Films can be made or ruined by an actor’s performance. A great actor can elevate a so-so script through his emotion and delivery, even if it doesn’t make the film an instant classic. While only one of Nicolas Cage’s three releases of 2021 received widespread critical acclaim, Cage was a standout in all three. There’s no actor that better defines the year and when I look back at 2021 in cinema, I’ll think about Cage’s wild performances that left me entertained throughout a turbulent year.
Cage’s wildly entertaining year of films kicked off in February with Willy’s Wonderland, a pretty blatant spin on the Five Nights at Freddy’s video game franchise. However, what makes this goes from a shameless cash grab to an entertaining and hilarious watch is Cage, whose performance is defined by his silence.
Cage’s character gets a flat tire on a country road and then has to pick up work as a janitor at an abandoned entertainment center to pay for his car repairs. During his shift, he’s locked in and meant to be a sacrifice for bloodthirsty animatronic mascots that used to entertain children. It’s a pretty wild plot, and Cage’s character (only known as “the Janitor”) never speaks a word the entire time. Instead, he takes a series of regimented breaks during his night shift, where he drinks soda and plays pinball in between fights with the deadly mascots.
It truly speaks to Cage’s charisma that he can carry the film while not uttering a word, and while Willy’s Wonderland doesn’t reinvent the slasher genre, it winds up being far more fun than it should’ve been and a large part of that can be attributed to the Coppola family member.
My favorite film of 2021 was Pig, Michael Sarnoski’s emotional drama about truffle hunting. When the first trailer came out, the film became a bit of a meme online due to the absurd storyline of Nicolas Cage hunting for his truffle-sniffing pig that had been kidnapped. While that’s part of the appeal, there is a real heart to the film that explores class, the importance of personal relationships, and moving on, which all augment Cage and Alex Wolff’s characters as they grow and change during the film.
And this all happens at a brisk 92 minutes, meaning Pig never overstays its welcome and yet still gives plenty of room for Cage to give arguably the best performance in a drama this year. A former chef turned recluse, Cage plays the character that is going through grief in his own way. In the past few years, grief has been unavoidable for nearly everyone, and this film about solace hit in all the right ways thanks to great direction and maximum effort from all aboard.
Prisoners of the Ghostland
Cage described Sion Sono’s Prisoners of the Ghostland as the “wildest film” he’s ever made and that’s not a statement made with any hyperbole. The film isn’t the best work from the eccentric Japanese director, but it certainly has its share of great moments even if the core drama isn’t that gripping.
Even if you’re just there for the absurd rather than to read into its deeper themes, you’ll get to see Cage strapped into a bomb-filled vest, watch him lose a testicle because of it, and get into plenty of shenanigans. It’s a ridiculous role and vastly different than his stunning silence in Willy’s Wonderland and more dramatic role in Pig, but all three films this year showed different sides of Cage and his versatility, and amazingly the actor was up to the task every time.