unpredictable animal.


9. Saving Private Ryan (1998) dir. Steven Spielberg


Saving Private Ryan is often cited as one of the most visceral depictions of war notably because of the film’s visually graphic opening.

This is another Tom Hanks film directed by Steven Spielberg and along with Forrest Gump has been selected by The National Film Registry to be preserved for future generations. Hanks plays Captain John Miller the head of a troop of six men charged with the task of locating Private James Ryan (Matt Damon). They are given the orders to bring Private Ryan home following the deaths of Ryan’s three brothers in the same day.

The film thus focuses upon Miller trying to best direct his troops to navigate war-torn France. His troops are rowdy and frequently test Miller and Hanks portrays Miller often taking the back-seat in important events. This creates a particularly interesting character one whom clearly displays militaristic expertise yet often refrains from exercising complete control.

Moreover he is portrayed as a character that can empathise with the German fighters, acknowledging that despite being enemies they are also men with families and Miller sets a German fighter free. Unfortunately this action proves fatal for Miller when later in the film the escaped German fighter shoots Miller leading to his emotional death.

Hanks plays Miller as a man fully aware of the atrocities of war and of knowing the awful acts a human can commit whilst showing a brotherly and sometimes fatherly love for the members in his troop. When a member of his troop tries to leave, Miller coolly divulges his history as an English teacher trying to communicate his desire to unite the group to finish the mission quicker.

Ultimately Miller is portrayed as a man caught up in the War whom accepts that while he is unable to go home yet he will at least try to do the best for his troop.