I always have trouble taking the Academy Awards seriously. They're harmless when seen for what they are: a ritual exercise in self back-patting for the Hollywood establishment. But they'd like us to think they laud the best that American cinema has to offer, and I can't buy that. They gravitate too easily toward box-office success, nodding just briefly to movies that put more value on commitment and exploration.

The current race is even sillier than most. It so happens that 1983 was a strong year for movies, marked by a heartening trend. In a number of films on easily exploitable subjects, directors and screenwriters steered away from bombast and melodrama, boldly treating their stories with understatement and nuance, instead. The result was a string of unusually delicate and dignified movies, ranging from ''Betrayal'' and ''Tender Mercies'' to ''Heart Like a Wheel'' and ''The Year of Living Dangerously.''

You'll find them and a few others among the Oscar contenders, but not nearly often enough. Instead there's an avalanche of nominations for big, brassy mediocrities - 11 for the soggy ''Terms of Endearment,'' 8 for the overblown ''Right Stuff,'' 5 for the dreary ''Dresser.'' Even the frantic ''Flashdance'' gets named in four categories - but not a whisper of praise for such exquisite entertainments as ''Angelo, My Love'' or ''Local Hero,'' which rank among the best movies so far this decade!

Why? Partly because ''Endearment'' and ''Flashdance'' burned up the box office, and that always boosts a picture in Oscar's affections.

Another reason could be Hollywood provincialism. Most of the gentle pictures I've mentioned were made by non-Americans, or by independents working outside the normal studio structure, as Robert Duvall did when he wrote and directed ''Angelo, My Love.''

All this notwithstanding, the Oscar race is still one of Hollywood's most popular offerings, and the prize-giving ceremony will be watched on TV next Monday night by many viewers who rarely hazard an actual journey to their neighborhood theater. Accordingly, here are some brief thoughts on the major categories:

* Best picture. In a token bow to high quality, ''Tender Mercies'' got nominated for the top award, but everyone knows it won't win. Everyone knows ''Terms of Endearment'' will win, because it makes you laugh and cry at the same time, and besides, it's cranking out mountains of money for Paramount Pictures. The other also-rans complete the list of 1983's most overrated movies -''The Big Chill'' and ''The Right Stuff,'' with their pushy treatment of Americana themes, and ''The Dresser,'' with its arch ''theatah'' background.

* Best actress. In another slim gesture to the non-establishment set, Jane Alexander was named for her earnest work in the flat antiwar picture ''Testament ,'' and Julie Walters for the sweet surprises of ''Educating Rita.'' Once again, though, the emotional excesses of ''Endearment'' are sure to carry the day, with Shirley MacLaine nudging out costar Debra Winger, who would be a better choice. Meryl Streep, who gives the year's most astounding performance in ''Silkwood,'' will lose partly because of the ''Endearment'' juggernaut. Also because she won for ''Sophie's Choice,'' and Oscar rarely strikes in the same place two years in a row.

* Best actor. I know of only one other critic in the Western world who agrees with me that ''The Dresser'' is overblown and that the lead performances are misconceived and monotonous. I'll stick to my guns on this film, even though leads Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay are both in the running for the award. There was no choice but to nominate Robert Duvall for his sublime work in ''Tender Mercies,'' and I'm pulling for him to win, although Michael Caine could pull an upset for the low-key ''Educating Rita.'' I see little chance for Tom Conti, the one bright element of the minor ''Reuben, Reuben.''

In other categories, I have mildly strong feelings about a few scattered nominations. There isn't even one other critic who agrees with me that Jack Nicholson is more annoying than engaging in ''Endearment,'' so I'm resigned to seeing him win for best supporting actor. I'll be disappointed, though, if Linda Hunt doesn't triumph for her ingenious supporting work in ''The Year of Living Dangerously.'' For best director, I champion Mike Nichols for his comeback in ''Silkwood'' or Bruce Beresford for the daringly fragile ''Tender Mercies,'' even though James L. Brooks has the popular edge for, yes, ''Endearment.''

''Tender Mercies'' would be a fine winner for best original screenplay, although ''WarGames'' would be an interesting choice; ''Betrayal'' and ''Educating Rita'' are the only respectable nominees for best adapted screenplay.

As for the best foreign-language movie, ''Entre Nous'' is probably the most deserving choice. But who can pick a winner in a contest that includes such an out-and-out misfire as ''Le Bal'' among the handpicked contenders? Oscar, Oscar, Oscar. How do these things happen? New John Pym book

Fans of last year's ''Heat and Dust,'' and of many other productions by the same moviemakers, should know about John Pym's new book, ''The Wandering Company: Twenty-One Years of Merchant Ivory Films.'' Bearing the BFI Publishing Company imprint, it was put out recently by the British Film Institute in conjunction with the Museum of Modern Art.

An aptly named study, it focuses on a filmmaking team that has wandered for more than two decades between Indian and American subjects. The group's efforts range from ''The Guru'' and ''Autobiography of a Princess'' to ''Roseland'' and ''Jane Austen in Manhattan.'' Its reputation rests on quiet storytelling and dignified cinematics - too quiet and dignified at times, but always distinctive.

In tracing the team's history, Pym brings several graces to bear: His chronicle is concise, well ordered, sympathetic yet critical, and sometimes more entertaining than the movies themselves. Enriching the account, director James Ivory contributes marginal comments on the films and on his collaborators, producer Ismail Merchant and writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. Carefully chosen photographs complete the package.

Not all the Merchant Ivory movies are recalled in equal detail; ironically, the team's latest major work is treated in oddly vague terms. Overall, however, the book strikes a fine balance between informed admiration and thoughtful criticism, with a dash of movie-fan enthusiasm for good measure. In sum, it's a model of its kind, to be enjoyed whether or not readers have their own memories of the pictures discussed.

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