The Los Angeles Film Critics Association may have saved Terry Gilliam's film from being permanently shelved by a studio the Monty Python player had probably considered his personal Scrooge.

Gilliam's dark, $15 million "Brazil" -- a movie Universal Pictures had branded "unreleasable" -- was named 1985's best picture Saturday by the Los Angeles critics, and Gilliam himself was given awards as best director and best screen writer. All this for a film that's never been shown in public and was never screened for critics by Universal.

In fact, most of the voters saw the film only because Gilliam arranged some private, undercover screenings for them. But then, says one insider, "He's always known that his best chance to get Universal to back down was to go to the press, because they love David-and-Goliath stories and arty, depressing movies."

Gilliam angered Goliath -- Universal and its president, Sidney Sheinberg -- when he went public with his dissatisfaction over the studio's handling of his film. Although "Brazil" opened to rave reviews in Europe, the studio wanted a shorter and, reportedly, happier version, but Gilliam refused to make cuts or graft on a happy ending.

And now that the film has picked up its award, "Brazil" will receive its U.S. release. At approximately the same time it was honored by the critics, "Brazil" was booked into Academy Award-qualifying engagements in Los Angeles and New York. To be eligible for awards, a film must play for one week during the year, and that's exactly what Universal has given "Brazil": It will be shown during the last week of the year, Dec. 25-31. Other Award Winners

The Los Angeles critics gave their best actress award to Meryl Streep for another film that hadn't been released at the time of voting, albeit one that's getting a more enthusiastic push from its studio: "Out of Africa," which opened yesterday. The movie, which costars Robert Redford, was runner-up in the best picture balloting.

The film next most honored by the L.A. critics was Akira Kurosawa's "Ran," the object of some controversy in its homeland, Japan. The movie, one of the most acclaimed works by Kurosawa (best known for "Rashomon"), was widely considered the front-runner for the Academy Award for a foreign film. But it won't be in the running for the Oscars. Academy rules give each country the right to choose its entry, and this year Japan passed over "Ran" amid charges Kurosawa was being snubbed because he is a maverick who has often annoyed Japan's filmmaking establishment. At the Box Office

Moving to a film that's unlikely to win any critics' awards: "Rocky IV" has set a record for the biggest first-week box office take in South Africa's history. That's according to an MGM/UA press release -- though, as the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner pointed out, it's a bit disconcerting to find a studio bragging about its South African revenues at a time more and more filmmakers are following Woody Allen's lead and refusing to let their films be released in that country . . .

"Rocky IV" is still the biggest moneymaker in the United States, too. Last weekend it beat out another sequel, "The Jewel of the Nile," by picking up $7.2 million to "Jewel's" $6.6 million. "Jewel" did make more than "Rocky" on a per-screen basis, but it fell short of the opening-weekend totals registered by its predecessor, "Romancing the Stone." "Spies Like Us" and "White Nights," meanwhile, are hanging on with respectable totals, but "Santa Claus: The Movie" made less money than the previous weekend even though it has just opened in 350 more theaters. Must be a tough week for Christmas films: Disney's "One Magic Christmas" also slipped badly . . .

As for Paramount's board-game-turned-movie, "Clue," the question has changed from "Who dunnit?" to "Who saw it?" The answer, at least last weekend, was not many. "Clue" made only $2 million and racked up disappointing per-screen averages. No word on which of the three endings proved to be the biggest draw.