Jennifer Merin(WOMENSENEWS) — February brings two cinematic treasures, both opening Feb. 10 "In Darkness," an Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Film, is a harrowing Holocaust drama directed by Agnieszka Holland, one of Poland’s finest filmmakers. It’s based on Robert Marshall’s book about the real life of Leopold Socha (Robert Wieckiewicz), a morally ambiguous sewer worker who hid Jews — initially for money, eventually for reasons of compassion — in the underground waste caches of Nazi occupied Lvov (now Lviv), Ukraine.

Holland’s special treatment of this dramatic and heart wrenching story is notable for its restraint. She focuses on intimate and ordinary interactions among desperate people struggling to survive Nazi persecution, living in darkness, amid detritus and vermin, to avoid even worse horrors in the streets above. Within this subterranean scene, with its excruciatingly oppressive atmosphere, there is a moving sub-plot about young love.

In the month’s other big bonus, writer-director Liza Johnson also turns her skills to a war-related subject. "Return" is the story of an American female soldier who returns home from being deployed in Afghanistan for 15 months and finds it nearly impossible to cope with the day-to-day realities. Kelli (Linda Cardellini) comes back to her husband (Michael Shannon) and two daughters, her friends and an old job. While repressing her war memories and denying that she’s been traumatized, she cannot get back into the swing of things with her marriage, putting her kids to bed, grocery shopping and the ordinary happenings of civilian life.

This narrative feature is reminiscent of the documentary "Lioness" (2008), in which filmmakers Meg McLagan and Daria Sommers profile five women who’ve returned from deployment in Iraq. The two films would make an exceedingly interesting double bill.

More Fine Films

More fine February releases in chronological order: On Feb. 1, pay special attention to Patricia Riggen’s second feature, "Girl in Progress." This coming-of-age dramady is about the parent-child relationship in which teenager Ansiedad (Cierra Ramirez) actually has a lot to teach her mother (Eva Mendes) about growing up. An understanding counselor (Patricia Arquette) helps prevent the older generation from passing along her behavioral failures to the next. "Girl in Progress" is a warm, gentle and big-hearted film, as was Riggen’s first feature, "Under the Same Moon" (2007), also about a mother and child.

On Feb. 3, Drew Barrymore fans get a chance to see the actress in an unabashedly inspirational film for the whole family. Based on a true story, "Big Miracle" is about Inupiaq villagers in Barrow, in northern Alaska, who rally — with the help of a determined female environmentalist — to rescue three gray whales trapped by the frozen sea.

Two femme-centric ghost stories open Feb. 3. In "The Innkeepers," Claire (Sara Paxton) is determined to make contact with spirits inhabiting each room of the hotel where she works. She does. The results will keep you on the edge of your seat. She’s at risk, but don’t worry, this isn’t a slasher movie that victimizes women.

In "The Woman in Black," Daniel Radcliffe, no longer a young wizard as he was in "Harry Potter," plays a lawyer-turned-ghost-chaser who is tracking down the vengeful spirit of a woman (Janet McTeer) that is terrorizing villagers in rural England. The performances are convincing and if you like Gothic, this film, with a script by Jane Goldman based on Susan Hill’s novel, is for you.

Valentine’s Offerings

On Feb. 10, we have Hollywood’s date with Valentine’s Day. "The Vow" is a romance about Paige (Rachel McAdams), who comes out of a coma with amnesia and cannot remember her husband (Channing Tatum). He is determined to make her fall in love with him anew. The screenplay, co-written by Abby Kohn, is seethingly sentimental and somewhat slight. But the performances are heartwarming.

"Thin Ice" skates on to big screens Feb. 17. Directed Jill Sprecher, who co-wrote the script with Karen Sprecher, the film is an offbeat intrigue set in rural Wisconsin. In it, three oddballs — played by Greg Kinnear, Billy Crudup and Alan Arkin — try to outmaneuver each other to benefit from the theft of a rare and valuable violin. This film has some echoes of the Coen Brothers’ "Fargo," and the Sprecher sisters are definitely a team to watch.

"Gone" arrives Feb. 24. Written by Allison Burnett, this crime thriller is about a woman who survives victimhood to fight back. Jill (Amanda Seyfried) has escaped the clutches of a serial killer several years earlier but now she’s convinced he has kidnapped her sister. The police think she’s nuts, so she goes on a mission to find the killer — and her sister — by herself. Seyfried’s performance is strong and convincing.

Closing out the month, on Feb. 29, is a must-see documentary. "This Is Not a Film" is the autobiographical work of Iranian director Jafar Panahi, currently under house arrest in Tehran for allegedly planning to make a subversive film. With previous films such as "The Circle" (2000) and "Offside" (2006), Panahi has drawn fire from the Iranian government for showing strong female characters struggling against oppressive traditions and the repressive regime. As part of his sentence, the 52-year-old director has been prohibited from making films (hence the title) for the next 20 years. This profoundly clever not-a-film shows how Panahi, himself, is trying to cope. Don’t miss it.

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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