Calling Meryl Streep "the greatest actress of our generation" is really a bit of a cheat. It's a pithy way to crunch her entire, impressive and downright exhausting filmography into one single phrase because if you were to pick one (or two or five) roles that classify her as The Best, you would soon go out of your mind trying to decide. Streep defies the very notion of list-making, unless you just want to watch, read and write forever.
Nevertheless, we're going to try. Let's just say we've been infected by the spirit of Streep and want to try a Herculean task like bottling her down into just ten – five of the best, and five of the worst – films, because that's what she would do. She would probably be nominated for it – "Streep wins Best Actress for her portrayal of anguished film journalist" – and we're just going to stir up Internet debate, but that is the delightful thing about Streep and her filmography. Swap one astonishing film for another, and you would still be right.
We've delayed and explained long enough. In honor of yet another charming and effortless performance from Streep in "Hope Springs," here are our Top Five/Bottom Five for her entire career. Next year, we'll rewrite it to include whatever Oscar nominations she might have earned along the way.
The Top Five:
5. "The Bridges of Madison County" (1995)
"Bridges" was the "Twilight" or "50 Shades of Gray" of the '90s, and no fan expected the Hollywood adaptation to match their fevered imaginations. Imagine their surprise when Clint Eastwood and Streep took on the task and delivered a restrained (but oh-so-sexy) adult romance. Sure, Streep pulled out another accent and dramatic speeches, but it's the small touches that made Francesca into a real woman and not an idealized romantic heroine. It's the delighted sigh she gives when Robert Kincaid doesn't slam the screen door, the way she self-consciously hides her backside from his gaze because she thinks it's too big and her genuine delight in his clumsy flower bouquet. And the way she grips that car door handle, one breath away from jumping out of her truck and joining him? Pass the Kleenex.
4. "Silkwood" (1983)
Streep often gets showered in praise for playing "ordinary," but "Silkwood" is the sort of performance that deserves the accolades. As Karen Silkwood, she sports a mullet, speaks in the right regional drawl and is downright comfortable shacking up with Kurt Russell (who plays her boyfriend) and Cher (who plays her gay best friend) in a rundown house. She isn't an ordinary woman, though. She's a labor activist at the plutonium plant she works at, and after she and her coworkers get radiation poisoning, she begins to unravel a major corporate cover-up that lands her in life-threatening hot water. (The movie is based on a chilling true story.) Streep deftly finds the balance of an average American caught up in something big and ugly who is struggling to stay sane, fight the good fight and make sense of it all.
3. "Doubt" (2008)
As Sister Aloysius, Streep cuts a terrifying figure that seems to owe more to Salem in 1664 than Boston in 1964. Her persecution of Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) begins purely because of a sermon she finds suspicious. When the naive Sister James (Amy Adams) comes to her with an odd observance, Aloysius neatly assembles the scene of a crime. She has absolutely no proof beyond her conviction, and her ruthless persistence is the stuff of Salem. However, hating her is too easy, and Streep shows us the cracks in the moments you want to throttle her, gently reminding us that if Aloysius is right, we'd be praising her as a steely-eyed heroine. Oh, and she tops it off with another one of her patented accents, drawling her lines in a perfect Baah-ston voice like it's no big deal.
2. "Kramer vs. Kramer" (1979)
This isn't a film anyone flocks to for repeat viewing or writes glowing essays on, but "Kramer vs. Kramer" is one heck of a showcase for Streep and Dustin Hoffman. Streep's fluttering hands, wavering voice and thin pronouncements on self-esteem and motherhood are at once sympathetic and rage-inducing. We know she was probably a Betty Draper – a woman who saw no choice but marriage and children but who became self-aware enough to realize her unhappiness – and it's to Streep's credit we can pick out the pain behind a woman whose selfish whims threaten to destroy her son.
1. "Sophie's Choice" (1982)
Streep already had two Oscar nominations and one win under her belt, but her role in "Sophie's Choice" was her breakthrough performance. Streep's Sophie Zawistowski isn't simply conjured up with a Polish accent (a device that many actresses would rely on or simply be stifled by), some tragic affectation and one scene of screaming. She's a damaged, haunted and broken woman who doesn't seem destined for anything but sorrow. The hideous choice at the center of the film has become a bit of a pop culture joke, but it remains one of the most searing, painful scenes in cinema. It's no wonder Streep could only perform it once.
The Bottom Five:
5. "It's Complicated" (2009)
"It's Complicated" has its fans, and it's a harmless little romp, sold to and thoroughly enjoyed by a certain segment of moviegoers. While one can't begrudge Streep a movie or two to "relax" in, it really is the sort of role any actress could have played. She certainly imbues Jane Adler with a lot of warmth and humor, but the praise heaped on her performance is sort of baffling and seems to arise from critics tee-heeing over Jane's description of herself as "a bit of a slut." Streep has never avoided played funny and sexy or shied away from sex and nudity, so why did everyone's monocle drop when she did it here?
4. "Before and After" (1996)
It's hard to argue Streep has ever had an ebb in her career, but there was a period of the 1990s where Streep seemed to vanish under dull thrillers, stodgy dramas and paint-by-number inspirational flicks. This is one of them. On paper, it reads like the sort of film that would be a home run. Starring Streep, Liam Neeson and '90s wunderkind Edward Furlong, it's about one of the worst nightmares a family can face – a son accused of murdering his girlfriend. That's the sort of suspicion, anguish and turmoil that Oscar-winning drama is made of. Instead, we have this rather dull and forgettable whodunit that no one, least of all Streep, really gets to sink their teeth into.
3. "Prime" (2005)
This wasn't the first loose, comedic performance from Streep, but it hangs there in the mid-2000s like a sign she was happily digging through the rom-com script pile looking to indulge in sappier movies. "Prime" isn't a bad movie, but it's the sort of story Woody Allen did first and better, and while the contrast between Streep's cool therapist and neurotic mom is amusing, it's not particularly revelatory or memorable. She's done humor far better than this, and in more enjoyable movies to boot.
2. "The Iron Lady" (2011)
Streep may have won Best Actress for her plummy portrayal of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, but underneath the accent, vacant eyes and freeze-dried hair is... what? It feels more like a "Saturday Night Love" impersonation than a fully-rounded human being. That's almost unthinkable for Streep, who has managed to give every one of her roles -- whether great, small or cameo -- depth and nuance. She seems to be holding back, unwilling to dig deeper into what made Thatcher tick, perhaps for fear of seeming too critical of the former PM.
1. "She-Devil" (1989)
After proving she was a visceral actress, capable of anything, fearless in the face of lions, Polish accents, nudity, Jack Nicholson and improv, it's no wonder Streep decided to try out comedy. Unfortunately, her first shot at making us laugh was in "She-Devil" with Roseanne Barr and Ed Begley Jr. Streep's breathy Barbie doll is faintly amusing and doesn't wear out its welcome as fast as the plot does, but it was definitely slumming. Apparently Streep agreed, and gave us a more delightful do-over a few years later in "Death Becomes Her."