What a poor year for movies! The past 12 months have been even more stingy than 1983, which managed to offer a dozen very good pictures. I'm not alone in this opinion, either - my fellow critics have been grumbling plenty around the screening rooms.
What went wrong? A couple of things. Hollywood lost its way in a thicket of ''safe'' sequels and launched too mans projects based on clever ideas instead of solid scripts. Meanwhile, the film centers of Europe and Asia settled into a conservative period, exploring familiar themes instead of seeking out fresh inspirations.
So it's not an ideal time for celebrating the celluloid muse. While there's nothing wrong with a year-end summing up, I won't strain for the traditional ''ten best.''
And if some of the titles I've chosen are less than familiar, it's not because I give extra points for obscurity - it's because what little excitement there was in American films came largely from the independent scene, which lacks Hollywood's busy promotion and exhibition machinery. If there's a hopeful message to be gleaned from this year's slim pickings, it's that nonstudio filmmaking is growing in strength and variety and may someday present a real alternative to the ever-more-stale establishment.
Herewith eight favorites, in no particular order:
* Stranger Than Paradise is a rare find: a movie that adds a new dialect to film language while staying funny and likable enough to please a popular audience.
The characters are two dopey young men and a teen-age girl from Hungary who visits them. The plot is a simple trip from New York to Cleveland and Florida, which all look alike to a trio that rarely notices anything beyond the nearest TV screen. What brings the film alive are the witty performances, the ironic screenplay, and the lean visual style of director Jim Jarmusch, whose graceful touch echoes right through the moments of blank screen that follow each shot. A winner all the way.
* The Bostonians beats ''A Passage to India'' and ''Under the Volcano'' as the year's best literary film. Though the screenplay is topheavy with exposition , it's more lucid than ''A Passage'' and less bombastic than ''Volcano,'' which wilts in the homestretch after many fine scenes.
Henry James could tell a mighty good story when he wanted to, and director James Ivory keeps the ''Bostonians'' plot fairly intact, also remembering the delicious minor characters and settings of the novel. While the attitudes toward feminism aren't exactly enlightened - the heroine is an activist tempted by a male chauvinist - they reflect the failings of a former time with insight and com0assion. It's a literate entertainment.
* The Brother From Another Planet can't talk as earthlings do, so he must be a mute witness to the miseries of Harlem, where he lands while running from outer-space slaveholders.
At a time when Hollywood is mostly mute on black issues, maverick filmmaker John Sayles has tackled them head-on, giving us a biting and incisive comedy-drama that puts his earlier movies in the shade. While less well-groomed than ''A Soldier's Story,'' the year's other major black film, it's closer to the urgent realities of today's ghetto life. As streetwise and foul-mouthed as its characters, the film is not polite, but it packs a well-aimed wallop.
* Love Streams is the messiest movie of 1984 - and one of the most exciting. John Cassavetes has done it again - spilling out urgent emotions and romantic images without a nod to anything more commercial than his own instinctive love of filmmaking.
Yes, the plot is impenetrable at times, the visual style is ragged, and the ending is so weird that even the hero can't figure out what's going on. But it doesn't matter. Cassavetes draws more emotion from ten minutes of conversation than most directors can find in a whole movie. He feels so deeply for his characters (a loose-living writer and mentally unstable sister) that his camera all but weeps with them, penetrating the action more deeply than anyone else's camera would have dared. A million flaws notwithstanding, this is a passionate movie fueled by instinct, imagination, and Cassavetes's unquenchable integrity.
* Nostalghia was directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, a doggedly individualistic black sheep of Soviet cinema until his defection to the West last summer after this drama was completed.
Given the leaning of Soviet film toward well-made stories and neat resolutions, it's not surprising that Tarkovsky flew the coop - he's a visionary all over, as you can see in every frame of this strange tale about a Russian writer who meets an Italian madman obsessed with world harmony. The plot moves by slow inches and the climax is melodramatic, but the themes are resonant and the imagery (especially in the dreamlike interludes) is as transfixing as anything I've seen. It's exciting to speculate on what this brilliant director might accomplish in his new Western surroundings.
* Amadeus is big, imposing, and at its best moments, quite beautiful. I know it takes great liberties with Mozart's life and character. I know its four-letter language jars many viewers, especially coming from the lips of a sublime composer. I know Tom Hulce's horselaugh is the most irritating mannerism in any major movie this year. Yet there's much to admire in the combination of Mozart's music and Miroslav Ondricek's elegant cinematography, coordinated by director Milos Forman in his best large-scale film.
Even the mad musician Salieri, driven insane by envy of Mozart in the film's scenario, melts with bliss when his rival's compositions pass before him. There's real merit in a film that leads us to share his profound appreciation.
* Micki & Maude has problems in the bad-taste department, since much of its humor revolves around bigamy and pregnancy. Yet below the sex-comedy surface are human values worth cheering.
The characters get into their stupid, misguided situations because they love each other so much they can't see straight - at a time when many movies trade in mere lust and suspicion. They take marriage and parenthood so seriously they get all flustered - at a time when many movies seem unaware those institutions exist. And gender stereotypes don't have a chance when the women are deft professionals and the men like nothing better than tending kids and fixing up the house - at a time when many movies see women and men as robots with preset functions. There's surprising substance to this Blake Edwards farce, even if it does culminate in maternity-ward slapstick.
* L'Argent comes from Robert Bresson, the great French master. Although his work is often shown in revival theaters, it remains a pleasure for the few, partly because the off-putting word ''austere'' has been hung around his neck by countless critics. That label fits the title of his latest film, which means simply ''money.'' It also suits the camera style, which allows not one wasted frame. And it suits the performances, which - as always - are underplayed so they won't interfere with the ideas of the piece.
But those ideas are anything but austere. Ditto for the story, about deception and murder growing from a seemingly minor crime. Once Bresson is studying the relations again between good and evil, guilt and innocence, flesh and spirit. And once again he frames his arguments in spare, immaculately cinematic terms. If this isn't his ''breakthrough film'' to wide audiences, there will probably never be one. His brilliance calls for celebration, nonetheless.
* And honorable mention to: ''Dune,'' for daring to be fiercely, incomprehensibly original with millions and millions of big-studio dollars; ''Skyline,'' a Spanish film by Fernando Colomo, for its hilarious portrait of Europeans and Americans who can't figure out what to say to each other; ''Entre Nous,'' for its tactful treatment of delicate social and sexual subject matter; ''Comfort and Joy,'' for more of the dry Scottish wit that ''Local Hero'' made me crave; ''Tortured Dust,'' by Stan Brakhage, for its silent comments on how we see, why we feel, and what it's like to be a daddy.
And the last five minutes of ''Places in the Heart'' and ''The Cotton Club,'' for reveling - however briefly - in the joy of motion pictures for their own sake.