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The best Nicolas Cage movies according to Rotten Tomatoes

Is there a contemporary actor who's as enigmatic, as "out-there," as truly polarizing as Nicolas Cage? It's easy to point to his critical flops as a means of highlighting his manic style of performance (films like The Wicker Man, Ghost Rider, and Left Behind certainly don't do him any favors), but that's completely missing the forest for the trees. Cage's notably physical and performative style of acting is only at its most powerful when matched with material that's on his same level of surreal interpretation. Luckily, Cage has had a handful of projects that have met this challenge, causing audiences and critics alike to unite in praise for one of our most notable actors working today.

And this praise has been algorithmically compiled by the good folks over at Rotten Tomatoes, giving us a neatly ranked list of which Cage films have received the most positive notices from critics across the years. While Cage's top-rated film is technically the much-beloved Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse at 97%, that's really more of a Cage cameo, and we want to take a deeper look into the films that can undoubtedly be called "Nicolas Cage Movies." Which movies across this illustrious star's careers resonated with critics around the world? Let's take a look!

Nicolas Cage flies high in Birdy

The earliest film chronologically on this list, 1984's Birdy was one of the first films that gave us the full dramatic potential of a young Nicolas Cage in this gorgeously shot, unabashedly strange poetic drama directed by Alan Parker, just two years after he brought us the film adaptation of Pink Floyd's The Wall. Cage and Matthew Modine star as two unlikely friends whose worlds are shaken after serving in the Vietnam War. Their physical and mental faculties are pushed to their limits as Cage's face is bandaged for practically the whole movie, and Modine, as the titular Birdy, feels most at peace when he imagines his life as a bird.

As equally concerned with the horrors of war as it is with two young boys trying to catch dogs with an oversized net while "La Bamba" plays, Birdy is a great showcase for Nicolas Cage's Al Columbato, a man dedicated to taking care of his best friend no matter what. As a result, the film boasts an impressive 85% on Rotten Tomatoes, and Roger Ebert's original four-star review of the film best sums it up: "The strangest thing about Birdy, which is a very strange and beautiful movie indeed, is that it seems to work best at its looniest level."

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is one wild ride

It's hard to pick out a single image that sums up the maddening totality of Werner Herzog's Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. Is it Nicolas Cage's drug-addicted, no-good lieutenant inexplicably hiding in the corner behind a giant door, revealing himself shaving his face with an electric razor, waiting to angrily interrogate an elderly woman? Is it the pill-addled mind of Cage hallucinating a pair of iguanas on a nearby coffee table? Or is it Cage gazing upon the "soul" of one of his nemeses, watching the specter breakdance as the crook's physical form lies dying on the floor?

It's sometimes tough to comprehend that, yes, Bad Lieutenant is an actual film that exists in our reality. Floating somewhere between The Departed and Alice in Wonderland, the 2009 existential cop drama found Cage back in the driver's seat of an auteur-driven character study, harnessing his energy in a way that hadn't truly been seen in years. Critics were definitely impressed with Cage's coked-up energy, as the movie has an 85% on Rotten Tomatoes. And if Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans seems completely strange and off-the-walls, that's probably a good thing. It's where Cage fits best.

Peggy Sue Got Married is a quirky movie with a weird Nicolas Cage performance

It's sometimes hard to believe that the same person directed The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, and Peggy Sue Got Married, but that's just the breadth of skill that rests inside the mind of Francis Ford Coppola. This oddball time-travel-adjacent escapade from 1986 follows the titular Peggy Sue (Kathleen Turner) as she inexplicably goes back in time to high school, reliving her teenage days and trying to gain a new perspective on the life she lead and the woman she would become.

With an 86% critics' rating on Rotten TomatoesPeggy Sue Got Married is unquestionably Turner's showcase as she navigates her past self with such humor, heartbreak, and clarity that her Oscar nomination for Best Actress for this role is practically undeniable. But Cage's performance as Charlie Bodell, Peggy's soon-to-be ex-husband, is an early indicator of his notably odd performance choices, as portrays Charlie with a nails-on-a-chalkboard nasal affectation that seems to go against the tone of everything else happening in the movie (Cage has even admitted that he didn't want to make this film). But even if Peggy Sue Got Married and Nicolas Cage were operating on completely separate wavelengths, they're both artistic works that have created some kind of etch in film history, for better or worse.

Color Out Of Space blends Nicolas Cage with H.P. Lovecraft

Are you in the mood to hear Nicolas Cage yell at you about alpacas while navigating a terrifying world of mutating nature and transcendently galactic horrors? Then Color Out of Space is probably gonna be right up your alley. This Lovecraftian fever dream (as in, literally adapted from a short story by H.P. Lovecraft) is one of the best sci-fi films of 2020, and it continues the neon-infused horror train that Cage hopped onto previously with his 2018 venture Mandy (more on that later).

Cage plays the patriarch of the Gardner family, a loving quintet stationed in the woods whose lives will never be the same after a mysterious meteorite lands in their front yard. Color Out of Space is filled with enough body horror, trippy visuals, and genuinely freaky performances to create that perfect midnight movie feel, and Cage gives it his all, especially with the nightmarishly meaty material he's working with. With a heck of a climactic ending to chew into, Color Out of Space is further proof that Cage's recent work in the horror realm is bringing him back into the culture in a most terrifying and astounding way. And critics responded strongly to the film's horrific insanity, giving Color Out of Space an 86% on Rotten Tomatoes.

Raising Arizona is a Coen brothers classic

Nicolas Cage's high-wire energy almost seems like too much of a perfect fit for the world of the Coen brothers, where emotionally vapid nincompoops throw themselves into danger at every turn, for both dramatic and comedic effect. So, it makes sense the three would team up for one of the Coens' craziest films — Raising Arizona. Also starring Holly Hunter (giving a true all-star performance in her own right), this 1987 comedy is filled with thrills, heartache, and gut-bustingly brilliant set pieces that gave audiences an early look at the Coens' knack for telling ingeniously crafted tales of lovable idiocy.

Playing the role of this film's King Idiot, H.I. McDunnough, Cage conspires with his wife (Hunter) to steal a baby from a rich family in town, and he oscillates between being calm and collected to an outright manic. He's absolutely charming and lovable when he isn't being so selfish and incorrigible. It's easily one of his career best performances, and it help set the standard for the idiotic heights a Coen brothers protagonist could reach. And honestly, it's one of the Coens' best films, with a whopping 91% on Rotten Tomatoes.

Mandy is revenge-fueled madness

Bursting from the shadows in a blaze of fire, blood, and neon, Nicolas Cage's simmering pot of vengeance boils to perfection in 2018's Mandy, a tender love story turned merciless revenge thriller that's baked in the aesthetic of a 1980s heavy metal music video (and boasts an impressive 91% on Rotten Tomatoes). Director and co-screenwriter Panos Cosmatos' film is magically able to build a patient, meditative story that gradually, nightmarishly creeps into full apocalyptic destruction right before your eyes, guaranteed to make you scream in anguish and laugh from pure joy within seconds of each other.

Cage gives one of his most focused performances in years, with his character, Red Miller, moving gracefully from a kind and patient man who's devoted to his girlfriend, Mandy (Andrea Riseborough in an absolutely stellar performance), to a blood-drenched, revenge-fueled menace who'll destroy anyone who gets in his way. If you're looking for a top-notch contemporary Cage performance or a movie that's filled with beauty, pathos, and two guys dueling each other with chainsaws, look no further than the demented brilliance of Mandy.

Adaptation was the perfect pairing of Cage and Kaufman

In the fantastically navel-gazing Adaptation, Cage plays the dual roles of real-life screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and his inept brother, Donald. And if this act of cinematic introspection and cyclical filmmaking madness shows us anything, it's that Cage's potential can flourish when his anger transforms into anxiety and his madness into existential dread. 

The film (written by Charlie Kaufman and "Donald Kaufman," who doesn't actually exist) fictionalizes the inner machinations of Kaufman's mind as he struggles to adapt the non-fiction book The Orchid Thief into a feature-length narrative film. Cage reaches new heights of performance here, descending into a meta-fictional wormhole that completely engulfs him, and us, as the tropes of Hollywood filmmaking are torn apart and put back together in an unforgettable third-act climax. 

Charlie Kaufman's work often dances with the false realities of storytelling and the intertwining of fiction and non-fiction, and Nicolas Cage, a man often trapped between those two realms, was the perfect actor to bring Kaufman to life on the big screen. Critics thought so, too, as Adaptation currently sits with a 91% on Rotten Tomatoes.

Leaving Las Vegas won Nicolas Cage his Oscar

The film that got Cage his Oscar glory, Leaving Las Vegas is the hopelessly tragic story of a Hollywood screenwriter ready to drink his life away in Las Vegas, as well as the sex worker who stands by his side to the tragic end. It's a drearily sparkling movie that, although it regularly wafts of self-indulgence throughout its runtime, showcases the depths to which Cage will go to portray true sadness and despair on screen. It's an absolutely devastating performance of sheer apocalyptic despair ... and one that can be often painful to watch.

Coupled with an equally tragic performance from co-star Elisabeth Shue — providing a grounded and human nature to a character who's treated terribly by the film as a whole — Leaving Las Vegas may not be Cage's all-time best work, but following a long line of outstanding acting jobs, it represents the power of his soul-baring performances. And for that, the Academy decided to reward him justly with the award for Best Actor. Critics decided to reward him, too, as the movie currently holds 91% on Rotten Tomatoes.

Face/Off stars two of Hollywood's hammiest actors

Suffice it to say, if Nicolas Cage singing "Hallelujah" off-key into the heavens isn't enough to hook you, you're going to have a tough time winding through the action-packed maddening halls of John Woo's Face/Off, a film that dared to answer the age-old question, "What if Nicolas Cage and John Travolta had their faces surgically removed and switched with each other?"

Cage gets double duty as both the nefarious villain Castor Troy and as Travolta's FBI agent, Sean Archer, pretending to be Castor Troy, miraculously channeling a multitude of energies into both performances that somehow doesn't completely betray the film's already bonkers premise. It seems almost like a dare to throw two of Hollywood's hammiest actors into the same film, let alone a film directed by John "put slow-motion doves in every shot" Woo, but these heightened senses of filmmaking style only serve to complement each other in this truly unhinged piece of late '90's action cinema, one with a wild 92% on Rotten Tomatoes.

Moonstruck is an early Nicolas Cage classic

Is there anything as glorious as Nicolas Cage shouting to the sky, "I lost my hand! I lost my bride! Johnny has his hand! Johnny has his bride!" If the title hadn't already been taken by Rocky Balboa, it's easy to imagine Cage's Ronny Cammareri being known as the Italian Stallion, with his wolf-like braggadocio threatening to swallow up the entirety of Norman Jewison's 1987 comedic wonder Moonstruck.

A rom-com masterclass and rightfully known as a showcase for Cher in an Oscar-winning performance, the rambunctious ode to the comedy and tragedy of Italian-American life is made manifest in Cage's animalistic performance, providing a worthy foil to Cher's no-nonsense Loretta Castorini. This may be the early Cage performance the actor is most well-known for, and it's not hard to see why. With a winning screenplay by John Patrick Shanley and an equally game cast of characters, Moonstruck is an early classic in the long and storied career of Nicolas Cage, one that critics gave a 93% on Rotten Tomatoes.

Critics have nothing but praise for Red Rock West

It's entirely possible that you've never even heard of Red Rock West, John Dahl's early '90's neo-noir indie gem that Columbia TriStar had no idea what to do with (it was thrown onto HBO in the fall of 1993 before hitting the art-house circuit the next year based on good buzz). But sometimes the best movies are the ones that are the hardest to track down, and Red Rock West is no exception. It's a moody tale of mistaken identities, feuding couples, and a man just trying to drift through life without causing too much trouble, all told in hushed tones and stark imagery.

Cage is our lead here, playing the besieged Michael Williams, a guy who drifts through the town of Red Rock, Wyoming, looking for a job and instead finding a heap of trouble. Save for a few bursts of righteous energy, this is one of Cage's most restrained performances, playing into the subdued nature of Dahl's take on the Western thriller. With a 95% on Rotten Tomatoes, it's a film absolutely worth seeking out, and it's further proof that the chameleonic nature of Nicolas Cage can sometimes be taken for granted.

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