What Are Tom Hanks’s 4 Good Movies? An Investigation.

What’s Tom Hanks’s personal Hanks ranks?
Photo: Brendon Thorne/Getty Images

About his long career, how many good movies has Tom Hanks made? Twelve? Twenty three? Forty-seven? According to Hanks himself in a recent interview with people, the answer is four. And that’s with the qualification that these four were not “very good” or “near great” but merely “pretty good.”

Now, it’s entirely possible that this is just false modesty and that deep down Hanks actually agrees with the rest of us that the number of good films he’s made cannot be counted on one hand. However, it’s also worth remembering that Hanks does have a habit of speaking quite harshly about his past work. As Anne Helen Petersen notes, he once dismissed Bachelor Party as “a sloppy rock-and-roll comedy that has tits in it” and recalled asking himself on the set of Turner & Hooch“Did I really work this hard and invest all this care for a movie called Turner & Hooch?” Meaning that Hanks might not have just been being a little cheeky in the people interview. Maybe he truly believes that he has only made four “pretty good” movies.

The question we’ll try to answer today: What are those four movies?

Before we dive in, there is one potential clue in that people story. The “four movies” tidbit occurs in the context of Hanks talking about his experiences in film production. “Moviemaking is very hard work over a very long period of time that consists of so many moments of joy slapped up against an equal number of feelings of self-loathing,” he says. The interview is pegged to his first novel, The Making of Another Major Motion Picture Masterpiecea decades-spanning look at the inspiration and production of a fictional blockbuster, which Hanks says depicts “’the accidental judgments and casual slaughter’ that go into a motion picture’s dictum to hold ‘a mirror up to nature.’”

Crucially, “accidental judgments and casual slaughter” would seem to only apply to live-action film production, not animation, every frame of which is painstakingly planned in advance. This leads me to my first assumption: Hanks is not including any of his voice or motion-capture work in his count. He may very well think that the Toy Story movies are good because he’s a human being with a heart and a brain, but making them is a fundamentally different process than the one Hanks alludes to in having produced the four good films. So no animation, got it?

Another assumption I’m going to make is that none of these four movies came out before the early ’90s. Per Petersen, in a 2001 Esquire profile, Hanks categorized his filmography up to and including 1990’s Bonfire of the Vanities as his “pussy” period, allegedly telling his agent, “I don’t want to play pussies anymore…I want to play man who have experienced bitter compromise in their lives and try to deal with the ‘one damn thing after another’ of what our lives are.” While his emotions may have settled in the three decades since, it seems likely that if Hanks is setting a high bar for quality, he still feels none of his early work would clear it.

What else doesn’t make the cut? Probably his directorial debut, That Thing You Do. As Hanks told The New Yorker in 1998, he felt he had “screwed up” the movie by throwing his weight around too much. And probably The Da Vinci Codewhich he called “hooey” in the New York times back in June. In the same interview, he also described The Green Mile as “one of the most presentational movies I’ve ever been in … all heightened reality and not naturalistic at all.” He didn’t mean it as a dig, but if it was one of the four, he probably would have spoken differently.

In Hanks’s narrative of his career, he didn’t find meaning until he decided only to take roles that, as he told Oprah in 2001, would “entertain, educate, and enlighten.” (At some point afterward, he added a fourth E, “enthrall.”) It seems likely that Hanks feels his four good films all passed the test, and luckily, he told Oprah about two titles he felt were successful on that front. “People want to discover specific things about a world unlike their own,” he said, “whether it’s how hard it is to go to the moon or how scary it is to be on Omaha Beach.” So that’s our first two: Apollo 13 and Saving Private Ryan, both of which Hanks often mentions fondly in other interviews. In the New Yorker profile, he proudly mentioned how he’d worked with Steven Spielberg to reconfigure his role in private Ryan from the “stock, one-dimensional war hero” he’d been in the original script, while in the times Q&A, he called Apollo 13 “the first time where I was saying, ‘This is the type of artist who I want to be.’”

That gets us halfway there. What about either of his Oscar-winning films, Philadelphia and Forrest Gump? Funnily enough, Hanks discussed both films with the times this year, and his preference seemed clear. The big headline from the interview was Hanks saying he didn’t think a straight actor today would be cast as a gay AIDS patient, as he was in Philadelphia, “and rightly so … we’re beyond that now.” He was much more effusive about eraser, which he said was deeper than the “sappy nostalgiafest” it’s remembered as with its moments of “undeniable heartbreaking humanity.” You are free to disagree, but it’s Hanks’s opinion we’re talking about here, and it’s likely that for him, Forrest eraser is one of the four.

We’re down to one open spot. Last year, Hanks appeared on The Bill Simmons Podcast to promote Finch, which I don’t think even Caleb Landry Jones’s mother would put in her top four. But it’s a vital piece of evidence for our investigation because Simmons asked Hanks this question point-blank: What would he choose as his top three Tom Hanks movies? (Simmons took the presence of Forrest eraser in a top four as a given, something Hanks did not dispute, another hint that eraser‘s on the list.)

Unfortunately for us, Hanks swerved in his answer, giving Simmons his three favorite filming experiences, regardless of the quality of the finished work. The first was A League of Their Own because he got to play baseball all summer, and the second was Cast Away because he was surrounded by natural beauty. But the third one was a surprise: the insanely ambitious sci-fi flop Cloud Atlas, in which Hanks plays a multitude of roles, including a hot-tempered author with an earring. While ostensibly discussing what it was like to make the film, Hanks also rhapsodized about “the work itself,” which was shot “on a hope and a dream and nothing but a circle of love … That whole movie was such a deep throw that making it was magical.”

This is not the only time Hanks has mentioned Cloud Atlas unprompted while discussing his best work. “I was called in a movie Cloud Atlas that went right over everybody’s heads,” he told the times. “It said, what is the point of trying to do the right thing when it’s just a drop in the ocean? But what is an ocean but a multitude of drops?” Cloud Atlas and typewriters —Tom Hanks loves complicated, clunky things that have charm even when they don’t always work.

So there you have it. While I don’t think Tom Hanks would ever go on the record about which of his four movies he considers “pretty good,” we can reasonably infer his personal favorites are Forrest Gump, Apollo 13, Saving Private Ryanand Cloud Atlas. I guess you could say Tom Hanks’s taste in his own movies is like a box of chocolates — you never know what you’re going to get.

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