You know her Star Wars Queen and Black Swan ballerina, but what are you missing?
Unquestionably one of the most renowned actresses of the 21st century, Natalie Portman is the rare child star who continued to succeed with each subsequent role. After her breakout turn in Leon: The Professional, the young actress took on a diverse set of roles in projects that spanned many genres. Her critical role as Padme Amidala in the Star Wars prequels only skyrocketed her fame, but Portman also frequently earned critical praise and won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance in Black Swan.
Beyond her talent as a performer, Portman has been a strong activist for representation in media, and has frequently used her star power to spotlight female filmmakers. She even stepped behind the camera herself for her 2018 directorial debut A Tale of Love and Darkness. Although her contributions to the Thor franchise certainly don’t rank among her best work, it will be exciting to see Jane Foster return to take on the mantle of Asguardian rulership herself in Taika Waititi’s highly anticipated sequel Thor: Love and Thunder.
Portman has so many classics that some of her finest work has gone underseen. Here are seven underrated Natalie Portman movies worth checking out.
Tim Burton’s alien invasion satire unfortunately hit theaters at the exact wrong time, coming only months after Independence Day had smashed box office records. Audiences weren’t sure what to make of Burton’s satire of American incompetence; instead of depicting the people of Earth as brave and united in the face of a Martian invasion, the characters in Mars Attacks! fumble under the pressure in an increasingly hilarious series of defeats.
Portman co-stars as Taffy, the daughter of the cartoonishly inept President of the United States James Dale (Jack Nicholson) and perpetually flustered First Lady Marsha (Glenn Close). Considering her strange upbringing, Taffy is fairly well-adjusted and able to escape the chaotic White House assault when so many of the senior politicians clown around. Her touching final moments with the small town hero Richie Norris (Lukas Haas) are the rare moments of sincerity within the otherwise madcap story.
Cold Mountain was a sizable hit and earned seven Academy Award nominations, but Portman’s work in the Civil War epic deserves more credit for the emotional insights she provides on the reality of war. The film follows Confederate deserter William Inman (Jude Law) as he ventures on a long journey home to North Carolina to reunite with his lover Ada Monroe (Nicole Kidman). Along the way, he encounters the young widow Sara (Portman) who briefly provides him with shelter.
Sara’s early passes at William are heartbreaking, as she’s still in a state of absolute disparity following her husband’s passing. The dangers of the conflict are heightened for a newly single mother, and Sara faces the attempted assault of traveling soldiers who forcefully enter her home. It's one of the most intense sequences in the film, and Portman’s sensitivity makes her emotional farewell to William even more gripping.
Films about the Afghanistan conflict are notoriously hit-and-miss, but 2009’s Brothers is a sensitive look at both the men who endure post traumatic stress disorder and the families left to cope with loss. Tobey Maguire delivers the darkest performance of his career as Captain Sam Cahill, a straight-laced soldier who was captured overseas and subject to torture and abuse. Cahill’s irresponsible brother Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal) is left to care for his wife Grace (Portman) and their young children.
Portman captures the heartbreak of presuming she’s a widow once Sam goes missing, and she finds herself also dealing with Tommy’s reckless behavior. Eventually, the two develop a bond as they cope together and aid Grace’s children. Portman and Gyllenhaal capture the intimate yet platonic relationship; despite some casual flirtations early on they’re not romantically involved. However, Sam suspects infidelity when he returns home, resulting in a gripping final chapter to the story.
Terrence Malick didn’t win over any new fans with Knight of Cups. It's a study in excess itself, following the odyssey of alcoholic screenwriter Rick (Christian Bale) as he leads a series of escapades. Rick’s journey is told in a series of sparsely connected storylines signified by tarot card chapters. There’s a beauty to Knight of Cups that not every viewer will appreciate, but Portman’s role is critical in decoding the themes Malick is interested in. She appears as the married woman Elizabeth in the film’s sixth chapter, and her joyous romance with Rick suggests a future when he might actually find joy. It's the rare moment when the story comes into focus, and Portman’s graceful presence captures a serenity within an otherwise chaotic film.
Shot back-to-back with Knight of Cups, Malick’s next film Song to Song also centered on doomed romance. Set within the backdrop of the Austin, Texas music scene, it centers on intersecting love triangles between the characters Cook (Michael Fassbender), BV (Ryan Gosling), Amanda (Cate Blanchett), Faye (Rooney Mara), and Rhonda (Portman). Rhonda is a sensitive school teacher who falls for Cook’s charismatic advances.
Despite moments of happiness early on, Cook’s indulgences add stress to their relationship and Rhonda becomes overwhelmed. She’s by far the most empathetic character within the film, and her story is genuinely heartbreaking considering the sensitivity of the earlier moments. Not every actor can make Malick’s introspective dialogue feel authentic, but Portman pulls it off.
In a decade that saw significant success for many original science fiction films, Annihilation unfortunately underperformed financially. It’s an absolute shame because Alex Garland’s genre-smashing thriller is a unique blend of sci-fi, body horror, emotional healing, and Kubrickian introspection. Portman stars as the biology professor Lena, who searches for her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) within a mysterious radiated area known as “The Shimmer.”
Annihilation was a perfect project for Portman considering her continuing fight for representation, as the film centers on Lena’s relationship with an all-female group of scientists including Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), Anya (Gina Rodriguez), Josie (Tessa Thompson), and Cassie (Tuva Novotny). The Shimmer reveals personal demons specific to each of the characters’ anxieties, and Lena’s nightmares are viscerally brought to life in the jaw dropping final sequence.
Vox Lux asks viewers to accept a shocking occurrence within its opening moments when a graphic school shooting is depicted in gruesome detail. The following two hours are an experimental study into the responsibilities, pressures, and fantasies of stardom across two timelines. The first half of the story focuses on the survivor Celeste (Raffey Cassidy), who becomes an unexpected media sensation after writing a song about her grief. The second half picks up seventeen years later with an older Celeste (Portman) who once again finds herself responding to a national tragedy.
Portman’s performance is among her most eccentric, as Celeste has become removed from reality as a result of the constant public attention. She throws tantrums and spars with her scheming manager (Jude Law), all while raising a young daughter (also Cassidy) who begins to doubt her mother’s stability. It’s a wild performance, but Portman expertly shows how childhood neglect and trauma permeate into adulthood.
KEEP READING: Every Best Actress Winner of the 21st Century Ranked From Worst to Best
Nothing better than choosing between two great opportunities!
Liam Gaughan is a film and TV writer at Collider. He has been writing film reviews and news coverage for eight years with bylines at Dallas Observer, About.com, Taste of Cinema, Dallas Morning News, Schmoes Know, Rebel Scum, and Central Track. He aims to get his spec scripts produced and currently writes short films and stage plays. He lives in McKinney, TX.
You know her Star Wars Queen and Black Swan ballerina, but what are you missing?