The Most Controversial Films of All Time
Most filmmakers create movies to provoke and inspire their audiences. But the public doesn’t always respond well to provocation, especially if a movie pushes too many boundaries.
Some films on this list are celebrated with several awards for challenging societal norms. Others are straight-up propaganda or blacklisted from viewing for inciting harm towards others. Trust us; this list is not safe for work, and many of these films shouldn’t be on your “must watch” list. If you’re up for a challenge, check out the most controversial movies of all time.
The Birth of a Nation (1915)
The Birth of a Nation is an example of inflammatory revisionist cinema. D.W. Griffith set out to make a 190-minute Civil War epic that celebrated the Ku Klux Klan for their “heroism.” The NAACP and other groups tried to ban the film, calling it a racist display of propaganda.
The film revitalized the Ku Klux Klan’s national presence, but public cries against racism were louder. Audiences went to screenings to throw eggs at the film, and threats against airing the silent film in theaters continue to this day.
In 1931, Tod Browning was one of the most powerful filmmakers in show business thanks to the global success of his film, Dracula. After over a decade of making films, he was finally able to bring his passion project to life — an exploitative film about unloved carnival people.
Many of the cast members were actual carnival sideshow performers, much to MGM’s dismay. The film was cut down to 64 minutes before its official release after infamous test screenings left viewers horrified. The film was a box-office failure, and Browning’s career never recovered.
Triumph of the Will (1935)
There were many documentaries about Nazi rallies during Hitler’s reign, but Leni Riefenstahl’s stood out among the rest. Riefenstahl (who swore until her death that she wasn’t a Nazi) made arguably the most aesthetically powerful Nazi propaganda film of all time.
Innovative filmmaking was still a new concept, but Riefenstahl used techniques like aerial photography and long lenses to amplify Hitler’s message. It may be aesthetically and technically masterful, but it’s ultimately an unsettling, hateful film that is still banned in Germany.
Song of the South (1946)
A wholesome musical by Disney about plantation life in the Old South — what could go wrong? A lot, mainly because it glorified the master-slave relationship when that clearly wasn’t reality. And the racist stereotyping of former slave Uncle Remus was what upset the NAACP the most.
The combination of live-action and animation for the “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” musical number was technically impressive, but its happy-go-lucky message was unsettling at best. Hollywood didn’t seem to mind. The song won an Academy Award, and James Baskett, the man who played Uncle Remus, won his own honorary Oscar.
Peeping Tom (1960)
A little time, say two decades, can really change our collective opinion of a film. Take Peeping Tom, for instance. The horror film about a studio cameraman with a knack for murder destroyed filmmaker Michael Powell’s career when it was released in theaters.
Critics cried that the film was filled with too much voyeurism, child abuse and foul murder scenes. Some critics even claimed the film had a “nasty stench to it.” Almost two decades later, filmmakers like Martin Scorsese re-examined the movie, and its reputation was rehabilitated.
A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Of all of Stanley Kubrick’s films, A Clockwork Orange was his most controversial. The film was a turning point in the portrayal of violence and sexual assault in British film. Viewers followed Alex DeLarge in a dystopian future through a series of crimes, each one more terrifying than the last.
The United Kingdom was particularly furious with the film. Protestors and politicians denounced its release and accused it of being fascistic. Kubrick eventually caved, pulling the film from the UK in 1973. It wasn’t allowed to air in the country again until 1999.
Last Tango in Paris (1972)
Film greats like director Bernardo Bertolucci and actor Marlon Brando couldn’t save this film from controversy. While it performed well in France, other countries required the film to be recut to reduce its frequent clips of extreme sexual violence.
Last Tango in Paris was banned in Spain, Chile and Bertolucci’s native Italy, while receiving an X rating in the United States. Maria Schneider, the film’s female lead, was only 19 during filming. She later claimed the experience of making the movie ruined her life.
Pink Flamingos (1972)
They don’t call filmmaker John Waters “The Duke of Dirt” for nothing. Throughout Waters’ career, Pink Flamingos has unquestionably remained his most taboo offering. The film follows the drag queen Divine as Babs Johnson through a series of intentionally awful scenes.
Waters left no filthy stone unturned by including scenes with bestiality, incest, cannibalism and dining experiences best left off the menu. When Johnson competes to be the “Filthiest Person Alive” at the film’s climactic end, Waters cemented his place as a controversial connoisseur.
This nearly 3-hour-long opus about the mad Roman emperor Caligula was intended to be a high-art masterpiece. The original screenplay came from American intellectual Gore Vidal, and the cast included legends like Peter O’Toole, Helen Mirren and Malcolm McDowell.
However, the film went through several rewrites and reshoots at the request of the producer, Penthouse founder Bob Guccione. It turned into a sleazy, bizarre period film filled with scenes with graphic sex, incest and hardcore violence. Critics dismissed the epic as “worthless fantasy trash.”
William Friedkin wrote and directed Cruising, a dark thriller about a serial killer targeting gay men in New York City’s leather-clad Meatpacking District. The extras were actual patrons of the gay bars, but little did they know the film would be so exploitative.
Gay rights groups — some that first organized because of the film — argued the movie depicted gay men as seedy, murder-obsessed degenerates. The film went through extensive cuts, losing 40 minutes of footage, and went from an X-rated to an R-rated film to appease protestors.
Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983)
The Twilight Zone movie was a collection of reshot stories originally featured on episodes of the popular TV show. The original show was campy at times, but director John Landis and producer Steven Spielberg set out to honor the show with scarier reshoots.
The film’s major controversy happened during filming. While on a shoot in Vietnam, a helicopter crashed, decapitating two actors and collapsing on another. Of the three actors killed, two of them were children working past curfew. News of the accident preceded the movie’s release, especially because the story with the helicopter remained in the film.
Disney finds itself on the list again, only this time for one of its animated musicals. The film particularly upset the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, who argued the film perpetuated racist stereotypes. The pro-Western, outdated cultural depictions were especially noticeable in song.
In its opening song “Arabian Nights,” the narrator described the Arab world with lyrics including, “Where they cut off your ears if they don’t like your face. It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home.” Disney has since changed the lyrics for the film’s re-release, but the controversial depictions of Arab stereotypes remain.
Long before HBO’s Euphoria depicted teenagers as sex-crazed drug addicts was Larry Clark’s Kids. The film was like an after-school special with an NC-17 rating from the MPAA. Kids showed teenagers in a dark and gripping reality where high-risk behavior was commonplace.
The film also portrays teenage life at the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis, with many of its leads unknowingly transmitting the virus to each other. It’s a difficult watch from the very beginning, when a 17-year-old boy convinces a 12-year-old girl to let him take her virginity.
The Virgin Suicides (1999)
In Sophia Coppola’s directorial debut, she tells author Jeffrey Eugenides’ melancholy tale of five sisters who take their own lives from the perspective of their admirers. It’s a coming-of-age piece that celebrates young desire, but the nature of the girls’ suicide pact struck a controversial chord.
The film never quite answers why the girls took their own lives, but while they were alive, they’re praised by the boys for being mysterious muses. Did it romanticize teenage suicide? Possibly. Nowadays, shows like 13 Reasons Why that feature teenage suicide are often criticized, so it’s curious to look back on this heartbreaking movie.
South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut (1999)
Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s South Park movie was an animated musical that somehow packed almost 400 curse words into 81 minutes. Stan, Kyle, Cartman and Kenny took viewers on an adventure full of racial slurs, violence and cartoon nudity. It obviously didn’t sit well with the parents of the show’s younger fans.
The feature was a meta-commentary on censorship in filmmaking, and Parker and Stone went to extreme lengths to prove their point. The movie that featured Saddam Hussein in a romantic relationship with Satan even scored an Academy Award nomination in 2000 for Best Original Song.
American Psycho (2000)
What happens when a man is driven by success and acceptance from his peers? A psychological thriller that critics either appreciated or dismissed for its ultra-violent scenes. Were the scenes actually happening, or were they merely visions in Patrick Bateman’s vivid imagination?
Either way, the scenes were chilling to watch, with one murder after another becoming more chilling than the last. Even Bret Easton Ellis, the book’s author, believed the film didn’t need to be made, as movies require answers, and he liked to keep people guessing.
Requiem for a Dream (2000)
Darren Aronofsky’s ode to addiction was a horrifying thriller that had to be released unrated to include all of its scenes. Each character went to extreme lengths to feed their addictions, be they fame, weight loss or heroin.
In the film’s most controversial scene, Jennifer Connelly’s Marion Silver surrenders herself to prostitution in order to pay for her addiction. Aronofsky refused to remove the scene from his film to appease the censors’ request.
When Gaspar Noé’s French thriller first hit theaters, it was commonplace to see people leave the theater before the film ended. The film was told backward, with each scene playing in reverse order, but one scene stood out to be the most obscene.
In one of the film’s longest scenes, Monica Bellucci’s Alexandra is brutally sexually attacked below a Parisian underpass. Her attacker abuses her and mutilates her body in the terrifying scene beneath the red glow of the underpass. His filmmaking was unique, but his story was deemed too brutal for many.
The Dreamers (2003)
This ode to classic French cinema and sexual discovery quickly turned into an incestuous psychological thriller. When Matthew, an American exchange student, goes to Paris to study film in 1968, he meets Isabell and Theo, twins who are too close for comfort.
With the twins’ parents away for the summer, their house becomes a breeding ground for the three characters to get into uncomfortable sexual situations. The film was given an NC-17 rating and only was released to a limited number of theaters.
Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004)
Fahrenheit 9/11 was perhaps the most controversial of Michael Moore’s documentaries. The film was a scorching critique of the Iraq War and George W. Bush’s presidency. It includes graphic war visuals — and Bush’s continued reading of a children’s book after the first plane crashed into the World Trade Center.
The film, while becoming the highest-grossing documentary to hit theaters, drew high criticism for its claims. The former mayor of New York City, Ed Koch, was one of the film’s most vocal critics and called the film propaganda.
The Passion of the Christ (2004)
Mel Gibson’s violent retelling of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ is one of the highest-grossing R-rated films of all time. The film’s loudest critiques came from the Anti-Defamation League, which claimed the film was anti-Semitic for its portrayal of Jews.
The 10-minute crucifixion sequence was particularly bloody and vicious. Gibson later admitted the original texts don’t detail the graphic nature of Jesus’ death, but he portrayed it that way to show the magnitude of Jesus’ sacrifice.
Shortbus is a film about a group of New Yorkers on a quest for self-discovery in a post-September 11 world. The one thing they all had in common was their focus on sexual fulfillment to find themselves, and viewers saw all their encounters.
It was the most sexually graphic film to show at the Cannes Film Festival and the Toronto International Film Festival. The film made sure the scenes weren’t pornographic, but it still depicted several group and individual sexual exploits, mostly hosted at an underground sex salon in Brooklyn.
United 93 (2006)
United 93 is a chilling reenactment of the events that took place on United’s Flight 93, the fourth hijacked plane on September 11, 2001. Some of the FAA ground crew and military personnel involved in the actual event were included as cast members to add to the realism of the movie.
This honest portrayal earned respect for keeping false personal narratives out of the film, but mostly it was panned for getting made only five years after the attack. Universal Pictures received the brunt of the criticism for appearing to exploit a national tragedy.
Danish film director Lars von Trier was not messing around in Antichrist. The opening scene shows a couple passionately making love in the shower while their unattended toddler jumps out of a window to its death. And then the movie starts.
The movie is brilliantly filmed by Academy Award-winning cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, but its content is often hard to watch. The main characters have serious trouble coping with their child’s death, and lots of closeups of body manipulation ensue.
The Human Centipede (2009)
If you haven’t heard of the premise of this film, please look it up on your own. Describing it to you would be a mouthful — disgusting pun intended. But it was precisely because the premise of this film was so repulsive that it became a horror cult classic.
The absurd idea of capturing people and then “connecting them” caught on, as shown by the film’s two sequels. In one sequel, a fan of the first film gets inspired to create a human centipede of his own. It’s meta-monstrosity at its worst.
Enter the Void (2009)
Gaspar Noé’s 161-minute psychedelic melodrama challenged what the afterlife could look like. It was a visually stunning movie from start to finish. Viewers followed Oscar’s spirit as it floated over downtown Tokyo and relived harrowing scenes from his life before getting shot by police.
However, critics were mixed about the film’s length and its mashup of philosophical contemplation with sexual and drug abuse. After a year of cuts to shorten the film to 143 minutes, too much negative press surrounded the movie, making it a trippy box office failure.
A Serbian Film (2010)
One of the most sexually explicit films on this list was supposedly an allegory of corruption within the Serbian government. Srdjan Spasojevic made his film debut as the writer and director of the film, which was quickly banned in several countries upon its release.
The film follows a strapped-for-cash porn star who agrees to shoot one final film to make money for his wife and son. The filming of the movie gets more and more sexually deranged until most of the cast, including the desperate father, winds up dead.
Melancholia, the third in filmmaker Lars von Trier’s Depression trilogy, was an elegant take on hopelessness at the end of the world. The movie had outstanding performances from Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg, but von Trier got the film in trouble.
Before premiering at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, von Trier answered a journalist’s question by joking about being a Nazi. His bizarre ramblings got him ejected from the festival, and the film’s status as a cinematic masterpiece was tarnished by his off-color joke.
The Interview (2014)
As far as Seth Rogen and James Franco comedies go, The Interview doesn’t delineate from their normal on-film hijinks. The only major difference is James Franco’s character develops a friendship with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un.
The film was far from controversial in comparison to other movies on this list, but no other film was met with such opposition. Sony Entertainment had to pull the film from theaters after facing a digital hack and threats of future terrorist attacks.
Aronofsky’s mother! intentionally released a trailer that left much to the imagination. Fans and critics anticipated another masterful tale from the filmmaker, but no one expected to watch the brutal mutilation of a baby and actress Jennifer Lawrence.
According to Lawrence, the film is an allegory that “depicts the rape and torment of Mother Earth.” Some of the symbolism, like Michelle Pfeiffer and Ed Harris as Adam and Eve, made more obvious references to the Bible, but the finished product and its explosive climax left many viewers stunned.