COMEDIES WERE the rule last Christmas, accounting for half the holiday releases and all four substantial moneymakers -- "Stir Crazy," "9 to 5," "Any Which Way You Can" and "Seems Like Old Times." However, there's no law or tradition that says comedies have to dominate the holiday season, and this year the emphasis has switched dramatically.

Warren Beatty's "Reds," which opened Friday, was the first of 13 new features booked for the Washington area during Christmas 1981. Nine are dramas. The most ambitious and expensive productions, "Reds" and "Ragtime," deal at epic length -- 199 and 156 minutes, respectively -- with American political and social turmoil in the early 1900s. Four others -- "Absence of Malice," "Whose Life Is It Anyway?," "Rollover" and "Taps" -- fall into the topical-contemporary category. There's one supernatural thriller, "Ghost Story," and one police thriller, "Sharky's Machine." Even the only musical of the season, "Pennies From Heaven,", is not a traditional musical comedy, but more in the nature of a musical fantasy-tragedy.

John Belushi and Dan Akroyd, a Christmas ordeal two years ago as "The Blues Brothers," will attempt to make amends as the comic antagonists of "Neighbors," based on Thomas Berger's satiric novel. Chevy Chase returns as a harried air controller suddenly blessed with magical powers in "Modern Problems." Andy Kaufman gets his first film-starring opportunity as one-half of a robot romance in a bit of futuristic whimsy-whamsy called "Heartbeeps". The facetious offerings are completed by the reunion of Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau with director Billy Wilder, aged 75, on "Buddy Buddy," a farce adapted from a French movie released here under the title "A Pain in the A --."

While exhibitors are not wedded to the idea of lighthearted fare for the holidays -- lest we forget, the big hit of Christmas 1979 was "Kramer vs. Kramer" and the big flop "1941" -- one detects a fair amount of anxiety about the nature of the dramas they'll be playing this season. Maybe my antenna are off, but I keep picking up static to the effect that all the dramatic entries leave something to be desired in the oomph and heart and staying power departments. "Reds"

If a prestige hit is concealed among the new Christmas releases, "Reds" (PG) would appear to be the likeliest candidate. For one thing, it's starting to collect a number of reverential raves from influential quarters -- Time, Newsweek, The New York Times, The Hollywood Reporter. The radical journalist John Reed is not a household name among his countrymen, but there's a potentially exciting movie in the account of his political activism and adventurism, which culminated with his trip to Russia in the fall of 1917 to cover the Revolution, accompanied by his ambitious, restless wife, Louise Bryant. Both wrote timely books about the Bolshevik triumph, and Reed's became the definitive eyewitness chronicle, "Ten Days That Shook the World."

Beatty's first solo directing credit, "Reds" was shot in Finland, Spain and England on a budget somewhere in excess of $30 million. Beatty plays Reed, and Diane Keaton co-stars as Bryant. An impressive supporting cast is led by Jack Nicholson as Eugene O'Neill, who became romantically involved with Bryant for a brief period, and Maureen Stapleton as Emma Goldman. Beatty collaborated on the screenplay with Trevor Griffiths, the British playwright. "Ragtime"

Maybe the unifying theme of the season is Old Age. "Ragtime" (PG) has attracted considerable advance press on the strength of James Cagney's comeback in a supporting role. Originally earmarked for Robert Altman, the E.L. Doctorow fable about the malaise of turn-of-the-century America was eventually entrusted to Milos Forman. Cagney, who plays New York City Police commissioner Rheinlander Waldo, puts the icing on a formidable casting cake: Mary Steenburgen, Brad Dourif and James Olson as the New Rochelle family group; Elizabeth McGovern as Evelyn Nesbit, Norman Mailer as Stanford White and Robert Joy as Harry K. Thaw; Howard E. Rollins as the nobly vengeful Negro Coalhouse Walker Jr. and Debbie Allen as his intended, Sarah; Pat O'Brien as Thaw's lawyer, and Mrs. O'Brien, Eloise, as Thaw's mum; Mandy Patinkin as the immigrant silhouette-cutter and filmmaker Tateh; Donald O'Connor as the choreographer at Madison Square Garden; Moses Gunn as Booker T. Washington; Kenneth McMillan as the bigot who insults Walker; and many others. Playwright Michael Weller did the screenplay. (Opening Friday, Dec. 18, at area theaters.) "Ghost Story"

"Ghost Story" (R) co-stars four elderly actors -- Fred Astaire, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., John Houseman and the late Melvyn Douglas -- in an occult chiller about the wages of sin. Assembling at their club, the four friends agree to exchange macabre stories, calculated to merge at the finale into a collective nightmare. Patricia Neal plays the actress who provides a mysterious link between the stories. The director is John Irvin, who made a dynamic feature debut on "The Dogs of War" after making the transition from British television, where he distinguished himself with the superb "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy." (Opening Wednesday, Dec. 16, at area theaters.) "Pennies From Heaven"

"Pennies From Heaven" (R) transposes the setting of Dennis Potter's TV play to Chicago in 1934, but the theme remains identical -- the downfall of a dreamy sheet-music salesman, played by Steve Martin, who struggles to escape from impoverished reality via fantasies inspired by popular songs and movies. The other leading roles are played by Christopher Walken, Bernadette Peters, Jessica Harper, Vernel Bagneris and John McMartin. The songs, lipsynched by the cast to vintage recordings, include "I'll Never Dream Again," "Did You Ever See a Dream Walking?," Let's Misbehave," "Chicago," Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries" and, of course, the title number. (Opening Friday, Dec. 18 at area theaters.) "Whose Life Is It Anyway?"

"Whose Life Is It Anyway?" (R) deploys Richard Dreyfuss, an actor famous for a high energy level, in the role of a sculptor paralyzed from the neck down after injuries suffered in a car crash. John Cassavetes plays the doctor who is moral and legal antagonist when the hero decides that he would prefer to terminate his life. The supporting cast includes Christine Lahti, Bob Balaban, Kenneth McMillan, Kaki Hunter, Thomas Carter and Janet Eilber. (Opening Friday, Dec. 11, exclusively at Avalon 1.) "Neighbors"

In "Neighbors" (R) John Belushi is a peaceable suburban family man, Earl Keese, whose tranquility is suddenly disrupted by the appearance of new neighbors, a voluptuous wench named Ramona (Cathy Moriarty, who traded domestic punches with Robert De Niro in "Raging Bull" last year) and her husband, Vic (Dan Akroyd), a shameless creep. It isn't quite certain whether Ramona and Vic make life exasperating for Earl in reality or in his overactive, embarrassingly libidinous imagination. (Opening Dec. 18 at area theaters.) "Absence of Malice"

"Absence of Malice" (PG) has a go at the rich, neglected subject of irresponsible journalism. Sally Field plays an investigative reporter of lamentable sorts who publishes a bogus story invented and leaked by Bob Balaban, a federal prosecutor desperate to get a stalled case in gear. The victim of Field's scoop is an honest liquor wholesaler, Paul Newman, whose life has been haunted by a gangster pedigree. Field prints an even more damaging follow-up story about Newman's alibi, given by a jittery parochial school secretary played by Melinda Dillon. Eventually, a good guy from the Justice Department -- Wilfrid Brimley -- turns up to straighten things out. Sydney Pollack directed from an original screenplay by Kurt Luedtke, a former reporter at the Miami Herald and editor at the Detroit Free Press. (Opening Dec. 18 at area theatres.) "Rollover"

"Rollover" (R), the latest from Jane Fonda's production company, aims to blend luxurious romance with international financial intrigue. Fonda plays a famous actress who takes over the chairmanship of a petrochemical company from her husband, a corporate tycoon who died under suspicious circumstances. Kris Kristofferson co-stars as a maverick banker who makes himself professionally and romantically indispensable. The title is a financial term rather than a bedroom maneuver, referring to the practice of reinvesting bank deposits. The plot hinges on a conspiracy by shadowy financial interests to provoke a banking disaster. Alan J. Pakula directed from a screenplay by David Shaber. (Opening Dec. 11 at area theaters.) "Taps"

"Taps" (PG) exploits a "what-if" nightmare premise at a boys' military academy. Timothy Hutton, in his first role since winning an Oscar for "Ordinary People," plays the somewhat disturbed cadet leader, Brian, who leads a takeover of the school scheduled to be closed to make way for a condo. George C. Scott plays the resolute headmaster, Gen. Bache, whose precepts have somehow given Brian the wrong idea about coping with adversity. The source is Devery Freeman's novel "Father Sky." (Opening Dec. 18 at area theaters.) "Sharky's Machine"

"Sharky's Machine" (R) is about a task force of Atlanta vice cops commanded by Burt Reynolds, whose assignment is to discover the identity of a mysterious international drug dealer moving in on the unsuspecting South. The key to the case is a gorgeous call girl, played by Rachel Ward, who rouses an unprofessional interest in the rugged Sharky. Reynolds directed, from Gerald Di Pego's adaptation of a novel by William Diehl, a former obit writer at the Atlanta Constitution. The supporting cast features Vittorio Gassman, Brian Keith, Charles Durning, Earl Holliman, Bernie Casey and Richard Libertini. (Opening Dec. 18 at area theaters.) "Buddy Buddy"

"Buddy Buddy" (R) casts Walter Matthau as a retiring hit man whose last contract is undermined by Jack Lemmon, a suicidal pest staying in the neighboring hotel room. Paula Prentiss is Lemmon's estranged wife, who has left him to consort with a Teutonic sex therapist, Dr. Zuckerbrot, portrayed by German actor Klaus Kinski. Director Billy Wilder and his co-writer, I.A.L. Diamond, have presumably added their own inimitable stuff to the pretext borrowed from two French filmmakers (Opening Dec. 11 at area theaters.) "Modern Problems"

As the comic protagonist of "Modern Problems" (PG), Chevy Chase is coming unglued from a variety of domestic and professional hassles. Then one night in the control tower something endows the distressed controller with supernatural powers, notably the ability to levitate people who insist on bugging him. The principal supporting players are Dabney Coleman, Patti d'Arbanville and Mary Kay Place. (Opening Friday, Dec. 25, at area theaters.) "Heartbeeps"

"Heartbeeps" (PG) are emitted by Andy Kaufman, a robot valet, and Bernadette Peters, a robot housemaid, who crave idyllic human domesticity. They fall in love, run away and attempt to set up housekeeping with a family constructed from spare parts. Preciousness threatens, obviously, but you never know. (Opening Dec. 18 at area theaters.)

In addition, the Biograph plans a two-week engagement of the experimental animation package, "Fifteenth Tournee of Animation," beginning Christmas Day.