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.
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
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