I’m not going to say that Nicolas Cage is the best actor of his generation. I am going to say he’s the strangest. Nicolas Cage is his own genre. After studying the greats, he conceived his own school of acting. He calls it Nouveau Shamanic. Nic Cage is a shaman. He connects with a world of spirits, one to which only Nic Cage has access, and enacts for us what he experiences. Could we ask any more from an actor? Should we? Imagine an actor out-Cage-ing Cage. What would happen? Would a black hole open up on the spot and suck the entire universe into its maw? I see no reason to suppose otherwise.
Nic Cage turned 50 at the beginning of the year. He’s starred in over 50 movies, beginning with a brief part in Fast Times At Ridgemont High in ’82, when he was 18. He’s the kind of actor who isn’t happy unless he’s working, and aren’t those the most fun? His parts aren’t precious. He chooses whatever grabs him, be it a big-budget studio picture, or something small and bizarre. As he put it in a ’88 interview, “I figure that in order to succeed in the film business, you can’t be afraid to roll the dice. And as long as I’m betting, I want to bet everything I’ve got.”
His is a face impossible to look away from. And look at that face! Is that a movie-star face? Not by any normal definition. Cage is magnetic in a way that can’t be taught and can’t be learned. It’s all in his eyes. Even in his earliest roles, he’s got the eyes of a man who’s seen too much. You want to hear what the man has to say. Even if what he’s saying is completely bonkers. Which it often is.
Listing Cage’s ten best movies is not an easy task. Should one solely consider the overall excellence of his movies? Or should one zero in on Cage’s performances, whether or not they appear in less than stellar pictures? For this list, I’ve leaned toward the former, without, I hope, ignoring the latter. Will you disagree with some choices/omissions? You will. Because you are wrong.
For example, this list does not contain the flaming-skulled weirdness of Ghost Rider, the wholesome family mystery of National Treasure, the Pokey-voiced antics of Peggy Sue Got Married, the bizarre freakiness of Vampire’s Kiss, nor the wounded soulfulness of Birdy. It does contain ten highly watchable movies. Some are flat-out great. Others less so. All contain Cage at his shamanic best.
10. Valley Girl (1983)
Cage’s first starring role, as Randy, a Hollywood punk from the wrong side of the tracks, who falls for valley girl Julie (Deborah Foreman), the sweater and leg-warmer wearing daughter of a pair of aging hippies (her dad is played by Frederic Forrest, last seen searching for mangoes as Chef in Apocalypse Now). It’s your basic Romeo And Juliet set-up, minus the double-suicide. And for a pre-John Hughes ’80s teen comedy, it’s even pretty good. Why? Cage.
It’s his first big movie, he’s only 18, and already he knows who he is. He’s the young version, but it’s all there in those eyes. He’s a guy who knows what he wants and will do anything to get it. He doesn’t care if Julie’s from another world. All he knows is that he loves her. He wears his heart on his sleeve. You can’t watch this movie and not know that this Cage kid is going places.
9. Moonstruck (1987)
In which Cage plays Ronnie, the one-handed hot-headed baker, younger brother to Johnny (Danny Aiello), who’s engaged to Loretta (Cher). The role wasn’t written to be as dark as Cage made it. Loretta tells Ronnie he’s a wolf, and Cage took it to heart, bringing a loopy forlorn intensity to Ronnie. His scenes make the movie.
Moonstruck was a big hit, and for those not yet wise enough to know or care about Joel and Ethan Coen (whose second movie, starring Cage, opened earlier that year), it’s the movie that opened their eyes up to Cage’s potential as a Hollywood leading man. Said Cage of his new-found fame at the time, “I feel like there’s a big, wet fish slapping itself against the inside of my head right now.” Exactly.
8. Con Air (1997)
The ‘90s were a grand era for outrageous, absurd, big-budget action movies. Directors had more money, higher high-concepts, and better special effects than they did in the ‘80s, and 9/11 had yet to come along and depress the hell out of everyone (thus leading to our past decade of dark and serious—yet just as stupid—action movies), so if nothing else, these movies had a sense of fun about them.
Con Air is certainly one of most outrageous of the lot. Cage plays Cameron Poe, an innocent man on a doomed plane, with some sort of southern-ish accent, and more reliance than ever on his deep, soulful eyes. And hair. Cage is renowned for great hair in his movies, and Con Air is no exception. Producer Jerry Bruckheimer said Cage told him, “I’m going to be a cross between Elvis and Gregg Allman.” We would expect nothing less.
The story has a plane full of highly dangerous criminals taking control and attempting some sort of something or other that results, as surely it must, in a crash landing on the Vegas strip. So it’s like Die Hard on a plane, but with nine or ten Hans Grubers for Cage to contend with.
You have to respect the casting of the movie, which includes John Malkovich as an abuser of bunnies, and Steve Buscemi as the most dastardly monster of them all.
7. Red Rock West (1993)
How can you resist a movie that opens with Cage doing one-armed push-ups on a lonely desert highway?
Cage plays Michael, an ex-Marine drifter looking for a job in this neo-noir classic by writer/director John Dahl. He finds himself in Red Rock, Wyoming, where a bar owner, Wayne (the great, late J.T. Walsh), mistakes him for Lyle, a Texan hit-man he’d contracted to kill his wife, Suzanne (Lara Flynn Boyle). Offered a stack of cash, Michael takes the job. And then, as in all noir, things don’t work out so well.
Michael is a good man at heart. He doesn’t want to kill anyone. Also, he doesn’t want to be killed. He tries to get out of town clean. Then tries again. And again. The “Welcome To Red Rock” sign turns into a running joke. Cage plays the part with his best sad-faced world-weariness. He knows he’s in a mess. He knows getting out’s going to be ugly. It all goes a bit over the top at the ending, with Dennis Hopper, the real Lyle from Texas, turning up for a showdown in a cemetery. A good place to end a film noir.
6. Adaptation (2002)
Here’s a movie people love. I am not one of them. I like parts, I like ideas, I do not like the thing as a whole. It winds up feeling exactly like the cop-out writer Charlie Kaufman spends the movie claiming it is.
Also—it stars Nic Cage as twin brothers Charlie and Donald Kaufman. He has amazing hair. He gives two beautiful performances. Two for the price of one. It’s hard not to be impressed with Cage in this. It is, after all, a strange and unique movie, with Kaufman’s flair for deadpan dialogue shining through.
Really, you can’t say enough about Cage’s hair in Adaptation. It almost out-acts him. But not quite. Cage overpowers it in the end. He’s completely convincing as a creepy, sweaty screenwriter you want nothing to do with.
5. Leaving Las Vegas (1995)
Mike Figgis’s Leaving Las Vegas is not a movie I love, but there’s no denying that Cage’s performance as a man purposefully drinking himself to death is marvelous. Cage won his only Oscar for it. And Elisabeth Shue gives what must be the best performance of her career as the prostitute with a heart of gold he falls for.
Their relationship is the story, the rules of which are simple: she won’t tell him to stop drinking and he won’t tell her not to be a prostitute. Complications ensue. It’s all rather gritty and bleak. The performances are what saves the movie from being a cliché. As is his wont, Cage leaps over the top, but seeing as he’s playing drunk the entire time, it feels perfectly natural. He is a drunken shaman.
So Cage capped off a decade’s worth of work winning the Oscar in this bleak, low-budget drama. What did he do next? A string of big-budget action flicks. Guy likes to keep us guessing, doesn’t he?
4. Wild At Heart (1990)
David Lynch’s follow-up to Blue Velvet disappointed many upon its release. It’s still only semi-admired. I’ve grown to like a lot about it. After all, it’s Lynch. There’s nothing else like it. It’s a kind of romantic noir set in hell, with The Wizard of Oz’s yellow brick road running though the middle of it, featuring a cast including Harry Dean Stanton, Crispin Glover, Willem Dafoe, and Jack Nance of Eraserhead and Twin Peaks.
Cage plays Sailor Ripley. He wears a snakeskin jacket. Laura Dern is his girl, Lula Fortune. They’re crazy in love. They take off to California, but Lula’s mom (Dern’s actual mother, Diane Ladd) hires various weirdos to hunt them down, bring back Lula, and kill Sailor.
Cage plays the part like a southern gangster. With great hair. The scene where he stops a speed-metal band and leads them in Elvis’s “Love Me” is sublime. Cage’s performance here is a kind of peak for him. He’d taken his unique weirdness in many directions during the ‘80s, and it all came together with Sailor—intensity, heart, romance, and total commitment to the odd.
3. Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009)
Cage made a lot of less than stellar movies in the ‘00s, so when it was announced that he’d be starring in a re-make of Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant, and that Werner Herzog was directing, there was much rejoicing.
Though as Herzog explained before shooting it, it was not to be a remake any more than a James Bond movie is a remake of the previous one. Told that Abel Ferrara was going to fight his making it, Herzog said, “Wonderful, yes! Let him fight!…I have no idea who Abel Ferrara is. But let him fight the windmills, like Don Quixote.”
Cage plays Terence McDonagh, a post-Katrina cop in New Orleans. He is a man who starts out on the edge, and dives over the other side by the end. He injures his back doing something stupid, and gets hooked on pain meds. He does a lot of other drugs, often with his prostiture girlfriend. He owes big to bookies. He works a case that leads to some mighty bad characters. His partner is played by Val Kilmer. He’s got a lucky crack pipe.
What else do you need to know? This is a brilliant movie, and it’s brilliant because of Herzog and Cage, whose distinct styles elevate what would otherwise have been a fairly standard crooked cop story, albeit a well-written one, to a plane you’d never expect, one including hallucinogenic lizard visions. The bit with the iguanas will stay with you forever.
2. Face/Off (1997)
In case Con Air didn’t provide you with a sufficient dose of Cage in the summer of ’97, John Woo’s Face/Off hit theaters three weeks later. Whereas Con Air is a straight-ahead cornball action movie, Face/Off is, in a word, operatic in its lunacy.
Cage plays some kind of evil terrorist named Castor Troy, who does indeed have a brother named Pollux. Castor killed the young son of supercop Sean Archer (John Travolta) while trying to kill Archer, so Archer’s eager for revenge. Castor and Pollux have put a bomb somewhere in LA. Archer needs to find it.
No use going into more of the convoluted plot, other than the part where, for reasons which make perfectly sound, logical sense, Archer has a doctor remove his (Archer’s) face and stick on a replica of Castor’s face, so that Archer (as Castor) can enter the prison where Pollux is being kept, and learn where the bomb is hidden.
Meanwhile, Castor forces the doctor to give him Archer’s face. That’s right. We now get Nic Cage doing his impersonation of John Travolta doing an impersonation of Nic Cage, and vice versa. Sometimes, my friends, the movie gods deliver. It’s almost hard to say who’s better. But I’m going to say it anyway: Cage is. He kills it as Travolta.
Face/Off is easily John Woo’s best American movie. The action sequences are as wild as his Hong Kong movies, with the bonus of these two highly expressive actors going as big as they can. By the end of this movie there is not a shred of scenery left. Travolta and Cage have eaten it all.
1. Raising Arizona (1987)
Granted, it’s an early role in a long career, but when the stars align, the stars align. The Coens went from their first movie, the noir Blood Simple, to this, their first comedy, about H.I. (Cage), an oft-convicted robber, and his new wife, Ed (Holly Hunter), and their quest to have a child. A quest that leads them to steal one of the Arizona quints.
There is nothing about this movie that isn’t awesome. I love it with every atom of my being. Cage’s hair reigns supreme. It beats out his hair in any other movie without breaking a sweat.
H.I. is a simple man, but a philospher just the same. His desire for a family is outweighed only by the fear he’ll never escape his thieving ways. The matter comes to a head when escaped con brothers Dale and Evelle Snoats (a baby-faced pair played by John Goodman and William Forsythe) show up at their doorstep looking for H.I. to join them in a bank heist.
Worse still, the theft of Nathan Jr. has released the biker from hell, AKA Leonard Smalls (Randall Tex Cobb), into the world. H.I. has his hands full, and not just with Huggies.
Cage imbues H.I. with a depth of longing rarely seen. The world weighs heavily on his shoulders. He’s got an inner fire, but life keeps trying to tamp it down.
It’s impossible to imagine another actor nailing this role the way Cage does. The Coens knew exactly what they were doing in hiring him. It’s a perfect match of actor, role, and filmmaker(s).
Cage has of course grown as an actor. He’s capable of many things beyond what he played in Raising Arizona. But there’s a kind of perfection in Raising Arizona that he’s never topped. For me, it’s almost like Raising Arizona isn’t even a Nic Cage movie. It’s a movie featuring H.I. McDunnough. Cage embodies him so completely I forget it’s Cage acting.
Whereas so much of the pleasure of later Cage roles is in how large he looms. You can’t forget it’s Cage. Which is not a bad thing. It’s why we love him. He grew into himself. He grew into a nouveau shaman.