1. Forrest Gump (1994)

IMDB Rating: 8.8/10
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 70%

Storyline: Forrest Gump is an Alabama man with a low IQ who ultimately but unwittingly has a hand in many defining moments of the second half of the 20th century. From teaching Elvis his hip-wiggling dance to serving with honor in Vietnam and running across the country for three years straight, his journey inspires everyone around him.

Why it’s a major performance: Tom Hanks’ role as Forrest Gump is one of his most iconic. Here, he displayed a marvelous range of acting ability, transforming himself into a character significantly different from his own personality. He was able to show immense sensitivity and naïveté in this role, portraying a character who remains sincerely optimistic in the face of severe adversity.

Why it’s a major performance: Hanks was awarded the Best Actor Oscar for his role in Forrest Gump. Critics applauded the emotional depth and subtle humor he brought to the character, a narrative voice that carries the audience through multiple decades of American history. Through a physically demanding role that saw Hanks running cross-country, he added an element of physical comedy that showcased his versatility as an actor.

2. Saving Private Ryan (1998)

IMDB Rating: 8.6/10
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 93%

Storyline: Set during the Invasion of Normandy in World War II, the film is notable for its graphic portrayal of war and for the intensity of its opening 27 minutes, which includes a depiction of the Omaha Beach assault. The narrative follows an Army Ranger Captain John H. Miller (played by Hanks) and his squad as they search for a paratrooper, Private First Class James Francis Ryan, who is the last surviving brother of four servicemen.

Why it’s a major performance: Saving Private Ryan highlights Hanks’ ability to create an unforgettable character in the context of a gripping narrative. As Captain Miller, he convincingly conveys the strength and fatigue of a wartime leader burdened by the safety of his men and the gravity of their mission.

Why it’s a major performance: The subtlety of Hanks’ performance, coupled with the emotional complexity of the character he portrays, makes Saving Private Ryan one of his most intense and compelling roles. His nuanced performance of a World War II captain was nominated for Best Actor at both the Academy Awards and the Golden Globes.

3. Cast Away (2000)

IMDB Rating: 7.8/10
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 88%

Storyline: In Cast Away, Hanks plays Chuck Noland, a FedEx executive who endures a plane crash and becomes stranded on a deserted island. Faced with survival and solitude, Noland is pushed to his physical and psychological limits.

Why it’s a major performance: Hanks’ portrayal of Chuck is as physically demanding as it is emotionally deep. He was required to lose and gain weight for the role to depict the stark change in his character’s physical state as he spends years stranded on an uninhabited island.

Why it’s a major performance: Isolation and survival storytelling require a performance that can convey a gamut of emotions without much dialogue or interaction with other characters, a task Hanks expertly achieves. He was nominated for Best Actor at the Academy Awards, recognized for his ability to engage audiences on multiple emotional levels in a role that was largely silent.

4. The Green Mile (1999)

IMDB Rating: 8.6/10
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 78%

Storyline: The Green Mile is an adaptation of Stephen King’s novel in which Hanks plays Paul Edgecombe, an empathetic prison officer, overseeing inmates on death row during the Depression. When a new prisoner displays strange and miraculous powers, Edgecombe’s life is forever changed.

Why it’s a major performance: Hanks effectively portrays a compassionate man wrestling with his duty and morality. As Paul Edgecombe, Hanks conveys grace, dignity, and humaneness while continually being confronted with suffering, despair, and the challenging issues of capital punishment and racial injustice.

Why it’s a major performance: Through Hanks’ natural ability to radiate likeability and warmth, he provides a sharp contrast to the bleak and brutal reality of prison life, effectively engaging the audience and propelling the story forward. This role exhibited Hanks’ ability to play a determined and complex individual, demonstrating the depth and range of his acting talents.

5. Catch Me If You Can (2002)

IMDB Rating: 8.1/10
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 96%

Storyline: In Catch Me If You Can, Hank portrays Carl Hanratty, an FBI bank fraud agent hot on the trail of gifted con artist Frank Abagnale Jr. Hanks shows off his comedic chops as the dogged straight-man opposite Leonardo DiCaprio’s charming Abagnale Jr., as he tirelessly pursues him while growing to form a synergy with the young fraudster.

Why it’s a major performance: Hanks captivates as a character who is equally compelling as the film’s protagonist. His performance provides a balance of humor and criticality that keeps the movie lighthearted despite its dire implications.

Why it’s a major performance: Despite a supporting role to DiCaprio, Hanks’ deft portrayal of Hanratty steals many scenes as he too becomes transformed by the engagement with Abagnale Jr. The performance showcases another dimension of Hanks’ acting spectrum, effectively playing a supporting character but still leaving an unforgettable imprint on the film.

6. Philadelphia (1993)

IMDB Rating: 7.7/10
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 80%

Storyline: Philadelphia tells the story of Andrew Beckett, a gay lawyer who is fired from his prestigious law firm upon the discovery that he’s HIV positive. Hanks earned his first Oscar for his remarkable portrayal of a man battling both homophobia and a deadly disease.

Why it’s a major performance: Hanks delivers an emotionally powerful performance characterized by sensitivity and courage. He does an exceptional job of portraying the physical decline and emotional turmoil experienced by his character, earning him widespread recognition.

Why it’s a major performance: His role in Philadelphia is hailed as groundbreaking. It was one of the first mainstream Hollywood films to acknowledge HIV/AIDS, homosexuality, and homophobia. Hanks’ nuanced, brave and heartfelt performance brought to life a character who helped change audience’s attitudes and Hollywood’s portrayal of LGBTQ+ characters and the AIDS crisis.

7. Big (1988)

IMDB Rating: 7.3/10
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 97%

Storyline: Big follows the story of a 12-year-old boy who wishes to be ‘big’ and is transformed overnight into an adult. Hanks excels as he portrays the childlike wonder, naivety, and fear of his character, trapped in a man’s body and navigating the adult world.

Why it’s a major performance: Hanks’ performance in Big is a testament to his versatile acting skills. He wonderfully portrays his character’s innocent disposition and youthful charm despite the adult setting, convincingly embodying a child trapped in a grown-up’s body.

Why it’s a major performance: Despite his rather young age at the time, Hanks showcased an outstanding range in his performance in Big, earning him his first Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. His role in this film has since become one of his most memorable and adored.

8. Captain Phillips (2013)

IMDB Rating: 7.8/10
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 93%

Storyline: Captain Phillips is based on the true story of the 2009 Maersk Alabama hijacking, an incident during which merchant mariner Captain Richard Phillips was taken hostage by Somali pirates. Hanks’ portrayal of a man thrust into an unimaginable scenario drew rave reviews.

Why it’s a major performance: In this high-stakes thriller, Hanks delivers an intensely emotional performance, distilling the fear, bravery, and eventual trauma of his character with incredible conviction. His portrayal of Captain Phillips demonstrates his ability to portray real-life characters authentically and convincingly.

Why it’s a major performance: The performance is largely praised for honoring the real Captain Phillips without any melodrama or over-acting, presenting a highly relatable and humanized hero. Hanks’ final scenes, in particular, drew significant critical acclaim for their grit and rawness, even eliciting Oscar buzz.

9. Apollo 13 (1995)

IMDB Rating: 7.6/10
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 95%

Storyline: Apollo 13 is based on the events of the 7th manned mission in NASA’s Apollo space program, which resulted in a critical situation when an oxygen tank exploded. Hanks plays astronaut Jim Lovell, who keeps his crew focused as they work tirelessly to get back home safely.

Why it’s a major performance: This film showcases Hanks at his best in a true-life disaster tale. Because of his character’s iconic line, “Houston, we have a problem,” his portrayal of Jim Lovell has become one of Hanks’s most memorable roles, solidifying him as a credible lead for drama films.

Why it’s a major performance: The gripping storyline and harrowing circumstances of the characters called for a performer capable of capturing the urgency and importance of the situation. Hanks delivered on all fronts, depicting the calm and determined leadership of his character in the face of life-threatening peril. His portrayal conveys not only the gravity of their situation but also the quickly weakening hope and growing desperation of a man thrust into a survival scenario.

10. Toy Story (1995)

IMDB Rating: 8.3/10
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 100%

Storyline: Toy Story revolutionized animated movies. Hanks voices Woody, a pull-string cowboy doll who is the favorite plaything of a young boy named Andy until a flashy space-ranger action figure named Buzz Lightyear arrives.

Why it’s a major performance: Hanks’ animated debut as cowboy-doll Woody in Toy Story has become one of his most iconic roles. Bringing warmth, charm, and plenty of personality to the character, Hanks made Woody a beloved figure not just for children but also for adults.

Why it’s a major performance: The Toy Story franchise has become one of the most successful animated film series of all time, and Hanks’ performance has been integral to that success. His ability to bring a plastic toy cowboy to life, making the character endearing and relatable, is a testament to his incredible acting range and his enduring appeal. It further underscores Hanks as a diverse talent, far-reaching beyond only live-action roles, but also voice acting.