50 Essential NC-17 Films

Get ready for an entire generation to feel old: Larry Clark’s controversial tale of teen sex, Kids, turns 20 next month. BAMcinemaFest is celebrating the occasion with a retrospective screening this week, complete with a Q&A with co-writer and star Harmony Korine (who penned the script at only 18 years old), along with cast members Chloë Sevigny, Leo Fitzpatrick, and Rosario Dawson. Featuring breakout performances from its young cast (who have since gone on to become A-listers and indie darlings), and set during the height of the ‘90s AIDS epidemic, Clark’s vérité-style look at city-kid debauchery was labeled child porn during its initial release — as is the case with much of Clark’s filmography (and photography). But many critics have since embraced the film for its raw portrait of troubled youth. Kids is one of the better-known NC-17 movies, and producers Harvey and Bob Weinstein had to create a special one-off company, Shining Excalibur Films, to release it (their company Miramax forbid the release of NC-17 movies). But it isn’t the only film to be branded with the scarlet rating. Here are 50 other films that challenged censors.

(Photo by Moviestore / Shutterstock)

 

Bad Lieutenant

There’s no put-on when it comes to Abel Ferrara’s brand of NC-17. The film is sleazy, grimy, and philosophically bleak, and Harvey Keitel delivers a bravura performance of a corrupt cop.

 

Last Tango in Paris

Bernardo Bertolucci’s film, which makes a case for going vegan (butter rape), was initially given an X rating and was eventually re-classified as NC-17. The film’s sexual and emotional violence haunted troubled star Maria Schneider throughout her lifetime.

 

The Dreamers

Roger Ebert on Bertolucci’s tale about an American in Paris:

Bertolucci titles his film “The Dreamers,” I think, because his characters are dreaming, until the brick through the window shatters their cocoon, and the real world of tear gas and Molotov cocktails enters their lives. It is clear now that Godard and sexual liberation were never going to change the world. It only seemed that way, for a time. The people who really run things do not go much to the movies, or perhaps think much about sex. They are driven by money and power.

 

Crash

Not to be mistaken for the dreadful Paul Haggis film of the same name, David Cronenberg’s story of kinky sex and car wrecks imagines an underground group of fetishists who crash vehicles for kicks and get aroused at the sight of mangled flesh.

 

Pink Flamingos

“Kill everyone now! Condone first degree murder! Advocate cannibalism! Eat shit! Filth are my politics! Filth is my life!”

 

Showgirls

Paul Verhoeven’s trash classic was the first NC-17 film to get a major release in mainstream theaters, proving the rating doesn’t have to be the kiss of death. We can’t vouch for Elizabeth Berkley’s performance, however, which might kill you if aren’t prepared for dolphin-inspired sex scenes and acting that’s more over-the-top than a Lifetime movie.

 

Blue Is the Warmest Color

In this case “explicit sexual content” involves a beautiful (and painful) love story, lesbian sex (with fake genitalia), and memorable performances from stars Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos.

 

Henry & June

One of two Oscar-nominated films to be released with an NC-17 rating (and considered the first NC-17 movie), Philip Kaufman’s Henry & June received its rating in part due to the appearance of Hokusai’s The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife — yes, that image of “an octopus pleasuring a lady” you saw recently on Mad Men.

 

The Brown Bunny

Vincent Gallo’s silent road film initially received an X rating, which the MPAA replaced with NC-17 in 1990. The indie icon told the LA Times that the ratings move was “his own marketing device to suggest that the movie is for grown-ups, rather than pornographic.” The graphic scene in question involves unsimulated oral sex between Gallo and actress Chloë Sevigny. The depression you feel watching the film is also real (and you might even like it).

 

Shame

A look inside the mind of a sex addict (Michael Fassbender). Studio Fox Searchlight was surprisingly accepting of the NC-17 rating, stating it felt more like a “badge of honor.”

 

Photo by Voltage Pictures/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

Killer Joe

Definitely not the Matthew McConaughey in the Lincoln commercials. The actor plays a “seductive, snake-like” villain in William Friedkin’s southsploitation thriller, featuring shades of Carroll Baker’s Baby Doll Meighan in Juno Temple’s Lolita.

 

Lust, Caution

An Ang Lee erotic thriller. The fully nude sex scenes took the Brokeback Mountain director 100 hours to shoot, over 11 days on a closed set. These scenes wound up being cut for the Chinese release, and Lee felt the Chinese media scandalized the sexual content.

 

The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover

Sex, scatology, and dead bodies just don’t jibe with the MPAA, and thus Peter Greenaway’s culinary love triangle tale was initially given a choice to go X or unrated. Greenaway surrendered a rating, but several versions were edited for a home movie release.

 

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls

Russ Meyer’s trio of pill-popping, sex-crazed vixens were naughty enough to receive an X rating upon the film’s initial release. Always one to rise to the occasion, the filmmaker attempted to cut more sex in the picture before it hit theaters, but the studio demanded an immediate release. Beyond the Valley of the Dolls was re-rated NC-17 in the ‘90s. Considering Meyer’s other breast-obsessed films, Dolls seems rather tame today.

 

Tokyo Decadence

The sexual odyssey of a call girl who is mistreated by her Yakuza clientele, Ryû Murakami’s 1992 film is also a story of unrequited love. From Midnight Eye:

Tokyo Decadence can hardly be called erotic. Exotic maybe (or at least, the wishes of Ai’s clients certainly are), but above all, this film presents us with a world that’s cold and devoid of humanity, compassion and feeling. It’s a selectively dramatic portrait perhaps (it simply refuses to let any kind of light shine into its darkness) and as such it’s certainly no Taxi Driver, but thanks to Murakami’s devotion to his own intentions, Tokyo Decadence surfaces as an effective study of one human being’s loneliness.

 

In the Realm of the Senses

Nagisa Oshima’s controversial retelling of a real-life murder case from the ‘30s, in which a Japanese woman killed her lover through erotic asphyxiation (also severing his genitals), is at turns beautiful and harrowing.

 

Sex and Lucia

From Roger Ebert’s review of Julio Medem’s 2001 film:

The movie is an adult film in the 1970s meaning of that term, and has a good deal of sex and nudity, some of it gratuitous, although sometimes, as in this story, gratuitous sex is the most fun. To give you an idea of the film’s complications, Carlos the scuba diver is played by the same actor as Antonio, who is the boyfriend of Belen’s mother, a former porn actress. What is the point of all of this? To absorb us, I think. To engage us. The characters are freed by the very absurdity of the plot. They are not required to march lockstep toward a conclusion based on the diminishing number of alternatives left to them. Even at the end of the film, they are drowning in alternatives.

 

The Story of O

Just Jaeckin’s adaptation of Pauline Réage’s 1954 novel stars baby-faced Udo Kier as the sadomasochistic René, who puts his lover O through a series of sexual trials. Jaeckin is known for starting the Emmanuelle series — a softcore classic that inspired a wave of copycat films from Italy.

 

Santa Sangre

Alejandro Jodorowsky’s enigmatic tale of murder and seduction within a circus family is filled with strange and achingly beautiful imagery.

The Piano Teacher

We’re surprised Isabelle Huppert didn’t appear in every movie on this list. The French actress is unforgettable in the role of a repressed piano teacher with violent tendencies in Michael Haneke’s film.

 

Man Bites Dog

Child murder, rape, shootings, racial slurs, Man Bites Dog doesn’t hold back. From Sound on Sight:

Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel and Benoît Poelvoorde set out to make their first feature film with little resources and little money. In the tradition of filmmakers who can’t afford much film stock, the trio settled for a faux-documentary-style approach – the result is a high-concept satire of media violence which would spoof documentaries by following around a fictitious sociopath named Ben as he exercises his lethal craft. While the cinematic tradition of presenting villains as suave, charming, attractive, and intelligent individuals is nothing new, Man Bites Dog was still in many way, ahead of its time. Much like the great Hitchcockian villains such as Joseph Cotten in Shadow of a Doubt or Anthony Perkins in Psycho, Ben is a man of action and a man of ideas. He expounds on art, philosophy, poetry, music, nature, society, and life as he slaughters housewives, children, mailmen, pensioners, and other random bystanders he meets along the way. Every frame of this film is shot documentary-style in grainy black-and-white, and the pseudo-realism, complete with rough uneven editing and shaky hand-held camera work, gives a frightening air of legitimacy to the events that unfold. As a critique of our crime-saturated media and violence-dominated lifestyle, Man Bites Dog is a truly compelling indictment.

 

Photo by Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock

The Canterbury Tales

Pier Paolo Pasolini’s political and scatological Salò was left unrated, but the Italian filmmaker’s adaptation of Geoffrey Chaucer’s medieval narrative poem was originally branded with an X rating before being re-rated to NC-17. From Slant:

Just as The Decameron and The Canterbury Tales argued that the vulgate could be as poetic as Latin, Pasolini confirms that cinema is the aesthetic equal of literature, painting, and sculpture. The “Trilogy of Life” is thus also a Trilogy of Art (i.e., of that which makes life worth living), which reboots the hard drive of culture, collapsing its cobwebbed ecclesiastical primacies with parataxis. The result is a liberal-art catalogue where a pupil of master painter Giotto (played in The Decameron by Pasolini himself) stands proudly alongside a Chaplin-esque tramp (played in The Canterbury Tales by Ninetto Davoli).

 

Martyrs

Pascal Laugier’s philosophical, blood-soaked story of revenge is the most nihilistic of the New French Extremity films.

 

Eyes Wide Shut

Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange was originally given an X rating, proving the director was never fussy about ratings. This is why he would have been furious had he been alive to see studio Warner Bros. digitally altering an orgy scene in Eyes Wide Shut to make an R-rated cut. But an NC-17 version did see a limited release in 1999.

 

The Wayward Cloud

The naughtiest Tsai Ming-liang movie about watermelon sex you’ll ever see.

 

Happiness

Todd Solondz probably threw a party when his 1998 film was rated NC-17, but he was forced to surrender the rating when the studio had difficulty advertising his interconnected tale of dark desires and familial trauma.

 

Swimming Pool

Our delicate American sensibilities couldn’t handle François Ozon’s story of a novelist and a provocative young woman, so the studio delivered an edited version of the film in limited theatrical release.

 

Requiem for a Dream

Drug addiction, the Darren Aronofsky way. From the A.V. Club: “There are times when Requiem‘s unrelenting darkness begins to feel cruel and almost sadistic, but it’s hard not to admire Aronofsky’s vivid, uncompromising vision of a world where even madness is preferable to the misery of an unfeeling universe.”

 

The Evil Dead

Banned in several countries, Sam Raimi’s splatterific The Evil Dead courted controversy and was labeled a video nasty due to extreme violence and sexual content (involving… tree rape). It was given an X rating during its initial run, helping to seal its fate as a cult classic, but was re-classified as NC-17 in the ‘90s.

 

The Doom Generation

Gregg Araki’s story of disillusioned teen goths and a violent drifter is worth its NC-17 rating for the gruesome Quickiemart scene alone.

 

The Wild Bunch

Yes, Virginia. There were NC-17 movies in 1969 — and they weren’t all horror movies. Sam Peckinpah appealed the original rating of his ultraviolent epic western, winning the case.

 

Photo by Zentropa Entertainments/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

Nymphomaniac

Lars von Trier laughs in the face of your NC-17 rating. He founded the first mainstream film company to produce hardcore porn, after all. For Nymphomaniac, the director digitally edited the genitals of porn stars onto his A-list actor’s bodies for unsimulated sex scenes. The film was given an NC-17 rating, but Von Trier opted to go unrated, like many of his graphic movies.

 

Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!

We have Pedro Almodóvar’s lusty kidnapping tale to thank for inspiring the implementation of the NC-17 rating, which helped countless films from being unfairly categorized as porn. But the case wasn’t won without controversy and a legal battle. Studio Miramax filed a suit against the MPAA about the movie’s original X-rating, inspiring debates about censorship. They lost, and the film was released unrated. But when Henry & June was released, the ratings overlords decided to join civilization and introduced NC-17.

 

 

L.A. Zombie

Queer cinema icon Bruce LaBruce’s hardcore zombie flick stars well-known porn stars like François Sagat and Wolf Hudson, and doesn’t give a damn (see: a gory circle jerk). Read our recent interview with the director.

 

Wild at Heart

Bob’s Big Boy lookalike and Americana-obsessed director David Lynch saw his ‘50s facade shattered when the MPAA tried to brand Wild at Heart with an X rating. A few edits later, the film became the second Oscar-nominated movie to receive an NC-17 rating (along with Henry & June).

 

The Gore Gore Girls

Don’t expect anything G-rated from Herschell Gordon Lewis, the director nicknamed the “Godfather of Gore.”

 

Inside

Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo’s home invasion shocker is brutally violent and involves a pregnant woman, so naturally it received an NC-17 rating upon release.

 

Photo by Hunting Lane Films/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

Blue Valentine

Derek Cianfrance’s 2010 film resurrected the eternal NC-17 debates about sexual double standards when it was given an NC-17 rating for a scene featuring cunnilingus between a husband and wife. Star Ryan Gosling joined the fight against the MPAA, calling the ruling sexist. The studio appealed the decision and won.

 

Ichi the Killer

With a reputation for horrific violence, Japanese filmmaker Takashi Miike’s story of feuding yakuza gangs features a villainous lunatic with sadomasochistic tendencies. The creep even slices off his own tongue. NC-17? Duh.

 

La grande bouffe

Four friends venture to a remote villa where they gorge on sex and food, hoping to eat themselves to death.

 

Tropic of Cancer

Mostly because we want to force you to watch Rip Torn play horny Henry Miller.

 

Bad Education

But of course any film from provocateur Pedro Almodóvar involving transsexuality and Catholicism would be given an NC-17 rating by the MPAA.

 

Basic Instinct

It’s amazing what can happen when a woman crosses and uncrosses her legs. Paul Verhoeven’s sexual thriller was originally given an NC-17 rating, but the director cut several seconds of footage due to pressure from the studio. “Actually, I didn’t have to cut many things, but I replaced things from different angles, made it a little more elliptical, a bit less direct,” he said in a 1992 interview.

 

Young Adam

From Variety on this Tilda Swinton and Ewan McGregor-starring British drama:

Though [the film is] set in the socially and sexually hidebound Britain of the early ’50s, sex is the defining force in all the characters’ lives. From the opening shot of a young woman’s body, naked except for a petticoat, pulled from the waters around Glasgow, film has an undercurrent of charged sexuality in which copulation is portrayed devoid of romance and as a purely physical release from social or emotional frustrations.

 

Delta of Venus

See it to complete your tour of the Anaïs Nin and Henry Miller-inspired erotic cinema canon. Zalman King’s film is the “cinematic version of a Harlequin romance novel: pretty on the surface, but having very little substance.”

 

Natural Born Killers

Oliver Stone cut four minutes from Natural Born Killers to rid himself of the film’s original NC-17 rating. It certainly didn’t take away from the bite of his satirical story about serial murder, America, and the mass media.

 

Photo by Snap Stills/REX/Shutterstock

Where The Truth Lies

From a 2005 report about Atom Egoyan’s 2005 film — hardly his best, but the one over which he fought the MPAA’s unfair ruling (over a few group sex scenes):

Last week, U.S. censors confirmed an NC-17 rating for the film because of its sexual content. The rating is the kiss of death for the film’s box office.

“I don’t get it,” [Kevin] Bacon said, “when I see films (that) are extremely violent, extremely objectable sometimes in terms of the roles that women play, slide by with an R, no problem, because the people happen to have more clothes on.”

Bacon raised the possibility that the U.S. censors at the Motion Picture Association of America — who take advice from a Catholic priest and an Episcopalian minister before rendering decisions — imposed the NC-17 because of the possibility of a homosexual subtext to the relationship between his and Firth’s characters.

“If that scene didn’t end with a homosexual act, would the ratings board have given us an NC-17? I don’t know. I can’t answer that because I’m not behind the closed doors.”

Egoyan, still angry about the MPAA decision, confirmed that he too believes it was made because of homophobia. “Otherwise, it makes no sense.”

 

American Psycho

That GIF-worthy threesome that deranged investment banker Patrick Bateman has with two prostitutes before brutally assaulting them won Mary Harron’s American Psycho an NC-17 rating – at least before producers cut seconds of footage to release an R-rated version.

 

Clerks

Kevin Smith’s potty mouth (in his script, anyway) caused the MPAA to give Clerks an NC-17, despite the lack of violence and nudity. The decision was appealed (by one of O.J. Simpson’s lawyers), and the MPAA backed down to an R-rating without cutting the film.

 

Bully

We’ve come full circle. Larry Clark’s 2001 film about bullying and abuse featured one too many teenage sex scenes for the MPAA. Thank goodness for the voice of Roger Ebert, who wrote about the film in his thoughtful 2001 review:

Larry Clark is obviously obsessed by the culture of floating, unplugged teenagers. Sometimes his camera seems too willing to watch during the scenes of nudity and sex, and there is one particular shot that seems shameless in its voyeurism (you’ll know the one). But it’s this very drive that fuels his films. If the director doesn’t have a strong personal feeling about material like this, he shouldn’t be making movies about it. Clark is not some objectified, outside adult observer making an after-school special, but an artist who has made a leap into this teenage mindscape. Some critics have attacked him as a dirty old man with a suspect relationship to his material; if this film had been directed by a 25-year-old, some of these same critics might be hailing it. I believe Bully is a masterpiece on its own terms, a frightening indictment of a society that offers absolutely nothing to some of its children–and an indictment of the children, who lack the imagination and courage to try to escape. Bobby and his killers deserve one another.