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CHRISTMAS IN JULY

It’s a sad fact that the best thing filmmaking brothers Joel and Ethan Coen had their names attached to last year was the surprise comedy hit Bad Santa . Considering that they were only its producers makes it even sadder. But that’s the only sad thing about this movie.

Pickings were slim in a year where Lost in Translation was considered enough of a comedy to win a Golden Globe. Director Terry Zwigoff’s excoriation of the Christmas spirit proved just what the box office needed, and the movie racked up more than three times its budget in the U.S. alone. Ho ho ho!

In the film, Billy Bob Thornton plays a misanthropic, foul-mouthed alcoholic who takes jobs as a suburban-mall Santa Claus in order to gain access to the mall’s ample stashes of winter-holiday cash. With a reckless disregard for the current MPAA’s neo-Victorian prudishness, Mr. Thornton makes Bill Murray’s Scrooge feel like a whitewashed product of the Hayes Code. (Mr. Murray was actually signed on to the project before he passed it up to do Lost in Translation .)

The constant dropping of the F-bomb-147 times to be exact-feels like a refreshing spring rain, conjuring the unadulterated joy of Lenny Bruce at his combative best. “Little person” actor Tony Cox plays Mr. Thornton’s partner-in-crime, an elf. And in the last film before his death, John Ritter is a prim mall manager, his face constantly scrunched up in discomfort at Mr. Thornton’s lewd behavior. One particularly funny scene involves Mr. Ritter’s character catching Mr. Thornton having an unconventional form of fitting-room sex with a patron of the women’s Big & Tall. Three’s company, indeed.

In the end, the bad Kris Kringle reforms his naughty ways with the help of a portly kid (Canadian actor Brett Kelly) and his Santa-fetishizing girlfriend, played by Gilmore Girls gal Lauren Graham. Fortunately, Mr. Zwigoff inserts enough bah-hambuggery that the movie never becomes too saccharine.

[ Bad Santa (2003), R, 93 min., $29.99]

MONDO MAMMA

Mamma Roma , the second film in the brilliant but short career of Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini, never had a proper theatrical run in the United States. The first time it was seen here was as part of a short-lived 1990 Pasolini retrospective. So in large part (I’m looking in your direction, Leonard Maltin) the 1962 movie has been a forgotten relic.

This doesn’t sit right. Starring Anna Magnani, one of the most popular actresses in Italian cinema, the film is about a reformed prostitute trying to make a better life for her estranged son (Ettore Garofolo), while keeping the secret of her past from him. Shot on the outskirts of Rome, where an outcropping of decrepit apartment buildings sits amid a desolate wasteland, it becomes clear quite soon that there is no hope for the boy. But to follow his journey into adulthood-as he falls in love, loses his virginity and finds a job-is to gain a window onto a neglected generation of postwar Italy.

Pasolini’s muted eroticism and mixture of Marxist and Catholic themes was not well received by the Italian moviegoing public. The police declared the movie immoral, and despite excising five naughty minutes from the Rome premiere, Pasolini was assaulted there by a neo-fascist youth (he should’ve had Michael Moore’s protection detail … ).

But the movie continues to be an inspiration to some of the world’s greatest living directors. “I was watching someone inventing cinema,” remarks Bernardo Bertolucci, who was Pasolini’s assistant on his first film Accattone , in an interview recorded for the Criterion Collection DVD release of the film.

To see the world through Pasolini’s eyes in this once-forgotten classic is to be inspired by the emotional breadth of film itself.

[ Mamma Roma (1962), NR, 110 min., $39.95]

BRIT’S PRICK FLICK

After Oscar Wilde, but before George Michael, there was carousing British playwright Joe Orton, found dead in his apartment in August 1967 by Paul McCartney’s chauffeur, bludgeoned with a hammer by his lover and partner of 17 years, Kenneth Halliwell. Orton’s work has generally been overshadowed by the sensational circumstances of his death, and therefore fails to resonate in the public consciousness quite the way it ought to, though it is still some of the most incisive and comic examinations of British social structures to be found anywhere.

Yet there is something American about Orton’s ferocious individualism-his defiant, reckless ascent over barriers of class, education and sex.

Prick Up Your Ears is based on terminally fussy New Yorker theater critic John Lahr’s biography of the playwright’s life, taken from the title of a play/movie that Orton had been working on for the Beatles. Stephen Frears (one of England’s finest and least categorizable directors) collaborated with Mr. Lahr and screenwriter Alan Bennett to put together a portrait of the Pygmalion -gone-sour relationship that Orton shared with Halliwell. The latter (played with loving revulsion by the underused Alfred Molina) never received adequate accolades for his work, because his greatest work was Joe Orton himself (played here by a cockily self-assured Gary Oldman). Unfortunately, Halliwell’s Galatea grew so far beyond his creator that death was the only way to return them to a state of equality.

Their relationship is portrayed accurately and elegantly. The problem with this film is one of narrative: Orton’s death occurs in the first moments, after which his story reverts to childhood and continues chronologically. The two tragic heroes are swiftly sent down a predictable and methodical downward slope, without any of the aberrations and fluctuations so natural to life and love-even a manipulative one such as this.

[ Prick Up Your Ears (1987), R, 110 min., $14.95.]

-Jessica Joffe