Total Recall

Total Recall: Nicolas Cage's Best Movies

We count down the best-reviewed work of the Croods star.

by | March 21, 2013 | Comments

Nicolas Cage

He’s one of the most eminently mockable major stars in Hollywood, thanks to his frequently questionable tonsorial choices and evident thirst for somewhat less-than-challenging paycheck gigs, but as much as we love to rib Nicolas Cage, there’s no getting around the fact that he’s done some very impressive work over the course of his long career. Though many filmgoers will always think of blockbuster action flicks like Con Air, The Rock, and the National Treasure series when they hear Cage’s name, he’s never been afraid to take on smaller, less conventional projects with less-than-obvious commercial prospects. We’ll be hearing rather than seeing him in this weekend’s The Croods, but we still thought now would be a perfect time to count down the best-reviewed movies of Cage’s career.


10. Valley Girl

This might be hard for the young’uns to understand, but in the early 1980s, the Valley Girl was a genuine cultural phenomenon, entering phrases such as “gag me with a spoon” and “like, wow” into the lexicon and giving Frank Zappa a richly deserved Top 40 single. Martha Coolidge’s Valley Girl, starring Cage as a mild-mannered punk named Randy and Deborah Foreman as the titular object of his star-crossed affections, arrived in the thick of the whole fad, and although it wasn’t a huge success at the box office, it helped launch the career of the actor formerly known as Nicolas Coppola. In many ways, Girl seems like little more than your average 1980s high school romance flick, but that’s partly because many of its ingredients were co-opted by subsequent entries in the genre; in the words of MaryAnn Johanson of Flick Filosopher, “it’s a measure of how, like, totally influential this little film was 20 years ago that there seems to be nothing special about it today.”


9. Peggy Sue Got Married

From the California Raisins to Monkees reruns on MTV (and David Bowie cutting an ill-advised cover of “Dancing in the Street” with Mick Jagger), the 1960s were hot in 1986 — and once again, Nicolas Cage found himself starring in a picture that aligned with the latest fad. Peggy Sue Got Married was undeniably Kathleen Turner’s film, but this story of a prom queen who passes out during her 25-year reunion and wakes up in 1960 hinges on the love lost (and regained) between Peggy Sue and her high school sweetheart-turned-adulterous husband. And it benefits from sweet chemistry between Turner and Cage, who plays Charlie with all the quirky charm and droopy-lidded intensity that would shortly help him become one of one of Hollywood’s most bankable stars. (Of course, it also offered an early example of his infamously unusual approach to his work; according to Cage, he modeled his character’s voice after Gumby’s horse Pokey, almost getting himself kicked off the film in the process — no small feat, considering his uncle was the director.) In the words of the Washington Post’s Rita Kempley, Peggy Sue is “a wistful fantasy, a bright reminiscence, a stroll down memory lane that’s as glowingly conceived as it is slightly flawed.”


8. Birdy

For a movie that won the Grand Prize of the Jury at Cannes, boasted a soundtrack by a world famous rock star, was made by one of the most well-known directors of the era, and featured a pair of leading men who would go on to greater fame, Birdy has always been curiously overlooked. Alan Parker’s adaptation of the William Wharton novel about the aftermath of Vietnam, as seen through the experiences of longtime friends and fellow vets Birdy (Matthew Modine) and Al (Cage), was too heavy and experimental to hope for major box office success, but instead of going on to achieve cult classic status on the home market, the film that Roger Ebert called “a very strange and beautiful movie” has been largely forgotten. It certainly isn’t your average rental fare, but if you find the time to take in a viewing of this early example of Cage’s dramatic potential, you’ll see what the New York Times’ Janet Maslin lauded as “enchanting” and eFilmCritic’s Scott Weinberg found “quiet, thoughtful, and really quite touching.”


7. Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

Film properties are recycled and repurposed so quickly these days that it’s sometimes difficult to pinpoint the line between a remake, a reboot, and a sequel — and those words were all used to describe 2009’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, which picks up some of the narrative threads left dangling by Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant. The truth, though, is that Port of Call is none of the above; while it does use Ferrara’s film as a sort of spiritual starting point, it’s really its own singularly weird piece of work — which is just as you’d expect, given that it’s a police drama about a crooked, drug-addicted cop (played by Cage, natch) directed by noted cinematic misanthropist Werner Herzog (who described his movie as a “rethought” of the original). As tends to be the case with many Cage movies, it finds its star beaming in from his own unique plane of existence, but unlike a lot of entries from the latter portion of Cage’s career, it surrounds his unhinged performance with smart direction, a well-written script, and solid work from the supporting cast. As Wesley Morris put it for the Boston Globe, “Frankly, the story isn’t remotely as interesting as Cage. Nothing is.”


6. Leaving Las Vegas

The year after Leaving Las Vegas was released, Cage would kick off a string of three straight movies that grossed over $100 million apiece, but when he filmed Mike Figgis’ adaptation of John O’Brien’s bleak semi-autobiographical novel, he was known primarily as a go-to guy for quirky, mid-sized romantic comedies like Honeymoon in Vegas. It wouldn’t be entirely accurate to say that critics were surprised by the depth Cage flashed as Leaving‘s central character, suicidal alcoholic Ben Sanderson — though they probably were shocked by the performance turned in by his co-star, Elisabeth Shue. They certainly were impressed, though, and for good reason; his foggy, muted portrayal of a man at the end of his rope coolly upends the worn-out cliches of countless Hollywood drunkards. As ReelViews’ James Berardinelli put it, “Nicolas Cage, who has a track record of immersing himself in parts, gives one of the year’s most powerful acting turns.”


5. Raising Arizona

And here, friends, is where the lovably bizarre Nicolas Cage we know and love really had his first chance to shine. He received the opportunity thanks to Joel and Ethan Coen, the directing duo whose distinctively quirky sensibilities would go on to help them rake in scads of awards (and appreciable sums of box office cash) — but who, at the time, had only the 1984 cult classic Blood Simple under their belts. For that reason, and quite a few more, it’s somewhat hard to believe Raising Arizona made its way through the pipeline at 20th Century Fox; from Cage and Holly Hunter’s otherworldly lead performances to Carter Burwell’s yodel-laced score, it’s difficult to conceive of a film more out of step with the theatrical slate that gave audiences Beverly Hills Cop II and Three Men and a Baby. Unusual as its ingredients might be, most critics were hard-pressed to deny Arizona‘s charms; though some (including Roger Ebert) accused the Coens of valuing style over substance, the majority agreed with writers like the Apollo Guide’s Brian Webster, who called it “a remarkable spectacle of overblown characters, sights, sounds and events.”


4. Adaptation

Plenty of writers have suffered writer’s block, or taken an assignment only to realize they’ve bitten off more than they can chew. It took Charlie Kaufman, though, to turn the experience into a film: Adaptation was inspired by his struggles to adapt Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief for Jonathan Demme. Cage plays a fictionalized version of Kaufman here, as well as his entirely fictional twin, Donald; it’s the kind of knotty, layered meta-picture that everyone was looking for from Spike Jonze after Being John Malkovich — and that tends to leave unsuspecting audiences befuddled and critics clamoring for more. Adaptation delivered on both counts, racking up an impressive 91 percent Tomatometer to go with its middling $33 million worldwide gross; still, whatever you think of the movie — and a not-inconsiderable number of critics disliked it, including USA Today’s Mike Clark, who called it “a little too smugly superior to like” — this is one of the few recent projects that has asked Cage to exercise his acting chops. In the words of the New York Times’ A.O. Scott, “Mr. Cage and Mr. Jonze share a casual, daredevil sensibility, and the two of them — or should I say the three of them? — pull off one of the most amazing technical stunts in recent film history.”


3. Moonstruck

It’s unlikely that John Patrick Shanley was thinking of Nicolas Cage when he wrote Moonstruck‘s script, but he may as well have been, because there isn’t an actor on the planet who can play an absurdly coifed, incurably romantic, prosthetic-fingered baker the way Nicolas Cage can. Director Norman Jewison does a splendid job of uncorking Cage’s kooky energy, but reins him in enough to keep the sparks flying between Cage’s wildly passionate Ronny and Cher’s buttoned-down accountant, Loretta Castorini. The movie is a heart-on-its-sleeve bit of proudly lightweight fluff, but it’s also one of the sharpest post-’70s romantic comedies you’re likely to see, and anyway, the plot is incidental to the chemistry between the leads; as the Chicago Reader’s Jonathan Rosenbaum put it, “most of the show belongs to Cher and Cage, both of whom are at their energetic best.”


2. Face/Off

Its premise is utterly ridiculous, even for a late 1990s action movie, but who cares? When you have a script that allows Nicolas Cage and John Travolta to spend the majority of the film pretending to be one another after a face transplant, and you get a heaping helping of John Woo action set pieces to go with all that acting, nothing else matters all that much. Popcorn thrillers generally don’t earn 93 percent Tomatometers, but Face/Off represents a high point for the genre, and successfully weds thought-provoking subtext to cool slow-motion shots of people beating each other up and exploding stuff. Both of the movie’s stars are clearly having a great time, and why not? As Variety’s Todd McCarthy wrote, “watching John Travolta and Nicolas Cage square off and literally exchange roles brings back the old-fashioned pleasure of astutely judged movie star pairings in a major way.”


1. Red Rock West

Nicolas Cage had had his share of successes by the time Red Rock West was filmed in 1992, but neither that nor the additional presences of Dennis Hopper and Lara Flynn Boyle were enough to convince Columbia Tri-Star that John Dahl’s Western noir could be a theatrical hit. The film, in which Cage plays a drifter who takes advantage of being mistaken for a hit man, was headed for video when a San Francisco theater owner purchased a print and sparked an eventual three-city limited run. It wasn’t enough to earn back Red Rock‘s budget, of course, but it helped the movie earn a critical cult following, thanks to a sharp script (co-written by Dahl with his brother, Rick) and solid performances from Hopper, Boyle, and Cage, who offers a reminder of the talent that lurks beneath his frequently over-the-top acting choices. Oh, and it’s also a fun film — one Roger Ebert enjoyed so much he called it “the kind of movie made by people who love movies, have had some good times at them, and want to celebrate the very texture of old genres like the western and the film noir.”

In case you were wondering, here are Cage’s top 10 movies according RT users’ scores:

1. The Rock — 85%
2. Lord of War — 84%
3. Adaptation — 82%
4. Raising Arizona — 82%
5. Leaving Las Vegas — 82%
6. Birdy — 82%
7. Face/Off — 81%
8. City of Angels — 81%
9. Wild At Heart — 80%
10. Gone in 60 Seconds — 79%

Take a look through Cage’s complete filmography, as well as the rest of our Total Recall archives. And don’t forget to check out the reviews for The Croods.

Finally, here’s Mr. Cage in The Wicker Man expressing his displeasure with winged insects:

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