The 25 best Tom Hanks films – ranked!

Peter Bradshaw

25. Larry Crowne (2011)

Yikes. This was one of the Hankster’s two directorial credits and it is a dull and lifeless autumn-years romcom, with Hanks playing opposite Julia Roberts, who is every bit as uneasy as the man himself.

24. Elvis Has Left the Building (2004)

Hanks has a cameo as a dead Elvis Presley impersonator here; ironic, as he got Covid-19 while on location in Australia filming Baz Luhmann’s Elvis biopic, in which he was due to play Presley’s manager, Colonel Tom Parker.

23. The Da Vinci Code (2006) / Angels & Demons (2009)

Hanks is the dashing Harvard symbologist Dr Robert Langdon, who deciphers occult signs in Renaissance artworks about Jesus in these clunky adaptations of the bestsellers by Dan Brown (whose books had specified that the hero resembled Harrison Ford).

22. The ’Burbs (1989)

A nosy suburbanite obsessed with his neighbours’ supposed dirty dealings? That’s the role here with which Hanks does his best. Maybe it would have worked better if he was the straightahead good guy whose innocent pastimes were misinterpreted.

21. Road to Perdition (2002)

A darker role for Hanks; notable, although it doesn’t really play to his strengths. He plays a mob hitman in 1930s Chicago who, with his small son in tow, is going to track down the guys who killed most of his family. A high-minded oddity on his CV.

20. Sully (2016)

Clint Eastwood directed Hanks in this true-life hagiopic about the heroic airline pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger III who, with staggering coolness under pressure, landed his damaged US Airways Flight 1549 on New York’s Hudson river and got all 155 passengers and crew off unscathed, only later to suffer an investigation from the contemptible pen-pushers and corporate bean-counters. Not a bad role for Hanks, but it doesn’t quite come to life.

19. Catch Me If You Can (2002)

Hanks is the cool counterweight to a young Leonardo DiCaprio here; he plays the stolid, even-tempered FBI man on the trail of DiCaprio’s notorious teenage conman in this stranger-than-fiction true story. While DiCaprio fakes being a lawyer or an airline pilot, Hanks is the authentic authority figure, who seems to have a sneaking admiration for DiCaprio’s ingenious illegal hi-jinks.

18. Turner & Hooch (1989)

Playing opposite a big adorable dog is something only an adorable actor can do. Hanks plays a cop called Turner, who has to take care of a big, sloppy lovable dog called Hooch who is the only witness to his owner’s murder. There is joint relatability and some inter-species chemistry, it has to be admitted, and this film played an important part in establishing Hanks’s brand identity.

17. Charlie Wilson’s War (2007)

Again, it is weird here to see Hanks play someone who is not the good guy. He is playing something of a cynical slimeball in this true-life political drama from the screenwriter Aaron Sorkin and the director Mike Nichols. Hanks is the 80s Reagan-era congressman Wilson who masterminded the covert war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. He brings natural charisma and presence, but the part-sentimental-part-cynical vibe feels wrong.

16. The Terminal (2004)

Hanks is not like Meryl Streep: accents are not his thing. But here he is giving us an outrageous Ryussh-yun ick-syent as a wacky innocent from a fictional ex-Soviet state who has to live hobo-ishly in New York’s JFK airport terminal building when a coup back home renders him stateless. Stanley Tucci plays the flustered immigration officer who has to deal with him. As so often in Hanks’s CV, his mojo would work better as the kindly authority figure.

15. Cast Away (2000)

Robert Zemeckis’s film, with Hanks as the FedEx employee who is marooned on a desert island, is taken very seriously by Hanks fans; the initial “crash” scene is certainly a corker, and Hanks is also a likable castaway with his tattered trousers and straggly beard, capering with self-congratulatory delight when he makes fire for the first time. But there is something a bit silly about this; with anyone less seductive than Hanks, it would have sunk.

14. Saving Mr Banks (2014)

In his senior years, Hanks has a new mastery of playing iconic real-life figures who are part of the US’s pop-cultural landscape. Here he is playing Walt Disney; really, no other casting was possible. He is the kindly, persistent movie impresario persuading Emma Thompson’s cantankerous author PL Travers into letting him do a film version of her creation Mary Poppins. As ever, Hanks is a genius at embodying pure likability and his Disney has to be a nice guy (there is no question of mentioning the darker sides to Disney’s personality). In fact, most people will assume that Disney was naturally like Tom Hanks.

13. Sleepless in Seattle (1993) / You’ve Got Mail (1998)

Maybe it is wrong to bracket these together, at least partly because Sleepless in Seattle is appreciably better: lighter of touch, lighter in heart. In SiS, Hanks is still in his big-haired younger-man mode, but by YGM, he is older with smaller hair. But, of course, it is still very much Hanks in each case conducting a poignantly/hilariously long-range relationship with Meg Ryan and jointly becoming the nation’s sweethearts. They work well together, without a doubt.

12. The Post (2017)

Hanks is an actor born to work with Steven Spielberg; in many ways, he is the actorly embodiment of what Spielberg is as a director, and he gives a richly entertaining and watchable performance as the renowned Washington Post editor and liberal lion Ben Bradlee, sparring amiably with his boss Kay Graham (Streep) as they chase the Pentagon Papers scoop in 1971, which paved the way for the paper’s Watergate investigation. In this role, Hanks delivers pure Jimmy Stewart decency straight into your veins.

11. Splash (1984)

A great early role for the boyish and unthreateningly cherubic Hanks, who at the time was considered by some pundits insufficiently like a leading man. He is the single guy who falls for the mermaid who saves him from drowning and who comes to Manhattan to get wet and reveal her true nature in his bathtub – although the film adroitly swims around the potential for smut. Darryl Hannah is terrific in this (and there is a Hollywood sexism story to be told in the list of Hanks’s female leads whose careers have faded while his has motored ever onward). Hanks first sneakily gained cinemagoers’ love in this film, as the boy-next-door who is the man-next-door.

10. Philadephia (1993)

A key moment in Hanks’s early-90s golden age, winning an Oscar in this courtroom drama for playing a gay man who contracts HIV and sues his employer for wrongful dismissal. In some ways, the film conforms to the “liberal balancing” template by pairing Hanks with Denzel Washington as his personal-injury lawyer who is a soon-to-be-reformed homophobe, and there is a new debate now about straight actors playing gay. But nothing could have signalled empathy and respect more clearly than casting Hanks. It is a Hollywood “issue” movie, yes, with the self-consciousness that this implies; but Hanks brings intelligence and sensitivity.

9. Captain Phillips (2013)

You do not expect to see Tom Hanks in an action movie, but that is what’s happening in this gripping hijack thriller from the director Paul Greengrass, based on a true story. Hanks plays the merchant navy captain in charge of a colossal container ship as it sails round the Horn of Africa, a great big slow-moving easy target for Somali pirates with semi-automatic rifles, motivated by poverty. Hanks gives a great performance as the authority figure under stress; the good guy who, like everyone else, is at the mercy of the vast globalised forces of capital.

8. Big (1988)

This fantasy comedy, directed by Penny Marshall and written by Gary Ross and Anne Spielberg (sister of Steven), features Hanks in his über-Hanks role, the breakout part that really did put him on the map. It is a role that speaks to everyone who feels in their heart that they are impostors, deeply implausible as adults and basically bewildered (or excited) little kids. Hanks plays Josh Baskin, the boy who resents the rules laid down for kids, wishes to be big and then … well … be careful what you wish for. Like no one else, Hanks could persuasively embody an adult with adult presence who is nonetheless someone with a child’s innocence and fun. (Try to imagine Tom Cruise doing it, and you realise how quickly it could be a scary movie.) It is never better demonstrated than in the giant toy piano scene, with Hanks joyously dancing on the keys.

7. Saving Private Ryan (1998)

Another great Spielberg-Hanks pairing, with Hanks rising to the challenge of a big movie on a big subject. He is the everyman hero Captain Miller in the second world war after D-day who leads a platoon whose purpose is to find Private Ryan (Matt Damon) on the field of battle and order him home on compassionate grounds, because all his brothers have been killed. Importantly, Miller is not a professional soldier, but a teacher in civilian life, someone who feels the burden of leadership keenly, but with great modesty and seriousness: a matter of civic values rather than macho heroism. He also has to try concealing that he has a tremor in his hand. The paradox of Hanks is that he is pure Hollywood star quality mixed with self-effacement and it works very well in a drama where the huge impacts of warfare distract you from the acting.

6. Bridge of Spies (2015)

One of the very few Hanks movies in his later period in which he goes toe-to-toe with an actor of equal heavyweight stature – and the result is a balanced double act, rather than a Hanks leading turn. Mark Rylance plays the Soviet spy Rudolf Abel in early 60s America, whom the US government was about to hand over to the Russians in a spy-swap at the Glienicke bridge linking east and west Berlin, the “bridge of spies”. This hair-raisingly dangerously manoeuvre is planned by Abel’s modest but courageous lawyer James Donovan, played of course by Hanks; a man whose amateur enthusiasm and impulsiveness marks him out as a non-diplomat, but someone who nonetheless gets things done. Hanks’s Donovan is superb: homely, wily and sweet, an inspired straight man to the deadpan humour of Rylance’s spy. “Aren’t you worried?” Hanks asks Rylance, who comes back with: “Would it help?”

5. A League of Their Own (1992)

“There’s no crying in baseball!” Hanks delivers a classic axiom in this Penny Marshall gem, about the foundation of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League during the second world war. He is the grumpy former baseball star who hit the skids due to booze, and is now given his comeback chance by managing what he derisively thinks is an absurd novelty: a female baseball team, featuring Geena Davis, Rosie O’Donnell and Madonna. It’s when he yells at right-fielder Evelyn Gardner (played by Bitty Schram) for screwing up that she begins to cry, and he lets her have it with that iconic line. Perhaps this is the one and only time that Hanks fully inhabits an unsympathetic role, and that is probably only because we know it’s just temporary, and that he is basically a father/brother figure, subordinate to the women and bound to be redeemed by them.

4. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019)

If Hanks has a late-period masterpiece, it is his extraordinary work in this film about the real-life US children’s TV presenter Fred Rogers in the late-90s, when he was sliding out of fashion and a little derided by the media establishment. However, he succeeds in profoundly impressing a cynical hardbitten magazine journalist (played by Matthew Rhys) who has come to interview him. This is a genuinely complex, difficult-to-read performance from Hanks, who creates an amazingly detailed, eccentric collection of physical and vocal mannerisms based on the real Rogers, quite different from the aw-shucks routine that people might more readily associate with him. It is especially amazing when he asks Rhys to remain absolutely silent with him over lunch in a restaurant for a solid minute so that they can reflect on the people important to them.

3. Forrest Gump (1994)

Look upon the colossal importance of Forrest Gump in Hanks’s career and in 90s Hollywood generally, ye mighty arbiters of taste, and despair! If not despair, exactly, then sadly concede the massive showbusiness firepower that Hanks brought to this folksy parable of … what exactly? Robert Zemeckis (second only to Marshall and Spielberg as a Hanks director) shot this Zelig-ish, or John Irving-ish story of a young man growing up in the 50s with learning difficulties (as no one then phrased it) and a low IQ, whose essential innocence, niceness and luck cause him to rise to greatness, with a college football career, distinguished service in Vietnam, mastery of table-tennis, a thriving shrimp-fishing business and then brilliance in stock-market investment – and he becomes a national celebrity for running across the whole country. It is the walk and halting voice that nail it (he was to modify it a little bit, arguably, for his performance in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood). Forrest Gump was made in Bill Clinton’s 90s, but Gump is pure Reagan: the simple patriot who wins through.

2. Toy Story (1995) / Toy Story 2 (1999) / Toy Story 3 (2010) / Toy Story 4 (2019)

The pure essence of Hanks is distilled for his inspired vocal role as Woody in Pixar’s glorious animated Toy Story movies. He voices the pull-string cowboy figure who is the favourite toy of Andy, but in danger of being supplanted in his affections by astronaut Buzz Lightyear (voiced by Tim Allen), just as westerns were supplanted by space-race-inspired sci-fi in America’s heart generally. Hanks’s vocal work in these movies is a total joy, and it is one of the most heartwarming, heartrending pieces of casting in Hanks’s career. It also puts him under pressure as an actor in a way few of his other films have, especially in TS2, when his old toy comrades tell him to forget about being the favourite of fickle kids and instead embrace being the pampered possession of adult collectors, because children will only break your heart. There is greatness in this.

1. Apollo 13 (1995)

Something very, very wrong has happened and the whole world holds its breath. The Nasa moon missions, which the US and every other country had come to take for granted as an untarnished, ongoing success, look like becoming a terrible catastrophe. In 1970, the Apollo 13 spacecraft suffers an onboard explosion on its way to the moon, depriving it of most of its electric power and oxygen. There is every chance its astronauts will die, in real time, on national television. Who can save them and all of us? Who can pluck a pyrrhic victory from this defeat?

The answer of course is the solid, dependably heroic Hanks, playing Apollo 13’s modest commander Jim Lovell, on whose memoir this movie is based. It is directed with a sure hand by Ron Howard, creating a wonderfully well-made, suspenseful, exciting, poignant Hollywood classic. Hanks is an actor who has something Nasa-ish in his own professionalism, a guy who has refined and fortified his technique over a long period of time and just gets on with it. Cleverly, it is the calm and unshowy Hanks who negotiates the loss of innocence involved in all this: the Apollo 13 near-miss was the event that showed that the US was not all-powerful and also caused the country to begin losing interest in moon landings.

Importantly, Hanks leads the operation that brings Apollo 13 and its pilots back, unharmed, and brings our idealism back to Earth as battered but also unharmed. This was a heroic adventure, given an added piquancy by the fact that they didn’t get what they wanted. And Hanks embodies all of this: tough, resourceful, a leader, a pragmatist and a modest hero.