A FAINT, melancholy critical consensus has begun to emerge that 1980 was a miserable year for movies. Imagine that.Depending on the hyperbolic inclinations of reviewers, it was perhaps the worst year for movies since . . . the invention of sprocket holes . . . or since . . . they started writing for a living . . . or since . . . 1979.

As a matter of fact, any given year tends to produce plenty of movies worth patronizing, for one reason or another, and a greater number worth avoiding, while leaving the American movie industry in a fix of one kind or another. 1980 was no exception, as the accompanying lists of the good, the bad and the intriguing are designed to illustrate.

Lacking an overwhelming preference as the best film of the year, a favorite comparable to last year's "The Black Stallion," I've elected to place "The Empire Strikes Back" at the top of the list. It's the most skillful and impressive popular entertainment of the year, rivaled in my opinion only by the humanitarian claims of the pictures I've chosen to rank immediately behind it: "Eboli," "Best Boy" and "Angi Vera." Without "Empire" the slump in the 1980 box-office, which is likely to be 10 to 15 percent off the 1979 figures, would have been horrifying. The commercial and artistic prosperity of American movies is so clearly dependent on the continued good judgment of George Lucas that you can be certain the fact will be ignored at the upcoming Academy Awards, where respectably platitudinous, middlebrow domestic melodramas like "Ordinary People" and "The Great Santini" will battle it out with a confused psychodrama like "Raging Bull" for the major prizes.

Objectively considered, none is a more gripping or audacious feat of motion-picture storytelling or stylization than "Empire." It seems to me that "Empire" is even a more intriguing family melodrama than these supposedly down-to-earth contenders. But then who likes to admit that such stimulating, suggestive escapism, so obviously appealing to children, could represent the medium at its most imaginative and stirring? It's always embarassing to be reminded that your bread isn't buttered on the most pretentious side.

The best movies of 1980, more or less in order of preference:

"The Empire Strikes Back," directed by Irvin Kershner.

"Eboli," directed by Francesco Rosi.

"Best Boy," directed by Ira Wohl.

"Angi Vera," directed by Pal Gabor.

"Dressed to Kill," directed by Brian De Palma.

"My Brilliant Career," directed by Gillian Armstrong.

"Coal Miner's Daughter," directed by Michael Apted.

"The Idolmaker," directed by Taylor Hackford.

"Hide in Plain Sight," directed by James Caan.

"Roadie," directed by Alan Rudolph.

"Inside Moves," directed by Richard Donner.

"My Bodyguard," directed by Tony Bill.

"A Simple Story," directed by Claude Sautet.

"The Stunt Man," directed by Richard Rush.

"Cheech & Chong's Next Movie," directed by Thomas Chong.

"Kagemusha," directed by Akira Kurosawa.

"The Long Riders," directed by Walter Hill.

"The Big Red One," directed by Sam Fuller.

"The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith," directed by Fred Schepisi.

"Hero at Large," directed by Martin Davidson.

Despite rather more nagging flaws, the following supplementary list also can be recommended for notable laughs, thrills and performances or for sheer notoreity: "Stir Crazy," "The Big Brawl," "Mad Max," "The Changeling," "Terror Train," "He Knows You're Alive," "Airplane!," "Ordinary People," "The Great Santini," "Honeysuckle Rose," "Brubaker," "The First Deadly Sin," "Oh, Heavenly Dog!," "Popeye," "The Competition," "Flash Gordon," "Folkes," "Being There," "All That Jazz," "The Trials of Alger Hiss," "The Serial," "Home Movies," "Simon," "Loving Couples," "Raging Bull."

Two exceptional features shown as part of American University's series of Polish films, "Man of Marble" and "In the Still of the Night," deserve a special mention. I hope they receive commercial openings one of these days. The role of the great Andrzej Wajda, the director of "Man of Marble," in the recent memorial service at Gdansk (he staged it) should also confirm programmers at the AFI Theater in plans to mount a long-overdue Wajda retrospective.

Steven Spielberg's so-called Special Edition of "close Encounters of the Third Kind" was a curious piece of tinkering that also requires a special note. Spielberg cut some scenes from the 1977 release, restored some scenes he originally had discarded (including one sensational sequence of marital distress between Richard Dreyfuss and Teri Garr) and added an overrated, ineffective new sequence purporting to show what the protagonist saw once inside the massive mothership of the extraterrestrials.

Everything considered, the original was prefereble, but if Spielberg wants to leave a definitive version, he should probably restore all the cuts from the original and special editions while junking the sequence inside the mothership, which actually deflates the climactic spectacle by failing to add a new high to what was an ascending pattern of revelations.

The denouement might really have been enhanced by having the Teri Garr character on hand for the big encounter: since she's the ultimate practical-minded skeptic, a woman with no use for mysticism whatever, the conception needs her presumably dumbfounded response to the verification of her husband's delusions. Failing to reunite this estranged couple seems to have cost Spielberg a potentially marvelous comic clincher.

The most savory bad movies of the year: "Somewhere in Time," "When Time Ran Out . . .," "Raise the Titanic," "The Blue Lagoon," "Can't Stop the Music," "Xanadu," "The Awakening," "The Jazz Singer," "The Formula."

Unfortunately, these idiot's delights were far outnumbered by the unsavory and unappealing. "Caligula" and "Our Hitler" belong in a Class By Themselves, followed by wretched refuse like "Windows," "Times Square," "The Island," "Fatso," "Up the Academy," "First Family," "Why Would I Lie?," "Where the Buffalo Roam," "Bad Timing," "Foxes," "In God We Trust," "Guyana, Cult of the Damned," "The Gong Show Movie," "Motel Hell," "Cruising," "A Small Circle of Friends," "Hollywood Knights," "Nothing Personal," "Nine to Five," "Oh, God! Book II," "Little Darlings" and "The Last Married Couple in America," "Caddyshack."

Special cases of badness, requiring intensive analysis and possibly divine forgiveness: "The Shining," "The Blues Brothers," "Smokey and the Bandit II," "Willie and Phil," "Stardust Memories," "Used Cars," "All That Jazz" and "Raging Bull," all of which revealed exceptionally talented filmmakers or performers in the act of abusing their reputations with weirdly oblivious or hateful work.

Finally, a special note of appreciation to the year's two great non-professional "performances," the late Pearl Wohl in "Best Boy" and 10-month-old Wesley Ivan Hurt in "Popeye" -- authentic, radiant images of humanity at opposite ends of the life cycle.