Like all forms of art and entertainment, popular films have the power to bring us together – and the power to push us apart. In many cases, the extreme content of popular films – violence, profanity and sex – have rendered them difficult to stomach for a good portion of the viewing public. Other films, from Birth of A Nation to Passion of the Christ, have been criticized for pushing a message of racism and intolerance. Others still have faced some intense criticism for historical inaccuracy, misrepresentations and blasphemy.
In some cases, the aforementioned films have been treated more favorably in hindsight than upon release; some have even been cited as highly influential. In others, modern society’s more progressive values have generated more intense criticism of the films content or message. And in many cases, the filmmakers were simply trying to goad their audiences – presenting a story or image so thoroughly revolting that it tests the boundaries of art and taste itself.
15. South Park: Bigger, Longer, Uncut
The crude animated satirical series South Park has a long history of generating controversy, from its offensive celebrity impersonations to its relentless mocking of both Democratic and Republican ideals and its grotesque scenes of violence, sex and all around human suffering. But the movie – as promised by its title – was more of everything. The movie even made it in the 2001 edition of Guinness World Records for having the most swearing in an animated film – 399 profane words, 128 offensive gestures and 221 act of violence. The film also generated controversy through its provocative plot which included a war between America and Canada as well as one boy’s elusive search for a certain part of the female anatomy.
14. Fight Club
This David Fincher directed cult classic – based not the novel of the same name by transgressive novelist and all-around provocateur Chuck Palahniuk – is about a group of alienated men who channel their frustrations with the modern consumer culture by beating the living crap out of each other overnight at the titular Fight Club. From there their organization degenerates into murder, mayhem, terrifying exhortation and all-around terrorism. The film ends with one of cinema’s most memorable plot twists, and a series of explosions taking down major financial institutions. The buildings are supposedly unoccupied, but this and other controversial scenes have cemented Fight Club’s status as one of the most provocative movies of all time.
13. The Passion of the Christ
Mel Gibson’s violent take on the oft-told story of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion generated an extraordinary amount of controversy upon its 2004 release. Critics argued that the film was antisemitic due to the presentation of his Jewish captors as sadistic and evil. The movie also generated controversy over a supposed endorsement from Pope John Paul II that was later disputed. And finally, the content matter of the film itself was criticized for being too graphically violent. Some even dubbed the movie a snuff film due to the excessive focus on the savagery and torture of Jesus. Despite the controversy, or perhaps because of it, the movie became an enormous commercial success, making more than $370 million on a budget of $30 million.
Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier has a long history of making controversial movies, but perhaps none of his work is as provocative as his 2009 experimental horror film Antichrist. The film is about a couple who lose their child and retreat to a cabin in the woods, where the unnamed man experiences strange visions and the woman shows increasingly violent sexual behavior and sadomasochicm. Trier followed Antichrist with the similarly controversial Melancholia and Nymphomaniac.
11. The Patriot
Hollywood has a notorious history of fudging the details in historical fiction stories. But in this 2000 epic war film starring Mel Gibson, the filmmakers didn’t just get the details wrong; they carelessly rewrote history and blatantly misrepresented the conduct of British soldiers during the American Revolution. In the film, the British are depicted as a vicious, murderous oppressive force that were as evil as Nazis. Unsurprisingly, many British writers condemned the film for its horrendous inaccuracy. In one scene, an evil British cavalry officer locks an entire American village inside a church and proceeds to have his men burn it down. Historians also criticized the film for celebrating militia leader Francis Marion, who in real life committed numerous atrocities during the war.
10. The Human Centipede
When this Dutch gross-out film was released in 2009, it quickly became known not for its artistic merits but for the sheer ick factor. The movie is about a mad German scientist who kids three tourists and joins them surgically, mouth to rear, to form a grotesque singular creature called the human centipede. The movie received mixed to poor reviews, but was successful enough to justify a sequel, which naturally focused on an even longer human centipede – this one 12 people. There was even a second sequel, The Human Centipede 3, which was so offensive that it came with the tagline “100% politically incorrect.”
9. The Deer Hunter
This 1978 epic war drama is considered one of the greatest American films of all time – as well as among the most controversial. Most of the controversy stems from the depiction of the Vietcong using Russian Roulette to torture American POWs. This became controversial because there is not a single documented case of it ever occurring during the Vietnam War. The film was also roundly criticized for portraying the North Vietnamese as all being racist and sadistic killers. However, many critics defended the film’s depiction of Russian Roulette, saying the filmmakers took artistic license with the film and that it was metaphorical of the trauma of war. In any case, despite the fact that American POWs were not subjected to this horrific form of torture, the movie’s Russian Roulette scenes remain iconic and highly acclaimed.
8. Brokeback Mountain
The 2005 romantic drama movie, adapted from a 1997 short story by writer Annie Proulx, generated controversy from American conservatives for its depiction of a homosexual relationship between the film’s main characters, ranchers Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal). Though the film was praised by LGBT audiences for being a major stepping stone for queer cinema, fundamentalist Christian and conservatives were not impressed. The film was pulled from showing in a Utah theatre, and conservative political pundits, including Bill O’Reilly, John Gibson and Cal Thomas accused Hollywood of pushing a gay agenda with the film.
7. Natural Born Killers
Directors Oliver Stone and Quentin Tarantino – who wrote the script for this film – are no strangers to controversy or provocative subject matter. However, this black comedy crime film may have generated more controversy than any of their other films. The movie’s violent content and supposed glorification of murder allegedly inspired several copycat crimes. Within several years of its release, the film was blamed for inspiring the Columbine High School shooting, the Heath High School shooting and the brutal murder of two parents and an 8-year-old boy in Alberta, Canada. Stone maintains that the film is a satire on media glorification of violence – yet like many satirical works before and after it, the film remains shockingly controversial.
6. A Clockwork Orange
Stanley Kubrick’s brilliantly transgressive 1971 dystopian crime film, based on Anthony Burgess’s 1962 novella of the same name, was met with intense criticism upon its release. Of course, that probably should have been expected of a film that opens with brutal scenes, and hardly gets any tamer from these. The film also contains explicit scenes of murder, prisoner abuse that borders on torture and a violently misogynistic and sociopathic main character who is neither punished nor rehabilitated in the end. Despite the controversy, the film is considered a classic and received numerous Academy Awards nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Film Editing and Best Adapted Screenplay.
5. The Last House on the Left
This 1972 exploration-horror film, the directorial debut by American horror filmmaker Wes Craven, generated significant controversy upon its release for its scenes of sadism and violence. The film follows two teenage girls who, while attempting to buy some illegal items, are kidnapped by violent escaped prisoners and taken into the woods, where they are tortured and assaulted. Despite the controversy, the film has become regarded as a horror and exploration film classic, and was remade with Craven as a producer in 2009. The remake also generated some controversy but was a commercial success.
4. The Last Temptation of the Christ
The 1988 epic drama film by acclaimed director Martin Scorsese is based on a controversial 1953 novel of the same name that depicts the life of Jesus Christ and his struggle with various forms of temptation, including fear, depression, reluctance, doubt and – most offensively – lust. Unsurprisingly, the notion of Christ having sexual urges did not sit well with conservative Christians, who widely condemned and protested the film. It even spurred an attack against a Parisian theatre that was showing the film. An interest Catholic group ignited an incendiary device during the showing, injuring 13 people, of whom four were severely burned. Other attacks spurned by the film included graffiti, tear gas and stink bomb attacks and assaulting filmgoers.
3. I Spit on Your Grave
This 1978 revenge exploitation film is not only regarded as one of the most controversial films of all time, it is also considered one of the worst. Numerous film critics condemned the film for its graphic violence and lengthy depictions of gang assault, which take up nearly a third of its running time. Prominent film critic Roger Ebert famously called it the “worst film ever made” and a “vile bag of garbage.” The low-budget film depicts a woman who is brutally assaulted by four men. Afterward, she viciously gets her revenge by taking out all the men. Unlike many controversial films that have grown more acceptable overtime, I Spit On Your Grave remains extraordinarily offensive.
2. Deep Throat
Anyone who has seen All the President’s Men or has even a passing knowledge of the Watergate Scandal knows that Deep Throat was the name of the most famous and hilariously-named anonymous news source in history – FBI Associate Director Mark Felt, who provided the incriminating evidence against disgraced President Richard Nixon. But what you may not know is that Felt humorously adopted the name after the enormously popular 1972 film Deep Throat. The 61 minute film follows a woman with an unusual medical anomaly – part of her genitals are located deep in her throat. The film became the subject of obscenity trials and further controversy when lead actress Linda Boreman alleged stories of sexual abuse and forced prostitution during the film’s making. Despite the controversy, the film launched the “adult” chic trend, drastically increasing the genre’s popularity.
1. Birth of a Nation
This 1915 silent epic drama film became the first controversial film in history. Based on a novel The Clansman by Thomas Dixon Jr., the film gloried the Ku Klux Klan as a heroic force. Meanwhile, the movie’s black men – often portrayed by white actors in blackface – are presented as unintelligent and aggressive toward white women. Though the film was a commercial success, it resulted in widespread protests by African Americans and even rioting. It has since been blasted as one of the most racist films of all time.
Interestingly, black actor and director Nate Parker reclaimed the title earlier this year when he presented his own Birth of a Nation at the Sundance Film Festival. Parker’s film portrays the bloody slave uprising led by Nat Turner – itself a controversial subject, though a far cry from the subject and message of the original.