The 25 Most Controversially Rated Movies in Cinema History

8. Boys Don’t Cry (Dir. Kimberly Peirce, 1999)

Rated R

Boys Don't Cry (1999)

It is difficult to verbalize the mastery of Hilary Swank’s Oscar winning performance in Boys Don’t Cry. Her portrayal of Brendan Teena/ Tina Brenden, a young transgender individual living in rural Nebraska is at once guarded and plainly transparent. Swank is sexy and convincing with her adapted butch swagger, putting forth just the right amount of masculinity balanced by delicacy. Brendan is an exotic brand of lothario and it’s very easy to see how so many girls fell in love with him.

Boys Don’t Cry went under some pretty heated debate between the MPAA and its director, Kimberly Peirce prior to its release.

Granted, the movie features a brutal, lengthy rape sequence and extensive violence. But, one of the main reasons The MPAA stamped the film with an NC-17 rating had to due with one of the films love scenes, in which Brandon gives his lover Lana an orgasm through cunniligus. The original scene was drawn out; focusing on Lana’s face and her expressions as the sensations built her towards ecstasy. The MPAA was concerned with the length of Lana’s orgasm and considered it too graphic.

This is a primary example of Hollywood’s gender biased aversion to the depiction of female pleasure. Furthermore, their qualm suggests some elements of homophobia, considering that the scene is between two women, one of whom is trans. The scene itself is not pornographic but rather delicately handled and very sensual.

Pierce lobbied hard for her cut, but in the end, she was forced to edit the scene is order to acquire the R rating that could bring her film to a wider audience.


7. Blue is the Warmest Color (Dir. Abdellatif Kechiche, 2013)

Rated NC-17

Blue is the Warmest Color (2013)

At its core, Blue is the Warmest Color is a glorious epic of love and loss as well as growing up and finding your identity.

Even so, when a film about a lesbian relationship starring two gorgeous french women starts to gaze buzz for copious amount of graphic sex, the beauty of the story can be overshadowed.

However, the buzz itself was justified in this case, for the film surely delivers. Blue is the Warmest Color contains three explicit and extraordinarily lengthy sex scene (one totaling out around seven minutes).

To add to the fire, controversy broke out when the actresses, particularly Lea Sedoux, spoke out about the filming process, saying Kechiche was brutal and relentless in his method and that he made her feel like a prostitute.

Her statements were further emblazoned by previous feminist critiques (including the author of the graphic novel from which the film as based) who said the movie was tainted by the presence of the male gaze, which, judging by the somewhat fabricated, “male fantasy-like” nature of some of the love scenes, could be very true.


6. Requiem For A Dream (Dir. Darren Aronofsky, 2000)



Darren Aronofsky’s 2000 movie about the perils or drug addiction easily has one of the most gripping and well orchestrated finales in cinema history.

Its final montage is a collection of horrors, each flashing in quick succession. It’s as if Aronofsky is daring his audience to look away, knowing well that we, as humans, can never tear our eyes away from the great spectacle that is catastrophe.

Initially the MPAA stamped the film with an NC-17 rating. This is somewhat understandable considering that, in addition to some truly grimy images and being overwhelming as a whole, the film contains a graphic sex scene in which Jennifer Connelly’s character, Marion, participates in thoroughly degrading sex acts in order to facilitate her drug habit.

Aronofsky appealed for an R rating but refused to cut anything out of the film, maintaining that each moment was essential for preservation of the story. Aronofsky was denied and the film was released as unrated.


5. Shame (Dir. Steve McQueen, 2011)

Rated NC-17

Shame opening

In his 2011 film shame, Steven McQueen set a new bar for pushing the envelope in mainstream cinema.
This stark, stylish drama about sex addiction captivates just as much as it repels.

Single man Brandon is at home in the life he has made for himself. He works a lucrative job, inhabits a fine and most likely massively expensive apartment in NYC. He lives well, dresses well; he is a fine tuned man of taste and finesse. As it turns out Brandon is also a severe sex addict, but he manages to conceal his addiction with the same cool collectedness through which dictates the other elements of his life.

All this changes with the arrival of his sister Sissy, whose presence triggers Brandon into a destructive downward spiral.

Michael Fassbender’s performance is at once foreboding and alluring. He stalks the streets of New York, his handsome face more like a corporeal death mask then living breathing flesh. With women, he stands back and observes. Neither predatory nor complacent he listens, looks and he seems to have an intrinsic ability for knowing what makes each woman tick. He appears to let the women come to him, but Brandon is calculating. Whether he is aware of it or not, this acumen is in his nature.

Sissy, by contrast, exercises little control over her impulses. Quite childlike, Sissy often wears funky vintage pieces comparable to childhood dress ups; a far cry from Brandon’s monochrome style. More so however, Sissy is entirely naked in terms of her emotional vulnerably (a character trait possibly echoed by McQueens choice to introduce the character when she is interrupted in the shower.)

Whereas Brandon is fiercely secretive, Sissy makes no attempts to hide her tragedies. She engages in tantrums and outbursts, and occasionally loses perception of common physical and emotional boundaries. In short, you could say that Sissy has no shame, whereas Brandon is mired in it.

The film was rated NC-17 for its explicit sexual content. Rather than fighting the rating, McQueen embraced it comparing the rating to a “badge of honor” as opposed to a “scarlet letter.”


4. Last Tango In Paris (Dir. Bernardo Bertolucci, 1972)

Rated NC-17

Last Tango in Paris

Bertolucci strikes again in his controversial much sensationalized 1972 drama, Last Tango in Paris.

Two strangers, a widower (Marlon Brando) and a young betrothed woman (Maria Schneider) meet by chance while viewing an apartment for rent. Unexpectedly, and with great impulsivity, they begin an intensely sexual affair in which they exchange no information about themselves; not even their names.

Naturally, the anonymity of their clandestine affair brings forth inevitable conflict.

The movie was originally stamped with an X rating (even after recutting for the MPAA). In 1981 a diluted R rated version was released and in 1997 the movie was re-rated with an NC-17. All that being said, the film more than lives up to the ratings it was given .

In addition to various scenes of explicit sex, full frontal nudity (Schneider spends nearly half of the film in some state of undress), there is also a scene of anal rape in which butter was rather infamously used as a lubricant. The relationship in general is emotionally sadistic. It’s also a bit freaky to see an aging and somewhat hulking Marlon Brando engage in sex acts with Schneider, who is very young, petite and baby faced.

It’s a lovely film to look at however and both actors excel in their roles. Brando in particular (who garnered an Oscar nod for his performance) skillfully navigates between the gruff, destructive exterior of his character and the shattered grieving man that is kept inside.

Furthermore this film had a massive impact on modern cinema. A review by Pauline Kael, which Roger Ebert stated as possibly the most famous review ever written, compared the event of the film to Stravinsky’s famous ballet, “The Rite of Spring,” which marked the birth of modern dance and caused riots in the streets of Paris.


3. Kids (Dir. Larry Clark, 1995)

Rated NC-17

Kids (1995)

Though is not often recognized as such, Larry Clark’s “Kids” is one of the most definitive films of generation X.

Shocking from the get go, Kids leaves the audience little time to adjust to the lives and day to day activities of these disillusioned teenagers. The result though, is fully unfettered realism in its purest, most frightening form. Kids was something of a rude awakening for America. With no mention of ambition or aspirations, these teenagers do little with their lives except party and engage in unprotected and sometimes ethically questionable sex.

Despite the grit of the screenplay (penned by a young Harmony Korine) Kids also presents a unexpectedly sensitive treatment of the AIDS epidemic. Such is demonstrated by Chloe Sevigny’s character Jennie who, despite having only one sexual partner is diagnosed as HIV positive. Arguably the most conservative of all of her friends, Jennie has high morals and an unselfish sense of right and wrong. The character brings a refreshing sweetness to what is otherwise a rather ugly story.

KIDS presented something that audiences had really never seen before in terms of realism and risks taken in a film. Both Harmony Korine and Larry Clark are ballsy filmmakers with clear visions and uncompromising natures. The film was released as NC-17 without attempted appeal. Upon its release, Kids inspired critical outcry.

In addition to the disturbing content, the actors are actual teenagers for the most part and, naturally, they look very young. This led to accusations of obscenity which went as far as accusing the film of featuring child pornography.


2. A Clockwork Orange (Dir. Stanley Kubrick, 1971)

Rated X upon release

A Clockwork Orange

Brutal and beautiful, Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Anthony Burgess’s dystopian novel put forth some images that changed film forever. Enthralling and terrifying, they firmly imprinted themselves in our brains reminding us of the darkness that lurks inside the core of human nature.

This is a film that stuns from start to finish. Malcolm McDowell is a powerhouse as burgeoning sociopath Alex Delarge. Freakish and vindictive from the moment he sears us with his malicious gaze as the start of the film, he promotes horrific cruelty and engages in unspeakable acts, and he does so without sympathy.

A Clockwork Orange was stamped with an X rating for understandable reasons. In addition to the gratuitous violence and disturbing imagery, the infamous, “Singin’ in the Rain” scene is still enough to disturb even the most jaded viewers.


1. Midnight Cowboy (Dir. John Schlesinger, 1969)

Rated X upon release

Midnight Cowboy

Released in 1969, Midnight cowboy is the only X-rated film in history to win the Academy Award for best picture.

Though now lowered to an R rating. Midnight Cowboy is still on the racy side, especially for a film made in the 60s. A number of sex scenes, including some disturbing flashbacks which feature incidences of rape and sexual abuse are present as well as nudity and some drug use. But really, Midnight Cowboy received most of its controversy due to its frank depiction of homosexuality as well as its sympathetic treatment of decidedly veiled homosexual undertones.

Naive hayseed Joe Buck leaves Texas for New York City with aspirations of becoming a gigolo to wealthy, bored housewives. Unprepared for the harsh, unwelcome nature of New York, Joe struggles for business, and is broke and homeless within a few days. Enter Ratso Rizzo, a small time conman and thief with a limp and a persistent cough. After an initial misunderstanding the two become a duo, living together like an odd couple and working together as business partners.

The film is a fascinating snapshot of NYC in the 60s featuring several figures from Andy Warhol’s Factory and some glorious psychedelic sequences.

The performances are legendary. Jon Voight is truly moving as the daft but intrinsically empathetic Joe Buck. This film jump started his very successful career with an Oscar nomination. Dustin Hoffman, fresh off the tails of The Graduate, provides not only one of the most memorable, spoofed and legendary moments in cinema history, but one of the most vulnerable, retched, and heart rendering performances of his impressive career.

The film is a glorious homage to humanity’s infinite and essential capacity for love under even the most dire circumstances. At once a story of displacement and connection, Midnight Cowboy presents a mastery of cinematic effort.

Author Bio: Torie Gehrig lives in Chicago. She has been a film buff since childhood and hopes to make one of her own one day.