Nicolas Cage. For all his box office and awards success, the actor has evoked a polarizing response in recent years.
One moment, he stars in a critically acclaimed movie that earns several prestigious award nominations. In the next, he stinks it up with a ham-fisted performance that practically no one, not even Nic Cage himself, will enjoy seeing.
This mystery about Nicolas Cage might account for the reason he remains so relevant today. He just feels like a different kind of performer. He's fearless, driven, and wants to take any and all roles thrown at him, defying any attempts by the media or award circuits to label him as a major box office draw or the star of a flop waiting to happen.
From some of his earliest career-making performances to a handful of his latest off-the-wall performances, here are some of Nicolas Cage's greatest films, ranked from best worst.
1. Raising Arizona
Among Cage’s first starring roles came with his performance as a serial shoplifter, H.I. McDunnough (or “Hi,” as he likes to be called) in Raising Arizona.
The second film made by the now iconic Coen brothers, Raising Arizona, tells the story of Hi’s attempts to leave his criminal lifestyle behind when he meets and falls in love with one of his arresting officers, Edwina (Helen Hunt). When the couple realizes that Edwina cannot have children, the two kidnap a baby from a wealthy family, prompting a state-wide search for the missing toddler.
Fans of the Coen brothers’ work will know this movie is the most radically different kind of film you’d expect from the Academy Award-winning duo, both story-wise and tonally. The movie has the same madcap energy of a 1930s screwball film, with Cage perfect as the hyperactive, Cary Grant-esque leading man.
While on paper, it may not seem like the most appealing performance (Nicolas Cage playing a live-action cartoon character), Cage’s acting is well-balanced. He’s able to traipse from lighthearted comedy protagonist to concerned father and husband, to a criminal trying to leave his old self and lifestyle behind for the sake of his family.
Loretta Castorini (Cher) is a thirty-six-year-old widow set to marry a man (Danny Aiello) she doesn’t truly love. When her fiancé travels to Sicily to take care of his ill mother, Loretta meets and falls for his unstable, hot-headed younger brother (Cage), who holds a serious grudge against his elder sibling.
Cage’s performance as Johnny might get a little campy at times — in some instances, he seems almost to be lapsing into his best Marlon Brando impression — but the energy he brings to certain scenes makes this movie, along with his remarkable chemistry with Cher. It’s a role that earned Cage his earliest critical acclaim, including a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor (Comedy or Musical).
3. Leaving Las Vegas
Cage’s first and only Oscar win came in 1996, with his performance as the depressed, alcoholic screenwriter Ben Sanderson in Leaving Las Vegas. Arriving in Las Vegas with plans to drink himself to death, Ben happens across a prostitute named Sera (Elisabeth Shue), with whom he begins a non-physical rapport. As their feelings towards each other blossom into romance, the two contend with each other’s flaws and commitment to destroying themselves: Ben through his suicidal alcoholism, Sera through her dangerous occupation.
Though working with cliché stock characters (the alcoholic with a death wish and the prostitute with a heart of gold), Cage and Shue instill an unbelievable amount of depth into their characters in performances that feel anything but stereotypical. Leaving Las Vegas remains among Cage’s most positively received films in his entire career, with critics praising everything from Cage’s and Shue’s unforgettable acting to the direction and screenplay (all of which would earn Academy Award nominations).
Perhaps not Cage’s best work, but a movie that shows his ability to move across various genres and portray completely different characters, Face/Off is also the movie people likely think of when they hear the name Nicolas Cage (either that or National Treasure).
Sean Archer (John Travolta) is an FBI agent tasked with thwarting a terrorist plot orchestrated by a psychopathic criminal mastermind, Castor Troy (Cage). To accomplish this, Archer undergoes a facial transplant surgery with Troy. Archer’s plan is soon interrupted, however, when Troy wakes up shortly after the operation, using Archer’s identity to wreak havoc on his life.
Among acclaimed Hong Kong director John Woo’s best Hollywood films, Face/Off is sure to be one of the most original action movies you’ll ever see, chock full of twists and turns left and right. At its heart, the movie contains two of Cage’s and Travolta’s most entertaining performances playing their two respective characters and then essentially playing each other. It takes true acting chops to play two roles — the protagonist and antagonist, no less — and as seen with Cage's performance here, it’s an ode to his fluidity as an actor able to switch from camp to dire seriousness in a heartbeat.
5. Bringing Out the Dead
Directed by the legendary Martin Scorsese, Bringing Out the Dead stars Cage as Frank Pierce, a New York City E.M.T. worker who hasn’t been able to save anyone in months. Working the night shift with several different partners (John Goodman, Ving Rhames, and Tim Sizemore), Frank suffers from severe burnout, depression, and exhaustion, experiencing visions of those he was unable to save.
As Frank, Cage hands in a performance unlike anything else he's delivered. He's shaken, scared, exhausted, and anxious, dreading every moment he hears his ambulance’s radio bleep calling him on a job. It may not be the most noteworthy achievement in Scorsese’s or Cage’s lengthy filmographies, but Bringing Out the Dead ranks among the most underrated movies in either of their respective careers.
Aside from Leaving Las Vegas, Cage’s role in Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman’s meta-comedy, Adaptation, earned him the most noteworthy award nominations in his career.
A strange comedy film even by Kaufman’s standards, Adaptation features Cage as a dramatized version of Kaufman himself (as well as Kaufman’s fictional twin brother, Donald), a neurotic, anxiety-ridden screenwriter struggling to complete an adaptation of Susan Orlean’s nonfiction book, The Orchid Thief.
Arguably Cage’s best-acted, most dialed-back role so far, he brings an unparalleled amount of fearlessness in his acting as both the self-loathing Charlie and his always-optimistic, life-loving brother, Donald. A hilarious and original film that has pretty much everything in it (explorations of writer’s block, sibling jealousy, and the Hollywood industry), Adaptation is a movie that remains a highlight in both Cage’s, Jonze’s, and Kaufman’s canon.
7. Lord of War
The 2000s made for an interesting time for Nicolas Cage’s career. He took on a mixed bag of different characters in movies that ranged from decently received drama films to a truly mind-boggling amount of large-budget action movies.
A movie in the former category, Lord of War stars Cage as Yuri Orlov (Cage), an infamous international arms dealer who sells weapons to some of the most powerful and dangerous individuals on Earth. As Yuri contends with the morality of his work (including an estranged relationship with his family), he is pursued by idealistic Interpol agent Jack Valentine (Ethan Hawke), determined to put him away for good.
Another of Cage’s more underrated roles, Lord of War showcases some of Cage’s most mellow, layered character work yet as Yuri, a man who realizes he’s no better than the criminals, dictators, and warlords he associates himself with. When Cage speaks, he does so in a weary whisper dripping with James Bond levels of charm and self-confidence. He’s a man who’s been in the game for a long, long time and seems tired of it. It’s a fascinating character to see Cage play, containing one of his better performances of the 2000s.
8. Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans
A loose remake of the 1992 film of the same name starring Harvey Keitel, Cage plays the titular bad lieutenant, Terence McDonagh, a corrupt, drug-addicted New Orleans police officer investigating the murders of five Senegalese immigrants as his personal and professional life spirals out of control.
Aside from Face/Off, Bad Lieutenant is one of the few movies that feature Nicolas Cage in an antagonistic role. Using his signature energetic overacting to his advantage, Cage’s Terence starts out as someone you hate and only grows more loathsome and unstable throughout. His role may not be as heavy-handed and downright ludicrous as when playing the villain in Face/Off, but in Bad Lieutenant, Cage hands in his coldest, most loathsome character yet, leaving you to wonder why he doesn’t play the antagonist more often.
If the 2000s were a period of career highs and lows for Cage, the 2010s were no better, with the actor appearing in numerous critically disastrous films like Drive Angry, Season of the Witch, and Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance.
If there is one thing that distinguishes Nicolas Cage’s career, though, it’s his ability to go from Golden Raspberry-nominated movies to movies that capitalize off his unique, off-the-wall energy. Such a performance came with 2018’s horror thriller film Mandy. Set in California’s Shadow Mountains during the early 1980s, Red (Cage) is a quiet but kind logger who lives with his girlfriend, Mandy (Andrea Riseborough). After a radical hippie cult leader burns Mandy alive in front of him, Red sets out on a mission of revenge, tracking the group across the nightmarish version of '80s America that feels like a cross between Stranger Things’ Upside Down and the world of Mad Max.
A wild ride of a movie, Mandy itself is a flashy film, hallucinogenic in both story and visuals, complete with chainsaw duels, LSD-addicted demonic bikers with a taste for human flesh, and evil cults. While the subject matter may be more psychedelic in nature and presentation, Cage still manages to add a layer of profound realism to his character, embedding him with a terrific amount of sorrow and unrestrained rage.
Pig marks another career high point in Cage’s lengthy filmography, a touching film about a reclusive truffle hunter in the Oregon forests whose beloved pig is stolen from him.
From that simple premise alone, Pig may sound like it verges on the edge of pure ridiculousness. Yet Pig never devolves into a campy drama film, thanks largely to Cage’s grounded and believable performance as Rob, a man whose only joy in life is the titular pig he loves so dearly.
Unlike virtually every other film on this list, Pig doesn’t contain any of Nicolas Cage’s usual, outburst-prone, in-your-face acting style. Instead, he’s able to use a sparse amount of dialogue to carry his weight and display emotion, able to convey so much with so little. Praised by critics for containing one of Cage’s finest performances not only in recent years but in his whole career, it’s a movie that is both touching and warm, showing that sometimes — even when you’re not expecting much from Cage — he still has the ability to leave you speechless in the end.
11. The Rock
Perhaps the finest film from Michael Bay, The Rock thrives off its impressive lineup of talented actors, including stars Sean Connery, Nicolas Cage, and Ed Harris – all of whom play their respective roles with ease.
After a decorated U.S. military commander (Harris) seizes control of Alcatraz Island and holds San Francisco hostage, the government sends a task force of Navy SEALs, an F.B.I. scientist (Cage), and a former Alcatraz inmate (Connery) to stop him.
Though cast in the stereotypical role as the bookish, out-of-his-element scientist, Cage never falls into conventional territory as Goodspeed. Embodying an everyman quality, he’s a sensational comic relief who transforms into an action hero under the tutelage of Connery’s ex-S.A.S. convict. Together, the two actors make for an effective onscreen pairing, highlighting their diverse range as performers.
12. Wild at Heart
Having established himself as a prominent actor with his various ‘80s films (Birdy, Raising Arizona, and Moonstruck), Cage collaborated with the influential filmmaker David Lynch on the 1990 romantic crime film, Wild at Heart. A fascinating mashup of Elvis films, surrealist horror, and lovers-on-the-run road trip movies exemplified by Badlands, it’s one of both Lynch and Cage’s most unique films.
Violating his parole and fleeing west, the free-spirited rebel Sailor (Cage) and his girlfriend Lula (Laura Dern) are pursued through the desert by deadly killers hired by Lula’s demonic mother (Diane Ladd).
Playing the Elvis surrogate Sailor Ripley, Nicolas Cage inhabits his role with the charisma and flamboyant attitude of the King himself. Donning a snakeskin jacket that “symbolizes his individuality and belief in personal freedom,” he’s an unconventional rock-and-roller who doesn’t adhere to conventions or social norms; his only concerns centered around his girl (Dern), his jacket, and his individual liberty.
13. Matchstick Men
Throughout his career, Nicolas Cage has partnered with a variety of talented directors, from David Lynch to Werner Herzog. In 2003, he collaborated with one of the world’s most celebrated directors in Ridley Scott, starring in the filmmaker’s dark comedy crime film Matchstick Men, opposite Sam Rockwell.
Seeking treatment for his acute obsessive-compulsive disorder and Tourette’s syndrome, a Los Angeles con artist (Cage) learns that he’s the father of a 14-year-old girl (Alison Lohman), recruiting her into his schemes.
A captivating crime film with the energy, humor, and unpredictability of a classic screwball comedy, Matchstick Men boasts yet another fine performance from Cage. As con man-turned-reluctant father Roy, Cage draws on the sometimes debilitating effects caused by O.C.D. and Tourette's. Rather than poking fun at these symptoms, Cage portrays the foremost negative characteristics associated with these disorders with startling accuracy and sincerity.