Total Recall: Nicolas Cage's Best Movies
We count down the best-reviewed work of the Croods star.
He's one of the most eminently mockable major stars in Hollywood, thanks to his frequently questionable tonsorial choices and evident thirst for somewhat less-than-challenging paycheck gigs, but as much as we love to rib Nicolas Cage, there's no getting around the fact that he's done some very impressive work over the course of his long career. Though many filmgoers will always think of blockbuster action flicks like Con Air, The Rock, and the National Treasure series when they hear Cage's name, he's never been afraid to take on smaller, less conventional projects with less-than-obvious commercial prospects. We'll be hearing rather than seeing him in this weekend's The Croods, but we still thought now would be a perfect time to count down the best-reviewed movies of Cage's career.
10. Valley Girl
This might be hard for the young'uns to understand, but in the early 1980s, the Valley Girl was a genuine cultural phenomenon, entering phrases such as "gag me with a spoon" and "like, wow" into the lexicon and giving Frank Zappa a richly deserved Top 40 single. Martha Coolidge's Valley Girl, starring Cage as a mild-mannered punk named Randy and Deborah Foreman as the titular object of his star-crossed affections, arrived in the thick of the whole fad, and although it wasn't a huge success at the box office, it helped launch the career of the actor formerly known as Nicolas Coppola. In many ways, Girl seems like little more than your average 1980s high school romance flick, but that's partly because many of its ingredients were co-opted by subsequent entries in the genre; in the words of MaryAnn Johanson of Flick Filosopher, "it's a measure of how, like, totally influential this little film was 20 years ago that there seems to be nothing special about it today."
From the California Raisins to Monkees reruns on MTV (and David Bowie cutting an ill-advised cover of "Dancing in the Street" with Mick Jagger), the 1960s were hot in 1986 -- and once again, Nicolas Cage found himself starring in a picture that aligned with the latest fad. Peggy Sue Got Married was undeniably Kathleen Turner's film, but this story of a prom queen who passes out during her 25-year reunion and wakes up in 1960 hinges on the love lost (and regained) between Peggy Sue and her high school sweetheart-turned-adulterous husband. And it benefits from sweet chemistry between Turner and Cage, who plays Charlie with all the quirky charm and droopy-lidded intensity that would shortly help him become one of one of Hollywood's most bankable stars. (Of course, it also offered an early example of his infamously unusual approach to his work; according to Cage, he modeled his character's voice after Gumby's horse Pokey, almost getting himself kicked off the film in the process -- no small feat, considering his uncle was the director.) In the words of the Washington Post's Rita Kempley, Peggy Sue is "a wistful fantasy, a bright reminiscence, a stroll down memory lane that's as glowingly conceived as it is slightly flawed."
For a movie that won the Grand Prize of the Jury at Cannes, boasted a soundtrack by a world famous rock star, was made by one of the most well-known directors of the era, and featured a pair of leading men who would go on to greater fame, Birdy has always been curiously overlooked. Alan Parker's adaptation of the William Wharton novel about the aftermath of Vietnam, as seen through the experiences of longtime friends and fellow vets Birdy (Matthew Modine) and Al (Cage), was too heavy and experimental to hope for major box office success, but instead of going on to achieve cult classic status on the home market, the film that Roger Ebert called "a very strange and beautiful movie" has been largely forgotten. It certainly isn't your average rental fare, but if you find the time to take in a viewing of this early example of Cage's dramatic potential, you'll see what the New York Times' Janet Maslin lauded as "enchanting" and eFilmCritic's Scott Weinberg found "quiet, thoughtful, and really quite touching."
Film properties are recycled and repurposed so quickly these days that it's sometimes difficult to pinpoint the line between a remake, a reboot, and a sequel -- and those words were all used to describe 2009's Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, which picks up some of the narrative threads left dangling by Abel Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant. The truth, though, is that Port of Call is none of the above; while it does use Ferrara's film as a sort of spiritual starting point, it's really its own singularly weird piece of work -- which is just as you'd expect, given that it's a police drama about a crooked, drug-addicted cop (played by Cage, natch) directed by noted cinematic misanthropist Werner Herzog (who described his movie as a "rethought" of the original). As tends to be the case with many Cage movies, it finds its star beaming in from his own unique plane of existence, but unlike a lot of entries from the latter portion of Cage's career, it surrounds his unhinged performance with smart direction, a well-written script, and solid work from the supporting cast. As Wesley Morris put it for the Boston Globe, "Frankly, the story isn't remotely as interesting as Cage. Nothing is."
The year after Leaving Las Vegas was released, Cage would kick off a string of three straight movies that grossed over $100 million apiece, but when he filmed Mike Figgis' adaptation of John O'Brien's bleak semi-autobiographical novel, he was known primarily as a go-to guy for quirky, mid-sized romantic comedies like Honeymoon in Vegas. It wouldn't be entirely accurate to say that critics were surprised by the depth Cage flashed as Leaving's central character, suicidal alcoholic Ben Sanderson -- though they probably were shocked by the performance turned in by his co-star, Elisabeth Shue. They certainly were impressed, though, and for good reason; his foggy, muted portrayal of a man at the end of his rope coolly upends the worn-out cliches of countless Hollywood drunkards. As ReelViews' James Berardinelli put it, "Nicolas Cage, who has a track record of immersing himself in parts, gives one of the year's most powerful acting turns."