2. Leaving Las Vegas (1995) – Directed by Mike Figgis
Ben Sanderson, the down-on-his-luck, chubby, curly-headed alcoholic drifting around Las Vegas like a forgotten spirit, is the role that won Nicolas Cage his first and only Academy Award. As Sanderson, Cage embodies the ideas of dependency, obsession, and mournful lust. Elisabeth Shue, known best prior to “Leaving Las Vegas” as the female love interests from “The Karate Kid” and the “Back to the Future” films, plays a street-toughened prostitute named Sera who ends up in a poisonous, tragic relationship with Sanderson. Together, Cage and Shue shine on-screen as a couple who become as dependent on one another as they do with their own personal vices. However, between the two of them, it is still Cage who shines the brightest and his fearlessness in making Sanderson truly, unflinchingly pathetic is commendable. When one looks at Cage’s Sanderson, one sees a gray-skinned, cold-sweat-drenched, moments-from-collapsing, pathetic loser of an alcoholic wasting away in a desert city best known for debauchery. But Cage alone makes us care for Sanderson. Like Sera, we want to help Ben Sanderson; we want to cure him. But the inevitable truth is that neither Sera nor we can save Ben Sanderson from himself and Nicolas Cage drives that truth home time after time in “Leaving Las Vegas.” His displays of raw emotion come in passionate bursts, but they never feel artificial or disingenuous and Cage toes the line, lest he make a mockery of such serious subject matter. It is an Academy Award well earned and well deserved.