[Disclaimer: this is now badly out of date. I have seen closer to 90 Nicolas Cage movies at this point and my views have evolved significantly. I underestimate a number of movies in this post. I will eventually write a new version, but for now I let it stand.]
I define “Cage factor” as the distinctive quality that Nicolas Cage brings to the table. I am not ranking these performances according to how good they are, I am ranking them according to how fully they embody what it is to be a Nicolas Cage performance. I haven’t seen some of these movies in a very long time (25+ years in some cases). I did look at some clips to remind myself, but if you think I underestimated something let me know so I can revisit it in full. I do have a few notable blindspots (e.g., The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Bangkok Dangerous, Birdy), but I’ve seen the bulk of his oeuvre.
55) Left Behind
The movie is unwatchable. I made it 10 minutes and did not detect any appreciable Cage factor.
Cage plays it straight, but more generally: fuck this movie.
53) World Trade Center
Here he’s in prestige picture plain vanilla mode.
52) Frozen Ground
Demoted this one a few slots because John Cusack outshines him. Terrible movie.
51) City of Angels
This exceptionally shitty remake of Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire shouldn’t exist. Cage doesn’t help it at all. Little or no Cage factor.
50) The Cotton Club
I haven’t seen this in a very long time. If I remember correctly, he plays a very small role as a gangster with a dash of Cage factor.
49) Rumble Fish
Another one I haven’t seen for a very long time. Another small performance with mild Cage factor.
48) It Could Happen to You
Not totally without Cage factor, but this is more the Rosie Perez show. Not a good movie but it’s not the worst romantic comedy out there.
47) The Weather Man
There is some mild, understated Cage factor, particularly in the archery scenes. Not a good movie.
46) The Rock
Here’s he’s in full movie star mode. Mild Cage factor. I like the movie.
45) Lord of War
Not a great movie. If you’re interested in the subject matter check out my friend Max’s documentary The Notorious Mr. Bout. It does have moderate Cage factor, but nothing remarkable.
44) Guarding Tess
Now we are starting to get some real Cage factor. Weird performance as a secret service agent. Bad movie.
43) Gone in 60 Seconds
Another one where he’s in movie star mode, but it has appreciable Cage factor for sure. The movie’s fine for what it is but the original 1974 Gone in 60 Seconds is vastly, vastly better and you should watch that instead.
42) National Treasure
Treasure hunter Benjamin Franklin Gates! This is Mildly Campy Cage: he rattles off obscure facts and steals the Declaration of Independence.
41) The Family Man
I have affection for this movie. It’s like a reverse It’s a Wonderful Life, where a selfish asshole gets a glimpse of what life would have been like if he had started a family. Significant Cage factor. He definitely made this more interesting than a more typical romantic comedy leading man would have.
40) Red Rock West
John Dahl western noir. I haven’t seen this in probably 20 years but I remember it very fondly and I’d like to revisit it soon. I recall Dennis Hopper stealing the show but it has legit Cage factor. This is more the stoic, badass Cage with a Texas accent.
39) Dog Eat Dog
I thoroughly enjoyed the movie. Paul Schrader’s best at least since Auto Focus. It’s a wild ride, but it loses points because Willem Dafoe out-Cages Cage.
He’s is on a leash here but it can’t not have some Cage factor when he plays a vigilante named Big Daddy who trains his daughter for vigilantism.
37) Honeymoon in Vegas
I don’t recall that I liked it very much, but I need to revisit it. I believe it has medium Cage factor for the most part but he goes berserk a couple times. “I’LL BE ARRESTED?! PUT IN AIRPORT JAIL?!”
36) Seeking Justice
Strangers on a Train meets Death Wish. One of a series of recent crime-themed B movies he’s done; it has the mildest Cage factor of the bunch.
35) Fire Birds
It’s like Tom Cruise in Top Gun, except it’s Nicolas Cage flying a helicopter. Wacky performance. I loved the movie as a kid.
34) National Treasure: Book of Secrets
He turns it up to 11 a couple times. “Going to detain a blighter for enjoying his whiskey? Bangers and mash. Bubbles and squeak. Smoked eel pie. HAGGIS!!!!”
Super wacky movie, with lots of screaming and yelling from Cage.
Another of the recent B movie wave. He’s America’s greatest bank robber, trying to go clean, but the bad guys kidnap his daughter and force him to steal 10 million dollars in 12 hours. It’s very entertaining and he leans into the Cage factor pretty hard.
Yet another recent B movie. He’s yet again a reformed criminal whose daughter gets kidnapped, except this time they kill her and it becomes a revenge movie. Considerable Cage factor.
30) Drive Angry
This is more the stoic, badass Cage. It’s so much fun. “I told you I wanted sugar.”
Underrated high concept action thriller with strong Cage factor. He’s a Las Vegas magician who can see two minutes into the future. Hijinx ensue.
Another recent B movie. It’s a Straw Dogs sort of thing, with Cage as a bourgeois milquetoast pushed to his limits by home invaders. Strong Cage factor. I like the movie.
This is Next’s fraternal twin. Exceptional camp. He’s an MIT professor who figures out that a string of numbers in a time capsule correlate to major disasters, and the worst disaster of all is yet to come. He brings the Cage factor hard.
26) Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance
Less Cage factor than the first Ghost Rider movie, but a better movie. You still get plenty of flaming motorcycle Cage howling.
25) Trapped in Paradise
“This whole time… you stand there…. with this ‘who me?’… expression… on your FAAAAACE!” Zany movie, great comedic performance from Cage with very strong Cage factor.
24) Valley Girl
Early Cage, super legit. He’s doing like an out of proportion comedic James Dean thing. It’s great.
This is a godawful movie and it takes far too long for Cage to reappear after an early introduction, but when he does finally show up it is truly something to behold.
This is a great performance by any standard. It’s more sincere, not campy, but it’s pure Cage all the way. He’s brooding and explosive.
21) The Trust
The Cagiest of his recent wave of crime-themed B movies. Crooked cops rob a bank vault. Extremely bonkers. “OPEN IT! OPEN IT! OPEN IT! OPEN IT! OPEN IT! OPEN IT!”
20) Kiss of Death
Barbet Schroeder’s loose remake of the 1947 noir classic. He’s not the lead but when he’s onscreen it is balls to the wall. He bench-presses a stripper.
19) Bringing Out the Dead
One of my favorite Scorsese movies. He’s a strung out ambulance driver plagued by hallucinations. It’s less zany/bonkers and more weird and nuanced, but it’s pure Cage.
18) Amos and Andrew
This is due for reappraisal. Race-themed satire, with Samuel L. Jackson as an educated playwright who moves into an upscale neighborhood and becomes a victim of police harassment. A cop has Jackson’s house surrounded, thinking he’s a burglar, but when he realizes his mistake he has a hoodlum played by Mr. Cage break in and hold Jackson hostage to generate a cover story. But Cage and Jackson realize that the plan is to kill them both so they become an odd couple team. Extreme Cage factor throughout.
Just revisited this. It holds up well. Bonus points because he plays twin brothers. It’s very offbeat Cage (more in the hyper-neurotic vein), but the Cage factor runs strong.
It was hard to rank this one. The first act has some extremely hardcore, top ten-caliber Cage factor, but then after the face swap Cage’s performance becomes more mundane and the primary pleasure is Travolta’s Cage impression. It’s a delightful movie, if a bit overlong.
Edit: I underrated this one, and when I get around to updating this list it will move up. Here’s what I didn’t get the first time around: once Cage becomes Travolta, his performance gains fascinating meta-Cage factor. He’s doing an impression of Travolta doing a Cage impression.
15) Ghost Rider
So much Cage factor. I mean, he plays a daredevil who enters into a Faustian bargain and turns into a flaming skulled spirit of vengeance that incinerates the souls of evil men.
14) Matchstick Men
If he’s not losing it, he’s on the verge of losing it. “PISS! BLOOD!” This is a sui generis performance right here.
13) Leaving Las Vegas
A more serious turn, but still bonkers. He slurs his speech like he’s playing a village drunk.
12) Peggy Sue Got Married
Completely and totally batshit. He brings a version of his Vampire’s Kiss madness into a movie where it’s completely out of place. A non-Cage fan watching this movie must wonder “WTF IS HE DOING???!”
11) The Wicker Man
Neil Labute’s Wicker Man remake…. there’s no reason for it to exist except Cage factor. It takes a while for him to let loose, but when he does, it’s transcendent.
10) Con Air
Con Air is one of the greatest American action movies, period. The cast is stellar across the board, but Cage is the centerpiece. He’s pure fucking hero. “Put the bunny back in the box!!!”
9) Captain Corelli’s Mandolin
The single most ridiculous accent anyone has ever done.
I have an enduring soft spot for Moonstruck. Cage is a one-handed, opera-loving, Italian-American baker who becomes obsessed with his brother’s fiancée (Cher) and sweeps her off her feet. He takes romantic passion to absurd heights.
7) Snake Eyes
One of the most underrated American movies of the 90’s, I love it with my whole heart. De Palma opens with a virtuoso 20 minute unbroken tracking shot where we follow corrupt cop Cage through an arena in the minutes leading up to a boxing match. The shot culminates in a political assassination, and De Palma spends the rest of the movie showing us how all the assumptions we made initially were false and the whole thing becomes an autopsy of the way we watch movies. Cage’s performance is cocky, frenetic, and totally awesome. He has a golden cell phone.
There is no reason to watch this movie except Cage factor, but the Cage factor is nuclear. There’s nothing else remotely like it in existence.
5) Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans
This is his most lurid performance, as a crack-smoking, sexually deviant corrupt cop. I don’t think the movie is as good as Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant, but the Cage factor is top five for sure.
4) Raising Arizona
Nic Cage does Wile E. Coyote. The film is a comedic masterpiece and it’s overflowing with Cage factor.
3) Wild at Heart
Where to begin? This is Nicolas Cage lightning in a bottle. But that’s just a very small part of why it’s so great. If you haven’t seen this, just watch it. “This is a snakeskin jacket, and for me it’s a symbol of my individuality and my belief in personal freedom.”
2) Army of One
Criminally neglected 2016 comedy– easily the funniest movie I’ve seen since Role Models. It’s based on a true story: he plays a Trump supporter-type who hallucinates a message from God and travels to Pakistan to attempt to single-handedly capture Bin Laden (armed with a katana). The Cage factor is over the damn moon.
1) Vampire’s Kiss
It’s not even close. Vampire’s Kiss is the alpha and omega of Cage factor. His aggressively weird, repulsive vision of yuppiedom rendered American Psycho obsolete years before it was written, and that’s just the first act. Once he starts hallucinating that he’s a vampire it becomes a category 5 hurricane of Cage factor.