5. It Could Happen to You (1994)
Charlie and Muriel Lang (Nicolas Cage and Rosie Perez) have always lived a simple life. They don’t complain, but if things went better financially, they wouldn’t complain. Their humble existence changes suddenly when Charlie suddenly wins $4 million in the lottery. There is only one problem: the previous day, he jokingly promised a waitress named Yvonne (Bridget Fonda), to serve as a tip replacement, half of the possible profit if he actually hit the jackpot.
Technically, Cage’s movie star era came right after he won an Oscar and started to star in series of action films like “The Rock,” “Con Air” and “Face/Off” as well as few other big movies like “City of Angels,” but before he hit it big and became a household name, films like this were maybe an attempt to establish himself as a leading man of bigger movies than he usually made. They were mostly comedic stuff and hardly big successes but if you watch them, most of them were pretty fine films. “It Could Happen To You” is one of those.
It’s a sweet film with a very charming Cage performance in its center and Fonda is great as well. Both feel like genuine, natural and convincingly real characters which is exactly what such a film needs. The film was sort of inspired by a real life story but beyond the basic premise, it’s mostly fictional. It doesn’t bring a new spin on the genre or anything, but it hits more right notes than false ones that a “feel-good” movie needs to deliver. Those who love 1940s-50s romantic comedies on ordinary people falling in love certainly would appreciate this film more.
4. 8mm (1999)
Even though “8mm” has a strong cult following in many countries, it’s kind of ridiculous that it has a red Metascore. Maybe because Joel Schumacher was fresh from “Batman & Robin” and he was not too cool to like at the time? Certainly, it’s violent and a bit of an “ugly” film to watch, but it’s a gripping mystery, very atmospheric and it creates a very specific world around the fictional snuff underground; as our hero goes to the dark side, you feel on the same journey with him and it’s not just a film here just to shock you. It goes through many themes like greed, obsession, paranoia, possible dark things that are done by the rich and powerful, and so on. It has twists and turns, it has some unexpected character revelations, some excellent turns by an almost all-star ensemble cast and so much more.
So in any case, “8mm” is by far one of the most harshly and unjustifiably criticized thrillers. One can expect it to get mixed reviews; but seriously, this negative? It’s everything and more you can ask from such a movie. Cage himself is brilliant in the lead role; in a subtle way he turns from the cold, cultured man to a man of violence; there’s one moment where he needs “motivation” to do something bad and he does it by calling someone (trying to avoid spoilers here) and it’s just mind-blowing to watch. Cage himself is very proud of the film and considers it his first “horror” movie as to him, the movie is way too dark to be considered as such. Luckily, despite being a disappointment both financially and critically, “8mm” kept on finding its audiences. That’s a movie sure to disturb many, but for all the right reasons.
3. Red Rock West (1993)
Former soldier Mike Williams travels across the United States in search of work. He arrives in a town in Wyoming where Wayne Brown thinks he’s the week-long expected killer Lyle, who is supposed to kill Brown’s wife. Brown, who is the bar owner and – as Mike will find out later – also the sheriff of the place, gives Williams half of the $10,000 agreed as payment. And to watch what happens next during the rest of the film is just delicious to watch.
This is actually one of the most critically acclaimed films of Cage’s career, but unfortunately it was a box office flop and even though such early ‘90s neo-noirs have their own fan base, “Red Rock West” is hardly a film you’d hear it to get mentioned among Cage’s best films – but it certainly is. The story is full of originality and unpredictability and like John Dahl’s later neo-noir “The Last Seduction,” it’s a very entertaining watch.
Never boring, always surprising, and very engaging. Cage is excellent in the leading role as a man who finds himself in a kind of trouble that he certainly didn’t expect. The movie has some nice subtle erotic touches and the script is also full of irony and wit. Apart from all those, the movie also features some gorgeous cinematography with cool color choices and a great, guitar-based soundtrack. What else can we want from a film like this?
2. Bringing Out the Dead (1999)
This is a movie that you don’t get to hear much about, unless they’re talking about Martin Scorsese’s most underrated films or something. Brian De Palma, who directed Cage in “Snake Eyes,” recommended him to Marty. Paul Schrader, the writer of the film, was not too happy with his casting as he had someone younger like Edward Norton on his mind, but he enjoyed the film in the end and probably came to appreciate what Cage does in the lead role. It’s one of his finest roles, actually. He plays Frank Pierce, a depressed, tired, alcoholic, insomniac ambulance driver tormented by the ghosts of those he failed to save.
The movie doesn’t even have an exactly straightforward plot, but almost a look at his daily life and his psychology. Cage’s eyes alone can be very expressive, showing what his character is going through mentally and physically. It has elements of the previous Schrader-Scorsese collaboration “Taxi Driver” and maybe even “Last Temptation”; even the movie’s poster gives that feeling of a Christ-like figure. That said, it’s a unique film on its own; those dark images of New York nights keep haunting you as it does for our main character. The use of black humour is so amazing, as is the cinematography. It may not be an easy watch for some, which is maybe why it ended up being this overlooked, but it’s a brilliant achievement .
1. Birdy (1984)
Cage’s first “auteur” effort came through with his collaboration with Alan Parker on “Birdy,” a powerful and complex story on friendship, post-war trauma, the horrors of war, being free, and just a poetic tribute to flying away. The Grand Prix Jury Winner at Cannes Film Festival, “Birdy” unfortunately underperformed at the box office, which is a shame. Parker managed to bring the complexities of the original novel it was based on by William Wharton. The film focuses on the friendship between two young men, Birdy and Al. The movie is presented in flashbacks, with a frame narrative depicting their traumatic experiences upon serving in the Vietnam War. Matthew Modine portrays the sensitive Birdy, and Cage shows up as his friend Al.
With his expressive imagery, Parker succeeds in portraying a sensitive man who withdraws from an unloved reality into his own world due to the horrors of war he has experienced. At least Al understands Birdy no matter what he goes through. Both actors are perfect in the lead roles and they almost complete each other; both are showy roles but they don’t try to outshine each other, which is why it works so great to see them together. The emotions feel genuine.
The movie is also notable for the soundtrack by Peter Gabriel, his first work in film. He later made other great stuff for movies, especially the soundtrack for “The Last Temptation of Christ,” but “Birdy” remains a great achievement on its own. It’s also notable for being the first film to be partially shot with the Skycam.
Honorable Mentions: his somewhat rare villainous turn in “Kiss of Death”; the very passable Christmas comedy “Trapped in Paradise”; De Palma’s over-criticized “Snake Eyes”; and despite the logical flaws in Proyas’ “Knowing” and one of his DTV-ish films “Seeking Justice,” both are enjoyable. Last but not least, “Army of One” is not a good movie, but Cage’s performance makes it worth watching.