The ''Knight and Day'' star is our favorite elder statesman-in-waiting

By Jess Cagle
Updated July 02, 2010 at 04:00 AM EDT

Why does Tom Cruise belong on the Must List? Because we’re rooting for him. Because we stopped caring ages ago about his religion and those few months back in 2005 when he went crazy. Because we’re tired of people dumping on him. Because at 48, he looks amazing. But mostly because we love movies and we love filmmakers who care about movies — and that would be Tom Cruise. No movie star has a longer, better track record for surprising and delighting us, whether he’s dancing in his briefs in Risky Business or playing a graying hitman in Collateral or losing his s— in Magnolia or giving his masterpiece of a performance in Jerry Maguire or stealing Tropic Thunder as the profane studio exec Les Grossman. His sketches on the MTV Movie Awards last month remain a highlight of the summer. His new film, Knight and Day, goes well with a box of popcorn, but it isn’t a blockbuster. The truth is, movie stars aren’t the commodities they once were, and Cruise’s name above the title doesn’t guarantee massive box office. But it does mean that even if a film isn’t great, even if it’s not your cup of tea, it’s probably at least as good as it can be. Cruise is one of the most intuitive film-makers in the business. That’s why the best directors (like Steven Spielberg, Michael Mann, J.J. Abrams, Stanley Kubrick, the list goes on) have signed up with him. And he has learned a lot from them. We’re looking forward to the day when Cruise isn’t expected to jump off buildings and generate huge opening weekends. We’d like to see him direct, and see him in more character roles that tap into his own anger and complexity and sense of humor. He’s on his way to becoming a kind of elder statesman of movies. Now he’s the guy who can teach young filmmakers a thing or two — and not just that it’s really hard to live down showing too much of yourself to the public.