50 Surprisingly Great X-Rated Movies (That Aren't Porn)
While the phrase "rated X" likely conjures up images of the kind of movie to which Travis Bickle might squire a date, the rating's original intention had little to do with the pornography that eventually came to define it. When the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) decided to implement a ratings system in November 1968, its purpose was to easily communicate to parents whether a flick would be fun for the whole family… or earn them a visit from child protective services.
But it didn't take long for the adult industry to join the party and co-opt the salacious-sounding X -- then take it two steps further by adopting a XXX rating for its spiciest titles.
Because the MPAA neglected to trademark its ratings system (opening the door to that aforementioned porn penetration), rather than compete with or take on the adult industry to bring the X rating back to its original purpose, they dropped it altogether.
In 1990, the X begat the NC-17 rating -- though some filmmakers have opted to distribute their movies with no rating at all (the ratings system was, and is, voluntary). We pored through each group -- X, NC-17, and unrated -- to create an adults-only celebration of movies for grownups. They may not all be masterpieces (hello, Showgirls), but even a guilty pleasure is called a "pleasure" for a reason. Here are 50 great X-rated (NC-17-rated and unrated) movies to add to your viewing queue.
X-Rated Era (1968-1990)
While even some of the earliest X-rated movies had a noticeable amount of nudity, sexual situations, and/or graphic language, the purpose of the rating wasn't to send a flag up to moviegoers with prurient interests; it was simply to mark a movie as being suitable for adults only (but again, not in the "adults only" designation that used to be reserved for the back rooms of video stores). Eddie Murphy's standup comedy film Raw, for example, is one non-icky movie that got saddled with a scarlet rating. For many filmmakers of the 1960s and '70s, an X rating was a cinematic badge of honor -- proof that you'd made a film for only the most discerning audiences who viewed cinema as art. For the less auteur-minded individuals, it was a way to show as much nudity as you wanted and get away with it. And as the decades rolled on, it came to take on enough negative connotations that even the MPAA realized something needed to be done.
Even before the X rating was established in America, US audiences were getting an eyeful of risqué foreign films like Vilgot Sjöman's I Am Curious. But in 1968, America got its own very first X-rated gem with Brian De Palma's Greetings, a seething satire about a womanizer (Jonathan Warden) attempting to dodge the Vietnam draft. He's aided by his two best friends, one of whom is played by Robert De Niro in his first credited film role. In the years since, De Palma has admitted that the film owes a creative debt to Jean-Luc Godard's French New Wave hit Masculin Féminin. Which also might explain why De Palma played it fast and loose with the film's nudity and profanity. (Though its rating was eventually downgraded to an R.)
Medium Cool (1969)
For several decades after its release, Haskell Wexler's Medium Cool was difficult to get your hands on, which might explain why it's not as well-known as many of its New Hollywood-era counterparts, which used cinema as a way to express the disillusionment so many Americans were feeling. Wexler was best known as a cinematographer -- he won Oscars for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) and Bound for Glory (1976) -- and used that background to write, direct, and shoot this partly improvised story of a once-complacent TV cameraman (Robert Forster) who experiences a political awakening as he's paid to witness, firsthand, the quiet revolution that is happening all around him. It's a cinéma vérité-style masterpiece that incorporates elements of both narrative storytelling and documentary-making, and culminates at the (very real) 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, where a riot erupted. Wexler, of course, managed to capture it all. Though its graphic language and nudity were the official reasons given for its X rating, Wexler knew better. "What no one had the nerve to say was that it was a political X," he once said. A year later it was re-rated with an R.
Midnight Cowboy (1969)
Midnight Cowboy is the surprisingly touching story of a naïve Texan (John Voight) and seasoned con man (Dustin Hoffman) who attempt to turn a buck by selling the Lone Star transplant as a plaything-for-hire for New York City's lonely uptown ladies. While the plan doesn't quite work out, the development of the genuine opposites-attract friendship is what sells the movie. While it's famous for being the first -- and only -- X-rated film to ever win a Best Picture Oscar, what's lesser known is that its rating was self-mandated. Figuring that the film's graphic sex scenes would earn it an X rating, David Picker -- United Artists's then-president of production -- decided to save both himself and the MPAA some time and stamp it with his own X. "We didn't want to go through the exercise since we weren't prepared to change the movie," Picker told The Hollywood Reporter. As it turns out, he may not have had to: in 1971, the MPAA -- of its own volition -- downgraded the film to an R.
Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970)
What was originally supposed to be a sequel to Mark Robson's lovably campy adaptation of Jacqueline Susann's The Valley of the Dolls (1967) turned into a satirical remake of sorts. While it follows the first film's storyline of an all-girl band, The Carrie Nations, willing to do anything to get their big break, it ups the sex, drugs, and rock and roll ante -- which is hardly surprising, considering that it was directed by schlockmeister supreme Russ Meyer. What is unexpected is Meyer's collaborator on the project: Roger Ebert. Yes, that Ebert. The Ebert who loved Superman: The Movie, hated Joe Dirt, and earned a Pulitzer Prize for his writing in 1975 -- just a few years after this guilty pleasure arrived in theaters.
Mick Jagger made his acting debut in this British crime drama co-directed by Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg, but it took a while for fans to actually see it. The movie -- about an on-the-run London gangster (James Fox) who shacks up with a reclusive rocker (Jagger) and two free-spirited women -- sat on the shelf for nearly two years as its distributor, Warner Bros., figured out how to handle its graphic sexual and violent content. Ultimately, they decided to release it with an X rating and let the cards fall where they may. While the original reviews were mixed, critics were impressed by Jagger, and his onscreen chemistry with Fox in particular. Eventually, it grew to become a cult classic and found renewed interest following the passing of Cammell in 1996. As Roeg died on November 23, 2018, it might be due for another surge.
A Clockwork Orange (1971)
On its own, extreme violence isn't always a guarantee that a film will earn an X rating. But incorporate that violence -- which exists pretty much throughout all two hours and 16 minutes of Stanley Kubrick's Oscar-nominated dystopian nightmare -- into a terrifying rape scene where the attacker (Malcolm McDowell) breaks into a cheery rendition of "Singin' in the Rain," and it makes the whole thing much more unnerving. There have been more brutal on-camera attacks, but the contradictory nature of what we we're witnessing makes for an uncomfortable few moments. Which makes its X rating self-explanatory. But when a couple of copycat crimes occurred in London, Kubrick volunteered to make some quick trims to the film; while he only ended up altering about 30 seconds of footage, it was enough to get the film re-rated as an R.
Pink Flamingos (1972)
John Waters didn't earn the nickname the "Pope of Trash" for playing it safe with his filmmaking, and Pink Flamingos is certainly not for the faint of heart. The infamous flick sees legendary drag queen/Waters muse Divine attempting to retain her crown as "The Filthiest Person Alive." With scenes depicting cannibalism, rape, vomiting, incest, masturbation, and dog feces-eating, is it really any wonder that this cult classic wasn't deemed suitable for kids or teens?
Last Tango in Paris (1973)
Even if you've never seen Bernardo Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris, you probably know the premise: A crusty American businessman (Marlon Brando) heads to Paris to clear his head after his estranged wife kills herself. There, he meets a beautiful young woman (Maria Schneider) and they begin a wild, frequently sadomasochistic affair based purely on sex. But there's a darker psychology happening here, if you can look past Brando's bare ass to see it. Though it was widely hailed as an erotic masterpiece when it was originally released (at least by those who weren't complaining that it was porn and shouldn't be shown in mainstream theaters), its problematic production has tainted its reputation over the years. In one of the film's most can't-unsee-it scenes, a stick of butter is used as a lubricant as Brando forces himself upon Schneider. The actress has since gone on record to say that this scene was not in the script, and she felt humiliated by it, but was too young and inexperienced to speak up. Now that contemporary attention has turned to the rampant abuse throughout Hollywood (and virtually every industry), Last Tango in Paris has become emblematic of a culture that not only permitted abusive behavior, but celebrated it. Matters were made worse two years after Schneider's death, when Bertolucci admitted he and Brando had conspired to create the scene without Schneider's consent. Bertolucci earned an Oscar nomination for Best Director for the film (Brando scored a Best Actor nod, too), while Schneider -- just 19 during production, compared to Brando's 48 and Bertolucci's 31 -- never received accolades for her performance. All of which explains why, when Bertolucci passed away on November 26, 2018, Last Tango in Paris was the film most frequently mentioned in his many obituaries.
Female Trouble (1974)
John Waters strikes again! Over the course of 90 minutes, we watch life unfold for Dawn Davenport (Divine) from bratty kid to single mother to stripper to criminal to murderer. As with any Waters vehicle, it's a wild, no-holds-barred ride that didn't sit quite right with the MPAA -- nor did its sexually graphic language or nudity. While it initially went unrated, it's since been branded as NC-17 by the MPAA.
In the Realm of the Senses (1976)
Like Last Tango in Paris, Nagisa Ôshima's In the Realm of the Senses teeters precariously on that line between art film and smut film. It follows the affair-turned-sexual obsession between a prostitute-turned-hotel maid (Eiko Matsuda) and her boss (Tatsuya Fuji) that eventually ends with his death. And her severing his penis… for reasons you may not want to know about. Though the film was critically well received, it was banned in various parts of the world (including the US) because the director and actors opted to film unsimulated sex scenes in order to achieve Ôshima's vision in the most realistic way possible. (We'll wager a guess that prosthetics were used for that whole severed penis thing.)
Dawn of the Dead (1978)
Ten years after Night of the Living Dead, George A. Romero's zombies made the move from rural farmhouse to empty shopping mall, where a small group of citizens have barricaded themselves in order to avoid the walking dead. Though the 139-minute director's cut played Cannes, American distributors demanded that it be cut down further… then still gave it an X for its violence. Sensing that the taboo rating would kill its box office chances, Romero released it unrated.
The first film in Don Coscarelli's legendary horror series introduced audiences to the Tall Man (Angus Scrimm), a time-traveling undertaker with a penchant for transforming corpses into flesh-eating dwarf zombies. Which sounds reasonable. But the MPAA didn't like that famous scene where a flying silver sphere impales a man's brain. They also took issue with a man peeing himself after dropping dead, and as such branded it with the dreaded X. Fortunately, the film had a friend in Los Angeles Times film critic Charles Champlin: There are a couple of different stories about how he helped, with one saying he told Universal they should buy the film and another saying he called a friend on the MPAA board and helped get the rating changed to an R. One of the film's co-producers, however, says it was Universal that got the MPAA to rethink their rating.
The Evil Dead (1981)
While many movie fans consider Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead a dark horror-comedy, the MPAA wasn't laughing when the film made its debut. Though it starts out as your typical cabin-in-the-woods horror movie, it quickly takes a turn for the gory after a group of friends accidentally resurrect a demonic entity that can possess any person -- or forest foliage -- it likes. Yes, it's bloody. And the scene in which a horny tree branch rapes a woman is uncomfortable (Raimi himself regrets it). While horror fiends see the film as so over-the-top that it's almost comical, critics took issue with all the gore and bloodshed and branded it a "video nasty," a British term for an obscene movie released on VHS. Though the film was banned in many countries, and still remains so to this day in some places, it clearly proved popular enough to spawn a couple of sequels (more on Evil Dead II later) plus a TV series, Ash vs Evil Dead.
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)
In real life, alleged serial killers Henry Lee Lucas and Ottis Toole copped to murdering hundreds of people (though their claims have been discredited by some). In Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, director John McNaughton's unrelenting crime drama loosely based on the two, there's no question about who or what the characters of Henry (Michael Rooker) and Otis (Tom Towles) did. The film's low-budget aesthetic -- it was shot in less than a month on 16mm film with a budget of about $100,000 -- only adds to its creepiness, making the viewer feel more like a witness than a moviegoer. Though it was filmed in 1985, it didn't get a national theatrical release until 1990 due to legal issues surrounding its real-life inspirations and distributors getting cold feet. In order to get the film out there, McNaughton began screening it at film festivals, and it was a showing at the Telluride Film Festival in 1989 -- plus a subsequent 3.5 star review from Roger Ebert -- that finally got the distribution wheels in motion. Is it for everyone? No. But it might be the most realistic movie ever made about a serial killer.
Eddie Murphy: Raw (1987)
More than 30 years after its release, Eddie Murphy: Raw is still the highest-grossing stand-up comedy movie ever released. But who knows where it would have ended up on that list if the MPAA had stuck to its guns and refused to budge on its X rating. While it was officially released with an R, this was only after several edits and reedits were made at the MPAA's request. The reason? Very, very bad words.
Evil Dead II (1987)
The second time didn't prove to be a charm for Sam Raimi. Returning to that cabin in the woods from The Evil Dead for more supernatural fun, this 1987 sequel continued the blood-gore-humor trifecta set up by the first film and achieved similar results: an X rating, which Raimi abandoned in favor of an unrated release.
At this point, one has to imagine that the MPAA board doubles up on the espresso shots when they know a Paul Verhoeven movie is coming their way. But how RoboCop, of all the director's films, managed to so utterly offend them is curious. Especially as we have no recollection of Murphy trying to seduce a vacuum cleaner or anything else that might put it in the "too sexually charged" category. Turns out, it was all about the violence. And there was originally a lot more of it. It reportedly took Verhoeven 11 reedits to get the MPAA on board with an R for RoboCop. Very smartly, in addition to editing out some of the more violent scenes, he added some quirky commercials into the news broadcasts in order to lighten the overall mood. It worked. But eventually the original X-rated version made its way onto laserdisc, then VHS, then DVD and Blu-ray. And you can stream it now via Amazon.
The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989)
Before you think, "What?! Helen Mirren starred in an X-rated movie?" Let's not forget that she also appeared in Caligula. Now that that's out of the way, Dame Helen plays the titular wife who, bored of her crime boss husband (Michael Gambon), begins an affair right under her husband's nose, regularly making use of the quiet corners of the restaurant they own to indulge in her carnal urges. While it's quirky and funny at times, it operates more as a morality play where no taboo -- including cannibalism -- is off limits. It's for that reason that when given the choice between an X or no rating if director Peter Greenaway refused to edit it down, the filmmaker went the unrated route. (By this point, X was too closely associated with porn films. And the movie's title, and bondage-themed poster, wouldn't do much to dispel that notion.)
Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1989)
For 40 years, Oscar-winning director Pedro Almodóvar has embraced his role as the enfant terrible of Spanish cinema. And it's largely due Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! that we have the NC-17 rating at all. The film features a twentysomething Antonio Banderas as a mentally unstable young man who, upon his release from a psychiatric hospital, kidnaps a drug-addicted former porn star he slept with one time with the intention of making her fall in love with him. The MPAA didn't even blink at giving it an X rating, which led the studio to sue on the basis that because so many people associated an "X" with porn, it would prejudice them against seeing what was really an art film. Fortunately, they argued the point well, because the X rating was dropped altogether not long after.
The NC-17 Era (1990-current)
So as not to be confused with their smutty cinematic brethren, in 1990 the MPAA swapped out its X rating -- which they had failed to copyright -- for the NC-17 designation. (Yes, this time they registered it.) Yet the rebranding effort didn't completely eliminate the icky factor that many people had come to associate with the MPAA's harshest rating, leading some filmmakers to release their works with no rating at all.
Henry & June (1990)
It seems fitting that a biopic about writer Henry Miller would be the first film to earn an NC-17 rating. It explores the sexually charged relationship between Miller (Fred Ward), his wife June (Uma Thurman), and Anaïs Nin (Maria de Medeiros), who assisted him on the notoriously salacious Tropic of Cancer. And it served the new rating well: it's one of just three NC-17-rated films to earn an Academy Award nomination (for Philippe Rousselot's cinematography).
Basic Instinct (1992)
In 1992, the MPAA came knocking on Paul Verhoeven's editing room door once again when he handed over his cut of Basic Instinct, the hit neo-noir that sees a San Francisco homicide detective (Michael Douglas) matching wits -- and bumping uglies -- with a sexy novelist (Sharon Stone), who may or may not have murdered a man with an ice pick. Though Verhoeven claims the movie was never about sex for him (it was about "evil"), there sure seems to be a lot of copulating happening. And even when there's not, people are thinking about it. Especially when Stone, going commando, crosses her legs at just the right angle. Yes, it got an NC-17 rating. But Verhoeven was eventually able to wear the MPAA down by slightly shifting the camera's perspective. "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 told The New York Times in 1992. Altogether, he said he shaved just 35 to 40 seconds from the film to get it down to an R for the original theatrical release, but subsequent home video releases have reverted to the director's original (and naughtier) NC-17 cut.
Louise Malle directed this surprisingly naughty film about a stodgy English politician (Jeremy Irons) who becomes romantically involved, then sexually obsessed, with his son's new girlfriend (Juliette Binoche). Unfortunately for all, she feels the same way. Let the never-ending sex scenes commence. (If you want the full experience, just make sure you're watching the uncut version.)
Man Bites Dog (1992)
Part mockumentary and part horror film, Man Bites Dog mixes reality and fiction as a team of filmmakers (the movie's actual filmmakers) document the everyday life of an affable serial killer named Benoît (Benoît Poelvoorde, yet another one of the filmmakers) -- including his crimes. The more time they spend with Ben, the more their objectivity goes out the window. Eventually, they begin to assist Ben on his murder spree. While it's ultimately a satirical take on the thin line the media must walk, it's also super grisly -- so much so that it was banned in a couple of countries.
Bad Lieutenant (1992)
Between Harvey Keitel's drug use, his penchant for public masturbation, and the rape of a nun, one has to imagine that Abel Ferrara wasn't expecting a PG rating on Bad Lieutenant. One also imagines that he didn't care. The title here is pretty self-explanatory: A very bad NYPD lieutenant (Keitel) gets up to all sorts of mischief both on the job and off. But as unsettling as his activities may be, the film is infinitely watchable (even if you do have to cover your eyes on occasion). There was no getting around the NC-17 rating, and for a litany of reasons that included sexual violence and graphic drug use (among other things). But the studio wanted people to see the film, and since Blockbuster and Hollywood Video -- the two biggest rental chains at the time -- wanted to make it available to their customers, a special R-rated edition was created for them, which basically cut out the scene where Keitel pulls over a couple of teens and lets them off with just a warning if they agree to… never mind. You'll have to see it for yourself.
The Wild Bunch (1969)
Yes, The Wild Bunch was released in 1969, back when there was still such a thing as an X rating. Yes, it's shoved right in the middle of a bunch of '90s movies. But there's a reason for that: While the Sam Peckinpah western -- a brutal tale of a gang of bank robbers making their way between Texas and Mexico -- was originally rated R, the studio resubmitted it to the MPAA ahead of a 1994 25th anniversary re-release and ended up with an NC-17 rating. This changed things for Warner Bros., who ended up having to delay the film. It took a year, but eventually the studio got their way. Even if it turned out to be a 26th anniversary re-release.
Harmony Korine was just 22 years old when his script for Kids, a depressing coming-of-age tale about a day in the life of some Manhattan teens whose lives seem to center solely around sex and drugs, premiered on the big screen. The alpha male of this group is a kid named Telly (Leo Fitzpatrick), who makes a habit of deflowering virgins -- one of whom, Jennie (Chloë Sevigny), has just tested positive for HIV. As Jennie spends the day trying to track Telly down, we watch on in horror as he exposes more unsuspecting young women to the virus. While The New York Times declared it a "wake-up call to the modern world," others likened the film to child pornography. Either way, it wasn't slinking away from its NC-17 rating. Which caused a bit of a predicament for Miramax, which had purchased the film but then were not allowed to distribute it because they were owned by Disney. After some wheeling and dealing, the film was released independently. And '90s teens were never the same again.
Though it tanked at the box office, Showgirls -- about a damaged young drifter named Nomi (Elizabeth Berkley) who moves to Las Vegas with dreams of becoming a big-time dancer but ends up being a stripper first -- redeemed itself on home video. Probably thanks to the people who were too embarrassed to show up at the theater and actually purchase a ticket. Though it was given an NC-17 rating for "nudity and erotic sexuality throughout, some graphic language, and sexual violence," it still managed to get a wide release, a rarity for what essentially amounted to softcore porn. That show of faith was likely due to the fact that the film reteamed Verhoeven with Joe Eszterhas, who had found mainstream erotic success with Basic Instinct. From a serious critical standpoint, the movie's a dud. There's no story, the acting is mostly terrible, and it's largely whatever the opposite of titillating is. Untitillating? Nontitillating? But Verhoeven claims that was the point, and still considers it "the most elegant movie [he's] ever done."
David Cronenberg's adaptation of J.G. Ballard's novel perfectly casts James Spader as James Ballard (hmmm), a man who -- after surviving a near-fatal car crash -- begins to fetishize car crashes and seeks them out in order to get off. He's not alone; there's a whole subculture of other folks willing to indulge this demented fantasy with him. Critics and audiences were divided, to say the least; while some fans saw it as pure Cronenberg territory, others deemed its mix of violence and sex as near-pornographic. Such controversy should have been expected, as the book did the same when it was released in 1973. Though its NC-17 rating virtually guaranteed that it wouldn't get a lot of box office exposure, Ted Turner -- who owned its distributor, Fine Line Pictures -- piled on by having the film pulled from release schedules because of his negative feelings toward it. While he eventually relented, the film had a very limited release window in just a few hundred theaters nationwide. Thanks, Ted.
A virtual who's who of future stars -- including Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Jude Law, Paul Bettany, and Rachel Weisz (as "Prostitute") -- feature alongside Clive Owen, Ian McKellen, and Mick Jagger in this adaptation of Martin Sherman's award-winning play about the persecution of homosexuals during Nazi Germany. Max (Owen) is playboy from a wealthy family who lives his life without much regard to other people's feelings; all that changes when he's brought to a concentration camp and struggles between being true to himself and his will to live. The film was released with an NC-17 rating for a single scene "of graphic sexuality," but it's the brutal violence that's the more disturbing element.
Before there was South Park, there was Orgazmo, Trey Parker's coming-of-age film about a young Mormon missionary who is seduced by the world of porn when he's cast as a XXX superhero. Its sexual content and dialogue didn't sit well with the MPAA, but Parker and Matt Stone -- who produced the film and co-stars -- didn't seem to care much.
Don't let the title fool you: Happiness is one of the most depressing films in recent memory, which is sort of par for the course for writer-director Todd Solondz. In this case, the title refers to that elusive thing that all of the loosely connected characters are searching for, whether it be through a desire for genuine love or giving into one's pedophiliac tendencies. Do you need to know any more on why it was unrated? The film might be one of the most divisive in history: While it won the FIPRESCI Prize at Cannes Film Festival for "its bold tracking of controversial contemporary themes," Sundance found the subject matter far too disagreeable to give it a spot on its festival calendar.
Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
It's hard to know what Stanley Kubrick would have thought about the version of Eyes Wide Shut that made it into theaters. He was certainly never one to back down from a ratings challenge (see: A Clockwork Orange), but the legendary director passed away several months before the film's theatrical release. Warner Bros., citing promises to deliver an R-rated film, ultimately used some digital effects to turn their NC-17 rating into an R; in short, they digitally altered an orgy scene so that it could be released as wide as possible. Which seems sort of silly, as it's still an orgy scene -- they just inserted images to block some of the most visible action. (Roger Ebert made a very valid point when he said, "It's symbolic of the moral hypocrisy of the rating system that it would force a great director to compromise his vision, while by the same process making his adult film more accessible to young viewers.") Still, it didn't take long for fans to see the film exactly how it was intended, orgy and all. The film's home video releases all included the NC-17 version.
Requiem for a Dream (2000)
Two generations of drug addicts battle their demons in Coney Island in Darren Aronofsky's heartbreaking adaptation of Hubert Selby Jr.'s 1978 novel. Sara Goldfarb (Ellen Burstyn) is the mother of Harry Goldfarb (Jared Leto), who is dating Marion Silver (Jennifer Connelly) and is best friends with Tyrone Love (Marlon Wayans), all of whom are jonesing for something. The film is unique in that it painfully depicts each of the four main characters' very specific type of drug addiction and the lengths they'll go to in order to get a fix. Yet when it came to rating the film, the drug use was secondary to a cringe-inducing "sex" scene (and understandably so). The scene in question features a strung-out Connelly, desperate for heroin, agreeing to take part in a sex show with another woman and a dildo while a bunch of sleazy rich guys watch. In order to secure an R rating, Aronofsky was told to lose the scene, but he refused. Leaving Requiem for a Dream (which earned Burstyn her sixth Oscar nomination) to enter the world unrated -- and all the more powerful to watch because of it.
There's a kind of disorientation that happens when watching Gaspar Noé's Irréversible, in part because it's told in reverse. But also because it's hard to recover from what you're witnessing. The story itself is pretty straightforward: While at a party, couple Alex (Monica Bellucci) and Marcus (Vincent Cassel) get into a fight, so Alex leaves. But she's attacked on her way home in what is undoubtedly one of the most disturbing rape scenes ever committed to celluloid, and it goes on for 10 minutes (more than 10% of the film's full running time). When Marcus and his friend Pierre (Albert Dupontel) find out what happened, they take to the streets of Paris seeking revenge for what happened. If the rape scene wasn't painful enough, we later get to see a man beaten to a bloody pulp with a fire extinguisher. Based on the audience reaction at Cannes, Newsweek film critic David Ansen predicted that it would be "be the most walked-out-of movie of 2003." Because it was released unrated (for obvious reasons), it only ever made it to a few dozen theaters, so it's hard to calculate.
The Dreamers (2003)
More than 30 years after Last Tango in Paris, Bernardo Bertolucci created an erotic art house hit for a new generation with The Dreamers. It stars Michael Pitt as an American who comes to Paris to study in the late 1960s, and befriends enigmatic twins Isabelle (Eva Green) and Théo (Louis Garrel). What begins as a friendship based on a love of movies evolves into much more, and goes to some pretty dark places (incest alert!). Much like Last Tango in Paris, moviegoers were fully aware that The Dreamers was controversial and might be offensive to some -- which only seemed to boost its popularity in theaters, where it became one of the more successful NC-17s to hit the big screen.
Young Adam (2003)
Ewan McGregor has never been bashful about showing his junk in a movie. But that alone apparently isn't enough to get the MPAA's dander up; there's got to be some action happening, too. And in the case of Young Adam, David Mackenzie's adaptation of Alexander Trocchi's 1954 novel of the same name, that means fellatio. A whole 14 seconds of it. It's certainly not the only sex scene, but the film is about so much more. Set in Scotland in the 1950s, it follows a floundering would-be writer named Joe (McGregor) who takes up residence with a married couple -- Les (Peter Mullan) and Ella (Tilda Swinton) -- on the barge where he is working. Things take a turn for the weird, and adulterous, when Joe and Les fish the body of a woman Joe used to date out of the water, and Joe and Ella start up an illicit affair. Mackenzie tells the story largely through flashbacks, which ups the suspense level, and the film is impressively acted. If it weren't for that damn fellatio, perhaps more people would have gotten the chance to see it.
Bad Education (2004)
Nobody does torment like Pedro Almodóvar, and Bad Education is undoubtedly one of his very best. Gael García Bernal plays Ángel Andrade, a trans woman who reconnects with her childhood love (Fele Martínez) all while seeking revenge on a teacher who abused her as a child. Though Almodóvar appealed the MPAA's NC-17 rating for "a scene of explicit sexual content," the rating was upheld so the film went into theaters as is.
A Dirty Shame (2004)
One sometimes has to wonder if John Waters hasn't spent much of his career just trying to outdo himself. All you need to know about this one is that Tracey Ullman stars as an uptight Baltimorean who, after years of worrying about her stripper daughter Caprice (who, because of her enormous breast size, is professionally known as Ursula Udders) suffers a concussion that turns her into a sex addict. Its NC-17 rating was the result of "pervasive sexual content." We'll say!
Mysterious Skin (2004)
Gregg Araki's painful and sometimes bizarre deep dive into the psychological scars child abuse leaves on its victims (played as young adults by Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Brady Corbet) is not always an easy movie to watch, but it's worth being made to feel uncomfortable. As with any movie that seems to want to tackle pedophilia as a topic, the MPAA branded it NC-17. Instead, Araki sent it out into the world unrated.
Inside Deep Throat (2005)
In 1972, Deep Throat became the first pornographic film to exploit the MPAA by branding itself "X-rated," thus beginning porn's slow-but-sure takeover of the X. It's that same takeover that eventually birthed the NC-17 rating. So there's something sort of ironic about the fact that a documentary on how Deep Throat affected American society would be given an NC-17 rating (largely due to the inclusion of clips from the original film).
This Film is Not Yet Rated (2006)
Like Inside Deep Throat, documentarian Kirby Dick got to have some fun with the ratings process for this feature documentary on the MPAA and the effect its ratings have on American culture. Awkward! (The NC-17 was the result of footage from NC-17 films being used within the documentary.)
Politics and torture porn collide in this French horror flick about a band of young thieves who plan a heist amidst a political protest, then flee France only to wind up in the company of a group of demented neo-Nazis who decide that that pregnant Yasmine (Karina Testa) is the perfect person to carry on their lineage. Yeah, it's like that. While the MPAA wanted to give it an NC-17 rating, the filmmakers instead decided to play it in 10 theaters across the country for one weekend -- with no cuts.
Lust, Caution (2007)
Ang Lee reportedly spent more than 100 hours filming the sex scenes for this clever thriller that sees a young revolutionary (Tang Wei) enter into an illicit affair with a powerful -- and married -- political figure (Tony Leung Chiu-wai) in Japanese-occupied Shanghai, all with an eye toward assassinating him. While it's more about espionage than it is erotica, it ended up with an NC-17 nonetheless because of "some explicit sexuality."
Director provocateur Lars von Trier has gone on the record to state that that he was suffering from depression when he wrote this ultra-dark film about a couple (Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg) who loses their young son, then their damn minds. No shit. As they retreat to their secluded cabin (uh-oh), their relationship unravels, their sex becomes violent, and there's one bit of genital mutilation you'll want to close your eyes for. It was released unrated.
While interviewing young prostitutes for a story, a journalist named Anne (Juliette Binoche) is surprised to find that the young women she's meeting seem so empowered by their sexuality. As she digs further into the story, the not-so-empowered writer feels compelled to begin exploring her own sexuality. The most talked about scene was one in which Anne partakes in some much-needed self-gratification, and Binoche did her research. She told Vanity Fair how director Malgorzata Szumowska "gave me a DVD of different girls' faces going through masturbation that she found on the internet, and it was fascinating, almost [like] an art form." Unsurprisingly, the MPAA gave it an NC-17 rating due to sexual content, but the filmmakers surrendered the rating.
Killer Joe (2011)
It seems odd that a movie intended as a black comedy would be hit with an NC-17 rating, and even odder that the director (in this case, William Friedkin) would then opt to release it unrated instead. But that's exactly what happened with this adaptation of a 1993 Tracy Letts play, in which a murder-for-hire plot orchestrated by a young man (Emile Hirsch) and his dad (Thomas Haden Church) goes a bit off the rails when the hired gun (Matthew McConaughey) demands Hirsch's younger sister (Juno Temple) as collateral. The MPAA didn't like the film's "graphic disturbing content involving violence and sexuality, and a scene of brutality," but Friedkin released it with the NC-17 rating they gave it.
While "sexual addiction" has become a convenient excuse for celebrities caught in extramarital blunders over the years, Michael Fassbender puts a face to the troubling reality of the affliction in Steve McQueen's heartbreaking Shame. Given the brouhahas that have erupted over other films that depict sex in a provocative yet detached way (see: American Psycho), it's surprising that there wasn't a louder outcry when the film was released. Then again, it was a smaller independent film (it's certainly a movie that helped to take both Fassbender and McQueen's careers to the next level). But its matter-of-fact treatment of the subject matter as depressing and detached versus salacious or sexy makes it hard to argue against any full frontal nudity, threesomes, etc. It would also be hard to make a case for not slapping an NC-17 on it.
The final film in Lars von Trier's so-called "Depression Trilogy" (it was kicked off by Antichrist, which was followed by 2011's Melancholia) features what Fifty Shades of Grey would never dream of attempting. It focuses on Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), the titular sex addict, who is telling the story of her life to Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), a man who has taken her into his home after finding her nearly lifeless in an alleyway. As she tells him about her sexual exploits, he very helpfully relates these scenarios to fly-fishing and the Fibonacci sequence. The film was given an NC-17 rating, but von Trier decided to release it unrated and in two parts. If the four-hour "edited" version isn't enough for you, there's a five-and-a-half-hour director's cut.
Evil Dead (2013)
Fede Álvarez must have really wanted to make Sam Raimi proud when he was given the opportunity to reboot the Evil Dead franchise for the Millennial generation -- with Raimi, Bruce Campbell, and Robert Tapert as producers, and as his feature directorial debut no less. Though it would have been virtually impossible for Álvarez to live up to the original (or its sequel, or that one's sequel), he at least understood what the blood and guts ratio should be in a classic cabin-in-the-woods horror film. Though he was contractually obligated to hand over an R-rated version of the film to the studio, the MPAA's initial verdict was NC-17 -- prompting Álvarez to tweet that he was "proud of scoring a NC17 when submitted!" Theatergoers may have been forced to sit through the R version, but home viewers can bask in gore galore.
Blue is the Warmest Color (2013)
Blue is the Warmest Color made instant stars of Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux, who play Adèle and Emma, respectively, in this honest and often heartbreaking coming-of-age drama that sees both women struggling to figure out who they are as they navigate love, sex, and impending adulthood -- and not always easily. The film made headlines for its graphic sex scenes between the two, which were also the reasons behind its NC-17 rating. But it's the genuine intimacy you feel between these two young women that makes it such a compelling film. (It earned a Golden Globe nod for Best Foreign Language Film.) Unfortunately, there were also some complaints after the fact; both Seydoux and Exarchopoulos complained about the difficult working conditions that were created by Abdellatif Kechiche, the film's director. Behind-the-scenes technicians complained, too. In 2014, Seydoux clarified that while it was a hard movie to make, she was still very proud of the film.