5. Harmony KorineHaving cut his teeth as a go-to screenwriter for Larry Clark on the incredibly controversial “Kids” (1995) and “Ken Park” (2002), glorious oddball Harmony Korine spread his wings into a equally splashy directing career.
Focused on similarly envelope-pushing subjects and odd subcultures as with Clark’s filmography, where Korine’s work differs is in his surreal and dreamlike logic within his films – whereas Clark wishes to hold up a microscope to the dark side of America, Korine wants to spike your drink and take you on a midnight stroll through it.
“Gummo” (1997) was his raw and random debut, which he followed up with other bizarre and colourful entries like “Julien Donkey-Boy” (1999), “Mister Lonely” (2007), and strangest of all, “Trash Humpers” (2009), a film solely focused on a gang of misfits carrying out random acts of vandalism, and of course, getting humpy with trash. Over the years, Korine has been slandered and written off as repulsive and indulgent, yet he has retained a loyal following of fans, as well as respected admirers, including Gus Van Sant, Werner Herzog, and the late Roger Ebert.
Most Controversial Movie: All of Korine’s films are made with the abject purpose of provoking and causing ripples, yet most of his movies are so low key that mainstream viewers won’t notice when one has come and gone.
This was different with “Spring Breakers” (2012), a movie that created lots of buzz out the gate by featuring a post-Oscar host James Franco in full on Florida ‘white boy’ gangster mode, and a bevy of Disney Queens (Vanessa Hudgens, Selena Gomez, Ashley Benson) decked out in skimpy bikinis and doing raunchy and violent things, successfully moving away from their formerly squeaky clean images.
It caused a stir for glamorising sex and crime, as well as objectifying its female stars at every turn, yet on the other hand, its defenders call it an ode to female empowerment, not to mention a surreal window into modern youth culture and their bizarre attraction to the dark side.
4. Michael Haneke
Austrian auteur Michael Haneke has built a reputation for himself with his unique and tough-love brand of cinema for near three decades in the industry. Not one solitary crowd-pleaser or crossover hit sits amongst his cold and dense backlog, yet a championed reputation at the Cannes Film Festival (his films have garnered four major festival awards since 2001) and a loyal following from high-brow critiques have cemented him a status of art house royalty.
On the other hand, it’s a reputation that fits awkwardly for a man who openly states “all movies are assaults in a way,” yet his output tries to “rape viewer(s) into independence.” His critics feel he almost holds contempt for the field for which he’s celebrated, with several of his films (e.g. “Benny’s Video,” “Funny Games”) blatantly holding a mirror to the audience and scolding them for the growing desensitisation the medium has had on us, not to mention a mutual reputation for sadistically attempting to make his movies as painful and taxing to sit through as possible.
Even when he has tacked more upbeat subjects, such as the undying love between a lifelong married couple with “Amour” (2012), the proceedings are shed of any sugarcoating and are played with such grim yet truthful nuances that even a hopeful movie of his remains an ordeal. The jury will always be split on Haneke, yet with his consist output and award-winning accolades, it’s obvious he is not going anywhere, so as film fans, one must decide which side of the fence they sit on.
Most Controversial Movie: Whilst none of Haneke’s movies are the equivalent of a walk in the park, “Funny Games” (1997) is probably the toughest to watch and ruffled the most feathers at its original release (a shot-for-shot English language remake was made by Haneke later in 2007).
Taking the tired but effective genre premise of an innocent family put in peril by evil killers, Haneke sets things up in a familiar fashion and then proceeds to make things as unpredictable and uncomfortable for the viewer as strenuously possible, with all plot conventions purposely flipped on their heads, and with even the killers themselves breaking the ‘fourth wall’ on a handful of occasions, making the audience complicit in their deranged ‘games.’
It’s a film made with an analytical mind, yet also a headful of anger and disgust toward the medium and its relationship with violence – strange how the film managed to become one of the stronger examples of the genre it lambasted at the time. Yet, opinions were split as some were celebrating this refreshing genre movie, whilst French critic Jacques Rivette blatantly told Haneke to his face that it was “disgusting” and “a complete piece of shit.”
3. Gaspar Noe
France-based Argentine filmmaker Gaspar Noe has been unable to make even one film that didn’t cause earth-shattering ripples of controversy in the film world. His debut “Seul Contre Tous” (1998), a sequel to his award winning short “Carne,” was a morose and grim affair centred around an ex-convict and his slow-burn descent into bloody madness, as well as uncontrollable lust for his mental handicapped daughter.
“Enter the Void” (2009) was a polarising experiment that featured a nauseating POV of its protagonist as a botched drug deal sends him into the afterlife, and the audience with it. Noe’s most recent effort, “Love” (2015), had him in less aggressive form, telling the simple story of boy-meets-girl/boy-loses-girl, yet it featured a barrage of unsimulated graphic sex scenes that varied from orgies to the camera receiving an actual money-shot – in 3D, no less – proving that even with less grim subjects, Noe can’t help but cause a stir and provoke like no other.
Most Controversial Movie: No doubt, the 2002 Cannes Film Festival couldn’t agree more with this selection – when “Irreversible” (2002) played at the prestigious festival, the movie had audience members leaving in droves, with even three officially fainting.
The enduring film is that tired true genre trope of ‘revenge movie’ yet here is told in reverse chronology and with chunks of taxing steadicam long takes – this includes a 20-minute long excruciating rape scene that pretty much pushes the boundaries of what one can tolerate from cinema. Yet there’s no denying the power of what Noe did here; unlike other grimy genre thrillers, his violence feels grounded with the intent to repulse and terrify – it didn’t make the film any more less controversial, though.
2. Takashi Miike
The ‘enfant terrible’ of Japanese cinema started his career in 1991, and began pumping out low-budget yakuza thrillers at such a relentless pace in his native country that by his big international breakthrough six years later, he had already made more than 30 films! “Fudoh: The New Generation” (1996) was his biggest splash prior to that, and created buzz on the festival circuit with an completely off-color ‘revenge thriller’ like no other (e.g. an assassin that fires killer darts from her vagina).
Whilst some of his movies were impressively grounded (e.g. the Black Society trilogy), others were content on being as outrageous and shockingly grotesque and violent as possible. When Miike dialled down the tone slightly and made the unnerving psychological horror “Audition” (1997), the rest of the world took notice – the movie caused a stir with its slow-burn mood that gets suddenly hijacked in its final act by an excruciating and prolonged torture scene enacted on the main protagonist. It was a violent and unpredictable turn of events that made the director immediately recognised, not to mentioned socially reviled, in some circles.
His high productivity only increased as his name become more prolific, where his skewered humour and zero caution about any taboo has lead to other such colourful and controversial efforts as “The Happiness of Katakuris” (2001), a feel-good zombie musical; “Visitor Q” (2001), a black comedy/horror that literally opens with a father having intercourse with his prostitute daughter; and “Imprint” (2006), an entry in Showtime’s “Master of Horror” anthology that featured violence so repulsive toward women and unborn children that the network pulled said episode from an already boundary pushing show.
Most Controversial Movie: Miike’s filmography is a sea of controversial subjects where no taboo is untouchable, but “Ichi the Killer” (2001) stands on top of that heap with its controversy. Reviling in its brutality (a Toronto International Film Festival screening even handed out ‘barf bags’ before it’s premiere) and based on an already hardcore manga, the film’s plot zigzags between several deranged and vile characters in a hyperreal Tokyo that’s filled with serial killers, sex addicts and psychotic Yakuza enforcers – so far, so Miike?
True, his penchant for excessive bloodletting and disturbing comedy wasn’t anything new, but with this being his first big movie after a international breakthrough, all eyes had then turned on him. Its extreme levels of torture focused on women had the ratings boards in a tizzy and had 15 minutes of footage completely pulled out from several countries, with only the full uncut version still available in limited places in Europe.
1. Lars von Trier
This Danish director splashed onto the scene with a series of odd and arty indies made in his native land, yet it was after his international success with “Breaking the Waves” (1996) where the provocateur began to emerge from the hard living Dane – he created the controversial Dogme 95 Manifesto, a movement that attempted to strip filmmakers of all superficial tricks of the trade and bring the medium down to the bare bones.
“The Idiots” (1995) was his first attempt, featuring a group of friends who purposefully act like ‘mentally challenged’ people, and the entire story commenced in a non-simulated orgy. The movement caused ripples across the Scandinavian film scene but also echoed into Hollywood, and gave von Trier the chance to eventually make “Dogville” (2003), a period set morality tale with an A-list cast yet told in barren sets, basic DV tech, and with zero props – it was a polarising film, to say the least.
Another shining example of his take-no-prisoners cinema was with “Antichrist” (2009), the ultimately disturbing and nauseating horror movie that seriously unnerved in its unflinching grimness (Charlotte Gainsbourg and DIY circumcision). His films speak for themselves, yet von Trier’s own personality is a controversial one in itself – he’s known to being no-holds-barred in his vocality, with him even getting banned at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival (a place he was beforehand celebrated) by sympathising with Hitler at press conference.
Still, in 2014 he came clean saying he had been a heavy alcohol and drug addict, relying on it to enter a ‘creative world’ that he could thrive. He questioned if his work would suffer now that he was clean – his next film, “The House That Jack Built” (2018), the first after a five year hiatus, will be the true litmus for that.
Most Controversial Movie: You got to love von Trier’s audacity – when banking on controversy, he pushes in all his chips. With “Nymphomaniac” (2013), he didn’t just set out to make a time-spanning epic of a sex addict’s life from childhood to middle age, he did so with a lengthy two-volume movie, and with no-holds-barred sex scenes that were recorded simulated with the actors, then re-enacted for real with porn stars, with both blended together with CGI.
The poster campaign featured the respected cast pulling post-coital faces, clearly revelling in the controversy which overshadowed a mixed bag (yet fascinating experiment) of a movie.