There are a lot of factors that can make or break a movie. While critics and audiences mainly look at directing, writing, and acting, when judging the greatness of a film, there are instances when controversies surrounding a movie dictate its critical and commercial success, as well as its overall legacy. Flicks that are dubbed controversial usually feature sensitive and taboo storylines, but there are also some that become a hot topic because of their overly graphic sex scenes, grossly gruesome violence, and extremely vulgar language, among many others. To give you some examples, below are 30 of the most controversial films of all time.
A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Set in a dystopian near-future Britain, A Clockwork Orange centers on antisocial delinquent Alex DeLarge (Malcolm McDowell) and his small group of thugs as they go on crime sprees that include theft, rape, murder, and other forms of “ultra-violence”. When Alex is jailed, he submits to a conduct-aversion experiment that conditions him to abhor violence. Though he eventually earns his freedom, he returns to the world defenseless, becoming the victim of his prior victims.
Because of its graphic depictions of violence, the Stanley Kubrick-directed film became very controversial at the time of its release and was ultimately withdrawn from British cinemas at Kubrick’s behest. Despite its portrayal of excessively graphic violence, A Clockwork Orange still scored Best Picture, Best Writing, Best Director, and Best Film Edition nominations at the 44th Academy Awards.
Written and directed by Lars von Trier, Antichrist tells the story of a grieving couple (Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg) who retreats to a cabin in the woods after the death of their child. There, the man experiences strange visions and the woman starts perpetrating sexual violence on her husband and herself.
Antichrist made our list of most controversial films of all time because it immediately caused noise after its premiere at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, with critics praising its artistic execution but strongly divided over its substantive merit.
Two versions were available for buyers at the Cannes film market: the “Catholic” and “Protestant” versions. The former had some of the most explicit scenes removed while the latter was uncut. Antichrist was not submitted to the Motion Pictures Association of America (MPAA) because the filmmakers expected an NC-17 rating for its graphic violence and sex.
Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
Considered as one of the first films of the New Hollywood era, Bonnie & Clyde tells the story of a dissatisfied small-town girl Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway) and ex-con Clyde Barrow (Warren Beatty) who start a violent crime spree together after falling in love with each other. However, tensions between the couple and the other members of their gang threaten to destroy them all.
The Arthur Penn-directed film caused furor among critics at the time of its release because of its apparent glorification of murderers and for its level of graphic violence, which was unprecedented back then. In fact, Bonnie and Clyde’s ending is so startlingly graphic that it is considered as “one of the bloodiest death scenes in cinematic history.”
Aside from winning two categories at the 40th Academy Awards ― Best Actress in Supporting Role for Estelle Parsons and Best Cinematography for Burnett Guffey, Bonnie and Clyde is also deemed as a landmark film, which broke many cinematic taboos and whose commercial success prompted other filmmakers to be more open in presenting sex and violence in their movies.
Cannibal Holocaust (1980)
Directed by Ruggero Deodato, Cannibal Holocaust stars Robert Kerman as Harold Monroe, an anthropologist from New York University who leads a rescue team into the Amazon rainforest to locate a crew of filmmakers. But when the team only recovers the crew’s lost cans of film, a television station wishes to broadcast the footage as a sensationalized TV special.
Cannibal Holocaust is considered by many as one of the most controversial films of all time because its graphic violence aroused a great deal of uproar within the film industry. In fact, after its premiere in Italy, the film was ordered to be seized by a local magistrate, and Deodato was even arrested on obscenity charges. He was also charged with multiple counts of murder due to rumors that several actors were killed on camera. While Deodato was eventually cleared of those charges, the film still ended up getting banned in Italy, Australia, and other countries due to its graphic content, including sexual assault and genuine violence toward animals.
Directed by David Cronenberg, Crash follows a film producer (James Spader) who, after getting into a serious vehicular accident, becomes involved with a group of symphorophiliacs who are sexually aroused by car crashes. The group tries to rejuvenate the producer’s sex life with his wife (Deborah Kara Unger) through car accidents and the raw sexual energy they produce.
Like J. G. Ballard’s 1973 novel on which the movie is based, Cronenberg’s Crash was controversial because of its vivid depictions of graphic sexual acts instigated by violence. Though the movie received the Special Jury Prize at the 1996 Cannes Film Festival, it left censors hot and bothered. For instance, U.S. distributors were forced to release separate R and NC-17 versions of the film, while the U.K. barred the movie from screening in certain venues across the country.
Loosely based on the novel of the same name by New York Times reporter Gerald Walker, Cruising stars Al Pacino as a police detective who goes undercover in the underground S&M gay subculture of New York City to catch a serial killer who is preying on gay men.
The William Friedkin-directed movie was plagued with controversy long before it was released. Believing that the film stigmatized gay men, gay rights activists disrupted shooting. And when Cruising finally came out, protests only intensified, as members of the gay community felt that the film had a homophobic political message and that it portrayed gay men as being attracted to violence, which they feared could justify homophobic hate crimes.
Do the Right Thing (1989)
Directed, produced, and written by Spike Lee Do the Right Thing revolves around a pizzeria in a Brooklyn neighborhood owned by Salvatore “Sal” Fragione (Danny Aiello). A neighborhood local, Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito), becomes upset when he sees that the pizzeria’s Wall of Fame only exhibits only Italian actors. Buggin’ Out believes that a pizzeria in a black neighborhood should showcase black actors, but Sal disagrees. The wall becomes a symbol of racism and hate to Buggin’ Out and to other people in the neighborhood. Tensions rise, which culminates in tragedy and violence on a hot summer day.
Though Do the Right Thing got an Oscar nomination for Best Writing, many white critics and columnists suggested that the film could incite black audiences to riot. Lee, in turn, slammed those reviewers for implying that black audiences were not capable of restraining themselves while watching a fictional motion picture.
In a 2014 interview with Rolling Stone, Lee said that the remarks from those reviewers “still bugs the shit” out of him. After calling the comments “outrageous, egregious and … racist,” the filmmaker said, “I don’t remember people saying people were going to come out of theaters killing people after they watched Arnold Schwarzenegger films.”
An erotic romantic drama film, Ecstasy follows a young woman (Hedy Lamarr) who falls in love with a young virile engineer (Aribert Mog) after abandoning her brief passionless marriage with a wealthy but much older man (Zvonimir Rogoz).
Directed by Gustav Machatý-directed, the non-pornographic movie was a hot topic at the time of its release because of its depiction of sexual intercourse and female orgasm, as well as a couple of naked scenes featuring Lamarr.
Faces of Death (1978)
Written and directed by John Alan Schwartz, Faces of Death is a horror film shown in a documentary-like style. It centers on pathologist Francis B. Gröss (Michael Carr) who presents the viewer with a variety of footage showing different gruesome ways of death, both real and re-enacted.
Though commercially successful in the U.S., Faces of Death was banned and censored in many countries because of its crude and tasteless exploitation footage, including fighting dogs and a monkey being cruelly beaten to death, among many others.
Freaks is considered one of the most controversial films of all time because the entire Hollywood community was shocked when it was revealed that director Tod Browning insisted on casting real circus performers with deformities for the film. And even though the movie was significantly cut from 90 minutes to 64 minutes after test-screening audience found it too harsh and grotesque, the final cut of the film still ended up getting banned in some countries at the time of its release.
Though Freaks received critical backlash upon its initial theatrical run, several critics, in retrospect, wrote that the movie actually presents a sympathetic depiction of its sideshow characters rather than an exploitative one. Renowned film critic Andrew Sarris even declared Freaks as one of the “most compassionate” ever made.
Loosely based on Tod Robbin’s 1923 short story Spurs, Freaks follows trapeze artist Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) who joins a group of carnival sideshow performers with a plan to seduce and murder the troupe’s circus midget Hans (Harry Earles) to gain his inheritance and run off with her lover, strong man Hercules (Henry Victor). When Hans and his fellow performers discover what’s going on, they band together and carry out a brutal revenge that leaves Cleopatra and Hercules knowing what it truly means to be a freak.
Henry & June (1990)
Henry & June is a biographical drama based on the posthumously published 1986 book of the same name by Anaïs Nin. Directed by Philip Kaufman, the film explores the love triangle between Nin (Maria de Medeiros), her fellow author Henry Miller (Fred Ward), and his wife June (Uma Thurman). While traveling in Paris, Nin starts an affair with the openly bisexual June. When June is forced to return to the U.S., she gives Nin her blessing to sleep with her husband. Then, when June returns to France, an unexpected, and sometimes contentious, threesome forms.
Henry & June was controversial at the time of its release because of its racy subject matter. And even though the MPAA ultimately gave it an NC-17 rating, the film still managed to score an Oscar nomination.
In the Realm of the Senses (1976)
Directed by Nagisa Ōshima, In the Realm of the Senses is a pornographic art film that tells the story of former sex worker Sada Abe (Eiko Matsuda), whose affair with her married employer Kichizō Ishida (Tatsuya Fuji) led to an obsessive and ultimately destructive sexual relationship.
The film generated great controversy during its release because it contains scenes of unsimulated sexual activity between Matsuda and Fuji. Since strict censorship laws in Japan would not have allowed the movie to be made according to Ōshima’s vision, the production was listed as a French enterprise, and the undeveloped footage was shipped to France for processing and editing.
In the Realm of the Senses was initially banned in the U.S. upon its premiere at the 1976 New York Film Festival because of a scene in which Kichizō pushes an egg into Sada’s vulva and forces her to push it out of her vagina so he could eat it. The movie was not available on home video in the country until 1990, although it was sometimes seen uncut in film clubs.
Directed by Larry Clark from a script by Harmony Korine, Kids centers on amoral HIV-positive teen Telly (Leo Fitzpatrick), who has made it his goal to sleep with as many virgin girls as possible. Meanwhile, Jenny (Chloë Sevigny), one of Telly’s early victims, makes it her mission to save other girls from him. However, everything goes horribly wrong, before she has a chance to confront him at a party.
Because the film portrays underage teens doing sex, drugs, and various criminal activities, moral pundits criticized the movie upon its release, with some critics labeling it exploitative as borderline child pornography. But the most common criticism that Kids received was related to its perceived lack of artistic merit.
Last Tango in Paris (1972)
Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci, Last Tango in Paris follows a widowed American hotelier (Marlon Brando) and a younger Frenchwoman (Maria Schneider) who start a purely anonymous sexual relationship with each other after meeting by chance at an apartment they are both attempting to rent. While they do not even tell each other their names at the onset of their relationship, it soon becomes clear that the deliberate level of disassociation between them cannot continue.
The film’s raw portrayal of sexual violence and emotional turmoil, which includes a lengthy anal sex scene between the main characters, caused international controversy and resulted in various levels of government censorship in different regions. Last Tango in Paris was outrightly banned in Chile, Spain and even in Bertolucci’s native Italy, where his civil rights were revoked for five years. In the U.S., the film was given an X rating by the MPAA upon its initial release. But after it became part of the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer library, the movie was reclassified NC-17.
Last Tango in Paris earned two Oscar nominations: Best Director for Bertolucci and Best Actor for Brando.
Life of Brian (1979)
Starring and written by the comedy group Monty Python, Life of Brian follows Brian Cohen (Graham Chapman), an average young Jewish man who was born on the original Christmas in the stable next door to Jesus Christ, as he spends his life being mistaken for the Messiah.
Life of Brian was met with controversy at the time of its release due to its themes of religious satire. Some religious groups accused the film of blasphemy, and members of Monty Python reportedly got death threats because of the movie.
While the film was initially banned in many parts of the world, it became popular and was even named as one of the greatest comedy films of all time by several magazines and TV networks. It currently has a 95% “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes with the critics’ consensus reading, “One of the more cutting-edge films of the 1970s, this religious farce from the classic comedy troupe is as poignant as it is funny and satirical.”
Midnight Cowboy (1969)
Based on James Leo Herlihy’s 1965 novel of the same name, Midnight Cowboy follows a Texas dishwasher Joe Buck (Jon Voight) who quits his job and heads for New York City, thinking he’ll latch on to some rich dowager. New York, however, is not as welcoming as he imagined, and Joe soon finds himself living in an abandoned building with a Dickensian layabout named Enrico “Ratso” Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman). The two form a rough alliance, and together they kick-start Joe’s career as a sex worker just as Ratso’s health begins to deteriorate.
The John Schlesinger-directed movie was deemed controversial after it received an X rating from the MPAA, which apparently thought that suburban audiences could not stomach the film’s nightmarish depiction of New York City. Despite the controversy, Midnight Cowboy became the only X-rated film to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards.
Peeping Tom (1960)
Peeping Tom centers on a serial killer (Carl Boehm) who is making a documentary on fear, which involves murdering women while using a portable film camera to record their dying expressions of terror.
Because of its disturbing subject matter, the Michael Powell-directed movie received extremely harsh reviews from critics upon its release. Though the critical savaging had a severe negative impact on Powell’s filmmaking career, Peeping Tom attracted a cult following. Years later, the movie was re-evaluated and is now widely considered a masterpiece and a progenitor of the contemporary slasher film.
Pink Flamingos (1972)
An exploitation comedy film, Pink Flamingos stars countercultural drag queen Divine as Baltimore criminal Babs Johnson, who is known as “the filthiest person alive”. Envious of Johnson’s reputation, a sleazy criminal couple (David Lochary and Mink Stole) tries to outdo Johnson in her filth by engaging in several grotesque, bizarre, and explicitly crude situations.
The movie was notorious at the time of its release because of its several revolting scenes that feature exhibitionism, voyeurism, sodomy, masturbation, rape, incest, murder, cannibalism, castration, foot fetishism, and other riotous awfulness. But it’s Pink Flamingos’ unfaked dog-feces eating climax that cemented its reputation as one of the most controversial films of all time.
Inspired by three of Jean Genet’s novels, Poison is composed of three intercut stories: a boy who shoots his father and flies out the window; a doctor who accidentally ingests his experimental sex serum, wreaking havoc on the community; and a man who falls in love with a fellow inmate in prison.
Because of the Poison’s gay themes, several of conservative religious leaders were against it. Reverend Donald Wildmon called for the firing of the chairman of the National Endowment of the Arts, which had given Poison director Todd Haynes a $25,000 grant. Baptist Church spokesman Jim Smith, meanwhile, said that there are productions on America’s Funniest Home Videos that are “more artistically meritorious” than Poison.
Despite all the criticisms from various religious groups, Poison actually received generally positive reviews from film critics, with Rotten Tomatoes’ critics’ consensus calling the movie “claustrophobic and quirky horror” and “a decently dirty” directorial debut for Haynes.
Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975)
Set in World War II Italy, Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom centers on four wealthy and corrupt libertines who kidnap 18 adolescent boys and girls and subject them to 120 days of physical, mental, and sexual torture. Because of its depictions of youths being subjected to graphic violence, torture, sexual abuse, and even murder, the film was banned in Italy just two months after its release and has remained banned in several countries into the 21st century.
A loose adaptation of the Marquis de Sade’s 1785 book 120 Days of Sodom, the Pier Paolo Pasolini-directed movie was named the 65th-scariest film ever made by the Chicago Film Critics Association in 2006 and also became the subject of an entry in The Penguin Encyclopedia of Horror and the Supernatural.
Loosely based on Armitage Trail’s 1929 novel of the same name, Scarface centers on Tony Camonte (Paul Muni), a key lieutenant of South Side Chicago crime boss Johnny Lovo (Osgood Perkins). Being the ambitious and reckless gangster that he is, Tony ignores warnings not to mess with Irish gangs on the North Side and ends up massacring them all. Worried about Tony’s overconfidence, Johnny orders him killed, but this also backfires, leaving Tony even closer to becoming king of the city.
Scarface became a hot topic in Hollywood after censors believed that it’s glorifying violence, crime, and intimations of incest. Censors called for adding a prologue condemning gangsters, changing the ending to more clearly reprehend Camonte, and replacing the title with The Shame of a Nation.
Though audience reception was positive, censors ultimately banned the film in several cities and states, forcing Hughes to remove it from circulation. The rights to the movie were only recovered after Hughes’s death in the 1970s.
Straw Dogs (1971)
Based upon Gordon M. Williams’ 1969 novel The Siege of Trencher’s Farm, Straw Dogs follows David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman), a mild-mannered academic from the U.S. who moves with his English wife Amy (Susan George) to her hometown of Cornwall. There, David is ostracized by the brutish men of the village, including Amy’s old flame, Charlie (Del Henney). When Amy is raped, David takes brutal revenge on the two locals who violate his wife.
Straw Dogs is deemed as one of the controversial films of all time primarily because of the prolonged rape scene that was apparently presented as the film’s centerpiece. Critics accused director Sam Peckinpah of glamorizing and eroticizing rape and of engaging in misogynistic sadism and male chauvinism. What made the rape scene even more disturbing was the implication that Amy enjoyed parts of the first rape as she was seen kissing and holding her attacker. Critics also saw the movie as an endorsement of violence as redemption.
The two complicated rape scenes of Straw Dog, as well as the film’s violent concluding sequences were subject to censorship by numerous film rating boards.
The Birth of a Nation (1915)
Adapted from Thomas Dixon Jr.’s 1905 novel and play The Clansman, The Birth of a Nation chronicles the assassination of Abraham Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth and the relationship of two families —the pro-Union (Northern) Stonemans and the pro-Confederacy (Southern) Camerons — during the Civil War and Reconstruction eras over the course of several years.
The silent drama movie made it to the list of most controversial films of all time because of its depiction of African Americans (many of whom are played by white actors in blackface) as unintelligent and sexually aggressive toward white women. The film’s portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) as a heroic and necessary force to preserve American values and the white supremacist social order also sparked outrage among African Americans and other minority groups.
Despite all the controversy, The Birth of a Nation performed well at the box office, grossing $16.7 million worldwide against a production budget of $8. Million.
The Exorcist (1973)
Based on William Peter Blatty’s 1971 novel of the same name, The Exorcist follows the demonic possession of 12-year-old Regan (Linda Blair) and her mother’s (Ellen Burstyn) attempt to rescue her through an exorcism conducted by two Roman Catholic priests (Jason Miller and Max von Sydow).
Though a box-office hit, The Exorcist made headlines during its original theatrical run because some moviegoers had adverse physical reactions, usually fainting or vomiting, to scenes in which one of the protagonists undergoes a realistic cerebral angiography and violently masturbates with a crucifix. There were also reports of heart attacks and miscarriages during screenings of the film due to its horrifying and sometimes revolting imagery.
The Exorcist was nominated in 10 categories at the 46th Academy Awards, ultimately winning Best Sound and Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium.
The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
Directed by Martin Scorsese from a screenplay by Paul Schrader, The Last Temptation of Christ depicts the life of Jesus Christ (Willem Defoe) and his struggle with various forms of temptation including fear, doubt, depression, reluctance and lust. Though the film includes a disclaimer stating that the movie “is not based on the Gospels but upon the fictional exploration of the eternal spiritual conflict,” it still generated controversy from Christian religious groups who took issue with its portrayal of Christ imagining himself engaging in sexual activities.
Despite being a box office bomb, The Last Temptation of Christ received positive reviews from critics, with Scorsese even scoring a Best Director Oscar nomination and Barbara Hershey earning a Golden Globe Best Supporting Actress nod for her performance as Mary Magdalene.
The Outlaw (1943)
In this Howard Hughes-directed movie, Western legends Billy the Kid (Jack Buetel), Pat Garrett (Thomas Mitchell), and Doc Holliday (Walter Huston) are played against each other over the law and the attentions of vivacious country vixen Rio McDonald (Jane Russell).
Although The Outlaw was ready to be shown in theaters in February 1941, Hughes had trouble getting it approved by the Hollywood Production Code Administration due to its emphasis on and display of Russell’s breasts. However, after reluctantly removing about 40 feet of footage that prominently featured Russell’s bosom, 20th Century Fox decided to cancel its agreement to release the film. This forced Hughes to create a scheme that would make the public call for the banning of the movie.
The resulting controversy created enough interest to get The Outlaw into theaters for one week in 1943. It then became a box-office hit three years later when it was released widely by RKO Radio Pictures in San Francisco.
The Passion of the Christ (2004)
Largely based on the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, The Passion of the Christ depicts the final 12 hours of Jesus Christ (Jim Caviezel) before his death, consisting of the Passion.
The Mel Gibson-directed film was controversial at the time of its release because critics and audience alike found the movie’s extreme depiction of violence distracting and overly excessive. A number of concerned groups also criticized The Passion of the Christ for the anti-Semitism perceived in the movie’s portrayal of its villains.
The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
An oscar-winning psychological horror film, The Silence of the Lambs follows young FBI trainee Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) who seeks the advice of the imprisoned psychiatrist and cannibalistic serial killer Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) to hunt another serial killer, Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine), who skins his female victims.
Though the Jonathan Demme-directed ended up winning five Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Directing, The Silence of the Lambs was criticized by members of the LGBTQ community for its problematic portrayal of Bill as a transsexual villain, even though the character’s orientation is not actually stated in the movie. In response to the criticisms, Demme told The New York Times in 1993 that Bill was actually not a gay character. According to the filmmaker, Bill “was tormented man who hated himself and wished he was a woman because that would have made him as far away from himself as he possibly could be.”
Triumph of the Will (1935)
Described as a propaganda film, Triumph of the Will chronicles the 1934 Nazi Party Congress in Nuremberg, Germany, which was attended by over 700,000 Nazi supporters. The film features excerpts from speeches delivered by Nazi leaders at the Congress, including Adolf Hitler, Rudolf Hess, and Julius Streicher, which were interspersed with footage of massed Sturmabteilung and Schutzstaffel troops and public reaction.
Directed by Leni Riefenstahl, Triumph of the Will was criticized for using spectacular filmmaking to promote a profoundly unethical system. Though the movie was commissioned by Hitler himself, the film earned recognition for remarkably capturing an event of enormous scale. In fact, Riefenstahl’s technique of filming from low angles to make the small-framed Hitler look imposing and majestic is often copied by other movies.
Spanish-Mexican film Viridiana tells the story of the titular young nun (Silvia Pinal) whose faith is sorely tested during a visit to the estate of her widowed uncle, Jaime (Fernando Rey). Grateful for Jaime’s longtime financial support, Viridiana reluctantly complies with his odd request for her to don his wife’s wedding gown but soon finds her worst fears proven when Jaime grows determined to seduce her.
After the official newspaper of the Vatican described the film as “blasphemous,” probably partly because of a scene in which a bunch of vagrants reenact The Last Supper, dictator Francisco Franco tried to have the Luis Buñuel-directed film withdrawn and banned its release in Spain. Though Franco’s attempt to ban the movie in Spain was unsuccessful, the film was not released in Vatican until 1977 after his death.
Despite all the controversy surrounding the movie, it actually won the Palme d’Or at the 1961 Cannes Film Festival and even won the Grand Prix of the Belgian Film Critics Association. Viridiana was also voted the 37th greatest film of all time in the directors’ poll of the British Film Institute’s 2012 Sight & Sound issue.