Enter with caution: The most controversial movies of all time don’t play gently. Filled with sex scenes, sacrilege, shocking violence and all manner of foul language, these films have been banned by popes, parents and cultural watchdogs around the world. Then again, a few of them have actually won Academy Awards and can be named among the best movies of all time. Most crucially, these infamous provocations open our eyes, ears and minds to the forward edge of cinema, taking the art form to places it wouldn’t have gone. So close the door, brace yourself and check out the 50 most controversial movies of all time.
Most controversial movies ever made
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A fearful cop gets stuck in the middle with a psycho crook and loses an ear. It's the tipping point in Quentin Tarantino's sanguine first feature, which sparked numerous violence-in-cinema think pieces and inspired many unnerved walkouts. Makeup genius Rick Baker, one of the fleeing viewers, told QT he should take his own early exit as a compliment.
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.
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.
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?