Wonder how Saddam Hussein’s gonna celebrate Christmas Eve, hunh? Think the CIA’ll invite him to the office holiday party? What if someone actually catches the one-time U.S. government employee under the mistletoe? Well, at least he shaved that godawful beard, which made him look like a combination of Jerry Garcia, Cliff Burnstein and Charlie Manson.


On Bad Santa, The Station Agent, Big Star, the Strokes, Missy, a Partridge and a Pear Tree
Wonder how Saddam Hussein’s gonna celebrate Christmas Eve, hunh? Think the CIA’ll invite him to the office holiday party? What if someone actually catches the one-time U.S. government employee under the mistletoe? Well, at least he shaved that godawful beard, which made him look like a combination of Jerry Garcia, Cliff Burnstein and Charlie Manson. Maybe he’ll spill all after spending a half-hour with the Queer Eyes guys. Why is reality seeming more and more like an episode of The Simple Life crossed with 24? Why am I writing this drivel when I should be spending time with my family? Guess that’s a question for my therapist. If I could afford one on my lousy HMO. Anway, I’ve decided to hole up with Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers DVD over the break in preparation for Return of the King, except I keep falling asleep during the part with the walking tree. Will someone wake me when the holidays are over? Thank you.

1. Bad Santa: If the right-wing pundits are blasting it, you know it must be good and it is. Forget what you’ve read or even heard, because Terry Zwigoff creates a true Christmas classic in the spirit of Bob Clark and Jean Shepherd’s A Christmas Story, a holiday fable for the post-modern age. Golden Globe nominee Billy Bob Thornton gives his best performance since Slingblade, and his sidekick in crime Tony Cox offers an impressive turn as his cynical sidekick dwarf. And while the sentimentalism is kept under wraps, when a literally snot-nosed fat kid (a letter-perfect Brett Kelly) and a gorgeous Santa nymph (a truly luminous Lauren Graham) latch onto Thornton’s alcoholic, manic depressive Kris Kringle, even the harsh intrusion of reality can’t spoil the fun. The fingerprints of producers the Coen Brothers are all over this one.

2. The Station Agent: Coming on the heels of amazing performances by "little people" Michael J. Anderson in Carnivale and Tony Cox in Bad Santa, Peter Dinklage’s Independent Spirit Award-nominated role as a somber, isolated train lover in writer/director Thomas McCarthy’s impressive feature debut may be the best of all. Along with the always-tremendous Patricia Clarkson as a damaged artist (who, yes, as keeping with the season’s main motif, has lost a son to a playground accident) and young De Niro-like newcomer Bobby Cannavale, Dinklage’s quiet dignity eventually gets peeled away to reveal the pain and loneliness underneath. The gentle, bluesy music by Hedwig and the Angry Inch composer Stephen Trask provides the perfect complement to how human connection can break through even the most blocked emotional paths. I couldn’t think of a better movie to get into the spirit of the season.

3. Something’s Gotta Give: No question Jack Nicholson, even more self-effacing than he was in About Schmidt, and Diane Keaton, not afraid to show a face not nipped and tucked, give award-worthy performances. Their scenes together have a spontaneity and natural quality that can’t be faked. Too bad they’re stuck inside Nancy Myers’ unbelievable plot based on coincidence, with a visual style that belies the fact it was directed by a woman. The Viagra jokes come fast and furious, and Jack earns extra points for showing his bare ass peaking out from his hospital gown, but the movie only manages to hit the sweet spot with Keaton’s post-menopausal awakening, romantic wistfulness and ultimate heartbreak. It’s like seeing Annie Hall get old. Minus points for a happy ending that’s not earned.

4. Big Star, Story (Rykodisc): A complex, messy, self-destructive band, but one that continues to define the notion of a cult group. The boisterous jangle of "September Gurls" and "The Ballad of El Goodo" never fail to inspire, but it’s Alex Chilton’s harrowing plaint on "Holocaust" that turns this into more than just another post-Beatles garage-pop outfit. In the wake of neo-Britpopsters like Fountains of Wayne and Rooney, these Memphis rock-crit darlings still sound as fresh today as ever.

5. The Strokes, Room on Fire (RCA): As befits a band of minimalists, these great white downtown hopes decided to progress only from the late ‘70s to the early ‘80s on their eagerly anticipated follow-up, moving their point of reference from Television and Talking Heads to the Cars and the Cure. Which ordinarily wouldn’t be a big deal, except, while they gained begrudging rockcrit credibility, they completely abandoned their shot at achieving White Stripes-like semi-populist appeal. Partisans have argued the Ramones never progressed, either, but (a) that’s not true and (b) even when they tried, they couldn’t expand their fan base very much outside of touring. And after seeing the Strokes play live, it’s more obvious than ever, they are growing into a better live act. That said, their decision to bury Julian Casablancas’ singing in the mix, creating, as my colleague Karen Glauber so cleverly put it, instrumentals with vocals, basically destroyed any chance the band had of getting radio play. Still, this would have made my year-end best-of list if only someone at RCA would’ve sent it to me when it came out.

6. Missy Elliott, This Is Not a Test! (Gold Mind/Elektra/EEG): In a hip-hop world dominated by macho and sexual bragadoccio, Elliott isn’t afraid to flex her feminist pride. She’s sassy and more than capable of keeping up with the boys, one of those Annie Oakley types—anything you can do, she can do better. She also approaches an album uniquely, less as a series of tracks than a kaleidoscopic aural cinema, telescoping into various dramatic set-pieces connected purely by rhythms rather than rationale. The result is a George Clinton-esque extended hip-hop that puts self-respect and pride on a pedestal usually reserved for bling-bling and bitches in the world of rap. With any luck, Elliott could be the next Queen Latifah…without going mainstream.

7. U2, Go Home (Interscope)/Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band, Live in Barcelona (CMV): Say what you want about these two, live, they give fans their money’s worth. The U2 DVD features the band performing on Sept. 1, 2001 not far from their Dublin hometown on the site of the historic Slane Castle in front of an adoring mob of their fellow Irish. Bono drapes himself in the country’s flag for a moving "New Year’s Day," while the emotions reach fever pitch in the elegiac "Sunday Bloody Sunday," which concludes with the singer enumerated those who were murdered that day. If there’s any better, tighter arena-rock band in the world, it’s gotta be Bruce and the E-Street Band, captured in all their glory far from their Jersey turf in Barcelona, Oct. 18, 2002, in the midst of The Rising tour. And while some purists have complained about those shows, there was nary a dissenting soul in this crowd, many of whom probably didn’t even speak the same language, but moved along as one to the propulsive set. You may complain about rockers overstaying their welcome, or trading in on nostalgia, but there’s nothing phony or exploitative in either of these towering examples of rock’s ability to move the masses, while the on-stage camaraderie defines the notion of community and extended family.

8. Catching a Matinee During the Holidays: Sneaking into the local arthouse theatre for the 11:30 a.m. showing of The Station Agent and finding me and my wife the only ones there, I wondered if the film would've been projected if no one was present—a corollary of that old hypothetical about the tree falling in the woods. I guess it’s something, by pure logic, we’ll never know, but it’s kinda fun having a private screening anyway. At least there’s no one around chewing popcorn in your ear or trying to guess loudly what’s going to happen next on-screen.

9. L.A. Clippers: Lenny’s guys are suddenly showing signs of life. Rookie Chris Kaman is a keeper and sophomore Chris Wilcox’s athleticism is coming to the fore. Elton Brand, the consummate pro’s pro and back from the injured list, can roll out of bed and put up a double-double. Quentin Richardson is the poor man’s Baron Davis and where did Bobby Simmons come from? With my Knicks at perhaps their lowest ebb since the inglorious days of Richie Guerin and Jumpin’ Johnny Green, and my front-running son a Lakers fan, it may be time to adopt my adopted city’s other team. After all, I’ve always been an expatriate Met/Jet/Islander fan from a Yankee/Giant/Ranger city, so I’m used to rooting for the second-class citizen in town. Anyway, it’s easier to get tickets and the traffic out of the Staples Center isn’t nearly as bad after a Clippers game.

10. Tom Leykis: Syndicated radio talk show host who’s gone from left-wing polemics to a brand of pro-macho propaganda that makes Tom Cruise in Magnolia look pussy-whipped. So why do I find myself agreeing with the guy’s smug Leykis 101misogyny most of the time? Because it’s meant to be satirical? Or is it because men have been completely neutered by the twin specters of feminism and creeping metrosexualism? Is it because, after 21 years of marriage, I plaintively ask, a la the Buzzcocks, "What do I get?" or better yet, "When do I get it?" I dunno, but if relations between men and women aren’t somehow re-negotiated and re-configured, the whole institution of heterosexual mating, marriage and family could go the way of the record industry—even without file-sharing.

Move over Justin. Fellow NSYNCer JC Chasez is going to be blowin’ up Irving Plaza (17 Irving Place) with his love on Friday evening. Opening the show is sensitive singer-songwriter Tony Lucca who is sure to give John Mayer and company a run for their money when his album "Shotgun" debuts in early 2004. Move over indeed. Also on Friday, Chrissie Hynde shakes her groove thang at Beacon Theater (2124 Broadway) and Crash Test Dummies make the scene at Joe’s Pub (425 Lafayette St.). No major shows are slated for Saturday or Sunday in New York … just in time to get that last-minute holiday shopping done! (Valerie Nome)

Having trouble finding the perfect gift for that overgrown teenybopper on your list? Or are you hankering for a new batch of showtunes? Then check out Deborah Gibson’s Colored Lights, which is in stores now. The latest album from the artist formerly known as Debbie offers up a slew of tunes from musicals past, not to mention the racy selection "Sex" from her forthcoming musical Skirts. Electric youth, indeed. (VN)

P. Diddy
ran the City when he tackled the New York Marathon earlier this year, raising $1 million for New York public schools. Just don’t ask him to do it again. "I lost another toenail last night. I already lost one, and if I lose another one I'm gonna have permanent damage to my feet," the mogul also known as Sean Combs told The Post’s Page Six. "I did it for the kids, and I'm glad I did it, but my feet are hurtin.'" (VN)

Mona Lisa Smile
(Columbia Pictures)
Chick flick version of Dead Poet’s Society, with a free-spirited Berkeley grad taking a post at all-female Wellesley College in the ‘50s, where the women are all trained to grab husbands rather than look for careers.
: Julia Roberts, Julia Stiles, Kirsten Dunst, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Topher Grace (That ‘70s Show), Marcia Gay Harden, Tori Amos
: Mike Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Donnie Brasco)
Thumbs Up
: Plenty of star power and a stylized setting.
Thumbs Down
: Will the cliches outweigh the pro-feminist polemics or vice versa?
: Sony Soundtrax album features Seal, Celine Dion, Tori Amos, Elton John, Macy Gray, Chris Isaak, Mandy Moore, Alison Krauss, Kelly Rowland, Lisa Stansfield, Barbra Streisand and Rachel Portman.
: www.sonypictures.com/movies/monalisasmile offers plot synopsis, previews, trailers, downloads and email updates.

House of Sand and Fog (DreamWorks)
Based on the Oprah Winfrey Book Club novel by Andre Dubus III about an alcoholic woman who loses her house in a foreclosure after a bureaucratic snafu. When it ends up being bought by an exiled Iranian air force colonel who sees the property as a dream home for his family, she fights to get it back.
: Ben Kingsley, Jennifer Connelly, Ron Eldard, Shohreh Aghdashloo
Commercial director Vadim Perelman makes his feature debut.
Thumbs Up
: Plenty of year-end accolades, including a Best Actor Globe nod for Kingsley and Best Supporting Actress nod from New York Film Critics Circle for Aghdashloo.
Thumbs Down
: Supposedly dark, intense and tough to take.
: Varese Sarabande album features James Horner score.
: www.dreamworks.com/houseofsandandfog/ has cast and crew information, trailers, downloads, etc.

Calendar Girls (Touchstone Pictures)
Female version of The Full Monty, a true-life tale about a bunch of British housewives who pose nude for a calendar to raise money to research cures for leukemia.
: Helen Mirren, Julie Walters, Linda Bassett
Director: Nigel Cole
for the equally whimsical Saving Grace.
Thumbs Up:
Mirren received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress in a Musical/Comedy.
Thumbs Down
: Its subject is, excuse the expression, rather broad.
: Hollywood Records soundtrack features Patrick Doyle score and tracks by Beth Neilsen Chapman, the Temptations, B.B. King, The Meters, Roland Kirk and Mornin’ Norman.
: www.calendargirls.movie.com

The Fog of War (Sony Pictures Classics)
Twenty hours of interviews with Robert McNamara, who was Secretary of Defense under Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson during the Vietnam War.
Acclaimed documentary filmmaker Errol Morris of The Thin Blue Line, A Brief History of Time, Gates of Heaven and Fast, Cheap and Out of Control fame.
Thumbs Up:
National Board of Review "Documentary of the Year" winner.
Thumbs Down
: For devoted politicos and Vietnam war buffs only.
: As always, Morris uses noted avant-garde composer Philip Glass, with the film’s soundtrack available on the indie Orange Mountain Music label.
: www.fogofwarmovie.com includes related text through a timeline, plot synopsis, reviews, video, film score information, lesson plan, release dates and information on the Interrotron machine Morris used to interview McNamara that allowed him to speak directly into the camera while looking at the director.

The Hebrew Hammer (Strand Releasing)
A self-proclaimed Jewxploitation flick about a ‘70s-style Hebrew superhero detective (Adam Goldberg) enlisted to save the world from an evil Santa (Andy Dick) who would like to eliminate Hanukkah.
Goldberg (A Beautiful Mind, Saving Private Ryan, Relativity), Judy Greer, Dick, Peter Coyote, Rachel Dratch, Nora Dunn, Mario Van Peebles, Melvin Van Peebles, Tony Cox and Ed Koch, the ex-N.Y. Mayor, as himself.
: Nice Jewish boy Jonathan Kesselman makes his feature debut a labor of love, expanding the short he made as a USC film student.
Thumbs Up
: Naked Gun-style Jewish humor. Will debut on Comedy Channel, then go to theatres.
Thumbs Down
: Yeah, but is it good or bad for the Jews? And does it help or hurt M.O.T.’s chances to get a film deal?
: None.
: www.thehebrewhammer.com is divided into "About the Movie," "Hammer Gear," "Join the Revolution," "Fun Stuff" (Play "Gentile Invaders," find a "Glossary of Terms" and download a "Jewish Confirmation Text"), "Press & Screenings" and "Movie Media."

Thanks to Roy Trakin, Valerie Nome and a host of elves, reindeers and cheap foreign labor for trimming this tree.

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Adele Adele; Adele.

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