The 50 most controversial movies ever (30-21)

It’s time to get delightfully offended with these all-time shockers

30. SCARFACE (1932)

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.—JR



29. MIDNIGHT COWBOY (1969)

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.—DF


28. I AM CURIOUS (YELLOW) (1967)

When Vilgot Sjöman’s sexually explicit Swedish drama was brought into this country, custom agents seized it at the airport. Suddenly, this foreign film became a cause célèbre; 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.—DF



27. FACES OF DEATH (1978)

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.—JR



26. THE OUTLAW (1943)

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.—DF


25. HENRY & JUNE (1990)

Philip Kaufman’s adventurous biopic about libidinous literary mavericks Henry Miller and Anaïs 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.—DF


24. THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991)

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.—KU


23. DO THE RIGHT THING (1989)

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.—KU


22. KIDS (1995)

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.—DF


21. ECSTASY (1933)

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.—KU

1-10  |  11-20  |  21-30  |  31-40  |  41-50

First published on . Updated on .

By David Fear, Joshua Rothkopf and Keith Uhlich   |  

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