By Jeff Labrecque
Updated December 04, 2012 at 09:10 PM EST
  • Movie

If actors were baseball players, the back of Tom Cruise’s baseball card after more than 25 years at the top might resemble that of Hank Aaron, the one-time home-run king. The Hall of Fame slugger was famous for hammering out one workmanlike 40-home-run season after another, ultimately amassing career totals that surpassed flashier, more spectacular players. Now 50, Cruise’s raw statistics have been so amazing for so long, you almost take his excellence and appeal for granted. His films — in which he is practically always the star — have grossed more than $3 billion, and 16 of them have topped $100 million at the box office. He’s been nominated for three Academy Awards and worked with an eclectic circle of directors that includes Steven Spielberg, Stanley Kubrick, Paul Thomas Anderson, and Martin Scorsese. Like Aaron, Cruise has rivals who may have had better years, but no one’s had a better Hollywood career.

It’s a career that’s being celebrated and examined this month by New York’s Film Society of Lincoln Center. On Dec. 17, before a sneak preview of his next film, Jack Reacher, Cruise will sit down with Kent Jones, the New York Film Festival’s director of programming, for a conversation about his most iconic roles. And during the subsequent three days and nights, the Film Society will screen seven of his most essential films, from Risky Business to The Last Samurai.

The other five Cruise films in the retrospective are Top Gun, Rain Man, Born on the Fourth of July, Jerry Maguire, and Mission: Impossible, but once you dig in to his resume, you realize you could easily build a second (or third) Cruisefest with a completely different set of films. The Film Society included three of my own personal Cruise-essentials — Top Gun, Rain Man, and Jerry Maguire — and you can’t not include Risky Business, the movie that made him a bankable star at the age of 21. But there’s also his passing-of-the-torch pairing with Paul Newman in The Color of Money; his Oscar-nominated turn in Magnolia; and the overlooked sci-fi hit, Minority Report. Me personally, I might swap in Collateral for The Last Samurai, and A Few Good Men for Mission: Impossible.

Like anyone else in his business, Cruise has had his share of ups and downs, on the screen occasionally but mostly off of it. He doesn’t shrink from life in the Hollywood fishbowl and his very public religious beliefs have alienated some fans. He became a punchline for jumping on Oprah’s sofa, and his dismissive comments about psychiatry insulted some people with real needs. But for any real movie buff, his work as an actor and once-in-a generation Hollywood star remain beyond reproach. It’s undeniable when you’re staring at the back of his baseball card, or in his case, his BoxOfficeMojo page. (How many successful actors would’ve killed to have one of Cruise’s “bad” years?) And it’s undeniable when you re-watch Rain Man, in which he completely embodies a simmering, bitter man intent on reclaiming his inheritance from the emotionally-challenged older brother he never knew. It’s an amazing achievement that emerges more and more from the shadow of Dustin Hoffman’s more showy performance with every viewing.

I’m not going to ask you to build-your-own personal festival — though feel free to list those picks in the comments — but what would you name as Tom Cruise’s greatest film?

Tickets for An Evening With Tom Cruise at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater go on sale next Monday. All proceeds from the event will go to the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s 50th Anniversary Fund, which supports the new education program and emerging filmmaker initiatives.

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Jack Reacher

  • Movie
  • 131 minutes
  • Christopher McQuarrie