New books on the movie front cover a wide range of territory, from the eminently serious to the merely entertaining - which accurately reflects the range of American movies themselves, always steering for position on the road between cinematic art and box-office commerce.

NO SURPRISES PLEASE: MOVIES IN THE REAGAN DECADE, by Steve Vineberg (Schirmer Books, 385 pp., $28). The title signals Steve Vineberg's basic argument: that the confrontational Hollywood films of the 1960s and '70s, such as the "Godfather" pictures and the myth-challenging epics of Robert Altman ("The Player," "McCabe & Mrs. Miller," "Nashville," and "M*A*S*H") have given way to a period of blandness and conformity in American cinema that echoes the predominant political mood of the '80s.

It is hard to argue with this idea, given the tidal wave of simplistic "feel-good pictures" that have been washing over the screen since the "Star Wars" adventures and the phenomenal success of "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial" marked a dubious new era in moviegoing tastes.

It's easy to argue with some of Vineberg's bottom-line assessments, however - such as his low opinion of Spike Lee's amazing "Do the Right Thing" and his high evaluations of Brian De Palma's sexist "Casualties of War" and Edward Zwick's racially unsophisticated "Glory."

Still, you have to admire the chutzpah of a writer who proclaims a never-released movie - the Goldie Hawn comedy "Swing Shift," in director Jonathan Demme's original version - as perhaps the most significant picture of recent times.

Vineberg, a theater professor who writes criticism regularly, evidently has more affection for surprises than do most moviegoers in the era he studies here.

JIMMY STEWART: A LIFE IN FILM, by Roy Pickard (St. Martin's Press, 208 pp., $18.95). James Stewart is among the best-loved stars in Hollywood history, and - even more to his credit as an artist and a professional - one of the most talented, lending extra dimensions of meaning and emotion to a long list of movies over several decades of hard work.

Promoted as a popular biography rather than an in-depth study, Roy Pickard's book supplements its text with illustrations from such Stewart classics as "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" and "It's a Wonderful Life," directed by his frequent collaborator Frank Capra, and "Vertigo" and "The Man Who Knew Too Much," directed by another frequent collaborator, Alfred Hitchcock.

These are unforgettable American films; not to mention "Anatomy of a Murder" and "The Philadelphia Story" and others. Memories, memories - and hints on what to look for the next time you're in your favorite video store.

INSIDE OSCAR: THE UNOFFICIAL HISTORY OF THE ACADEMY AWARDS, by Mason Wiley and Damien Bona (Ballantine Books, 1,070 pp., $20). From the first Oscar ceremony in 1927 through the prizes presented a year ago, the Academy Awards have always unleashed a torrent of speculation, second-guessing, gossip, and just plain talk.

This hefty volume contributes all manner of anecdotes and information to the fray, in a revised edition that includes material from the past four years - on the Oscars themselves, and on the movies and personalities that have competed for them.

Subjects are arranged under headings like "A Boy and His Alien," about Steven Spielberg's production of "E.T.," and "Cruising for a Bruising," about "Born on the Fourth of July" and its makers. Trivia buffs and behind-the-scenes mavens will surely find much here to enjoy.

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