If you’re looking towards Hollywood for elegance, class, and acting with a capital A, you don’t have to look much further than Meryl Streep. Streep is arguably our greatest living actor — if not in the running as the best American actor in cinematic history. This claim is in large part to her record 21 Academy Award nominations. She is one of America’s most revered and most-loved actors working today. Regardless of the film, she always manages to deliver moving, breathtaking performances. Simply put, her work is nothing short of inspirational.
30. Into the Woods (2014)
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Despite the stellar cast of 2014’s Into the Woods, this fairy tale musical falls short of Streep’s other singing roles. Rob Marshall’s adaptation of the heralded musical is way too showy. The film however is technically accomplished and full of gusto. In particular, Streep’s rendition of “Last Midnight” — blue hair swirling amid a literal tornado of emotions — was as moving as it was visually striking. Amidst all of Streep’s accolades, her performance of Stephen Sondheim’s indelible songs isn’t particularly memorable.
29. Heartburn (1986)
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Few are better with Nora Ephron’s words than Streep. However, there’s an undeniably bitter sentiment coursing through the whole film that makes it very difficult to invest in any other of the characters (despite the fantastic performances by Jack Nicholson and Streep). Based on Ephron’s rocky marriage to Carl Bernstein, this dream team of actors sadly falls flat. She apparently had too much anger to transform the facts into entertaining fiction. This is a bitter, sour movie about two people who are only marginally interesting. It has little to say about infidelity, marriage, and career choices women must make. It’s a terrible use of Streep, who plays a sad woman put upon by her boorish husband.
28. The Manchurian Candidate (2004)
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On paper, this film looks like a can’t-miss. But the film itself is hardly monumental. Corporations, not commies, are the sinister force behind Oscar-winning director Jonathan Demme’s The Manchurian Candidate. Alongside Denzel Washington, Streep plays Sen. Eleanor Shaw — a stage mother from hell who pushes her son Raymond (Liev Schreiber) into the vice presidency. Eventually, a timely assassination will make him president. Raymond has a chip implanted in his skull which will allow Manchurian to control him. Though Streep is as evil as Angela Lansbury’s 1962 version, she’s just not as captivating here as she’s been in other villainous roles.
27. Falling in Love (1984)
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The 1984 romance is a case of deja vu for veteran actors Streep and Robert De Niro. The two also starred together in 1978’s The Deer Hunter, and reunited later in the 1996 film Marvin’s Room. Streep had just made Silkwood and Sophie’s Choice, and De Niro had just finished Raging Bull and Once Upon a Time in America. So, it’s little wonder that these two needed a break — teaming together for a charming but slight love story about two friendly married people who become best friends and then, well…read the title. Regardless of these two incredible actors, the film itself is instantly forgettable.
26. Music of the Heart (1999)
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Based on the 1995 Oscar-nominated documentary Small Wonders, Music of the Heart tells the story of real-life violinist Roberta Guaspari (played by Streep). Streep’s character co-founded Opus 118 — a strings program that provides musical instruction to young Harlem students. If you wanted to encapsulate what a typical Oscar-bait movie of the 90’s felt like, this film does a nifty job. Streep is incredibly likable, but horror auteur Wes Craven has no feel for the material, and the suffocating importance of the story and script never lets up. Streep would go on to be nominated for “Best Actress” (though eventually losing to Hilary Swank).
25. The River Wild (1994)
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Meryl Streep as an action hero? Yes, please. The River Wild put Meryl Streep in unfamiliar territory. Both a wife and mother in this film, she was tasked with protecting her family during a whitewater rafting trip after they are put in danger by two con men (played by Kevin Bacon and John C. Reilly). The movie remains a charming novelty because of Streep’s presence, and because — even 25 years later — there still aren’t a ton of suspense/action movies starring women without the presence of a crazy-ass stalker/ex-lover.
24. Postcards From the Edge (1990)
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Can you think of a better on-screen mother-daughter duo than Streep and the legendary Shirley MacLaine? Probably not. The 1990 film, adapted by Carrie Fisher from her own novel, is hilarious and absurd. It wrestles with something I’ve spent my whole life feeling uncomfortable about: The phenomenon of totally adoring your mother, but occasionally feeling sucked into her massive orbit. Streep is alternately not quite passive and volcanic enough to play Carrie Fisher, but she still earned her ninth Oscar nomination with this adaptation of Fisher’s life in Hollywood (with her mother Debbie Reynolds). Streep, in her most full-blown comic performance up to that point, plays Suzanne Vale — a popular movie actress well on her way to a Hollywood crack-up.
23. Ironweed (1987)
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In my opinion, this is more Jack Nicholson’s movie than Streep’s. However, it includes one of her strongest performances to date. Both characters are alcoholic homeless drifters in Depression-era Albany. Nicholson drives the character with Streep there to support him. Streep is a wonder as the only light in a relentlessly dreary film. Their chemistry is on point as ever in this 1987 Halloween-centered period drama based on William J Kennedy’s eponymous novel. It will probably take you a few watches before you can truly appreciate this underrated gem.
22. One True Thing (1998)
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In this adaptation of Anna Quindlen’s novel, Streep plays a mother dying of cancer. Ultimately, she calls her estranged journalist daughter (up and comer Renee Zellweger) to help her in her last days. Streep’s character (Kate) is uncompromising in how suffocating she is as unappreciated matriarch of the Gulden family. In one of Streep’s most underrated and interesting performances, she helps us understand that love and familial devotion — even at their most total and tender — never come without daily sacrifices. By illuminating this, Streep carries us to a realm of everyday experience. This performance would mark Streep’s 11th Oscar nomination.
21. Mamma Mia! (2008)
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Yes, that really is Streep belting ABBA in this gorgeous Greece set musical. You might hate ABBA, and the chances are you might hate all the adult male leads in the film. With that said, it’s near impossible not to delight in just how much fun Streep has throughout this film. Her character Donna is a modern feminist hero. I mean, being a single mom and owning her own inn is no easy feat. We also can’t stop ourselves from singing along to this uproarious 2008 movie starring Amanda Seyfried, Colin Firth, and Pierce Brosnan. Streep is always thought of as such a “serious actress,” but this is just a big movie star goofing around and having a ball. Absolutely no complaints here.
20. A Cry in the Dark (1988)
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In 1988, Meryl Streep collaborated with filmmaker Fred Schepisi to adapt John Bryson’s book “Evil Angels” (1985). A Cry in the Dark takes place in Australia and is based on the famous case of Lindy Chamberlain, the mother who said her baby daughter had been dragged away and killed by one a wild Australian dingo. That this is still known as the “Dingo’s Got My Baby” movie nearly 31 years later is an insult to Meryl’s performance but also a testament to its power. She plays a closed-off, unsympathetic mother whom we believe is capable of murder. The film was hardly a crowd-pleaser. However, Streep’s performance garnered abundant critical acclaim.
19. The Iron Lady (2011)
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In a part that earned her a Best Actress Oscar, Streep disappears in the role of UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The Iron Lady is a highlight reel of awards season clichés. Meticulous attention was paid to costume and overall detail. The melodramatic recapping of historical events was buoyed by lots of grade A acting. You must be very talented to work with Streep. It also helps to know how to use her. The Iron Lady fails in both categories. It’s not that Streep isn’t convincing as the iron-willed former British prime minister (of course she’s impeccable). However, she attached her titanic dedication to a deeply dopey and simplistic treatment of a compelling political figure. But from the moment Streep steps on screen as the articulate British stateswoman, its hard to separate the two.
18. It’s Complicated (2009)
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Due to the acclaim for her dramatic acting, Streep doesn’t get enough attention for her comedy. It’s Complicated is a predictable Nancy Meyers fare, but it did allow Streep to demonstrate her grown-up sex appeal. She played a divorced bakery owner torn between a nice guy (Steve Martin) and her remarried ex-husband (Alec Baldwin). For all the deserved complaints about Hollywood not creating roles for “older women” or “women of a certain age,” this film is a welcome exception. Streep steers around Meyer’s script with enough grace and warmth to make this fantastic rom-com a true delight. Both adults, and young women alike will find Streep’s struggles relatable.
17. Out of Africa (1985)
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In 1985, the icon traded in her native New Jersey accent for a Danish one in the role of a colonial British coffee farmer running her own operation. Her character must run — over two decades — from young and inexperienced, destitute and broken, to wizened and wistful. In the process, she does it effortlessly. It’s tough to imagine how difficult the 161-minute movie would be without Streep. Out of Africa is a great movie to look at. It’s a movie with the courage to be about complex, sweeping emotions. Director Sydney Pollack is able to use the star power of its actors without apology. The only thing better than Streep and Robert Redford’s performances is the sweeping African landscape framing this historical love story.
16. Julie and Julia (2009)
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It’s quite easy to dismiss Julie and Julia as just another Streep stunt,. The revered chameleon takes on the demeanor and accent of beloved celebrity chef Julia Child. Nora Ephron’s Julie & Julia intertwines the lives of two women who are both at loose ends until they discover that with the right combination of passion, fearlessness and butter, anything is possible. Although Streep nails Child’s adorable essence, she goes far deeper than that. Streep finds the pathos in a quiet revolutionary who faced sexism both in her professional and personal life by daring to be a working woman in the 1950’s. Streep has undeniable chemistry with Stanley Tucci, who plays Child’s husband in the film. Her moving performance was a reminder of how easy it is to take what she does for granted.
15. The Hours (2002)
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Featuring Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore, and Streep, The Hours is worth your time. The film can be smothering in its studied sadness, but Streep lends some much-needed heart to this glassy adaptation. Streep’s character Larissa is living as a lesbian. She and her partner (Allison Janney) are raising a daughter (Claire Danes), and also caring for their friend Richard (Ed Harris) now dying of AIDS. Streep is quiet, subtle, and reserved. This is a performance in which the somber, thoughtful reactions are more important and moving than the flowery speeches.
14. Marvin’s Room (1996)
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This tragicomedy focuses on the sibling relationship between Streep’s Lee and Diane Keaton’s Bessie as they deal with their dying father (and Lee’s rebellious son played by the young Leo DiCaprio). Streep and Keaton, in their different styles, find ways to make Lee and Bessie into much more than the expression of their problems. Streep once again must play the Serious Sister — a role that we’re tired of watching her play. It’s a classic film about mending broken relationships before it’s too late. And it goes without saying, it’s a tearjerker.
13. Florence Foster Jenkins (2016)
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Streep plays a 1940s Manhattan socialite who became a sensation because of her terrible singing voice. She 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, Streep portrays her with utter confidence and lack of judgment. The actress does her the courtesy of taking Jenkins seriously, belting out every mangled song with true artistic faith. Honestly, I didn’t have high hopes for this one when the trailers were released. However, Streep and Hugh Grant are delightful to watch together in this charming picture. Directed by Stephen Frears, Florence Foster Jenkins clearly admires this adorably deluded woman. Streep makes her misplaced ambition lovable — and even heroic.
12. The Post (2017)
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In this timely biographical drama, Streep perfectly captures the gender bias Katharine Graham endured as the publisher of the Washington Post in the 1970s. A socialite still grieving the suicide of her husband, she becomes the editor of the newspaper just as the board is about to face a crisis. Graham didn’t consider herself cut out to be a hard-charging journalist, but she found the courage to stand up to the many men around her who doubted her ability as a leader. With Tom Hanks by her side as the Post’s confident former editor Ben Bradlee, it’s no wonder the film received an Oscar nomination for best picture.
11. August: Osage County (2013)
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Surrounded by strong co-stars such as Julia Roberts, Juliette Lewis, Abigail Breslin, and Ewan McGregor, Streep has the potential to be upstaged in this dark comedy based on the Tracy Letts’ play. However, as the dysfunctional pill-popping mother Violet Weston, it’s hard to focus on anyone else but Streep. Violet is a volcano of pent-up resentment just waiting to erupt. The occasion of her adult children’s return to the family home after her husband’s death gives her the perfect opportunity to blow. August: Osage County spotlights how generous Streep is as an ensemble player. She meshes well with the rest of this impressive cast (especially Roberts).
10. Manhattan (1979)
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Meryl Streep has maybe three scenes for about four total minutes of screen time. Still, I felt I had to include Streep’s one Woody Allen movie, especially considering that many people believe it to be his best film. Streep has a memorable role however, as the lesbian ex-wife of a neurotic television writer (Woody Allen) in Allen’s black-and-white love letter to the Big Apple. She is writing a book about their marriage. (He apparently tried to run her over with a car). It’s a nearly perfect movie: It’s quite possibly the best movie Streep was ever in.
9. The Bridges of Madison County (1995)
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Clint Eastwood’s The Bridges of Madison County is not about love and not about sex, but rather about an idea. The film opens with the information that two people once met and fell in love, but decided not to spend the rest of their lives together. 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. All the scenes involving Eastwood and Streep find the right notes and shadings. This film is light-years better than it has any reason to be, and Streep’s the reason.
8. Death Becomes Her (1992)
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Starring alongside the incredible Goldie Hawn and Bruce Willis, Streep effortlessly blurs the line between self-parody and camp in this 1992 fantasy film. A ballsy, outrageous black comedy, Death Becomes Her is a biting satire about cosmetic surgery, aging, and the fruitless desire to be forever young. Streep is mercilessly funny as Madeline Ashton, a vain washed-up Broadway star locked in a lifelong battle with her ‘frenemy’ Helen Sharp (Goldie Hawn). Hapless surgeon Ernest (Bruce Willis) is caught in the middle. Streep makes Madeline hideously shallow and vindictive, but the actress also pulls off the neat trick of making us feel sorry for her. We’ll forever be traumatized and entertained by the ageless beauty’s ability to stretch her neck and twist her head.
7. Doubt (2008)
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Set in 1964 at a Bronx Catholic school, the rigid principal Sister Aloysius is one of Streep’s most revered roles…and for good reason. Streep erases her regal warmth to adequately play such a bone-dry, strict presence. She’s 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. Even though it’s a heavy film to watch, Streep, Viola Davis, Amy Adams, and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman make it worthwhile.
6. The Devil Wears Prada (2006)
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For the legions who have suffered the caprice and cruelty of a tyrannical boss, The Devil Wears Prada — Lauren Weisberger’s best-selling novel about a bright young woman’s brief period of servitude at a fashion magazine — provides the satisfaction of vicarious payback. Even those who don’t love fashion or workplace drama will get a kick out of this comedy. Streep has an absolute blast portraying Miranda Priestly. She fiendishly savors 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. Miranda’s coldly haughty tone and frightening smarts made her the chick-flick equivalent of a comic-book supervillain.
5. Silkwood (1983)
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Mike Nichols’ Silkwood is not predictable. That’s because he’s not telling the story of a conspiracy, he’s telling the story of a human life. Streep is one of the most recognizable humans on the planet. With that said, she disappears completely into Karen Silkwood — an Oklahoma woman who believes she and her co-workers are being exposed to unsafe levels of radiation at their processing plant. As the movie opens, Silkwood fits naturally into this world. The film is the story of how she begins to stand out, how she becomes an individual, thinks for herself, and is punished for her freedom. She becomes — almost accidentally — a union activist.
4. Adaptation (2002)
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Charlie Kaufman’s screenplay for Adaptation is told in three ways. It is wickedly playful in its construction, it gets the story told, and it doubles back and kids itself. Playing “New Yorker” writer Susan Orlean, Meryl gives one of her loosest and funniest performances. With nothing to hide behind, Streep is entirely open — portraying an acclaimed author who nonetheless feels a little adrift in the world. Ironically, Adaptation may be the one Streep movie where she gives the least-showy performance of the ensemble. It’s her warmth that grounds the film’s comic musings on the value of art, as well as the importance of finding your purpose.
3. The Deer Hunter (1978)
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Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter is a three-hour movie in three major movements. It is a progression from a wedding to a funeral. It is the story of a group of friends. It is the record of how the war in Vietnam entered several lives and altered them terribly forever. It’s hard to explain the incredible impact The Deer Hunter had upon its release in 1978. For a country still reeling from the Vietnam War, this elegiac epic about a group of returning veterans (Robert De Niro, John Savage, Christopher Walken) was like a three-hour therapy session. Streep received her first Oscar nomination for playing Linda, the girlfriend of one of the men (Walken) who is psychologically damaged by his experiences in the war. If The Deer Hunter is partly about masculinity, war, and rites of passage, Streep serves as a sort of countermeasure.
2. Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
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In 1979, Streep had only starred in four feature films and a few TV movies. Here, she delivers a touching performance as Joanna Kramer — a woman who tries to find herself after walking out on her husband (Dustin Hoffman) and young son. 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. In achingly-real fashion, you always understand where she’s coming from (even if you agree or disagree). Streep’s star-turning role in the fiercely raw drama earned her an Oscar for best supporting actress.
1. Sophie’s Choice
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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 defeated, she’s sexy, she’s destroyed, and she’s resilient. The movie stars Streep as Sophie — a Polish-Catholic woman who was caught by the Nazis. She was sentenced to a concentration camp, lost her two children there, and then was somehow spared to immigrate to Brooklyn. However, Streep somehow 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. Streep has shown throughout her career that she can do anything. In this movie, she does it all. Sophie’s Choice is a wonderfully acted yet heartbreaking movie. It’s easy to see why this 1982 performance earned Streep an Oscar. She plays the titular role with so much compassion that this film will stick with you for years.