THE NEW year traditionally obliges movie critics to revive the lament that quality continues to decline and he apprehension that the movie business teeters on the brink of financial disaster. Still, neither observation prevents interesting and entertaining movies from turning up each year.

The percentage of more or less presentable, intriguing movies doesn't seem to vary much annually. I reviewed about 170 new releases in 1981 and thought 50 made reasonable esthetic claims of one sort or another on the leisure time and discretionary income of game, discriminating moviegoers. That 30 percent figure is typical of most years.

This year, Hollywood wasn't supposed to recover from a pitiful spring slump or resolve delicate negotiations with the writers' and directors' unions. After a big summer recovery and a reasonably steady autumn, a Christmas relapse was confidently predicted in the trade press. Then the missing public suddenly reappeared at box offices last weekend, evidently shopping late for both movies and presents.

Somehow, the business keeps surviving premature obits. I think it has something to do with a piece of folk wisdom formulated earlier this year by Michael Eisner, president of Paramount. "The three most important questions," he said, "are: One, what is the film? Two, what is the film? And three, what is the film?"

Confident that the medium may muddle through for another year, here are my annual checklists commemorating the good, the bad and the notably in-between for 1981. Not such a rotten year for movies, everything considered.

The best films, roughly in order of preference: "Pennies from Heaven," directed by Herbert Ross.See BEST, E8, Col. 1 BEST, FromE1

"Man of Marble," directed by Andrzej Wajda.

"The Return of the Secaucus 7," directed by John Sayles.

"Raiders of the Lost Ark," directed by Steven Spielberg.

"City of Women," directed by Federico Fellini.

"Atlantic City," directed by Louis Malle.

"All Night Long," directed by Jean-Claude Tramont.

"Arthur," directed by Steve Gordon.

"Priest of Love," directed by Christopher Miles.

"The Great Muppet Caper," directed by Jim Henson.

"Cutter's Way," directed by Ivan Passer.

"Time Bandits," directed by Terry Gilliam.

"I Sent a Letter to My Love," directed by Moshe Mizrahi.

"Body Heat," directed by Lawrence Kasdan.

"Gal Young Un," directed by Victor Nunez.

"The Haunting of Julia," directed by Richard Loncraine.

"Alligator," directed by Lewis Teague.

"Cheech & Chong's Nice Dreams," directed by Thomas Chong.

"Sharky's Machine," directed by Burt Reynolds.

"The Howling," directed by Joe Dante.

While I found them less satisfying or easy to make allowances for in the last analysis, the following titles were also rewarding in various respects, thanks to compelling subject matter, good performances, pictorial distinction or irresistible wackiness: "Melvin and Howard," "Chariots of Fire," "Prince of the City," "Tess," "Clash of the Titans," "Breaker Morant," "Whose Life Is It, Anyway?" "Pixote," "Southern Comfort," "Thief," "The Dogs of War," "True Confessions," "The French Lieutenant's Woman," "Student Bodies," "Stripes," "History of the World, Part I," "The Day After Trinity," "The First Deadly Sin," "The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia," "The Boat Is Full," "Dragonslayer," "Les Bons Debarras," "Lion of the Desert," "Reds," "Scanners," "Comin' at Ya!," "Polyester," "Kill and Kill Again," "Blow Out" and "Health."

No year is complete for a confirmed moviegoer without a savory assortment of bad movies. The most diverting stupefiers of 1981 were "Excalibur," "Altered States," "Wolfen," "Mommie Dearest," "Sphinx," "Eye of the Needle," "Savage Harvest," "A Second Chance," "Voyage en douce," "The Legend of the Lone Ranger," "The Hand," "S.O.B.," "Endless Love," "Rich and Famous" and "Rollover." A special citation in this category must go to a feature that was never released theatrically in Washington -- the delirious New York City chase thriller "Night of the Juggler," in which cop-turned-trucker James Brolin struggles to rescue his kidnaped daughter from Cliff Gorman, an insane South Bronx landlord. Cultists should note that this hysterical masterpiece will be revived several times on Home Box Office next month.

On the other hand, there are bad movies so vacuous, fatuous or miscalculated that they sap your enthusiasm for moviegoing. "Heaven's Gate" is, of course, the droopiest example ever, but it had competition from "American Pop," "Tarzan the Ape Man," "The Four Seasons," "The Last Metro," "Eyewitness," "Back Roads," "Second Hand Hearts," "Tribute," "Mon Oncle d'Amerique," "The Woman Next Door," "The Postman Always Rings Twice," "Buddy Buddy," "Continental Divide," "Tattoo," "Under the Rainbow," "Modern Problems," "Jupiter's Thigh," "Modern Romance," "Ragtime," "Cannonball Run," "Loulou," "So Fine," "Superman II," "For Your Eyes Only," "Looker," "Cheaper to Keep Her," "Chu Chu and the Philly Flash." There's also a special no-show in this category: "Beatlemania," mercifully yanked from distribution after its humiliating sneak previews.

The most impressive performances:

* By leading players: Burt Lancaster in "Atlantic City," Gene Hackman in "All Night Long," Ian McKellen in "Priest of Love," John Heard and Jeff Bridges in "Cutter's Way," Robert DeNiro and Robert Duvall in "True Confessions," Dudley Moore in "Arthur," Steve Martin in "Pennies from Heaven," Harrison Ford in "Raiders of the Lost Ark," William Hurt in "Body Heat," Harry Hamlin in "Clash of the Titans," Richard Dreyfuss in "Whose Life Is It, Anyway?," Simone Signoret in "I Sent a Letter to My Love," Bernadette Peters in "Pennies from Heaven," Janet Suzman in "Priest of Love," Mia Farrow in "The Haunting of Julia," Mary Steenburgen in "Melvin and Howard," Kristy McNichol in "The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia," Susan Sarandon in "Atlantic City."

* By supporting players: John Gielgud in "Arthur," Jack Nicholson in "Reds," Jerry Orbach in "Prince of the City," Robert Joy in "Atlantic City" and "Ragtime," Gregory Hines in "History of the World, Part I" and "Wolfen," Charles Grodin in "The Great Muppet Caper," Moses Gunn in "Ragtime," Charles Haid and Bob Balaban in "Altered States," Robert Preston and William Holden in "S.O.B.," Lynsey Baxter in "The French Lieutenant's Woman," Hollis McLaren in "Atlantic City," Penelope Keith in "Priest of Love," Delphine Seyrig in "I Sent a Letter to My Love," Maureen Stapleton in "Reds" and just about everyone in sight in "True Confessions," "Chariots of Fire," "Body Heat" and "Sharky's Machine."

Dreariest performances of the year: Jack Nicholson in "The Postman Always Rings Twice," Robert Blake in "Second Hand Hearts," Chevy Chase in "Modern Problems," Albert Brooks in "Modern Romance," Albert Finney in "Wolfen" and "Looker," Bruce Dern in "Tattoo," Meryl Streep in "The French Lieutenant's Woman," Bo Derek in "Tarzan the Ape Man," Brooke Shields in "Endless Love," Lisa Eichhorn in "Cutter's Way" and Jacqueline Bisset in "Sphinx" and "Rich and Famous." Now, if someone could come up with a snappy script for Chevy Chase and Brooke Shields or Bruce Dern and Bo Derek or Albert Finney and Jacqueline Bisset . . .

Don't forget to catch some of the highlights of 1981 on the rebound if you overlooked them in first-run. If you're anticipating the Oscars, look for "Atlantic City," "Reds," "Prince of the City," "Chariots of Fire," "Arthur," "The Four Seasons" and "On Golden Pond" to hog the major nominations, with "Pennies from Heaven" and "Raiders of the Lost Ark" lucky to emerge with a few minor nods for craftsmanship. The most logical Oscar-winner would, of course, be "Mommie Dearest," since it picks up the infernal maternal theme where "Kramer vs. Kramer" and "Ordinary People" left off. Now on to "Man of Iron," "From Mao to Mozart," "Four Friends," "Missing," "Taxi zum Klo," "My Dinner With Andre," "The Aviator's Wife," "The Devil's Playground," "Beau Pere," "Ticket to Heaven," "On Golden Pond," "One from the Heart," French films at AFI Theater, great directors at the Biograph and whatever else lies ahead in 1982.