Hello. My name is Alex Navarro, and I have a confession to make. I have seen every Nicolas Cage movie.
Throughout his 40-year career, a version of Cage has emerged that has become the de facto shorthand for what a Nicolas Cage performance is supposed to be. You’ve seen it in clips, in stills, in memes. It’s the bug-eyed Cage, face contorted into an uncanny position. Maybe he’s screaming, or maybe he’s staring silently, but it is the vision of Cage that people have latched onto, ironically or not. It is far from the only version of himself Cage has presented over his 100-plus films, but it’s the one that’s stood out, a fact that Cage has always seemed a touch uncomfortable with. It’s not difficult to understand why. For as many offbeat and utterly wild performances as he’s given over the years, reducing that career down to a series of gestures and wails feels unfair. He’s given numerous soulful performances that required none of that expressionistic mugging, performances that are as grounded and mesmerizing as any other great actor’s. His range is something that never quite gets the credit it deserves, either because of the way we tend to reduce him to his most meme-y traits, or because of his long stretch in the VOD desert, taking projects more for the sake of continuing to work than for their notoriety.
At the same time, I’d be lying if I didn’t say I found my way into Cage fandom through the exact sort of ironic appreciation that I just spent an entire paragraph more or less decrying. I don’t remember what my first Cage movie was, but I’m pretty sure it was in or around his blockbuster era, when he was screaming about Zeus’ butthole in The Rock and lasciviously describing his peach-eating habits in Face/Off. It wasn’t until later though, when I came across some of his earlier and more batshit works, that my love of his presence really set in. It was somewhere between discovering the ludicrousness of Vampire’s Kiss and the nightmarish romanticism of Wild at Heart that I became something of an obsessive. There is no other actor on the planet I have ever developed this sort of fixation upon, this need to consume everything that they attach their name to.
From the Oscar-winning highs to the direct-to-streaming trash pile, I have consumed it all. And even through those darkest periods, when all there was to experience was low-rent revenge flick after low-rent revenge flick, I almost always still managed to find something of value in there. The number of movies where Cage feels like he’s truly phoning it in are few and far between. Whatever you might think about his choices of projects, the thing you can almost never accuse him of is half-assing it.
But going through the entirety of that catalog is a truly daunting task. 103 films is more movies than most actors ever get to make, and Cage, at 58, shows no signs of slowing down. The forthcoming Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent–in which Cage plays a version of himself for the very first time–will not be his last film by any means, but this movie’s meta-examination of what it means to be Nick Cage, to me at least, marks an inflection point. If you aren’t like me, and haven’t spent a frankly embarrassing amount of time poring over the actor’s work, discerning which of the films from that voluminous body of work are the ones to experience is probably too much to ask. Reader, that’s why I’m here. I’ve done the work for you, and I’m about to give you what I think are the 40 most memorable performances that any Cage-curious person should experience, one for each year the man has been working in film.
Of course, this is just one Cage obsessive’s opinion, and by no means do I think my rankings should be treated as universal. I’m not here to etch anything into stone. I just want you to enjoy the work of my favorite actor as much as I do, and I think these are the performances that will get you there. So, without further ado, let us enter the Cage.
The 40 Most ‘Nicolas Cage’ Performances
40. The Best of Times (1981)
OK, so I know I said above that we’re celebrating 40 years of Cage in cinema here, and that is a (nearly) accurate timetable. His first film role was in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it non-speaking part in Fast Times at Ridgemont High in 1982. However, if we’re going to look at the true breadth of the man’s career, we have to start at the actual beginning, and in this case that is 1981’s failed TV pilot turned TV movie The Best of Times.
Intended as a sort of Laugh-In-style sketch comedy show for teens, Cage is a supporting player in a cast fronted by his former high school classmate Crispin Glover. Watching it now, it’s not hard to see why this show didn’t get picked up. What jokes it has are truly awful even by the low standards of the era, the musical numbers (which include maybe the single worst rendition of “9 to 5” you’ll ever hear in your life) are rancid, and its sole notable star of the time is a grumpy Jackie Mason as a local convenience store owner. And yet, there is something truly fascinating in watching it in the modern era, especially if you have any interest in Cage in particular. He’s the cast’s himbo, a surfer doofus who alternates between helping his nerdy best friend with the ladies and giving a lengthy emotional monologue about his anxieties over being drafted for the coming war in El Salvador (!). Is this really one of Cage’s “great” performances? Probably not, but it’s certainly memorable, and there’s always value in seeing where it all began. Thankfully, the whole thing’s on YouTube if you want to check it out for yourself.
39. Guarding Tess (1994)
There’s a pretty good bit in The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent where Pedro Pascal’s Nick Cage superfan regales a crowd of partygoers with a story of how he and his estranged father were finally able to bond shortly before his death after catching a random showing of Guarding Tess on a hospital television. The joke is, of course, that it is a patently ridiculous idea for anyone to have real feelings toward a movie as lightly forgettable as Guarding Tess, let alone have a true emotional bonding moment over it. But especially juxtaposed against the remainder of Cage’s mainstream comedy output throughout the ’90s (the less said about stuff like Amos & Andrew and Trapped in Paradise, the better), Guarding Tess is honestly something of a highlight.
It’s not a Great Film, but an agreeable enough one that features Cage’s tightly wound secret service agent Doug Chesnic repeatedly squaring off against Shirley MacLaine’s irritable and irrepressible former First Lady Tess Carlisle. MacLaine and Cage have an easy sort of chemistry that makes their repeated clashes a good bit of fun, and while the story doesn’t really go anywhere of note, the movie mostly skates by on the abundant charm of its lead players. It is, in fact, precisely the sort of movie you’d watch with your parents and have a pleasant time with, though I’ll stop short of promising any emotional breakthroughs following your viewing.
38. Dying of the Light (2014) / Dark (2017)
This is a weird one that I’m including as much for the story behind the film(s) as I am Cage’s work. Cage is pretty damn captivating in Dying of the Light, a story about a CIA operative who is slowly degenerating from a form of dementia, and obsessed with finding the terrorist leader who once badly injured him and ended his work in the field. The movie itself? Kind of a drag. It takes an interesting concept and mostly tells a by-the-numbers revenge tale that wouldn’t be notable at all save for the bit of extra oomph Cage gives the character.
As it turns out, there were once grander plans for Dying of the Light that were halted due to a conflict between director Paul Schrader and the producers. To hear Schrader tell it, he was effectively locked out of the editing room, and the producers excised much of the flavor and specialized color grading he intended to apply in post-production. Schrader disowned the final cut of the film, and both Cage and co-star Anton Yelchin posted photos of themselves in T-shirts featuring the text of the non-disparagement clause in their contracts. Crazy stuff! But it doesn’t end there. Three years later, Schrader released Dark, an alternate cut of Dying of the Light using the workprint materials he still had. It’s a shorter version and you can definitely see where he had to DIY some of his ideas into what he had, but it’s a fascinating thing. He even threw the movie up on The Pirate Bay for everyone to see, which I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a director doing before. Is Dark a great film? Maybe not quite, but it’s an unusual little artifact that’s certainly a fascinating watch compared to the original version.
37. Never on Tuesday (1989)
I hope I am not stretching credibility here by including a movie Nicolas Cage appears in for roughly 30 seconds, but I was gonna have to jam one of the actor’s many cameo appearances in here somewhere, and I’m not sure there’s another on his resume that delivers more bang in such a short amount of screen time. In Never on Tuesday, a direct-to-VHS sex comedy about a pair of idiots who get into a car accident with a sexy lesbian in the middle of the desert, Cage pulls up long enough to make an indelible impression and turn an otherwise extremely forgettable movie into an important piece of Cage-ian lore.
To be clear, Cage is not the only cameo here. Charlie Sheen, Emilio Estevez, Cary Elwes and Gilbert Gottfried all make single-scene appearances too, but Cage’s minute of lunacy is the standout. He pulls up in a Ferrari wearing a giant Pinocchio nose and doing his best Emo Phillips voice, asking the stranded motorists if they need a lift before letting out a pained cackle and screeching off-screen. That’s it! That’s the whole performance, or at least what we got in the final edit. To hear Cage tell it, he had a whole character worked out for this cameo, a tragic figure whose father bought him that Ferrari to make up for his horrible childhood being teased as “Pinocchio” for his physical deformity. Director Adam Rifkin says that somewhere, there’s footage of him riffing on this character in greater detail, and I was kind of hoping after I (accidentally) made this clip go viral that someone would have snagged the rights and put out a new release of the movie, perhaps with some of that lost footage. So far, all signs point to that never happening. Oh well.
36. Peggy Sue Got Married (1986)
One of the key things to understanding Nicolas Cage and the trajectory of his career is in understanding how he made use of the advantages he had early on. Cage is, after all, a Coppola, and his uncle Francis certainly wasn’t shy about giving his nephew opportunities, casting him as one of the supporting toughs in 1983’s Rumble Fish, as gangster Vincent Dwyer in the notorious flop The Cotton Club, and as Kathleen Turner’s high school sweetheart-turned-ex-husband in Peggy Sue Got Married. With the exception of Rumble Fish, which he mostly plays straight, Cage seems like he’s actively working to sabotage his role in the others, perhaps out of some desire to break free of the Coppola legacy.
It’s especially glaring in Peggy Sue. Most of the movie is a by-the-books “what if?” time travel story, where Turner’s Peggy Sue passes out at her high school reunion and wakes up all the way back in 1960, where she’s still a teenager and suddenly able to reconfigure the aspects of her life she most deeply regrets. Cage plays Charlie, the man she eventually regrets marrying, and he digs into the role by affecting a nasally voice based on Pokey. Yes, of Gumby fame. Coppola hated the choice and Turner was baffled by it, but he somehow managed to convince his uncle not to fire him from the movie. There’s no good reason for this choice. It’s a distracting affect that doesn’t add anything to an otherwise thin character. He also takes opportunities to confusingly skulk around like Max Schreck in Nosferatu. It’s like he’s trying to do everything he can to never be cast in a Coppola movie again, and as it turns out, it worked.
All of that said, if you want to understand the many wild and often successful choices Cage has made as an actor, it helps to experience the ones that don’t quite pan out. And if nothing else, Cage is far from boring in a movie that sometimes struggles to stay interesting. Peggy Sue Got Married probably needed something off-kilter to give it a boost, it just wasn’t exactly this.
35. The Trust (2016)
The 2010s were not Cage’s highlight decade, generally speaking. Though a few bright spots can be found during this period, much of his work was in the world of low budget, direct-to-video and/or streaming projects that didn’t offer him much outside of a paycheck. To be fair, even in the majority of those movies, you can see Cage trying to extract something memorable out of one low-grade revenge plot or another, and every now and again he manages to seize hold of what would otherwise be a totally unremarkable script and turn in something worthwhile.
2016’s heist flick The Trust is probably the best among those. Cage and Elijah Wood star as a pair of burnout Las Vegas crime scene investigators who stumble upon a drug operation that’s storing their cash in an unassuming grocery store, and make the terrible decision to rob it. Both Cage and Wood bring some terrific energy to what is otherwise a pretty by-the-numbers story about a couple of doofuses wildly out of their element. It’s one of the only examples I can point to from this era of a director (or directors, in this case) letting Cage get all the way oddball with his character, and the movie is far better for it.
34. Zandalee (1991)
When constructing this list, I tried not to harp on too many of Cage’s so-bad-it’s-good type roles. That said, there are a couple on his resume that are too much fun not to include, and this Louisiana-fried turkey is absolutely one of those.
Halfway between a no-budget erotic thriller and a Tennessee Williams melodrama, Zandalee is a story about a love triangle between a sleazebag painter (Cage), a sex-starved wife (Erika Anderson), and her sellout husband (Judge Reinhold). Reinhold’s Thierry has abandoned his writing career to take over at his deceased father’s company, and no longer sexually desires his wife. His wife then takes up an affair with Cage’s Johnny, who also grew up around the bayou with Thierry. Some stuff happens, a fair amount of tawdry sex fills in the margins, and then most of them die.
Listen, this movie is dumb as rocks and only as sexy as a movie that features Judge Reinhold’s bare ass is capable of being, but it’s also kind of fun despite its dour tone. The filmmakers made a grand mistake in casting the affable Reinhold as a salty, tortured Cajun cuckold, but that mistake pays dividends as he attempts to drawl his way through every pained conversation with his terminally horny wife and his duplicitous friend. This all comes to a head in one of my (genuinely) favorite scenes anywhere in cinema, a tense stand-off between the trio that turns into a dance off between Cage and Reinhold as they twirl through a Cajun waltz. Again, this is not a “good” movie, but it’s one that’s stuck with me far more than most of the other failures in Cage’s catalog. It’s worth a watch just for the aforementioned dance scene, and Cage dousing himself in black paint and screaming incoherently for an entire minute.
33. Kiss of Death (1995)
For the most part, Barbet Schroeder’s Kiss of Death is only notable as a relic from the extremely specific period that began in 1995 and ended in 1995 when Hollywood was convinced that David Caruso was the Next Big Leading Man. Kiss of Death is emblematic of why that endeavor didn’t pan out, as Caruso’s off-beat, smoldering energy doesn’t quite work in the context of a sympathetic leading character. He’s mostly overshadowed by just about everyone else in this movie, but that’s especially true of Cage’s weirdo gangster Little Junior Brown. The character on paper is mostly a series of traits (he’s got asthma, he doesn’t like the taste of metal in his mouth, he likes acronyms), but Cage goes for the gusto and largely succeeds at keeping his screen time interesting. Those include one of the stranger 30-second scenes you’ll ever see of a man mourning his father’s death, and another throwaway bit where he’s literally bench-pressing Hope Davis. It’s a highly memorable performance in a movie that doesn’t have too much else worth remembering going on.
32. The Weather Man (2005)
Gore Verbinski’s The Weather Man was not especially well-received by critics upon its release, and audiences didn’t much take to it either. And it’s not too hard to understand why. As an attempt to portray a particular kind of modern American man–the sort that has little actual purpose in the world, and occupies a career space that could cease to exist tomorrow without any major impact–The Weather Man is simultaneously a bit toothless and a bit too nasty. There is a version of this movie that is pure Hollywood confection that is probably worse, but much easier to sell to a mainstream audience. The other, meaner version is probably something closer to a Todd Solondz movie. In trying to toe the line between those two versions, Verbinski’s film is mostly off-putting satire that would be borderline unwatchable without Cage at its center.
As the titular weatherman David Spritz, Cage does his best to break out from the film’s own lack of commitment and turn in something memorable. Spritz is separated from his family, aimless in his local Chicago meteorology career, and living in the shadow of his successful novelist father (Michael Caine, trying his best to be as not-British as he can be). If nothing else, Cage seems to understand the thrust of the character, a guy whose job barely matters and can only succeed by continuing to barely matter in a larger market share. He badly wants to get a job with a national morning talk show because he believes the greater salary and notoriety will fix his familial problems. It is not a uniquely American trait to believe that more money and more success is the panacea to whatever is ailing your personal life, but The Weather Man fixates on the Americanized version of that, and Cage has a perfect bead on a guy who can’t dig himself out of the hole he’s dug for himself because even he can’t see past the path that led to him falling straight into it. If nothing else, you can at least see what the movie was going for, even if, like its protagonist, it can’t quite find its way to where it wants to be.
31. Drive Angry (2011)
In recent interviews, Cage has cited Drive Angry, alongside the likes of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and Ghost Rider, as the sorts of failures that led to his exit from big studio pictures. I’m not here to tell you that Drive Angry is some misunderstood diamond in the rough that deserves a reappraisal. If anything, I think it’s actually quite correctly understood.
After all, what’s not to understand about a movie with a premise like this one? Cage is John Milton, a dead man who literally breaks out of Hell to murder the cult leader that killed his daughter and stole her baby for the purposes of ritual sacrifice. Along the way he befriends a pissed off diner waitress (Amber Heard) and has to outrun Hell’s Accountant (a truly wonderful William Fichtner). In between there are several gun fights, a few car chases, and a couple of feeble attempts at emotional pathos that aren’t quite sticky enough to make you care about what’s happening.
But Drive Angry doesn’t need to make you care to be fun, and it’s mostly fun! It’s a movie where Nicolas Cage drives a muscle car out of Hell and engages in a gun battle while engaged in sexual intercourse, for God’s sake! Yes, it suffers in being one of the more arduous examples of a movie trying to contort itself into a 3D presentation, and everything is monumentally stupid, but there’s enough goofball energy to keep things breezy, and Fichtner is legitimately great as a single-minded Luciferian functionary. I can’t be mad at a movie in which Nicolas Cage drinks cheap beer out of a man’s skull, and you shouldn’t be either.
30. National Treasure (2004)
I hope you won’t mind indulging me as I make a small admission here: I am not the biggest National Treasure fan. It’s fine, and Nicolas Cage is pretty good in it, but I never took to the movie’s central premise of trying to apply the Indiana Jones formula to American history. But National Treasure is unquestionably one of Cage’s most successful movies, and one of the only ones he ever made that got a sequel, and enough people in my social sphere dig this movie that I would have felt like a heel not including it.
And again, it’s not without its charm. Cage as treasure hunter Ben Gates is affable and funny, the supporting cast is solid (remember what life was like before anyone cared what Jon Voight’s politics were?) and as stump stupid as the central conspiracy is, the movie’s pretty good about teasing it out and building some very ridiculous setpieces around it. So yes, I think this is absolutely worth seeing for anyone looking to get into Cage’s filmography, even if it isn’t one of my personal favorites. One thing everyone can agree on, though? There is no need to watch the sequel, 2007’s Book of Secrets. Yeesh.
29. Knowing (2009)
I may be straining here a tad by calling this one of Cage’s more memorable performances. He’s reliably good as college professor-turned-end of the world prognosticator John Koestler, who finds a note in a time capsule buried at his son’s elementary school that appears to show the dates, locations, and death counts of every major disaster of the last 50 years. At the same time, the movie doesn’t ask a great deal of him. He mostly has to look concerned and frightened to varying degrees of severity. I’m including it because I just like the movie a whole lot. Roger Ebert somewhat famously gave this movie the four star treatment when most other critics ignored it, and while I’m maybe not that far in the tank for it, I think it’s one of the best disaster thrillers of the last couple of decades. Rose Byrne is also quite good in it, and the ending goes pretty far off the rails in a thoroughly enjoyable way.
28. The Wicker Man (2006)
Again, I’m really trying not to harp on “so bad it’s good” type performances here, but I would be committing malpractice in not including Neil LaBute’s risible remake of the 1973 folk horror classic The Wicker Man among Cage’s most memorable efforts.
As doomed cop Edward Malus, Cage is dropped into what is probably meant to be a surreally terrifying environment as he visits Summer’s Isle, a remote Pacific Northwest island inhabited by a cultish society where women are at the top of the social ladder, and nothing is quite as it seems. Nothing is particularly good, either. Nothing that’s supposed to be scary is even close, and every dramatic moment feels like a blooper outtake. For his part, Cage has stated firmly that he (and LaBute) knew they were making an absurdist comedy, telling IndieWire “Even though I am dressed in a bear suit, doing these ridiculous things with the matriarchal society on the island–how can you not know that Neil and I knew that this was absurdist humor?”
I want to believe that’s true, and that he’s not trying to issue an after-the-fact corrective in the wake of the response to the film, and maybe there’s something to it. Again, a movie in which Nicolas Cage karate kicks Leelee Sobieski and parades around in a bear suit while screaming for most of the movie’s back third is difficult to categorize as anything but comedy. Whether the humor is fully intentional or not is perhaps beside the point. The Wicker Man is nonetheless very funny, and Cage’s performance is a big reason why it’s perhaps worth laughing with, instead of solely at.
27. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
With apologies to all the members of the Croods Crew out there, I have to be blunt here and say Cage’s history with animation isn’t particularly noteworthy. Those Croods movies are fine, I guess, but beyond that it’s pretty much a wasteland of forgettable CG detritus (Astro Boy! G-Force! The Ant Bully! Anyone? Hello?). There is, however, one exception, and it’s such a wild swing in the other direction quality-wise that it feels a little insulting even bringing it up in the same breath as those other films. I’m of course talking about the Actual Best Spider-Man Movie, Into the Spider-Verse.
Cage’s contribution comes in his portrayal of Spider-Man Noir, one of the handful of other Spider-Men and Spider-Women who appear as a result of the interdimensional fracturing that drives the movie’s plot. Cage is great here, playing up some of his classic cinema influence with his over-the-top gritty narration. The only reason this movie isn’t higher on this list is because this isn’t a list of the best movies he’s ever been in, but the most memorable performances, and while he is very good in Spider-Verse, he’s only in a small chunk of it. Heck, he’s not even the most memorable of the supporting Spiders (John Mulaney’s Spider-Ham is admittedly very tough to beat). Maybe one day we’ll get an all Spider-Man Noir movie where he can really stretch his legs, but realistically, we’ll probably get a Spider-Ham movie before that ever happens.
26. Birdy (1984)
There aren’t too many stories about Nicolas Cage going heavy on method-style acting throughout his career, certainly not in the way you hear about actors nowadays refusing to be called by anything but their character names and affecting traits off-screen to stay in character (Jared Leto, I’m looking at you).
Cage plays Al Columbato in Birdy, a badly wounded Vietnam War vet who has come to a military mental hospital to help his childhood friend Birdy (Matthew Modine). Modine’s character is so traumatized by his experience in the war that he’s stopped speaking and adopted the mannerisms of a bird. For the role, Cage lost 15 pounds and had two front teeth removed in order to better adopt the facial trauma his character suffered.
It’s a fairly extreme choice, especially for a movie that is more deeply curious than good. All the flashbacks to their childhood portray Birdy as a peculiar kid with an obsession with birds and flying. The movie tries to wring a lot of drama out of the mental hospital scenes, but they mostly boil down to Cage yelling at Birdy, pleading with him to wake up, and the ending is so goofily abrupt that it makes you wonder if the whole movie was meant to be a gag. Still, the lengths Cage went to in order to craft this character, and Modine’s total commitment to the bit make Birdy a fascinating piece of work, if not exactly great.
25. Kick-Ass (2011)
Kick-Ass is one of those movies I remember seeing when it came out, thinking, “Huh, that wasn’t bad!”, at which point it promptly exited my brain, naught to return until just recently. I never saw the sequel, and truly it feels like it’s been memory-holed in the ensuing decade, as the notion of irreverent, hyperviolent superhero stories became considerably more commonplace. I mean, the Deadpool movies happened, and the Venom movies, and those Suicide Squads. I’m not saying they’re all good, but we do get a lot of these now.
Still, in revisiting Kick-Ass for this piece, the one thing I did take away from it is that Nicolas Cage and Chloë Grace Moretz are both exceedingly good as Big Daddy and Hit Girl, the movie’s extremely homicidal Batman and Robin stand-ins–though costuming aside, I guess they’re more like The Punisher and a small child who is also The Punisher. Specifically, Cage is going for that Adam West-y presentation, a fact that West himself ribbed him over according to Cage’s most recent AMA on Reddit. That first shot of Cage training Moretz by straight up putting a bullet into her (bulletproof vest protected) chest is as memorably jarring a scene as this movie is capable of producing, and the final scenes where Cage (while on fire, mind you) is screaming support to his little girl as she murks a dozen bad guys is the closest thing Kick-Ass has to a real emotional moment. I do wish we’d gotten a little more of Big Daddy and Hit Girl doing stuff together in this movie, but what’s there is by far the highlight of this otherwise decent bit of superhero ephemera.
24. Snake Eyes (1998)
As corrupt Atlantic City cop Rick Santoro, Cage owns the screen from the moment he steps into frame. The scumbag vibes are positively radiating off him from the jump as he arrives at a huge boxing match to meet up with his good friend, Navy commander Kevin Dunne (Gary Sinise), who is there with the secretary of defense. When the secretary is assassinated during the course of the fight, Santoro finds himself unearthing a grand conspiracy that tests his loyalties in several different directions.
Snake Eyes finds director Brian De Palma liberally indulging in flashy long takes and big setpieces in a story that doesn’t quite cohere all the way, but enough of it works to keep the central mystery captivating, and Cage’s Santoro is one of the actor’s more gleefully scuzzy characters. At the outset, he’s a man bathing in the moderate amount of power he wields as the detective everyone knows they’ll eventually have to bribe, but his slow picking at the threads of this huge conspiracy, and subsequent realization that he’ll have to actually be a Good Cop to salvage this whole thing, is terrifically portrayed. It may not be one of De Palma’s all-time greats, but it’s good enough to make you wish he and Cage had the chance to work together again.
23. Con Air (1997)
Between 1996 and 1997, Nicolas Cage starred in maybe the greatest trifecta of action movies any actor has had in a two-year span. We’ll talk more about The Rock and Face/Off later, but for now we deal with Con Air, definitively the third-best of those movies and probably the one that’s aged most poorly among them. That said, it’s hard to hate a movie in which Cage and his long, flowing mane of prison-conditioned hair take on the worst prisoners among the American penal population on a hijacked airplane. Cage’s Cameron Poe is a former Army Ranger on his way home to freedom from years in prison for a manslaughter charge when the plane is taken over by a rogue’s gallery of killer caricatures. John Malkovich and Ving Rhames are having a ball here as two of the primary villains, and Steve Buscemi stands out as a Jeffrey Dahmer type who the movie goes to altogether confusing lengths to make sympathetic.
At the same time, Con Air is very much a product of its time. Its characters are paper-thin stereotypes across the board, and director Simon West (whose career is like when you ask for Michael Bay, and your mom says “We have Michael Bay at home, honey”) isn’t nearly talented enough to rise above the script’s many deficiencies. But there’s some good, hyperviolent action throughout, and Cage manages to carry an extremely stupid story on his back as Poe, a character that has few defining characteristics beyond a generic sort of heroism and a pleasingly goofy Southern accent. Like I said, it hasn’t aged as well as the other action classics in his catalog, but it’s still as much a signifier of his blockbuster era as those better films are.
22. Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (2011)
If you go picking through the graveyard of Marvel licensed movies prior to their near-total subsuming of American culture, you’re going to find a lot more failures than successes. Nicolas Cage’s rendition of Marvel’s flaming skull of vengeance is one of the rare successes, but definitely not on its first try. The 2007 Ghost Rider movie is about as bad as any of these movies with a budget ever got, though it’s not really a fault of casting. Cage is up for creating an offbeat vision of Johnny Blaze, but the script and direction are devoid of the juice necessary to get anywhere worthwhile.
Cage got another go-around with 2011’s Spirit of Vengeance, and in hooking up with directors Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, he found filmmakers ambitious enough to make this attempt a good bit weirder. Known for their anarchic visual style (best represented in their two Crank films), Neveldine and Taylor trust their star enough to let him apply his “nouveau shamanic” method to the character. And while the Johnny Blaze character is a little less goofy than he was the first time around, the Ghost Rider scenes get a huge lift from Cage swaying his body around like an about-to-strike cobra and some Looney Tunes special effects that make his transformations as darkly comic as they are striking. The movie itself is a mostly fine little tortured superhero story with a son-of-the-devil plot running through it, but Cage feels properly unleashed here, and finds a pair of filmmakers well-tuned to his sensibilities as an actor, one of whom he’d reunite with later.
21. Mom and Dad (2017)
Reuniting with one of his Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance directors in Brian Taylor, Cage has a great deal of fun in this low-budget horror comedy alongside Selma Blair. They play a pair of parents in full-on midlife crisis mode. Cage’s Brent is an aging punk whose rebellious spirit seems all but crushed in a modern suburban wasteland, and Blair’s Kendall isn’t far behind, lamenting the loss of her career and abject boredom in the life she’s made. Their two kids (Anne Winters and Zackary Arthur) are pretty much what you’d expect, misbehaving in the ways kids most often tend to. Certainly nothing that would warrant their own parents murdering them, but that’s the situation they find themselves in as a strange plague sweeps the country, sending parents everywhere into a violent rage aimed squarely at their own offspring.
This is one that is incredibly easy to imagine not working at all in a movie more interested in trying to be remotely serious, but Taylor’s maniacal sensibilities as a filmmaker, and Cage and Blair’s game attitude, keep it afloat. Cage and Blair stalking around trying to devise ways to eliminate their kids is darkly funny, and the late act appearance of Lance Henriksen and Marilyn Dodds Frank as Cage’s now-homicidal parents is a delight. There’s not much plot or character development to speak of, but who needs that sort of thing when you have an extended sequence of Cage taking a sledgehammer to a pool table while singing “The Hokey Pokey”?
20. Valley Girl (1983)
Cage’s first true starring role came in Martha Coolidge’s effervescently enjoyable romantic teen comedy Valley Girl, and right out of the gate, you start to see much of the trademark charm and humor that carried forward into the rest of his career. A sort of “wrong side of the tracks” love story set alternately between rough-and-tumble ’80s Hollywood and the cheerful and unchallenging suburbs of the San Fernando Valley, Cage plays Randy, a New Wave dreamboat who has a chance meeting with Deborah Foreman’s Julie at a house party in the Valley. Julie’s friends don’t understand Randy’s off-kilter punk rock vibes, but she’s drawn in by both the danger of his seedy life and his out-there good looks.
Valley Girl is maybe a bit less notable than the Fast Times at Ridgemont Highs and Pretty in Pinks of the era, but it goes down easy, and Cage is absolutely convincing as a high-energy heartthrob, even when the movie can’t quite make the circumstances around him feel as dangerous as they want them to seem. In 2022, this movie’s vision of dangerous clubs with loud New Wave music and scumbag patrons juxtaposed against the superficially innocent suburbs feels exceedingly quaint, but Cage and Foreman sell the nature of the relationship and have great romantic chemistry. Even apart from all that, the movie’s worth seeing just to hear Cage sneer “Well fuck you, for sure, like totally!” in his best sarcastic Valley cadence.
19. Deadfall (1993)
The first 15 minutes of Deadfall are so blandly sedate that it’s almost like the movie is trying to lull you into a false sense of security. That first blush presents a very sleepy Michael Biehn narrating the unfortunate circumstances that led to the untimely death of his con-artist father (James Coburn), after which he sets out for Los Angeles to hook up with his long lost con artist uncle (also James Coburn). But before he can make that connection, he’s introduced to his uncle’s right-hand man in Cage’s Eddie. Cage doesn’t so much arrive in this movie as crash into it like a tanker truck going full-speed through a mobile home. With his outsized wig, bloodshot eyes, and perpetually sweaty demeanor, Eddie instantly becomes the movie’s gravitational force, which is amazing considering he’s in maybe a third of its total runtime.
But what a third it is! Every second he’s on screen, Cage is huffing poppers, alternately slurring or blasting his lines out at wildly uneven speeds, or screaming a sustained “FUUUUUUUUUUCK” with Rob Halford-like precision. He careens through his chunks of this movie with destructive abandon, and the only real problem is that no other aspect of the movie can meet him at his level. Not even a late-script twist involving a diamond-smuggling crime lord with a mechanical scissor hand can hold up to the absolutely demonic energy Cage exudes here. There would be zero reason to see this movie if not for Cage strapping his particular brand of rocket onto it and aiming it at the sun, but with him doing whatever the hell this is? It’s a must-watch.
18. The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent (2022)
The question has never been whether Nicolas Cage is in on the joke. He’s too sincere and self-aware not to be. The question for me was always whether capitalizing on being in on the joke would ruin the fun of what makes Nicolas Cage so singularly enjoyable. A movie like The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, in which Cage plays a semi-truthful, semi-fictionalized version of himself, could have ended up as a Snakes on a Plane-level piece of pop culture dreck if handled incorrectly. The good news is, it’s nothing like that at all.
The version of himself Cage plays is a former superstar actor who has fallen on hard times, desperate to pay off his debts and hopeful he can land the next big part to rekindle his career. Absent that, he takes an offer to show up at a wealthy Spanish businessman’s birthday party, and encounters Pedro Pascal’s Javi, a Cage superfan who wants nothing more than to be the best of friends with his idol. The CIA, however, believes Javi is a criminal mastermind, and ropes Cage in to play real-life spy to find out what he’s secretly up to.
While Unbearable Weight features no shortage of references and goofs on Cage’s many famous roles, it manages to rise above pure, unadulterated fan service into something memorably funny. This is a movie that will undoubtedly be best appreciated by those well-versed in Cage’s history, but writer/director Tom Gormican does a solid job of maintaining a balance, and letting the burgeoning bromance between Cage and Javi lead the way. Cage and Pascal’s scenes are the movie’s real triumph. They’re hilarious together, and give the movie the heart it needs to survive beyond all the Guarding Tess and Face/Off riffs the audience is already primed for.
17. Lord of War (2005)
Lord of War is the only movie on this list I can point to where Cage plays a uniformly terrible human being and doesn’t try one iota to turn it into something at least vaguely ridiculous. Arms dealer Yuri Orlov–not a real person, but an amalgamation of a character based on stories from real life gun runners–deals exclusively in death, selling arms to the worst governments and violent factions the world over. Lord of War is not a movie about a bad guy that learns his lesson and finds a light at the end of the tunnel. If anything, it is relentlessly cynical, eluding every opportunity to give its central character a path toward morality. Orlov is reflective on what his profession means, but never develops any compunction toward continuing to barrel down the path of profit through atrocity.
It is only by virtue of Andrew Niccol’s sure-handed direction, and Cage’s mesmerizing performance, that Lord of War is in any way digestible. It’s a slick production, stylishly shot and sometimes grimly funny, but it can’t ever shake the fact that it’s about one of the worst kinds of people alive. At the same time, the movie works because Cage doesn’t really try to make you sympathize with Orlov. It’s a charming performance, but it’s the sort of sociopathic charm that makes you feel like you’ve been put through the wringer by the end of his story. There’s no absolution for him, but no real punishment either. He exists and continues to exist because people like him must exist in the world in which we live, or at least that’s what he wants you to believe. And it’s a testament to how good Cage is here that you almost buy it.
16. Matchstick Men (2003)
If you find yourself fond of Nicolas Cage when he’s at his most frazzled and screamy, Ridley Scott’s Matchstick Men is a movie you need to see. As con artist Roy Waller, Cage gives one of his more over-the-top performances in a mainstream film, portraying a man riddled with phobias and obsessive-compulsive tendencies who nonetheless is exceptional at separating rubes from their money. But when a long-lost daughter (Alison Lohman) enters the picture just as he’s planning his biggest score yet, his carefully balanced life is thrown into chaos.
While Roy is mostly a bundle of tics and wild gestures, Cage still manages to convey a lot of humanity throughout Matchstick Men. The moments that stand out most are certainly the ones where he’s twitchily vacuuming his entire house, or screaming at pharmacy customers that he’s going to drag them into the street and beat them until they piss blood. But beyond all that, he and Lohman have a terrific rapport as he teaches his con-curious daughter about what he does for a living. Like any good con story, things go in wild, unexpected directions, but the core story of Cage’s conman coming to terms with the reality of who he is and why he’s like this is its most compelling feature.
15. Joe (2013)
Joe is one of those out-of-nowhere marvels that reminds you just how much range Cage has beyond what the mainstream perception of him tends to be. As the title character, Cage is equally tender and terrifying as an ex-con just trying to get by, working an honest job as foreman on a tree-clearing project while taking care of his dog and a handful of other down-and-outers around his small Texas town. One of those is Tye Sheridan’s Gary, the son of a couple of alcoholic drifters who desperately wants to get him and his sister away from the squalor he’s grown up in, and make a decent life for himself. Joe takes him under his wing, though he finds a great deal of trouble in doing so.
You can picture about a half-dozen ways Joe could have turned into maudlin poverty porn with a less capable director and star at the forefront, but Joe mostly avoids that trap, and Cage’s performance is the guiding light throughout. He’s utterly believable as a guy who doesn’t especially like violence, but recognizes he’s predisposed to it, and tries his best to hold it back until it really matters. He and Sheridan’s father/son-like relationship is a compelling anchor for the film, and though the story is one that’s predestined for tragedy, it’s a heartbreak worth enduring for the sake of experiencing Joe’s central performances.
14. Red Rock West (1993)
This might be one of the most underrated performances of Cage’s career, and one of the more underrated movies of the ’90s, period. Cage plays Michael, a Texas drifter who wanders into Wyoming looking for work, and ends up mistaken for the hitman a wealthy smalltown businessman (a positively slimy J.T. Walsh) hires to murder his wife (Lara Flynn Boyle). Eventually that hitman (Dennis Hopper) comes around, and suddenly everyone’s out to get one another.
The tone of the movie is probably best described as Southwestern Noir, with underhanded characters all lying and cheating one another and periodically attempting murder set against the backdrop of the American desert. It’s got that very specifically early ’90s twangy guitar soundtrack, the kind that evokes Chris Isaak without actually paying the licensing fee for “Wicked Game,” and the atmosphere is thickly dark all the way through to its deeply satisfying conclusion. While Cage is at maybe his least showy here, he’s very good as the in-too-deep Michael, flailing for an exit from this insane plot he’s landed himself in. And honestly, it’s for the best, as the story would have been dragged down by Cage trying to outpace a cackling Dennis Hopper, who hits a slithering high point here. Him and Walsh are as good a pair of villains as you could ask for, and Boyle does some of her best work as Walsh’s scheming wife. Cage might not be the first and foremost reason to see Red Rock West, but when you’ve got this many great actors firing on all cylinders in a movie this tightly directed, that hardly matters.
13. Color Out of Space (2020)
For an actor who frequently trades in violence and off-putting strangeness, Cage has made surprisingly few forays into straight-up horror. He has certainly portrayed characters that lend a horrific, uneasy feeling to otherwise straightforward stories, but straight-up monster stuff? Not much on the resume! It’s a shame, because I think Cage is an actor well-suited for the genre. He clearly loves classic horror, and makes frequent references to the genre and its biggest stars at various points in his career. In a universe where time worked out a little differently, his sensibilities as an actor would have lined up brilliantly alongside the likes of Vincent Price or Christopher Lee.
You can certainly see it in 2020’s adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s The Color Out of Space. Cage plays the patriarch of the Gardner family, who have relocated into the remote New England woods to get away from city life while the mother (Joely Richardson) recovers from cancer surgery. Their bucolic life is, of course, interrupted, in this case by a meteor that lands smack dab in the middle of their property, bringing with it an otherworldly hue and a power that begins to shift all the life around it into something unrecognizably monstrous.
Though the phantasmagoric special effects and deeply unsettling body horror are very much the star of the show here, Cage and Richardson are also exceptional as the slowly deteriorating parents. By the time the movie shifts into full bloodbath mode, Cage is completely off the rails in a wonderful way, and Richardson is doing some of the best work of her career while shouldering some truly nightmarish monster make-up. This movie’s about as good an attempt as there’s ever been to bring a Lovecraft story to the screen, and Cage and Richardson are a huge part of why it works.
12. The Rock (1996)
By the time Cage found his way into the first of his trio of all-time action blockbusters in Michael Bay’s The Rock, he was by no means a sure bet as an action star. He’d been in some very good and well-regarded films, but his sole action credit to this point was the execrable helicopter-focused Top Gun knockoff Fire Birds. Couple that with the fact that he’d be acting opposite the legendary Sean Connery, and Bay’s relative inexperience as a feature film director (he’d only done Bad Boys up to this point), and you can conceptualize a dozen different ways this movie could have been a disaster.
Instead, The Rock still counts among Bay’s very best flicks, and Cage is a big part of why. He brings some welcome eccentricity to the role of Stanley Goodspeed, a government chemical expert in way over his head on a mission to free hostages on Alcatraz Island and disarm a number of VX gas rockets aimed squarely at the city of San Francisco. In the hands of another actor, Goodspeed could have been a bland straight man completely consumed by Connery’s charisma and Bay’s over-the-top action sequences, but Cage’s choice to embody him with his particular brand of harried weirdness makes him a key cog in the movie’s success. Cage and Connery made such a good on-screen duo, they even won an MTV Movie Award for their efforts. If that’s not high praise then I don’t know what is.
11. Mandy (2018)
If you want to find the point in time where business picked up for Cage after years of wandering the direct-to-streaming desert, Panos Cosmatos’ Mandy is the movie I’d point to. Cage plays Red, partner to the titular Mandy (Andrea Riseborough), and the two share a happy, isolated life in the woods in 1980s America. That is until they run afoul of Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache) and his band of hippy cultists. Sand becomes fixated on Mandy as his next convert, and, after she aggressively spurns his laughable advances, violently murders her and leaves Red for dead.
This isn’t too far off from the set-up in many of Cage’s far less-memorable revenge pictures, but Cosmatos is first and foremost a terrific visual stylist, and in building out the surreal margins of this nightmarish world, gives Cage a fantastically psychedelic playground in which to exact his revenge. Even before we get to all of that, Cage is quietly devastating as Red, showing warmth in the moments he and Mandy are together, and pure, unfiltered anguish in the wake of her death. By the time he gets around to literally forging his own battle-axe and taking the fight to the trio of motorcycle Cenobites hired to kidnap Mandy, the whole thing morphs into raucous, bloodsoaked delirium.
10. Moonstruck (1987)
For as great an actor as Cage is, and as many different genres as he’s been successful in, his attempts as a romantic lead tend to be more hit-or-miss. Between the likes of City of Angels, It Could Happen to You, and Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, something about Cage as a by-the-books object of romance has never fully worked. Which I think is why his most successful romantic roles tend to be when he’s portraying someone a little more on the fringes (Peggy Sue Got Married notwithstanding). Nowhere is this more apparent than in Norman Jewison’s Moonstruck, a stone-cold classic romantic comedy in which he plays a weirdo of the utmost pedigree.
Cage is Brooklyn baker Ronny Cammareri, the estranged brother of Danny Aiello’s Johnny Cammareri, who is engaged to be married to Cher’s Loretta. When Ronny and Loretta meet, he promptly lays out the nature of their estrangement (Johnny was indirectly responsible for the slicer accident that cost him his left hand, and eventually his fiance), before threatening to kill himself right there in the bakery. Not exactly a meet-cute, but it doesn’t take long for him and Loretta to begin a whirlwind affair, and it’s a credit to both Cage and Cher that they make such a off-the-wall romance not only believable, but one of the all-time greats.
Ronny is a singularly peculiar object of romantic interest, an opera-loving depressive who looks like he hasn’t bathed in months, yet is still utterly convincing as a man Loretta would leave Johnny for. The whole movie is a treasure that’s only gotten better with age, but Cage in particular sells this nutty character with everything he’s got. Cher more than deserved her Oscar for this one entirely on her own merits, but it’s the chemistry she and Cage have together that make the movie sing.
9. Wild at Heart (1990)
From the terrifying to the romantic, we now bring you to the terrifyingly romantic. In David Lynch’s Wild at Heart, Cage plays Sailor Ripley, a man singularly devoted to Laura Dern’s Lula. Lula is equally smitten, but Lula’s mother Marietta (a screeching-mad Diane Ladd) wants the delinquent Sailor gone from her daughter’s life, and repeatedly meddles in their raging romance. So they flee their small South Carolina town and drive out west, while Marietta’s agents and other dark forces follow.
It truly bums me out that Cage hasn’t found another opportunity to work with Lynch, because it’s clear from the start that the director completely understands his sensibilities as an actor. The best directors know exactly when and where to deploy Cage’s sometimes perplexing energy, and in Sailor, Cage is an ideal Lynch protagonist. He’s handsome in a ’50s greaser sort of way, prone to outbursts of violence and affection in equal measure, and deeply obsessed with his snakeskin jacket, which he counts as a symbol of his individuality and belief in personal freedom. And his chemistry with Dern is unlike anything else he’s had in his career. They apparently spent some time in Vegas together to get on the same page about their on-screen relationship, deciding that the two should act as almost a single character. It works brilliantly, as Cage and Dern feel utterly inextricable from one another, in love in a way that is reckless and desperate.
This is also the most successful entry in Cage’s brief Elvis phase, though it’s more inspirational than the more explicit Elvis references in his career. The part where Cage stops a thrash metal concert dead in its tracks so he can sing “Love Me” to Dern counts among both Cage and Lynch’s all-time great scenes.
8. Face/Off (1997)
In my social circles, there’s an ongoing debate about whether Cage’s greatest action role is in The Rock or Face/Off. As you can probably guess by the placement here, I come off on the Face/Off side. I adore The Rock, but Face/Off is so much more off-the-wall, both in premise and style, that I can’t help but love every stupid second of it.
If it weren’t for the directorial panache John Woo is best known for, combined with the incredible hambone acting of both Cage and John Travolta, Face/Off’s face-swapping nonsense would never have a chance of working. As terrorist Castor Troy and dogged government agent Sean Archer, Cage and Travolta are tasked to not only play one another’s character, but also frequently play impressions of their original character as interpreted by the one they’ve switched to. It’s layers upon layers of weirdo acting, and while Travolta has a little less heavy lifting to do on that front, he avails himself admirably. That said, Cage’s version of Travolta’s Sean Archer is honestly the more captivating of the two, though I’d be a liar if I didn’t say his true highlights were all the early-movie mugging and headbanging between gunfights as Castor. Combine all that with some all-time great action scenes from one of the best directors to ever blow shit up–my god, that boat chase–and a great deal of unnecessary slow-motion camera work, and you’ve got a recipe for a straight-up action classic.
And before you ask, yes, Cage and Travolta won Best On-Screen Duo at the 1998 MTV Movie Awards. Back to back wins for Cage! Who else can say that?
7. Pig (2021)
Much of the last decade of Cage’s output has been spent in the same sort of purgatory a number of other actors from his generation have ended up in, churning out low rent revenge movies with names like Rage and Vengeance: A Love Story. On paper, Pig sounded a bit like those movies with a bit of a goofy twist: What if instead of avenging the woman he loves or the family that’s been lost, Nicolas Cage sought revenge for a truffle pig he loves that’s been taken from him?
However, Pig is something else entirely. As reclusive chef Robin Feld, Cage cuts as quietly devastating a figure as he’s ever created as he runs roughshod over the city of Portland looking for his beloved pig. But instead of shotgunning his way through the city’s underworld, he instead mournfully drifts around the people and places he once knew, and willfully abandoned for a cabin deep in the woods and a life of quiet subsistence with his best pig. Michael Sarnoski’s film is a small wonder, gentle and subversive in places where you’d expect it to go big and violent, and it continuously finds ways to surprise as it builds to its incredible conclusion. And at the center of it all, Cage is amazing, wearing every grievous injury he’s suffered, both physical and emotional, with grace and humanity all throughout. He turns what could have been a merely strange confection of a movie into a nourishing feast.
6. Leaving Las Vegas (1995)
As chronic alcoholic Ben Sanderson, Cage (deservedly) won his only Academy Award to date for his portrayal of a man determined to drink himself to death. It’s one of the most impactful performances he’s ever given, and also one of his hardest to watch. I truly did not know where I would end up putting this movie on this list, as I hadn’t seen it in years prior to writing this piece. I’ve always appreciated the performance, but mostly avoided returning to it in recent years out of a worry that, in a modern context, it might feel too showy and romanticizing of suicide.
There are definitely some aspects of Leaving Las Vegas that haven’t aged gracefully. Its cloying jazz soundtrack and oversimplified writing of Elisabeth Shue’s character feel very much of their time. But Shue is entirely worthy of the award nominations she received for her portrayal of Sera, the woman who takes Ben in as he enters the final stages of his descent, and Cage is sincerely harrowing as Ben. You can easily imagine a version of this performance that’s nothing but showboating ticks and wailing sadness, but Cage only rarely touches that territory. The movie doesn’t waste much time fleshing out why Ben is in the spiral he’s in, but it’s enough to know that he sees no end to it beyond the one he’s laid out for himself. The moments he and Shue share together are as touching as they are heartbreaking.
Does Leaving Las Vegas romanticize Ben’s suicide? I don’t think so. It’s a performance that shows a man rotting from the inside, decaying spiritually before his body catches up. It does require you to at least consider the idea that a suicidal person can’t be saved if they aren’t willing to be, and that’s a bitter pill to swallow, especially in the much more mental health and substance abuse conscious world we live in now. The central relationship is also a bit tougher to fully accept in retrospect, as Sera indulges Ben while he crashes and burns. These are two broken people trying to enjoy some time together before one of them inevitably shatters. Whether you believe that shattering is truly inevitable will have a lot to do with where you land on Leaving Las Vegas. No matter where you land, though, Cage is astonishing in this movie. And now that I’ve said so, I probably don’t ever need to watch it again.
5. Raising Arizona (1987)
There are two distinct ways in which Nicolas Cage in Raising Arizona is kind of a bummer. One, it’s a shame that Cage so rarely got to exercise his slapstick comedy chops past this film, because he’s a truly underrated comedic actor, even outside his usual peculiar choices. Two, watching him in this movie, it’s impossible not to feel pangs of sadness in knowing that he never worked with the Coen Brothers again, because I can’t think of a director(s)/actor combo that feels more natural. He’s precisely the kind of actor that should–and at least in this film, does–thrive on the kind of energy the Coens bring to their projects, and in reading that they apparently didn’t get along very well in the process of making Raising Arizona, it’s hard not to mourn the thought of what could have been.
But hey, at least we got Raising Arizona, for my money one of the funniest films ever made, and a top three in my personal Coens list (Fargo and No Country for Old Men are the others, before you ask). As semi-reformed crook and would-be father H.I. McDunnough, Cage is hilarious from the opening sequence, as he woos and eventually marries Holly Hunter’s correctional officer Ed. He and Hunter are at the top of their respective games here, and standouts among a cast that doesn’t have a single unmemorable performance. This is one of those movies I end up loving more and more every time I watch it, and I’m dying for another director to utilize Cage’s zany gifts again as well as the Coens do here.
4. Adaptation (2002)
This movie would probably rank highly even if it weren’t as good as it is, strictly for the fact that you’re getting two Nicolas Cages for the price of one. But it also ranks highly because it’s a flat-out incredible movie, some of the best work from not only Cage’s career, but heavy hitters like Meryl Streep and Chris Cooper as well. Cage plays both an imagined version of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and his twin brother, Donald, who does not exist in real life. If you’ve ever seen one of Kaufman’s movies, you can easily imagine how he might portray himself: nervous, sweaty, utterly devoid of confidence. Donald, on the other hand, is all misplaced confidence and reckless abandon. He wants to be a screenwriter like his brother, and has no qualms about creating the kind of generic Hollywood garbage Charlie refuses to touch. Charlie, however, can’t get his latest screenplay going, an adaptation of journalist Susan Orlean’s nonfiction book The Orchid Thief that he simply can’t find a way to turn into a movie.
Where Adaptation goes from there is as sensationally strange as any movie on this list. That’s par for the course with Kaufman’s work, but I think Adaptation might be the best–ahem–adaptation of his writing. The choice to turn what may have genuinely been an unadaptable book into a metanarrative about the person trying to adapt it is truly one of the wildest swings any screenwriter has ever made, and Cage is remarkable in the dual role, giving Charlie all the fretting pathos you can handle, while making Donald just different enough to feel like his own character (who still comes across as a guy who would have grown up alongside someone like Charlie). This is truly one of the great films of this century so far, and I swear I’m not only saying that as a Cage fan.
3. Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009)
Werner Herzog is yet another director I am dying to see collaborate with Cage again. Herzog knows how to wrangle actors with unusual energy, having found a way to harness the unruly rage in Klaus Kinski for several difficult years. Cage is nowhere close to a Kinski-level malcontent, and also a much better actor to boot, so forgive me for wishing that Herzog would make him his new muse, because they craft something truly special in Port of Call New Orleans.
If you’ve avoided seeing this movie because it sounds like a dumb retread of Abel Ferrara’s original Bad Lieutenant, disabuse yourself of that notion now. The film has nothing to do with that movie, outside of also featuring a lieutenant who is bad. Cage’s lieutenant is a New Orleans cop who suffers from debilitating back pain after jumping into Hurricane Katrina flood waters to rescue a prisoner trapped in a jail cell. He develops a severe drug addiction, and slowly comes unglued as his corrupt tendencies collide with his sincere desire to bring a murdering drug lord (Xzibit, in one of his better performances) to justice.
This movie isn’t all Cage rage and extremity. There are plenty of quietly reflective moments peppered throughout, and Herzog is more than happy to inject a bit of his own unique flavor into the mix, periodically cutting to handheld camera shots of alligators and iguanas for seemingly no reason other than he thought it would be neat. But when Cage does go for the gusto, he delivers some of his all-time best scenes. The scene at Xzibit’s house where he goes on about his lucky crack pipe and then instructs his thugs to shoot a dead guy again because his “soul is still dancing” is one of those scenes I go back and watch frequently, separate from the rest of the movie. It’s deliriously good stuff.
2. Vampire’s Kiss (1988)
If there is a single film in Cage’s filmography one could point to in order to neatly sum up the extremes he is uniquely capable of bringing to the profession of acting, I would point to Vampire’s Kiss. As Peter Loew, a loathsome literary agent who becomes convinced he’s slowly turning into a vampire, Cage has never been more electrifyingly strange at any point in his 40-year career. Moreover, it is utterly impossible to imagine a version of this movie that does not feature Cage’s singular performance. He doesn’t so much star in the film as club it over the head and sling it over his shoulder, single-handedly carrying it to where it needs to be.
Any written descriptions of what Cage does in this movie feel inadequate. You’ve probably seen clips shared around the internet of his face slowly morphing from simple irritation into bug-eyed mania, his infuriated recitation of the alphabet to his beleaguered therapist, him blurting out a pained “BOO HOO” like a depressed cartoon, him running down the street screaming “I’m a vampire! I’m a vampire!” All these individual moments are unbelievable, but taken as a whole, they amount to a truly overwhelming performance. He takes a character that, on paper, isn’t much more than a B-grade Patrick Bateman, and turns it into something otherworldly. This is the movie that made me love Cage as a performer. It’s the movie that convinced me he had so much more to offer than what is generally asked of him as a blockbuster leading man. It’s the movie I will always show people when they want to understand why I love Nicolas Cage. Is it his best, Capital A Acting? Probably not, but Cage has been on record calling it his favorite movie he’s made, and who am I to disagree with that assessment?
1. Bringing Out the Dead (1999)
If there’s any movie in Cage’s filmography that feels like it has been unfairly forgotten, Martin Scorsese’s Bringing Out the Dead is the one. I’m speaking relatively here, as it’s not like anything on the resume of a filmmaker as celebrated as Scorsese could truly be forgotten. But it’s the one movie I wish came up more when talking about Cage’s greatest performances, because I think there’s a strong argument that it’s his greatest, period.
As EMT Frank Pierce, Cage is utterly engrossing as a man hanging on by the barest of threads. He’s haunted by his months-long streak of not saving anyone, he’s barely sleeping at all, and he desperately wants to be fired. Unfortunately, there are too many medical emergencies happening night in and night out in early ’90s New York, and his boss can’t part with him. Amid the frantic nights and ever-changing partners (he pairs up with John Goodman, Ving Rhames, and Tom Sizemore throughout the film, each doing some of their best work), he befriends the daughter (Patricia Arquette) of an elderly man who keeps going into cardiac arrest, before being brought back time and time again.
Scorsese finds a way to use just about every part of what we know Nicolas Cage can bring to the table. He brings out truly convincing anguish in the film’s most tragic moments, and expertly deploys his scenery-chewing mania in just the right places. No matter how frantic and flashy the film itself gets–and it features some of the most creatively jarring cinematography and editing anywhere in Scorsese’s filmography–Cage keeps everything grounded. He transfixes you as he takes you on a harrowing tour of the pains that plague the city, of those who try to alleviate it, and of himself. People should talk about Bringing Out the Dead as one of Scorsese’s best, and again, I think it might be Cage’s greatest all-around effort. Please, seek this one out if you’ve never seen it. It’s a marvel.
Alex Navarro is one of the co-founders of Nextlander, and a co-host of The Nextlander Podcast. You can find him on Twitter at @alex_navarro.