Total Recall

Rank Natalie Portman's 10 Best Movies

In this week's Total Recall, we look back at the Annihilation star's best-reviewed movies.

by | February 21, 2018 | 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 the sci-fi thriller Annihilation, and we’re taking the opportunity to take a look back at Ms. Portman’s extensive filmography. It’s time for Total Recall!

1. Jackie (2016) 87%

(Photo by Pablo Larrain/Fox Searchlight Pictures)

Biopics are always a tricky proposition, and when the subject of your film is one of the most immediately recognizable public figures of the 20th century, that goes at least double. All of which is to say that even if Jackie had fallen flat on its face, Portman would have deserved points just for trying to play Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis — and to underscore the impressive feat director Pablo Larraín and screenwriter Noah Oppenheim pulled off in giving her such a solid canvas to work from. The end result, which focuses on her incredible efforts to keep herself — and the country — together in the days after John F. Kennedy’s assassination, earned Portman some of the best reviews of her career. “Larraín told his producers he wouldn’t do Jackie unless Natalie Portman agreed to take on the role,” wrote Kenneth Turan for the Los Angeles Times, “and her superb performance, utterly convincing without being anything like an impersonation, vindicates his determination.”

2. Black Swan (2010) 85%

(Photo by Fox Searchlight Pictures)

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.”

3. Garden State (2004) 86%

(Photo by Fox Searchlight Pictures)

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.”

4. Heat (1995) 86%

(Photo by Warner Bros.)

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.”

5. Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith (2005) 80%

(Photo by Merrick Morton/Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp.)

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. Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia’s mom — 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.”

6. 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.”

7. Thor (2011) 77%

(Photo by Zade Rosenthal/Paramount Pictures)

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.”

8. V for Vendetta (2006) 73%

(Photo by Warner Bros.)

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 vigilantism 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.”

9. Léon: The Professional (1994) 73%

(Photo by Columbia Pictures)

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.”

10. Closer (2004) 68%

(Photo by Columbia Pictures courtesy Everett Collection)

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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