The Best of Nicolas Cage: A Ranking of His Greatest Roles

Ranking the actor’s best movies after he finally got real with us in 2022.

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Some might say 2022 was the Year of Nicolas Cage. And they’d be wrong. Almost every year is the Year of Nicolas Cage. With more than 113 movie credits, according to IMDb, Cage is edging close to Samuel L. Jackson territory.

However, 2022 was the year that we finally found out what’s really going on with the actor who appears next to the word “eccentric” in the dictionary. 

After turning down interview after interview, Nicolas Cage finally opened up to GQ in an April cover story that quickly became a must-read.

It revealed a side of the actor (and father of three) that the public hadn’t seen before — even if they had seen him onscreen over and over and over again.

We learned that he is self-aware — even if a liiittle bit off — and that he can joke about himself too. We learned that he takes the art of acting, but not necessarily all of the movies in which he practices it, very seriously.

“I never phone it in,” he maintained in the interview. As Collider noted, that even included his dozens of video-on-demand projects. (In true Nic Cage fashion, he claims to have created his own method of acting, “Nouveau Shamanic,” Movieline reported in 2011.)

In an accompanying video that GQ posted on YouTube around the time its cover story came out, Cage took his transparency a step further by spending six minutes answering questions from fans.

Nicolas Cage Knows What You Think About Him

In other words, Nicolas Cage is so “in on the joke” that he’s developed the ability to transcend it. He can go full-on gonzo Nic Cage in one movie and follow it with a brilliantly executed performance in the next one.

In fact, that’s exactly what he did in 2021. February saw the release of the supremely silly and excessively gory Willy’s Wonderland, which is about … well, the description to its trailer on YouTube says it better than we could:

“When his car breaks down, a quiet loner (Nic Cage) agrees to clean an abandoned family fun center in exchange for repairs. He soon finds himself waging war against possessed animatronic mascots while trapped inside Willy’s Wonderland.”

But then, a mere five months later, Cage delivered a stunningly nuanced and well-executed performance in a movie called Pig. Like Willy’s Wonderland, the plot of the movie sounds ludicrous: He plays a loner living in the wilderness who, instead of hunting for his usual bounty — truffles — instead turns to hunt down the men who kidnapped his foraging pig,

In actuality — spoiler alert for those who haven’t seen it — the protagonist’s effort to reclaim his pig is a metaphor for him trying to regain his deceased wife, which he obviously can’t do.

The point is, even if Nicolas “King of the Freak-Out” Cage sometimes dips into self-parody, it’s of his own volition. His acting talents are vast enough, and he is astute enough, to know when and when not to “turn it on.”

Cage’s self-awareness is captured nowhere better than in The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent — another reason 2022 was a pivotal year for the actor.

In the action-comedy, Cage plays himself (technically “a version of himself,” but you get the drift) alongside a billionaire (Pedro Pascal) who offers him $1 million to reenact roles from Cage’s career. The movie landed an 87 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Cage Became Massively Prolific Due to His Massive Debts

Now, the same can’t be said for Nicolas Cage’s spending habits. While he regularly professes love for his profession, there’s a reason he has made more than 100 movies. And that reason is massive debt.

Before Cage’s recent resurgence of making quality movies — well, some of the time, anyway — he had dug himself into a very deep hole that forced him to take just about any role he was offered. As has become the stuff of legend, he lost $150 million and then owed millions upon millions more to the IRS and creditors because of his uncontrolled spending habits.

And he bought very, very strange stuff. Earlier this year, he confirmed some of the purchases — which seemed too bizarre to believe — on Jimmy Kimmel Live. (It was his first talk show appearance in 14 years, another reason why 2022 was a pivotal year in Cage’s career.)

Opening the 14-minute segment, Kimmel introduced Nicolas Cage as “an Oscar winner, a Ghost Rider, and one of the most talented and fascinating movie stars of all.”

Cage ‘fessed up to Kimmel and the crowd — which gave him a standing ovation — that he indeed had a two-headed snake at one point.

“I did. Does that make me impossibly strange, that I had a two-headed snake? I did, and it’s weird,” he admitted — about both the snake and himself. “What happened, and it’s odd … why, I don’t know, but I was dreaming about two-headed eagles. … And the next day, my manager at the time got a phone call saying, ’I’ve got a two-headed snake that I found in Northridge [California], and I think your client Nic Cage will be interested.”

Does Having a Two-Headed Snake as a Pet Count as ‘Weird’?

Cage also acknowledged that he has a pet African pied crow. And that he keeps it in a geodesic dome and that once called him an asshole. But he didn’t buy a bat cave, which he wanted to get to satisfy his inner spelunker.

Really, the list of Cage’s bizarre buys could go on for quite a while.

Dude made $40 million in 2009, but five years later, no longer ranked among Hollywood’s top 10 highest-paid actors, according to Forbes. In an encapsulation of his dire financial situation, Los Angeles Times reported in March 2014 that Nicolas Cage — on his way out of Bel-Air — tried to sell his mansion for $25 million less than what he had paid for it.

Between the debts and a series of messy legal disputes, he went through many torturous years. But, in a redemption story for the ages, he is now debt-free and no longer the butt of the joke. (For the most part … do you remember Cage’s character in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans threatening a wheelchair-bound elderly woman and her nurse?)

Nicolas Cage’s Greatest Films (So Far)

Speaking of which, that movie — which, like The Unbearable Weight of Talent, was another little-watched but critically lauded effort — is among the best he’s ever made.

Here’s where it ranks among our 10 favorite Nicolas Cage movies:

1. Raising Arizona (1987)

Given that Cage started his career in 1982 (with a very small role in Fast Times at Ridgemont High), this early film of his is often overlooked by its many, many Cage-starring successors. But thanks to the Coen Brothers’ flawless writing and directing, it is Nicolas Cage’s greatest movie of all time. Of the brothers’ many idiosyncratically off-the-wall offerings, this one is the most cartoonish. It might not be perceived that way were it not for Cage’s performance, modeled after Woody Woodpecker. Cage blew up after this movie, as did his character’s wife, played by Holly Hunter. (Furthermore, Raising Arizona locked in co-star John Goodman as a regular in multiple subsequent Coen Brothers films.)

2. Wild at Heart (1990)

Admittedly, most of these picks happen to be Cage’s most critically acclaimed movies too. (We swear, we didn’t check Rotten Tomatoes before putting our list together!) That is, except for this one. David Lynch’s fifth movie about a couple on the run from a hit man is offensive, absurd, gross, repugnant — and hopelessly romantic. In fact, the chemistry between Cage’s Sailor and Laura Dern’s Lula is so strong that it makes the film a heart-throbbing romance more than anything else — and a better love story than another Cage film, the critically preferred Moonstruck. We’re not alone in loving this dark and twisted romcom, which controversially won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.

3. Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009)

Confusingly, this Werner Herzog-directed film is not a sequel to Abel Ferrara’s even more disturbing Bad Lieutenant from 1992. But the gist of both movies is the same: What would it look like if a police officer descended into debauchery, madness — and downright evil? Cage was considered weird enough at this point in his career for Herzog to tap him for the lead role. Watch this outlandishly unpredictable, one-of-a-kind film, and you’ll beg Cage to team up with Herzog again.

4. Leaving Las Vegas (1995)

The most realistic movie about alcoholism since 1945’s The Lost Weekend, Cage’s performance is so convincing, it’ll make you want to reach into the screen and drag him to rehab yourself. There’s the unforgettable scene in which Cage’s character dances through a liquor store with the intention of drinking himself to death. Or the scene in which he downs booze flowing off the body of co-star Elisabeth Shue’s prostitute character. Or him shaking to death next to a small bonfire of all his possessions, with Shue by his side. It’s impossible not to rank this among Nicolas Cage’s five best performances. After all, it’s the only movie for which he won an Oscar.

5. Mandy (2018)

Twenty-three years after Leaving Las Vegas, Nicolas Cage again played an alcoholic — but, this time, a recovering one (at least at first). Dark and gruesome, the entire movie revolves around Cage doing whatever it takes to exact revenge on the Christian cult members who killed his girlfriend. With a budget of only $6 million, you might think he was one of Nicolas Cage’s lousy straight-to-video movies. In actuality, it’s a grisly and gripping movie that played in arthouses and upends most cinematic conventions.  It’s also Cage’s best horror movie by a long shot, and it proved that his career revival had a great deal of promise.

6. Pig (2021)

A revenge story of a completely different variety, this slow-moving drama has Cage to thank for keeping viewers trained on every scene. Once again, he plays a wilderness-dwelling loner whose best friend is a pig that scours for truffles. With minimal dialogue, especially from Cage’s character, he leans heavily on physical nuance. Viewers get hooked on not just him but why he is so desperate to rescue the pig after it gets kidnapped. Pig appeared on many movie critics’ lists of best movies from 2021. Also, it led to Cage getting his second nomination for best actor at the Critics’ Choice Movie Awards. Still not convinced? It has a score of 97 percent on Rotten Tomatoes.

7. Red Rock West (1993)

Red Rock West is tied with that same exceptional Rotten Tomatoes rating. But it’s far better than the similar 1993 movie with which it is often confused: True Romance. That’s in large part due to Dennis Hopper playing the bad guy in both films. Red Rock West manages to be a taut, noir-ish thriller, black comedy, and western all rolled in one. Cage helped the movie nail that balancing act; many critics considered it one of the best films of the year. He broke through thanks to Raising Arizona and Wild at Heart but hit his stride with Red Rock West.

8. Adaptation (2002)

Despite making many top-notch films in the 1990s, Nicolas Cage challenged his acting dexterity with Adaptation. And what a challenge he decided to take. The peculiar, particularly masterful work by director Spike Jonze and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman stars Cage as a fictionalized version of Kaufman. As if that weren’t difficult enough, Cage simultaneously portrays Kaufman’s fictional brother. To boot, many scenes in the film only feature Kaufman (and Kaufman). Jonze and Kaufman screwed with viewers’ brains in 1999’s Being John Malkovich. They did so again with Adaptation— and Cage was responsible in a big way for helping make that happen.

9. Color Out of Space (2019)

Directors, screenwriters, and actors rarely pull off adaptations of works by sci-fi master H.P. Lovecraft. Many of those who know the author’s writings argue they’re too complicated to be made into movies or TV shows. Case in point, HBO launched its Lovecraft Country series in 2020 — and then canceled it after one season. But the year before, Cage helped prove that a Lovecraft tale can indeed be converted into a cinematic masterpiece. With stunning special effects, Cage was smart to sign on for this fantastical adventure. It was directed and written by Richard Stanley, who hadn’t made a movie for 20 years before creating this one.

10. Face/Off (1997)

Were it not for the ridiculous scene featured above, Face/Off might not be on this list. However, it’s better than all his other action movies, which include trash like 8mm and Snake Eyes. (Some would add The Rock and Con Air to that group. Face/Off epitomized the action movie of the 1990s — almost flashy, over-budgeted, deafeningly loud, and self-indulgent. John Woo, one of the greatest Chinese filmmakers of all time, went all out with this blockbuster, which also starred John Travolta. And because the flick was so outrageously over-the-top, to the point of satire, it’s a fun watch.

With Nicolas Cage continuing to take on multiple film projects at a time, the above list is bound to fluctuate. Maybe even sooner than later, as Cage fans flipped out in March at the mere sight of him dressed as Dracula during the production of Renfield. (Another one of his admissions to Kimmel was that he spent a night in Dracula’s castle.)

Check in next year, and you might see that movie (due Apr. 14), or a new Western called The Old Way (due Jan. 6), or a possible National Treasure sequel — or, frankly, any other Cage movie that could pop up at virtually any second — on the list.

Just don’t hold out hope for him ever playing Superman.

Read More: “Nicolas Cage Says He Thought He Was an ‘Alien’ as a Child

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