The numbers alone are insane: 19 Academy Award nominations (unsurpassed), three wins and one Presidential Medal of Freedom. But even more impressively, Meryl Streep continues to find strange and wonderful ways to push herself in comedies, romances and some of the best movies of all time. This week, Hollywood’s finest actor plays the opera world’s worst singer in Florence Foster Jenkins (and somehow manages to turn that thankless role into a feast of sympathy). Not bold only onscreen, Streep recently displayed her support of Hillary Clinton at the Democratic National Convention. But with so many great films to her name, we feel your eyes glazing over. Here’s where to begin.
Best Meryl Streep movies
Already a Broadway star in revered revivals of Anton Chekhov and Tennessee Williams (and an Emmy winner for the earnest 1978 miniseries Holocaust), Streep steps warily into movies but nonetheless finds immediate success. The Deer Hunter (1978), a small role, is her first Oscar nomination, but it is in Kramer vs. Kramer (1979), playing a complex Manhattanite who chooses independence over motherhood, that she shows her way with tricky material.
Entering the 1980s with big ambitions to push herself, Streep finds the road rising to meet her—no small bit of fortune in male-centric Hollywood. Sophie’s Choice (1982) is the part that places her in a league of one: a delicate dance on a high wire stretched between romance and survivor’s guilt. Streep’s Polish accent is impeccable, yet it doesn’t get in the way of a deeply felt characterization.
It’s easy to dig through Streep’s 1980s and be dulled by triumph after triumph: another exquisitely realized foreigner (1985’s Out of Africa), another expertly wrought emotional meltdown (1988’s dingo-ate-my-baby A Cry in the Dark). Some critics identify this moment as the beginning of a backlash. Instead, stick with Streep’s secret strength, her defiant realness and Silkwood (1983), which is so much more than just a high-pressure water shower. Her nuclear whistle-blower is tough and vulnerable in equal measure.
For the high-sheen adaptation of Carrie Fisher’s drug-laced memoir Postcards from the Edge (1990), Streep approached a kind of narcotized seen-it-all shrug. It’s a comic performance, yes, but also a modern and exposed one, allowing for dryness, wit, ache and a little showbizzy panache. This is the kind of role Lindsay Lohan desperately needs right now.
Sad as it is to rush through Streep’s interesting 1990s—during which she confronts middle age with grace and occasional awkwardness—it’s impossible not to admire her fluky, frisky journalist in Spike Jonze’s Adaptation (2002). A fictionalized yet flattering portrayal of Susan Orlean, it is a return to form: earthy, brainy, well cast alongside Chris Cooper.
Not only was HBO’s miniseries of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America (2003) a worthy adaptation of a landmark play, it gave two Hollywood icons their finest small-screen opportunities. Al Pacino’s self-lacerating Roy Cohn is arguably his most savage turn (and that includes Scarface); Streep, meanwhile, is the TV event’s big deal, playing multiple roles to perfection and floating high above the action.
There’s no shame in loving The Devil Wears Prada (2006), in which Streep finds a frosty way through the Anna Wintour–inspired Miranda Priestly: This is as iconic a performance as any in her filmography. A new generation was turned on by Streep’s cool exterior and glints of internal dissatisfaction. This would be the beginning of a golden decade.
Streep’s giddy Julia Child in Julie & Julia (2009) was even more dazzling than her Miranda Priestly, but her virtuosity was almost invisible for being so warm, effusive and deft—as much a creation from Child’s TV personality as it was from a dream or a real human being. At this point, Streep was finally having fun on the regular.
For the long-anticipated (if only half-realized) adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods (2014), Streep stole the movie with a combination of verbal dexterity—she was the only cast member who seemed fully comfortable with the intimidating word flow—and hunched-over chutzpah as the Witch. The film comes alive in her moments.
Finally, if you’re still not convinced that Streep can sing while acting (and Robert Altman’s A Prairie Home Companion is yet more evidence), Jonathan Demme gave the actor one of her greatest, underrated triumphs in Ricki and the Flash (2015). She plays a grizzled bar-band frontwoman looking for redemption. Streep’s onstage musical moments (all performed live) are as stirring as an entire Bruce Springsteen concert.