From Léon to Jackie: Beyond Black Swan, Natalie Portman's Best 10 Performances


Natalie Portman, an acclaimed actress and Harvard graduate, has consistently delivered exceptional performances that have captivated audiences worldwide. In this collection of her top 10 films, we pay homage to her versatile acting skills and the indomitable spirit she brings to each role.

From her breakout performance in 'Léon: The Professional' to the psychological intensity of 'Black Swan,' Portman has proven her ability to delve into a variety of characters with depth and authenticity. Her performances in 'V for Vendetta,' 'Closer,' and 'Jackie' showcase not only her acting prowess but also her commitment to bringing complex characters to life.

Nominated for three Oscars, Portman's journey in cinema is marked by strong choices and transformative roles. As you explore this curated list, you'll witness her evolution as an actress and gain a deeper appreciation for her contributions to the world of film.

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1. V for Vendetta (2005)

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Director: James McTeigue
Cast: Hugo Weaving, Natalie Portman, Rupert Graves
Genre: Action, Drama, Sci-Fi

My Take:

"V for Vendetta" is a compelling dystopian thriller set in a future where a fascist government rules over a totalitarian regime in Britain. The story follows a masked vigilante known as "V," who seeks to overthrow the oppressive government and inspire a revolution among the oppressed citizens. At its core, the film explores themes of freedom, justice, and the power of collective action against tyranny.

People should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people.

The film's protagonist, V, wears a distinctive Guy Fawkes mask throughout the movie, symbolizing his rebellion against the government and his commitment to the ideals of freedom and justice. The mask became an iconic symbol of protest and resistance, transcending the movie itself and appearing in various real-world social and political movements.

Hugo Weaving's portrayal of V is a standout performance, despite his face being hidden behind the mask. The filmmakers utilized lighting, acting, and Weaving's voice to bring the character to life, with his entire dialogue re-recorded in post-production to ensure clarity. Natalie Portman's transformative performance as Evey, a young woman who becomes entangled in V's revolution, adds emotional depth to the film.

"V for Vendetta" is a thought-provoking film that challenges its audience to question authority and the role of government in society. It seamlessly blends elements of action, drama, and political commentary within a neo-noir visual style. As it explores the relationship between individuals, ideals, and the government, the film resonates with its viewers, inviting them to consider the balance between security and personal freedoms.

2. Black Swan (2010)

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Director: Darren Aronofsky
Cast: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel
Genre: Drama, Thriller

My Take:

In "Black Swan," Darren Aronofsky crafts a psychological horror masterpiece under the guise of a ballet drama. The film, gestating for a decade before hitting the screen, became an exploration of the thin line between artistic passion and psychological disintegration. Natalie Portman's commitment to her role as a ballerina pushed her to lose 20 pounds, a testament to the lengths actors go for their craft.

The only person standing in your way is you.

Loosely inspired by the anime "Perfect Blue," Aronofsky delves into the life of Nina, a talented but fragile ballerina aiming for perfection in a New York City production of "Swan Lake." Her relationship with her overbearing mother, portrayed by Barbara Hershey, adds layers to the psychological complexity.

The movie unfolds as a visceral, delirious, and phantasmagoric journey into the psyche of its protagonist. The budget constraints of the production led to creative solutions, resulting in a classic psychological film that thrives on tension and intensity.

Natalie Portman's performance earned her an Oscar, and rightly so. Her portrayal of Nina, an artist under siege, is nothing short of heroic. The film's final performance mirrors its disturbed heroine - perfect, captivating, and unforgettable. Aronofsky's technical mastery and Portman's flawless acting combine to create an extraordinary and intoxicating cinematic experience.

"Black Swan" is more than a ballet drama; it's a deep exploration of the human psyche, a descent into madness and obsession. It's a unique and daring film that balances on the edge of reality and delusion, leaving the audience both disturbed and fascinated. It's a testament to Aronofsky's ability to blend genres seamlessly and Portman's dedication to her craft.

3. Léon: The Professional (1994)

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Director: Luc Besson
Jean Reno, Gary Oldman, Natalie Portman
Genre: Action, Crime, Drama

My Take:

In the dimly lit world of hitmen and lost souls, "Léon: The Professional" emerges as a neo-noir masterpiece. Directed by Luc Besson, the film marks Natalie Portman's debut at the age of 11, a role she won against 2000 other actresses. The movie's influence on subsequent action films is undeniable, setting a standard for the genre.

Mathilda: Is life always this hard, or is it just when you're a kid?
Léon: Always like this.

The narrative unfolds as Léon, a seasoned hitman portrayed by Jean Reno, crosses paths with Mathilda, a young girl played by Portman, whose family falls victim to a corrupt DEA officer, brilliantly portrayed by Gary Oldman. The film's heart lies in the unexpected bond that forms between Léon and Mathilda, steering it away from conventional action fare.

Gary Oldman's portrayal of the deranged detective is a tour de force, showcasing his uninhibited acting style. The film's success lies not just in its action sequences but in the nuanced character interactions that add depth to the story. "Léon: The Professional" is a symphony of shadows and redemption, transcending the typical boundaries of the action genre.

The film's enduring influence on action cinema is a reflection of its narrative complexity and the exceptional performances of its cast. It's not just a hitman film; it's a poignant tale of redemption and the unlikely connections that illuminate our darkest hours. It's a testament to Luc Besson's ability to infuse depth into a genre often dominated by superficiality.

4. Annihilation (2018)

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Director: Alex Garland
Cast: Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson
Genre: Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson

My Take:

Annihilation is a visually stunning film filled with incredible special effects and impressive creature design. The shimmer, the mysterious zone the expedition team enters, is where the laws of nature are twisted and mutated, and it is brilliantly realized on screen. The film’s cinematography is also remarkable, with a moody and atmospheric visual style that creates a sense of unease and dread.

The cast, led by Natalie Portman, gives strong performances that anchor the film’s fantastical elements in a relatable emotional reality. Portman plays Lena, a biologist who joins the expedition to the shimmer in search of answers about her missing husband. She is joined by an all-female team of scientists, each with their own motivations and personal demons. The film explores themes of grief, guilt, and self-destruction, and the cast brings depth and complexity to their characters, making the story more resonant.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Annihilation is its use of mutation and evolution as a metaphor for the human condition. As the team delves deeper into the shimmer, they encounter bizarre and terrifying creatures resulting from genetic mutations. These mutations reflect the characters’ innermost fears and desires, and as the film progresses, it becomes clear that the shimmer is not just altering the world around them but also their own bodies and minds.

Annihilation is a thought-provoking and visually stunning sci-fi film that leaves a lasting impression. The film rewards multiple viewings, as its complex themes and symbolism are layered and nuanced. While it may not be for everyone, for those willing to take the journey, Annihilation is a thrilling and rewarding experience.

5. May December (2023)

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Director: Todd Haynes
Natalie Portman, Julianne Moore, Chris Tenzis, Charles Melton
Genre: Drama

My Take:

In the steamy depths of Southern intrigue and buried secrets, Todd Haynes delivers a cinematic punch with "May December" (2023). Premiering at the esteemed 2023 Cannes Film Festival in May, the film later graced a wider audience through Netflix in December, unraveling a tale as enigmatic as its title. At its core, it’s a story of Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman), a Hollywood actress researching a role, stepping into the tumultuous past of Gracie (Julianne Moore), who found herself entangled in a scandalous affair with a 13-year-old boy, later marrying him. A mosaic of pedophilia, sexual abuse, and societal judgment is laid bare, but this isn’t just a narrative about sin; it's a poignant exploration of denial, wrongdoing, and the treacherous journey to maturity.

Todd Haynes, celebrated for his audacious storytelling in films like "Far from Heaven" and "Carol," once again throws a spotlight on the moral gray zones of society. "May December" teeters between light amusement and profound seriousness, offering a unique lens to scrutinize contemporary culture.

The movie traverses the twisted paths of morality with Haynes's signature style—noirish gusto mingling with snarky flights. Gracie, portrayed by Moore, is a complex dance of vulnerability and strength, while Portman's Elizabeth becomes a chameleon-like figure, mirroring her subject in more ways than one. Charles Melton, as the grown-up aftermath of the scandal, injects a slow-burn tragedy into the narrative, revealing the lasting impact of youthful mistakes.

As we navigate the layered intricacies of Elizabeth's exploitation, Gracie's resilience, and Joe's emotional stunting, the film morphs into a psychological drama reminiscent of Bergman's finest character studies. It transcends the sensationalism one might expect from its scandalous premise, offering instead a reflection on societal norms and the haunting consequences of choices. This is not a film content with mere entertainment; it’s a mirror held up to our collective conscience.

In conclusion, "May December" is more than a cinematic exploration of a scandalous affair. It's a compelling portrait of human frailty, a confrontation with the shadows of denial and societal judgment. The film's achievement lies not just in its daring narrative but in its ability to provoke thought; it is an immersive journey through the complexities of morality, rendered with audacity and finesse.

6. Closer (2004)

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Director: Mike Nichols
Natalie Portman, Jude Law, Clive Owen
Genre: Drama, Romance

My Take:

"Closer," directed by Mike Nichols, unfolds as a visceral and brutally honest exploration of love, betrayal, and the complexities of human relationships. Set against the backdrop of a bustling and sophisticated London, the film delves into the lives of two couples whose paths intertwine in unexpected and tumultuous ways.

Where is this love? I can't see it, I can't touch it. I can't feel it. I can hear it. I can hear some words, but I can't do anything with your easy words.

The narrative begins with a chance encounter between Alice (Natalie Portman) and Dan (Jude Law), setting off a chain reaction of love, deception, and heartbreak. The characters navigate a love triangle fraught with passion, jealousy, and, ultimately, betrayal. Nichols captures the essence of contemporary romance, where the line between physical and emotional intimacy blurs, leaving the characters grappling with their own desires and the consequences of their actions.

"Closer" stands out for its sharp and articulate dialogue, a rarity in a cinematic landscape often dominated by superficial conversations. The characters, played by Natalie Portman, Jude Law, Julia Roberts, and Clive Owen, deliver haunting and hypnotic performances. The film's unflinching portrayal of the raw, unfiltered truth of relationships makes it a challenging watch but one that resonates deeply.

Closer is a bold and unapologetic examination of the complexities inherent in human connections. Mike Nichols' direction, coupled with the stellar performances of the cast, elevates the film beyond the conventions of romantic dramas. It dares to expose the uncomfortable truths about love, making "Closer" a cinematic experience that lingers in the mind, challenging conventional notions of romance and fidelity.

7. Jackie (2016)

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Director: Pablo Larraín
Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig
Genre: Biography, Drama

My Take:

"Jackie," directed by Pablo Larraín, is an unconventional and introspective look into the life of Jacqueline Kennedy in the aftermath of her husband's assassination. The film is not a traditional biopic; instead, it focuses on a specific period— the days following John F. Kennedy's tragic death. Natalie Portman delivers a haunting performance as Jackie, capturing the First Lady's unique blend of strength and vulnerability.

There comes a time in man's search for meaning when he realises that there are no answers. And when you come to the horrible and unavoidable realization, you accept it or you kill yourself. Or you simply stop searching.

The narrative unfolds as Jackie recounts her experiences to a journalist (Billy Crudup), providing an intimate glimpse into the private moments of grief and the public facade of strength she maintained. Larraín's directorial approach, with a third of the shots being the first take, adds an authenticity to the film. Portman's portrayal goes beyond mimicry; it's a profound embodiment of Jackie's complex emotional landscape.

The film's pacing, while deliberate, may feel slow to those unfamiliar with historical context. However, it's a deliberate choice to immerse the audience in the quiet yet powerful moments of Jackie's mourning. The cinematography and score complement the narrative, creating an atmosphere that is both somber and captivating.

The film doesn't merely recount history; it invites the audience to witness the internal struggles of an iconic figure. "Jackie" surprises by its audacious strangeness, making it a poignant and memorable exploration of grief, strength, and the complexities of one of the most famous women in American history. It's not just Oscar-worthy; it's great cinema that leaves a lasting impact.

8. Brothers (2009)

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Director: Jim Sheridan
Jake Gyllenhaal, Natalie Portman, Tobey Maguire
Genre: Drama, Thriller, War

My Take:

"Brothers," directed by Jim Sheridan, delves into the harrowing consequences of war on the soldiers and their families. The film revolves around Captain Sam Cahill (Tobey Maguire), who is presumed dead in Afghanistan, leaving behind his wife Grace (Natalie Portman) and his brother Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal). Maguire, in a departure from his usual roles, underwent extensive research to authentically portray the challenges faced by soldiers dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Mathilda: Is life always this hard, or is it just when you're a kid?
Léon: Always like this.

The narrative takes a dramatic turn when Sam is unexpectedly found and returns home. However, the homecoming is far from a joyous reunion, as Sam grapples with severe trauma, leading to intense emotional turmoil within the family. The film skillfully explores the psychological toll of war on individuals and the intricate dynamics of relationships in the face of such trauma.

Tobey Maguire's performance is a revelation, showcasing a depth and intensity not previously seen in his career. The film doesn't merely focus on the war experience; it delves into the aftermath, portraying the enduring impact on mental health and relationships. The exploration of PTSD is raw and unflinching, shedding light on a topic often overlooked in mainstream cinema.

"Brothers" is a poignant and gut-wrenching examination of the collateral damage that war inflicts on the human psyche. Maguire's transformative performance and Sheridan's nuanced direction elevate the film beyond a typical war narrative. It serves as a stark reminder of the lasting scars war leaves on individuals and their families.


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