When the movie year began, it seemed like business as usual . . . leftover '93 Oscar-contenders (like "Schindler's List") made their way to the hinterlands, the expected variety of dull-to-awful January, February and March releases crawled quickly in and out of theaters and the hope of summer blockbusters loomed during the spring.

The firstlings of the '94 flock were "The Air Up There," "Blink" and Steven Seagal's directing debut, "On Deadly Ground." And it went downhill from there.The first big hit of 1994 was "Ace Ventura, Pet Detective," the first surprise flop was "Angie" and the first kids' picture was "Monkey Trouble."

But as summer business began, it seemed that high hopes might still be fulfilled. Blockbusters (films that pass the coveted $100 million mark) blasted on the scene, setting box-office records. Who can remember the last time a summer season brought eight blockbuster flicks? And two of them ("The Lion King" and "Forrest Gump") not only passed the $200 million mark - they went all the way up to $300 million, landing on the all-time top five blockbuster list.

Aside from other huge hits, like "The Flintstones," "True Lies," "Clear and Present Danger" and "The Mask," there were some big surprise hits . . . "Four Weddings and a Funeral," "The Crow," "Speed," "Stargate," etc.

Of course, there were also big flops, and some of those flops were also surprises - "Beverly Hills Cop III," "Renaissance Man," "Wyatt Earp," "Getting Even With Dad," "Black Beauty," "North," "Quiz Show," "Ed Wood," "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein," "Miracle on 34th Street" and "Junior." Even the presence of our highest-profile stars - Eddie Murphy, Macaulay Culkin, Kevin Costner, Arnold Schwarzenegger - didn't seem to make any difference.

The fall brought an unexpected dearth of Oscar-quality movies, with those that did look good - "Quiz Show," "The Shawshank Redemption," "Ed Wood" - failing to live up to box-office expectations.

The Christmas season wasn't any brighter, except at the box office, where "The Santa Clause" became the ninth 1994 film to cross the $100 million mark - and it's still going. "Interview With the Vampire" didn't quite reach $100 million, but at $98.4 million and still slowly climbing, it should manage to make its way to that level in the next week or two. (The next highest-grossing film is "The Client," which had been predicted to hit $100 million as well, but which instead stalled at $90 million during the fall.)

In perhaps the most rapid ascent to movie stardom ever, Jim Carrey hit it big with "Ace Ventura, Pet Detective," hit it bigger with "The Mask" and then came up with a third hit at the end of the year, "Dumb & Dumber." Next up are "Ace Ventura Goes to Africa" and "Batman Forever," in which he plays the villainous Riddler. These days, he's commanding $7 million to $10 million per picture . . . though he took a pay cut to do the "Batman" sequel. He only got $5 million.

Mia Farrow received kudos for her post-Woody acting comback, "Widow's Peak," and Woody Allen also fared well with "Bullets Over Broadway." John Travolta made a triumphant comeback in Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction" - and Tarantino became something of a star himself.

Entertainment moguls Steven Spielberg, Jeffery Katzenberg and David Geffen, announced the formation of a new studio to compete with the likes of MGM, Paramount Pictures, 20th Century Fox and all the others. Their studio is yet unnamed.

And Tim Allen went from being TV's top star ("Home Improvement") to the movies' top star ("The Santa Clause") - with his first picture. Allen still has a couple of years left on his television contract - but you can bet we'll get another Allen comedy next year, while he's still hot.

Among the stars we lost in '94 were Burt Lancaster, Jessica Tandy, Joseph Cotten, John Candy, Anita Morris, Woody Woodpecker's creator Walter Lanz, Telly Savalas, Martha Raye, George Peppard, Cesar Romero, Dinah Shore, Peter Cushing, Raul Julia, Melina Mercouri and composer Henry Mancini.