In this year of living dangerously, of testing the limits of good taste and viewer tolerance, "Pretty Woman" simply lifted herskirts and stepped over the racier competition. There was an uproar over "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, & Her Lover," yet it was "Ghost" that serenely floated off with $200 million in U.S. box office grosses. Given the choice between Cinderella and Henry the Serial Killer, the public went with the fairy tale in 1990. And who -- aside from those of us who spend altogether too much time in the dark anyhow -- can blame them?

"Henry and June," the first film ever rated NC-17 -- a new rating that replaced the X -- disappeared as rapidly as the blush on a virgin's cheek. The public wanted boy meets girl, not boy beats girl or eats girl or ties up girl or chops girl into little bitty pieces and buries her in the basement. They wanted family fare. Seemingly weary of excess in all things, Mr. and Mrs. American Moviegoer and the Little Moviegoers wanted "Ninja Turtles" and "Home Alone," Nos. 3 and 4 for the year at the box office.

While movie violence rose to inexcusable and excruciating levels, the two major butt-kickers of the '80s -- Stallone and Schwarzenegger -- were turning over new fig leaves for the new decade. In "Rocky V," Stallone boxes in the shadow of Alan Alda, while Schwarzenegger has mellowed from the Martian G-man of "Total Recall" to the baby sitter of "Kindergarten Cop." In this feel-good movie Arnold, now a father himself, chucks chins and pats bottoms.

That is not to say that the barbarians went totally unappreciated. Bruce Willis held his own as the indefatigable detective of "Die Hard 2," and the artier "GoodFellas" did good if not great business. But mostly the big guns went off half-cocked, their magnums clattering to the floor. Casualties were especially heavy for the over-50 set, with Clint Eastwood bellyflopping in "The Rookie," "Pink Cadillac" and "White Hunter, Black Heart," Jack Nicholson sinking in "The Two Jakes" and Robert Redford bombing in "Havana." For that matter, Warren Beatty did not live up to Disney's expectations when it came to turning "Dick Tracy" into this year's "Batman." The lesson for leading men of the '70s seems to be, go soak your teeth.

Then again, they made movies about the past to fit the political correctness of the New Age. Kevin Costner may be working with a hoary genre, but his popular sleeper "Dances With Wolves" is a revisionist western that looks at the whole earth and the family of man. He plays a 19th-century cavalryman who finds the extended family he always craved among the Sioux. A story about race relations, ecology and the application of violence, Costner's film speaks to us where we currently live. Or would like to.

"Awakenings," which has just opened in L.A. and New York, also touches upon more elevated themes. The story of a psychiatrist (Robin Williams) who brings a near-comatose patient (Robert De Niro) back to the world, it could be this year's "Rain Man." When De Niro awakes, he finds the world an almost unbearably beautiful place, appreciating the breeze of a fan or his mother's tender smile. "Friendship, family ... what matter are the simplest things," says the doctor, who has learned from his patient.

The two best bets in this year's Oscar race, "Dances With Wolves" and "Awakenings," are works that inspire awe and reverence. Like "Ghost," they seek spiritual reassurance in a society sick with greed, violence and AIDS. As the material world of "Wall Street" abandons us, we beseech the ghosts and angels for help. Thus, "Jacob's Ladder," "Flatliners" and "Longtime Companion" fare better than the yuppie nightmare of "Pacific Heights." We don't want to see movies about yuppies losing their real estate.

What we do want to see is coping, albeit metaphorically, with or without violence. How does "Darkman" deal with losing his identity when he is disfigured by the henchmen of an evil real estate developer? (Real estate woes dotted the landscape. Rocky Balboa's investments went bad and the Stallion was forced to move back to South Philly.) His face burned away and his nervous system dismantled by uncaring scientists, Darkman doesn't know who he is anymore. No longer able to feel pain or much of anything else, he becomes increasingly violent in his vengeful rampages.

Violence propels him, just as it propelled the plot of "Ghost," which finds the banker hero shot down in what appears to be a random street crime -- only it is at the behest of a greedy yuppie. It is the potential of violence that moves "Kindergarten Cop," a comedy that warns children not to talk to strangers and deals with abusive parents and the trouble with Oedipal fixations.

"Home Alone" has been so successful because it is about resourcefulness. Eight years old and surrounded by bad guys, Macaulay Culkin defeats evil with pluck and ingenuity, not machine guns. This suggests that American audiences remain hopeful that we are still a land of Tom Sawyers and Injun Joes. Alternatives simply have not been working, so we heartily re-endorse our old stereotypes.

In "Kindergarten Cop," Schwarzenegger's unruly charges become a beatific bunch of little darlings after he institutes techniques of discipline pioneered by parochial school nuns. In "Pretty Woman," Julia Roberts's prostitute couldn't be more feminine, teaching hyper Wall Streeter Richard Gere how to relax and smell the caviar. In "Ghost," Whoopi Goldberg is hilarious but comes uncomfortably close to caricature.

Sometimes what didn't fly tells us more about who we are than what went through the roof. While embracing "Twin Peaks," America's hepcats rejected David Lynch's raunchy "Wild at Heart." We said no thanks to young hunks and aging babes ("White Palace" and "Tune In Tomorrow") and to Jamie Lee Curtis as Dirty Harry in pantyhose in "Blue Steel." We snubbed the foul Andrew Dice Clay in "The Adventures of Ford Fairlane." It seems that Mr. and Mrs. Moviegoer are not that wild at heart.

Rita Kempley's 10 Best Movies of 1990

(in alphabetical order): Awakenings Dances With Wolves Darkman Edward Scissorhands GoodFellas Metropolitan Miller's Crossing The Nasty Girl Reversal of Fortune Vincent and Theo Rita's 10 Worst Movies of 1990: The Adventures of Ford Fairlane Betsy's Wedding Days of Thunder Havana Lambada: The Forbidden Dance Stanley and Iris State of Grace Stella Texasville The Two Jakes

Hal Hinson's 10 Best Movies of 1990 (in alphabetical order): Avalon Dances With Wolves GoodFellas Henry & June May Fools Men Don't Leave Miller's Crossing The Russia House Vincent & Theo Without You I'm Nothing

Hal's 10 Worst Movies of 1990: Akira Kurosawa's Dreams The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover Flatliners Flashback Homer & Eddie Jacob's Ladder Pump Up the Volume Revenge RoboCop 2 The White Girl