Jennifer Merin(WOMENSENEWS)– Gender identity is the core concern of two fine December releases.

In "Albert Nobbs," coming out Dec. 21, Glenn Close plays a 19th century Irish woman who masquerades as a man in order to get a job. Albert has difficulty sorting out her personal relationships until she finds she’s not alone in her predicament. The plot really takes off from there. It’s a gripping story and Close’s characterization in uncanny.

"Pariah," Dee Rees’s first feature released on Dec. 28, is about Alike (pronounced ah-LEEK-ay), an African-American gay teenager who leads a double life to hide her sexual preference from her strict, conservative mother. Adepero Oduye’s performance as Alike is noteworthy and Rees recently won the Gotham Award for Breakthrough Director. "Pariah" is definitely worth seeing.

So is "Angel’s Crest" (Dec. 30). Gaby Dellal’s second feature is scripted by Catherine Treischmann. Based on Leslie Schwartz’s novel, the film portrays a young father (Thomas Dekker) in a rural Colorado town accused of homicidal negligence in the accidental death of his beloved infant son. Dekker’s performance is heart wrenching and Dellal is definitely a director to watch.

Another great one this month was released Dec. 9: "We Need To Talk About Kevin." Directed and co-written by Lynne Ramsey and based on a novel by Lionel Shriver, the film is a stunning drama about family dynamics with dire consequences. And Swinton’s performance is a standout.

The month is also loaded with obviously sales-minded holiday fare, last-minute Oscar qualifiers and other year-end trappings. It begins and ends, however, with compelling topics for anyone with the slightest interest in female political leadership or historic events.

Tales of Two ‘Ladies’

Myanmar’s Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi is the central character in Luc Besson’s "The Lady" (out Dec. 2, with wider release in February 2012), while Great Britain’s former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher takes charge in Phillyda Lloyd’s "The Iron Lady" (out Dec 30, with wider release in January 2012).

Neither film, unfortunately, measures up to its subject matter.

Besson is famous for his strong, smart and assertive fantasy female activists in films such as "The Fifth Element" and "Angel A." But he misses the mark when given the real-life heroism of Suu Kyi (played by Michelle Yeoh). Instead of focusing on Suu Kyi’s brave commitment to the cause of freedom in Myanmar, Rebecca Freyn’s script dallies over the heroine’s relationship with her unfailingly supportive British husband, Michael Aris (David Thewlis). Yes, there’s drama and inspiration in a relationship that survives the ordeals of separation, and less is generally known about Suu Kyi’s personal life than her political stands, but there is unfortunately little on-screen chemistry between Yeoh and Thewlis.

"Lady" is politely, respectfully PC, but misses Suu Kyi’s guts and passion. It’s a film you want to love, but have difficulty even liking. What a pity. Suu Kyi deserves better.

"The Iron Lady," directed by Phillyda Lloyd and written by Abi Morgan, presents a nonlinear, rather disorienting account of Margaret Thatcher’s (played by Meryl Streep) life and career. The film offers only perfunctory looks at Thatcher-spurred events that altered world history as it shuffles back and forth between the several phases of Maggie: a frail old woman who has hallucinatory chats with her dead husband (Jim Broadbent), the middle-aged dynamo in her prime, the noticeably shrill new member of Parliament and the teen who’s thrilled to have earned a place at Oxford and enthusiastically embraces British post-WWII patriotic fervor.

Streep’s superb performance is suitably authoritative, but not even her Oscar-worthy turn can transform Thatcher into a likeable leading lady. Perhaps that’s just playing the truth. But "The Iron Lady" leaves you guessing about the real Thatcher. And not in a good way.

Great Family Drama

Julia Leigh’s unsettling first feature, "Sleeping Beauty" (released Dec. 2), stars Emily Browning as a student who sells herself to be sedated and used as a sexual object "without penetration." The story is bizarre, but Browning and the voluptuous cinematography are gorgeous.

Madonna’s second directorial outing, released Dec. 9., "W.E." is the mixed up marriage of two plot lines: the story of Wally Winthrop (Abbie Cornish), a discontented contemporary woman, and that of the legendary Mrs. Wallis Simpson (Andrea Riseborough), another unhappy women after whom Wally was named and with whom she’s obsessed. W.E., by the way, is the acronym for Wallis and Edward. That’s a lot to digest, and so is the film.

For "Young Adult," released Dec. 9, writer Diablo Cody and director Ivan Reitman, the duo that created "Juno," concoct a dramady based on the bad behavior of a selfish woman (Charleze Theron). She’s a lonely and ambitious writer who returns to her home town determined to reclaim her old flame (Patrick Wilson) who is now a happy family man. Her efforts fizzle. So does the film.

One family film that sizzles rather than fizzles is "The Adventures of Tintin," Steven Spielberg’s animated adaptation of the favorite comic character that has pleased people of all ages, all genders and ethnicities. The story is a sophisticated action-packed thriller that’s played out with subtle wit. It hits theaters on Dec. 21, and it’s a perfect holiday treat for families.

Dazzling Documentaries

In "Daguerrotypes," French filmmaker Agnes Varda documents the daily doings of Parisian shopkeepers and those who patronize their emporia along rue Daguerre, where Varda was living when she shot the film in 1976. Thirty-five years later, Varda’s verite work is still brilliant, and this film is a made-with-love must see in theatrical release today.

"Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel," out Dec. 16 and directed by Alex Stapleton, is a delightfully sophisticated and witty profile of the director whose blockbuster B-movies like "Vampirella" and "Teenage Doll" featured cinematic images of women that feminists are still trying to undo. Corman is, however, a surprisingly erudite gentleman who also deserves credit for introducing many of Europe’s brilliant filmmakers to American audiences. Bravo!

"Pina," being released Dec. 21, is a 3-D experience with the choreography of the late and great Pina Bausch. Directed by Wim Wenders, it features her dance company in rehearsal and performance along with rare archival footage of Bausch herself. The film is beautifully realized; a tribute to the brilliant, beloved woman who played a major role in defining the movements and shapes of modern dance.


P.S. Two important December releases are unfortunately under review embargo until closer to their opening dates.

"The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo," due out Dec. 16, is David Fincher’s remake of the very popular Swedish film based on the best-selling novel.

"In The Land of Milk and Blood," to be released Dec. 23, is Angelina Jolie’s directorial debut about the brutal treatment of women in war-torn Bosnia. I’ve seen both, and am frustrated that I can say no more. Except, I will venture to say yea — to both.

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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 Journalists Association.

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Alliance of Women Film Journalists