Ranking 50 Nic Cage Movies, From Oscar-Worthy To Unwatchable

by Ricardo Johnson

To fully understand his intense genius, I went full Cage and lived and breathed his filmography for the last month.

Brooke Greenberg/BuzzFeed, Columbia Pictures/Alamy, Everett Collection: David Reamer/Neon, United Artists, Touchstone, Paramount Pictures, Katalin Vermes/Lionsgate

There's no other actor quite like Nicolas Cage. While some regard him as little more than an overacting punchline, others insist that he is one of the most wildly talented movie stars of the last half-century. Cage has been in the spotlight for so long that he has had a rise, fall, subsequent rise, subsequent fall, and yet another rise in his time as an actor, with the recent Cage re-appreciation culminating with his fantastic meta-performance in The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent. 

But what does one make of Cage at this point? It's a question that has broken many people stronger than me, and to fully appreciate the scope of his one-of-a-kind filmography, I decided to watch and rank 50 movies that span the course of his unique career. 

So what did I learn from digesting this many Cage films? Everything and nothing, as Cage's career is one packed with endless contradictions. Is he one of the most dynamic and uniquely skilled actors I've ever seen? Certainly. And yet, it cannot be denied that he has also delivered some bafflingly bad performances. However, generally, I remain firmly in the camp that Cage has a range that few other actors possess and a willingness to fully commit to any role that makes him imminently watchable. And while there are some flops in his filmography, his good movies far outweigh the bad. 

Without any further Adaptation-style rambling from me, here is my definitive ranking of 50 movies that best encapsulate the career of Nicolas Cage.

50. Arsenal (2017)

Lions Gate / Courtesy Everett Collection

As a Nic Cage apologist, I can generally defend most of his later-stage performances that people consider to be cornily overacted or even lazily underacted. Unfortunately, that's not the case with Arsenal, as his portrayal of a sleazy mob boss is, simply put, a train-wreck. Even if you manage to look past his dollar store wig and mustache, Cage is pretty openly giving no real effort into the role and seems to be changing his half-baked take on the character from one line to another. It's a catastrophically bad performance from Cage and even the biggest defender of the actor would have a hard time defending him here. This isn't the only stinker in Cage's filmography, but thankfully, it's all uphill from here.

Watch it on HBO Max.

49. Stolen (2012)

Millennium Films / Courtesy Everett Collection

After spending eight years in jail due to a bank heist gone wrong, Will Montgomery (Cage) is finally released. But his old partner kidnaps his daughter and demands that Will give him $10 million to save her life. After reading that, you may be thinking this kind of sounds like a rip-off of Taken with Cage in the lead instead of Liam Neeson. And you would be right. But shameless stealing is nothing new in Hollywood, and there have been a thousand Taken rip-offs since its release (most of them starring Neeson). All of that would be forgivable if Stolen was actually enjoyable to watch. Sadly, it is not. And even more sad is that this is a strong contender for the worst performance of Cage's career, as he pretty clearly does not give a shit about this movie at all. Though, given its quality, it's hard to blame him.

Watch it on Amazon Prime with Freevee.

48. Left Behind (2014)

Freestyle Releasing / Courtesy Everett Collection

You've probably heard of this one, even if you haven't seen it. Based on the mega-popular book series of the same name, Left Behind is a story about the rapture (basically evangelical fundamentalists' version of the apocalypse) told through the perspective of the Steele family. Cage plays Raymond, the unfaithful father in the family who is really annoyed that his wife suddenly got all religious on him. This movie appeals exclusively to people who subscribe to its very narrow worldview and has really no other redeemable qualities, including Cage's absolutely abysmal performance. Watching him here, it's genuinely hard to believe that this is someone who had previously won an Oscar.

Watch it on Pluto TV.

47. Vampire's Kiss (1989)

Hemdale Film Corp / Courtesy Everett Collection

Peter Loew (Cage) is a narcissistic literary critic who uses alcohol, drugs, and one-night stands to ignore the fact that he is slowly descending into madness. After an encounter with a mysterious girl named Rachel (Jennifer Beals), Peter becomes convinced that he has been turned into a vampire. Cage has made a career out of finding the sympathy in loathsome men, but this time, it's just a bit too much and feels like the first time he really missteps. Cage goes way too over-the-top, and the completely irredeemable performance robs Peter of any shot at resembling an actual person. Though it maybe gets a few bonus points for being the birth of the infamous "You Don't Say" meme from the earlier days of the internet.

Rent it on iTunes.

46. Fire Birds (1990)

Buena Vista Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection

This movie is basically a Top Gun rip-off except it's about helicopter pilots instead of naval aviators. And while Top Gun is so much fun you forget you're watching military propaganda, Fire Birds is a total bummer. Cage plays Jake Preston, the hot shot pilot who both impresses and infuriates everyone around him with his arrogance and talent (sound familiar?), especially his flight instructor Brad Little (Tommy Lee Jones). Cage certainly could play a part like this with the appropriate amount of smarm and charm, but in this case, an unimaginative script and aimless direction let him down.

Watch it on YouTube.

45. Army of One (2016)

Dimension Films / Courtesy Everett Collection

Based on a bizarrely true story, Army of One follows the journey of Gary Faulkner (Cage), a handyman from Colorado who was convinced that God wanted him to head to Pakistan in order to capture Osama bin Laden. Unfortunately, Army of One fails to deliver on its great premise, as the movie can't quite decide if it is mocking Faulkner or trying to get the audience to sympathize with him. But to Cage's credit, his performance as Faulkner is completely earnest, as he does not play the part with any sort of detachment or condescension. 

Watch it on HBO Max.

44. The Wicker Man (2006)

Warner Bros / Courtesy Everett Collection

When people think of bad Nic Cage performances, this horror remake is usually the first that comes to mind. But is he really that bad in The Wicker Man? For the most part, yes, but I would argue that has more to do with the tone of the movie being entirely off than Cage's acting being bad. While the original Wicker Man slowly builds up the suspense before the final reveal, the remake throws any subtlety out the window in favor of making the eeriness of the island extremely obvious from the minute Edward Malus (Cage) shows up. As a result, the movie is just an absolute mess and, yes, that is certainly not helped by Cage running around, screaming about bees, and punching old ladies. Sadly, there's no real defense of The Wicker Man.

Rent it on YouTube.

43. Windtalkers (2002)

MGMT /Courtesy Everett Collection

Windtalkers is based on the real-life Navajo code-talkers in WWII, but rather than focus on them, the movie is about Joe Enders (Cage), the white guy who is assigned to protect them. Of course, none of that is really Cage's fault, but even if you ignore the "white savior" vibe of the movie, Windtalkers is still one of the lesser performances of his career. Is he outright bad in it? Not really, but he doesn't bring any of his usual energy or enthusiasm to the role, making it feel like a decidedly lower entry in his extensive filmography.

Watch it on Amazon Prime.

42. Trapped in Paradise (1994)

20th Century Fox / Courtesy Everett Collection

Dave (Jon Lovitz) and Alvin (Dana Carvey) are paroled early and placed in the custody of their brother Bill (Nicolas Cage), who they almost immediately convince to assist them in a bank robbery. Cage has shown throughout his career that he is perfectly capable of doing comedy, but in this case, the abysmal script results in unfunny performances from everyone involved, including Cage. While Cage is supposed to play the exasperated straight man against Carvey and Lovitz's goofy criminal duo, the three fail to develop a solid rapport, and the jokes mostly fall flat.

Rent it on Amazon Prime.

41. World Trade Center (2006)

Paramount / Courtesy Everett Collection

The good news is that among the many movies that have been made about 9/11, World Trade Center is not among those that feel tasteless, exploitative, or downright offense. But, at the same time, this movie is kind of just a very straight-down-the-middle reminder that 9/11 happened and was very sad, which is certainly true. Cage plays one of the firefighters who ends up trapped in the rubble after the second tower falls, and while the real-life story of John McLoughlin is certainly heroic, Cage is not asked to do very much in the role.

Watch it on Netflix.

40. Bangkok Dangerous (2008)

Lions Gate / Courtesy Everett Collection

Yet another inferior remake starring Nicolas Cage. This time, he plays Joe, a contract killer who is hired by a crime boss in Bangkok that forces him to reconsider his line of work. This movie is very bad, but I would argue that it's not really Cage's fault. In fact, he's mostly locked in and seems to genuinely want to give a good performance, but his enthusiasm, along with some impressive action sequences, aren't enough to save this otherwise terrible film. One thing worth mentioning is that in the original Bangkok Dangerous, the main character is deaf, and I think this would actually be a more interesting film (if only marginally so) if the same choice had been made here.

Watch it on Tubi.

39. Racing with the Moon (1984)

Paramount / Courtesy Everett Collection

Henry (Sean Penn) and Nicky (Cage) try to enjoy their last few weeks of innocence before they are to be deployed to train and fight in World War II. While Henry spends his days wooing Caddie (Elizabeth McGovern), Nicky discovers that his girlfriend is pregnant and tries to find enough money to help her pay for an abortion. Of Cage's earliest performances, this is perhaps his most forgettable, as Penn is given a lot more to do in terms of plot and character. But there are a few passing moments where Cage gets to shine, most notably when he sings "Tangerine" while cleaning up the bowling alley. 

Watch on Amazon Prime via Showtime.

38. Ghost Rider (2007)

Columbia Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection

Ghost Rider is a movie that, on paper, should be totally awesome. Nic Cage as a demon's bounty hunter cursed to hunt down evil souls? That sounds like a movie that, at the very least, should be an incredibly entertaining mess. But what is really strange about Ghost Rider is how tame the entire thing feels. It seems like the movie is afraid to live up to its obvious potential. And while Cage gets a few moments to have some real fun as the titular Ghost Rider, for the most part, he is left to give an oddly neutered performance. Honestly, I hope the MCU remakes this movie with Cage still in the main role, as it feels like it could easily reach its full badass potential.

Watch it on Amazon Prime with Starz.

37. Honeymoon in Vegas (1992)

Columbia Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection

Few genres click with Cage quite as well as the screwball rom-com. But instead of the usual magic you might expect, Honeymoon in Vegas gives us a convoluted plot that centers around Jack (Cage) lending out his fiancée Betsy (Sarah Jessica Parker) to Tommy (James Caan) for a weekend after he ends up massively in debt in Vegas (there's no sex involved but still gross). Of course, when it comes to rom-coms, all weird plot stuff can be easily forgiven if the chemistry works. But sadly, Cage and Parker just don't have the connection to make it all come together. It's not a disaster, but it's far from Cage's best work.

Watch it on Kanopy.

36. The Sorcerer's Apprentice (2010)

Walt Disney Co. / Courtesy Everett Collection

This is another one of those movies that likely comes to mind when you think of bad Nic Cage flicks, but in this case, I would argue The Sorcerer's Apprentice is actually a bit underrated at this point. It's not an amazing movie, but despite some of its writing flaws, it's fun to watch Cage play an ancient wizard going to battle against Alfred Molina in New York City. And it seems like Cage is mostly enjoying the silliness of the role. There is a relaxed vibe to his performance that has become more common in the later stage of his career.

Watch it on Disney+.

35. Guarding Tess (1994)

Tristar Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection

Secret Service Agent Doug Chesnic (Cage) dreams of working at the White House, but first he must complete the toughest assignment of his career: protecting former First Lady Tess Carlisle (Shirley MacLaine), who never turns down an opportunity to drive Doug crazy. The film has an odd couple tone, as Doug's no-nonsense professionalism is juxtaposed with Tess' irreverence (until, of course, the two grow closer and learn to respect each other). It's a perfectly fine movie that doesn't ask much of Cage as an actor other than to be a bit of a curmudgeon without becoming a total jerk. 

Watch it on Hulu.

34. Gone in 60 Seconds (2000)

Buena Vista Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection

In order to save his brother's life, legendary auto thief Randall "Memphis" Raines (Cage) has to come out of retirement for one last job: stealing 50 cars. This movie feels like a case of everyone falling asleep at the wheel, as the story is nonsense, the acting is phoned in, and even the car chases aren't nearly as cool as you'd expect them to be. Cage has never had a problem handling absurdity as an actor, but at his best, there's always a grounded element to even his most ridiculous performances. However, in this case, it feels like Cage is happily in cruise control as he allows the silliness to unfold around him while laying the ham on a little too thick.

Watch it on Peacock.

33. Birdy (1984)

Tristar Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection

Birdy (Matthew Modine) and Al (Cage) are best friends whose lives are forever altered when they are sent to fight in the Vietnam War. When the two are unexpectedly reunited in a hospital, they are forced to rely on their friendship to try and deal with their fractured reality. Up to this point, Cage had not been asked to do too much emotionally as a performer, but Birdy finally allowed him to show his depth and range, as he gives Al a tender ferociousness upon discovering the mental toll that the war has taken on his best friend.

Rent it on Amazon Prime.

32. Willy's Wonderland (2021)

Screen Media Films /Courtesy Everett Collection

After being hired as a night-shift janitor at an abandoned entertainment center named Willy's Wonderland, Cage's character is shocked to discover that eight animatronic animals are both sentient and homicidal. The idea of Cage going to battle with a bunch of killer robotic animals alone makes this movie entertaining, and Cage plays the part completely straight, despite the absurd premise. But sadly, Willy's Wonderland just isn't as fun as you expect it to be, and it results in a good-but-not-great entry into the Cage canon.

Watch it on Hulu.

31. Rumble Fish (1983)

Universal / Courtesy Everett Collection

You might not be aware that Cage is a member of movie-making royalty as the nephew of legendary director Francis Ford Coppola. And one of Cage's first film roles was in Rumble Fish, the significantly less popular S.E. Hinton adaptation made by Coppola in 1983 (though I actually prefer it to The Outsiders). Cage plays Smokey, the loyal but chaotic best friend of Rusty James (Matt Dillon). Despite being a supporting role, Cage makes the most of it, effortlessly exuding the reckless energy of a rambunctious ruffian who acts a little too tough to hide their fear.

Rent it on Amazon Prime.

30. Valley Girl (1983)

Atlantic Releasing / courtesy Everett Collection

Cage's onscreen debut was a small part in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, but his first opportunity to really show off his acting chops on the big screen was this teen rom-com. Valley Girl is an extremely loose re-imagining of Romeo Juliet with Julie (Deborah Foreman), a popular girl from the Valley, unexpectedly falling for Randy (Cage), a punk with a secret soft side. It's the type of movie you've seen plenty of times before, but unlike its mediocre counterparts, Valley Girl has a future Oscar winner at its disposal. And for only his second film, Cage already has the natural charisma and magnetic energy of the movie star he'd soon become.

Rent it on Amazon Prime.

29. Peggy Sue Got Married (1986)

Tristar Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection

Up to this point, Cage had put together a solid string of performances, but Peggy Sue Got Married was his true breakout film. As Peggy's high-school-sweetheart-turned-unfaithful-husband Charlie, Cage has to balance both his sensitive and sleazy sides while Peggy is sent back in time to figure out if she made a mistake marrying him. In lesser hands, Charlie would simply be an unlikable jerk, but Cage somehow keeps you hoping these two crazy kids will figure it out, despite Charlie's unrefined qualities.

Watch it on HBO Max.

28. Lord of War (2005)

Lions Gate / Courtesy Everett Collection

One of the most common complaints you will hear about Cage as an actor is that he has a tendency to go cartoonishly big, resulting in him unintentionally turning a dramatic performance into a comedic one. But I think Lord of War has the opposite problem. If anything, I wish Lord of War had let Cage really cut loose and go full unrepentant villain. Cage's performance here feels strangely muted at times when the movie unsuccessfully goes through the motions of examining Yuri's humanity. In most cases, that would be a good thing, but here, given that Yuri is an international arms dealer, I think the movie would have benefitted from Cage dialing it up a few notches. 

Watch it on Peacock.

27. Drive Angry (2011)

Summit Entertainment / Courtesy Everett Collection

This is another example of a Cage movie that doesn't quite live up to its potential, as it has all of the ingredients to be one of his best. John Milton (Cage) steals Satan's gun, the Godkiller, and escapes Hell to stop a Satanic cult leader from sacrificing his infant granddaughter. Seriously, how is this not right up there with Face/Off and The Rock as batshit crazy Nic Cage movies that somehow work? The reason this movie falls short is that, against all odds, Drive Angry feels too generic most of the time. The major exception is anytime Milton faces off against The Accountant (William Fichtner), the Devil's assistant who is tasked with tracking Milton down, as the two play off each other with a wild energy that the rest of the movie is sorely lacking.

Rent it on Amazon Prime.

26. Zandalee (1991)

Live Home Video / Courtesy Everett Collection

Zandalee (Erika Anderson) is unsatisfied in her marriage to Thierry (Judge Reinhold) and enters into a passionate affair with her husband's friend Johnny (Cage). As the rendezvous intensifies, Johnny wants Zandalee to leave Thierry, but when she refuses, things quickly escalate. Zandalee was dismissed by critics upon its release, and it's easy to understand why: The film is a melodramatic mess. And Cage is right at the heart of that mess, delivering a performance that is absolutely bonkers, even by Cage's standards. And yet, I think the pure lunacy of the movie, including Cage's performance, actually works in a way that makes the whole thing feel like campy fun rather than entirely unwatchable.

Watch it on Tubi.

25. The Frozen Ground (2013)

Lions Gate / Courtesy Everett Collection

Based on the crimes of real-life serial killer Robert Hansen, The Frozen Ground follows the investigation by Alaskan State Trooper Jack Halcombe (Cage) after a woman claims that she was abducted and raped by Hansen (John Cusack). Cage brings a necessary level of severity to the role of Halcombe, given the horrifying nature of Hansen's crimes, as his trademark intensity is boiling under the surface in the mission to bring Hansen to justice. The Frozen Ground was a massive failure at the box office but ended up gaining a wider audience when it ended up on Netflix in 2020, where it immediately became the most watched movie for the week.

Watch it on Netflix.

24. Kick-Ass (2010)

Lions Gate / Courtesy Everett Collection

Over a decade later, much of this slightly-meta superhero semi-spoof did not age all that well (not in a "problematic" way; it's just not as funny or interesting as it clearly thought it was at the time). But the one part of Kick-Ass that absolutely still kicks ass is every scene involving Big Daddy (Cage) and Hit-Girl (Chloë Grace Moretz), as the crime-fighting duo steal the movie from the minute they appear onscreen. They're like Batman Robin, except if Batman trained Robin to be a cold-blooded killer with an affinity for profanity. Cage is pretty openly channeling Adam West's campy rendition of the Dark Knight, which is a hysterically funny choice in the modern superhero landscape. Wish we could have gotten a spin-off just focused on Big Daddy and Hit-Girl's origin story.

Watch it on HBO Max.

23. The Trust (2016)

Saban Films / Courtesy Everett Collection

Police Sergeant David Waters (Elijah Wood) and Lieutenant Jim Stone (Cage) work in the Evidence Management unit of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department. Along with being bored by their jobs, both have found they are struggling to make ends meet. So when they discover an unguarded safe where a local gang keeps all of their money, the duo decides to hatch a plan to make off with the money. It's honestly surprising that Cage hasn't been in more buddy cop movies in his career, as he proves to be a natural in the role of the grizzled veteran cop, and his chemistry with Wood is fantastic. 

Watch it on Tubi.

22. It Could Happen to You (1994)

Tristar Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection

When Charlie (Cage) can't afford to pay his tip, he tells his waitress Yvonne (Bridget Fonda) that he will give her half of his winnings if he wins the lottery. The next day, Charlie wins $4 million in the lotto and shocks the world by following through on his promise to Yvonne. Playing a decent, uncomplicated person is a deceptively difficult thing to do for an actor, as most of the time the character comes across as one-dimensional or painfully boring. But Cage is able to find the nuance in Charlie, as his genuine desire to live a simple, virtuous life feels radical in contrast to the greedy, shallow world around him. When Charlie gives Yvonne half of his winnings, it's not because he feels obligated or pressured to; it's simply the right thing to do, and that's enough for him.

Watch it on HBO Max.

21. Color Out of Space (2019)

RLJE Films / Courtesy Everett Collection

Based on H.P. Lovecraft's short story of the same name, Color Out of Space tells the story of a family dealing with the strange fall-out from a meteor landing in their front yard. Cage plays Nathan, the Gardner family patriarch, and it's a part that allows him to access his greatest strengths as an actor as Nathan tries to maintain order for his family even as things slowly but surely descend into chaos. Of course, he fails, and then Cage gets to let his freak flag fly in a way that only he can, which leads to one of the more purely entertaining performances Cage has given in the last decade.

Watch it on Amazon Prime with AMC+.

20. Mom and Dad (2017)

Momentum Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection

After watching dozens of Cage movies for this ranking, one of the most puzzling things is how often a movie doesn't seem to understand how to properly use Cage's unique talents onscreen. Thankfully, that is not the case with Mom and Dad. Cage fits perfectly into this comedy-horror about parents suddenly wanting to kill their children with reckless abandon. It's such a ludicrous premise that it requires a lead performance that doesn't approach this widespread filicide with a hint of irony. And Cage fills that role perfectly, as he delivers a delightfully unhinged performance that is equal parts hilarious and frightening.

Watch it on Amazon Prime with Starz.

19. The Family Man (2000)

Universal / Courtesy Everett Collection

Jack (Cage) is a single, successful Wall Street executive who thinks he has everything he could want in life, but after a chance encounter with an angel, he suddenly wakes up to find that he is living in the suburbs, married to his college sweetheart Kate (Tea Leoni), and raising two kids. At first, Jack is desperate to get back to his life, but as he spends more time with his family, he begins to wonder if this isn't the life he wants after all. This is an extremely sentimental movie, but it never becomes outright saccharine, thanks to the chemistry between Cage and Leoni. 

Watch it on Peacock.

18. The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent (2022)

Lions Gate / Courtesy Everrett Collection

It was only a matter of time before Nicolas Cage played himself in a movie, and that role of a lifetime came with The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent. This fictionalized version of Cage finds himself floundering both personally and professionally; he agrees to be the guest of honor at the birthday party of billionaire Javi Gutierrez (Pedro Pascal), who offers him $1 million to attend. The reason why The Unbearable Weight is such a success is because it taps into two underrated skills of Cage's as an actor: his sense of humor and his ability to drum up phenomenal chemistry with his co-stars. Despite what lazy critics might think, Cage is not someone who takes himself all that seriously, and his ability to poke fun at himself and his public persona is played for tremendous laughs here. He and Pascal play off each other perfectly, as two peas in a pod who are undeniably drawn to each other even as they find themselves seemingly pitted against each other in a hilariously convoluted kidnapping scheme.

Buy tickets. 

17. Snake Eyes (1998)

Paramount / Courtesy Everett Collection

During a high-profile boxing match in Atlantic City, the Defense Secretary is assassinated, and it's up to detective Rick Santoro (Cage) to get to the bottom of it. Half-whodunnit, half-thriller conspiracy, Snake Eyes struggles to balance the two genres in a coherent way — at times becoming almost "too clever" for its own good. But Cage always keeps things moving with a dialed-in performance, sprinkling in just the right amount of sleaze into Santoro that makes him believable as the guy who is willing to break a few dozen rules in order to get results.

Watch it on Amazon Prime with Showtime.

16. Joe (2013)

Roadside Attractions / Courtesy Everett Collection

Joe (Cage) is a foreman who ends up hiring a 15-year-old named Gary (Tye Sheridan) to work on his crew. As Joe begins to take Gary under his wing, he discovers that the boy is dealing with an alcoholic father who routinely steals from and abuses his son. By this point, Cage's movies were widely regarded as a punchline, but Joe showed that in the right part, he was still capable of some damn fine acting. It's really a shame that Joe has yet to reach a wider audience, as it stands as one of the most interesting and compelling performances of Cage's career. In the earlier stages of his career, Cage was seen as a raw and emotional actor, but in Joe, he lets that emotion bubble underneath the surface in a way that feels entirely new.

Watch it on Amazon Prime with Cinemax.

15. Red Rock West (1993)

Roxie Releasing / Courtesy Everett Collection

Michael (Cage) is a drifter who wanders into a bar in the town of Red Rock and, due to a case of mistaken identity, ends up being hired as a hitman for both a husband and wife who have it out for each other. This is a forgotten gem in Cage's filmography, as Red Rock West simultaneously functions as a neo-noir comedy and a western thriller. Cage is cast perfectly at the center of the constantly heightening comedy of errors as the free-wheeling Michael who turns out to be the only one in Red Rock who has things figured out.

Not currently available to stream or rent. 

14. Matchstick Men (2003)

Warner Bros / Courtesy Everett Collection

Many of Cage's best performances involve him playing a morally dubious man who, usually after an inciting event of some sort, begins the slow and painful process of reforming his ways. You can certainly put Matchstick Men on that list. Roy Waller (Cage) is a slick conman whose world is turned upside down upon discovering that he has a 14-year-old daughter named Angela (Alison Lohman). As he gets to know the daughter he never knew he had, Roy reconsiders his life choices, while also wondering if Angela was better off not knowing him. Leave it to Cage to have one of the funnier performances of his career also be one of his most emotionally affecting.

Watch it on HBO Max.

13. Mandy (2018)

RLJE Films / Courtesy Everrett Collection

Red (Cage) lives a happy, quiet life until a religious cult forces him to watch as they kill Mandy (Andrea Riseborough), his one true love. With nothing left to lose, Red sets out to find the people who destroyed his life and make them pay for what they've done. Cage has played a recluse plenty of times in the back half of his career, but this is one of the more compelling renditions. There's the obvious rage in Cage's performance that you would expect, but in between these explosive outbursts is a portrait of a man who has lost all meaning after losing the one person who gave him life. 

Watch it on Amazon Prime with AMC+.

12. Con Air (1997)

Buena Vista Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection

When a prison transport plane is hijacked by a rogue group of prisoners, Cameron Poe (Cage), a paroled former Army Ranger, teams up with a US Marshall to help keep the prisoners from escaping. This cast is absolutely stacked with talent, yet Cage manages to hold his own against some of the best actors around, including John Malkovich, Steve Buscemi, and Ving Rhames. The film received mixed reviews from critics at the time, but in the decades since has been properly re-appreciated as one of the great action adventures of the '90s. Plus, Cage proved once and for all that he can look good with literally any hairstyle.

Watch it on Amazon Prime.

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

First Look Studios

Terence McDonagh (Cage) is a crooked cop who is addicted to drugs and is tens of thousands of dollars in debt to local gangsters. But when he's assigned to investigate the murder of five local drug dealers, he has to decide if he's truly given up on the law altogether. This is the type of part that Cage had played before, but what sets it apart is his collaboration with director Werner Herzog. The director seems to have an innate understanding of Cage as an actor and gets the best performance from him he had given in years. Cage plays McDonagh with total desperation, as he has been so warped by addiction that he is struggling to hang on to his last shred of decency.

Watch it on Peacock.

10. National Treasure (2004)

Touchstone Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection

National Treasure has unexpectedly survived the test of time and become an official member of the Millennial Movie Canon, its memory forever preserved by memes and gifs. From the outside, this devotion might seem like some kind of irony poisoning, but I would contend the love for this action-adventure is sincere. Is the idea of a man stealing the Declaration of Independence in order to find an enormous fortune hidden by the Founding Fathers a bit preposterous? Perhaps. But the absurdity stays just grounded enough thanks to Cage, who fully commits to the role of historical treasure hunter and manages to make it almost feel like a 21st-century Indiana Jones, which is no easy feat.

Watch it on Disney+.

9. The Rock (1996)

Buena Vista Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection

Fresh off winning his Oscar, Cage entered the action star portion of his career, starting with this Michael Bay masterpiece about a team of the best ass-kicking special agents on earth who hatch a plan to sneak onto Alcatraz to free hostages and stop a rogue terrorist group from launching rockets into San Francisco. Cage takes on the comedic relief/sidekick role as FBI Special Agent Dr. Stanley Goodspeed, who assists SAS Captain John Patrick Mason (Sean Connery) in this impossible mission. It's perhaps not the most emotionally complex or nuanced performance of Cage's career, but once again he shows that he is comfortable in any genre and manages to provide some genuine comedic relief in this balls-to-the-wall classic.

Watch it on Amazon Prime.

8. Wild at Heart (1990)

Samuel Goldwyn Films / Courtesy Everett Collection

When David Lynch read Barry Gifford's novel, he immediately knew that Cage needed to play Sailor Ripley. It's not hard to understand Lynch's thinking, as Sailor is the impulsive and slightly dangerous type who, at the start of the movie that Lynch would go on to make, is getting out of jail for killing a man that attacked him with a knife. After Sailor is reunited with Lula (Laura Dern), the two quickly decide to head to California despite Lula's mother Marietta (Diane Ladd) forbidding them from seeing each other. Cage is clearly having a blast going full-throttle here, but there is an underlying tenderness to Sailor that makes this one of his most unforgettable performances. 

Not currently available to stream or rent. 

7. Leaving Las Vegas (1995)

United Artists / Courtesy Everett Collection

Ben Sanderson (Cage) is a miserable alcoholic who decides to head to Vegas to drink himself to death after burning every bridge in his life. He ends up meeting a  a prostitute named Sera (Elisabeth Schue), and the two develop an unconventional relationship that is built on genuine connection and dangerous co-dependency. Just watching Ben dive deeper into his addiction can be difficult to watch, which is a tribute to how much Cage commits to the role. Cage is unflinching in his portrayal of Ben as a man who has fully given up on life, while also examining the pain and loneliness that put him on this destructive path. This is the part that got Cage his Oscar, and almost 30 years later, it remains one of the most powerful and moving performances of his career. 

Watch it on Tubi.

6. Bringing Out the Dead (1999)

Paramount / Courtesy Everett Collection

Somehow, a hidden gem in both Cage's and Scorsese's filmography, Bringing Out the Dead follows Frank Pierce (Cage), a depressed paramedic who begins to see the ghosts of people he was unable to save. Cage is a natural fit in Scorsese's world; he plays Frank as a man haunted by death, religion, and addiction while he searches for purpose in life. Frank sees death first-hand everyday, and the toll it has taken on his mind and spirit leave him a broken shell of a man who is drowning in grief. Bringing Out the Dead was a box office flop that was also dismissed by many critics, but it has since gained a cult following as an under-appreciated film.

Rent it on Amazon.

5. Pig (2021)

Neon / Courtesy Everett Collection

At first, Pig seems like another one of Cage's "man on a quest for vengeance" movies, which has become one of his more popular archetypes over the last decade. But instead, Pig turns out to be an in-depth character study of Rob (Cage), a man who has hidden himself from the outside world and chose a truffle pig as his only friend. Cage ends up delivering an Oscar-worthy performance, exposing Rob's stoicism as a cover for the deep pain he feels from losing everything he held dear in life. It's a quietly devastating performance that shows that with the right script and direction, Cage can still prove he's the best actor in the world.

Watch it on Hulu.

4. Raising Arizona (1987)

20thCentFox / Courtesy Everett Collection

How do you get the audience to root for a kidnapper? Have Nic Cage play him. If there was any lingering doubt Cage was a bonafide movie star, it was entirely erased here. In Raising Arizona, the Coen Brothers' screwball-meets-deadpan sensibility fits Cage like a glove, as he is simply unbelievable as "Hi" McDunnough, the small-town crook who tries to reform his nefarious ways after falling for Ed (Holly Hunter), the police officer taking his mugshots. Shortly after Hi's release, the two are married, but when they learn they can't have kids, they decide to take matters into their own hands. It's a comedic masterpiece from Cage, yet he also never loses sight of Hi's humanity, as everything he does is clearly out of love for Ed. It's one of those performances that is so good, you can't imagine anyone else playing it. 

Rent it on Amazon Prime.

3. Face/Off (1997)

Paramount / Courtesy Everett Collection

The '90s was a beautiful decade for action movies with absolutely wild premises, and at the top of the list was Face/Off. FBI Special Agent Sean Archer (John Travolta) ends up literally switching faces with homicidal psychopath Castor Troy (Nicolas Cage) in order to figure out the location of a bomb that is set to go off in Los Angeles. It's a movie that has no business working, and yet, it ends up becoming one of the most entertaining action movies ever made. And Cage deserves a huge chunk of credit for the success of Face/Off, as his gleefully unhinged performance as Castor immediately makes him one of the greatest villains in action movie history. But what may be even more impressive is when Cage plays Sean with Castor's face, as he convincingly plays a good guy struggling to be the deplorable person he hates most in the world.

Rent it on Amazon Prime.

2. Moonstruck (1987)

MGM / Courtesy Everett Collection

Loretta (Cher) is a 37-year-old widow who is engaged to Johnny (Danny Aiello), a perfectly nice man she does not love. When Johnny heads to Sicily to be with his dying mother, he asks Loretta to invite his estranged brother Ronny (Cage) to the wedding. This turns out to be a big mistake on Johnny's part, as Ronny and Loretta fall in love the second they lock eyes and basically have to physically restrain themselves from jumping each other's bones every second they're together. As Ronny, Cage is neither suave nor debonair. He's not even charming. He's a hot-tempered brute who turns almost every conversation into a confrontation. And yet, you totally get why Loretta can't resist him even as he threatens to cut his throat with the big knife. If that's not a superstar performance, I don't know what is.

Watch it on HBO Max.

1. Adaptation (2002)

Columbia Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection

Adaptation is the best performance of Nicolas Cage's storied career, and definitively proves he is one of our greatest living actors. Trying to succinctly summarize any Charlie Kaufman movie can feel like a fool's errand, so I will just say that Adaptation is a movie that, better than just about any other movie, captures the internal struggle that comes with trying to make something. And at the heart of that struggle is Charlie Kaufman (Cage), a screenwriter who has to battle his own self-loathing to try and write the screenplay adaptation of Susan Orlean's The Orchid Thief while also dealing with the success of his carefree brother Donald (also Cage). Playing both parts allows the viewer to see every side of Cage as a performer — and to keep this movie from closing in on itself, Cage has to be simultaneously despondent, philosophical, charming, unappealing, introspective, insecure, and, most importantly, earnest. It's an impossibly tall order for any actor to pull off, yet Cage does it all in a way that almost feels effortless. To my mind, playing these two roles with such commitment and conviction is unquestionably Cage's masterpiece and demonstrates his unmatched abilities as an actor.

Watch it on HBO Max.