Welcome back to our weekly Netflix guide. To celebrate the last week of Women’s History Month, we wanted to turn our attention to films about incredible women from around the world.
Though often underrepresented and marginalized in the film industry, women have always played a significant role in cinematic history, dating all the way back to the early 20th century. Mary Pickford, for example, went from a successful actress to writer, director, producer, and eventual co-founder of the studio United Artists.
And though Hollywood has eons to go in terms of giving women equal opportunities and respect, women have made great strides in getting their stories seen. Much of that can be attributed to the women’s lib movement that started in the mid 1960s. The documentary, She's Beautiful When She's Angry (2014), one of our weekend streaming picks, details the first five years in that particular struggle when female activists fought for equality in America.
As a sharp reminder of the lack of freedom women have across the world, Netflix currently features several well-made international films about arranged marriages, an ancient practice that still goes on today. Films like Ixcanul (2015), Sand Storm (2016), and Difret (2014), which are set in Guatemala, Israel, and Ethiopia, respectively, are all recommended, but our spotlight is on Mustang (2015), which tells the tale of sisters in Turkey trapped in a male-dominated culture.
Rounding out the rest of this week’s Netflix recommendations are stories about the sometimes-awkward phase of girls maturing into women (Slums of Beverly Hills, starring Natasha Lyonne); women aging gracefully on their own terms (Sonia Braga in Aquarius); and a film that challenges typical gender role constructs (Everly, starring Salma Hayek). All are worth watching, as they speak to the universal strength of women.
Warning: May Contain Spoilers
She's Beautiful When She's Angry (2014)
Starring: Muriel Fox, Jacqui Ceballos, Marilyn Webb, Fran Beal
Director: Mary Dore
Genre: Documentary, History
It’s clear from the very start of She's Beautiful When She's Angry, which highlights the women’s liberation movement from 1966 to 1971, that, in some cases, the only difference between then and now are the outdated hairstyles and clothes. Roughly 40 years later, hot button issues like equal pay, childcare for working mothers, and abortion rights are still on the forefront of women’s continuous fight for equality.
Perhaps surprisingly (or perhaps not), it was the sexist actions of left-leaning men that spurred women to become the leaders of their own organizations. In the documentary, we hear from a long list of activists who were on the front lines in the form of talking head interviews and a few passable reenactments.
To its credit, the film includes some discussion about how women of color and the LGBTQ community pushed for political change that represented their own prerogatives, and it also acknowledges some of the missteps of second wave feminism. The documentary is also a sober reminder of the risks women seeking abortions faced back when it was illegal and professional care was limited, an issue that’s still affecting people in our country today.
Starring: Günes Sensoy, Elit Iscan, Ilayda Akdogan, Nihal G. Koldas, Ayberk Pekcan
Director: Deniz Gamze Ergüven
Mustang begins with the most innocent of “crimes”: five Turkish sisters celebrate the last day of school playing with male classmates on the beach. Fully clothed, the girls jump in the water, riding around on the boys’ shoulders. But things quickly get complicated when a neighbor in the village condemns their behavior as “shameful” and the girls’ conservative family reacts by virtually keeping them prisoners at home before marrying each sister off, one by one.
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It’s almost impossible not to get wrapped up in the carefree energy of the sisters before their world comes crumbling down. And even when they face insurmountable odds, you can’t help but root for the youngest sibling (Günes Sensoy), a natural born rebel who springs into action, hellbent on escaping a cold, predetermined future.
Believe it or not, the story of arranged marriages and outmoded ideas of purity takes place in the present. Mustang is a devastating modern tale in which we witness happiness sacrificed for the sake of age-old customs that steal away freedom of choice and offer a life of servitude in return.
Starring: Sonia Braga, Maeve Jinkings, Irandhir Santos, Humberto Carrão
Director: Kleber Mendonça Filho
In Aquarius, Brazilian icon Sonia Braga plays Clara, a retired music critic who refuses a lucrative offer from a construction company to move out of her beachfront apartment. There are many reasons why she’s staying, but above all else, it’s probably because Clara is a cancer survivor. You can tell by the way that she bristles whenever anybody says to her that there’s nobody left in the building. Her response is always a defiant “I’m still here.” Rather than coming off as bitter and stuck in her ways, Clara is a refined woman who cherishes her memories but knows making new ones is even better.
Though Aquarius is long and moves like a daydream-y afternoon at the beach, the slowburner is peppered with commentary about race, class, and politics in Brazil. But it also champions the simple moments of life that give us meaning, like hearing a song you love or remembering a past sexual encounter. It’s a film not everybody will appreciate, but there’s no denying its powerful-yet-serene effect on the viewer. This movie portrays an authentic, modest lust for life, and it’s pretty infectious.
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Starring: Salma Hayek, Hiroyuki Watanabe, Laura Cepeda
Director: Joe Lynch
Genre: Action, Thriller, Comedy
OK, so Everly isn’t particularly innovative or polished, but Salma Hayek saves the day. The Mexican-born star (whose parents are Lebanese and Spanish) stars in this balls-to-the-wall shoot ‘em up, 20-plus years into her Hollywood career. She’s 50-years-old today (not that you could tell) and we have to give props to the icon for proving that middle-aged actresses can still kick ass. After all, Hayek is used to beating the odds.
In Everly, Hayek is a heroine forced into prostitution by a Yakuza type. Naturally, all hell breaks loose when she attempts to escape his brothel. While no masterpiece, the movie is much better than past reviews make it sound. There’s compassion you normally don’t see in movies like these. When she can, Everly tries to reason with people instead of kill them, a shred of humanity amongst the bloodshed. Plus, it’s not every day you come across an action flick that features a mother-daughter bonding scene in the middle of a massacre.
Slums of Beverly Hills (1998)
Starring: Natasha Lyonne, Alan Arkin, Marisa Tomei, Kevin Corrigan
Director: Tamara Jenkins
Set in the 1970s, Slums of Beverly Hills is a humorous, albeit frank, look at the life of an anxiety-ridden teenager named Vivian (Natasha Lyonne). She’s at that awkward adolescent phase where the character’s dealing with things like developing her breasts seemingly overnight. As part of a family of self-described nomads that includes her senior citizen father and two brothers, it’s not always easy being the only female, especially as she hits puberty like a brick wall. So when her crazy but cool cousin Rita (Marisa Tomei) comes to live with them, Viv finally has someone she can talk to. But Rita has problems of her own.
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Written and directed by Tamara Jenkins, this admired cult hit balances some rather serious and difficult subject matter with finesse. The jokes about periods and vibrators are not vulgar and masturbation is presented as the natural wonder and perfectly normal act that it is. The film does away with stereotypical romance and opts for a more realistic take on Vivian losing her virginity. In the end, insecure Vivian learns she’s not some kind of freak after all, she’s just growing up.