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The 30 Most Controversial Movies of All Time

01 July 2015 | Features, Film Lists | by Emiliano Serrano Lara

most controversial movies

This list comprises 30 iconic samples of controversial cinema from the 20th and 21st century to our days. It is chronologically presented.

Most of the movies listed here are selected for their controversial or cinematographic relevance far beyond their release time. Most of them can also serve as a guide of the development, refreshment and nature of cinematic controversy in history.

 

1. The Birth of a Nation (D. W. Griffith, 1915)

Birth of a Nation (1915)

Based on “The Clansman” by Thomas Dixon Jr., “The Birth of a Nation” is a look at the American Civil War’s development and aftermath, as well as its impact on the American psyche through the eyes of a family.

“The Birth of a Nation” is regarded as an undeniable landmark in the history of cinema. Consciously, D. W. Griffith anticipated narrative and cinematographic techniques that eventually configured a considerable amount of the cinematographic language as we know it, and developed an obligated reference to the Hollywood super production’s vision. “The Birth of a Nation” was, nevertheless, one of the most controversial movies ever made as well.

Romantic and sensationalistic, “The Birth of a Nation” defended a widely negative view of the Reconstruction as a moral and political disaster. According to the film’s story, such a disaster was grounded in the “erroneous” pretension of granting equality between black and white people. The movie also depicted the South as a morally superior victim of the North’s wrath, and the Ku Klux Klan as an obligated and justified response to such wrath.

Protests against the film’s depiction of black people were soon raised. Nevertheless, the NAACP’s attempt to ban the film was unsuccessful and “The Birth of a Nation” grounded a precedent regarding box office success.

 

2. Triumph of the Will (Leni Riefenstahl, 1935)

Triumph of the Will

An obligated reference to widely controversial propagandistic cinema, “Triumph of the Will” is perhaps the most well known title of the Nazi film collection. It follows the Nazi party’s rise in Nuremberg.

Produced by Adolf Hitler and labeled as a movie about Nazis made by Nazis for Nazis, the film’s distorted perspective, created with moving cameras, aerial photography and long focus lenses, has made it one of the greatest movies ever made.

“Triumph of the Will” discomforted people before its release. Among the Nazis, the military was outraged about its minimal attention in the film. Overseas, the movie was regarded as dangerous as an example of the unethical approach of cinema.

 

3. Lolita (Stanley Kubrick, 1962)

lolita

“Lolita” is Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s classic novel about Humbert Humbert, a tormented professor and the idealized and playful 12-year-old brat Lolita.

Kubrick largely complained about the censorship conditions at the time the film was released. Due to those conditions, the erotic material that permeates Nabokov’s novel was minimized and, in the most aggressive case, only suggested.

Such insinuations were nevertheless matter enough to make “Lolita” one of the most commented and controversial movies of the 60s.

 

4. Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanski, 1968)

rosemary baby

An obligated reference of 60s cinema and one of the most influential horror movies ever made, “Rosemary’s Baby” follows Rosemary’s ambiguous descent into madness as she suspects the child she is caring will be used for unclear reasons in a Satanic ritual.

The movie’s most infamous sequence, featuring Rosemary’s rape, was matter enough to outrage several audiences. Yet it was the movie’s use of religion that lead the frontal attacks it received, as The National Catholic Office for Motion Pictures regarded “Rosemary’s Baby” as a perversion of fundamental Christian beliefs.

Today, “Rosemary’s Baby” is regarded as a condemned movie as well, due to the approximations some people have found between its plot and Sharon Tate’s tragic fate.

 

5. A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick, 1971)

A Clockwork Orange

Though full of disturbingly beautiful sequences of violence and lots of music from Beethoven, “A Clockwork Orange” depicts the adventures of the teenager antihero Alex in a neo-fascist society.

Stanley Kubrick’s ultra-violent adaptation of Anthony Burges’ homonymous dystopian novella is an audiovisual spectacle that faced the outrage of several detractors who were against its depicted dehumanization ever since its release.

Despite not featuring Burges’ novella’s original ending, which changed some of the story’s flavor with a series of statements about growing up, Kubrick’s master adaptation is rich in the depictions of morality, freedom, behaviorism, crime and order that made “A Clockwork Orange” one of the best stories of the 20th century.

Exhausting, playful and subversive, “A Clockwork Orange” is regarded as an insuperable moment in the history of cinema and as one of the best instances of Kubrick’s obsessive perfectionism.

 

6. Pink Flamingos (John Waters, 1972)

Pink Flamingos (1972)

Through open and imaginative sequences of bad taste about paraphiliacs, the focus of “Pink Flamingos” is on the infamous matron-diva Babs Johnson (Divine) as she fights against a couple to preserve the title of the filthiest person alive, which she is particularly proud to hold.

John Water’s cult masterpiece is a gorgeous and grotesque inquiry to the palaces of the status quo through the playful discourse of its outcasts.

Overall acclaimed, “Pink Flamingos” faced outrageous ban attempts from self-proclaimed morality keepers and even animal welfare groups. That only increased the amount of viewers who saw it, morbidly moved by the comments towards its unpleasant cocktail of depravity. Considerately, some theaters even provided free “Pink Phlemingo” vomit bags for those with sensitive stomachs not willing to miss the entire film.

 

7. The Last House on the Left (Wes Craven, 1972)

The Last House on the Left

“The Last House on the Left” is mostly inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s masterpiece “The Virgin Spring”, a moving allegory about vengeance but also redemption, set in the Middle Ages.

Departing from “The Virgin Spring”, “The Last House on the Left” lets go everything about Bergman’s obsessive search for redemption, and instead entirely concentrates on the exploitation side of its revenge story. As a result, the film faced censorship in many countries due to the extremity of its sequences.

An essential title for the development of the widely controversial rape and revenge exploitation sub-genre, “The Last House on the Left”, unlike other 70’s sub-genre titles (i.e. “I Spit on Your Grave”), met generally positive reviews.

 

 

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  • Ted Wolf

    Wonderful list and it appears that Von Trier courts controversy. It’s funny, however, that a movie made 100 years ago continues to be one of the most controversial of all time.

    • Martin

      Yes, but i say it is sad, instead of funny, because the fundamentals of birth of a nation´s controversy is a subject that is still latent. Maybe not as big as was a hundred years ago, but still present.

      • Ted Wolf

        true

  • John Davidsson

    Awesome list despite leaving out the obvious choice of Takashi Miike’s Audition

  • Ayuj Consul

    The suspense and the tension is building up, dark movies, Nymphomaniac, Anti-Christ… A Serbian Film, Blue is The Warmest Color and Suddenly boom I begin laughing! The Interview 😛
    Really cool list!

  • Susan F

    How can one exclude Le Chien Andalou, Battleship Potemkin, particularly the Odessa Steps sequence and La Cage D’or. Also, Sid and Nancy, Shoah, the Pawnbroker and the Sorrow and the Pity. Ignorant amatur film critic with no sense of film history. That is what A Bad Taste of Cinema is all about.

    • Wyatt W.B

      Excuse me, but what happened to you as a child that made you such a hateful person?

    • Mark Repp

      Let’s see your list. Most of the titles you’ve included so far aren’t particularly controversial…at least not compared to those in this list.

  • Edward Till

    straw dogs?

  • Red Cabbage

    L’Amore? A major Supreme Court decision results from this film.

  • Allissa Mc

    you totally forgot the rocky horror picture show, which is one of the most controversial movies ever made

  • Gary Horaczek

    Should’ve been included: Viridiana (1961) Spanish/Mexican film based on the novel Halma. The Spanish censorship board rejected the original ending [ Viridiana goes ino her cousin’s room and shuts the door]. The alternate ending is actually MORE suggestive [ it implied a menage a trois between Viridiana , Romano and Jorge ] . The Vatican declared the film blasphemous because of the scene with the beggars breaking in and seated like The Last Supper while swearing.

  • Vaz zy

    Perhaps the August Underground series, The Guinea Pig Series, I spit on Your Grave series, Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS, The Flower and Snake series, would make this list more colorful

  • Dale‎ Sophiea

    What, no “The Devils”?

  • Lucols

    It’s kinda sad seeing a down to earth movie like La vie D’Adèle in a list with A Serbian Film. Tells a little about our society.