The Best Nicolas Cage Movies Ranked
Nicolas Cage is a singular actor with a deep understanding of his craft and its history. He’s also made some pretty wild movies. Here are the best ones.
There never has been a movie star quite like Nicolas Cage. While obviously handsome and gifted with backlogs of charisma, beneath the surface there lies an unmistakable hunger, a sense of searching, and what some might even call a mania to take a role to its fullest extreme. Even when Cage is taking the “paycheck” parts, be it in glossy ‘90s Hollywood star vehicles or some of his lesser 2010s straight-to-digital efforts, the actor’s tangible desire to push boundaries and experiment is nothing short of riveting.
In a Reddit AMA, Cage once said the following about his craft: “I think many of the choices I’ve made have been inspired by film stars from the silent era, as well as cultural expression of performance like Kabuki and some of the Golden Age actors like [James] Cagney, so I don’t know how to say I’ve done something new because those elements are always on my mind.”
That sense of history, and desire to dabble in various styles of performance from that of the German Expressionists to a sometimes heightened, classical approach wherein Cage would raise his voice at the most counterintuitive of times, has created strange, disarming, and occasionally unforgettable performances. And the best movies he’s appeared in embrace that singularity as opposed to run from it. Below is in our estimation are those films.
15. Matchstick Men (2003)
The solitary time Cage partnered with director Ridley Scott did not make a big splash at the box office and has gone largely overlooked in the 20 years since it’s a release. That’s too bad since Cage’s maximalist instincts toward characterization nicely fill out Scott’s exacting, albeit sometimes cold, compositions. Together they built a quirky and irresistible energy in Matchstick Men, a con man movie where the biggest confidence game played by Cage’s Roy Waller is to pretend in public that he doesn’t have OCD.
Neurotic, anxious, and a germaphobe, Cage plays a small time crook imprisoned by his own mental limitations—which are all exacerbated when he learns he has a teenage daughter named Angela (Alison Lohman). Against his will, Angie movies in, and the film becomes a light familial comedy about a highly dysfunctional father-daughter dynamic as he teaches her the family business. It’s also one of the most appealing star vehicles from the era where Cage was at the height of his Hollywood popularity. The whole ensemble, which includes Sam Rockwell, has so much chemistry that you can’t even see how the movie is hoodwinking you. – David Crow
14. Vampire’s Kiss (1988)
This mostly forgotten 1989 film about a bad boy literary agent who believes he’s been turned into vampire has roared back to life in the YouTube era, as film fans giddily shared scene after scene of Cage’s most unhinged acting to date. From donning fake vampire teeth to eating a (real) cockroach, to running through the streets of New York screaming “I’m a Vampire,” Cage fully commits to the role and takes an expressionistic approach to portraying a man’s descent into madness.
In the film, Cage’s protagonist might live in the literary world but he’s convinced he’s a bonafide ‘80s yuppie on par with Gordon Gekko or Patrick Bateman. He snorts cocaine, he hangs out at nightclubs to pick up women, and… he becomes convinced he’s turning into the titular vampire from 1922’s Nosferatu. This might be all in his head, but it doesn’t save his victims. It’s campy and unintentionally funny, sure, but it’s also weirdly magnetic. There’s truly nothing like it. – Nick Harley
13. Mandy (2018)
Landing squarely in the midst of Cage’s lost decade—when he was appearing in just about every direct-to-video release that he could in order to pay off massive personal debts—Mandy stood out from the deluge of other Cage-starrers and arguably began a mini-renaissance of the actor’s career and critical acceptance. He stars here in director Panos Cosmatos’ psychedelic horror outing as Red Miller, a lumberjack whose artist wife Mandy is murdered by a religious cult after she refuses to give into the cult leader’s sexual advances. Driven to extremes by grief and rage, Red sets out to avenge himself on the cult and the demonic, drug-fueled biker gang who serve as their enforcers.
Shot to deliberately evoke the often freaky horror and action thrillers of the 1970s, infused with graphic violence, and again anchored by a wonderfully demented yet complex performance by Cage, Mandy has modern cult classic written all over it. – Don Kaye
12. Kick-Ass (2010)
By the end of the 2000s, Cage’s career was at an ambiguous place. He still starred in Hollywood action movies, but they increasingly looked like the trashy Ghost Rider superhero flicks instead of his heyday as a John Woo muse in the ‘90s. Meanwhile his more interesting, dramatic works had (for a time) dried up. 2010 turned that around for a while with the wide releases of Bad Lieutenant and Kick-Ass, the latter of which on paper sounds like another trashy superhero joint. And perhaps it was within the comic book panels of Mark Millar and John Romita Jr., where Kick-Ass was created, but in the hands of director Matthew Vaughn, the material became a zippy, genre-bending action spectacle in the same vein as Grindhouse.
And Cage’s performance is a large reason why the movie works so well as an off-center comedy. In the film, Cage is introduced as a nerdy, doting father who wears sweater vests and a dorky mustache… all as he shoots his 11-year-old daughter in the chest. It’s okay! She’s wearing a bulletproof vest and he’s just training her to be his superhero sidekick like Robin in the funny books. Yet it’s a lot more disturbing (and maybe even more funny?) as depicted onscreen when Cage and Chloe Grace Moretz’s Big Daddy and Hit-Girl hit the streets, dispatching goons with a pop tune bounciness.
The icing on the cake is Cage’s choice to change out his sing-songy voice with a faux-Adam West vocal impression whenever he’s wearing the mask and eyeliner. Even when Big Daddy gets way more violent than Batman would ever, he still sounds like a middle-aged fanboy playing dress up. -DC
11. Con Air (1997)
Con Air may still be the most Jerry Bruckheimer action movie that Bruckheimer ever produced, even without Michael Bay or Don Simpson. Operating in a world where everything has the glossy sheen of a mid-‘90s music video, and all the depth of a Budweiser TV spot (both of which director Simon West had experience in), Con Air casts Cage as Cameron Poe, an inmate with impossibly long luscious locks and an improbable Southern accent. Poe’s been cruelly convicted of murder after he defended his pregnant wife from a rapist on the day he got home from the military. Now he’s condemned to travel by plane with the worst criminal masterminds in the U.S. What could go wrong?
For the characters, plenty. For the audience, nothing as this ultra slick spectacle achieves a smooth liftoff and never loses altitude for the rest of its 115 minutes. This is largely made possible by a comically overqualified cast that in addition to Cage includes Ving Rhames, Steve Buscemi, Dave Chapelle, John Cusack, and John Malkovich, the latter of whom plays a big bad so sinister he calls himself Cyrus the Virus, and answers his victims groveling “Cy—” with “—onara.” It’s so stupid that it becomes great. – DC
10. Pig (2021)
As the film responsible for Cage’s latest career renaissance, Michael Sarnoski’s Pig is a far richer experience than it’s logline suggests. The basic premise is that Cage’s Rob is an outcast from society, living happily in the wilderness of the northwest where he hunts for truffles with his pig and only companion. However, after that pig is stolen by junkies working for a rich man in town, Rob comes down from the mountain and returns to his old ways. Based on the setup you might expect a John Wick-in action film, but in truth Rob’s old ways are as a brilliant chef and a painfully sensitive soul who cannot help but connect with the humanity of every person he serves from his kitchen.
With a performance that initially appears understated and restrained for Cage, the actor turns in some of the best work in his career by essaying an artist who suffers no vanities or needs for plaudits and recognition. He also creates a poignant two-hander opposite Alex Wolff as Amir, his truffle-buyer and ultimately last human relation in the world. It’s a beautiful, strange little movie that must be sought out. – DC
9. Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009)
Put Nicolas Cage together with director Werner Herzog and watch the sparks fly. Completely unrelated to Abel Ferrara’s 1992 cult classic Bad Lieutenant (except for the title), Herzog’s delightfully surreal, frequently mind-bending crime drama finds Cage at his unhinged best as New Orleans police sergeant Terence McDonagh, whose addictions to drugs and gambling are sending him on a spiral of corruption, criminal misbehavior, and violence.
Herzog and Cage manage to get the viewer inside McDonagh’s head for much of the movie, and what we find in there are the makings of an often hallucinatory black comedy that also touches on real-life issues like police corruption, race relations, and more. A wholly original take on the cop drama genre, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans makes us wish these two mad geniuses had worked together more often. – DK
8. Bringing Out the Dead (1999)
For reasons that are not entirely clear, Martin Scorsese’s Bringing Out the Dead has never gotten its due, despite being the fourth collaboration between the legendary director and writer Paul Schrader (their previous unions being Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and The Last Temptation of Christ). This might be because Bringing Out the Dead is the least plot-driven of their combined efforts and came out during a moment where audiences were more eager to see Cage in plot-heavy action movies like Face/Off instead of character studies about the crippling weight of compassion and mercy.
Indeed, the film is told across three nights in the life of Frank Pierce, an EMT suffering from depression because he rarely is there to save anyone’s life. Instead he usually shows up just in time to be “a grief mop.”
Very much a companion piece to Taxi Driver, Bringing Out the Dead is about a far nobler man than Travis Bickle, with Frank eager to help the mean streets of NYC during the witching hours between 12 and 6am. The film also maintains the director’s tender optimism about humanity, even as it veers into the supernatural or magical realism as Frank psychically connecting with the souls of those who are on the border of death on his watch. The picture comes from a personal place to the director who spent many years riding in ambulances due to childhood health problems, and it allows Cage to drill into the most haunted spaces within his tool kit. – DC
7. Leaving Las Vegas (1995)
Nicolas Cage had already amassed a ton of acclaimed credits since making his screen debut in 1982’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High, but Leaving Las Vegas was a turning point. Director Mike Figgis’ intimate portrait of dependency and self-destruction starred Cage as alcoholic Los Angeles screenwriter Ben Sanderson who, having lost his family, friends, and career, heads to Sin City to drink himself to death. But his dark journey takes a brief side road when he unexpectedly finds love—and perhaps a bit of transcendence—with a sex worker (an affecting Elisabeth Shue).
Unflinchingly dark, yet deeply humane and empathetic, the film centers around a poignant performance from Cage that earned him a well-deserved Oscar for Best Actor. Although previous films had indicated that there was more to this actor than his quirks and eccentricities, Leaving Las Vegas found him plumbing depths of despair and emotion that turned what could have been a one-note performance into an unforgettable one. – DK
6. The Rock (1996)
Nicolas Cage was not Michael Bay and Jerry Bruckheimer’s first choice for the role of Dr. Stanley Goodspeed. Several 1990s action stars were considered, including Arnold Schwarzenegger. But Cage? He was the oddball in films like Vampire’s Kiss and Wild at Heart at that time. In fact, the filmmakers would often say Cage’s suggestions on-set were “offbeat,” including his idea that Dr. Goodspeed should never curse. Instead while surrounded by tough Navy SEALs and Sean Connery playing James Bond 007 in all but name, Cage would exclaim “gee whiz!” or call Connery a major “A-HOLE!” when he got really worked up.
Some of the action genre’s greatest stars have began from less. These peculiar and left-of-center choices are what made Cage such a fascinating leading man at a time when 1990s spectacle was reaching its most grandiose and absurd, and it’s also the single shred of humanity, along with Connery’s eternal charm, that grounds the synthetic quality of Bay’s bombast in something approaching human. The result was the best movie of Bay’s career, an action flick every bit as operatic as the Meat Loaf music videos he used to helm, but with a real verve and spontaneity because of actors who knew how to punch through the plastic wrap and endear themselves to the audience. It’s a classic. – DC
5. Wild at Heart (1990)
Donning a snakeskin leather jacket that’s as suited for power metal as it is to Elvis ballads, Nic Cage’s Sailor Ripley from David Lynch’s wickedly fun Wild at Heart is one of the most iconic characters of Cage’s career. An unapologetic romantic, Ripley is the sensitive bad boy who seems like he’d write flowery poetry to his lover in the blood of his enemies.
Cage plays Ripley like a modern day James Dean, steely but sensitive, and it’s hoot to watch him thrash around or sincerely belt out “Love Me Tender” without a shred of irony. Weirdo melodramas are simply better with Cage and in this David Lynch classic, he’s at his weirdest while romancing Laura Dern in an also career-defining turn as Lulu, the object of Ripley’s desire. – NH
4. Face/Off (1997)
Face/Off is one of those serendipitous ideas that would’ve never worked in another era. While the concept of an FBI agent and crook switching places by wearing each other’s faces had been kicked around town since the ‘80s (with everyone from Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone to Alec Baldwin and Bruce Willis attached at one time), this movie never would’ve worked without John Woo and Nic Cage. John Travolta helps too as Sean Archer, the stiff Fed chasing Castor Troy (Cage) as a vendetta after Troy killed his son some years back. But it’s really Cage’s performance that makes the movie, particularly at the beginning where he plays a genius criminal so evil he’s introduced strutting through a mall in disguise as a priest, sexually harassing young women, and looking to the heavens as if he’s taunting God to strike him down.
In the rest of the movie, he gets to then taunt Travolta by almost satirizing the Grease actor’s heroic movie star persona. Cage plays Travolta as if Tony Manero has possessed Cage’s body, or in the best scenes, playing Travolta trying to impersonate Cage as Archer goes undercover as Troy in the L.A. underworld. It’s nuts, and one of the finest feats of scenery-chewing ever put to screen. Cage leaves no crumbs, and Woo films it all with all the passion and tragedy of opera, complete with his patented white doves and buckets of slow-mo gunfire. The effect is perhaps funnier than the melodramatic script intended, but it’s still a thing of beauty. -DC
3. Raising Arizona (1987)
As H.I. McDunnough in the Coen Brothers’ whacky baby-caper, Raising Arizona, Nic Cage delivered one of the most tender performances of his career while also hamming it up like a real-life Looney Tunes cartoon. In case that wasn’t clear, Cage’s character sports a Looney Tunes tattoo on his bicep as a man who meets his wife, a straight-laced copper played by Holly Hunter, when he’s being booked for petty larceny and robbery. He soon allows himself to keep getting busted to spend more time with Hunter’s Officer Ed before agreeing to give up his life of crime so they can settle down… until they realize they can’t get pregnant. Hence McDunnough’s bright idea to swipe a baby of their own from a family with quintuplets.
Cage’s cartoonish antics fit like a glove within the heightened reality of the movie, and his affable presence makes you root for a character who has stolen a baby, something that should be unforgivable. The film was early in the Coens’ career and features a flashier visual aesthetic than what would later become their M.O., yet the dry deadpan of their screenwriting voices was already in place. The effect is something akin to an American tall tale repeated with plenty of twinkling camp. Just like a lot of Cage’s acting choices, it seems like it shouldn’t work, but somehow, it just does. – NH
2. Adaptation. (2002)
Some like their Cage feral and explosive, but I prefer my Nic Cage neurotic and anxiety ridden. Playing real-life screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (who co-wrote the script for this movie), Cage offers a masterclass in sweaty, worry-driven neuroses in Spike Jonze’s Adaptation.
To make things even better, Cage also plays Donald, Charlie’s fictional, dim-witted, happy-go-lucky, twin brother. And watching Charlie react to Donald’s casual perusal of screenwriting is comedic gold, because while Charlie writes the type of artistically meaningful films that are Cage’s passion—including this one he stars in with an unseemly comb-over and paunch belly—Donald pens the high-concept trash that became Cage’s bread and butter in the ‘90s and 2000s. Donald is even working on a script that sounds awfully similar to Face/Off. And the deeper Donald gets in his prattle, the more slowly Adaptation. turns into a ‘90s actioner involving car chases, shootouts, and drug money (plus a hammy Meryl Streep!).
Adaptation. is a meta-masterpiece that continually subverts expectations and Cage has rarely been better. – NH
1. Moonstruck (1987)
We’ll admit this is an unconventional top choice when considering Cage’s filmography (a fact made light of in the very self-aware Cage comedy, The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent). And yet, there is something irresistible about Norman Jewison’s 1987 masterpiece that keeps you coming back. Ostensibly a romantic comedy about a middle-aged widow with limited expectations, Cher’s Loretta Castorini, getting swept off her feet by the one-handed, borderline insane brother of her fiancé, Cage’s Ronny Cammareri, Moonstruck is really a story about people. And the actors who bring them to life.
That includes Cher in the best performance of her career where she downplays her glamorous persona, but it’s also Danny Aiello as the dim yet affable schmuck she agrees to marry until meeting his kid brother, Vincent Gardenia as her far too proud and two-timing father, and especially Olympia Dukakis as the matriarch whose weary eyes see all. Cage is the scene-stealer, though, who especially feasts on a deranged speech about how he lost his hand. The sequence echoes Cher’s initial impression of Cage, which was formed after watching him as a young unknown working Off-Broadway. She wasn’t sure if he was good or bad, but she knew he needed to be in the movie.
Cage is the most eccentric performance in a picture full of misfit toys, but together they cultivate a genuine sense of community among third-generation Americans who’ve made it in a corner of Brooklyn that feels very posh, but nevertheless lived in and homey. They’re charming, fully dimensional folk, and like any healthy family, you enjoy spending time with them whenever you revisit the film—including Cage’s opera-loving baker who looks as comfortable in a tuxedo as a wife-beater stained in self-pitying tears. – DC