Movies have really annoyed people over the years. There was once a time when they were so unpopular among polite society that the mayor of New York tried to ban movie theaters altogether. Yet, they’ve persisted, irritating and offending people throughout history. Some films, however, push the envelope a bit too far, and these are the works that end up going down as some of the most contentious artistic endeavors in history.
With this list, we’ve compiled the worst offenders. These are the films that got banned and pilloried, the movies that caused protests, boycotts, and public condemnation. We’re not joking when we say that people literally died because of these films, and one of our entries almost started a war. Some of them deserve your scorn, while others may have gotten a bit more heat than they deserved.
Either way, here are the 20 Most Controversial Movies Of All Time.
20. The Interview
From just watching The Interview, you would hardly imagine it deserved a place on this list. As a film, it’s in the same vein as many other Seth Rogen and James Franco comedies: a winning combination of gross-out humor and male bonding. That said, it does contain a political twist, as real-life North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un (Randall Park) is portrayed as a misunderstood, Katy Perry-loving soul who bonds with a hack TV journalist (Franco) who is assigned to interview him in North Korea, along with his producer (Rogen).
Though movies and TV shows like Team America and 30 Rock have often mocked Kim Jong-il, Kim Jong-un’s father and predecessor, The Interview may have touched a nerve with the young despot. In December, a group called the “Guardians of Peace” hacked Sony Entertainment and threatened to carry out terrorist attacks if the film was released. When major theater chains dropped the film, Sony released it digitally instead, potentially costing themselves millions in box office revenue.
19. Midnight Cowboy
How could Midnight Cowboy, a highly-respected, Oscar-winning classic be considered controversial, you may ask? Well, it’s also the only Best Picture winner to have ever received the cursed X-rating from the MPAA. The film centers around a young Texan hustler (Jon Voight) named Joe Buck who moves to New York to make something of himself, but ends up living in a condemned building with Ratso (Dustin Hoffman), an ill-tempered Italian-American and con artist.
Why did it receive an X-rating? Possibly because of an early scene where Joe receives oral sex from another man. The scene is not explicit, but the film did come out in 1969, not long after the archaic Production Code was replaced with a new ratings system. The film has since been re-appraised and given an R-rating, but not before shocking audiences upon its initial release. Still, the X-rating didn’t seem to hamper the film at all, as it won Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay at the Oscars.
18. The Passion of the Christ
Mel Gibson’s controversial adaptation of the Gospel, The Passion of the Christ, was released in 2004 to sharply divided reviews and accusations of anti-Semitism. Nevertheless, it went on to earn over $370 million at the domestic box office, becoming the highest-earning religious film and the highest-earning R-rated film of all time. Even Deadpool couldn’t beat it! (Though the Merc with a Mouth managed to top its global take by a staggering margin of $171 million.)
Why was it so controversial? Well, for starters, it is extremely violent, and consists largely of scenes of Jesus being tortured before and during his crucifixion. It was also targeted by the Anti-Defamation League, who read an early script and determined that it presented an unfair and offensive depiction of Jews. While the final film eased some worries about the film’s depiction of the Jewish people, Mel Gibson’s off-screen behavior only added to the controversy when he was quoted saying anti-Semitic things during a DUI arrest a few years later. Mel Gibson hasn’t stopped being a controversial figure, but The Passion of the Christ is still revered by many Christians.
17. Pink Flamingos
John Waters has been referred to as “The Pope of Trash,” and it’s not for no reason, folks! He made his name off low-budget, intentionally vulgar comedies that played at midnight screenings across America, and Pink Flamingos is the most entertaining of these endeavors. The film was advertised as a celebration of “exhibitionism, voyeurism, sodomy, masturbation, gluttony, vomiting, rape, incest, murder and cannibalism,” and it turned Waters into an underground star.
The film focuses on Babs Johnson, a despicable human being portrayed by drag queen Divine, who gets into various disgusting scenarios in Waters’ beloved hometown of Baltimore. But the real reason for the controversy comes in the final scene, when Divine does just about the most disgusting thing you can think of: he eats dog crap on camera.
Nevertheless, you might be aware of the film’s influence for a different reason: Divine’s costume was a source of inspiration for Uma Thurman’s Poison Ivy outfit from Batman & Robin.
16. The Human Centipede (First Sequence)
You probably know what the premise of this movie is, and if you don’t, just know that it’s…unpleasant. If you decide to Google the title and figure out what a “human centipede” is, consider this a warning. It’s gross. It’s really, really gross. Based on the strength of that grossness, however, The Human Centipede became a cult success in 2009, mostly thanks to word of mouth from horror fans about the absurdity of the premise. It was also buoyed by posters that laughably promised it was “100% medically accurate.”
Somehow, the story of the film didn’t end there. Director Tom Six made two sequels, which expanded on the premise and somehow made it even more disgusting. The second one featured a meta-story that involved a fan of the first movie creating his own human centipede. They didn’t quite attain the same level of controversy as the first film, however, probably because the appeal of the film wears off once you get used to the premise.
15. Song of the South
How could this warm-hearted Disney musical make a list of the most controversial movies of all time, you might ask?
Well, it’s racist.
Released in 1946, Song of the South uses live-action segments to frame an animated story about cartoon rabbits. These segments star James Braskett as Uncle Remus, a jolly older black man with a penchant for song in the Reconstruction-era South. These segments were criticized, even in Jim Crow-era 1946, for their demeaning depiction of African-Americans, and attracted the scorn of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People for its whitewashing of the history of race relations.
Over the years, its reputation has preceded itself, and Disney, a company that prides itself on being family friendly, has declined to release it on home video, meaning very few people have actually seen the film in question. Nevertheless, some of its songs, including the Oscar-winning “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” have remained a part America’s cultural memory.
A movie about teenagers having sex? Color us shocked! To be fair, most movies and TV shows about teenagers having sex usually star fully grown adults pretending to be younger than they are. Kids on the other hand, does not. The titular little ones of the film (including a young Rosario Dawson and a young Chloe Sevigny) look like, well, kids. The movie follows one particularly horny kid, Telly (Leo Fitzpatrick), as he moves around his privileged New York social circles, trying to get laid. Little does he know that he is HIV positive.
On the one hand, the film is like an explicit, hard-edged after-school special about the dangers of HIV and AIDS. On the other hand, director Larry Clark seems to enjoy shooting shirtless teenage boys a little too much. Critics accused the film of being child pornography, and the film promptly received a restrictive NC-17 rating from the MPAA. Still, it struck a chord in the public consciousness and launched the career of enfant terrible filmmaker Harmony Korine, who wrote the screenplay.
Malcolm McDowell, Helen Mirren, and Peter O’Toole in a hardcore pornographic film? It’s wild, but it happened. Here’s how:
Penthouse founder Bob Guccione dreamed of making a big-budget, sexually-charged film, so he hired well-known writer Gore Vidal to write a screenplay about the mad Roman emperor Caligula. Then he hired Tinto Brass, a well-regarded European filmmaker who had dabbled in sexploitation, but was nonetheless prestigious enough to attract a cast of stars for the film. When filming began, Brass re-wrote the screenplay, causing Vidal to bow out of the film.
After a tumultuous shoot, Guccione was unhappy with the product, so he and Giancarlo Lui filmed hardcore sex scenes to splice into the film. As a result, Brass took his name of the project, leaving it without a credited director. The result is a bizarre 3-hour mix of costume drama, exploitation, and pornography, which received scathing reviews and ran into trouble with numerous censorship boards across the country.
12. I Spit on Your Grave
If you’re making a film within a genre known as “rape-revenge,” you’re probably going to end up upsetting some folks. I Spit On Your Grave is probably the most notorious entry into the sub-genre. It follows Jennifer (Camille Keaton) as she travels alone to rural Connecticut, hoping to get some writing done. While alone, she is attacked by the locals, gang-raped, and then left for dead. But she manages to survive and casts her vengeance on the rapists, picking them off one-by-one.
The centerpiece of I Spit On Your Grave is the seemingly endless 30-minute gang-rape scene at the beginning. It is… not pleasant, although the last half of the movie is satisfying in a weird kind of way, as Jennifer doles out justice to the hillbillies who harmed her. Some have reappraised the film as a feminist text, focusing on the main character’s agency as she avenges herself. Nevertheless, the film was banned in several countries, including the United Kingdom, Canada, Ireland and Australia.
11. Cannibal Holocaust
Back in the late-’70s and early-’80s, cannibal films were all the rage… at least for low-budget European exploitation filmmakers. One of those filmmakers was Ruggero Deodato, who made the faux-documentary Cannibal Holocaust in 1980. Before making the picture, Deodato made his actors sign agreements promising that they would not make any public appearances until the movie had been released, but that came back to haunt him when rumors came up that Cannibal Holocaust was actually a snuff film.
Deodato was arrested for obscenity and murder, and was only cleared when authorities confirmed that the actors were actually alive. Still, the film was banned in his home nation of Italy, along with many other countries. And while Deodato did not kill his actors, there were animals who were killed onscreen in the film, making it a target for animal rights activists. Even Deodato has shown remorse for this, and it almost certainly wouldn’t be permitted by any production company today.
10. Twilight Zone: The Movie
This is another case where the circumstances surrounding a movie proved to be more controversial than the film itself. This adaptation of the popular anthology TV show — featuring segments directed by John Landis, Steven Spielberg, Joe Dante and George Miller — faced a barrage of criticism after a helicopter explosion on set killed two child actors, as well as actor Vic Morrow.
Landis, who was directing the scene in question, was accused of putting the actors into an unsafe situation. In the ensuing trial, it was discovered that the child actors were hired illegally to circumvent California labor laws, and that they were working at night, which was against the rules guiding the use of child actors. In the end, new laws concerning aviation safety were passed, while Landis was tried and acquitted of manslaughter. Spielberg also broke off his friendship with Landis, claiming that there were things more important than making sure you get your shot in the end.
9. The Testament of Dr. Mabuse
German filmmaker Fritz Lang, known for making the classics Metropolis and M, is famous for his distinctive look, which usually consisted of a monocle and a long cigarette. He fit right in with the hedonists of Weimar Germany, which is probably why he had trouble with the rise of the authoritative Nazi government in the early 1930s.
The Testament of Dr. Mabuse is often interpreted as an allegory for the rise of the dangerous Nazi regime, which is all the more impressive when you consider that it was made in 1933, the same year that Adolph Hitler became Chancellor of Germany. Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels reportedly loved Fritz Lang’s films, but banned The Testament of Dr. Mabuse from release, thinking it could undermine confidence in the state.
8. Titicut Follies
In 1967, acclaimed Direct Cinema documentarian Robert Wiseman turned his eye toward the Bridgewater State Hospital for the criminally insane. He made Titicut Follies, which shows inmates being neglected and abused by the hospital staff. It also showed staff force-feeding patients and one scene of a guard taunting a vulnerable, naked man. Overall, it was a shocking exposé of the way in which the facility treated those who are disabled, and it shed a light on the mental health industry as a whole.
The film caused a stir, but after a short initial release, the Massachusetts Superior Court ordered it withdrawn from release on the grounds that the film violated the privacy and dignity of the patients. Wiseman had received permission to shoot from the hospital superintendent, but the Court banned the film anyway, restricting its viewing to professionals in health-related fields. In 1991, however, the ban was overturned and the film aired on PBS the next year. Today, it’s remembered as a classic of the genre.
7. The Last Temptation of Christ
Yet another controversial film about Jesus! When this Martin Scorsese film came out, critics were baffled by the odd casting choices, including David Bowie as Pontius Pilot, Willem Dafoe as Christ himself, and Harvey Keitel — Brooklyn accent included — as Judas Iscariot. But the real controversy came from religious groups who were shocked by the content of the film. In a later scene, as Jesus is on the cross, he is “tempted” by a normal life, and the film shows him coming down from the cross and making love to Mary Magdalene.
Of course, people are rarely pleased when sex is combined with religion, and so the film was met with deep resistance from Evangelists and Catholics. One far-right Catholic group even set fire to a theater showing the film in Paris, severely injuring a number of people. Still, the film has gained a reputation for being a thoughtful look at the moral struggle between humanity and divinity within Jesus, and rather nicely predicts the quiet, meditative Silence.
6. In the Realm of the Senses
Among cinephiles, Nagima Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses is renowned for its mature depiction of sexuality. Based on a true incident from 1930s Japan, the film follows two lovers as they engage in increasingly risky sexual activities, which eventually come to a tragic end. It is notable for featuring unsimulated sex between its main actors, Tatsuya Fuji and Eiko Matsuda, along with an, uh, interesting scene involving an egg.
Because of Japan’s strict censorship laws, the film was officially listed as a French production, and Oshima had to ship the footage to Europe in order to process and edit the film. On its release, it faced pressure from censors across the world, including the United States, the United Kingdom, and, of course, Japan itself. Until the ’90s, it could only be seen in its uncut form in continental Europe, where censorship has been much more relaxed for a long time.
5. Last Tango in Paris
Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1972 film Last Tango in Paris has become a source of controversy recently, after a video surfaced of Bertolucci claiming the movie’s infamous rape scene was not consensual. The scene, featuring Marlon Brando and a then-19-year-old Maria Schneider, involves a stick of butter, and it’s uncomfortably intimate in its violence. Schneider had previously claimed that the scene felt like a violation.
Bertolucci later clarified that it was only the use of butter that came as a surprise to Schneider, and that she was informed and had consented to the “violence” that is portrayed. He also refuted the persistent rumor that the sex in the film was real. Nevertheless, the initial video received Twitter rebukes from stars like Jessica Chastain, Lena Dunham, and Chris Evans.
It probably shouldn’t come as a surprise to Bertolucci, however, as the film was quite controversial on its initial release, too. He was even charged for obscenity in his native Italy for filming the notorious sex scene.
4. A Clockwork Orange
A Clockwork Orange is probably the most controversial of Stanley Kubrick’s films, focusing as it does on the ol’ “ultra-violence.” The movie follows Alex (Malcolm McDowell), who leads a gang of delinquents, raping and fighting their way through a futuristic London.
The film was controversial upon its release for the highly-stylized violence, and in particular, a famous scene featuring McDowell crooning “Singing in the Rain.” But it attracted even more attention after a spat of copycat crimes plagued the United Kingdom following Clockwork‘s release. The controversy escalated to the point where protesters picketed Kubrick’s house in England and the director received death threats.
At Kubrick’s request, Warner Bros. withdrew prints from the UK in 1973, and it wasn’t made available there again until after the director’s death in 1999. At the point, the film was re-released theatrically and made available on home video, but not after a long spell of notoriety in the United Kingdom.
3. Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom
Pier Paolo Pasolini is another filmmaker who combined religion and sex an awful lot, namely in flicks such as Teorema and Decameron, but his most infamous work is the highly graphic and explicit film Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom. An adaptation of the infamous novel from Marquis de Sade, Salò takes place during the waning days of World War II, and it features the abduction and sexual torture of several teenage boys by aristocratic Italian libertines.
The film was extremely controversial, and many of its actors were thought to be underage. It is unlikely that such a film could be be made today. It was banned in several countries, and wasn’t passed by the censors in Australia until 2010. Even in the United States, a Cincinnati bookstore owner was charged with “pandering” when an undercover policeman found a copy of the film at his store. It took the testimony of several artists and scholars (including fellow controversial filmmaker Martin Scorsese) to overturn the charge.
2. Triumph of the Will
Triumph of the Will is, quite literally, Nazi propaganda, so there should be no surprise that it’s this high on the list. What makes it notable, however, isn’t the universal condemnation directed at Nazi works of art, but rather the way in which Triumph of the Will, a highly-stylized documentary about the Nazi Party Congress in Nuremberg, influenced the aesthetics of cinema.
Remember the ceremonial final scene in Star Wars, when Princess Leia gives medals to Luke Skywalker and Han Solo? Yep, you can clearly see the influence of Triumph of the Will there. You can also see it in the history of television advertisements, which drew from director Leni Riefenstahl’s persuasive documentary form.
Riefenstahl distanced herself from the Nazi regime after the War, but many have disputed this, claiming that the filmmaker was close to Hitler and his cronies. The question of her culpability was once again raised in 2004 after her death, when her inclusion in the memorial scroll at that year’s Academy Awards drew both scorn and praise from the film community.
1. The Birth of a Nation
A film that valorizes the Ku Klux Klan becomes a huge, nationwide hit and even gets screened at the White House? It may be hard to believe, but it happened. D.W. Griffith’s landmark, three-hour epic The Birth of Nation was controversial for its racism even in 1915. Set during and after the Civil War, the film glamorizes the rise of the KKK, who (according to the film) “restored” order during the Reconstruction of the South.
Of course, African-American groups protested the film, but that couldn’t stop it from becoming an enormous success. As the first true Hollywood epic, Griffith’s film is recognized for its place in the history of cinema, though it was perhaps over-praised for its artistic innovations. (It turns out that Griffith didn’t invent all the editing techniques that he claimed to have.)
Notoriously, the film also inspired the revival of the KKK as an extremist white supremacist group. For his part, Griffith claimed he wasn’t a racist. Yet the film, featuring white actors in black face behaving as broad, hypersexualized caricatures of black men, says otherwise.
In 2016, actor Nate Parker made another film called The Birth of a Nation, which tells the true story of slave Nat Turner, who stages a rebellion in the antebellum South. It was meant as a sort of reclamation of the title. Despite high expectations, the film became controversial in its own right, however, when it was discovered that Parker was tried for rape as a college student.
Well, that’s it for our collection of controversial films, although there are certainly many more out there. Can you think of any other contentious films that should be on this list? Did we leave out anything that obviously has to be on here? Let us know in the comment section!
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