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Mother! (2017)
Photograph: Courtesy Paramount PicturesMother! (2017)

The 50 most controversial movies ever made

Here are the most shocking films of all time – controversial movies that offend, thrill and provoke in equal measure

Joshua Rothkopf
Edited by
Joshua Rothkopf
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Looking for some light viewing? Look elsewhere. The most controversial movies of all time don’t go down easy. Stubbornly, they persist in our cultural memory – these are the films that feel like gauntlets to run. They contain the most lurid sex scenes, the most gruesome violence, the foulest language... or at least it was at the time, when cultural watchdogs raised alarms. Many of the films on this list seem tame by today’s standards. Others still carry an air of danger. 

Some of these films are Oscar-winning classics that broke boundaries. Others are vile pieces of propaganda. You’ll find exploitation and horror, eroticism and perversion. Films both deeply faithful and proudly blasphemous sit side by side thanks to their shared ability to spark religious outrage. No matter the content or quality, these films sent shockwaves through the cinematic landscape, leaving a sea of clutched pearls and exhausted censors in their wake. 

Ultimately, our list represents cinema at its cutting edge, often literally. It’s not safe for work. Close the door, turn out the lights and fire up the 50 most controversial movies of all time.

Written by Joshua Rothkopf, David Fear, Keith Uhlich & Andy Kryza

RECOMMENDED: Full guide to the 100 best movies of all time

Most controversial movies ever made

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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  • Horror

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.

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Luis Buñuel 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, Buñuel's potent mix of the sacred and profane is endlessly exhilarating.

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When Bernardo Bertolucci’s brooding crucible of a relationship drama premiered at the prestigious New York Film Festival, influential film sage Pauline Kael penned 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. She was more right than she knew. The butter scene, in which Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider get hot and heavy with the help of cinema’s most famous diary spread, has taken on a bleaker edge in light of the actress’s recollection of an on-set situation that left her feeling abused. As charted in our run-down of the 101 most iconic sex scenes in history, the scene maintains its gutteral power: Its dramatic motivation provides a primal exchange of power and vulnerability that is as complex as the entire movie. Artistic glory or violating villainy? The argument goes on.

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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.

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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.

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One expects raised eyebrows when making a movie about real-life sexual obsession – especially if it includes actual instances of actors getting it on. Nagisa Oshima had to ship his undeveloped film to France to avoid Japan's censorship laws; an American premiere at the New York Film Festival was aborted when authorities confiscated the film at the airport. Its violent, explicit scenes of lovemaking remain a how-far-can-you-go test of tolerance.

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Controversy plagued William Friedkin’s leather-bar murder mystery even before it screened for audiences. Gay activists were so offended by the film's purportedly fearmongering depictions of Manhattan’s queer underground that they disrupted shooting. Once it was released, protests only intensified, though the film has since been viewed more favorably (by gay critics, in some cases) and regarded as a time capsule of a lost subculture.

Life of Brian (1979)
Photo: Courtesy of Orion Pictures

14. Life of Brian (1979)

Monty Python's Flying Circus could make fun of the Queen without attracting trouble, no problem. But the minute they made a satire about an average Nazarene layabout mistaken for the Messiah, its members started getting death threats. Picket lines followed, while Christian organizations complained that mocking Jesus was a mortal sin; the irony was that Python was actually ridiculing religious zealots.

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Intending to transgress, John Waters left no taboo untried on this, his most beloved cult movie, starring his friend, the rapturously dramatic Divine, and a host of Baltimore misfits. The film is peppered with riotous awfulness: sex with a live chicken, depictions of incest, a close-up of a proudly exposed anus. But it's the shit-eating climax—unfaked—that cements its reputation.

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  • Horror

The Exorcist welcomed controversy with open arms: This is, after all, a film in which a possessed pre-teen girl repeatedly stabs herself in the genitals with a crucifix. The outcry was so loud that God himself might have joined in the backlash: fires and injuries led director William Friedkin to have the set of his ‘cursed’ film blessed by a priest. Censors cried foul of subliminal messaging tucked into the frames. Linda Blair required a bodyguard for months. This is a film that sent visceral reactions up and down the spine of the cinematic landscape. Even today, it feels dangerous. 

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David Cronenberg's vividly erotic thriller—about an underground cult that gets off on highway accidents—left censors hot and bothered. U.S. distributors were forced to release separate R and NC-17 versions. Britain approved it, though a local council barred the movie from screening in certain venues. And Italian critics demanded Cronenberg return his Cannes prize. Seems some folks could use a little nookie.

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In 1960, British filmmakers Alfred Hitchcock and Michael Powell both released prototypical slasher films foregrounding voyeuristic murderers. Hitch’s Psycho would be rewarded with box-office glory and decrees of genius. Powell, meanwhile, found his career detonated in the wake of Peeping Tom, a film whose examination of toxic fandom and empathy for the devil would prove decades ahead of its time. Critics savaged it. Censors ripped it to bits. Finland banned it. Yet it’s now lauded as a masterpiece, thanks in no small part to fellow controversy-courter Martin Scorsese funding a re-release in the late ’70s.

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  • Horror

Would Mel Gibson’s Old Testament approach to the New Testament be so controversial had he not revealed himself to be the anti-semite critics feared he was? It’s hard to say. But the film’s depiction of Jews as bloodthirsty sadists would have raised eyebrows even if this thing was directed by Golda Meir. The debate over messaging was loud enough to drown out concerns about the film’s gruesome violence… not that flayed skin irked the target audience. Consider: Martin Scorsese pissed off the pious by showing Christ in love. Mel Gibson made millions by showing him being ripped apart for two straight hours.

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Sexual intercourse is implied rather than shown in this frenzied German film about a love triangle (tame by today's standards). But the close-ups of blushing Hedy Lamarr, in clear rapture during an illicit encounter with a hunky construction worker, were enough to raise the hackles of the National Legion of Decency, which banned its importation. Pope Pius XI publicly denounced it, which didn't help either.

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Moral pundits don't like seeing wanton sex, drug usage and criminal activities in movies; throw in underage teens doing all the above and you've got a bona fide uproar on your hands. Photographer-turned filmmaker Larry Clark certainly didn't skimp on the adolescent bad behavior in his film debut (scripted by budding auteur Harmony Korine), prompting accusations of child porn and forcing Miramax to buy back the movie from its parent company, Disney.

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Many predicted Spike Lee's incendiary take on Bed-Stuy race relations would stir up riots. But the only trash cans hurled through pizzeria windows were verbal: Lee accused reviewers of blind prejudice, while heated editorials were plentiful. The film became a political football, and its provocative influence persists.

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Queer and feminist activists were vexed by Jonathan Demme's much-lauded chiller, due to its flamboyantly transsexual villain, Buffalo Bill, and his relish for skinning women. Protests were held at screenings, and a clearly shaken Demme tried to atone with his next fiction feature, the courthouse AIDS drama, Philadelphia.

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Philip Kaufman's adventurous biopic about libidinous literary mavericks Henry Miller and Anais Nin proved that the new NC-17 rating carried the same stigmas as its X predecessor, with media-outlet boycotts turning the film into cinema non grata. Overnight, Kaufman's erotic love story became a culture-wars flash point.

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Forget the billing order: The breakout star(s) of this tawdry Western was Jane Russell's bust. Obsessive producer-director Howard Hughes featured Russell's assets prominently in both the movie and its leering promotional material. The outcry over immorality delayed general release for three years—at which point this mammary-obsessed pet project became a mammoth hit.

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Faces of Death (1978)
Photo: Courtesy of Aquarius Releasing

27. Faces of Death (1978)

It doesn't matter that much of this "documentary" was faked (director John Alan Schwartz, working under the name Conan le Cilaire, also played the leader of a flesh-eating cult). It still represents an essential rite of passage for thousands of teenage sleepovers, inculcating a taste for naughtiness. Monkey brains? Nah. All special effects.

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When Vilgot Sjman's sexually explicit Swedish drama was brought into this country, custom agents seized it at the airport. Suddenly, this foreign film became a cause clbre; the case went all the way to the Supreme Court before obscenity charges were dropped. The bold movie paved the way for all the art-house smut and porn-chic that followed.

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Times Square hustlers, lowlife junkies and free-lovin' hippies—could suburban audiences stomach John Schlesinger's nightmarish New York City? The MPAA didn't think so, instantly slapping this depraved drama with a dreaded X rating. Oscar voters thought otherwise, though, making it the only "adults only" movie to win Best Picture.

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Fans of Brian De Palma's coke-laced remake owe themselves a visit to the original, considered wildly inappropriate in its day. Hollywood censors objected to the violence, the glamorization of crime and intimations of incest; they insisted on both a new ending and a new title, Scarface: The Shame of the Nation. Megabucks producer Howard Hughes scoffed and disowned the edit.

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If you thought Run Lola Run featured an inordinate amount of pavement pounding, check out Melvin Van Peebles’s seminal flick, in which the title character is pursued by the Man for the entire damn picture. The poster proudly declared “Rated X by an all-white jury” and Van Peebles rode the controversy all the way to the bank. His film made millions on a $150,000 budget.

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The movie became a fashionable urban sensation – no doubt to the delight of many men – and touched the culture at large with its appropriation in the Watergate scandal. But behind its porny surface, and a spot on our list of cinema’s 101 most memorable sex scenes, the flick induced headaches related to its mob financing, its obscenity and conspiracy charges (the latter related to transportation across state lines) and theatrical barrings.

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Of course Lars von Trier was going to make our list; the question was only which film. We’ll take this instant Cannes sensation—reportedly born out of the director’s own depression—in which chaos reigns, and some rusty shears are involved in a nasty bit of business involving Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg. Bring your appetite, leave with it spoiled.

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Excruciating to watch, this Amazonian misadventure (shot on location) spurred massive outrage for its special effects being too good. A notorious scene of a naked woman's impalement actually led to the Italian director's arrest for murder. After those charges were successfully disputed, the movie was still widely banned due to incidents of animal abuse—which, alas, were not faked.

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It's a key entry in the iconography of Clint Eastwood, and you won't find an action fan who can't recite the entire "Well, do you, punk?" speech by heart. But during its release, the movie sparked a fierce war of words, with prominent critics calling it fascist, bigoted and unnecessarily brutal. They had a point: Police in the Philippines ordered a print for training purposes.

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  • Family and kids

"Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah" may be one catchy tune, but folks have never been pleased with how this Disney film whistled Dixie about the antebellum South. Plantation life is whitewashed into one big happy-slave playdate. Even during its production, the movie inspired accusations of racism—and don't get us started on the "Tar Baby" section. It remains a taint on the Mouse House to this day.

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Paradoxically, the movie isn't all that gory—certainly not like some of the other entries on this list. Yet Tobe Hooper's proto–slasher film unsettled censors around the world, leading to its prohibition in such unlikely places as Sweden, Ireland and Brazil. A thick slab of barbecued menace, the thriller still inspires smart, young directors—and plenty of dumb ones, too.

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Frank Sinatra’s got a monkey on his back in Otto Preminger’s dated but still gripping drama—the first depiction of heroin addiction in a Hollywood movie. Moral watchdogs were panicked at the time but viewers ran the risk of cultivating different addictions: a lifelong craving for elegant Saul Bass title sequences and propulsive Elmer Bernstein film scores.

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Step aside, Skins: For years, indie provocateur Larry Clark suffered (or maybe relished) attacks by critics, who called his photographs—and movies like Kids (see No. 22) and Bully—teen exploitation. Eventually, Clark decided to properly earn the outrage and make an extreme film. Ken Park, filled with depictions of underage sex, violence and suicide, never found a U.S. distributor.

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Indie gadfly Vincent Gallo's mesmerizing road movie was a fiasco at Cannes: The molasses-slow pace sparked catcalls, an unsimulated oral-sex scene (on the director-star himself) dropped jaws, and Gallo had several pointed exchanges with detractor Roger Ebert. But Rog approved of the filmmaker's recut, which excised some flab and kept the blow job. Who says there are no happy endings?

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Five years still might have been too soon: Even though writer-director Paul Greengrass worked closely with the families of the flight victims (notably not with that of German passenger Christian Adams, portrayed as an appeaser) and reaped huge critical acclaim, his nerve-racking trailer stunned cinemagoers who weren't prepared. One New York theater removed it after complaints.

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Otto Preminger’s harmless farce gained instant notoriety for using the words virgin, mistress and seduce; seen today, it’s more of a quaint reminder of censorship ballyhoo from the distant past, and the chance to see age-inappropriate William Holden and David Niven go head-to-head over a young lass. This was the first comedy about devirginization.

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Major studios like Paramount rarely offer provocations this nutso. Brief though it was, the Jennifer Lawrence–Darren Aronofsky romantic partnership will always have this bit of WTF to its lasting credit. An impressively exposed psychodrama about male artistic ego and the disposability of muses, Mother! represented thousands of billable hours of therapy, converted into mainstream art that played in multiplexes. Cherish that like a unicorn.

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Jean-Luc Godard's provocative update of the Virgin Mary story—featuring full-frontal nudity—was denounced by no less than the Pope, and one angry Christian threw a pie in the director's face at Cannes. Godard's intention was to examine modern spirituality; the reaction he engendered, however, wasn't exactly full of grace.

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Ken Russell's crazed stew of sex, violence and religious impropriety in 17th-century France seared the eyes of film censors. So many cuts were demanded that several countries could claim their own versions. Italian tastemakers banned the movie outright, even though Russell won a Best Director award at the Venice Film Festival.

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  • Documentaries

Frederick Wiseman's unflinching look inside a Massachusetts facility for the criminally insane was so disturbing (and revealing) that the state tried to permanently bury it. Authorities placed an injunction on public showings that wasn't lifted until 1991. It's one of the few movies banned for reasons other than obscenity, politics or immorality.

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If this is our lowest-ranking title, you know we meant business. Meir Zarchi's scuzzy rape-revenge thriller (also marketed under the name Day of the Woman) limped into theaters, and was immediately banned all over the world. Its most notorious scene, a bathtub seduction that comes to an edge, inspired critical derision, but also, provocatively, a wave of feminist cheers.

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