By Esther Knicely, Brittany Smith, and Sara Kay Mooney

If you’re like us, you just dropped a bunch of money on holiday gifts for family members and friends…

…which is a awesome (three cheers for generosity!), but now your wallet is thinner than a supermodel’s airbrushed legs in a Cosmo photospread.

As a result, going to the movies has been difficult to justify financially — what is it now, $18 a person? — and even Redbox has been quietly jacking up their prices…not to mention it feels like you only just finished paying off that missing copy of The Silver Linings Playbook from last year (No, really, WHERE DID IT GO?! And do DVDs really cost $27?). Anyway, lost DVDs aside, we curated a list of quality (cost-effective) films currently streaming on Netflix that deserve a spot in your queue.

And to note, quickly, it’s no secret that the majority Hollywood films feature male protagonists; in an effort to eschew that shameful imbalance, we have selected titles starring strong, funny, intelligent, brave, and admirable women. Happy viewing!

 [divider] Movie Reviews[/divider]

304936-in-a-world-in-a-world-poster-artIn A World

(By Esther)

When I first read the film description of this movie I actually remember thinking it was a documentary that looked interesting, but perhaps a little on the boring side. In the down time of the holiday months Netflix repeatedly recommended that I watch it. We all know Netflix is omniscient, so I eventually relented and was pleased I did.

In A World, like a lot of films out today, speaks to the coming of age that happens for those late twenties post-adolescent-technically-adult-but-not-quite-adult-like people — “the Peter Pan syndrome,” as cynics call it, or perhaps for the more stable post-adolescents, “finding oneself.” The main character Carol (played by Lake Bell) is struggling to establish a career in the male-dominated voice-over world. The industry is sexist, job openings are scarce, and she lacks direction and motivation. As the movie progresses, though, Carol begins to find her niche through a series of opportunities that haphazardly present themselves.  And these circumstances are created ironically through her very own father (a successful voice-over artist) and the other old guard of the voice-over community as they become caught up in their own self-absorbed arrogance. Through the ups and downs of the misogyny that Carol battles, it is her sister who helps her to overcome the sexism she faces even within their own family.

With its  distinct Los Angeles flavor that often accompanies films about the SoCal industry (think relaxed work vibe, steam baths, industry parties etc), In a World provides a portrait of the struggles many young women face today. And the beautiful thing about it is that Bell’s character captures the more serious elements of those struggles in a comedic and lighthearted manner that explores the awkwardness of love, the pain and pride of family issues, and the triumph of finding one’s place in the professional world. I highly recommend In A World — it is a hilarious, yet relatable, look at what it means to grow up as a young woman today, battling through the turmoil of juggling a career, love and family-life.

20ft20 Feet From Stardom

(By Brittany)

In the 1960s and 70s some of the most iconic bands and musicians of the last century were taking on the world, and the men who led these bands have  become legends in their own right in the annals of rock and roll history. While I used to think the world definitely didn’t need another music documentary, this year director Morgan Neville decided to prove me wrong with “20 Feet from Stardom,” a masterful Oscar-winning documentary told through the eyes of the women who helped make many leading men famous.

The film focuses on six African-American women, all preachers’ daughters, who cut their musical teeth in the church choir and went on to sing for bands such as The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, and Ray Charles. While Neville focuses extensively on these women and their stories, he also takes time to sit down with the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Sting, and Stevie Wonder to ponder why, as talented as these back-up singers were, many of them never quite make the leap to the spotlight. And, as you watch each of these women perform, you begin to wonder yourself.

On the stage they are magical — singing the gospel truth with such confidence, depth and clarity untouched by auto-tune or any modern day soul-sucking voice corrector. Each woman featured in the documentary is a diva in her own right, but the story of Merry Clayton was what sealed it for me. As a longtime fan of the Rolling Stones song “Gimme Shelter,” the chilling chorus has always been one of the most prominent features of the song. Ironically enough, it was sung by little-known then-pregnant back-up singer, Clayton, who was summoned in the middle of the night by Mick Jagger to help cut the track. She went down to the studio in her pajamas, hair curlers and head scarf and was promptly asked to belt out the line: “Rape, murder, it’s just a shot away.” She nodded, a bit confused, and belted out the iconic line for the Rolling Stones. When they asked her to do a second take, Clayton said she remembered thinking, “I’m gonna blow them out of this room.” And the rest, as they say, is history.

idaIda

(By Brittany)

Of all the movies Netflix boasts, watching a black and white movie by director Pawel Pawlikowski about a Polish nun was not high up on my queue, but at the behest of my brother I decided to give it a chance. The moment the first scene opened on a group of nuns cleaning and re-affixing a statue of Jesus in a bleak snow covered landscape, I couldn’t look away. Set in 1961 during Stalinist rule, this film features an 18-year-old orphan named Anna (Agata Trzebokowska) who is preparing to take orders in the convent she lives in. But before doing so, she is asked by Mother Superior to visit her only surviving relative. Anna dutifully travels to the town of Lodz to meet with her aunt, Wanda Gruz (Agata Kulesza), who informs Anna that she is actually Jewish, and named Ida Lebenstein (pronounced Eeda).Together, Ida in her habit and Wanda chain-smoking cigarettes, the two embark on a journey to the village where her parents were killed during the war and where Wanda grew up. Tensions between the women surface during the long journey as Wanda constantly attacks Ida’s beliefs and Ida quickly learns the ways in which her faith runs counterintuitive to the pressures of the outside world: a world that is struggling to forget the atrocities of its more recent Nazi occupation and what it looks like to rebuild under the reality of Communist rule.

This is not a movie to be watched lightly or with a smart phone in your hand. Its stark black and white shots and quiet impressionist moments beg you to sit up and take notice, to feel the tension between faith and unbelief, and our humanity in the face of war and acts of betrayal. It begs the same question Wanda asks Ida early on in the film: “What if you go there and discover there is no God?” But the movie steers clear of clichés or easy answers, and shows aspects of faith that are hard, messy and realistic — but ultimately beautiful.

frances haFrances Ha

(By Sara Kay)

The word “quirky” is often overused in reviews so I try to avoid it, but it’s just so fitting for this endearing mumblecore film that I can’t help myself. Frances Ha in four words: quirky, earnest, thoughtful, fun.

Directed by Noah Baumbach, this indie movie offers an honest — and at times, amusing — depiction of a millennial trying to figure out her life. Greta Gerwig shines as Frances, a twenty-something living in Brooklyn who aspires, yet struggles, to make it as a professional dancer. Shot in black and white, the film is, at its core, a meditation on learning what it means to become an adult. The more significant plot points will likely ring familiar to upper-middle class twentysomething viewers: what happens when you feel replaced by your best friend’s dull boyfriend, when you realize that your dream job won’t pay your rent, when a close friend deems you “undateable,” when you blow your savings on what turns out to be a crappy trip, and when you grow heartachingly lonely.

Those experiences might sound a tad grim, but Frances Ha is actually quite humorous. The dialogue is light and realistic, brimming with clever jokes. You will simultaneously wince and chuckle at Frances’ bumbling awkwardness. She is a loveable character and Gerwig’s performance is on-point. As A.O. Scott puts it in his review for The New York Times, “Ms. Gerwig, who has effortless, behind-the-beat verbal timing, also possesses a knack for physical comedy, an enviable ability to obliterate the difference between clumsiness and grace.” I cannot think of another movie that addresses that oftentimes difficult transition into adulthood in such a poignant — albeit entertaining — and true-to-life manner.

if-i-were-you-(2012)-large-pictureIf I Were You

(By Esther)

If I Were You is a hilarious comedy about the woes of finding your man with another woman and the lengths you go to discover what you truly want from relationships and from life.  Scripted almost like a play, the movie begins as a series of happenstance events that lead the main character Madeline, played by the brilliant Marica Gay Hayden, to discover her husband is cheating on her.  As the first half hour unfolds, Madeline ends up saving her husband’s lover, Lucy, from suicide. The two women become friends and make a pact to give each other love advice; Lucy, however, has no idea who Madeline is in relation to her love life and a comedy of errors ensues.

The plot progresses quickly: Madeline encounters two new love interests and, despite her best intentions, develops a blossoming friendship with Lucy. As Madeline works to distract Lucy from her husband, both women join a local theater production of King Lear and the stage provides the two heroines with a timely outlet for cathartic release. Of course, the farce cannot go on forever and in the end, both Madeline and Lucy are forced to confront both each other and their shared lover.

Although the the story includes grave matters such as adultery and death, the movie handles each explosion with delicious comedic irony. At first glance, the premise seems borderline  implausible, but the intricate dialogue that actualizes the story’s sequence of bizarre circumstances gives this incredibly entertaining film its needed believability, reinforced by Hayden’s incredible performance. With its theatrical subtext, If I Were You is a solid film that speaks to the richness found in a well-written drama complemented by a witty dialogue.