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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.