Total Recall

Total Recall: Natalie Portman's Best Movies

We break down the 10 best reviewed films in the Brothers star's career.

by | December 1, 2009 | Comments

Natalie Portman

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 a young, widowed mother (Cold Mountain) to an emotionally manipulative stripper (Closer). This week, she stars alongside Tobey Maguire and Jake Gyllenhaal in the family drama Brothers, 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 Best Movies.


10. Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace

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 movie of the late 20th century must have seemed relatively easy. And hey, let’s be frank: The vagaries of green-screen acting aside, Portman’s role as Queen Padmé Amidala probably was one of the least demanding gigs she’s ever had, at least in terms of dramatic heavy lifting. Surrounded by gorgeous special effects, various digitally rendered space critters, and a script that was roundly criticized for living down to George Lucas’ claim that The Phantom Menace was “a movie for 12-year-olds,” all Portman had to do was look regal — that old Star Wars magic did the rest. And despite its reputation as arguably the worst of the series, this installment lived up to the hype for a number of critics, including the Chicago Reader’s Jonathan Rosenbaum, who wrote, “Though I’ve been bored senseless by the Star Wars phenomenon for over two decades, I found The Phantom Menace something of a pleasant surprise.”


9. Anywhere But Here

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. (All’s well that ends well: the rewritten sequence was repeatedly singled out as one of the film’s best.) 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.”


8. Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones

She’s made a lot of movies in a lot of different genres, but no matter how long she continues her acting career, it seems relatively certain that 2002’s Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones will be the only film that gives us Natalie Portman wielding a laser gun on a distant planet and sharing screentime with characters with names like Poggle the Lesser. Fast-forwarding his saga ten years past The Phantom Menace enabled Lucas to up the action quotient considerably — and as with The Empire Strikes Back, there’s a darkness beneath Clones that helps lend a little extra heft to all the political intrigue and intergalactic derring-do. Portman’s filmography might not scream “action heroine,” but she can knock out a droid with the best of them, and her thespian bona fides were at least a small part of what led critics like the New York Post’s Lou Lumenick to declare, “On a purely visceral level, Clones is a delightfully rousing, eye-popping, crowd-pleasing homage to Saturday-morning serials of the ’30s and ’40s.”


7. Closer

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.”


6. V for Vendetta

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 ’80s — 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 unapologetically 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.”


5. Léon The Professional

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.”


4. Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith

You think you’re under a lot of pressure at the office? Try being Natalie Portman in Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, and having to play a character who not only gives birth to Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia, but is inadvertently responsible for the creation of Darth freakin’ Vader. Where Episode II placed Portman in the thick of a state-of-the-art intergalactic action thriller, Episode III found her relegated mostly to the sidelines — until the final act, when she was asked to not only give birth to the most important set of twins in all of sci-fi, but make audiences believe she was literally dying of a broken heart. A thankless task, to be sure, and more than a few critics were put off by the many ways George Lucas’ script failed to live up to decades of hype and impossible expectations. For others, though, Revenge of the Sith was a perfectly pulse-pounding popcorn flick — take Pete Vonder Haar of Film Threat, who gushed, “It did what I thought was impossible after the previous two films: it made me a Star Wars fan again.”


3. Beautiful Girls

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.”


2. Garden State

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.”


1. Heat

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 suporting 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.”

In case you were wondering, here are Natalie Portman’s top ten movies according to the RT Community Tomatometer:

1. Léon The Professional — 95%
2. Heat — 94%
3. V for Vendetta — 91%
4. Garden State — 91%
5. Paris, Je T’aime — 89%
6. Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith — 85%
7. Beautiful Girls — 85%
— 80%
9. Cold Mountain — 79%
10. Everyone Says I Love You — 79%

Take a look through Natalie’s complete filmography, as well as the rest of our Total Recall archives. And don’t forget to check out the reviews for Brothers.

Finally, here’s a side of Natalie we never knew existed… until Saturday Night Live dared to show it to us (it’s censored, but let the faint of heart be wary):