Brace for impact: 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. (Don’t expect any Marvel movies.) They contain the most lurid sex scenes, the most gruesome violence, the foulest language. Or at least it was at the time, when popes and cultural watchdogs raised alarms. Even so, some of these films have won Academy Awards and count among the best ever made, despite (or perhaps because of) their inflammatory nature. 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.
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Most controversial movies ever made
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
"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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
While British expat Alfred Hitchcock was making stateside waves with Psycho, his countryman Michael Powell was earning England's ire for this disturbing tale of a movie-obsessed murderer. The critical savaging destroyed Powell's career, but a cult developed. Martin Scorsese was instrumental in the film's rehabilitation, funding a rerelease in the late ’70s.
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.
Mel Gibson's acerbic personal views first came under fire when he released this visceral telling of Jesus Christ's crucifixion. It's a profoundly committed expression of faith, but protestors wanted to throw the book at Gibson for the anti-Semitism they perceived in the movie's portrayal of its villains. Mad Max hatin' on Jews? Couldn't be.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
"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.
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.
Wes Craven's still-nauseating tale of rape and revenge made many enemies on censor boards. The MPAA slapped it with an X several times (Craven eventually got an R by proxy). And U.K. watchdogs continued to demand cuts on all film and video versions until 2008—a long time to hold a grudge.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.