Tackle Cage’s 82-film oeuvre with his ten most unforgettable roles
There’s something about Nicolas Cage that makes even his worst movies completely alluring. Perhaps it’s his egalitarian ambivalence towards selecting projects. Maybe we just like the way he’s totally different in every role. Or how he has transcended online meme-dom to become a walking, breathing meme. Cage is a chameleon, overpowering in his portrayals of the kookiest characters, full of ad-lib after quotable ad-lib. He’s both monolithic character actor and Hollywood’s punchline. And we can never get enough.
This summer, one Chicago neighbourhood film series will host “The Summer Of Cage”, celebrating the actor’s strange, eclectic, and ultimately lovable body of work. As our own appreciation, we’ve listed his ten best films – at least one of which you’re guaranteed to love.
RAISING ARIZONA (1987)
Raising Arizona isn’t just the funniest Nic Cage movie, it’s also the funniest Coen brothers movie. Cage gives one of his most pitch-perfect performances as the charmingly white trash career crook H.I. McDunnough. Refining an adorably odd, slack-jawed delivery that we see in some of his earlier films, Cage nails the balance between making us pity and adore this trailer park criminal. He and Holly Hunter, running into John Goodman and William Forsythe along the way, make the film’s baby-napping caper something much more by developing a relationship steeped in blue collar tragedy and endearing comedy.
NATIONAL TREASURE (2004)
The Cage touchpoint of a generation, National Treasure gave the actor his first franchise-ready role at age 40. Who could’ve guessed it would be as a man that had to steal the Declaration of Independence? Aside from providing some of the most quotable and silly Cage lines, it’s also a rip-roaring adventure movie that’s been so stuffed with American history trivia by screenwriting duo Cormac and Marianne Wibberley that it’s become a go-to for substitute history teachers or post-exam pizza days. Scene-munching supporting performances from Justin Bartha and a villainous Sean Bean (who miraculously survives) are simply extra stars spangling this beautiful banner.
The Spike Jonze/Charlie Kaufman meta-film follow-up to Being John Malkovich stars Cage in dual roles as twin brothers, one of whom exists in real life. Confused yet? You haven’t seen anything. Adaptation. delights in piquing your curiosity, then shoving you into puddles of frustration similarly felt by the characters on-screen. Funny, loopy, and strange, it is self-awareness personified, demonized, and well, adapted.
THE TRUST (2016)
Elijah Wood and Nic Cage walk into a bar. Cage puts hot sauce on one of those lemon slices you get in your water and eats it. Wood, bullied into doing the same, is disgusted. “That tastes good to you?” he asks. “No,” replies Cage, deadpan. End scene. That’s the smallest taste of what directors Alex and Ben Brewer make the pair do as they explore the bizarre duo’s wonderful comic chemistry during last year’s underrated The Trust. A heist movie that has a more specifically strange tone than most experimental films, the two leads see their friendship tested while we soak up every drop of their brilliant, hilarious, and often tense antics.
OK, so Moonstruck’s a sort of goofy Italian comedy where Cage gets together with Cher. But it’s also delightfully romantic, sharp, and the kind of miraculous that is slowly soured by irony over Cage’s career. Cage plays Ronny, a man with a wooden hand, who woos Cher’s character Loretta even though she is engaged to be married. It was nominated for six Oscars and won three, earning Cage a Golden Globe nomination despite it truly being Cher’s show to run.
CON AIR (1997)
Are you telling me there’s a movie about a plane full of escaped convicts that stars Nic Cage and you didn’t think it was going to be on this list? This film features Cage’s best hairstyle out of all these films, as his power mullet extends his greasy prowess all the way past his shoulders. John Malkovich holds a stuffed animal hostage and Steve Buscemi plays a child molester that gets away at the end. So yes, it’s an absolute circus of character actors overwhelming John Cusack’s US Marshal. It’s hard to believe this premise got greenlit and it’s even harder to believe it came out the same year as Face/Off, but the pair’s very existence indicate why audiences love Nicholas Cage: the zaniness that Cage either brings or is attracted to in the first place.
Face/Off. What more can you say? Cage and John Travolta take their faces off (and switch them) in the single best film premise of all time. Cage acting like Travolta acting like a criminal mastermind pretending to be Cage is a Matryoshka nesting doll of pure pleasure. This is the film that bridges the gap between Cage camp and Cage earnesty, embracing the best of both worlds. The sheer escalation of lunacy puts Face/Off in the upper tiers of James Bond films, taking spycraft, doppelgangers, and the American paranoia of both to its all-time popcorn-munching cinematic high.
THE ROCK (1996)
The Rock (the film, not the wrestler/actor/soon-to-be-president) provides another titanous pairing of actors to the list: Nic Cage and Sean Connery. I’ve concluded that Cage spices up ensemble casts just as well as (if not better than) he leads films. He colours the films’ performances – whether they be stealing cars or infiltrating a rogue military base – with his own variety of wild-eyed energy. This energy is why Cage movies thrive or fail. Lesser Cage films invert this energy (Cage can be as much of a heatsink as a generator) or fail to live up to his wildness. The Rock, Michael Bay’s best film, has the explosions, heart, and intensity to avoid both traps.
LEAVING LAS VEGAS (1995)
Only the man that delivers Hollywood’s highest highs could be trusted with delving its lowest lows. A charismatic weirdo whose very mania exhibits his fragility as an actor, Cage embraces his strengths in his most awarded role for Leaving Las Vegas. He’s an exhilarating spiral of alcoholism and despair, painting a portrait of dependency and hopelessness that transcends the barfly and prostitute core of the film.
One of Cage’s best recent performances, Joe allows the actor to really sink his teeth into a fatherhood role. Alongside Tye Sheridan and a stunning performance by Gary Poulter (a real-life homeless man who was cast as Sheridan’s abusive father and tragically found dead before the film was released), Cage goes subtle in a film that’s dense atmosphere drapes a suffocating blanket of desperation over the tale of flawed paternal instinct.
Summer of Cage runs from June 15 - August 24 in Chicago’s Wicker Park