LOS ANGELES — How do you choose the best Meryl Streep performances? It's like trying to decide what kind of ice cream is best — it's pretty much always going to be great, and while there may be a couple flavors you don't like as much, you're never going to say no to ice cream. Usually, you'll actively seek it out, and you'll be glad you did.
That tortured metaphor helps set up an analysis of Streep's staggeringly esteemed career, with her latest transformative wonder — her portrayal of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in "The Iron Lady" — in theaters this weekend. Weirdly, Streep finds herself in the role of sentimental favorite as a potential Oscar nominee; while she has more nominations than any other actor or actress in Academy Awards history with 16, she hasn't won since "Sophie's Choice" nearly 30 years ago.
So instead of choosing her "best" performances, I'll go with my five favorites. Dig in:
— "Kramer vs. Kramer" (1979): It's a supporting role, one which earned her the first of her two Academy Awards — the film won five Oscars total, including best picture — but she is completely in control of every scene in which she appears. This and "The Deer Hunter" provided early glimpses of the greatness to come, but here she's in the tricky position of playing someone we should hate from the start: a housewife who walks out on her workaholic husband (Dustin Hoffman) and their young son (Justin Henry). As a wife and mother of a little boy myself now, it seems unfathomable. But Streep turns a character who could have been a monster into a fully realized woman with needs and complexities, and somehow makes her a sympathetic figure.
— "Sophie's Choice" (1982): The accent, the agony: This performance set the standard for Streep's wholly convincing immersive abilities, and it earned her the Academy Award for best actress. As a beautiful Polish refugee with a haunting secret, Streep is both beguiling and heartbreaking. This is a larger-than-life figure from William Styron's novel but Streep makes her tantalizingly real in delicate ways. And the moment when she has to make the choice of the film's title is just devastating. That's partly because of the matter-of-fact way it's shot and edited, but mainly it's because of her reaction — the vivid transformation she undergoes within just a few minutes.
— "Adaptation." (2002): What makes this performance so irresistible is that Streep isn't so obviously "acting." She lets loose, takes chances and genuinely seems to be enjoying herself. She's smack in the middle of writer Charlie Kaufman and director Spike Jonze's giddy, trippy funhouse, playing writer Susan Orlean, whose book "The Orchid Thief" stumped the real-life Kaufman (in real life and as played by Nicolas Cage) when it came time for him to turn it into a screenplay. Susan herself is fascinated with an orchid breeder played by an Oscar-winning Chris Cooper. While she's a serious author full of insecurities at the film's start — she doesn't know how to feel passionately about anything — the way she eventually chooses to seize upon pleasure and love is disarming.
— "The Devil Wears Prada" (2006): Streep is just withering here. That monologue about the significance of the color cerulean alone makes this movie worth watching. But the entire performance is a delightful reminder that, when given the chance, she can be a master of biting comedy. As Miranda Priestly, a towering, Anna Wintour-style fashion magazine editor, Streep could have been a cartoony caricature of high style and low manners. Instead, Streep finds the subtlety within her character's cruelty and brings her brilliantly brings her to life. She steals the entire thing away from young Anne Hathaway, who has the benefit of youth and Patricia Field as her costume designer and who is, theoretically, the star.
— "Mamma Mia!" (2008): This may seem like a weird choice. It did for Streep, as well. But while this ABBA-palooza can be cringe-inducing, Streep is just radiant. "Adaptation." suggested what it looks like when she gets a little goofy, but here we finally get a chance to see her let loose entirely, and she's clearly having a blast. Watching the woman who is considered the greatest actress of our time writhing around in overalls on top of a barn or belting out numbers in a sparkly, spandex jumpsuit and platform boots is a hoot. Streep was a fan of the Broadway show, which is obvious. And as she'd demonstrated in bits and pieces in previous films — including Robert Altman's "A Prairie Home Companion" — she really can sing. We're still searching for that elusive thing Streep doesn't do well.
Think of any other examples? Share them with AP Movie Critic Christy Lemire through Twitter: http://twitter.com/christylemire.