The Gilded Cage – The Eclectic Works of Nicolas Cage

If you have been a regular reader of this site, you are probably well aware of my appreciation of Nicolas Cage. If you are new here…well…buckle up. In all seriousness though, Cage has been one of my favorite performers for a long time. The internet had its fun turning him into memes for his eccentric style but it actually made him something of a cult icon in the process. However, that oversimplification doesn’t do him or his career justice.

That is a big part of the reason I initially wanted to put together a list of my favorite performances from the actor to coincide with the release of The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, in which he was cast as the craziest tabloid version of himself. I didn’t quite get around to it in time, but we’re going to still do it anyway. Most people are probably familiar with his most-commercial exploits such as The Rock, Face/Off, Con Air, and the National Treasure films. I enjoy all those films thoroughly, but my goal is to highlight my favorite films that speak to his ability as an actor and what that brings to a project. I didn’t have a particluar ranking planned, so we are just going to go in chronological order:

  1. Raising Arizona (1987)
Available on Sling TV, Amazon Prime Video, Paramount+, Philo, and Roku

Written & Directed by: Joel and Ethan Coen

Starring: Nicolas Cage, Holly Hunter, John Goodman, and Frances McDormand

A young and pretty crazy couple decides to fix their infertility issues by kidnapping a single quintuple from another family. This is one of my earliest memories of being exposed to Cage and, in hindsight, it makes a lot of sense. This was the second film from an up-and-coming filmmaking tandem known as the Coen Brothers. The cast is great too featuring excellent performances from Cage and Holly Hunter and it was also one of the formative feature roles for Frances McDormand. It’s quirky and funny in the way we have come to know the work of the Coen Bros, and it has a lot of heart too. If you have never seen it, make sure to put this on. your watchlist.

2. Wild At Heart (1990)

Available on Philo

Written by: David Lynch (screenplay) Barry Gifford (novel) | Director: David Lynch

Starring: Nicolas Cage, Laura Dern, Willem Dafoe, Diane Ladd, Harry Dean Stanton & Isabella Rossellini

David Lynch was in the zone as a filmmaker, coming off Blue Velvet, and he won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1990 for this film. Based on the Barry Gifford novel, a crazy story of young love sees Marietta (Diane Ladd) hire some real characters to kill her daughter’s boyfriend. She was nominated for an Oscar for her performance here but you get great turns from an excellent cast featuring Laura Dern and Willem Dafoe too. It’s the kind of bold and stylish filmmaking I wish there was more of these days.

3. Leaving Las Vegas (1995)

Available on Amazon Prime Video and Philo

Written by: Mike Figgis (screenplay), John O’Brien (novel) | Director: Mike Figgis

Starring: Nicolas Cage, Elisabeth Shue, Julian Sands, and Richard Lewis

I don’t think I have seen any other Mike Figgis film and I don’t know that I ever will, but I probably should make a separate watchlist for his stuff. Anyway, this was the performance that earned Cage his lone Oscar, playing an alcoholic who loses it all and heads to Vegas to drink himself to death. As he is spiraling, he meets a prostitute (Elisabeth Shue), and the two form a relationship forged in pain. The trailer (I think intentionally) paints this as a more of a mid-90s romantic comedy than it actually is. It’s a lot heavier than that. Figgis and Shue both received Oscar nominations for their efforts as well, so this is definitely one of the best films in the Cage catalog.

4. 8 MM (1999)

Available on Tubi and Hulu

Writer: Andrew Kevin Walker | Director: Joel Schumacher

Starring: Nicolas Cage, Joaquin Phoenix, James Gandolfini, and Catherine Keener

You want to talk about dark? Well, 8 MM is one of the most disturbing movies you could imagine. It is certainly Joel Schumacher’s darkest work. It requires a very strong stomach and multiple critics gave it a 0/100 because they don’t have the fortitude for it, but that’s ridiculous and more of a performative statement from those writers. In fairness, this movie wouldn’t even come close to getting made today, let alone distributed by Sony. It definitely isn’t a movie to watch over and over either, but it’s the kind that leaves a mark. Cage plays a private detective who is hired by a widow to determine the authenticity of a snuff film found in her late husband’s safe. He ventures deep into the criminal underbelly looking for answers and finds a lot of darkness. He is excellent in this film and you also get great turns from a young adult Joaquin Phoenix, the late-great James Gandolfini, and the venerable Catherine Keener. I know I put it on this list, but be warned!

5. Bringing Out The Dead (1999)

Available on Hulu, Amazon Prime Video, and Roku

Writers: Paul Schrader (screenplay), Joe Connelly (novel) | Director: Martin Scorsese

Starring: Nicolas Cage, Patricia Arquette, John Goodman, Ving Rhames, and Tom Sizemore

A paramedic who is haunted by the people he couldn’t save sees his sanity gradually slipping over a few especially hectic nights. This is one of Martin Scorsese’s most overlooked and underrated films because it deviates the most from what he’s known for. That’s a big part of the reason why I do like it so much and wish he did more films like this. Paul Schrader’s screenplay is a big part of the reason for that tone. This film is dark and heavy, but it’s a lot more stylish and colorful than 8 MM. Cage is, of course, fantastic and I view it as an example of his best work so it was nice to hear that he does as well when answering questions during a Reddit AMA. The whole cast is fantastic and they all get to let loose in their performances. So many of my favorite things come together in this film which is why it is my favorite Cage film on this list and arguably my favorite Scorsese film too.

6. Adaptation (2002)

Available on HBO Max

Writers: Charlie Kaufman (screenplay), Susan Orlean (book) | Director: Spike Jonze

Starring: Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper, Tilda Swinton, and Maggie Gyllenhaal

If you were only going to watch one film on this list, you wouldn’t be wrong in picking Spike Jonze’s absolutely wild 2002 film. It’s tough to describe the premise but in trying to adapt Susan Orleans’ book, screenwriter Charlie Kaufman writes himself into the adaptation as himself. The film follows Kaufman as he struggles to understand Orleans’ book while his (fictitious) twin brother finds success in screenwriting through the most mindless ideas, and things get way crazier from there. Cage got his second Oscar nomination for his performance and he could have easily won, playing dual roles. Meryl Streep was nominated for Supporting Actress, Chris Cooper took home the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, and Kaufman was, in fact, nominated and should have won for Adapted Screenplay. This is one of my favorite films, period.

7. Matchstick Men (2003)

Available on Hulu, HBO Max, Amazon Prime Video, and Roku

Writers: Nick & Ted Griffin (screenplay), Eric Garcia (book) | Director: Ridley Scott

Starring: Nicolas Cage, Sam Rockwell, and Alison Lohman

Ridley Scott is one of my favorite filmmakers so, in hindsight, it’s easy to see how this one made my list. It’s one of Cage’s more eccentric and nuanced performances, playing an obsessive-compulsive con man who is burdened by the sudden arrival of his daughter (Alison Lohman). While roles in The Green Mile and Galaxy Quest opened some eyes in regard to Sam Rockwell, playing Cage’s partner in this film was his coming-out party. It’s not the most talked about but it’s a smart, well-made film with great pacing and a trio of strong performances leading the way. I encourage you to check it out if you have never seen it.

8. Lord of War (2005)

Available on Tubi

Written & Directed by: Andrew Niccol

Starring: Nicolas Cage, Ethan Hawke, and Jared Leto

This is another one of these solid gems from the early 2000s where a bunch of my favorites in the business got together and did great work. Andrew Niccol who made my favorite film in his debut feature (Gattaca) was at the helm of this story of an arms dealer with a questionable moral compass who has to make some tough decisions as his family gets closer to his work. Only Cage could bring the kind of charisma required to make the character even remotely sympathetic, but he does it. Ethan Hawke reunited with Niccol for this one too as the INTERPOL agent looking to bring Yuri Orlov (Cage) to justice and don’t forget Jared Leto putting in a good turn as Yuri’s younger brother. It’s a different time but I wish more films like this were still getting made, but it does make the stuff like this more special.

9. Mandy (2018)

Available on Amazon Prime Video (maybe Shudder)

Writers: Panos Cosmatos and Aaron Stewart-Ahn | Director: Panos Cosmatos

Starring: Nicolas Cage, Andrea Riseborough, and Linus Roache

Cage did a lot of movies I liked between ’05-’18, but none of it was anything remotely like Mandy. A couple that lives a simple, secluded life is assaulted by a psychotic cult leader and his members. Did I mention his weird demon henchmen that ride ATVs or the vats of super-acid (the psychedelic kind)? There’s that too! When you talk about “Cage-Rage” and the unique brand of intensity that made him a cult icon, this film epitomizes that. Cage is incredible here as he spirals into madness and revenge, and Panos Cosmatos gave him a great platform to just go for it. Andrea Riseborough (Mandy) may not be a household name but she’s especially strong in these kinds of indie roles and Linus Roache is excellent as the cult leader Jeremiah Sand. This one is dark and intense too, and it’s right up there with the craziest movies that I have ever seen.

10. Pig (2021)

Available on Hulu

Writers: Michael Sarnoski and Vanessa Block | Director: Michael Sarnoski

Starring: Nicolas Cage, Alex Wolff, and Adam Arkin

Rounding out the list is Michael Sarnoski’s directorial debut, Pig. This is another one that made Cage’s list of personal favorites and it’s easy to see why. It’s the kind of nuanced character work that he enjoys the most and it’s a great example of what he can bring to those kinds of quieter roles. It’s a deeply emotional film centered around a truffle farmer whose pig is kidnapped and his journey through his past in order to get her back. Along the way, his truffle dealer, Amir, is swept up in his mystique as the dominoes about the farmer’s past begin to fall and we get a strong turn from Alex Wolff playing Amir as well. Cage’s performance garnered a lot of attention for good reason, but it’s also a beautiful film about family, love, and the notions of success.

There are a lot of films that almost made this list, some really wild ones too, and I think there’s enough there to make a second list. So, if this one gets some traction, we’ll do it again with another 10.

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