50 years ago, much of the world was still in paroxysms of social change, cultural upheaval and political ferment after the close of the 1960s. Though not as celebrated or discussed as 1968, the year when riots ripped through France, America, Poland and beyond, 1970 saw the beginnings of a more disillusioned but no less momentous decade. 

Before the Vietnam war had yet ended, and as a cruel backlash against the Prague Spring had begun, 1970 sat poised in a tumultuous period, while music, art and cinema flourished nonetheless. The Beatles released Let It Be and The Velvet Underground released Loaded; Robert Altman won the Palme d’Or for MASH

Filmmakers, encouraged by the flowering of creative freedom in nations once haunted by totalitarian regimes, and spurred on by the explosion of the counterculture, had adopted the lessons of the various European new waves and made them their own, whether that be in taut political thrillers with a surrealist edge to full-blown, barely narrative movies rich with symbolism and thin on traditional plot. 

A rich global year for cinema was the result, with entries from disparate filmmakers like Barbara Loden, Luis Buñuel, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Michelangelo Antonioni, and many others. Here are 10 of the best, boldest and sometimes weirdest films of 1970.

Le Cercle rouge (1970)

Director: Jean-Pierre Melville

Considered the final part of a loose trilogy of monochromatic, masterful crime films from the French director, Le Cercle rouge stars Jean-Pierre Melville regular Alain Delon as a moustachioed, monosyllabic ex-con named Corey. Newly released from prison, he soon becomes part of a plot to rob a jewellery shop, joining forces with Yves Montand and Gian Maria Volonté. 

In spite of a famed 30-minute stretch of silence while the heist takes place, which tests the boundaries of narrative genre film, the movie was an enormous hit in France at the time. Deliberately paced and pared down to the point of minimalism, Le Cercle rouge may not be what people have come to expect from a heist film, but directors from Michael Mann to John Woo have credited its despairing simplicity as a foundational influence.

Claire’s Knee (1970)

Director: Eric Rohmer

One of the most celebrated of Eric Rohmer’s dreamy filmic examinations of summertime ennui, Claire’s Knee is the type of film where a brief description of its plot does very little to conjure its evocative, sensual mood.

Jean-Claude Brialy stars as the bearded Jerome, a man on vacation at Lake Annecy ahead of his imminent marriage. It’s here that he bumps into Aurora, an old love who now has two charming teenage daughters along with her in their lakeside idyll. The younger, shier daughter, Laura, falls hard for the older man, who in turn develops his own infatuation with her assured, pretty, older sister Claire. And when Claire climbs a ladder and reveals her tanned knee under the hem of her sundress, Jerome becomes strangely entranced by this small, unerotic part of her body. 

Rohmer gently probes Jerome’s desire for Claire, a teenager who seems bland in all but her looks. In his typically voluble style, he makes pointed observations on the nature of male lust, and on the female bonds which withstand that onslaught.

The Conformist (1970)

Director: Bernardo Bertolucci

Bernardo Bertolucci’s cornerstone of Italian art cinema stars Jean-Louis Trintignant as Marcello, a repressed, cold-eyed fascist with a childhood history of sexual abuse. He works for Mussolini’s secret police against the grandiose art-deco backdrop of 1930s Italy. Assigned to assassinate an old professor who has become a prominent anti-fascist, Marcello finds himself strangely enamoured by the professor’s wife (Dominique Sanda), an elegant blonde who he will ultimately betray. 

Unforgettably shot by cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, whose visually expressive work proved a major influence on the look of The Godfather (1972), The Conformist speaks of a twisted loyalty to Mussolini’s party, and the spiritual and moral degradation it engenders in the individual. It’s a chilling portrait of cruelty and cowardice; and while Bertolucci has since become a controversial figure in film culture, his portrayal of the psyche behind the ideology is as relevant as ever.

Investigation of a Citizen above Suspicion (1970)

Director: Elio Petri

Although Elio Petri’s black-hearted political crime drama does feature a policeman in its central role, it’s in many ways a cut above the ‘poliziotteschi’ subgenre of cop thrillers that became a fixture of 1970s Italian cinema. Making his masterpiece here, Petri’s background was explicitly left-wing, and he sought to unravel the byzantine levels of police and state corruption in Italy of the time. 

The story features a high-level, sociopathic detective who does everything he can to get caught for a homicide, revealing a borderline absurdist nightmare of bureaucracy and vice. Damp with perspiration and with darting eyes, Gian Maria Volonté – a veteran star of spaghetti westerns and crime movies, including Melville’s Le Cercle rouge – is perfectly attuned to this inscrutable, monstrously nasty role. His character is a fascist brute in all but name.

Performance (1970)

Directors: Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg

A shapeshifting, identity-swapping exercise in rock-and-roller weirdness, Performance is unlike much that’s come before or since. It stars Mick Jagger as an avatar of himself taking a break from the world of fame, tucked away in a West London basement flat decked out in Far East finery and a duo of groupie girls. James Fox is quieter but equally potent as a dyed-in-the-wool Cockney gangster on the lam from his own gang, trying to blend in and keep his head down as he hides in the same apartment as the hippies he clearly disdains. 

In spite of initial antipathy, or perhaps because of it, the pair grow increasingly fascinated with one another, leading to excursions into hallucinogen use and eventual psychic breakdowns. Jagger appears in slick-haired macho mode, while Fox grows out luxurious bohemian locks. A frankly confusing conclusion doesn’t change the fact that Performance is a fascinating, trippy exploration of a wide cultural rift, and a pointed deconstruction of masculinity to boot.

Safar (1970)

Director: Asit Sen

Devastating and gentle by turns, Asit Sen’s epic Hindi romance is told in sweeping melodramatic style but with performances that are subtle enough to make the word ‘melodrama’ seem entirely wrong. The story is told in flashback style by an older woman, Neela (Sharmila Tagore). She begins her story as a trainee doctor, when she meets the poetic, shiftless working-class young man Avinash (Rajesh Khanna) she will pine for for the rest of her life. Although their love for one another is pure and intense, Avinash is unwilling to marry Neela. At first, she assumes this is to do with his lack of money, but in time she comes to realise he’s terminally ill. Then another man comes along…

Featuring a handful of poignant love songs and giving Bollywood superstar Khanna a particularly lovely role, Safar combines grounding emotional and economic realism with a dreamy, tragic romance.

Stray Cat Rock: Delinquent Girl Boss (1970)

Director: Yasuharu Hasebe

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Stray Cat Rock: Delinquent Girl Boss (1970)

A pop-art inflected, flashy trip influenced by Seijun Suzuki and Jean-Luc Godard, the first film in the Stray Cat Rock series features girl-power gang leader Mei (Meiko Kaji) seeking help from a mysterious gunslinger-style biker girl (Akiko Wada) to fight off an all-male gang of right-wing thugs. 

As if the plot itself isn’t enough of a draw, director Yasuharu Hasebe employs every stylistic trick in the book: freeze frames, schizophrenic editing, split screens, LSD pops of colour, and a seemingly never-static camera. It all brings to life a riotous story where the macho, nationalist yakuza play second fiddle to some tough girls in miniskirts.

Tristana (1970)

Director: Luis Buñuel

A literary adaptation that surrealist master Luis Buñuel had been wanting to make for years – and which he only did after a battle with the Franco regime’s censors – Tristana is a period piece of deeply-felt beauty and radical impulse. It tells the story of an innocent young woman (Catherine Deneuve, whose stop-light eyes and remote beauty are used to wonderfully infantile effect) living in 1920s and 30s Spain. When she loses her parents and is thrust upon the patriarchal and self-serving cruelty of her guardian Don Lope (Fernando Rey), she attempts to rebel, only to find that the circumstances of fate have put her in a terrible bind. 

Although the material and setting make Buñuel’s sometimes-madcap style more restrained than usual, his touches are still there within the formal austerity. In the strict world Tristana lives in, her spark of passion for a young artist (Franco Nero) may doom her, but in Buñuel’s view, it’s better to have transgressed and enjoyed it than not to have transgressed at all.

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970)

Director: Jaromil Jires

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Valerie and her Week of Wonders (1970)

An erotic horror film like no other, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders begins strangely and only becomes more horrifically strange as it progresses. Entering the darkest recesses of the surrealist imagination, complete with dream-within-a-dream chaos and a frightening black-clad villain who chases 13-year-old Valerie (Jaroslava Schallerová).

Considered a part of the Czech New Wave that erupted out of Czechoslovakia in the 1960s, the film explores the nitty-gritty of the pubescent girls’ subconscious, from semi-incestuous desires and the sexual threat of men to anxieties around religion and adulthood. But don’t expect any answers on what the film sums up to or means as a whole. Jires’s vision is a dark fairytale-style journey through a dreamscape of Freudian proportions, where nothing is clear cut.

Wanda (1970)

Director: Barbara Loden

A once little-remembered film by actor and director Barbara Loden, Wanda has rightfully seen its reputation increase in the past decade or so, thanks to passionate restoration and programming. Loden, who tragically died at 48, left Wanda as her only feature film and as a testament to her remarkable talent as a filmmaker. She stars as a drifting, existentially hopeless housewife who is drawn into a heist plot where the thrill of any crime is more or less drowned out by alienation and despair. Wanda lets things happen to her, seemingly unable to take any sufficient control of her life and utterly resigned to this fact. 

A hypnotic tale of a weary woman and of weary womanhood writ large, Wanda feels thoroughly of the 1970s in its second-wave feminist impulses and its grainy look. At the same time, it’s very contemporary in its study of the effects of female loneliness and male violence.

Originally published: 21 August 2020