BY NATURE and force of habit, movie people are optimistic. Never mind that last week's, last month's, last year's releases were beneath contempt, whatever is opening tomorrow always sounds awfully interesting. And the biggest tomorrow of the movie year is the time between now and Christmas, when the Wise Men of Hollywood favor us with their greatest gifts.

Some gifts, though, tend to look more glittery than others. This year, the best bets for glory are:

Close Encounters of the Third Kind - Director Steve Spielberg's first film since "Jaws," this strange tale of funny people from funny planets is a close to a must-see as a film ever gets. For Christmas at the Cinema. Also in the sci-fi arena is Survival Run, pantingly described as "the magnificent action/adventure epic of five people who survive the nuclear holocaust and of their incredible odyssey through the nightmare world it created." All brought to you, ready or not, in a spiffy new system called Sound 360.

Equus - Boy loves horse is news as Richard Burton tries to Get Serious after the wreckage of "The Heretic." Sidney Lumet directs from Peter Shaffer's hit play.

Julia - Jason Robards as the dapper Dashiell Hammett and Jane Fonda as Lillian Hellman in a film adapted from Miss Hellman's autobiographical Pentimento. At the Jennifer.

Looking for Mr. Goodbar - Diane Keaton's idea of a good time is hanging out in singles' bars. She's got a lot to learn. From the bestseller, October 28 at the Cinema.

Saturday Night Fever - Teen dream John Travolta and Karen "Queen of the Soaps" Gorney are a duo in this drama of the disco scene in Brooklyn, of all places.

Semi-Tough - Tons of fun in this football movie, starring Kris Kristofferson and Burt Reynolds and directed by Michael Ritchie, maker of the best films about competition - the best films about competition - "Downhill Racer," "Smile," "The Bad News Bears" - Hollywood has ever produced. Due mid-November.

A Special Day - Starring Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni and telling of a homosexual and a harried housewife drawn together during a large Mussolini rally, this was the major hit at Cannes. Due at one of the Circle complex, as are Alain Resnais' Providence, Michael Cacoyanis' Iphighenia, starring Irene Papas, and Agnes Varda's One Sings, the Other Doesn't, the winner, believe it or else, of the Taormina film festival's Golden Charybdis. Also getting commercial distribution but on the KB circuit will be Xala, a film by Africa's most prominent director, Ousmane Sembene of Senegal.

Turning Point - Two women, one who chose a ballet career, the other a home and family, meet after twenty years and try to decide what it all means, if anything. Starring Anne Bancroft, Shirley MacLaine and ballet hearthrob Mikhail Baryshnikov. At the Uptown.

Valentino - Speaking of heartthrobs, Rudy Nureyev makes his celluloid debut as the smoldering sex object. With Ken Russell directing, anything can happen. At the Cerberus and others, October 5. Also watch for Gene Wilder writing, directing and starring in The World's Greatest Lover, Dealing gingerly with a neurotiv Milwaukee baker, circa 1926, who is convinced he can wipe Valentino off the screen. At the Jennifer and other theaters.

Romance, which has been neglected lately, makes a comback of sorts this fall with:

Another Man, Another Woman - Claude Lelouch picks up where he left off, with James Caan and Genevieve Bujold as yeah, hurray, the happy couple.

Bobby Deerfield - Al Pacino and Marthe Keller make the best of what life tosses their way in the dog-eat-dog world of Grand Prix racing. Due October 26.

First Love - William Katt's first film since his debut as the Redford of the Seventies in "Carrie" is a bittersweet tale reminding us that falling in love isn't always wonderful. As if we didn't already know. October 28 at the Fine Arts.

A Night Full of Rain - Lina Wertmuller gives it another try in this tale of a stormy (what else?) relationship between Candice Bergen and Giancarlo Giannini. Probably a lot more fun will be Which Way Is Up? a remake of Wermuller's "The Seduction of Mimi," this time starring Richard Pryor.

Hardly forgotten in this gush of romance are the comedies, including:

The Goodbye Girl - A Neil Somon original starring Richard Dreyfuss as an aspiring actor who rooms with a thirtyish former dancer and her daughter. The dancer will be Marsha Mason, the real-like Mrs. Simon.

Joseph Andrews - Some of the people who brought you "Tom Jones," especially director Tony Richardson, return with another adaptation of a Fielding novel, this on with Ann-Margaret playing on Lady Booby.

Oh, God - George Burns plays the Celestial Being who picks assistant supermarket manager John Denver to bring his message to the multitudes.Only Carl Reiner would even attempt to direct this one. At the Janus.

A Piece of the Action - The third in a very lucrative series of Bill Cosby - Sidney Poitier collaborations, with Poitier directing.

And lest you think the movies have gone soft, watch out for the following macho machinations:

The Choirboys - Action expert Robert Aldrich in his element in this tidy tale of the quirky ways policemen relax on their days off.

The Gauntlet - Clint Eastwood is at it again, playing a police detective who is definitely not Dirty Harry but has his problems anyhow. At Keith's for Christmas.

Straight Time - Dustin Hoffman takes it on the chin in this prison drama. and when was the last time you saw one of those. Formerly titled "no Beast So Fierce," so watch it. Another Big House epic will be Short Eyes, from the Miguel Piniero play, due at one of the Circle theaters.

Telefon - That's Russian for telephone, which is all Charles Bronson needs to know in this espionage thriller directed by past master Don Siegal. At the Cerberus and Baronet West.

Some films, bless their little hearts, don't seem to fit any category at all. The most interesting of these look to be:

An Enemy of the People - Steve McQueen (yes, Steve McQueen) produced this Arthur Miller version of the Ibsen play starring Bibi Andersson.

The Duelists - Keith Carradine and Harvey Keitel play two men of honor who duel each other all over the map during the Napoleonic wars.

Homage to Chagall - A whatelse-but warmhearted documentary on the great Russian-born artist. Also in a Slavic cultural vien is a series of USSR ballet and opera films, including the great Plisetskaya in Anna Karenina, due for one of the KB theaters.

The Last Waltz - Some of Hollywood's finest cinematographers filmed The Band's last concer under the direction of Martin Scorsese. Hopefully a classic.

Pete's Dragon - Disney's Christmas attraction, a part-live, part-animation story of a little fellow named Pete who befriends a dragon. Just like that.

9/30/55 - Based loosely on the death of James Dean, what we see is how said death affected the students in a small college town.

And for those who want to peek ahead into 1978, among the attractions should be Mel Brooks' comedy spoof of Hitchcock, "High Anxiety," Paul Mazursky's "An Unmarried Woman," Ingmar Bergman's "The Serpent's Egg," Robert Altman's "A Wedding," and Francis Ford Coppola's long-awaited, long-postponed Vietnam film, "Apocalypse Now." Whew.