This list was originally published in August 2015. We've updated it to include Florence Foster Jenkins.
Want a convincing case for the value of a postgraduate education? Meryl Streep finished her MFA from Yale in 1975 at the age of 26 (she paid her way through school by waitressing and typing) and then hit the New York City stage. Within a year she had won a Tony. Within two she had her first feature-film role. Within three she had won an Oscar. Looks like she got her money’s worth at Yale.
With the release of Florence Foster Jenkins this weekend, Streep has appeared in more than 50 movies, in just about every genre, with some of the biggest movie stars on the planet, and some of the greatest directors of all time. And we can say — and we’ve watched them all — she’s incapable of a bad performance. Even sleepwalking Streep is riveting to watch: She always finds something in even the most thankless roles. And she’s so good that she makes her risks look like the easiest parts: You know it’s not effortless, but it can feel that way.
So, time for us to start ranking! We had to limit the films to 43, excluding minor roles (with a few notable exceptions), voice acting (sorry, Fantastic Mr. Fox), and TV movies (though she is great in Angels in America). This isn’t a ranking of the best Streep films: It’s a ranking of Streep’s performances in them. We watched all 43 and can say that every performance is a little bit different, but they're all great. Below, we count down to the best — and then you can use the Vulture Reader Rank to weigh in, as well.
43. The House of the Spirits (1993)
This movie gets pretty much everything wrong about Streep, Latin American culture (which will happen when your Chileans are played by Streep, Jeremy Irons, Glenn Close, and Winona Ryder), literary adaptations, and the way human beings interact with each other on this planet. Acclaimed filmmaker Bille August’s first English-language film feels like it was produced in an antiseptic lab that attempts to create Important Oscar Contenders in a petri dish. Streep’s character makes no sense whatsoever, and she, like the rest of the cast, looks adrift and lost. By the end she looks ready to fall asleep. You’ll have beaten her to the punch.
42. Before and After (1996)
A bewildered, strangely tone-deaf studio drama that features Streep and Liam Neeson — back when he was a sensitive ponytailed man in a tweedy jacket, before he punched wolves in the face — as suburban parents of a son (Edward Furlong, back when Edward Furlong was everywhere) who accidentally kills his girlfriend. There’s an interesting story somewhere in here about how parents rationalize the sins of their children, but that movie isn’t this one. This is a jumbled, confused mess that has so little focus that it ends with a courtroom scene for no apparent reason. And if you were wondering what Streep would bring to clichéd role of the Mom Who Loves Too Much, stop: She mostly looks bored.
41. Dark Matter (2007)
Streep’s is actually a supporting role in the film debut of Chinese opera director Shi-Zheng Chen, but it’s a substantial enough part that we included it. She plays a professor obsessed with Chinese culture who helps a brilliant Chinese math student work with the mathematics department at her university. The student turns out to be unbalanced as well as brilliant, and the movie ends in tragedy. Loosely inspired by a 1991 shooting at the University of Iowa, the movie is amateurishly shot and even poorly lit; it looks like it was shot with a camcorder. It’s particularly strange that Streep is in it because her part has little connection to the plot and, you know, the movie looks like it was shot with a camcorder. Dark Matter was barely released in the States, partly because the Virginia Tech shooting happened right before it was scheduled to come out.
40. Dancing at Lughnasa (1998)
Based on a famous Irish play, Lughnasa gives Streep one of our least favorite roles for her: prim, proper, joyless and rigid matriarch. Later she would bring a little flash of humor to a role like this — Doubt being the best example — but she’s so deadly serious here that it brings the whole film to a stop. She plays Kate Mundy, the eldest of the Mundy sisters living in abject poverty in 1930’s Ireland, caring for their dementia-riddled older brother (Michael Gambon). Streep is so wrapped up here that at several points she resembles one of the townspeople in Footloose. She spends most of the running time acting as if dancing is in the same moral neighborhood as a murderous orgy. By the end of the film, when (obviously) she learns the Value of Dance, she finally comes to life. As you’ll continue to see in these rankings, we greatly prefer, with a few exceptions, Fun Streep to Dour Streep, and this is as dour as Dour Streep gets.
39. The Iron Lady (2011; won Best Actress)
Generally speaking, we’re over getting worked up about who does or doesn’t win an Oscar at any given ceremony. Nonetheless, Streep’s win for this outright howler of a biopic remains baffling. Structured around an elderly Margaret Thatcher looking back on her life, The Iron Lady is a highlight reel of awards-season clichés: a patina of prestige, meticulous attention paid to makeup and costume, a melodramatic recapping of historical events, lots of capital-A Acting. It’s not that Streep isn’t convincing as the iron-willed former British prime minister — of course she’s impeccable — it’s that she attached her titanic dedication to a deeply dopey and simplistic treatment of a compelling political figure, her Mamma Mia! director Phyllida Lloyd clearly lacking the confidence to do her subject justice. The Iron Lady is such a clunky, clumsy misfire that even Streep’s studied Thatcher impression starts to get deeply irritating.
38. Music of the Heart (1999; nominated for Best Actress, lost to Hilary Swank in Boys Don't Cry)
If you wanted to encapsulate what a typical Oscar-bait movie of the 1990s felt like, Music of the Heart does a nifty job. Based on the life of Roberta Guaspari, a violinist who taught music to poor Harlem grade-schoolers, this inspirational drama drips with good intentions and why-won’t-anyone-think-of-the-children? liberal concern. Streep is likable as Roberta, who also must contend with the fact that her husband ran out on her and their two kids. But horror auteur Wes Craven has no feel for the material, and the suffocating importance of the proceedings never lets up. We wonder if Streep even remembers she got an Academy Award nomination for it.
37. The Manchurian Candidate (2004)
On paper, this looked like a can’t-miss: Let Oscar-winning director Jonathan Demme remake The Manchurian Candidate with Denzel Washington, and cast Meryl Streep in the iconic Angela Lansbury role. But like the film itself, Streep is solid but hardly monumental, playing a ruthlessly ambitious senator whose brainwashed son (Liev Schreiber) will unwittingly execute her murderous plan. Sure, Streep has fun playing the World’s Scariest Stage Mother — emasculating the cowardly men around her and banging the drum for America’s hawkish foreign policy — but can it top Lansbury’s portrayal? Not a chance.
36. Heartburn (1986)
Based on Nora Ephron’s rocky marriage to Carl Bernstein, this dream pairing of Streep and Jack Nicholson falls flat. It has little to say about marriage, infidelity, and career choices women have to make: It’s as if director Mike Nichols was so entranced by his stars’ charisma that he let Nicholson smirk his way through his whole film. It’s also a terrible use of Streep, who plays a sad-sack woman put upon by her boorish (but irresistible, right?!) husband. A year later, Nicholson and Streep would get this right.
35. Falling in Love (1984)
Streep had just made Silkwood and Sophie’s Choice. Robert De Niro had just finished Once Upon a Time in America, The King of Comedy, and Raging Bull. So it’s little wonder that these two needed a break, teaming together for a somewhat charming but slight love story about two friendly married people who become best friends and then, well, read the title. There’s nothing particularly offensive about the film, but there’s nothing much compelling either. The movie feels like two great actors sitting out a few plays, taking a breather on the bench while they rest up for more interesting projects. Almost instantly forgettable.
34. Into the Woods (2014; nominated for Best Supporting Actress, lost to Patricia Arquette in Boyhood)
Director Rob Marshall’s adaptation of the heralded musical can be summed up by Streep’s performance as the witch: technically accomplished, kinda amusing, full of gusto, way too showy. Into the Woods is the sort of film that doesn’t do the actress a lot of favors. Since she’s such a big star playing such a small but juicy part, how can she not overact the hell out of it? And despite all of Streep’s accolades, her performance of Stephen Sondheim’s indelible songs isn’t particularly memorable. Just think how great peak-era Bernadette Peters would have been in this part.
33. She-Devil (1989)
Streep is actually pretty funny as a wealthy romance-novel writer who steals Ed Begley Jr. from his long-suffering wife, played by Roseanne Barr. The movie doesn’t hold up well at all; Roseanne isn’t bad, but She-Devil is much more sitcommy than even we remembered at the time. It’s also oddly toothless; it’s telling that the movie is mostly forgotten today, in an age that theoretically could embrace the camp of it. Streep doesn’t bring much depth to her character, but she sure seems to be having a blast. (Of note: This was, in fact, Barr’s and Streep’s final collaboration!)
32. Florence Foster Jenkins (2016)
Playing the title role, a 1940s Manhattan socialite who became a sensation because of her terrible singing voice, Streep could have easily turned this real-life character into a one-note punching bag. But the trick to the performance is that while her Jenkins really is an awful singer — she can’t hit any notes, much less high ones — Streep portrays her with utter confidence and lack of judgment. A lifelong music fan, Jenkins believed in her own talent, and the actress does her the courtesy of taking her seriously, belting out every mangled song with an unwavering faith. Directed by Stephen Frears and co-starring Hugh Grant as her loyal husband (well, except for the fact that he has a secret girlfriend on the side), Florence Foster Jenkins clearly admires this adorably deluded woman, and Streep makes her misplaced ambition lovable, even heroic. This isn’t where you go to find the vaunted Streep who’s on the Mount Rushmore of great actors, but she radiates a modest charm and fragility that are unexpectedly touching.
31. Prime (2005)
A perfectly pleasant romantic comedy-drama, Prime stars Uma Thurman as a recent divorcée who falls for a much younger guy (Bryan Greenberg) — who just so happens to be the son of her therapist (Streep)! Writer-director Ben Younger investigates the familial and romantic bonds that can both strengthen and tear apart people, and Streep eases into her role as a woman who takes her Judaism seriously. (One of Prime’s main tensions is that she doesn’t want her boy marrying outside of their faith.) Though she can be too cartoony and jokey on occasion, Streep keeps with the film’s modest tone, the character discovering that being too motherly to both her son and her patient isn’t doing them — or her — much good.
30. Still of the Night (1982)
Three years after they both won Oscars for Kramer vs. Kramer, Streep and filmmaker Robert Benton teamed up for this far-less-successful Hitchcockian thriller about a therapist (Roy Scheider) who’s transfixed by the mysterious mistress (Streep) of his murdered client. Because Still of the Night is all evocative, noirish mood, the entire movie is driving toward the question, “Well, did Streep’s character kill the guy or what?” Her performance as the would-be femme fatale doesn’t entirely work — she comes across as too icy without the corresponding dangerous sexual allure. But Streep’s chilliness has its own rewards, adding to the general dread and tension that swallows up the film in its superb, Vertigo-quoting final sequence.
29. Hope Springs (2012)
Reuniting with Devil Wears Prada director David Frankel, Streep plays a woman in Hope Springs who couldn’t be more different from the icy tastemaker Miranda. She’s Kay, a sweet, mildly happily married woman who encourages her grumpy, complacent husband (Tommy Lee Jones) to accompany her on a retreat to meet with a popular couples therapist (Steve Carell). Amid the surprisingly honest talk about the challenges of maintaining an active sexual relationship over a long marriage, Streep does good work in minor-key mode, portraying Kay as a loyal, loving woman who, in her 60s, is finally figuring out that it’s okay to ask for more from her husband and her life.
28. Manhattan (1979)
All right, so she’s barely in this. (She has maybe three scenes for about four total minutes of screen time.) Still, we had to include Streep’s one Woody Allen movie, especially considering that many people believe it to be his best film. Streep plays Allen’s ex-wife, a lesbian who is writing a book about their marriage. (He apparently tried to run her over with a car, or at least Freud would say so.) It’s a nearly perfect movie: It’s quite possibly the best movie Streep was ever in. (There are many other contenders we’ll be getting to later.)
27. It’s Complicated (2009)
Because of all the acclaim for her dramatic acting, Streep doesn’t get enough attention for her comedy. It’s Complicated is predictable Nancy Meyers fare, but it did permit Streep to demonstrate her grown-up, witty sex appeal, playing a divorced bakery-owner torn between a nice-guy architect (Steve Martin) and her remarried husband (Alec Baldwin). For all the deserved complaints about Hollywood not creating roles for women “of a certain age,” It’s Complicated is a welcome exception, and Streep steers around Meyers’s frothy plot points with enough grace and warmth to make her character’s navigation of this romantic triangle a fizzy treat.
26. Ricki and the Flash (2015)
The best part of Streep’s portrayal of Ricki — a onetime housewife who abandoned her husband (Kevin Kline) and young children in Indiana to become a rock star in Los Angeles — is that she never bothers convincing us whether or not that was the right decision. Reuniting with Manchurian Candidate director Jonathan Demme, Streep is convincingly disheveled as a middle-aged wild child who may never have made it big but, all in all, is happier being broke and playing in a local bar than living a traditional life. But as Ricki rushes home to help her eldest daughter (Streep’s own daughter Mamie Gummer) after a suicide attempt, Streep keeps the push-pull between the character’s old world and new life a lively ongoing debate that’s reflected in the actress’s weary eyes. Ricki and the Flash may be only a minor charmer, but it’s enlivened by the subtlety Streep brings to a character who refuses to be the aging-rocker cliché many around Ricki see her to be.
25. August: Osage County (2013; nominated for Best Actress, lost to Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine)
This adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize–winning Tracy Letts play never turns down the ACTING, but even amid a sea of heavy thespian-ing, Streep reigns supreme. Her Violet is a volcano of pent-up resentment just waiting to erupt, and the occasion of her adult children’s return to the family home after her husband’s death gives her the perfect opportunity to blow. The actress treats us to Violet’s wave upon wave of violent loathing, but August: Osage County also spotlights how generous Streep is as an ensemble player. As showstopping as her role is, Streep meshes well with the rest of this impressive cast, especially Julia Roberts, as the one daughter who won’t sit back and take her mother’s verbal abuse.
24. The Seduction of Joe Tynan (1979)
It’s strange to think that there was such a thing in human history as “an Alan Alda vanity project,” but this is definitely one, a film Alda wrote, directed, and starred in as a liberal New York senator battling with his principles versus his ambition. Alda is pretty thrilled with himself here; everyone in the movie thinks he’s just the dreamiest dreamboat who ever dreamboated, and there are multiple scenes of him lifting weights. It’s a pretty toothless satire — it’s less a satire than a trial balloon for Alda to run for office — but Streep is terrific in a supporting role as the Louisiana civil-rights activist with whom Alda’s Tynan has an affair. Streep is funny, light, and undeniably sexy, and her Louisiana accent is, as always, perfect. And convincing us that she finds Alan Alda this irresistible might be one of the crowning achievements of her career.
23. The River Wild (1994)
Meryl Streep: Action Hero. Okay, not exactly, but The River Wild did put Streep in unfamiliar territory, that of a wife and mother who must protect her family during a whitewater-rafting trip after they befriend fellow outdoorsmen (Kevin Bacon and John C. Reilly) who turn out to be dangerous criminals on the run. No great shakes as a thriller — it’s all a big buildup to the final run through the terrifying rapids — the movie remains a charming novelty because of Streep’s presence and because, even 21 years later, there still aren’t a ton of suspense/action movies starring women that don’t involve them avoiding some crazy-ass stalker/ex-lover. Still, this is Streep on a busman’s holiday, a way for her to keep things interesting as opposed to forging a new path in her career.
22. Postcards From the Edge (1990; nominated for Best Actress, lost to Kathy Bates in Misery)
Streep is alternately not quite passive enough and not quite volcanic enough to play Carrie Fisher, but she still earned her ninth Oscar nomination with this adaptation of Fisher’s book about her life in Hollywood with her mother Debbie Reynolds. The relationship between Fisher and her mom (played by Shirley MacLaine) works a lot better than the Hollywood satire stuff, which felt toothless even back then and now might as well be about the silent-movie era. For some reason, Streep never quite feels right in movies where she lives in Los Angeles.
21. A Prairie Home Companion (2006)
It wasn’t until A Prairie Home Companion, Robert Altman’s final film, that Streep got to work with the venerable actors’ director. In this wistful comedy, she plays Yolanda Johnson, part of a country-singing sister duo (alongside Lily Tomlin), who never quite got over the fact that Garrison Keillor ended their romantic relationship. Sexy, sultry, and on the same loopy wavelength as Tomlin, Streep flirts beautifully with the visibly flustered Keillor and radiates the weary, resilient vibrancy of a veteran performer who’s seen a lot of heartbreak and put it all into her songs.
20. The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981; nominated for Best Actress, lost to Katharine Hepburn in On Golden Pond)
The actress Streep is trying to chase down for most Oscars — Hepburn had four, one more than Streep — won her final one the year Streep received her first lead-actress nomination for this movie. It’s largely forgotten today, and with understandable reason. The film’s decision to turn the novel it’s based on into two separate stories about a love affair in 19th-century England and about the two actors playing them in a movie adaptation of that very novel is more muddled than meta; the film story just isn’t as interesting as the novel itself. That said, Streep is pretty great. But she’d be better in other movies like this one.
19. Marvin’s Room (1996)
The early career Leonardo DiCaprio movie that no one remembers, this tragicomedy focuses on the sibling relationship between Streep’s Lee and Diane Keaton’s Bessie as they deal with their dying father (and Bessie’s rebellious son). That sounds like more of a downer than the film is, and the movie, all told, probably deserves to be rediscovered a bit. Streep once again, though, has to play the Serious Sister, a role that we’re tired of watching her play, even when she’s as effective at it as she is here. Also of note: This is a film in which Streep and Keaton were co-leads … but Keaton got the Oscar nomination!
18. The Hours (2002)
The Hours can be smothering in its studied sadness, but Streep lends some much-needed heart to this glassy adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize–winning Michael Cunningham novel. As Clarissa, a former lover of celebrated poet Richard (Ed Harris), who is dying of AIDS, Streep turns clichés into truisms, playing a successful, romantically fulfilled woman who nonetheless can’t quite articulate why happiness eludes her. In a film undone by dramatic flourishes, Streep is quiet, subtle, reserved — this is a performance in which the somber, thoughtful reactions are more important and moving than the flowery speeches. Naturally, that means she didn’t get an Oscar nomination for it.
17. One True Thing (1998; nominated for Best Actress, lost to Gwyneth Paltrow in Shakespeare in Love)
Here’s a role that Streep doesn’t get to play that often: Nagging mother. In this adaptation of Anna Quindlen’s novel (directed by One False Move’s Carl Franklin), Streep plays a mother dying of cancer who calls back her estranged journalist daughter (Renée Zellweger, the film’s weak link) to help her in her last days. You can believe this woman would have an estranged daughter: Streep is uncompromising in how suffocating she is. But she sneaks in glimpses of the good soul underneath and, more than anything, how much more difficult her life has been than anyone realized. Despite the Oscar nomination, this is one of Streep’s more interesting and underrated performances.
16. Mamma Mia (2008)
You might hate Abba, you might not be into the all the kitsch involved, you might hate all the adult male leads in the film, but it’s near impossible not to delight in just how much fun Streep has throughout this one. This is the start of Box-Office Streep, and you can see her luxuriating in her newfound powers. Streep is always thought of as such a Serious Actress, but this is just a big old Movie Star goofing around and having a ball. No complaints here.
15. Out of Africa (1985; nominated for Best Actress, lost to Geraldine Page in The Trip to Bountiful)
If you can handle the purposely glacial pace — the story is told as a series of anecdotes from the life of Streep’s Karen Dinesen — and the oft-oppressive “This Is A Serious Oscar Movie” sheen that director Sydney Pollack slathers on awfully thick, there’s actually a pretty wonderful performance from Streep at its core. She has to run, over two decades, from young and inexperienced to destitute and broken to wizened and wistful, and she does it effortlessly: It’s tough to imagine how difficult the 161-minute movie would be without her. Streep is often cast simply as an indicator of prestige, a sign that this movie would have a hard-core awards push at some point. But in her prime, Streep was able to transcend this. The movie might have been artificial, but she never was.
14. Doubt (2008; nominated for Best Actress, lost to Kate Winslet in The Reader)
All due respect to Streep, but the definitive portrayal of Sister Aloysius Beauvier, the severe Catholic-school principal in Doubt, remains Cherry Jones, who played her so brilliantly on Broadway, winning a Tony in the process. In the film version, Streep’s fame works against her somewhat — she can’t quite erase her regal warmth to adequately play such a bone-dry, strict presence. And yet she’s still sufficiently monstrous in the part, playing a smug busybody convinced that the school’s priest (Philip Seymour Hoffman) may have had an inappropriate relationship with a student. Streep burrows down into Beauvier’s self-righteousness, the character’s stubborn certainty about her perception of events tragically leading her away from the godliness to which she’s devoted her entire life.
13. Ironweed (1987; nominated for Best Actress, lost to Cher in Moonstruck)
This is more Jack Nicholson’s movie than Streep’s, but it includes one of her strongest performances, even though her character isn't particularly deep. Both actors are alcoholic homeless drifters in Depression-era Albany, and Nicholson's character drives the narrative, not Streep; she's mostly there to support him. Still, it’s Nicholson in one of his best performances, and Streep is a wonder as the only light in a relentlessly dreary film. (Seriously: That light is still extremely dim.)
12. Death Becomes Her (1992)
A ballsy, outrageous, effects-heavy black comedy, Death Becomes Her is a biting satire about aging, cosmetic surgery, and the fruitless desire to be forever young — issues that are rarely far from the minds of people in Hollywood. Streep is mercilessly funny as Madeline Ashton, a vain, washed-up Broadway star locked in a lifelong battle with frenemy Helen Sharp (Goldie Hawn), with hapless surgeon Ernest Menville (Bruce Willis) caught in the middle. “We would try to do at least one take that had some grounding in human experience,” Streep once said of the film, adding with a smile, “and then, the sky was the limit.” She makes Madeline hideously shallow and vindictive, but the actress also pulls off the neat trick of making us feel sorry for her, locating the insecurity plenty of women face when they realize they live in a society that’s put an expiration date on them without fair warning.
11. Plenty (1985)
Somewhat forgotten amid her run of acclaimed roles in the late 1970s and early-to-mid 1980s, Plenty finds Streep tackling a decidedly opaque character: Susan, a World War II resistance fighter who is disappointed when the happiness she assumed would be hers after the war never materializes. Adapted from David Hare’s play and directed by Fred Schepisi (whom she’d work with again later on A Cry in the Dark), Plenty is a nervy, challenging character piece that spans about 20 years. Streep keeps Susan’s inner world a teasing mystery, this possibly demented woman stumbling from phase to phase in her life haunted by an image of a rosy future she’d crafted in her mind. Initially prickly and uninviting, Streep’s performance requires a viewer’s willingness to meet it halfway — but once there, Plenty is an uncommonly melancholy look at an unsatisfied soul, Streep honoring her character’s nagging discontent rather than worrying about courting our sympathy.
10. A Cry in the Dark (1988; nominated for Best Actress, lost to Jodie Foster in The Accused)
That this is still known as the “Dingo's Got My Baby” movie nearly 30 years later is both an insult to the depth of Streep’s performance and a testament to its power. She has an impossible job here. She plays a closed-off, unsympathetic person whom we believe capable of murder, and then she has to stay the same character even as the evidence against her collapses; she’s actually no more likable when we realize she’s innocent than when we thought she was guilty. And yet you still feel for her. It’s an unfussy, cranky little performance, and it’s one of her best.
9. Julie & Julia (2009; nominated for Best Actress, lost to Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side)
Sight unseen, it was easy to dismiss Julie & Julia as just another Streep stunt, the revered chameleon taking on the accent and demeanor of beloved celebrity chef Julia Child. But although she nails Child’s adorable, slightly wobbly essence, Streep goes far deeper than that, finding the pathos in a quiet revolutionary who faced a good amount of sexism both in her professional and personal life by daring to be a working woman in the 1950s. Especially compared to the underwhelming “Julie” half of director Nora Ephron’s comedy-drama — the usually great Amy Adams is stuck playing a mopey modern gal — Streep’s moving performance was a reminder of how easy it is to take what she does for granted.
8. The Devil Wears Prada (2006; nominated for Best Actress, lost to Helen Mirren in The Queen)
With Streep at the peak of her scene-chewing, grande-dame powers, The Devil Wears Prada rolls its eyes at your insistence that good acting is about subtlety and restraint. She has an absolute blast portraying Miranda Priestly, fiendishly savoring her torment of her new personal assistant, meek little Andy Sachs (Anne Hathaway). With her snow-white hair, fabulous outfits, and blasé, judgmental expression, Miranda is a holy terror and a consistent hoot — we laugh even before she opens her mouth because we can just sense how disappointed she is in everyone around her. Forget the devil: Miranda’s coldly haughty tone and frightening smarts made her the chick-flick equivalent of a comic-book supervillain. When The Devil Wears Prada opened in the summer of 2006, it came out the same weekend as Superman Returns. In retrospect, Streep made a better Lex Luthor than Kevin Spacey did.
7. The Bridges of Madison County (1995)
This is probably a little higher than where you’d have this, but we’ve always been smitten with this movie, and Streep in particular. This could have been a ridiculous adaptation of a ridiculous book, but Streep — along with a legitimately sensitive performance from Clint Eastwood that never feels self-congratulatory — elevates it into something wistful and longing. The passive housewife of the book is given a fierce intensity by Streep, but she also never forgets that this is about a woman rediscovering her passion: Streep remembers that midwestern housewives get to be sexy, too. This movie is lightyears better than it has any reason to be, and Streep’s the reason.
6. Kramer vs. Kramer (1979; won Best Supporting Actress)
What could have been a misogynistic tirade, or even a ’70s version of some MRA rally, remains as sensitive to every character’s viewpoint today as it did then: This movie takes hot-button issues and, in the way of all great art, boils them down to the human beings at their center. Streep plays someone whom the audience could hate — after all, she does leave her family in the opening scenes — and makes her achingly real; you always understand where she’s coming from, even if you disagree with her choices (or even if you don’t). This role was initially supposed to be played by Charlie’s Angels’ Kate Jackson, but she couldn’t get away from the TV show. Streep grabbed the part, knocked it out of the park, and won her first Oscar.
5. Silkwood (1983; nominated for Best Actress, lost to Shirley MacLaine in Terms of Endearment)
Meryl Streep is one of the greatest actresses of our time, an incredibly beautiful woman, and one of the most recognizable humans on the planet, but she disappears completely into Karen Silkwood, a Oklahoma woman who believes she and her co-workers are being exposed to unsafe levels of radiation at their processing plant. She becomes, almost accidentally, a union activist, but despite the people who want to use her for their own causes or silence her for their financial interests, she’s on her own. The “Silkwood shower” has become part of the vernacular, but what’s best about Streep’s performance is that her Karen Silkwood never makes any big Norma Rae speeches or tries to be more than what she was: a modest midwestern woman who just wanted herself and her co-workers to be safe. The final shot is as haunting as ever.
4. Defending Your Life (1992)
This hilarious, classic Albert Brooks comedy — about an eternal wait station where, after death, you are judged on the life you lived — proved that in an alternate universe, Streep could have been Julia Roberts if she had wanted to. She's irresistibly delightful as Julia, a woman who was a saint on Earth, in contrast to Brooks’s coward Daniel Miller. Their love story is believable and refreshingly adult: These are two good-hearted people embracing each other like grown-ups, aware of the risks, cautious but still smitten. And Streep is just wonderful. She’s funny, she’s charming, and she’s real. (We love how much pleasure she takes from Judgment City’s restaurants.) This is Streep at her movie-star peak. We’re still in love with her.
3. The Deer Hunter (1978; nominated for Best Supporting Actress, lost to Maggie Smith in California Suite)
Landing the role of Linda in The Deer Hunter after co-star Robert De Niro saw her in a small part in The Cherry Orchard at Lincoln Center, Streep doesn’t have a lot of scenes in director Michael Cimino’s pulverizing Oscar-winner. But she makes them count, transforming what could have been a simple love-interest role into something more emotional and symbolically resonant. If The Deer Hunter is partly about masculinity, war, and rites of passage, Streep serves as a sort of countermeasure, Linda’s love for doomed fiancé Nick (Christopher Walken) and unspoken affection for his buddy Mike (De Niro) a reflection of the vulnerability and intimacy the men around her can’t express. Decades later, her singing of “God Bless America” at the end remains an all-time highlight in her career.
2. Adaptation (2002; nominated for Best Supporting Actress, lost to Catherine Zeta-Jones in Chicago)
If the knock on Streep is that her skill is nothing but shtick — a bundle of mannered accents and actorly tics — here’s where she proves her detractors forever wrong. Playing New Yorker writer Susan Orlean, she gives one of her loosest, funniest performances — and also one of her most natural. With nothing to hide behind, Streep is entirely open, portraying an acclaimed author who nonetheless feels a little adrift in the world, surprising herself as well as the audience by how charmed she is by Chris Cooper’s sweetly loony horticulturist John Laroche. Ironically, Adaptation may be the one Meryl Streep movie where she gives the least-showy performance of the ensemble — Cage’s doubles act and Cooper’s backwoods hick stand out in the memory more — but it’s her warmth that grounds the film’s panicky/comic musings on the value of art and the importance of finding your purpose.
1. Sophie’s Choice (1982; won Best Actress)
So this is the Streep performance that made everyone realize — at the age of 33 — that we were dealing with an all-timer. Streep does everything here. She’s mournful, she’s sexy, she’s defeated, she’s destroyed, she’s resilient. (She even does her best accent.) The story with Stingo (Peter MacNicol) writing his novel is less interesting than it is an effective narrative gimmick; the film is mostly a Streep delivery device. She actually transcends the plot she’s in: There is a raw power to her performance that is almost too much to take sometimes. And know this: You will cry. (The scene from the title should come with a Surgeon General’s warning.) Streep has shown throughout her career that she can do anything. In this movie, she does it all.
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