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The 13 best Nicolas Cage performances (and where to watch them)
In his latest film, The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, Hollywood icon Nicolas Cage plays a fictional version of himself, hired to entertain a potentially dangerous fan and forced to tap into his various, celebrated roles. This begs the question, what are the best Nicolas Cage roles? And where can you stream them?
The actor’s career truly runs the gamut, including big, blockbuster action and adventure, bizarre cult outings, romcoms, and dramas. His acting style ranges from the larger-than-life and operatic to quieter, more restrained performances. He’s worked with everyone from John Woo to Amy Heckerling to David Lynch to the Coen Brothers to Brian De Palma to Martin Scorsese and more.
See also: The best movies starring Bruce Willis
In a recent Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything) promoting Unbearable Weight, Cage offered up his own top picks from his body of work. He named the titles he’d choose to keep for posterity if he was limited to just three. Those were Bringing Out the Dead, Pig, and Leaving Las Vegas. They’re terrific choices, and easily among Nic Cage’s best roles. But there are so many more iconic choices out there worth mentioning too (luckily, we’re not limited to just three here).
Read on for our picks of the 13 best Nicolas Cage performances from across the actor’s career.
The best Nic Cage roles
It’s not hard to see why Nicolas Cage himself would count Pig among his favorite roles. It was one of the best films of 2021 and a stunning achievement for Cage himself. After a string of higher-profile titles and off-kilter genre flicks, including some very showy acting, Pig allowed the actor to deliver a more muted performance, albeit one that conveyed a great deal of emotion. In it, Cage plays a truffle hunter living in isolation outside Portland. When his beloved truffle pig is stolen, he ventures into the city’s culinary underground looking to get her back.
Featuring a quintessentially energetic Nic Cage performance, Face/Off is an essential 90s action film from Hong Kong director John Woo. When he needs to get information from a dangerous criminal, a cop swaps faces with his comatose nemesis to go deep undercover. But when the criminal he’s impersonating wakes up and takes his face in turn, all hell breaks loose. Here, Cage plays two characters. He channels John Travolta as well as offering a multilayered self-reflection. We get to see Cage effectively playing Travolta as Cage. It’s absurd, of course, but in the very best way, and in a way that let’s Cage showcase his immense skill and self-awareness.
Bringing Out the Dead (1999)
Another one from Cage’s own list of three to save for posterity, Bringing Out the Dead is indeed among the actor’s best. Martin Scorsese directs this gritty portrait of a man at the end of his rope. Over three nights, a burnt-out New York City paramedic is haunted by the deaths he couldn’t prevent as he fights for his sanity, bonding with the daughter of one of the people he couldn’t save.
While Cher was the breakout star of Moonlstruck, earning an Academy Award for her performance, Nicolas Cage also shines as a romantic lead in the comedy classic. Loretta is a widow who’s unlucky in love. When she finally accepts a wedding proposal from her underwhelming boyfriend, she rather inconveniently begins to fall for his estranged brother.
National Treasure (2004)
While Nic Cage certainly has a lot of experience as a leading man, he’s mostly proven himself in roles outside the action hero mould. That makes it all the more impressive when he seamlessly slips into roles like Ben Gates in National Treasure. While the film itself may be of questionable quality, it’s certainly a fun time, and Cage is perfectly cast as a cross between Indiana Jones and Robert Langdon. Gates is a historian and code-breaker on a lifelong quest to find buried treasure with ties to major American historical events.
Raising Arizona (1987)
Coming out the same year as Moonstruck, Raising Arizona is another romantic comedy classic. When a robber and his police officer wife discover they can’t conceive, they’re heartbroken. But soon he hatches a plan to kidnap a quintuplet to raise as their own. Their life of bliss is quickly interrupted when the baby’s real father sends a bounty hunter after them. Raising Arizona is one of the best Nicolas Cage roles, and it’s among the Coen Brothers’ best work too.
Leaving Las Vegas (1995)
As the only instance when Cage won an Oscar, Leaving las Vegas is an obvious choice among the best Nicolas Cage performances. An alcoholic screenwriter finds solace in the arms of a sex worker who won’t judge his lifestyle if he doesn’t judge hers in this touching and heartbreaking romantic drama based on the novel by John O’Brien.
A comically self-reflexive look at the creative process, Adaptation sees Cage as a fictional version of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and his entirely fictional brother Donald. Overwhelmed by feelings of inadequacy, sexual frustration, and self-loathing, LA screenwriter Charlie struggles to adapt the novel The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean. Eventually, his quest leads him to question the adaptation process altogether as he writes an unconventional treatment that overlaps cleverly with Adaptation itself.
A mind-bending horror masterpiece, Mandy sees Nicolas Cage leaning into a dark, absurd, and over-the-top role. In the 1980s, a couple’s idyllic life as outsiders is brought to a screeching halt when a sadistic cult leader intervenes. Now, Red Miller is out for bloody revenge in this outrageous, drug-fuelled odyssey.
Wild at Heart (1990)
David Lynch’s Wild at Heart sees Cage as an ex-con on the run with the love of his life as her disapproving mother sends a contract killer after them to keep him away from her daughter. This seedy classic is worth watching for about a million reasons, but Cage is high up on the list.
- Unfortunately, Wild at Heart is not currently available to stream anywhere.
Vampire’s Kiss (1988)
If you haven’t seen Vampire’s Kiss, you’ve almost certainly seen the most heavily memed image of Cage from it. It’s among the actor’s famously unhinged performances, reaching operatic, caricaturesque highs and earning a spot among the more experimental and best Nic Cage performances. After being bitten on the neck during a one-night-stand, white-collar playboy Peter becomes convinced he’s becoming a vampire. While everyone around him thinks he’s imagining things, Peter dons fake fangs and begins stalking women as he assumes his new persona.
Valley Girl (1983)
In the vein of Heathers, Clueless, and She’s All That (though coming long before those), Valley Girl is a terrific teen comedy about clashing American ideals in the 80s. When a rich Valley girl meets a rough-around-the-edges punk at a party, sparks fly. Their unlikely romance poses problems as they try to find common ground in this modern-day Romeo and Juliet love story. Valley Girl is one of the first examples of the actor showing off his talent, and it remains one of the best Nic Cage performances.
Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009)
A rather loose remake of the 1992 Abel Ferrara crime thriller Bad Lieutenant, Port of Call New Orleans is director Werner Herzog’s take on the cynical cop story. In it, Nicolas Cage plays a drug and gambling-addicted detective with virtually no moral compass as he lies and cheats his way into whatever money he can get. The film sees him trying to solve the murder of Senegalese immigrants in post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans, with Cage delivering a pitch-perfect, off-the-rails performance.
Those are our picks of the best Nicolas Cage performances. Everyone seems to have a different favorite, whether it’s one of the titles included here or another Cage classic like The Rock, Matchstick Men, Con Air, Gone in 60 Seconds, Kick-Ass, The Wicker Man, or even Ghost Rider.
What’s your favorite Nic Cage role?