Since bursting onto the scene at the tender age of thirteen, Natalie Portman has appeared in more than 60 movies as well as a number of television shows. In the process, she’s also graduated from Harvard, picked up countless awards, and has become one of the most recognizable and revered actresses in all of Hollywood. It all makes for an incredibly impressive résumé, especially for someone who is still to celebrate their 40th birthday.
Portman has come a long way since her debut outing, with her performances growing in stature at a steady and consistent pace. She’s not only talented but also incredibly consistent too, with very few of her performances failing to impress critics and audiences. While she still has plenty of good years ahead of her, her past is already punctuated with a long list of fantastic and unforgettable movies.
10 Leon: The Professional (1994) – 64
Portman’s very first appearance on the silver screen is arguably her most memorable, Leon: The Professional has not aged particularly well. In recent years, the movie has been heavily criticized for its overt sexualization of Portman’s 12-year-old character, with the actress herself revealing that she’d received vile fan mail following the movie’s theatrical release.
She plays a young girl named Mathilda who is taken in by a sympathetic hitman after a group of corrupt DEA agents brutally murder her family. The two form a close, and at times unsettling, bond, and he begrudgingly teaches her the tricks of the trade. Although she’s unable to exact revenge by herself, the men responsible for killing her family do eventually get what they deserve, although it comes at a rather high price.
9 Closer (2004) – 65
Based on the Patrick Marber play of the same name, Closer offers an interesting take on love and romance through its documentation of two ill-fated relationships over the course of several years. The self-gratifying actions of the four main characters are both fascinating and infuriating in equal measures while the somewhat predictable conclusion perfectly captures the complexities of love and human connection.
Although the writing is strong throughout, it’s Portman and her three costars who really sell the story through their believable and relatable performances. Both she and Clive Owen picked up multiple award nominations for their supporting roles, with Owen winning two and Portman coming away with one.
8 Garden State (2004) – 67
Following his breakthrough role as J.D. in Scrubs, expectations were high for Zach Braff’s directorial debut and, for the most part, Garden State very much delivered. The writing is as thoughtful as it is sharp, and the characters are equipped with just enough depth to keep viewers engaged and entertained throughout its 102-minute runtime.
Portman plays a compulsive liar with whom the movie’s main protagonist forms a close and immediate bond. With her help, he’s able to confront some of the demons from his past and embarks upon a journey of self-discovery and recovery. Whether or not that journey provides quite enough substance is perhaps a matter for debate, but there can be no disputing that it at least offers a fresh take on the classic coming of age story.
7 Vox Lux (2018) – 67
Vox Lux tells the story of a young singer who goes on to become one of the most promising pop-stars in the world after surviving a deadly school shooting. As stardom and her life collide, however, she struggles to deal with the immense expectations which lead to some questionable decisions and life-changing consequences.
In many ways, Celeste’s story mirrors that of Portman’s own, with both finding fame at an incredibly young age and having to contend with the pitfalls and challenges that go hand in hand with celebrity status. It’s perhaps for this reason that her performance is so believable and was highlighted by several critics as being the movie’s strongest asset.
6 Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge Of The Sith (2005) – 68
Although many Star Wars fans still look back on the prequel trilogy with contempt and disdain, the general consensus has improved a little over time. Convoluted plot points aside, they feature plenty of great action scenes as well as some of composer John Williams’ very best work. The less said about Jar Jar Binks though, the better.
Portman was cast as Padme Amidala, a member of the Galactic Senate, with whom a young Anakin Skywalker falls madly in love. She appears in all three movies, although dies during childbirth towards the climax of Episode III. It’s her death that ultimately leads to Anakin turning to the dark side and becoming the delightfully deviant Darth Vader.
5 Cold Mountain (2003) – 73
A lot of big names signed up for Anthony Minghella’s period war movie Cold Mountain, with the likes of Jude Law, Nicole Kidman, and Renee Zellweger pushing Portman half way down the billing and into a relatively minor role. Even so, the young actress does well when called upon and doesn’t feel at all out of place amongst the movie’s all-star cast.
She plays Sara, a grieving widow with an infant son, who’s taken hostage by three Union soldiers. When they try to force themselves on her, she and one of the other characters are forced to kill them in what is an incredibly powerful scene that’s dripping with tension and fear. It may have only lasted for a matter of minutes, but it’s one of the movie’s most memorable moments.
4 Heat (1995) – 76
Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, and Val Kilmer are just three of the big names that appear in Michael Mann’s ambitious and explosive crime drama, Heat. Lining up alongside these veteran actors was a 14-year-old Natalie Portman in what was to be only her second ever full-length feature film.
She plays the mentally unstable stepdaughter of an LAPD Lieutenant, although she exists more as a device with which to highlight the chaos in his life more than anything else. While there’s certainly nothing wrong with Portman’s performance, she doesn’t really feature enough to leave much of a lasting impression, either on the viewer or the movie’s plot itself.
3 Black Swan (2010) – 79
Darren Aranofsky has directed some magnificent movies throughout his career, but the 2010 psychological thriller Black Swan just might be his very best work. It shines a powerful spotlight on the immense pressure that’s placed upon young ballerinas and is fantastically brought to life by some superb acting performances and stunning imagery.
For her portrayal of Nina, Portman picked up the Oscar for Best Actress while Aranofsky himself was nominated for Best Director. Mila Kunis also delivered an eye-catching performance as Lily, and Clint Mansell came through with yet another hauntingly beautiful score that perfectly compliments the movie’s wonderfully chaotic tone.
2 Annihilation (2018) – 79
It may take a while to get going, but once it’s up to full speed, Annihilation provides viewers with a wild ride that’s full of thrilling moments and interesting ideas. Portman plays Lena, a biologist and former soldier who signs up for a top-secret mission in the hopes of discovering what really happened to her husband.
It’s Lena’s fractured relationship with him prior to his hospitalization, and the guilt that she feels for cheating on him, that serves as the driving force behind her actions. It’s ultimately what makes them so believable. The rest of the cast also play their parts well, with the end result being a stunningly original sci-fi masterpiece that subverts expectations at almost every turn.
1 Jackie (2016) – 81
Having burst onto the scene at such a young age, it can be very easy to forget that Portman is still only in her thirties. The maturity of her performance in the 2016 biopic, Jackie, certainly doesn’t help in this regard either. It’s an incredibly perceptive movie, full of highly charged moments and cleverly crafted cinematography.
Rather than merely portraying the former first lady, Portman truly becomes her, offering incredible insight into her struggles in the wake of the JFK assassination. Not only is Portman’s delivery spot on, but her long, desperate stares and slow, languid movements often do a much better job of capturing the character’s grief and anger than her words ever really could.