At the box office, the winner and new champion is - 1987! Measured by gross revenues, the past year has been Hollywood's best ever. Variety, the entertainment trade paper, has declared it ``certain'' that final figures will show ``a new annual b.o. record near $4.2 billion.'' The number of tickets actually sold - expected to be a whopping 1.07 billion - is also high, putting 1987 among the top years of the past quarter-century.
But while the industry congratulates itself on those figures, Hollywood-watchers mull over what they mean. Has quality improved along with profits?
Some observers say no. Box-office predictions reign supreme in Hollywood, they assert. This eliminates risk-taking and squeezes innovation out of the picture - flooding us with teen comedies and ultraviolent detective dramas that offer sure returns on hefty investments.
This is true as far as it goes - which, fortunately, isn't very far.
Yes, studios live for the day when a ``Beverly Hills Cop II'' or ``Fatal Attraction'' becomes a top-grossing hit. Such pictures dominate ticket sales and prompt a helpless shrug from thinking filmgoers.
But there's more to a cinematic year than headline-grabbing smashes. It's possible to see films regularly without coming anywhere near an Arnold Schwarzenegger epic or the latest ``Nightmare on Elm Street'' episode. In 1987, as in other years, independent releases and imports - and, sometimes, regular Hollywood productions - provided a steady stream of literate, even uplifting movies.
Most were less grandiose and less aggres-sively publicized than their big-budget cousins. So they finished second in the box-office sweepstakes and failed to displace their junky competition from the screen. Yet this is no disgrace: Great literature, after all, has also failed to displace comic books and romance novels from the bookstores. The point is that worthwhile films, like worthwhile books, still provide a healthy alternative to the usual run of mass-audience entertainment. And that's cause for gratitude.
The first three months of 1987 set the pattern. January gave us ``Radio Days,'' by Woody Allen, the best comic filmmaker in moviedom today. Modestly yet brightly assembled, it showed why independent production companies (like Orion Pictures, the regular Allen outlet) have become an important new presence - making traditional studio releases seem less intimidating, and even less relevant, with every season.
February showed that the major studios also know how to release a literate movie, when they want to. ``84 Charing Cross Road,'' from Columbia Pictures, captivated mature filmgoers with its quiet story of two book-loving friends. March brought the independently produced ``Waiting for the Moon,'' a gentle and gloriously filmed tale about author Gertrude Stein.
Later months saw many more worthwhile releases, from the historical ``Matewan'' and the offbeat ``I've Heard the Mermaids Singing'' to the muted ``Housekeeping'' and the nostalgic ``Hope and Glory.''
Not all the year's best films traveled to as many theaters as they should have. And they couldn't obliterate the violence of ``The Running Man'' or the foolishness of ``The Hanoi Hilton'' or the gross-outs of ``The Witches of Eastwick.''
But it's hard to wax despondent about a year that offered such soft-spoken beauties as ``The Glass Menagerie'' and ``The Whales of August'' and ``The Dead,'' plus experiments like ``Made in Heaven'' and ``Swimming to Cambodia.''
The movies - the good movies - were alive and well in 1987.
David Sterritt is the Monitor's film critic.