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The Ten Best Films of 1970

By Frank Rich

There have been better years for movies than 1970. Indeed many of the most newsworthy movies of the past 12 months have little or nothing to do with good moviemaking. Nineteen-seventy, you may recall, was the year Hollywood attempted to cash in on the so-called youth market ( Getting Straight and The Strawberry Statement, both vile), the year three major studios placed their fiscal futures on the line with expensive extravaganzas (Paramount, Catch-22; 20th-Century Fox, Tora! Tora! Tora!; and MGM, Ryan's Daughter ), and the year Europe's three best-known directors came up with relatively disappointing work (Fellini, Satyricon; Antonioni, Zabriskie Point; Bergman, The Passion of Anna ).

But there is a sunny side to all of this, too. What follows is a highly optimistic and personal list of the best of the crop. Eligible films include all those which were released commercially in the U.S. during the past calendar year, and, as convention goes, no European films over two years old, whether released here this year or not. Regrettably, some of the best films have not yet hit Boston-but some are here now and others will be soon. The list is in something approximating order of personal preference.

The Wild Child and Mississippi

Mermaid. Francois Truffaut's two films between last year's Stolen Kisses and the yet-to-be-released Domicile Conjugale are somewhat difficult and troubling works.

The Wild Child is a story of education, based on a real-life account of a French Enlightenment doctor's attempt to make a "wild boy" from the forests fit for civilization. Shot austerely in black and white, the movie dramatizes the arbitrariness and severity of what we call rational human behavior. Every shot in the film reflects on the work as a whole-and the work as a whole is a numbingly sad commentary on the value of a civilized consciousness. Truffaut himself plays the doctor and Jean-Pierre Cargol, a gypsy boy, plays the title role. For me, The Wild Child defines great moviemaking.

In Missisippi Mermaid Truffaut once again explores the symbiotic relationship between love and death. Jean-Paul Belmondo plays a plantation owner on the island of Reunion who sends for a mail-order bride (Catherine Deneuve), only to discover that the bride intends to take his money and possibly his life. As in Stolen Kisses, the characters' passions are desperate and often haplessly pathetic.

This film's downbeat reception in this country can be squarely blamed on its distributor, United Artists, who somehow saw fit to cut twenty minutes from. Truffaut's version for its American release. Still, a lot of the good is intact, and so are the film's intriguing references to Psycho, Shoot the Piano Player and the works of Jean Renoir, to whom Mississippi Mermaid is dedicated.

Little Big Man. Arthur Penn's latest film may well be his best. Scripted by Galder Willingham from Thomas Berger's novel, it spans the 121-year life of Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman) to arrive at a truly epic vision of what the American experience is all about. As in Bonnie and Clyde and Alice's Restaurant, Penn's hero searches painfully for a way of life that will bring order and meaning to human existence. Crabb tries everything; he becomes an Indian, a white man, a con man, a drunk, a husband, a gun man, a resident of an old age home. But, like all of this director's heroes, Crabb's attempts to find sanity end in desperate failure. Penn has found the perfect setting for his drama, the American West, and I don't see how anyone can deny that Little Big Man works on the largest conceivable scale.

Ma Nuit Chez Maud. Eric Rohmer wrote and directed this drama about the basic choices people make to determine the quality of their lives. Set in a claustrophobic French town and loaded with conversation about Pascal and Catholicism, this movie is so well done that it makes all its points in the camera work and in the performances of Jean-Louis Trintignant and Francoise Fabian. The involved dialogue is merely an added joy.

This Man Must Die. Claude Chabrol's most recent American-released film is perhaps not so tightly conceived as last year's La Femme Infidele -but it may also be this director's funniest thriller. As usual, the story deals with murder and the way murder changes complex human relationships. The color (particularly the late-Hitchcockesque blues) is more florid than ever, and there are two scenes that can only be described as amazing: one involving a dinner at a bourgeois French family's home, the other featuring the carving of a duck.

Trash. Paul Morrissey wrote and filmed this surprisingly short, well-edited and well-shot depression comedy for the Andy Warhol factory. Joe Dallesandro plays a heroin addict whose habit interferes with his sex life and Holly Woodlawn is his transvestite girl-next-door. For all its graphic sex and language, Trash maintains a point of view that is decidedly old-fashioned, morally speaking. As a result, this movie is a most original and affecting examination of the rapprochement of the Old America and the New.

Tristana. Luis Bunuel's tale is about a young woman (Catherine Deneuve) who falls prey to the affections of her much older guardian (Fernado Rey). Comic (if not to the extent of The Milky Way ) and darkly surreal, this film presents Bunuel's unique vision of the shifting planes of morality.

Gimme Shelter. This is the Maysles brothers and Charlotte Zwerin's "documentary" of the Rolling Stones' American tour. They succeed to a great extent in capturing the performer who is Mick Jagger. Near the film's end, when the star performs to a violent crowd at Altamont Speedway, losing his hold on the audience and surveying a killing a few yearns from the stage, the effect is devastating. Gimme Shelter is a highly subjective film and as such should not be confused with an NBC news documentary; still, the filmmakers have shaped their materials well to make the movie they wanted: a harrowing evocation of one of the worst trips of all time.

Loving. Set in John Cheever country-the wealthy suburbia of Fairfield County, Connecticut-this American film presents the dilemma of a financially insecure commercial artist unable to come to terms with either his wife or his mistress. Irvin Kershner, who directed from a screenplay by Don Devlin, has a terrific fell for the sterility of his settings and the dogged humanity of his characters. Even when being funny, the movie is underlined by that dim light we associate with the pain of three o'clock in the morning. The picture also has a brilliant climax involving closed-circuit television and a children's playroom. George Segal gives the best of his many performances this year, and it is wonderful to see Eva Marie Saint again as his wife.

There Was a Crooked Man...

It's been a long time since Joseph Mankiewicz made his last movie, an updating of Volpone called The Honey Pot, in 1967, but this new western finds this American director in the same cynical place he was when he left off. Crooked Man is about a bunch of convicts in a western territory who try to bust out of jail. The point of view here is jaundiced to say the least; no one is to be trusted. Everybody is in the cast and everybody does well. Among them are Henry Fonda, Kirk Douglas, Arthur O'Connell, Hume Cronyn, Burgess Meredith, Warren Oates, and Lee Grant. The screenplay is by Robert Newman and David Benton, who also have Bonnie and Clyde to their credit.

There have been many other decent films this year, some of which might have appeared on the list were I doing it on another day. Among them are:

Where's Poppa?. Carl Reiner's manic and excruciatingly funny film about what a son is to do when his aged mother just won't leave him alone. The whole movie operates at a hyped-up level that does not so much ignore reality as compress it. Reiner has also succeeded in finding a visual equation for his primarily verbal humor on occasion. George Segal is the son, Ruth Gordon is Mom, and there are awfully nice bits by character actor Ron Leibman and an ingenue named Trish Van Devere.

The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. A film from Billy Wilder that is less severe than one might expect and less funny than one might hope. But there are many fine moments, a nice performance by Genevieve Page, and a kind of bad-boy-goes-straight kindness in Wilder's surprisingly gentle denouement.

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Russ Meyer works in the genre that might best be called sensationalized violence, but who else can tell a bad story so well? The picture moves like a roaring train and features several heads being blown off.

M*A*S*H. A service comedy set during the Korean War and manned by a group of farceurs including Donald Sutherland, Sally Kellerman and Elliot Gould before he became obnoxious. Ring Lardner Jr. wrote the screenplay and Robert Altman directed, frenetically.

Two Mules for Sister Sara. A Don Siegel piece (with a screenplay by Albert Maltz from a story by Budd Boetticher) about a would-be nun (Shirley MacLaine) and a would-be pragmatist (Clint Eastwood) in a warring Mexico.

I also liked Karen Black's performance and a scene where Jack Nicholson sits down to play the piano in Rafelson's Five Easy Pieces, a slick film about alienation which seemed to cut away to a Laszlo Kovacs Easy Rider scenic vista whenever something seemed about to happen; Alan Arkin's Yossarian in Mike Nichols' Catch-22; Carrie Snodgress's heroine and Frank Perry's paranoiac camera work in the somewhat overdrawn Diary of a Mad Housewife; Charles Bronson's headstrong investigator in Rene Clement's Rider on the Rain; the dripping decadence and provocative idea behind Performance; and the grand style of Jean-Paul Belmondo, Alain Delon and Michel Bouquet in the overly maligned Jacques Deray cartoon known as Borsalino.

Of course, making lists is an exercise that has little to do with reality and a lot to do with the more anal compulsions of the list-maker. If you think I have my head up my ass, by all means let me know.

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