The 50 most controversial movies ever

It's time to get delightfully offended with these all-time shockers.

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  • Controversial movies: Poison (1991)

  • Controversial movies: Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

  • Controversial movies: Last Tango in Paris (1972)

  • Controversial movies: Viridiana (1961)

  • Controversial movies: Freaks (1932)

  • Controversial movies: A Clockwork Orange (1971)

  • Controversial movies: The Birth of a Nation (1915)

  • Controversial movies: Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975)

  • Controversial movies: Triumph of the Will (1934)

  • Controversial movies: The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)

Controversial movies: Poison (1991)

10
POISON (1991)

Poison (1991)

Todd Haynes's groundbreaking indie—a highly stylized and sexually explicit triptych based on the writings of Jean Genet—heralded the arrival of New Queer Cinema and drew the ruthless attentions of family-values pundits after it won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. The chief antagonist was Reverend Donald Wildmon, who called for the firing of the chairman of the National Endowment of the Arts, which had given Haynes a $25,000 grant. Several other naysayers followed suit: "I've seen more artistically meritorious productions on America's Funniest Home Videos," said Baptist Church spokesman Jim Smith. The NEA chair did eventually resign under pressure, while Haynes continued to upend conventions in exceptional work like Safe and Velvet Goldmine.—Keith Uhlich

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9
BONNIE AND CLYDE (1967)

Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

Audiences were used to living vicariously through tommy-gun-wielding gangsters breaking the law with panache. What they weren't prepared for was seeing the bloody aftermath of their antiheroes' activities rendered in living color. This film's use of startlingly realistic violence—oddly coupled with jaunty banjos and jokey moments—caused a furor among those who thought it made murder seem sexy and frivolous. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times complained that the movie's "brutal killings [were] pointless and lacking in taste." But younger critics such as Pauline Kael came to the movie's defense, contextualizing its horrors within the civil unrest going on outside of theaters. Crowther eventually lost his job over the review, while Bonnie and Clyde precipitated a vital American New Wave—and opened the floodgates for countless slo-mo bullet ballets.—David Fear

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8
LAST TANGO IN PARIS (1972)

Last Tango in Paris (1972)

"Go get the butter," says Marlon Brando purposefully, in a movie that premiered at the prestigious New York Film Festival. Cognoscenti were then treated to a lengthy scene of anal sex that many hailed as psychologically expressive, others as smut parading as art. The tumult only spread from there: Curious theatergoers were yelled at by protesters, while the doomy romance met with outright banning in Chile, Spain and even director Bernardo Bertolucci's native Italy, where his civil rights were revoked for five years. Fortunately, critical praise saved the day, with The New Yorker's Pauline Kael going out on a limb in the most famous review of her career: "This is a movie people will be arguing about, I think, for as long as there are movies," she wrote. Her invitation still stands.—Joshua Rothkopf

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7
VIRIDIANA (1961)

Viridiana (1961)

Luis Buuel looses another assault on all that's holy. The Spanish provocateur's masterful tale of the eponymous young nun, whose faith is sorely tested during a visit to her uncle's estate, was the bane of several gatekeepers. Dictator Francisco Franco unsuccessfully attempted to have the film withdrawn from circulation after it won the Palme d'Or at Cannes (in the end, he just banned it at home). And the Vatican made its displeasure known in its official newspaper, describing the movie as blasphemous. (A scene in which a bunch of rabble-rousing vagrants reenact The Last Supper probably had something to do with that.) For the rest of us, Buuel's potent mix of the sacred and profane is endlessly exhilarating.—Keith Uhlich

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6
FREAKS (1932)

Freaks (1932)

To fully understand the traumatizing potency of this Hollywood shocker, first try to imagine a director on the power level of a James Cameron. That's basically what Tod Browning was in 1931, after making Dracula a global box-office phenomenon. The time had finally arrived for Browning to advance his long-gestating personal project, about unloved carnival people whose code is broken by an insider. To MGM's horror, Browning insisted on using real circus performers with deformities. Infamously, a test screening induced one woman's miscarriage (and the threat of a lawsuit); several scenes involving violent revenge were excised. A 64-minute version made it to theaters but was quickly dimmed after horrified public reaction. It wasn't until the 1960s that Freaks found a sympathetic audience in the counterculture. By then, Browning's career was long ruined.—Joshua Rothkopf

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5
A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971)

A Clockwork Orange (1971)

The faux-literary tag line for Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of Anthony Burgess's novel pretty much sums it up: "Being the adventures of a young man whose principal interests are rape, ultra-violence and Beethoven." Let's just say it wasn't the Beethoven that had half of Britain calling for Kubrick's head. A future-shock parable about free will, this vivid depiction of a charismatic gang leader gained instant notoriety for its extreme violence and prolonged scenes of sexual assault. Politicians debated whether the movie's nihilism outweighed any merits it possessed, newspaper columnists around the world called it everything from misogynistic to fascistic, and social critics fretted over whether the movie's cultish fans would become Clockwork copycats. After defending the movie for months, Kubrick himself prohibited the movie from being shown in England, where the controversy had reached a fever pitch. It wouldn't be publicly exhibited there for decades.—David Fear

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4
THE BIRTH OF A NATION (1915)

The Birth of a Nation (1915)

In one fell swoop, D.W. Griffith's Civil War epic gave the filmmaking world the basic grammar of modern cinema. But the same game-changing gesture also distorted history, recast reprehensibly racist attitudes as heroic and helped revitalize the Ku Klux Klan into the most powerful hatemongering organization of its day. No less than President Woodrow Wilson gave the film his blessing, while the NAACP and other groups decried it as being trumped-up propaganda. The more audiences across the country were exposed to white-sheeted good guys riding to the rescue of Lillian Gish, the louder the cries against prejudice grew. Riots erupted in major cities; in Boston, audience members threw eggs at the screen. Even these days, the silent film still sparks outrage: A proposed 2004 screening at Los Angeles's Silent Movie Theatre was canceled after arson threats. The film's formal influence is matched only by its ugliness.—David Fear

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3
SAL, OR THE 120 DAYS OF SODOM (1975)

Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975)

A fearsome gauntlet that all lovers of foreign film must run, Pier Paolo Pasolini's flesh-tearing drama comes from the lurid writings of the Marquis de Sade. Episodes of torture were transposed to Benito Mussolini's Fascist Italy of the early-1940s, where sexual decadence could also function as a political critique of then and now. But good luck trying to engage on that high-minded level: The movie was banned in Britain and Australia, and caused a stir nearly 20 years later in America, when the owners of a Cincinnati video store were arrested for "pandering." The movie has undoubtedly become a influence on provocateurs like Michael Haneke and Lars von Trier. Yet its most upsetting legacy might be the fate of Pasolini himself, mysteriously murdered only weeks before its world premiere.—Joshua Rothkopf

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2
TRIUMPH OF THE WILL (1935)

Triumph of the Will (1934)

To her dying day, director Leni Riefenstahl insisted she was not a Nazi; she merely made the single most famous piece of propaganda about them ever conceived. The fact that Riefenstahl's magnum opus captures Hitler in full fascistic bloom at the 1934 Nuremberg Rally is enough to qualify her content as repugnant. (Screenings are still forbidden in Germany.) But Riefenstahl's remarkable skill in stylizing the marching troops and the fhrer's screeds makes this film debate fodder to this day. "There were other documentaries about the Nazi rallies," Roger Ebert said. "But no one remembers [them]; they weren't as good." Triumph of the Will remains exhibit A in the argument about aesthetic beauty used in the service of ideological evil. Its indelible compositions and sense of space are undeniably brilliant; the result of its director's creative genius furthered a legacy of evil.—David Fear

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1
THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST (1988)

The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)

An explosive tour de force from one of our greatest filmmakers, Martin Scorsese's long-gestating passion project shares elements with several films on our list: sex, violence, Jesus Christ. But this reimagining of Nikos Kazantzakis' speculative novel about the Son of God's human fallibility easily ascends to the top of our countdown due to the sheer furor it inspired worldwide. Pundits denounced it. The Vatican and numerous Christians took vocal issue with the extended sequence in which Jesus imagines an alternate life for himself (sun-dappled sex scenes included) with the prostitute Mary Magdalene. One French fundamentalist group launched Molotov cocktails into a Paris theater, injuring several patrons. And some countries banned the film sight unseen (it still can't be shown in the Philippines or Singapore). Lost in all the commotion is the film itself: Beautifully performed (especially by Willem Dafoe as Jesus), impeccably shot and scored (Peter Gabriel's propulsive soundtrack is one for the ages), it's the work of a true believer in both movies and mankind.—Keith Uhlich

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Users say

13 comments
Dan L
Dan L

Haha it seems that whoever wrote this article has not seen the movie "A Serbian Film", or else it would surely be NUMERO UNO!!!!!!!! Dear God please don't go and watch that movie anyone, I would hate to be responsible for anyone having to experience utter traumatization....Let me just say that there are just some things that can't be unseen.

Peter
Peter

FACES OF DEATH and its many sequels, should not have been included as they mostly contained faked scenes.KEN PARK is a classic and much under rated film well worth buying on the internet.Probably the most controversial films of all time ( not included on the list) were .WE ARE NOT ALONE (Denmark);GENESIS CHILDREN (Italy) and IN A GLASS CAGE (Spain)

Matthew Zande
Matthew Zande

The thing people overlook about 'The Last Temptation of Christ' is that it's not genius film making. It's probably the least genius film Scorsese has ever filmed. 'Last Temptation' is decidedly sloppy film making and yet secular reviewers banded around this movie in unprecedented solidarity; in an attempt, no doubt to be regarded in their respective communities as champions for artistic experimentation against Church repression. The principle motivation for favourably reviewing this really mediocre film seems to be to piss off Christians. How can you give top billing to 'Last Temptation' when it had the unbridled affection of secular movie reviewers everywhere? Critically, 'Last Temptation' is one of the most loved films on your list. Because it allowed so many secular critics to show how much like Sir Thomas More they were. It's quality as a film was a minor issue.

D Talada
D Talada

I gather there's some reason they're controversial. It would be nice if there was some kind of link or pop-up or something that would complete the synopsis instead of ending every one with "The outcry over immorality delayed general..." or "the most outrageous scene is......" Were they actually WRITTEN as sentence fragments??

joel
joel

Good list. I just watched a very controversial filmed the other day called "Happiness". I highly recommend it for those that can stomach it.

Ryan
Ryan

How did you miss Caligula?

Edward Stratton
Edward Stratton

This is a good list, but I was disappointed by the lack of Gaspar Noe. "Irreversible" demands a place on this list.,

Anonymous
Anonymous

How come Dr. Strangelove didn't make this list?

smithingham
smithingham

this list is quite good. I enjoy the importance based on historical controversy. that said, there are a few films that are missing, in particular "battle of Algiers" (the french screening was firebombed). also quite dismayed that there is no reference to Peter Watkins on this list, "War Game" and "Punishment Park" were highly controversial (both were banned). i think "henry:portrait of a serial killer" would have been good. I disagree with many commenter's insistence that "august underground" and a "serbian film" should be listed, although both are shocking and controversial, their controversy has little relevance as far as film history.

janaka
janaka

wont to see full movie