The 25 Most Controversially Rated Movies in Cinema History
The inner workings of the MPAA are a sticky business. In fact, there is a whole documentary about how sticky it is (This Film Is Not Yet Rated). Kind of like the Area 51 of Hollywood, the headquarters are tightly restricted and the individuals who make up the rating board are never disclosed.
Proclaiming themselves Guardians of Morality, they’ve earned a reputation (at least in the past) for having some homophobic and sexist leanings. Interestingly enough, the MPAA’s long time president Jack Valenti (who died in 2007) was the special assistant to Lyndon B Johnson during his presidency.
For many films, the NC-17 rating is a kiss of death. Most films severely lose access to promotion. TV spots are prohibited and (when this was relevant) neither Blockbuster or any other major video stores would carry anything rated NC-17. As such, access to a wide audience was severely inhibited.
Below are examples of great films that came under fire with the MPAA. Many disputed with the MPAA. Some fought for an R and won. Some submitted and edited the content of their film to receive an R. Some settled for Unrated and others simply rolled with an NC-17.
Regardless, these are all films that should be seen and appreciated.
25. Bent (Dir. Sean Mathias, 1997)
Rated NC-17 upon release
Sean Mathias’ 1997 film Bent, is clearly one of those films that doesn’t quite live up to its source material. Martin Sherman’s 1979 stage play revolutionized queer theater and greatly increased awareness about the persecution of homosexuals in Nazi Germany.
It’s easy to see how the story would succeed on the smaller, more intimate scale of the stage where its most poignant moments couldn’t get lost in the fuzz of spectacle. Nevertheless, the story is partially benefited by its movie adaptation in the sense that it enabled the message to reach a broader audience.
In summary, the film is a about the experience of a homosexual man named Max. Something of a playboy, he spends many of his nights picking up guys at Berlin’s underground nightlife scene. Inevitably Max is captured by the Gestapo and and shipped off to Dachau with his lover who is murdered on the train. Max, however, eludes death by claiming to be a Jew as opposed to a homosexual.
At the camp, Max meets Hans, a man who, unlike him, bares the pink triangle (which denotes him as a homosexual) with pride. The two develop a bond and they eventually become lovers in what is arguably the most memorable and famous scene of the film in which the two men stand side by side, unable to touch, and bring each other to orgasm simply through verbal expression of their desires. The result is a love scene of unexpected yet, undeniable intimacy.
The film does contain some racy material. There’s a good deal of full frontal nudity and the love scenes are verbally graphic. However it was the orgiastic sex scene at the beginning of the film that led to Bent being branded with the NC-17.
24. Romance (Dir. Catherine Breillat, 1999)
Catherine Breillat is no stranger to controversy. One of front runners of feminist cinema, she often tackles the subject of women and their relationships with sex.
Romance might be her most jarring film to date in terms of being explicit which is really saying something for Breillat. On it most surface level, the story is anchored by ennui. The protagonist Marie is stuck in a relationship with a man who will not have sex with her. Therefore, she goes out in search of fulfillment by taking various lovers.
These are not your run of the mill sex scenes. apart from being intensely graphic, Marie seems to neither hate nor particularly enjoy them. Throughout many of the scenes as well as the whole film in general, she waxes on over the dynamic between men and woman, and the nature of sexual and romantic relationships.
The movie features unsimulated sex, including a scene with the Italian pornographic actor Rocco Siffredi. There are also some rather disturbing scenes including one where Marie endures a gynecological exam from several different doctors
The original unedited version of the film was allowed in mainstream cinemas in Europe. In the United States, however, content had to be edited in order to obtain an R rating.
23. Crash (Dir. David Cronenberg, 1996)
David Cronenberg’s exploration of Symphorophilia, a specific type of paraphilia in which people become aroused by car accidents, certainly makes for an odd film.
It was definitely a divisive film; being absolutely panned by many critics and yet winning the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes. Today, with its monochrome palette and cheesy score it comes off as rather dated.
James Spader puts in a good turn though. With his handsome face and soft spoken nature, he has a knack for playing introverts with curious sexual appetites. But, for a film with such gratuitous amounts of graphic sex, there are few things sexy about it.
Nevertheless, the movie has some classic Cronenberg elements about it, including representations of female reproductive organs in odd places (in this case, a gash in a woman’s leg). Though less overt, Cronenberg’s classic “body horror” is present here with its attention to gruesome details and surreal spin.
22. Nymphomaniac (Dir. Lars Von Trier, 2013)
It seems interesting that Lars Von trier’s sexual epic “Nymphomanic” was successfully able to appeal from an NC-17 rating to simply, unrated.
It is most certainly one of, if not the most graphic film on this list. Featuring copious amount of full frontal nudity, forcibly vivid BDSM scene, in addition to boasting unsimulated sex for which pornographic actors were used as doubles.
But really, it’s that fact that sex in this film lacks tenderness that makes it so jarring. Apart from a few brief moments between young Joe and Jerome, almost every sexual encounter shown in the film is cold and detached; which of course is the point. But it has a grimey effect and leaves a somewhat sour taste in the viewer’s mouth.
Nevertheless, it a unique and skillfully executed take on human nature and especially relationships. It just happens to be a very cynical one.
21. The Dreamers (Dir. Bernardo Bertolucci, 2003)
Bertolucci is rarely reserved. His style is at once languid and arresting and usually marked by his unique grasp of sensuality.
In his coming of age film The Dreamers, young, American film enthusiast Matthew wanders abroad in Paris. The date is 1968 a period of change and political unrest with the onset and spread of communism as well as the Paris Student Riots.
Matthew spends his days at the french cinematheque losing himself in movies. There he meets enigmatic twins Theo and Isabelle. The three quickly form a tight threesome, but it gradually becomes apparent that rather sinister elements underlie Theo and Isabelle’s unhealthily close bond.
More than anything else, this movie is an homage to film and even more so, a cinephiles relentless and all consuming love of it. The characters wax philosophical over Keaton vs. Chaplin and Clapton vs Hendrix. They frolic around Paris recreating their favorite scenes from classics. It is a film for those of us who live chosen moments of our lives in a dream state (Dreamers, if you will) in the hope that our reality might dissolve, if just for an instant, into the beauty of a beloved moment we saw on screen.
20. Bad Lieutenant (Dir. Abel Ferrara, 1992)
At first glance, Bad Lieutenant appears rather dated. However, it maintains a timelessness thanks to Keitel’s freakishly ferocious performance.
Initially, our main character, known only as the Lieutenant (Harvey Keitel) seems like your average a hardworking, if rather rough edged father.
He lives with his wife and children in a modest house in the Bronx, he drives his kids to catholic school when necessary and he puts in long, grueling days with the police force to keep bread on the table. But it soon becomes clear that this is an extremely crooked and unethical individual.
A raging addict, he imbibes every substance possible, effectively obliterating his mind throughout the entire movie. He finds every excuse to abuse his authority for selfish and corrupt reasons and consistently breaks the law again and again.
At times he seems like a sociopath, devoid of any emotion or ability to empathize. In one scene in particular, he is shown visiting is young children while they sleep. It’s a familiar scenario; hardworking father comes home late, checks on his kids to reassure himself of their safety in a quiet, loving moment.
Almost imperceptible in the darkness, we see Keitel stroke his sleeping children’s heads in a classic gesture of paternal tenderness. But when he emerges from the room, his expression is lifeless. It’s as though he was attempting and failing to play the part of a loving father.
And yet, there are glimpses of an internal moral struggle. Occasionally, he breaks into fits of childish, almost absurd weeping. All this is further exacerbated when he is assigned to a case in which a nun is raped in her own chapel.
He suffers a complete emotional breakdown at the site of the crime. He expresses anger at God, vocalizes his own guilt and seeks redemption. At the end though, the moral core of his character remains ambiguous.
The film was rated NC-17 for its sexual content, violence and particularly for gratuitous amounts of drug use. A special R-rated cut of was released for distribution at both Blockbuster and Hollywood video.
19. Lust, Caution (Dir. Ang Lee, 2007)
Accomplished director Ang Lee followed up his 2005 masterpiece Brokeback Mountain with the erotic espionage thriller Lust, Caution in 2007. As with the former, this film also won Lee the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival.
As with any Lee film, it’s beautifully shot so it’s easy to get lost in the colors and motion of the camera, but it’s also a film that you really need to pay close attention to due to its narrative, which jumps around quite a bit on the timeline. The story is based on the 1979 novel of the same name by Eileen Chang and details the life of Wang Jiazhi.
A young student at Linghan University, story details her evolution in Mrs. Mai, the clandestine lover of Mr. Yi a Chinese official working in collaboration with the Japanese government during the Japanese occupation of China during the 1930s and 40s. Mrs. Mai is used as a tool to make Mr Yi vulnerable enough to be executed by the Chinese resistance.
Actress Tang Wei puts in a spectacular performance as the introspective Wang, seamlessly portraying her coming of age and character shifts with finesse.
The film garnered an NC-17 rating due to several thoroughly explicit sex scenes between Wang/Mrs Mai and Mr. Yee. Consent is questionable, particularly during their first tryst which is rather violent and forceful.
18. Inside Deep Throat (Dir. Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey, 2005)
This is the only documentary featured on this list and it’s truly one of the most interesting films featured.
The pornographic film Deep Throat rocked the world when it came out in 1972. It was a first on many fronts. Though the the plot was regressively misogynistic on the few obvious levels, it the was first porno to feature any real plot or character development. Most importantly though is “porno chic” film elevated pornography into mainstream cinema.
For the first time, porn was trendy. People of all different classes, ages and backgrounds went to see the movie. It secured place at the top of the churning pop culture circuit. Its star, Linda Lovelace became a household name. Even politics weren’t spared (Im looking at you, Woodward and Bernstein.) The film, in many ways, embodied the Zeitgeist of the early 70s.
Inside Deep Throat provides a fascinating look into what went on behind the camera; the process, the controversy and the ensuing drama. Not to mention some great interviews with director Gerard Damaino and actor Harry Reems. Really though, it’s a fun slice of life film that provides a cool glimpse into the vibe of the early 70s.
However, one is left considerably wanting for more insight into Linda Boreman (aka Linda Lovelace) who is arguably the most fascinating figure involved with the film considering her later involvement with Gloria Steinem and the anti-pornography movement and then her ensuing return to the industry even later in life. As viewers, we are left with the impression of a woman with tragically little agency. But perhaps Lovelace was meant to remain an enigma for us to squabble over.
Due to direct excerpts from its explicit source material, Inside Deep Throat was given in NC-17 by the MPAA. However in 2005, and edited R-rated version of both the original pornographic film and the documentary were released in theaters as a double feature.