THE SINGLE most stirring movie going event of 1981 was the revival of Abel T Gance's magnificent silent epic, "Napoleon," at Radio City Music Hall, in a version restored by film historian Kevin Brownlow and augmented by a live orchestral score composed and conducted by Carmine Coppola. This extraordinary presentation will finally arrive in Washington this February, at Kennedy Center's Opera House.

Three new American movies suggest themselves as symbolic high points of the year. They represent distinctive approaches to a thriving theatrical movie culture. First, the witty, resourceful independent feature "Return of the Secaucus Seven" illustrated how much could be done on a limited budget with authentic comedy writing and an entertaining ensemble of young actors. Second, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg reaffirmed their preeminence as pop filmmaking pace-setters by collaborating on the rousing adventure blockbuster "Raiders of the Lost Ark," which sparked a sustained box-office comeback over the summer. Finally, the stunning, innovative musical drama "Pennies From Heaven" has given an unexpected artistic lift to the new holiday movie season.

The most gratifying local event was the presentation of an honorary degree to the Polish director Andrzej Wajda by American University. Unfortunately, the local foreign film audience failed to rally to his most important recent work, "Man of Marble," when it opened earlier in the year. Rather mystifying, since the Hungarian film "Angi Vera," a far more somber political parable, had done well the previous year. To make the situation more discouraging, the Oscar-winning Soviet trifle "Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears" played for months.

Following the $40 million debacle of "Heaven's Gate," Transamerica sold United Artists to a suddenly resurgent MGM for about $400 million, becoming the first of the conglomerates to unload a movie company. Nevertheless, look for the MGM-UA operation to emerge as one of the most productive and stable. Denver oil tycoon Marvin Davis acquired 20th Century-Fox for about $700 million and began making movie people nervous by indicating more interest in liquidating the assets than making new features.

Orion, a struggling prestige production company formed three years ago by the disgruntled executive elite at UA, appeared to stabilize on the success of "Arthur" and offered to buy Filmways, a struggling distribution company. The Disney studio continued to misfire with attractions like "The Devil and Max Devlin," "Condorman" and "Watcher in the Woods" but launched several projects that promise a comeback in 1982, notably the new Carroll Ballard film "Never Cry Wolf." The Disney dilemma underlined the strangest--and presumably most unforeseen--consequence of the ratings system inaugurated by the Motion Picture Association of America in 1968: the evolution of the "G" rating into a stigma that even believers and specialists in "family entertainment" are now eager to avoid.

The low point of the year had been anticipated well in advance: the theatrical release of Michael Cimino's epic fiasco "Heaven's Gate." Opened in late April, it proved a hopeless, incoherent botch and did a trickle of curiosity business the first two days. By the third day even this trickle had dried up.

The implications of Cimino's failure extend well beyond the sheer commercial folly countenanced by UA executives, who crossed their fingers and hoped for a redeeming work of cinematic genius while allowing a production originally budgeted at $12 million to expand somewhere beyond $40 million, just as the prime interest rate was also merrily escalating. Arriving in the middle of a spring season that was strewn with overblown fizzles, "Heaven's Gate" didn't seem like an isolated case of conspicuous misconception. It was, however, the most ruinous case.

Although "Heaven's Gate" took the big fall, and deserved to, its worst tendencies may be endemic. If Cimino reproduced the past in a pictorially solemn, polemically simpleminded way in "Heaven's Gate," so do the directors of "Gallipoli" and "Ragtime." If Cimino emphasized texture at the expense of dramatic coherence, so do the directors of "Chariots of Fire" and "The French Lieutenant's Woman." If Cimino never got around to making sense of his plot, he's in teeming company. "Prince of the City," "Eyewitness," "True Confessions," "Body Heat," "Rich and Famous," "Absence of Malice," "The Four Seasons," "Superman II," "Blow Out" and "Eye of the Needle"--to mention only a few examples--never made sense in the ways they needed to make sense.

Two hilariously unjustified build-ups exposed celebrity journalism at its most fatuous. First, there were the adoring cover stories devoted to Alan Alda's virtuousness prior to the release of "The Four Seasons," a movie that returned the compliment by wallowing in upper middle-class complacency and triviality. Next, there were the adoring cover stories that celebrated Meryl Streep's acting genius prior to the release of "The French Lieutenant's Woman," a movie in which Streep conspicuously failed to project the erotic mystery and intensity required and was quite decisively outperformed by another young actress, Lynsey Baxter.

The Alda and Streep eyewash was ultimately surpassed by the gush heralding "On Golden Pond," but since the movie opens here in late January, honors will have to wait until next year's Roundtable.

I suspect that "Reds" is failing to live up to the burden of excessive, superficial critical acclaim, lavished by reviewers who tend to overrate Warren Beatty's serious intentions while underrating the letdown that awaits paying customers who dutifully follow the ambitious narrative to a diffuse conclusion. In addition, so much critical prestige has been invested hastily in "Reds" that there may be relatively little left to celebrate a genuinely stirring achievement like "Pennies From Heaven." Almost a high-budget sleeper, "Pennies" will be obliged to catch on as Something Completely Different, then gradually consolidate a classic reputation. I'm hoping that the new Francis Ford Coppola musical, "One From the Heart," due in February, can extend the stylistic experimentation of "Pennies," because the genre probably needs all the freshening influences it can get before "Annie" arrives next summer.

The principal sleeper of the year has to be "Arthur." Widely and rather plausibly rumored to be a disaster, it came as a delightful surprise. "Breaker Morant," "Return of the Secaucus Seven" and "Atlantic City" also proved durable attractions after appearing with a minimum of fanfare. In some respects even "Raiders" can be considered a sleeper. Exhibitors, obstinately disregarding "Jaws" and "Close Encounters" while vividly recalling the bath they took on "1941," were leery of Spielberg, and the Lucas organization played the picture close to the vest. "Raiders" remained an unheralded sensation until sneak previews a week before the opening created an ecstatic uproar. Still, even after the movie opened, it took a while to establish phenomenal legs and overtake "Superman II," which shattered box-office records everywhere for three or four weeks and then began to sputter out. At summer's end "Raiders" and "Arthur" were still rolling along. No one would be surprised if they remained the most reliable attractions of the winter.

Based on projections from the spring, the box-office should have declined 15-20 percent this year and the industry should have been immobilized indefinitely by a concurrent strike of writers and directors, producing a Big Depression. Neither calamity transpired. Timely hits like "Raiders" and a little enlightened self-interest prevented Hollywood from joining Major League Baseball in the strike-out column.