17. Jules and Jim (Dir. Francois Truffaut, 1962)
A staple for French New Wave cinema , this film is one of director Francois Truffaut’s most popular efforts.
Though it’s now considered tame (especially compared to the other films on this list) it’s actually pretty racy, especially for 1962.
Best friends and soulmates, Jules and Jim become infatuated with the same woman. The object of their affection, Catherine, is bold, beautiful and wildly unconventional. She is also erratic, fickle to a fault and very emotionally selfish. The resulting dynamic of the threesome is a messy, drawn out and ever fluctuating love triangle.
Though there are no visually graphic sex scenes, sexuality in general plays a large part in the film. In one scene Jim describes the desperate and all consuming ardor experienced by a soldier in the trenches longing for his fiancee. Jim quotes the soldier’s letter saying, “I clutch you to me, my love. I hold your adorable breasts, I clasp you to me naked.” Even today, such dialogue is stirring. One can only imagine how it came across in 1962.
In addition, the leads maintain very liberal lifestyles. Jules and Jim often shared their sexual partners and all three engage in premarital sex and various forms of adultery. It’s all really quite bohemian. Catherine in particular openly resists expected cultural limitations, especially in terms of the behavior of married women. Though the film takes place in the 1900s-1920s. The trio’s life is indicative to the increasingly liberal social conventions that developed throughout the 1960s.
Jules and Jim was branded with an X rating upon its release in 1962. In 1992, it was downgraded to a PG.
16. Mysterious Skin (Dir. Gregg Araki, 2004)
Unsuccessful appeal against NC-17, released Unrated
Gregg Araki’s film Mysterious Skin is one feature not for the squeamish or those at risk of being triggered.
The story tackles the tough and ugly topic of child molestation, its long term effects and resulting trauma. However, in line with the director’s style, the film is vibrant, at times colorful with vibes of otherworldliness.
Joseph Gordon Levitt turns in one of the best and most underrated performances of his career as Niel, one of two boys who was molested by his childhood baseball coach. As an adult, Niel adopts the career of a young male prostitute. Niel is aggressive, confident with his homosexual orientation and is very aware of his massive sexual appeal to other men, but he is also wreckless with a somewhat nihilistic edge to his personality.
Levitt is one of those actors who can play two sides of a coin. With his handsome face and puppy dog eyes, he is a sure fire fit for the sensitive sweet romantic which he always accomplishes with massive appeal.
But the true genius of his talent comes to life when he works against this trope. Niel is emotionally guarded and cynical. He barely smiles and his hardened expression is nearly impenetrable. It is Levitt’s intrinsic vulnerability and his character’s desperate effort to hide it that elevates the performance to something that is truly inspired.
The controversial subject matter and it’s occasionally graphic and certainly triggering presentation of molestation involving minors led to the MPAA stamping the film with an NC-17 rating. The appeal for an R was unsuccessful, so the film was released with no rating. The movie also came under fire during its worldwide release, most notably in Australia where attempts were made to have it banned.
15. Evil Dead (Dir. Sam Raimi, 1981)
Rated X upon release
Sam Raimi’s premiere feature, The Evil Dead, is a movie every aspiring filmmaker should take note of. Working off his shoe string budget, Raimi used his own savvy and technical innovation to present a truly memorable horror film.
Raimi was one of the most effective implementers of “shaky cam” and the first to bring it to a horror film (something which is now imitated again and again in the genre). Raimi was also quite resourceful in crafting his own rigs and techniques to accommodate the budget of the film and get the shots he wanted.
In addition, The Evil Dead presents one of the most stunning and successful examples of the unseen monster. Despite its elusiveness, its presence is firmly established with shots from the monster’s perspective, whether running through the woods or voyeuristically spying on its victims through windows. We never see it, but we hear it breathing, we sense its lust, its anticipation and its sinister agenda.
The film is quite gruesome, with elements of the exploitation genre. Upon its release it was branded with the X-rating as well as being labeled as a supreme example of “video nasty”.
14. Pink Flamingos (Dir. John Waters, 1972)
Rated NC-17 (rating for re-release)
Pink Flamingos is gross. Really gross. But is also instills the the belief that you should be proud to let your freak flag fly. John Waters’ 1972 black comedy stormed the midnight movie circuit, became a cult classic, and launched the career of Waters’ muse Divine, who became an icon in her own right.
The film is hard to believe in terms of pushing limits. You have to see it with your own eyes, thats if you can bare it. It features all manners of perversions. From rape to beasiality, exhibitionist flashing, ficaphilia; this film really has it all (including a scene where a man displays the multiple functions of his prolapsed anus). Common ethics are also challenged.
The film’s villains Raymond and Connie Marble run a black market baby farm in their cellar generated by the fruits of kidnapped young women. Even our heroin, Babs Johnson (Divine) states that we should “condone first- degree murder,” and “advocate cannibalism.”
Despite the multiplicity of these atrocities, the movie somehow maintains a levity. Waters’ pastel color palette, surreal characters and B-side heavy retro soundtrack are all marked elements of his style. But, the film’s greatest victory lies in its sarcasm.
The directing is testament to Waters’ genius and true originality. He never takes his work too seriously and the result is a tongue and cheek product of surprising humor. It’s a bold film to say the least. Its transgressive, for sure and it’s a prime example of an exploitation film, but it’s also an effervescent celebration of the other and the unusual.
13. Henry and June (Dir. Philip Kaufman, 1990)
Henry and June will stand in history as the first film ever to be given the MPAA’s newly instated NC-17 rating.
Despite all of its graphic sexuality, it was quite ironically the inclusion of Hokusai’s 1814 Japanese woodcut The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife (a artwork depicting a rudimentary version of what we now know as tentacle porn) that pushed the rating up.
In this film, director Philip Kaufman, tackles the tumultuous and factual love affair of 20th century literary heavyweights Henry Miller and Anais Nin.
Both erotic auteurs of their time, their romance was further combusted by the presence of Henry’s manipulative and sensual wife June.
Heady and lush, this story of liberation, love and romantic entanglement presents some stellar performances. Henry Ward, Maria Madieros and Kevin Spacey roundout a solid cast but it is Uma Thurman, arguably at her most beautiful, who eclipses the screen. She personifies a certain velvety allure as Miller’s wife; smokey and elusive. In the vain of the classic femme fatale, June spins silk like a spider ensnaring not only Miller, but also Nin in her web.
12. Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down (Dir. Pedro Almodovar, 1990)
Pedro Almodovar has an affinity for tackling the controversial. As evidenced by his body of work, he’s never one to shy away from the bold, the graphic, or the taboo.
All the same, Almodovar is a sly director. Often cloaking the controversial with charm. Perhaps the best example of this cunning is his 1989 film “Tie Me Up Tie Me Down.” Essentially, a film about Stockholm Syndrome, Almodovar manages to pull it off as a romantic comedy.
It’s a notably challenging film with depictions of violence against women, drug use, lechery and graphic sex. Even the romantic leads have compromised morals.
Almodovar made a wise choice in casting a young Antonio Banderas his romantic lead Ricky, a psychotic captor and lothario.
There are a number of parallels to other works in the story whether intentional or not; most notably Gaston Leroux’s Phantom of the Opera and even the ending of Mike Nichol’s The Graduate.
In spite of the grime, Almodovar manages to bring forth a story of joy and passion.
11. Blue Valentine (Dir. Derek Cianfrance, 2010)
Originally Rated NC-17, successful appeal for R
A zeitgeist flick for millennials and a flagship for films about failing relationships, Blue Valentine came under controversy with the MPAA due to a scene of cunnilingus in which the woman exhibits pleasure. After an appeal, as well as accusations of misogyny, the movie was graded down to an R.
The film hyper realistic style really hits the audience at a gut level. Much of this can be attributed to the casting of Gosling and Williams, both superstars in addition to being wildly effective performers. Gosling exudes the paramount charm necessary to lend appeal to the loving but unmotivated Dean. It is Williams however, a woman with a serious penchant for playing frustrated wives, that gives the film the punch that sets it apart from other romantic tragedies.
One scene in particular, in which the pair try to rekindle their affection during a weekend away, the audience is rather voyeuristically made privy to a display of strained lovemaking. Through Williams’ tense, even angry expression, we see the tragic arrival of that moment where you have fallen so much out of love that you can’t even bare your partner’s touch anymore.
Visually, the film has a stark palette and a generally cloudy atmosphere lurking even at its happiest moments Indeed, the mood of the film is true to its name.
10. Y Tu Mamá También (Dir. Alfonso Cuarón, 2001)
Louisa, a beautiful woman in her 30s meets teenage horndogs Julio and Tenoch at a wedding. Seizing the opportunity to exercise machismo, the two invite her on a road trip to a made up beach.
Upon a sudden separation from her husband, Louisa agrees to the trip much to the shock and delight of Julio and Tenoch. What’s ensues is a journey, not just of sexual exploration, but conflicts, hilarity and life lessons.
The film launched the careers of Diego Luna and Gael Garcia Bernal. Both became instant heartthrobs and experienced great success internationally.
Y Tu Mama Tambien far transcends the average teenage romp film, though there is a hefty amount of graphic sexuality (including scenes between minors). As humorous as it is tragic, there is an undercurrent of great sensitivity.
Cuaron incorporates macrocosmic themes of the setting such as political change and its repercussions in mexico, as well as ones applying to the microcosm of the story, like the natural shifts within friendship. But more than anything, the film is a meditation on the beauty of life, its brevity and the importance of striving to life in the moment.
9. The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (Dir. Peter Greenway, 1989)
This film wastes no time in unsettling its audiences as its opening scene shows a naked man being smeared excrement in reparation for betraying gangster-turned-restaurateur Albert Spica.
Michael Gambon is a force to reckon with in this movie. He is absolutely terrifying as the brutish, cruel Spica. Disgusting and crude, he stomps through the film like a barbaric and legitimately dangerous ogre. He is a husband comprised of nightmares and it’s difficult to watch his wife Georgina (Helen Mirren) suffer in the torturous prison of their marriage.
It is easy to understand why she would take a lover. Thier trysts take place in Spica’s restaurant, at first in the bathroom and then later in the kitchens, where they are facilitated by the restaurant’s head chef.
The film makes a decided point about the connection between sex and food and really all appetites we are humans are subject to. Whether it be for intimacy, love, violence or revenge, each appetite is marked by gluttony. Everything from the blatant brutality, to the violence, to the sex is excessive. The film is certainly a hungry one.
The food shown in the film is almost a character in itself. it’s always presented in abundance and looks both appetizing and disgusting at the same time. There is a very surreal mood to the film, all the sets are beautifully detailed, but they are radically different. The kitchen for example is cavernous and industrial; rather like a warehouse, whereas the restaurant interior is plush and luxurious. The color palette is fluorescently vivid much in the vain of the work of Dario Argento.
Initially rated X by the MPAA, the film was granted the option to choose Unrated instead. Given the tainted nature of the X rating they opted for the latter. For the video release, a recut R-rated version was made for accommodate the restrictions of video stores.