5 most memorable Nicolas Cage performances

LOS ANGELES (AP) — No matter the role — and he’s played a diverse array of them over the past three decades — Nicolas Cage often seems to be teetering on the brink of his own personal, self-inflicted insanity.

Sure, he’s done plenty of forgettable action movies, and lately he’s been at the fore of some family-friendly Disney adventures. Then there was that period in the late ’90s where every movie he made was a drag, and it was a drag watching him in them. But when he’s at his volatile best, it’s an exciting place to be.

This week, with Cage starring in his latest in a series of wheels-off thrillers, “Season of the Witch,” here’s a look at his five most memorable performances. Like the best-of-Jack-Nicholson list recently, this one was hard to narrow down:

— “Adaptation.” (2002): Cage earned an Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and his identical (and fictional) twin brother, Donald, in Spike Jonze’s brilliantly mind-bending comedy. And he seemed to be having the time of his life playing these contrasting roles: the self-loathing and stumped Charlie, as well as the goofy and garrulous Donald. After brooding his way through a series of films leading up to this (”8MM,” “Bringing Out the Dead,” “Windtalkers”), he lets loose again here even while creating two distinct, structured personalities, and his enthusiasm is contagious.

— “Raising Arizona” (1987): One of the Coen brothers’ earliest, most playful and visually inventive films features a deliriously nutso starring performance from Cage. Hi McDunnough is a loser and ex-con who seemingly can do no right, but he finds a way to make his wife Edwina (Holly Hunter) happy when he steals a baby for her from furniture tycoon Nathan Arizona, the father of quintuplets. Like “Moonstruck,” “Raising Arizona” allows Cage to tap into his unique brand of off-kilter, romantic goofiness. He’s a grubby, lovable cartoon character.

— “Leaving Las Vegas” (1995): Cage won a best-actor Oscar for playing an alcoholic, failed screenwriter hell-bent on drinking himself to death. He and Elisabeth Shue, excellent as a hardened prostitute, forge a twisted, codependent bond in which neither will interfere with the other’s self-destruction. But Cage never devolves into a drunk cliche; rather, he finds shadings within this lost soul’s deep despair. Director Mike Figgis’ film is intense and unflinching, which just happen to be two of Cage’s strong suits. While the movie itself is often hard to watch, Cage’s performance is mesmerizing.

— “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans” (2009): Here he is in classic crazed mode. Werner Herzog’s wacked-out remake is fueled by a wacked-out performance from Cage, whose character is himself fueled by a steady supply of cocaine and heroin, gambling and violence. His Terence McDonagh is a brazenly corrupt detective, a man infested with dark proclivities. As he descends further into drug-induced mania in post-Katrina New Orleans, we don’t know what’s real and what’s in his mind, and it doesn’t matter. Cage makes it all wild and riveting, and all you can do is watch in awe of how far he’ll go.

— “Valley Girl” (1983): Cage’s first starring role, the one that put him on the map, and a personal favorite of mine, having grown up in the San Fernando Valley in the ’80s myself. So please, indulge me for a minute. “Valley Girl” came from an era of dumb teenage sex comedies, but it’s got an undeniable sweetness that most of those films lack. Much of that comes from the tender way Cage’s L.A. punk, Randy, courts the stylish and pristine Julie (Deborah Foreman), who lives on the other side of the Hollywood Hills. It’s “Romeo and Juliet” set in Southern California, but in his endearing awkwardness, Cage breathes new life into a familiar figure.

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Think of any other examples? Share them with AP Movie Critic Christy Lemire through Twitter: http://twitter.com/christylemire.

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