The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent might feel to some casual viewers like the first real Nicolas Cage movie in a long while. This isn’t the case; in 2021, he starred in three, while in 2019, he toplined half a dozen. However, the meta-comedy Massive Talent, in which Cage plays himself as a desperate actor angling for a comeback, is his first major live-action wide release as a top-billed star in a decade.
Yes, the recent Pig made it to nearly 600 theaters, he’s done voice-over for some bona fide theatrical hits, and technically, Left Behind briefly appeared on 1800 screens back in 2014. But the last time a Cage movie was backed by a substantial, wide-release advertising campaign was Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance in 2012. By that point, he already had one foot in the limited release/direct-to-video world — which is where he stayed for most of the 10 years that followed, with occasional forays into arthouse cinema. Many of the 30-plus movies he made during this period are not worth your time; they’re low-rent paycheck gigs that have little to recommend them beyond Cage’s signature commitment. It’s no accident that Massive Talent has time for a litany of Cage references from throughout his career, but never bothers to mention anything from his last decade by name. Even in terms of Cage movies no one saw, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin is a stronger reference point than many recent Cage vehicles that kind of sound like the same movie (Rage; Drive Angry; Vengeance: A Love Story; A Score to Settle).
So does this mean casual fans whose interest in the star has been reawakened by the new movie should skip over Cage’s past decade of work? Actually, no! Some of his movies from this wilderness era of his career are oddball curiosities, several of them are downright terrific, and a few even involve him living in the actual wilderness.
The best Cage movies from this era take advantage of the freedom afforded an actor who has lost his status as a major-studio leading man, fitting his performance style into more intimate roles, or genres that don’t receive much studio attention. Just as his studio career included phases of gentle comedy, big ticket action, and sci-fi, his more recent films have included character studies, noir-ish crime pictures, and fantastical horror, among others. Often they focus on a man struggling to keep his sanity or dignity intact in the face of crumbling institutions (like, say, the Hollywood studio architecture?). Many of these performances carry a sense of loss, and of fighting through the pain — while still somehow making his characters cathartic and even fun to watch. It’s more clear than ever that Cage is taking solace in acting itself.
So let’s take a look at 10 movies from Cage’s decade in streaming that are worth catching up with — plus a few side notes about the sometimes interesting, sometimes awful movies some of these titles resemble. This list goes from most essential to least essential; for the curious, Unbearable Weight would fall somewhere around 7 or 8.
1. Joe (2013)
It’s possible Cage’s work in Joe may be eclipsed, at least for the time being, by his superficially similar performance in Pig, where he is also bearded, intense, and living in a rural area. But David Gordon Green’s movie is a high point for both the idiosyncratic director and his brilliant star. As the title character, a haunted man who becomes an uneasy mentor for a teenager (Tye Sheridan) who works for him on an illicit tree-poisoning job, Cage coils some of the signature “Cage Rage” that made him an uneasy YouTube fixture by the early 2010s, turning his character’s violent past into a simmering, implicit threat. Yet this performance isn’t pure restraint, either. Green (who appears as himself in Massive Talent, though Joe goes unmentioned) is great at giving actors space to mess around and improvise, lingering in their desolate landscapes, resulting in some of Joe’s (and Cage’s) best moments. In one scene, he explains how to make a “cool face,” which involves letting through an anguished expression, then attempting to smile on top of it. It’s a lovely character moment — and a handy description of Cage’s best recent work.
Joe is available to watch on Cinemax, and for digital rental or purchase on VOD platforms.
2. Pig (2021)
Joe got good reviews, but Pig, dropped into a lighter summer movie schedule because of the ongoing pandemic, really helped Cage get back into the good graces of critics and even some audiences. (It wasn’t a huge hit even by arthouse standards, but it became Cage’s most-seen live-action movie in ages.) Cage plays a reclusive chef living in the Oregon woods, having retired to a life of truffle hunting with his trusty pig and little other human contact. When criminals attack him and steal the pig, he teams up with his truffle buyer (Alex Wolff) to track down the culprits. As many critics noted at the time, this sounds like a slightly eccentric variation on old-man-revenge action movies; instead, director Michael Sarnoski crafted a strange and touching meditation on passion and grief.
Pig is available to watch on Hulu.
3. The Trust (2016)
The optimist’s dream when exploring Cage’s DTV catalog is to find filmmakers taking advantage of a lower-stakes distribution to make the kind of tight, small-scale genre exercise that’s fallen out of favor in today’s B-movies-as-A-list landscape. That’s exactly what directors Ben and Alex Brewer did with The Trust, a noir-ish heist picture with Cage and Elijah Wood as cops attempting to rob a drug dealer’s unguarded safe. The Brewers have done most of their work in music videos, and it’s surprising that this nifty, funny little thriller didn’t propel them into more features. Cage’s live-wire energy, his work opposite Wood, and the movie’s sense of humor about its own detail-oriented heist mechanics combine for an unusually pleasing and dynamic B movie.
Not to be confused with: 212, another cops-and-crooks bank robbery movie with intersecting storylines but an amateurish feel that fails to distinguish itself from your average Redbox reject.
4. Mandy (2018)
In the years between Joe and Pig, another single-word title about a man on the outskirts of society forced to confront his own grief and rage became the go-to “this is the good one” Nic Cage movie. As a result, Mandy is one of the few later-period Cage movies that could be described as overhyped. But it’s also quite good, a horrific and sometimes phantasmagorical revenge thriller from director Panos Cosmatos. Like Pig, it takes details that sound like self-parodying ridiculousness — Cage gets into a climactic chainsaw duel! — and treats them with surprising and effective gravity. Cage sells a pivotal mid-movie breakdown scene so strongly that we have no choice but to take the beheadings and stabbings seriously. Mandy sometimes feels a bit more enraptured by its horror than its characters, which is why Joe and Pig are both more satisfying. But it’s a terrific use of Cage’s go-anywhere intensity.
5. Mom and Dad (2018)
Cage’s last big theatrical release as a headliner was Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, an underappreciated superhero sequel from the Crank filmmaking team of Neveldine/Taylor. Brian Taylor went solo for Mom and Dad, a horror comedy about a staticky signal causing parents to go berserk with the unexplained urge to attack and kill their own children. Cage and Selma Blair play two afflicted parents whose testy relationships with their kids (one teen, one tween) becomes mortally imperiled by the effects of the signal. As with his other films, Taylor takes a certain self-satisfied pleasure in his transgressions, and Mom and Dad isn’t as visually kinetic as a Neveldine/Taylor joint. Cage is instrumental in making it work anyway: He seeds his bleakly funny freak-outs with genuine pathos and regret.
Not to be confused with: Left Behind, an attempt to reboot the Christian movie franchise that also features an unexpected mass catastrophe. Any hopes that Cage might work this material into a campy lather are dashed by the movie’s low-budget listlessness.
Mom and Dad is available to watch on Starz, and for digital rental or purchase on VOD platforms.
6. Prisoners of the Ghostland (2021)
This sci-fi horror-western from Japanese filmmaker Sion Sono doesn’t need to surpass its obvious postapocalyptic influences — the Max Max series; Escape from New York — to offer a singular experience. Cage takes on a Snake Plissken role as a criminal released from prison so that the “governor” (a corrupt leader) can send him into a wasteland to retrieve one of his “granddaughters” (members of a harem), played by the always-delightful Sofia Boutella. Despite that propulsive premise — and the fact that Cage’s Hero has a series of bombs strapped to various body parts, including his testicles — Prisoners of the Ghostland has more atmosphere than hardcore action or exploitation-movie sensation. It’s more weird hallucination than visceral extravaganza, which makes Sono’s vision (and Cage’s part in it) seem more genuinely idiosyncratic in the face of countless dystopian pastiches. A note for viewers before considering jumping in: Director Sono was recently accused of multiple sexual assaults.
See also: Willy’s Wonderland came out right around the same time that Ghostland was debuting at Sundance 2021, and they’re easy to superficially confuse — and not just because they both end in “land.” Both films feel like they’re particularly aware of what an asset Cage can be for a lurid, low-budget, or offbeat thriller. Willy’s Wonderland, which knocks off the video game Five Nights at Freddy’s and gives Cage a non-speaking role in the process, is the more strenuously self-conscious of the two, with Cage as a mute stranger forced to battle against demonically possessed animatronics at a Chuck E. Cheese-like establishment. The movie itself is slapdash, but Cage’s performance is a hoot, muting his signature verbal outbursts and California-fried delivery without quashing his charisma.
7. Outcast (2015)
This American-Canadian-Chinese co-production is ill-advised in many ways — and surprisingly entertaining in many others. Cage plays a supporting part here as a soldier in the Crusades who urges his commander (Hayden Christensen) to put a stop to senseless slaughter. Years later, the two men meet again as exiles in China, when the younger man reluctantly, then fiercely, protects a prince and princess on the run from their murderous brother, who has his eyes on the throne. Outcast is a historical document — not of the Crusades or medieval China, but rather of how Gladiator was still exerting an influence over movies 15 years after its release. Director Nick Powell even did some fight work on Gladiator and coordinated stunts on plenty of other blockbusters, an experience that clearly prepared him for making a brisk and surprisingly credible action-adventure movie. (Though it must be said that the erstwhile Anakin Skywalker has better moves than his more prestigious co-star.) Beyond its DTV competition, Outcast looks a lot more lush — real locations, real sets, real stunt work — than plenty of big-ticket Hollywood productions, few of which have Cage hamming it up as warrior gone to seed with guilt, regret, and a slashed-up eye.
See also: Primal (2019) has Cage and Powell reuniting for a pulpy thriller about a mercenary big-game hunter (Cage) squaring off against a ruthless assassin (Kevin Durand) as well as various deadly animals on a boat. Like Outcast, it’s well-paced and fun without resorting to cheap camp affectations. It’s probably more satisfying than the next three movies on this list, though they offer a little more eclecticism and gravity as far as later-period Cage roles go.
8. Dying of the Light (2014)
Apart from his early work with his uncle Francis Ford Coppola, Nicolas Cage doesn’t have a lot of directors he can count as repeat collaborators. Technically, one of his most frequent directors has been Paul Schrader (who also wrote the terrific Bringing Out the Dead). Unfortunately, they missed each other’s respective comebacks; both of their movies together came before Schrader’s First Reformed or Cage’s Mandy both dropped in 2018. Dying of the Light was notoriously taken away from Schrader during post-production, and neither he, nor Cage, nor co-star Anton Yelchin approved of the hacked-up final version. It’s easy to understand why: It does, indeed, feel like a weird compromise between a junky DTV thriller and a more contemplative Schrader-style psychological study. (Schrader released a workprint version of his cut to a few museum collections and on torrenting sites.) Yet there’s plenty to like about Dying of the Light, which features Cage as a career CIA man racing to hunt down a presumed-dead terrorist before he loses his faculties to a fast-encroaching dementia. Heady stuff, and yet there are moments of real sweetness between Cage and Yelchin — whose biographical documentary Cage would narrate after the younger actor’s untimely passing.
Not to be confused with (and/or see also?): Dog Eat Dog (2016), for which Cage and Schrader reunited a few years later. This one is obviously less compromised — and maybe it should have been, just a little? It’s a night-black comedy-thriller about a group of criminals bumbling violently through a big job, and despite giving Cage one of his most formidable recent screen partners in Willem Dafoe, the grotesque unpleasantness reaches a number of dead ends. Still, Cage and/or Schrader and/or Dafoe completists might want to check it out.
Dying of the Light is available to watch for free with ads on Pluto TV or with a library card on Kanopy. Dog Eat Dog is available for digital rental or purchase on VOD platforms.
9. Color Out of Space (2019)
An adaptation of an H.P. Lovecraft short story would threaten to upstage plenty of actors, including several cast members of this very movie. Cage, however, can comfortably compete with the psychedelic gore of this horror story, where a mysterious alien being/substance lands on a remote (if well-appointed) family property and proceeds to gradually tear a family apart — sometimes by pushing them together in grotesque and horrifying ways. As a visual experience, Color Out of Space goes far beyond the realm of most low-budget made-mostly-for-streaming projects, with pink-purple tones and some gnarly practical effects. As a “character-driven drama” — something Cage-as-Cage purports to want in Massive Talent — it’s admittedly pretty lacking. But its biggest star vibes with the sound-and-light show, fusing grim showmanship with genuine anguish.
Color Out of Space is available to watch on Shudder and AMC+, and is available for digital rental or purchase on VOD platforms.
10. Between Worlds (2018)
A number of Cage’s VOD movies, like others that employ former superstars, feel like they’re approximating a lost thriller from the star’s heyday on a discounted budget. But the simultaneous cheapness and strangeness of Between Worlds lends it a perverse integrity. This ghostly erotic drama about a grieving trucker (Cage) and a troubled mother (Franka Potente) with beyond-the-veil powers could scarcely pretend to be anything else. The filmmaking looks intentionally, jaggedly stagy, while the performances from Cage and Potente feel almost improvisatory. This one will test the patience of even some dedicated fans; it might even be a stretch to call it good. However, anyone with overlapping appreciation for Cage’s work in the David Lynch film Wild at Heart and Potente’s work in The Princess and the Warrior might want to check this one out.
Not to be confused with: Grand Isle, another lurid melodrama with a scenery-chewing Cage performance but ultimately grounded by its more conventional budget-noir trappings.
Between Worlds is available to watch on Netflix.