Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Weekly Top Ten Part II: The Best Performances of Nicolas Cage

Yesterday, I did my listing of the ten worst Nicolas Cage performances. I didn’t have trouble coming up with ten bad performances, but had I had to expand the list beyond around 12 or 13, I would have. For his ten best performances I had to eliminate some very good work. Red Rock West, It Could Happen to You, Honeymoon in Vegas, Guarding Tess, The Rock and even Con Air, which isn’t exactly a good performance, but one I have a soft spot for (“Put the Bunny Down”). That doesn’t even mention his acclaimed turn in Vampire’s Kiss, a film I never saw. So, my ultimate verdict on Cage is a positive one. Few can match his intensity on screen – I just wish he was more selective. Now, his top ten performances.

10. Raising Arizona (Joel & Ethan Coen, 1987)
I have a sort of love/hate relationship with Raising Arizona. The first time I watched it, shortly after falling in love with Fargo, I hated it. I wasn’t fully on the Coen’s comic wavelength at the time. Since then, I’ve seen it a couple more time, and grown to appreciate it more, but still think it’s one of the Coen’s weaker efforts. Having said all of that, I have always admired Cage’s strange performance as Happy, the low rent criminal who falls in love with a cop (Holly Hunter), and when they cannot have a baby, kidnaps one of the Arizona quintuplets. Cage plays a weird, wacky, lovable redneck with great humor and humanity. It’s strange to me that Cage has yet to reteam with the Coens, as he’s a natural fit for their strange world. This is a wonderful performance.

9. World Trade Center (Oliver Stone, 2006)
I know a lot of people thought that Stone’s World Trade Center was a little bit cheesy. Even I described it as a higher class Ron Howard movie, and was disappointed that Stone played it so safe, even if he made a solid film through and through. Yet, one thing that cannot be denied is that Cage gives an excellent performance as one of two firefighters trapped in the rubble of the World Trade Center of 9/11 and waits days to be rescued. Cage spends almost the entire movie trapped under debris, unable to move, yet still creates a compelling, believable character. He resists the urge to overact, and instead simply inhabits the character – an ordinary guy who tried to help.

8. Face/Off (John Woo, 1997)
Cage was at his most unhinged, and brilliant, in this movie, playing not one but two different characters. In the early scenes, Cage is the brilliant, crazy killer. But after he undergoes surgery and switches faces with John Travolta, he has to play a good cop in the body of a brilliant, crazy killer. There is no doubt that the premise of the movie is preposterous, and yet, Cage (not to mention Travolta) pull it off effortlessly. This is a more complex role than you usually get to play in an action film – essentially playing two characters at once, or at least one character playing another character. I can’t think of another actor who could have pulled it off, and made it look so easy.

7. Wild at Heart (David Lynch, 1990)
David Lynch’s Wild at Heart is a demented Wizard of Oz, with Cage and Laura Dern as lovers on the run. Cage is at his most over the top brilliant as the Elvis obsessed young man in love, who opens the movie by beating someone to death, and then simply gets stranger. Like Raising Arizona, Cage is playing a redneck here, and he does it wonderfully well – with the proper mixture of menace and comedic timing for Lynch’s wacked out worldview. He is also surprising sympathetic as a young lover. A weird film, and performance, that I’m sure many would put on yesterday’s list, but I love it.

6. Matchstick Men (Ridley Scott, 2003)
A difficult role to play. A conman with ADD, who discovers that he has a teenage daughter and tries to integrate her into his life. The role offered Cage the opportunity to do his characteristic ticks and over the top acting, but Cage toned it down a little, and found a believable character in there somewhere. A smaller, more intimate film for director Ridley Scott, one that concentrates on the tightness of the screenplay, and relies heavily on the acting. Cage carries the film wonderfully.

5. Lord of War (Andre Niccol, 2005)
I’ll never be sure why Lord of War didn’t find a wider audience, or more love from the critics. A fast paced, realistic and completely entertaining story of Cage playing an arms dealer, who travels the world and will supply anyone with guns, as long as they have the ability to pay. He doesn’t care if they are Freedom Fighters or African Warlords hell bent on genocide. Someone will sell them the guns if he doesn’t, so why shouldn’t he? Even if they didn’t have guns, they’d still kill each other in more primitive ways. Cage is at his most charming, and cynical, in the film. He can sell anything to anyone, and can talk his way out of almost anything. The best line of the movie still haunts me. “They say that Evil wins when good men do nothing. They should change that to Evil wins”.

4. The Weatherman (Gore Verbinkski, 2005)
Another underrated gem from Cage in 2005 was The Weatherman. Had this been an indie, or perhaps directed by Martin Scorsese, this would have been far more critically acclaimed then it was. A smart, subtle, darkly comic movie about a divorced weatherman living in Chicago, who slowly realizes that no matter how hard he tries, he cannot change who is. He just has to accept it. His wife doesn’t want him back. His kids are a mess. His dad is still able to make him feel like crap with one biting remark. He acts out briefly, but eventually becomes resigned to his fate. Dare I say, he’s almost happy at the end.

3. Bringing Out the Dead (Martin Scorsese, 1999)
Critics were divided on Scorsese’s anti-Taxi Driver – another story of a man who travels the night streets of New York, and sees the worst the city has to offer. Unlike Travis in Taxi Driver though, Frank in bringing out the dead is a paramedic, who tries to stop the bleeding of the city, not encourage it. Over a three day period, Frank goes through his job with three different partners, as the city becomes increasingly erratic. Cage brilliantly plays Frank as a burnt out, tired, sometimes drunk, sometimes crazy paramedic struggling to maintain his sanity in the face of insurmountable odds. Like the last three films, this one is vastly underrated.

2. Adaptation. (Spike Jonze, 2002)
Cage was hilarious and brilliant playing screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, and his twin brother Donald, who wants to be a screenwriter. Charlie is smart, and wants to do a good job adapting a book called The Orchid Thief. Donald wants to make big money writing schlock. Cage portrayed these two polar opposite characters, who look the same, wonderfully, making them distinct, real people in the crazy world of Charlie Kaufman. The amount of notes he has to hit, the nuttiness of it all is staggering, but Cage nails it in every scene. Absolutely wonderful.

1. Leaving Las Vegas (Mike Figgis, 1995)
Cage deservedly won an Oscar for play Ben, a down and out Hollywood screenwriter who has descended into alcoholism. He decides to head to Vegas for one last bender – planning on drinking himself to death. There he meets and befriends Elisabeth Shue’s prostitute, also down and out but in a different way. Actors love playing drunks, because it gives them the opportunity to stagger around and slur their words, and generally be both funny and tragic. Cage’s performance is the best I have ever seen of a drunk. He is miserable, he has the shakes, he is dying, and he doesn’t care. Cage's performance is the least romantic of any of the drunks I have seen on screen. He is neither a figure to be laughed at, nor one that struggles to get better. He is miserable, he want to die, and so drinking is his way to get what he wants. A mesmerizing turn from start to finish.

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