AMERICAN movies didn't shine in 1988. But there were some bright achievements, and promising developments in other lands augur well for 1989. Behind the scenes, few developments had much broad impact, and none equaled the most significant event of 1987: the departure of British producer David Puttnam from his brief leadership of Columbia Pictures, squelching any hope that American studios were about to give us a flood of literate, human-scale productions. Hollywood continued to steer a conservative course in 1988, showing no desire to rock the boat that carried it to an all-time-high box office take of nearly $4.4 billion.
Assessing the 1988 movie scene means looking past business developments, therefore, and examining the evidence on the screen. If the year wasn't downright poor by this measure, it certainly was nondescript. Talent was spread too thinly over too many second-rate projects - a circumstance illustrated by the New York Film Critics Circle's best-of-the-year awards.
The balloting was marked by disagreement and indecision, and for the first time in anyone's memory, no movie earned more than one award. ``The Accidental Tourist,'' a romance considered trite and artificial by many reviewers, won the best-picture nod. By contrast, former cinematographer Chris Menges was named best director - for ``A World Apart,'' an intensely serious drama attacking South African apartheid - and a baseball comedy, ``Bull Durham,'' picked up the prize for best screenplay. Other awards were equally fragmented. How to characterize a year when such disparate movies shared the winner's circle - except to say that filmmakers, critics, and audiences all seemed uncertain about what sorts of cinema most deserved their attention?
There was one arena where consistently exciting things happened, however: documentary filmmaking. ``The Thin Blue Line,'' directed by Errol Morris, combined cinematic brilliance with decisive impact in the real world - helping to win a new trial for a Texan convicted of murder in what the movie claims was a miscarriage of justice. ``Imagine: John Lennon,'' by producer David Wolper and director Andrew Solt, vividly portrayed a rock-music giant with the help of previously unseen home-movie footage. The massive ``Hotel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie'' brought renewed acclaim to French director Marcel Ophuls with its examination of a Nazi war criminal's career.
Despite the year's general lack of focus, a couple of trends emerged in Hollywood's fiction films. The most important was an interest in so-called women's issues that could - if it continues to mature - indicate a new concern for serious matters in commercially dramatic contexts.
``A Cry in the Dark'' told the true story of an Australian woman mistakenly accused of killing her baby. ``The Accused'' concerned a rape victim who prosecutes the men responsible for the assault. ``The Good Mother'' raised the subjects of child custody and sexual abuse. Besides dealing with topics of special concern to women - sexual aggression, family-building, and child-raising, among others - these movies took particular interest in the adversary relationship between their heroines and the criminal-justice system. If their three-pronged arrival in 1988 wasn't just fortuitous but the result of a new soberness in film-production circles, 1989 could be a thought-provoking year.
A more extravagant branch of the movie scene - the science-fiction and fantasy wing - also took on new importance in recent months, becoming Hollywood's prime arena for examining race relations and other social concerns.
The year's top moneymaker, ``Who Framed Roger Rabbit,'' dealt explicitly with race in its half-cartoon, half-live tale of human and animated creatures living in an uneasy relationship. ``Alien Nation'' was a futuristic yarn about Americans and immigrants from another planet. ``They Live'' dealt with mind control via mass media. Even a likable Steven Spielberg-George Lucas cartoon, ``The Land Before Time,'' dealt with dinosaurs of different ``races'' who learn to live together and cooperate.
Political issues cropped up in realistic movies, too. ``Betrayed'' was an unsuccessful but well-meaning attempt to dramatize neo-Nazism in the Midwest, while ``Mississippi Burning'' was Hollywood's first serious treatment of American civil-rights struggles during the 1960s.
Three more films on that subject are reportedly in production now for release during 1989, and a more appropriate trend - given the real-life racial troubles that continue today - is hard to imagine.
Other encouraging signs have come from the East in recent months. Soviet filmmakers are delving eagerly into new territory under the banners of glasnost and perestroika, and Soviet distributors are showing heightened interest in exporting such movies. Chinese cinema is also striking out in fresh directions, and a new generation of filmmakers in Taiwan and Hong Kong has started to capture the American imagination.
So far, these developments are visible mainly in film festivals and other limited venues. But excited critics are spreading the word about them, and they could become the hottest tickets around in the very near future.