The 20 Best Nicolas Cage Roles, Ranked

Known for gonzo performances, the prolific actor's movie highlights include 'Raising Arizona,' 'Face/Off,' and 'Adaptation.'

nicolas cage movies
Image by Chineme Elobuike for Thrillist
Image by Chineme Elobuike for Thrillist

What precedent does Hollywood have for someone like Nicolas Cage? He makes Jack Nicholson look buttoned-up. (Imagine Cage's Jack Torrance.) America's wildest actor, now 58, is enjoying a renaissance that adheres to no playbook anyone could have contrived a decade ago. It works because it makes sense: "Gonzo" has long been the go-to word to describe Cage's performances, and if he is testing the limits of just how unhinged a movie star can be, that trajectory has roots in early roles like Raising Arizona and Wild at Heart. When he doesn't let loose, his films tend to sink (see: It Could Happen to You and The Family Man). He calls his technique "nouveau shamanism," a way to heighten one's imagination in order to feel like a particular character. Now, The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent—a hyper-meta curio that wouldn't be possible without the electricity of recent projects like Mandy and Color Out of Space—lets Nicolas Cage play Nicolas Cage, literally. Almost no one else could pull off a self-reflexive gambit to such a degree.

In honor of Cage's wild and weird career, Thrillist is ranking his 20 best performances.

nicolas cage in snake eyes

20. Snake Eyes (1998)

Working with director Brian De Palma, fresh off the blockbuster success of Mission: Impossible, Cage brings an admirable sliminess to this rain-soaked, twist-filled crime thriller, which finds him playing a corrupt cop thrust into the middle of an assassination plot at a boxing match in Atlantic City. Unlike many of his A-list peers, Cage has no problem playing unlikable heels. David Koepp's propulsive script sends Cage yammering through the back doors and narrow halls of a casino, the perfect labyrinth structure for De Palma to let his camera crawl over the walls and ceilings. Does everything in this movie make sense? No, not exactly. But when the filmmaking is as flashy as Cage's tropical-print shirt, you won't mind feeling like you're playing a rigged game. —Dan Jackson

nicolas cage in city of angels
Warner Bros.

19. City of Angels (1998)

If you think too hard about it, the City of Angels premise is nuts. Angel Seth (Cage) falls in love with mortal woman Maggie (Meg Ryan, very lovable) and wants to become human in order to be with her. Then, with the guidance of another angel (Dennis Franz) who became human, he goes through with it. Of course it's not that simple; in his angel form, he can't be seen by anyone other than Maggie, he doesn't know the ways of the world, or even what foods taste like. Much like every other role on this list, Cage brings his all. And those eyes and piercing stares and thoughtful silences bring life to something that truly could have been a disaster. —Kerensa Cadenas

nicolas cage in bad lieutenant port of call new orleans
First Look Studios

18. Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2018)

There's no topping Abel Ferrara's original Bad Lieutenant, a lacerating portrait of Catholic guilt featuring an all-time-great Harvey Keitel performance as the titular lousy cop. With its CBS procedural-like title, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans looks like a cynical attempt to reboot a singular '90s artifact for a new era, transporting the action from NYC to post-Katrina Louisiana. But director Werner Herzog, pursuing some bizarre tangents (the iguanas!) while playing other parts of the script's noir plot relatively straight, and Cage, plumbing the depths of addiction like he did in Leaving Las Vegas, prove to be an irresistible duo. (It helps that the absolutely bonkers case also includes Evan Medes, Jennifer Coolidge, Val Kilmer, Brad Dourif, Shea Whigham, Michael Shannon, and Xzibit!) When you think the entire movie might collapse into absurdity, it stumbles onto a moment of stupefying beauty or destabilizing horror. Cage holds the proceedings together with his charisma, allowing you to marvel at and empathize with the character's depravity. —DJ

nicolas cage in color out of space
RLJE Films

17. Color Out of Space (2019)

If you want to see Nicolas Cage say the word "alpacas" many times, this is the movie for you. An adaptation of an H.P. Lovecraft short story, Color Out of Space finds Cage playing a father who brings his family to a remote Massachusetts farm, where a meteor soon lands and bathes everyone in a beautiful purple light. The dream of a quiet life raising alpacas soon turns into a nightmare. Cage is relatively restrained in the early goings, emphasizing the pain and frustration of growing older, but the second half features some of the actor's most gonzo antics. The twitching, the yelling, and the vocal tics all get deployed here, often to great effect. Even when the movie flounders in certain passages, struggling against budgetary constraints and tonal inconsistencies, Cage remains fearless in his willingness to simply "go there." —DJ

nicolas cage in con air
Buena Vista Pictures Distribution

16. Con Air (1997)

Con Air is simply a bananas movie about a bunch of prisoners who hijack a flight—hence the name "con," as in "convict," and "air," as in "airplane." Bizarrely, Cage is supposed to be something of a straight man in this movie. He is Cameron Poe, a good guy, who, after killing a guy who tried to attack his wife, finds himself as cargo with a bunch of truly evil dudes. He then must save the day. And yet Cage does not play it safe. Taking on a Southern accent that sounds like sand in mouth, Cage is just as wild as all of the bad guys, including John Malkovich and Steve Buscemi. The bizarre pleasure of Con Air is that, despite the fact that Cage is supposed to be playing the everyman hero, he just can’t be boring. —Esther Zuckerman

nicolas cage in the rock
Buena Vista Pictures Distribution

15. The Rock (1996)

As FBI chemical weapons specialist Stanley Godspeeed, Cage plays the neurotic dweeb to Sean Connery's badass Alcatraz escapee John Mason, who gets recruited to break back into the notorious island prison after it's taken over by a team of rogue commandos led by an unhinged Ed Harris. Cage's loopy energy, particularly his willingness to ham it up for the jokes and sell the occasional sentimental moments, makes him an ideal match for director Michael Bay's pulverizing, maximalist style. As the fate of the world hangs in the balance, he pulls off something difficult: maintaining an archness while never selling out the (obviously ridiculous) premise. He's committed, sweating bullets as he handles those bizarre green balls filled with deadly nerve gas, but he's not allergic to irony, either. —DJ

nicolas cage and deborah foreman in valley girl
Atlantic Releasing

14. Valley Girl (1983)

Fast Times at Ridgemont High may officially be Cage's first movie, but Valley Girl was his first major role, and the one that recognized his star power. In the teen movie, he plays Hollywood-based punk Randy, who falls into a star-crossed-lovers romance with Valley girl Julie (Deborah Foreman). As is often the case when Cage plays a romantic lead, he walks a fine line of being a bad boy, extremely goofy, and also charming—making it no wonder Julie's so intrigued by him when he makes eyes at her on the beach. Director Martha Coolidge has said she knew from the get-go that the then-18-year-old actor had it, having been quoted saying, "I said, 'I want you in the film. I'm going to make you a star.' I can't believe I said that to him, but I did." Even if it would take a while for Valley Girl to develop a cult following, Coolidge couldn't have been more right, and you can certainly trace his leading-man qualities back to this humble teen comedy. —Sadie Bell

nicolas cage in bringing out the dead
Paramount Pictures

13. Bringing Out the Dead (1999)

The pairing of Martin Scorsese, one of modern American cinema's most kinetic directors, with Nicolas Cage, one of the screen's most outwardly expressive stars, feels almost too combustible. Can one movie handle that much passion and intensity? Perhaps unsurprisingly, Bringing Out the Dead, a Paul Schrader-penned adaptation of Joe Connelly's 1998 novel about a New York City paramedic, features a relatively restrained Cage performance. His character, Frank, is a classic Shcrader antihero, a man fighting through an existential crisis and recoiling at the depraved world around him. Bleary-eyed and hollowed-out, Cage serves as a great foil for locked-in turns from Ving Rhames, John Goodman, and Tom Sizemore as his fellow night-owl paramedics, and the movie hums with a searching sense of purpose, playing like a spiritual sequel to Taxi Driver, Scorsese and Schrader's other Manhattan parable of life observed from behind a windshield. —DJ

nicolas cage in vampire's kiss
Hemdale Film Corporation

12. Vampire's Kiss (1989)

When we talk about Cage's ability to go real weird with his character work, Vampire's Kiss is bound to come up in the conversation. Following a struggling literary agent with increasingly troublesome mental issues who believes he's fallen in love with, and is now becoming, an actual vampire, the movie is perhaps best known as the one wherein Cage screams the alphabet at a frightened lady. Knowing what we know now about how much Cage loves early silent cinema (and that he'll be playing Dracula in an upcoming adaptation of the classic novel), his full-Nosferatu performance in Vampire's Kiss, gurning madly at the camera, eyes wide and mouth hanging all the way open, starts to make a lot more sense. —Emma Stefansky

nicolas cage in matchstick men
Warner Bros.

11. Matchstick Men (2003)

A year after Adaptation, Cage was back in jittery mode for Ridley Scott’s Matchstick Men. Playing Roy Waller, an OCD con man, Cage leans heavily into tics, his anxious movements becoming as much a fabric of the scenes as Scott’s washed-out lighting. But he snaps into focus when he’s on the job, and it’s the duality of that work that makes Cage so special. Combine all of that with the way he bounces off Alison Lohman as Angela, Roy’s teenager daughter who appears out of the blue and crashes his life. It’s another one of those performances that manages to mix Cage’s wild impulses with genuine sweetness. —EZ

nicolas cage in mandy
RLJE Films

10. Mandy (2018)

If you were to put a finger on when Cage started to make a "comeback" in the popular culture, that finger would probably land on Mandy, Panos Cosmatos' art house sci-fi/fantasy/horror where Nic Cage plays a lovelorn mountain man dead-set on avenging his girlfriend's murder by violently killing the members of a demonic biker gang. Delicately scored by the synth-heavy tones of the late Jóhann Jóhannsson, lit in neon shades of red and green, and bookended by gorgeous heavy metal-inspired title cards, the movie is a feast for the eyes and ears. But Cage's considered performance perfectly balances his ability to tap into both interior and exterior emotional extremes while covered in blood and screaming one moment and silently driving down lonely mountain roads the next. Mandy is an immediate standout that reminds us what great acting can achieve. —ES

nicolas cage in peggy sue got married
Tri-Star Pictures

9. Peggy Sue Got Married (1986)

Cage’s third movie with his uncle Francis Ford Coppola, Peggy Sue Got Married is Kathleen Turner’s show—and yet it wouldn’t be the same without Cage’s floppy-haired himbo magnetism. In present-day sequences, he’s a philandering sleaze. But when Turner’s titular character is transported back to 1960, her senior year of high school, when she was dating a younger Cage, he morphs into a groovy narcissist of a teenager, anxious to launch the music career he gives up after Peggy Sue becomes pregnant. He has the performative confidence of someone whose whole life is ahead of him, but it’s the ball of nerves hiding beneath the surface that makes Cage’s performance so riotous. Turner didn’t enjoy working with Cage, but this sweet comedy about marriage and the passage of time overcomes whatever antics he got into during the production. —Matthew Jacobs

nicolas cage in national treasure
Tri-Star Pictures

8. National Treasure (2004)

As American history-obsessed treasure hunter Benjamin Franklin Gates, Cage plays a character type he's never attempted before or since: a sort of modern Indiana Jones adventurer who is both nerdy and a little bit dashing, running from bad guys and leaping across roofs and down into centuries-old catacombs like a Revolutionary War LARPing Jason Bourne. National Treasure and its sequel perfectly capture Cage's ability to combine passion with dry humor, bantering with his buddies while never straying from his ultimate objective, and delivering lines like "I'm going to steal the Declaration of Independence" with unwavering gravitas. We wouldn't trust our nation's most important secrets in anyone else's hands. —ES

nicolas cage in leaving las vegas
MGM

7. Leaving Las Vegas (1995)

The only role that has won Cage an Oscar—though he was also nominated for Adaptation—is one where you can't really imagine another person attempting it, let alone turning in a performance that's even a fraction of what the actor achieves as suicidal alcoholic Ben Sanderson in the film, which Mike Figgis wrote, directed, and scored. Leaving behind a tainted screenwriting career in Los Angeles with the goal of drinking himself to the grave, Ben meets Sera (Elizabeth Shue), a calloused Las Vegas sex worker who becomes his lover, caretaker, and angel of death in his physical decline, so violently in withdrawal that he wakes up shaking in the middle of the night and is unable to eat even a forkful of rice. To research the role, Cage hired a drinking coach, binge-drank and filmed it to watch the footage, and shot some of his scenes inebriated for authenticity, translating to a haunting, occasionally darkly funny, and untamed depiction of a man sunk so far into his own addiction that he's determined to escape with only way out. —Leanne Butkovic

nicolas cage in pig
Neon

6. Pig (2021)

What is probably the most "normal" role for Cage on this whole list is also one of his very best. In Pig, he's Robin Feld, a once-famous Portland-area chef who traded his celebrity for a reclusive life in the lush Oregon woods to hunt for truffles with his beloved and beautiful pig. One day she's stolen and, chauffeured around by his obnoxious truffle dealer (Alex Wolff), he embarks on a John Wick-ian quest to find out where she is, who took her, and why that plunges him back into the Portland food scene. Though Robin is a man of few words, Cage's staid, measured performance does just as much, if not more, than if he were flailing around madly. Slow and deliberate movements, hardened glances, and restrained dialogue are all he needs here to deliver a wallop. —LB

nicolas cage in face/off
Paramount Pictures

5. Face/Off (1997)

When a guy steals your face and voice to take on your identity and convince your brother to reveal the location of a bomb set to go off somewhere in the middle of Los Angeles, there's only one thing you can do: steal HIS face and go on a murderous rampage hunting him down! The plot of Face/Off, John Woo's gonzo blockbuster action movie, sounds like it was dreamed up by a bunch of kids who had partaken a little too heavily in a few too many substances, but, boy, does it work, thanks mainly to Cage (as criminal mastermind Castor Troy and fearless FBI Agent Sean Archer) and his co-star John Travolta (as fearless FBI Agent Sean Archer and criminal mastermind Castor Troy), both showcasing the height of their acting chops by playing themselves and each other at the same time. —ES

nicolas cage and laura dern in wild at heart
The Samuel Goldwyn Company

4. Wild at Heart (1990)

Wild at Heart opens with Cage warding off a hit man hired by his girlfriend’s mother (Diane Ladd) and ends with him sailing into the sunset alongside said girlfriend (a truly wild Laura Dern). What happens in between is David Lynch’s lopsided spin on The Wizard of Oz, a thrilling dark comedy traversing the ghoulishness of American culture. As the splendidly named Sailor Ripley, Cage sports a decadent snakeskin jacket, imitates Elvis in a bar, and hallucinates a vision of Glinda the Good Witch. He is, unsurprisingly, an ideal match for Lynch’s spiked cocktail. Cage had already proven his comedic bona fides with Peggy Sue Got Married and Raising Arizona, but Wild at Heart previewed the increasingly outré work that would come to define his legacy. —MJ

nicolas cage in raising arizona
20th Century Fox

3. Raising Arizona (1987)

It's hard to imagine any other actor as H.I. "Hi" McDunnough, Cage's convenience-store-robbing role in his only collaboration with the Coen brothers. Despite his quirky lingo, twangy dialect, and cartoonish mannerisms, the man makes you believe the character is as real as ever. Although he's done comedic work throughout his career, this madcap farce best illustrates what he can achieve as a funnyman—whether he's fumbling through holdups with pantyhose on his face, confronting the insurmountable physical task of wrangling a baby from his crib, or navigating a wild car chase. Even amid all the Coen-esque silliness, he brings a Huggies value-pack-sized heap of sincerity to his relationship with Holly Hunter's Ed that grounds the outrageous plot. Cage may have become synonymous with gonzo performances in his career, but Raising Arizona is the movie that showcases just how zany his sense of humor is. It’s the kind of performance you wish happened more than once in a lifetime. —SB

nicolas cage in adaptation
Sony Pictures

2. Adaptation (2002)

Casting an occasionally over-the-top performer like Nicolas Cage as real-life screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and his fictional twin brother Donald Kaufman, who shares a writing credit on the movie's actual script, might have been one too many stunts for this stunt-filled meta comedy, an adaption of Susan Orlean's acclaimed nonfiction book The Orchid Thief, to handle. But Cage, like director Spike Jonze, elegantly underplays the high-concept material, finding the humanity and emotion in what could have been a purely intellectual exercise. His "Charlie" is self-loathing and neurotic, but Cage also highlights his curiosity and sensitivity. Similarly, his "Donald," a Robert McKee disciple with unearned confidence and goofball bravado, also has a genuine warmth. Through a series of small physical choices in posture, Cage creates two distinct characters who antagonize and feed off each other, embodying the tricky creative balancing act that makes this quasi-confessional portrait of an artist battling his inner hack so pleasingly bonkers. —DJ

cher and nicolas cage in moonstruck
MGM

1. Moonstruck (1987)

Is a great Nicolas Cage performance something that matches his unhinged bombasity with pathos? If so, then Moonstruck is his ideal. He enters the movie gleaming with sweat from the ovens where he bakes bread. His hair is tousled. His chest hair peeks out from under his wifebeater. In this introduction, he gives you everything you need to know about this character, Ronny Cammareri: He’s stubborn, dramatic, and angry. Ronny blames his brother Johnny (Danny Aiello), who is about to marry Loretta Castorini (Cher), for the loss of his hand and his bride. It’s a grudge he refuses to give up, but he does quickly fall in love with Loretta, complicating everything. In the following scene, when Loretta calls him a wolf, you believe it in the way he stabs at his steak. But it’s also his earnestness that carries the movie. Cage is so genuine in all of his passion that you believe how easily Loretta can blow up her life for Ronny. Hell, we would too. —EZ

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