Jennifer Merin(WOMENSENEWS)–If one movie tackles the big drama of gender identity this month it’s Julie Taymor’s "The Tempest," which brings us Prospero, Shakespeare’s cast-off sorcerer and committed father figure, in the female guise of one Prospera, played by the always-commanding Dame Helen Mirren.

Taymor wields her own magic here. She waves her cinematic wand, bringing to life a dark spectacle of dangerous wizardry with deep psychological resonance that rivals that of the blockbuster "Harry Potter" films. See it soon; it’s opening today.

A fortnight from now, look for Sofia Coppola’s moving "Somewhere," which opens Dec. 22. It stars Stephen Dorff as Johnny Marko, a movie star isolated by his empty celebrity who tries to reconnect with real life through his daughter (Elle Fanning), who suffers seriously from abandonment issues.

In "Somewhere," Coppola eschews the special effects gala she created in "Marie Antoinette" (2006) and returns to the quieter, more contemplative tone of "Lost In Translation" (2003), for which she became one of just four female directors to be Oscar-nominated for "best director," before Kathryn Bigelow’s breakthrough triumph last year.

Year-end movie releases, meanwhile, are of course all about holiday box office and Oscars buzz. This December is true to form.

Holiday Fare

Femme-centric seasonal big-budget fare includes "The Tourist" (Dec. 10). In it, Angelina Jolie stars as a wily woman who leads a tourist (Johnny Depp) into intrigue on the road.

Female characters with derring-do are becoming more common, but Jolie’s take on strong female-action figures still reigns supreme.

The ever-captivating Reese Witherspoon stars in a romcom that probes the eternal question of those in search of true love: "How Do You Know?" (Dec. 17).

Oscar-nomination buzz isn’t going toward Taymor or Coppola–at least not yet–but several femme-centric December releases have "best actress" potential.

"Black Swan," which opened Dec. 3, stars Natalie Portman as Nina Sayers, a prima ballerina whose psychotic tendencies are exacerbated by a controlling mother, an abusive choreographer and a manipulative younger dancer waiting in the wings to take her role as Swan Queen in a new mounting of "Swan Lake."

While twisting around the well-known "Swan Lake" ballet scenario, by weaving scenes of delusion with dramatic ballet sequences, the tortured plot pirouettes on one cliche after another about dancers and their elite world.

Portman is a wonderful actress, but her ballet posture is not quite prima. That, however is not holding back expectations of an Oscar nomination for her as well as for Mila Kunis, who plays her cut-throat competitor.

More Oscar Buzz

Nicole Kidman’s performance in "Rabbit Hole"–which opens in select theaters on Dec 17 to grab the last window of qualifying time for the 2011 Oscars before a wider release in January–is also fueling Oscar talk.

Adapted from David Lindsay-Abaire’s play of the same name, "Rabbit Hole" focuses on Becca Corbett, whose idyllic family life crashes when her son dies in a car accident.

She and her husband–played by Aaron Eckhart, who is also considered Oscar-worthy respond in opposite ways that leave them struggling to stay together. Kidman’s performance is nuanced and magnificent.

Also opening on Dec. 17 is "Frankie and Alice," which stars Hallie Berry who plays the alternative personalities of a woman struggling to discover her real self and keep her life together. Berry is spellbinding.

"True Grit," the Coen Bros’ remake-update of the 1969 Western classic about a U.S marshal called upon to help a young woman track down her father’s killer, opens Dec. 22. In this version, the young woman is a teenager played by newcomer Hailee Steinfield.

Her remarkable performance matches those of her accomplished co-stars–Jeff Bridges Matt Damon and Josh Brolin. The film is also being hailed as Oscar material for "best picture" and the Coens are attracting their share of "best director" talk.

Chomet Is Back, Big Time

Helen Mirren as Prospera in "The Tempest."Illuminating screens on Dec. 25, "The Illusionist" is likely to get an Oscar nod for "best animated feature." This extraordinary film is the latest work of Sylvain Chomet, who last gifted us with "The Triplets of Belleville" (2003), a profound expression of love, loyalty, sisterhood, creativity, persistence and the ability to make things work.

Here again the director explores the theme of life transformed by relationships. Chomet adapts a never-produced screenplay, which was written between 1956 and 1959 by the brilliant French filmmaker Jacques Tati ("Mr. Hulot’s Holiday," 1953, and "Mon Oncle, 1958). In the film, a rather hapless, young and out-of-work illusionist travels to Scotland, where he encounters an unusual young woman who believes he’s truly making magic.

Together they restore each other’s dreams and elevate each other’s lives. "The Illusionist is marvelously affecting, filled with warm humor and exquisite animation.

By the way, if you’ve never seen "The Triplets of Belleville," don’t delay further. It’s on DVD. You will laugh, cry, be inspired and thank me for my insistence.

Speaking of wonderful directors, England’s Mike Leigh–famous for creating fabulous female characters such as "Vera Drake" (2004) and the joyful Poppy in "Happy-Go-Lucky" (2008)–does it again in "Another Year," which opens on Dec. 29. Ruth Sheen and Lesley Manville play two aging friends, one happily married (to Jim Broadbent) and the other still seeking companionship, and rather desperately so.

The gentle treatment of aging and sexuality is bittersweet and refreshing, and all of the performances are brilliant.

On the last day of the year, "Blue Valentine" opens. In it, Michelle Williams contends for a "best actress" nomination for her performance as Cindy, a young woman who experiences the extreme fluctuations of love from her first meeting with Dean (Ryan Gosling), their courtship and marriage. Revealed through flashbacks and fast forwards, the volatile evolution of the couple’s relationship is fraught with raw emotion that can be quite painful to watch. The extraordinary honesty of Williams’ and Gosling’s performances is garnering Oscar buzz for them both.

One warning: The film is depressing and might not be the best choice for New Year’s Eve.

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In addition to covering film for Women’s eNews, Jennifer Merin writes about documentaries for ( and is president of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists (, a nonprofit organization of the leading women film journalists in the U.S. and Canada. She is also a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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