The Essential Nicolas Cage: 15 Must-See Movies

Nicolas Cage is my favorite actor because no matter what movie he’s in, no matter what role he’s playing, he is awesome. Whatever weird, eccentric choices he makes, it they are awesome. Even if they may arguably be wrong for the character, like Ghost Rider eating jelly beans, he has a clear reason for making the choice and his thought process is fascinating. 

Born Nicolas Coppola to father August Coppola (Francis Ford’s brother), he is only credited with that surname in the TV movie “Best of Times” and the small role in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. From Valley Girl, his first leading role, on, he was Nicolas Cage. Even though he never changed his name legally, he won’t go by Coppola anymore.

“Nicolas Cage is who I really am, even though my passport says otherwise,” Cage said at a TIFF press conference in 2011. I kind of had to reinvent myself to be able to have the guts to sit here in front of you today. Nicolas Coppola was a very scared little boy. I had to reinvent who I was going to be to make my dreams come true.” 

Through the ‘80s, Cage was a respected actor in edgy dramas and quirky comedies, but always dabbled at mainstream fair like the Top Gun knockoff Firebirds, the rom-com Honeymoon in Vegas and whatever Guarding Tess was. I was in film school when Cage really made the leap to blockbusters with his action trilogy The Rock, Con Air and Face/Off. Film school snobs said he’d sold out, despite the fact that he won an Oscar for a Mike Figgis indie movie shot on 16mm the year before. 

I don’t think Cage ever sold out. He’s always taken risks and tried things, fought for interesting character choices and championed the kinds of movies Hollywood wouldn’t make without a big star’s weight behind them. He’s probably the reason Ghost Rider got a movie at all, even though it was maybe not the ideal portrayal of the character the first time. He directed a movie in 2002, Sonny, which I hardly consider selling out, though the film made a mere blip and he hasn’t pursued directing since. 

With big risks can come big falls when it doesn’t work out. Windtalkers was a reunion with John Woo and a poignant dramatic conflict: could you kill a human being to keep his knowledge out of enemy hands? But then Cage’s character never actually had to make that choice. His 3D exploitation film Drive Angry bombed hard and Season of the Witch did better but it seems even more forgotten. The two are related because Cage said he did Witch because he wanted to get shot in the eye with an arrow. During production, they nixed that idea, so in Drive Angry he gets shot in the eye with a gun. When you hear Cage explain it, those seem like perfectly good reasons to mount an entire production and release it in thousands of theaters. 

Sometimes he had personal reasons for choosing a film, but he spent many years trying to use his clout to reach a younger audience. Choosing films like National Treasure, G-Force and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Cage felt he could reach “both parents and children.” He was supposed to be Superman in the late ‘90s when Tim Burton was going to direct Kevin Smith’s script, but several directors later (McG and Brett Ratner had a go) that film became Superman Returns with Brandon Routh. 

By National Treasure, Cage became a bona fide pop culture phenomenon, most notably when Andy Samberg came up with the “Saturday Night Live” segment “Get in the Cage with Nicolas Cage.” Guest stars with a new movie out would be interviewed by Samberg’s Cage, and ultimately Cage himself would appear with his “SNL” alter ego. Samberg’s Cage would usually resort to stealing the Declaration of Independence, because that was probably the reference most of the “SNL” audience would get. There have also been College Humor skits about his career choices, YouTube montages of Cage “loosing his shit” in various movies, and my personal favorite, Ticklish Cage

Serious film criticism has been rightly devoted to Cage as well. Outlaw Vern coined the term mega-acting, because it’s not technically overacting. Overacting suggests it’s a mistake. Mega-acting is going above and beyond the norm when it’s right for the character. Cage called it Nouveau Shamanic

This week, Nicolas Cage faces The Rapture in the faith-based film Left Behind, based on the novel first filmed starring Kirk Cameron. Will he have a mega-acting reaction to The Rapture, or will he play it more like Birdy or The Family Man? If you want to experience the full range of Nicolas Cage, here are the 15 essential films to watch. This was really hard for me, since I could recommend all sorts of obscure stuff like Dead Fall and I even had to leave out big ones like Matchstick Men, National Treasure and Red Rock West. For Cage it’s worth digging deeper.

Slideshow: The Essential Nicolas Cage: 15 Must-See Movies


Fred Topel is a staff writer at CraveOnline and the man behind Best Episode Ever. Follow him on Twitter at @FredTopel.