There are few things as graceful and elegant as a prima ballerina floating across the stage. And there are few movies this year as unnerving and twisted as Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, the story of one obsessed ballerina’s rapid descent into darkness.

Natalie Portman instantly flies to the head of the class of this year’s Oscar-worthy actresses with a performance that is utterly phenomenal. Her hauting portrayal of Nina Sayers, a ballerina so driven to perfection that it starts destroying her, is a mesmerizing study of black and white, good and evil, and poise in the face of madness.

Black Swan begins with Nina dreaming that she has won the role of the Swan Queen in her company’s performance of Swan Lake— but it’s a dream born out of obsession rather than fantasy. ‘I just want to be perfect,’ she says at one point. Indeed.

And mother’s not helping things. In what may be one of the most inspired casting choices this year, Barbara Hershey plays Nina’s mom, a former ballerina herself who is now so driven to see her ‘sweet girl’ succeed that she helps fuel the maniacal passion for excellence.

Sure enough, Nina is chosen for the highly-demanding dual role by the ballet’s director Thomas (Vincent Cassel), despite his reservations. While Thomas is confident that Nina has the technique needed to play the White Swan, he’s more concerned that she lacks the artistic flair and passion required for the role of the evil Black Swan.

At the same time, fresh-faced Lily (Mila Kunis) arrives on the scene– full of flair and passion (and dressed in black, no less), proving the perfect foil for Nina, and, in one head-spinning scene, a perfect companion.

With her world starting to rapidly spiral downward, Nina not only begins to mentally crumble under the pressure, she also starts to physically torture herself– scratching her skin until it’s raw and practicing so much she snaps a toenail. And then she starts hallucinating– hearing the rustle of bird wings on the subway, thinking she sees people who aren’t really there.

The deeper she gets into the role of the Black Swan, the more she loses it. And the more Portman shines.

For a full year leading up to the filming of the movie, she trained with a professional ballerina. She lost 20 pounds, and then, during filming, sustained a cracked rib and a concussion. (Life imitates art, anyone?). The result is a performance the likes of which haven’t been seen this year.

Portman dives headfirst into a role, from which many other actresses would have no doubt run the other way. Her uncanny ability to make us care about someone who is so flawed (and so completely lacking of backstory) affirms her standing as one of the best actresses at work today.

Aronofsky’s direction will at once remind you of David Lynch and Alfred Hitchcock (with a little Wes Craven thrown in for good measure). Some of the moments border on trite horror film fare, but they stay just this side of cliché– heightening the tension and creating even more of a atmosphere of utter lunacy. There are terrifying moments, there are erotic moments, and there are a few moments that are both. And Aronofsky’s heavy reliance on mirrors and hand-held cameras, along with Clint Mansell’s twisted re-imagining of Tchaikovsky’s classic score, only add to the madness.

In the end, everything comes together in a suberbly choreographed pas de deux between light and dark– and easily one of the best films of 2010.

5/5 stars