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The 50 most controversial movies ever

It's time to get delightfully offended with these all-time shockers.
The 50 most controversial movies ever
By David Fear, Joshua Rothkopf and Keith Uhlich |

Warning: What follows is explicit. These movies (and their accompanying photos) are not chosen for their beauty, but rather for their primal power to shock. And why is that important? Sometimes, in the case of politics and sex, filmmakers can be liberators, leading a charge that elevates the medium's significance. Elsewhere—especially in the case of violence—a movie can warn us of where we might be headed. These 50 entries are the extremes. We welcome your response.



I Spit on Your Grave (1978)

If this is our lowest-ranking title, better brace yourself for punishment. 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.—Joshua Rothkopf

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The Wild Bunch (1969)

These days, it's not extraordinary for Hollywood to release a superviolent spectacle with a body count in the hundreds. But when feisty Sam Peckinpah did it, he pointedly evoked the ongoing war in Vietnam and created a blood-spouting whirlwind that confronted American righteousness. The Western genre never recovered.—Joshua Rothkopf

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Titicut Follies (1967)

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.—David Fear


The Devils (1971)

The kind of movie that ends with a deformed nun furiously masturbating with the dead hero’s amputated femur, Ken Russell’s operatic drama about the sexual fervor that overtakes a small religious enclave in 17th-century France was never going to have an easy go. Butchered upon its initial release in 1971, a full cut of the film had only screened in the U.K. three times as of 2011. (A DVD is now available.)—David Ehrlich


Basic Instinct (1992)

Everyone remembers Sharon Stone's crotch flash, but Paul Verhoeven's thriller (penned by smutmeister Joe Eszterhas in a mere 13 days) produced a fair amount of offscreen heat, too, as gay groups furiously decried the image of homicidal lipstick lesbians. Riot police patrolled locations; no ice picks went unaccounted for.—Joshua Rothkopf

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Hail Mary (1985)

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.—David Fear

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Reservoir Dogs (1992)

The explosive arrival of Quentin Tarantino sent ripples through the indie world: A deluge of chatty criminals spouting monologues about pop culture would follow for years. But in the film’s moment of release, the reaction was much more severe: Walk-outs were common during Michael Madsen’s ear-cutting scene—and even included horror mavens Wes Craven and makeup artist Rick Baker.—Joshua Rothkopf

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The Moon Is Blue (1953)

When Otto Preminger included the then-racy terms virgin, mistress and seduce in his lecherous comedy, the movie industry's morality police went into a froth. Head Hollywood censor Joseph Breen refused to grant the movie a seal of approval, so Preminger & Co. released the film without the MPAA's blessing—marking the beginning of the end of the Hays Code stranglehold.—David Fear

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United 93 (2006)

Upon the 2006 release of Greengrass’s nauseatingly vivid recreation of the commandeered 9/11 flight that never hit its target, so many people said “too soon” that the phrase could have been the movie’s tagline. But the verisimilitude of Greengrass’s film helped confer a concrete reality upon an event that still feels like a collective nightmare, and some families of the passengers came to the premiere to show their support.—David Ehrlich

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The Brown Bunny (2003)

Remembered as the movie with the blowjob that brought Cannes to its knees, Vincent Gallo’s second feature—and the controversy around it—had less to do with Chloë Sevigny fellating the director than it did with critics’ refusal to do the same. When Roger Ebert declared it the worst movie in Cannes history, Gallo called Ebert a “fat pig with the physique of a slave trader.”—David Ehrlich

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Ken Park (2002)

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.—Joshua Rothkopf


The Man with the Golden Arm (1955)

No stranger to breaking screen taboos (see No. 43), Otto Preminger went a step further with this drug-addiction drama, in which Frank Sinatra's strung-out musician shoots up. People were equal parts aghast at the film's daring depiction of a dope fiend and impressed by its realistic take on the subject. Legions of high-wire screen-junkie performances owe this groundbreaking film a debt.—David Fear

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The Last House on the Left (1972)

You’d think basing a movie on an Oscar-winning Ingmar Bergman classic (1960’s The Virgin Spring) would exempt a young filmmaker from scandal. Not so with Wes Craven, who found his scuzzy tale of rape, murder and parental revenge targeted by censor boards, chopped into incoherence and banned in several countries including England. It was only as recent as 2008 when Brits could finally see the uncut version.—Joshua Rothkopf

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The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

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.—Joshua Rothkopf

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Song of the South (1946)

"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.—David Fear


Dirty Harry (1971)

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.—Joshua Rothkopf

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Cannibal Holocaust (1980)

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.—Joshua Rothkopf

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The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933)

We should be thankful for all the controversy that Fritz Lang’s crime movie inspired—it almost certainly saved the director’s life. The ominous plot (about a criminal mastermind) had some obvious parallels to the then-current rise of Hitler, and when propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels took exception, Lang fled the country in a panic. Germany’s loss would be America’s gain.—Joshua Rothkopf

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Deep Throat (1972)

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, 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.—Joshua Rothkopf

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Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971)

"Rated x by an all-white jury," proclaimed the poster for Melvin Van Peebles's epoch-defining provocation, which ruffled feathers across the racial divide. Caucasian critics claimed the film would incite riots, while black pundits argued that Van Peebles was reinforcing negative stereotypes. Neither group stopped this incendiary indie from breaking box-office records, thus royally pissing off the Man.—David Fear

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Scarface (1932)

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.—Joshua Rothkopf

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Midnight Cowboy (1969)

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.—David Fear

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I Am Curious (Yellow) (1967)

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.—David Fear

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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.—Joshua Rothkopf

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The Outlaw (1943)

Hollywood is unsurpassed at spending fortunes on ridiculous whims, but superproducer Howard Hughes set the bar high when he devoted his considerable resources to designing a bespoke cantilevered bra for his well-endowed star Jane Russell. Even with censors in a huff and public watchdogs on high alert for boobage, the movie became a sensation and ultimately a commercial success.—Joshua Rothkopf

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Henry & June (1990)

Philip Kaufman's adventurous biopic about libidinous literary mavericks Henry Miller and Anas 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.—David Fear

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The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

The Hannibal Lecter story that towers over them all, director Jonathan Demme’s thrillerate the competition for dinner at the Academy Awards. But the film’s accolades were accompanied by accusations of transphobia. Some felt that Buffalo Bill, who kills women and dresses in their skin, might not have been the best representation of the LGBT community. Demme obviously took these concerns about queer characters to heart: His next film was Philadelphia.—David Ehrlich

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Do the Right Thing

Do the Right Thing (1989)

Now it’s an undeniable NYC classic but at the time of its debut, Spike Lee’s incendiary drama—set on the hottest day of a tense Brooklyn summer—made plenty of reviewers sweat, even in their praise. Several considered the potential for riots in movie theaters, a claim that Lee found racist. Significantly, Do the Right Thing is one of the few movies on this list that provokes via its ideas, not brutal imagery or explicitness.—Joshua Rothkopf

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Kids (1995)

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.—David Fear

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Ecstasy (1933)

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.—Keith Uhlich

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The Passion of the Christ (2004)

Mel Gibson’s hyperviolent 2004 retelling of Jesus’s final hours was a rare master class in how to piss off people on all sides: Catholics disputed its Papal endorsement (“It is as it was,” Pope John Paul II may have said), Jews accused it of being an anti-Semitic screed (this was two years before Gibson drunkenly said that Jews were “responsible for all the wars in the world”), and critics derided its savagery. (David Edelstein, writing for Slate, called it “a two-hour-and-six-minute snuff movie.”)—David Ehrlich

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"Un Chien Andalou" (1929)/"L'Age d'Or" (1930)

Luis Buuel didn't pull any punches with his first two shorts. The 16-minute "Un Chien Andalou" memorably features a woman's eyeball slit by a razor, while the 60-minute L'Age d'Or, a scathing attack on bourgeois society, so incensed its first audiences that the financiers pulled it from distribution.—Keith Uhlich

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Peeping Tom (1960)

Once celebrated at the highest levels of the biz for making sumptuous masterpieces like The Red Shoes (1948) and The Tales of Hoffman (1951), director Michael Powell suffered a career-ruining blow when this squirm-inducing thriller (about a deranged photographer who kills models with his knife-loaded camera) was critically savaged. Finland banned it, but Brian De Palma was watching.—Joshua Rothkopf

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Crash (1996)

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.—Keith Uhlich

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The Exorcist (1973)

So much rumor and urban myth swirl around what is widely considered the freakiest horror movie ever made, it demands a place on our list. Fires and injuries led director William Friedkin to have the set of his "cursed" film blessed by a priest. Alleged subliminal imagery supplied extra spookiness (it was just good editing). And Linda Blair required a bodyguard for months.—Joshua Rothkopf

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Pink Flamingos (1972)

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.—Joshua Rothkopf

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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.—David Fear

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Cruising (1980)

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.—Keith Uhlich

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In the Realm of the Senses (1976)

It’s no surprise that Nagisa Oshima’s deranged erotic masterpiece, about the pungent sexual infatuation between a hotel maid and her employer in pre-WWII Tokyo, was so controversial upon its release in 1976. Based on the true story of Sada Abe and featuring a number of clearly unsimulated sex acts (as well as some shocking violence), the film was only able to bypass Japanese censorship laws by claiming status as a French production. In the U.S., it was effectively banned until 1990: Even its stateside premiere at the New York Film Festival was cancelled.—David Ehrlich

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Straw Dogs (1971)

A deeply disturbing, ugly film that nonetheless spurs valuable discussion, Sam Peckinpah's thriller takes places on an isolated English farm, where meek American mathematician David (Dustin Hoffman) takes brutal revenge on the locals who violate his wife. How much does Amy enjoy that rape, though? The question was explosive; censors demanded cuts, and the stage was set for a public outcry.—Joshua Rothkopf

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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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Bonnie and Clyde

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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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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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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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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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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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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SalΓ², 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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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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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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