(WOMENSENEWS)–If you see just one film during July, make it "Life, Above All."

The film–the first feature to be shot entirely in the Sotho language–was a huge success in South Africa and its first official Oscars submission in 2010. It opens July 15 in the United States with English subtitles.

Set in rural South Africa, the consciousness-raising coming-of-age feature focuses on Chanda (Khomotso Manyaka), a teen who shows the how personal courage can overcome the superstition, shame and social stigma surrounding HIV.

Directed by Oliver Schmitz, with a script by Dennis Foon and based on Alan

Stratton’s novel, this beautiful film transports us into the daily lives of South African women.

There’s Chandra, her HIV-infected mother (Lerato Mvelase), an influential neighbor (Harriet Manamela) in denial that her beloved son died of AIDS and her abandoned and abused best friend, Esther (Keaobaka Makanyane), who has probably been exposed to the virus. The profoundly personal performances, supported by intimate cinematography, emerge like beams of light from dark places. Go see for yourself!

I also highly recommend "The Sleeping Beauty," directed by the always-provocative Catherine Breillat. The film bears no resemblance to the Disney animation and is tagged with a parents’ advisory for good reason. It’s a dark, brooding, mysterious, twisted and lavishly sensuous treatment of the classic tale, embellished by familiar motifs from other culturally embedded fables. Breillat uses indomitable female characters and creatures to fearlessly explore sexual instinct and behavior that has been beset by social taboo and guilt. "The Sleeping Beauty" opens July 8.

My final leading recommendation: "Third Star," former journalist Hattie Dalton’s impressive feature film debut, opens July 9. Set in scenic Wales, it’s about three fellows who are summoned by a friend, James (Benedict Cumberbatch), who has been diagnosed with cancer and wants to take a farewell road trip for the sake of fun, adventure and friendship. No spoilers here, but there’s a big emotional payoff in the end.

Backing up a bit, two great documentaries opened on July 1.

Presented by the Oprah Winfrey Network, (OWN), Yoav Potash’s "Crime After Crime" is about the case of Deborah Peagler, a woman tried and convicted for participating in the murder of her husband. Her past of being forced into prostitution and repeated beatings was never revealed during her trial. Peagler was jailed for 26 years before her case was reopened by volunteer lawyers. They managed to have her sentence reduced to six years, or about one-fifth of the time she’d already been incarcerated. It’s a harrowing story and Peagler is a strongly compelling lead character.

A very different film, "Love, Etc.," by Jill Andresevic, follows several New York love relationships in a lighthearted and entertaining way, from two aging love birds who’ve been living and writing songs together for decades, to a gay man who connects with a surrogate mom who bears twins for him.

Today, July 8, James Marsh debuts his latest documentary, "Project Nim," about the chimp who was removed from his birth mother and adopted by a group of women to test whether chimps can be educated to communicate with humans. The endearing baby Nim bonds with his "moms" and learns to use sign language, yet his species-specific behaviors render poor Nim an outcast among fellow chimps.

On July 15, take an obligatory dip into the mainstream to enjoy the Harry Potter finale. The release of "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2," marking the end of an era in cinema, is deemed so culturally significant that New York’s Museum of the Moving Image is presenting the previous "Potter" films in a week-long series (July 6-13) leading up to the event.

Wayne Wang’s "Snowflower and the Secret Fan" opens with less fanfare on July 15. This gentle and loving story about female friendship traces the Chinese tradition of women taking an oath of lifelong friendship–jin-shei–from ancient to modern times. Based on Lisa See’s popular novel, the film is a delightful celebration of feminism and it deserves your box office support.

On the other hand, steer clear of "Tabloid," also opening July 15. The subject of the latest documentary from acclaimed filmmaker Errol Morris is Joyce McKinney, the disturbingly eccentric and attention-seeking former Miss Wyoming. It’s easy to see why Morris would find McKinney fascinating. But, in interviewing McKinney for the film, Morris provokes what is clearly a delusional woman. That turns the film itself into an obscene piece of tabloid exploitation.

July 22 brings the opening of "Sarah’s Key," a female-centered trans-era drama starring Kristen Scott Thomas as a Paris-based American journalist who becomes obsessed with investigating the infamous and all-but-forgotten "Vel’ d’Hiv raid." In July 1942, French police aided Nazis in rounding up 13,152 French Jews for deportation to German death camps. There’s no historical revisionism here– based on Tatiana De Rosnay’s best selling novel, the film is an important and revealing fictionalized account of a heinous historical moment.

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

For more information:

Alliance of Women Film Journalists