6. Lord of War (2005)
But let us not forget that Cage did not solely make a bunch of good movies in a four-year period. He had some damn good features in the 2000s and this is one of them. Lord of War is a for sure over-the-top with its style, but it does allow the film to make an impression on the viewer much easier.
The iconic opening credit scene going through the life of a bullet before it gets put into someone’s head. It almost feels like The Big Short before The Big Short, as the film rather seamlessly blends in an unnatural amount of information about weapons in war while telling a tale of moral confliction. Revisiting this makes one realize that sharp wit and an almost aggressive sarcasm can still be very effective in storytelling without being smarmy in the way McKay’s scripts are. Lord of War remains a loaded movie that makes an interesting argument about the inevitability of evil triumphing in the world.
7. The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009)
What an utterly confounding movie, but not in the traditional Nic Cage sense. With Werner Herzog at the helm, sort of kind of reimagining Abel Ferrara’s 1992 film, Bad Lieutenant is a mind trip that does not feel describable. You take Nic Cage imagining two dancing lizards and think that this is a film that tows the line between arthouse and pulp, but that is not really the film either. So, what is it? Well, it cogently uses the aftermath of Katrina to plop Nic Cage’s self-loathing cop into this odd and downbeat environment.
It is a surreal look at a man going into his own, hyper specific madness. Which, yes, is not unknown to Herzog but this does not quite feel as frustratingly slow as the one in Aguirre. And it is yet another tribute to the bravery and range of Cage as an actor, but the beautiful shot composition and deft interweaving of comedy and drama in the script prevents this from being like just a showcase for Cage as an actor. Perhaps it has become so forgotten because it is so hard to even talk about, to recommend to someone who is not actively searching for lost diamonds in the ruff of cinema history. But if you love Cage, Herzog, or underrated gems in general, this has to be a must-see.
8. Adaptation (2002)
Adaptation still is overwhelming twenty years later. Meta narratives may be quite familiar at this point, with Everything Everywhere All at Once and The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent both being recent works with meta elements. But Adaptation is so amazing in that the use Kaufman’s struggle to adapt The Orchid Thief does not feel like a cheap gimmick. Instead, Adaptation is a defining, all-time example of displaying the absolute hell of being artist. It hits on so many smaller points about the pressures from higher-ups to screenwriting teachers who think they are all-knowing, flawless writers who can do no wrong.
It also is a profound story of a man being sucked into older an age and having so little self-worth while having horrible sexual repression. And it does all of this while still retaining the truth and spirit of The Orchid Thief itself. It retains the enigmatic elements of the book while not becoming a pretentious movie that abandons smart interplay between the characters for some gazes at flowers. Adaptation never has been hailed as the most crucial part Nic Cage’s career because it has always been more of a testament to the brilliance Kaufman as a writer, but boy is this in the running for the best film Cage has ever made.
9. Joe (2013)
Sometimes you just take a step back and look at Cage’s overall filmography and realize that despite all of his bad work, he still ended up putting out a great film every couple of years. Enter Joe, arguably David Gordon Green’s best film and no surprise, a great performance from Cage. Although Joe stands out because it is one where Nic Cage really does make the difference. Joe definitely feels like a personal story from Green that can break your heart with how its immoral characters can punish the innocence of the kinder ones. But the general depression of the town and the gritty aesthetic does make it feel like a specific kind of film, a story that definitely has been told beforehand. But Nic does what he does best. He takes arbitrary lines of dialogues and emotions and spins them in a way that is totally his own.
Nothing feels traditional about an admittedly plain character that is another man who has to come to terms with the unethical profession he is involved in. And that is the magic of Nic Cage. Without him, this is a rather great effort from Green that may get some extra love thanks to Tye Sheridan and well-executed moments of tension. With Nic Cage, it has ended up leaving an indelible mark on people that does not come about with another actor playing the role.
10. Matchstick Men (2003)
Last but not least, Matchstick Men. It feels as though Matchstick Men is brough up more so as an underrated addition to Ridley Scott’s filmography than an underrated one in Nicolas Cage’s. This makes sense considering how baffling of a film Matchstick Men can be. Scott went from directing heavyweight Oscar contenders and then decided to work with a considerably smaller budget on a pseudo-heist film that does not offer any of the thrills that a Soderbergh movie does.
It is an oddly sweet and sad creation from Scott that is a rare showcase for how good he can be at playing with the emotions of the audience. But then you actually watch some scenes of the film and realize how dependent it is on Cage’s performance. He does, after all, play a character with OCD, a collection of phobias, and a proclivity to run around totally nude. You watch at how detailed the tiniest of mannerisms are, and the bombast of Cage’s freakout moments, and you realize this is kind of what the guy has been doing all his career. He is as good as anyone at adding in subtleties to his performances other actors could not dream of, but sometimes is not shy at all at saying “fuck it” and just running wild.