I don’t think everyone will feel the same way about how Kenneth Branagh directed a Marvel film, especially because elements of his love for Shakespeare can definitely be found. Sometimes, it works: Thor’s confrontations between characters can feel truly other worldly. Sometimes, it doesn’t: Thor flipping a table in slow motion is as hammy as can be.
Portman’s portrayal of Jane Foster has been scrutinized a little bit, but I think she does a good job being Thor’s romantic foil. She is clearly a person from Earth interacting with a higher being from Asgard. Some criticisms have been targeted towards her not being a believable scientist, which I also disagree with, partially because she doesn’t have to carry all of the academic weight herself (she has Darcy and Erik as well).
Part of Thor’s intentionally ridiculous first moments on Earth come from the balancing act between him and the Earth mortals he meets (mainly Jane), so it all works to me. Thor is a standard Marvel film: not without its very brief problems, but definitely stuffed with oodles of fun.
19. V for Vendetta
Is this James McTeigue directed, Wachowskis-written adaptation of Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s great graphic novel the strongest reinterpretation of George Orwell’s 1984? No (sorry the answer is much shorter than the long winded question). However, this mixture of old prophecies and new interpretations of philosophy (see The Matrix and its integration here) is a great entry-level film for both Orwellian works and political discussions found in mainstream cinema.
There is more flare than subtext here, but that at least will get mainstream audiences listening. Evey is forced by the government and her new leader V to partake in their lessons, whether it be the necessity of free speech or the requirement to remain voiceless. The debatable measures are a little problematic, and V is far from an absolute hero. Yet V for Vendetta does get the ball rolling, and working as a gateway to other 1984 adaptations that do work is always a plus.
18. Goya’s Ghosts
The final film by cinematic great Miloš Forman was critically panned, but I definitely think Goya’s Ghosts, while blemished, is an underrated period piece. Natalie Portman is spectacular as a muse-turned-tortured angel (pegged as a temptress and a heretic in a religion-heavy 18th century Spain). Her demons spew off of the screen into the audience, with all of the pain resonating like steam.
Portman plays another character named Alicia, who (without spoiling too much) shows a “what could have been” with the poor abused Inés. Javier Bardem delivers an equally powerful performance, and the entire picture is textured and tangible visually.
The biggest complaint people had were narrative and pacing issues; for me it was a captivating work that just happened to be slow. The critical panning has rendered this film forgotten, but do watch Goya’s Ghosts if you want to see two great, hidden performances by the leads.
17. A Tale of Love and Darkness
Natalie Portman’s directorial debut is an adaptation of a popular Israeli autobiography of the same name by author Amos Oz. Its only slight flaw – which could be detrimental depending on who you talk to—is that it is extremely faithful to its source material, thus ending the film a little hastily.
Otherwise, there are so many interesting experiments taken by Portman from behind the camera (including interesting shots [a look at characters shot from underneath the table cloth], interesting long takes and more).
As a star of her own film, Portman plays a traumatized mother that is plagued by mental health issues for the entire film; we see this agony through the eyes of a concerned son. Portman pulls off a heart breaking performance that any fan of hers is indebted to see.
Portman is due to direct a film about the Dear Abby and Ask Ann Landers advice column battle (and is slated to star as the identical sisters Esther and Pauline Friedman, the masterminds behind these columns); let A Tale of Love and Darkness be a prophecy of the kind of imagination Portman will bring to this new project.
16. Cold Mountain
There are champions for this film, and those (like me) that believe it is only so good but not a masterpiece. Either way, Cold Mountain does succeed as an epic romance (remember the decades where that kept being a thing?). With so many aspects to this grand tale of love, you will come across many faces on W. P. Inman’s quest to return home during the American Civil War.
One person he meets is Sara (Portman): a struggling widowed mother who offers Inman a place for the night. Portman’s acting capabilities were only getting stronger at this point of her early-adult career, and her internal and mental pains are clearly on display here.
This subplot is easily the strongest and most memorable amongst the number that Inman takes part in, especially because of the ugly side of war that affects the women and children back home acting as a scary harbinger of what might be of Ada (his love interest). Cold Mountain has many things to offer, and most of them are winners when it comes to showing the complexities of love and hatred.
15. My Blueberry Nights
Wong Kar Wai’s English language debut gets a bad rap for not holding up to his greatest works (like In The Mood for Love, Chungking Express, and Happy Together). I think My Blueberry Nights gets needlessly ignored as a result.
It might not be the American statement that Kar Wai was hoping for, but it does discharge the love that can only be found at the very bottom of your heart (the scrapings). There might not be a lot of sense made with the actions made here, but these are irrational decisions made by the lead characters (particularly Elizabeth, played surprisingly by Norah Jones).
This is a journey through mindsets and emotions rather than a literary story, and in that way it really does work. Portman plays a gambling addicted Leslie that cons her way through the tables and the minds of her loved ones. Connect this to the other idiosyncratic characters Lizzie meets on her soul-searching adventure, and you have a cathartic experience that gets hated on far too much for not being one of Kar Wai’s best (but it’s still a solid film).
14. Song to Song
Not the easiest Terrence Malick film to recommend, mostly because it only really sits well with the strongest of Malick enthusiasts (of which I consider myself, especially since I like Song to Song as much as I do).
For those unfamiliar with his recent works, Song to Song might appear to be an aimless piece of artistic filmmaking. There is a soul there, underneath the festivals and the industry side of being a musician. Admittedly, Song to Song is more narratively barren than Malick’s latest works (which does say a lot), but part of the experience is being lost in the miasma of the world of art.
As a teacher-turned-waitress named Rhonda, Portman plays the heart that gets tugged and torn by this devious world, whereas other players (performed by Michael Fassbender, Ryan Gosling, and Rooney Mara, amongst others) can compete a little bit better without losing so much of themselves. With Rhonda’s conclusion being the most damning and definitive part of Song to Song, it is hard to watch the film and not even feel anything at least with this storyline.
The more it ages, the more Jim Sheridan’s Brothers resonates. This love triangle between the titular brothers (a war-stricken marine and a recently released convict) and Grace (Portman) is set up rather nicely.
The Marine (Tobey Maguire) has to go serve his country, and feels a responsibility to all that inhabit the United States. The prisoner (Jake Gyllenhaal) has to prove himself to the world (but most importantly his family). This triangle works because the shifting dynamics keep the resolution of these relationships very much up in the air.
This remake of the Danish film Brødre cements itself within America rather solidly, being a testament of what it means to be a male or female figure within the American dream. The film itself is decent, but it excels on the powerful, catalytic performances by the three leads.
12. Beautiful Girls
There’s something special about the exchange Marty (Portman) has with Willie (Timothy Hutton), like we witnessed a young acting veteran (Hutton) acknowledge the capabilities of tomorrow’s performers. Ted Demme’s Beautiful Girls arrived between the relentless Léon: The Professional and Heat, and the quirky Everyone Says I Love You. It was the first glimmer of a young Portman as an everyday, identifiable kid.
A self-described “old soul” (which, naturally Natalie Portman easily could be since she took on the early roles she did), Marty is the young voice of reason that could have been the precocious nag had she been played by a less experienced child. Beautiful Girls is driven by heart and wit, and all of its toying is good natured deep down. There aren’t many dramedies like this around anymore.
11. The Darjeeling Limited/Hotel Chevalier
I’m including the short film as well—despite excluding other shorts that Natalie Portman has taken part in—because Hotel Chevalier is an almost essential sister piece to the feature film The Darjeerling Limited.
In the feature film, Portman serves merely as Jack’s (Jason Schwartzman) former lover, whose brief appearance allows you to wonder “what happened?”. In the prologue Hotel Chevalier – which works as the lingering memory of Jack’s that you can access if you so dare– Portman’s role as the girl that eggs Jack on has much more depth.
Both works are quirky and colourful (naturally, these are Wes Anderson films), and they almost feel inseparable eleven years later. You don’t need Hotel Chevalier to go on the crazy adventure in The Darjeerling Limited (an underrated Anderson film that is rightfully being recognized more and more as time goes on), but you do need it to best understand Jack’s motivations. Anderson cleverly left the choice in your hands: do you revisit pain when love is there, or do you just move forwards and abandon what once was?