Total Recall

Definitive Natalie Portman Movies

In this week's Total Recall, we take a look at the films that helped define the Jane Got a Gun star's career.

by | January 27, 2016 | Comments

Child actors are notorious for fizzling out once their prepubescent charms disappear during adolescence, or once they discover the various vices of the adult world, and it seems to be the rare case when a young starlet can overcome these hurdles and transition successfully into a career of grownup roles. Natalie Portman is one such success story: after making her debut as a 12-year-old in Luc Besson’s Leon: The Professional, Portman gradually took on more adult roles until she was playing everything from Anne Boleyn to an emotionally manipulative stripper. This week, she stars in (and produces) the Western drama Jane Got a Gun, so we felt it was the right time to take a look back at the extensive filmography of this young star to determine Natalie Portman’s Definitive Movies.

Léon: The Professional (1994) 71%


It would be hard for any actress to ask for a more attention-getting opening scene than one that calls for strolling onto the screen with a black eye and a cigarette dangling out of your mouth — and that goes more than double for Natalie Portman, who scored the role of The Professional‘s vengeful Mathilda when she was all of 12 years old. Few actors, let alone those Portman‘s age at the time, would have been able to summon the world-weary cynicism necessary to portray a young girl who’s seen her crack-dealing family mowed down by vengeful DEA agents — and who then goes on to pursue a terribly inappropriate relationship with the hitman down the hall. Add a borderline insane performance from Gary Oldman into the mix, and The Professional could easily have skidded into B-movie territory; in fact, a few critics felt that’s exactly where it belonged. The majority, however, were too entranced by the sweetly deadly chemistry between Portman and Jean Reno to notice the film’s flaws. As Time’s Richard Schickel wrote, “The bonding of Mathilda and Leon may be among the strangest in the long, tiresome history of odd-couple movies.”

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Heat (1995) 86%


It wouldn’t be right to say that Natalie Portman truly “stars” in Heat — Michael Mann’s 1995 crime epic boasts a rather incredible cast, and far more seasoned actors than the teenaged prodigy were relegated to supporting roles. Still, few of those parts had more to do with the character development of Al Pacino’s Vincent Hanna, a driven LAPD detective whose troubled marriage to Justine Hanna (Diane Venora) helps drive his stepdaughter (played by Portman) to the brink of suicide. Hanna is the mirror image of Robert De Niro’s character, career thief Neil McCauley, and the scene where a horrified Hanna sets aside professional obligations to rush his dying stepdaughter to the hospital reflects McCauley’s decision to break a lifelong rule by starting a new, honest life with his girlfriend (Amy Brenneman), and even if audiences knew neither man would ultimately stick to his decision, that didn’t undermine the power of those performances — or Portman‘s part in raves like the one from the Washington Post’s Desson Thomson, who applauded, “As with his other works, [Mann] binds sound, music and pictures into one hypnotic triaxial cable and plugs it right into your brain. He makes this almost-three-hour experience practically glide by.”

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Beautiful Girls (1996) 79%


Natalie Portman‘s first major role called for her to awkwardly try to seduce Jean Reno; a mere two years later, she brought an inestimable spark to Ted Demme’s Beautiful Girls by playing a self-proclaimed “old soul” who’s nevertheless far too young to catch the eye of Timothy Hutton. Considering that Girls‘ cast also included such famous names as Uma Thurman, Mira Sorvino, and Matt Dillon, the raves that 15-year-old Portman received for her work as the precocious (and, it must be said, utterly adorable) Marty were even more impressive. Not a lot goes on in this look at the commitment-shy shufflings of thirtysomething men in northern New England, and Beautiful Girls didn’t attract much attention at the box office, but there’s no arguing with raves from critics like Felix Vasquez Jr. of Cinema Crazed, who wrote, “Portman steals all the scenes with Timothy Hutton and lights up the movie in each and every one of her scenes with her beauty, charm and utter exuberance.”

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The Star Wars Prequels


Before she was old enough to drive, Natalie Portman carried roles that called for her to be a hitman’s apprentice, attempt suicide, and seduce Timothy Hutton; after all that, taking a part in the most eagerly anticipated prequel trilogy of the late 20th century must have seemed relatively easy. Which is not to say that taking on the role of Queen Padmé Amidala — a.k.a. Darth Vader’s wife— wasn’t a fraught endeavor, or that spending three films in front of a green screen doesn’t require an impressive level of acting commitment. But all things considered, Portman acquitted herself admirably throughout the second Star Wars trilogy, evolving from regal figure to action heroine to the doomed object of the central character’s corrupted, all-consuming love — even if more than a few critics were put off by the many ways George Lucas’ vision for the films failed to live up to decades of hype and impossible expectations. And all’s well that ends well: after taking in the trilogy-concluding Revenge of the Sith, Pete Vonder Haar of Film Threat mused, “It did what I thought was impossible after the previous two films — it made me a Star Wars fan again.”

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Anywhere but Here (2000) 64%


The Phantom Menace might have taken Portman into a galaxy far, far away in 1999, but she quickly returned to Earth with Wayne Wang’s Anywhere but Here, an adaptation of the Mona Simpson novel about the struggles faced by a single mother (Susan Sarandon) and her teenage daughter (Portman, natch). Even this early in her career, Portman had a clear idea of what she was willing to do for a role; she famously turned down Anywhere after discovering the script contained a sex scene for her character, forcing Wang and screenwriter Alvin Sargent to conduct a rewrite. (Fortunately for everyone, the rewritten sequence was repeatedly singled out as one of the film’s finest.) Portman had already acted with some of Hollywood’s finest at this point, but Anywhere placed her squarely toe to toe with Sarandon for pretty much the entirety of the film, and she emerged none the worse for wear. In the words of John R. McEwen of Film Quips Online, “Natalie Portman is my new hero.”

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Garden State (2004) 86%


In the years since it turned into an indie phenomenon, it’s become fashionable to mock Garden State for the slew of scripts about morose middle-class dudes it triggered — not to mention the many sensitive singer/songwriters who found inspiration in its soundtrack — but Zach Braff’s writing/directing debut struck an undeniable chord when it was released in 2004, and even if you were annoyed by the trends State sparked, it isn’t hard to see what audiences were responding to. Nor is it difficult to determine why Braff’s character, a disaffected Hollywood actor who’s returned to his New Jersey stomping grounds for his mother’s funeral, would find himself shaken out of his ennui by the joie de vivre of Natalie Portman‘s character, a hoodie-wearing, Shins-loving compulsive liar named Sam. Sound too quirky by half? Perhaps it is. But it’s also, in the words of Tom Long of the Detroit News, “The kind of movie that reminds you why you love movies so much, a film so filled with unexpected energy and ambition and sly intelligence it gives you hope for the future.”

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Closer (2004) 68%


Unlike a lot of child actresses, Natalie Portman didn’t grow up playing characters that necessarily reflected her age; when you make your big-screen debut as a 12-year-old hitman’s apprentice, no one’s going to send you the script for, say, The Lizzie McGuire Movie. Still, Portman caused something of a tizzy when word got out that she’d be playing a stripper in Mike Nichols’ Closer. The part, like the movie, ultimately ended up being far less titillating than some might have hoped; as he’d done with Carnal Knowledge nearly 25 years previous, Nichols took a potentially lurid premise and read between the lines, focusing instead on the human drama at its core. And while some lookie-loos might have been disappointed that Closer turned out to be a sexual drama devoid of sex, many critics were too busy appreciating Patrick Marber’s script — and a quartet of stellar performances from Portman, Clive Owen, Julia Roberts, and Jude Law — to notice. “Portman steals the show with an astonishingly layered performance as the spiky but vulnerable Alice,” wrote Rich Cline of Shadows on the Wall. “Even without the rest of the film’s genius, she’s worth the price of a ticket.”

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V for Vendetta (2006) 73%


The famously cantankerous Alan Moore disavowed the Hollywood version of his graphic novel, taking issue with the way the Wachowski-produced V for Vendetta used the political subtext of the book — which was written in the 1980s — to frame an argument against neoconservatism. And Moore probably had a point, too — but as hard as it is to begrudge an author his criticism of an adaptation of his work, it’s also easy to understand why the gripping, stylish Vendetta was a critical and commercial hit when it reached theaters in early 2006. James McTeigue’s direction is at its most thrilling here, and the Wachowskis’ script manages to incorporate thought-provoking themes with good old-fashioned action. And then there was Natalie Portman, who had her head shaved on camera for her role as Evey Hammond, the ordinary citizen driven to vigilanteism by a totalitarian political regime (as well as some remarkably persuasive speeches from a masked, yet still utterly charismatic, Hugo Weaving). V for Vendetta was so dark and so unapolagetically political that it’s still a little hard to believe it was a $100 million-plus hit — but it certainly didn’t hurt that it provoked eloquent praise from critics like Jonathan R. Perry of the Tyler Morning Telegraph, who wrote, “V screams loudly and long, with visceral, kinetic fury and with style to burn. It’s so brazen, it’s kind of brilliant.”

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Black Swan (2010) 87%


At what price artistic perfection? It’s a question director Darren Aronofsky is uniquely well qualified to pose, given a filmography that includes stories about all-consuming obsession (Pi), commitment (The Wrestler), and addiction (Requiem for a Dream), as well as projects that tested his own professional and creative limits (The Fountain). Those themes form the graceful spine of 2010’s Black Swan, in which Portman (who won a Best Actress Oscar for her work) portrays a dancer whose participation in a production of Swan Lake serves as the backdrop for a harrowing exploration of the thin line between art and madness. “The film picks at our deepest anxieties — injury, disfigurement, loss of a coveted job, loss of identity, loss of sanity,” observed Colin Covert for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “In most fright films, danger lurks in the shadows. Here it’s grinning from a mirror.”

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The Thor Franchise


These days, we’ve grown accustomed to being part of a world in which pretty much any film professional, no matter how distinguished their career, is fair game for Marvel movies. But the studio’s cinematic universe was still fairly young when Thor lured Portman on board to play the hammer-twirling titan’s Earthbound love interest, Jane Foster — and as an added bonus, got Kenneth Branagh to direct. Distinguished pedigree aside, Thor (and, to a lesser extent, its 2013 sequel The Dark World) conquered the seemingly insurmountable silliness of its mythology-laden setup by tapping into its many humorous possibilities, giving Portman and Chris Hemsworth room to throw comedic sparks while facing off against superpowered bad guys (and making goo-goo eyes at each other). Wrote Marc Mohan after watching the first Thor, “Marvel’s ambitious plan has taken one more step, and it has yet to take a false one.”

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  • Skaught

    Her career is surprisingly similar to that of Elijah Wood. And like her, many of his early roles were more adult-oriented dramas (Paradise, The War, The Ice Storm) than kiddie films (Huck Finn, North being the most notable two). While that makes a child actor much less likely to end up on the cover of Tiger Beat, it makes it far easier to land serious roles as an adult.

    And keeping your childish good looks doesn’t hurt, either.

  • Matthew Romano

    She’s a very talented actress, but my favorite will always be Leon: The Professional. It’s a wonderful movie and I do feel like the 71% rating on Rotten Tomatoes is not entirely accurate because most of those rotten reviews are for the watered down American release (originally titled The Professional).

    The extended Leon: The Professional version contains a lot more footage and it explores her relationship with Leon, which is deeper than what some of these critics are simply writing off as “awkward.” I always hated Ebert’s review because he watched the inferior version.

    • Dan Wiess

      I agree

    • Crockett

      It’s a great film. I agree with you 100%.

  • Buddy Chastar

    The Star Wars Prequels? Please, it almost ended her career and she hated it.

  • Blake Rosser

    I’ve been disappointed in Portman’s film choices since “Black Swan,” (and “V for Vendetta”) which if her agent was paying attention would have launched her onto the short list of best young actresses working today. Instead she’s spent the last 5 years doing a bunch of bland and boring BS.

  • TomNewYorker

    My 10 favorite Natalie Portman Movies are
    1-Black Swan
    3-Leon: The Professional
    4-the Star Wars Prequels
    6-Beautiful Girls
    7-Garden State
    8-V for Vendetta
    9-No Strings Attached
    10-Where The Heart Is

  • ILoveMSNBC

    She is probably one of THE worst actresses out there..

    • Bret Osborne

      That says a lot more about you then it does her.

      • Hello Cinephile

        Couldn’t agree more…

      • ILoveMSNBC

        Yeah it says two things.. Im much more keen than you. And it says that Im smart enough to see her terrible acting… she even admits it..

  • Bret Osborne

    I can’t believe how wrong people interpret the relationship between Mathilda and Leon. Mathilda fell in love with Leon as her father not as her lover. All little girls want to marry their daddy. Mathilda’s real father was a p.o.s. and even she knew it but when Leon, a genuine protective father figure, comes into her life she falls in love with him the way she never could with her own father. Because of the damage from the twisted dynamic of her first father/daughter relationship she’s not able to recognize that Leon too is a monster.

    I also can’t believe how all the credit in that movie continues to go to Portman. Yes, she was amazing but to over look Jean Reno’s performance as the hit-man who’s new found appreciation for life is embodied in the daughter he never had Mathilda is tragically unfortunate.

    • Crockett

      Jean Reno is a great actor, and Natalie Portman did a great job with this role. Two actors in peak form and a great script, plus lots of action, made this a terrific film.

    • Missy Ballew Harper

      I totally agree. I think the reason they aren’t saying much about Reno is because they are spotlighting Portman for this article.

  • UltimateBadass

    For me ,V for Vendetta and Black Swan are her best works.

  • Douglas Dea

    I’ve loved Natalie Portman since The Professional an am glad she’s had a great career.

    I remember at the end of Beautiful Girls she asks the Timothy Hutton character if he would wait 4 years for her to turn 18. A tempting request and he considers it. Portman made it plausible that she would request that and he just might wait for her.

    Then there was Cold Mountain where she tempts Jude Law to stay with her instead of going home (she doesn’t ask, but it is implied.) Tempting indeed.