20. Knight of Cups (2015)
Terrence Malick films are never entirely without value, but this comes pretty close: a tiresomely self-indulgent and male-gazey homage to LA life, tricked out with Malick’s late-phase tics (whispery voiceovers, tremulous closeups, whirling cameras) that only restate the obtuseness of it all. From the poster and publicity material, you would think that Portman plays a key part here, but no: she’s one of the gallery of women with whom a writer, Christian Bale, attempts to find meaning in his life. Portman does quite a bit of moody frisking, from art gallery to hotel room to beach, but there’s not much to it.
19. V for Vendetta (2005)
This has acquired quite a bit of lustre since its underwhelming reception on release: the adoption of its mask gag by the Occupy protesters was unexpected, as was its prescience in warning about a future fascist takeover (which seemed a remote prospect in the wholesome mid-oos. Presumably, the project’s political slant appealed to Portman’s liberal-activist side, but she is miscast as a British TV company minion who is rescued by – then becomes complicit with – the righteous terror-spreader, V.
18. The Other Boleyn Girl (2008)
Portman and Scarlett Johansson: the 00s dream casting – somewhat thrown away, it has to be said, on this hey-nonny-nonny adaptation of Philippa Gregory’s history novel, which sought to establish Mary Boleyn as the slinkier of the two Tudor-era-entrancing sisters. Portman is queenly enough as the crafty Anne, but her charm doesn’t really come across in corset pictures; she never seems to merge effectively with historical backdrops. (For more evidence, see Goya’s Ghosts.)
17. Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999)
Having made her mark as a teen, Portman stepped up to the big leagues as Luke and Leia’s future mum, Padmé Amidala, in George Lucas’s revival of his space-opera trilogy. Probably the most eagerly awaited film of all time, this – as history records – turned out to be a serious embarrassment, for which Lucas has still not been forgiven. Despite having to cope with cumbersome kabuki-style costuming (and even more cumbersome dialogue), Portman survived the wreckage – even if Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith only prolonged the agony.
16. Song to Song (2017)
Malick’s follow-up/companion piece to Knight of Cups is slightly less annoying than his earlier film: its female characters are less obviously ciphers, for one thing. Portman’s role is considerably more substantial: she plays the world’s most glamorous waitress, who is drawn into record producer Michael Fassbender’s sleazy world. Portman does quite a bit more moody frisking than in Cups; her character, though, has a decently weighty arc.
15. Léon (1994)
Portman has spoken articulately about being the repository of problematic sexual fantasies – a “paedophile’s dream”, as the Guardian writer Simon Hattenstone bluntly put it – and this hitman thriller from Luc Besson is Exhibit A. Portman was 13 when she was required to prance around in slinky outfits and claim she was the lover of Jean Reno’s monosyllabic “cleaner” – and that was after her parents made Besson take out Portman’s original scenes of nudity and violence. In fairness to the wider world, Besson took a lot of flak at the time for sexualising the character; and it has to be said that, despite it all, Léon is undeniably exciting, and beautiful-looking, too, with everything glowing if slathered with irradiated sun cream. Portman is great as well, if a bit callow compared with what came later.
14. Beautiful Girls (1996)
And we come to Exhibit B. Portman’s second underage-fantasy figure is a 13-year-old “old soul”, on whom the jaded 29-year-old played by Tim Hutton develops an enormous crush. Creepily, Portman’s character, Marty, is made the initiator, with a preternatural sophistication that glosses over the age difference. The thing is, though, despite its nauseating title and its fully male perspective, this is a dramatically rich and nuanced film – and really not the gormless sexist mess it might have been.
13. Garden State (2004)
Few Portman films have dated as much as this hipster-deadpan comedy written and directed by Zach Braff, then hot off TV show Scrubs. Much has been written about Portman’s role as one of the first modern incarnations of the manic pixie dream-girl trope; these days the role looks like a compendium of the most irritating cliches possible. A “pathological liar” – of all the most comedically convenient psychiatric conditions – Portman’s Sam is a ditz on steroids, lurching from one quirky moment to another. That Portman carries it all off is a lasting tribute to her ability to construct a coherent on-screen persona.
12. Closer (2004)
Portman “grew up” with this role in the film adaptation of Patrick Marber’s knotty play of relationship infidelities set in mid-00s London. Her self-confessed “waif” – mysterious, impulsive, changer of hairstyles and sexually provocative – is not a million miles away from her Garden State persona; just with Damien Rice on the soundtrack rather than the Shins.
11. Brothers (2009)
Portman paid a few Hollywood dues with this serious-minded war-at-home movie, adapted from Susanne Bier’s Danish drama of the same title. Tobey Maguire is the straight-arrow serviceman who goes missing in Afghanistan; Jake Gyllenhaal the delinquent brother who takes the opportunity to comfort the distraught wife back home. Portman’s performance is one of measured dignity rather than particularly fireworky; although, trier though she is, it’s a little difficult for Portman to pull off suburban ordinariness.
10. Vox Lux (2018)
Portman was presumably attracted to this to work with writer-director Brady Corbet, whose Childhood of a Leader had proved his anti-fascist credentials. As executive producer, Portman was no doubt compelled to act as well, and had the slightly thankless role of a singer on the comeback trail after – unfairly or not – her career is tainted by association with an act of terrorism. It’s an interesting film, with Portman acting out – a little bit Gaga, a little bit Madonna – more than usual. But in truth it’s Raffey Cassidy – playing a dual role of Portman’s younger self and her daughter – who gets the most attention-grabbing material.
9. Anywhere But Here (1999)
Portman got a lot of awards heat – and deservedly so – for the role of a prickly/sulky teen in this mother-daughter relationship film; it proved she could hold the screen away from the dubious fantasy figures. She plays an unhappy kid forced to move from Wisconsin to California with her mum, Susan Sarandon, and permanently mortified by the latter’s midlife-crisis shenanigans. Portman is really good in the role: believable and empathic; it was a sign of greater things to come.
8. Jane Got a Gun (2016)
We can only speculate how this would have turned out if Lynne Ramsay hadn’t left this revenge western after she clashed with “producers” – one of whom was Portman. Ramsay’s replacement was Gavin O’Connor, who turned in a perfectly watchable film, although well short of the inspirational vision everyone assumed Ramsay would bring. Portman does a commanding job as the tooled-up avenger of the title, taking on Ewan McGregor’s vicious outlaw with the help of reluctant Joel Edgerton. It’s decent stuff, but hard to get away from the idea it could have been a lot more.
7. Thor (2011)/Thor: The Dark World (2013)
Having steered clear of blockbusterdom since the Star Wars prequels, Portman joined the Marvel roster to play the girl-empowering role of an astrophysicist – mostly, she said afterwards, on the strength of Kenneth Branagh’s participation. Thor, amazingly, turned out to be funny and watchable – largely, it has to be said, because of Chris Hemsworth’s comic timing and Tom Hiddleston’s neurotic intensity. Portman ended up playing the straight-(wo)man role, and was given a more substantial part in the sequel – although that had most of the fun surgically removed.
6. Hotel Chevalier (2007)
It is only 13 minutes long, but this hotel-room short film directed by Wes Anderson is a masterwork of the genre, and considerably better than the feature – The Darjeeling Limited – for which it was intended as a prologue. Portman – playing well within her range as a mysterious, sexy woman – turns up to rekindle some sort of past relationship with room-occupant Jason Schwartzman. Portman injects genuine empathy into her role (more so than Schwartzman, whose glib Andersonisms don’t always work). And the welling up of Peter Sarstedt’s 60s Euro-ballad, Where Do You Go to (My Lovely)?, only increases the pathos.
5. Planetarium (2016)
An intriguing and rather impressive French film, which solves the perennial Portman problem of how to shoehorn her always-evident film-star glamour into more earthly personas by making her character … be discovered as a film star. She plays a bespectacled nightclub performer in prewar France whose sister (Lily-Rose Depp) may or may not be a genuine medium; but none of this seems to matter after a major film producer (based on the real-life Holocaust victim Bernard Natan) puts her to work as an actor. Directed by Rebecca Zlotowski, this is an easily overlooked entry in the Portman canon, but it shouldn’t be.
4. A Tale of Love and Darkness (2015)
Portman has used her industry clout to get some unlikely projects off the ground: none more so than this adaptation of Israeli novelist Amos Oz’s memoir spanning the early years of Israel’s foundation. Portman took the extra step of making her feature-directing debut, as well as playing the film’s Hebrew-speaking central character of Oz’s mother, Fania. Very much an exploration of her own Israeli roots, this is a moving attempt to reconcile the ramifications of the Middle East conflict with a backwards-looking plea to get over the hurts of the past. An admirable achievement.
3. Jackie (2016)
The role Portman was born to play, and she goes all in for the bouffant hairdo, Chanel suits and pillbox hats with Audrey Hepburn-ish enthusiasm. Portman also worked on the Jackie intonation and mannerisms with studious exactitude, and was rewarded with an Oscar nomination for what is an undeniably heavyweight performance. The key sequences, obviously, are the ones surrounding John F Kennedy’s assassination and its aftermath, with Portman eerily convincing in her numbed pain. For all her efforts, however, the film seems a trifle overwhelmed by its own subject matter; perhaps the counterintuitive hiring of the Chilean director Pablo Larraín (No, The Club) wasn’t such a smart move.
2. Annihilation (2018)
It may have seemed a slightly odd move for Portman to get involved in this slow-burn body-horror sci-fi directed by Alex Garland, whose previous directorial effort, Ex Machina, had turned out a cult hit. But the stars really aligned for this: Garland turned in a dread-fuelled nerve-shredder that borrows as much of its DNA from Solaris as from The Thing. And Portman, physically roughed up after her epic encounters with nameless, terrifying interstellar phenomena, brings her A-game to the film: evincing tough intellectualism and emotional fragility to her role as the biologist who joins an all-female mission to find out what is going on inside a mysterious zone termed “the Shimmer”. We can only hope she does more of this sort of thing.
1. Black Swan (2010)
It all came together for Portman in this exhilaratingly trashy ballet movie, directed by Darren Aronofsky, which runs the gamut from creepy psychological manipulation to full-on jump scares to (more) oh-my-God body horror. Portman, as Nina, the ingenue who is unexpectedly elevated to principal dancer for a production of Swan Lake, is simply irreplaceably brilliant: her trademark emotional fragility allied to new areas of psychosexual disturbance and self-harm. In the #MeToo era, we may not be so complacent about a controlling figure using sexual assault as a directing technique; but the film makes the damage it causes a central plank of Nina’s ordeal and breakdown. Portman’s Oscar win was well deserved; this is still amazing to watch.
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