THE LISTS: Top 10 NC-17 rated films

Posted by · 6:10 pm · October 12th, 2010

Amid the recent kerfuffle over the Motion Picture Association of America’s curious decision to slap Derek Cianfrance’s sensitive marital drama (and Oscar hopeful) “Blue Valentine” with a commercially inhibiting NC-17 certificate, I failed to note that the MPAA’s most drastic rating celebrated rather a significant anniversary last week.

October 5 made it 20 years since Philip Kaufman’s sexually explicit literary biopic “Henry & June,” the first film ever to be given the NC-17 classification, opened in US theaters.

Like “Blue Valentine,” Kaufman’s film was a high-end prestige item aiming for critical kudos and even a shot at year-end awards (indeed, it did wind up nabbing a solitary Oscar bid) that the sage folks on the ratings board nonetheless deemed a little too adult for the adults.

For decades before then, the X rating (now defunct, but still prevalent in everyday speech) had been their standby for such films — of which one, “Midnight Cowboy,” managed to override the X-rated stigma to win the Best Picture Oscar — but had since become too closely associated with grimy pornographic material.

NC-17 was therefore coined as a respectable “artistic” alternative to the X, though that hardly made the rating any more desirable to producers and distributors: in two decades, only one NC-17 title has been granted a wide theatrical release and hit the upper reaches of the box-office charts. (That I’m talking about “Showgirls” hardly aids the cause.) But while a number of risky films either cut offending material or go unrated altogether in order to avoid the rating, several worthy titles over the years have helped ensure it’s no badge of dishonor.

Today’s list is something of a celebration of those rebels; given that I was all of seven years old when “Henry & June” blazed the trail, many of them are films I only caught up with years after the fact, but they’re no less arresting for it. Should Cianfrance and his team fail to appeal and end up stuck with the NC-17, may thislist at least remind them that they’re in fine company.

10. “Bad Lieutenant” (Abel Ferrara, 1992)
“Sexual violence, strong sexual situations and dialogue, graphic drug use,” runs the MPAA’s reasoning for the NC-17 rating in this case – all tangible infractions that give little indication of just how aggressively bonkers Ferrara’s heady Catholic guilt-flavored cop drama is. (They don’t even mention “full-frontal Harvey Keitel,” which really is something people deserve to be warned about.) Werner Herzog’s in-name-only 2009 remake picked up on the titular protagonist’s corrupt behaviour, removed the religion and added singing iguanas, but is positively family fare by comparison – and not half as dementedly powerful.

9. “Henry & June” (Philip Kaufman, 1990)
The film for which the NC-17 rating was invented now stands as one of its more well-behaved recipients. Any film that studies the lives of “Tropic of Cancer” author Henry Miller and erotic diarist Anaïs Nin in bohemian Paris is going to have to deal pretty frankly with sex, but the plentiful action in Kaufman’s film is, via Philippe Rousselot’s gorgeous, Oscar-nominated lensing, pretty gauzy. More sexy than erotic, then, the film is best viewed today as a grown-up arthouse biopic – with the curio value of having linked Uma Thurman and Maria de Medeiros four years prior to “Pulp Fiction” – but it will forever own that “first” status.

8. “Showgirls” (Paul Verhoeven, 1995)
“Nudity and erotic sexuality throughout,” screams the faintly tautological MPAA warning for Verhoeven’s equally reviled and adored tack-fest, as if anyone might approach something titled “Showgirls” expecting high Victorian collars and courtly romance. I must confess that, having seen the film before it acquired (or I became aware of) its camp classic status, I never thought it particularly terrible, much less particularly shocking: rather, it’s a slimy but grandly entertaining update of the fluffiest strain of Hollywood backstage melodrama, albeit with heavier breathing. That was enough to make it the highest-grossing NC-17 release to date: well played, all.

7. “Blue Valentine” (Derek Cianfrance, 2010)
No camp classic in the making here: the latest high-profile recipient of the MPAA’s scarlet letter is also, as I wrote last week, among the most inexplicable. We have yet to get to the bottom of what offended the board so profoundly about Cianfrance’s harsh but heartfelt portrait of a doomed marriage – some say a loveless love scene, others a pretty inexplicit oral sex act, others a nervy scene in an abortionist’s office. None push any notable boundaries, but the film is most harrowing in internal ways that no ratings board can measure or discipline; should the rating stick, shock-hungry kids seeking the film on DVD are in for a grim but worthwhile surprise.

6. “Man Bites Dog” (Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel, Benoît Poelvoorde, 1992)
“This is honestly the most fucked-up film you will ever see,” enthused my friend Ari in the video store years ago, brandishing a copy of this blackly comic Belgian mockumentary – a more enticing promise than the MPAA’s comparatively mild claim of “strong graphic violence.” That said, they aren’t kidding: as the film charts the progress of a deranged serial killer whose exploits are chaperoned and documented by a film crew, the violence reaches numbing, if smartly self-reflexive, proportions. It’s a remarkable work that predated the US wave of reality-TV satire by a decade.

5. “Bad Education” (Pedro Almodóvar, 2004)
Pedro Almodóvar is hardly unaccustomed to run-ins with US censors; a number of his earlier, raunchier titles like “Matador” and “Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!” had fallen foul of their sensibilities. Still, by 2004 – by which time the polished-up director was a double Oscar-winning arthouse titan – it was a surprise to see him dipping back into NC-17 territory, for a rich, challenging noir that nonetheless didn’t court outrage. (If anything, “Talk to Her” covered more  brittle moral territory.) Perhaps board members were so lulled by his mainstream acceptance that the film’s thematic buffet of sexual abuse, Catholicism and transsexuality caught them off-guard.

4. “Lust, Caution” (Ang Lee, 2007)
And so we come to our second consecutive auteur who followed up an Oscar-winning hit with something that frightened the horses a little more. Oddly, the MPAA downplay the erotic content of Lee’s glorious WWII espionage romance, citing only “some explicit sexuality” as the offending factor. As it turns out, there’s rather a lot of it, but even its roughest love scenes are so sensual, so rife with dense emotional subtext, as to render idiotic the “ZOMG Ang Lee’s made a PORNO” cries that greeted the film upon its divisive (but ultimately, and deservingly, triumphant) Venice premiere.

3. “Requiem for a Dream” (Darren Aronofsky, 2000)
When the MPAA stamped Aronofsky’s sophomore feature with the NC-17 badge – for crimes including “intense depiction of drug addiction, graphic sexuality, strong language and some violence” – the director refused to make cuts, opting to go the unrated route instead. His reward was a film that wound up becoming something of a Generation Y touchstone, and the first with its rating to receive Oscar recognition in an above-the-line category. The film lays on its transgressions pretty thick – that final sequence, throwing in everything from rough sex to electroshock therapy, surely put it over the edge with the board – but no Hubert Selby adaptation has any business playing safe.

2. “Poison” (Todd Haynes, 1992)
Inspired by the writing of Jean Genet and splicing together faux-documentary, sci-fi and queer romance narratives, Todd Haynes’s feature debut is such a brazen study of social and sexual difference and isolation that it would scarcely have been appropriate for the MPAA to approve of it: “explicit sexuality” ensured that wasn’t a problem. More aggravated by the film, however, was the American Family Association, who objected to the National Endowment for the Arts funding this and other gay-themed works. No matter: Haynes took top honors at Sundance and grew into one of America’s most vital auteurs, though he has yet to vex the censors again.

1. “Crash” (David Cronenberg, 1996)
“Cronenberg has done fuller justice to the permutations—the options—of how and who we fuck than any other living filmmaker,” wrote critic Tim Robey in a recent essay on the Canadian auteur, and no film underlines this point more emphatically than his brilliantly unhinged examination of the fragile psychological ties between sex, death and risk – or, as its more excitable detractors were keen to remind you, “that movie where people get off on car crashes.” The inevitable NC-17 rating wasn’t even its greatest distribution obstacle: bizarrely, it was banned outright in London’s West End district, proving that it’s not just the Yanks who have their sore points.

Which of these have you seen? What other NC-17 movies burned a hole in your memory? Share your thoughts in the comments section.

[Photos: Universal Pictures, Lionsgate Films, MGM, The Weinstein Company, Criterion Collection, Sony Pictures Classics, Focus Features, Zeitgeist Films, Fine Line Features]

→ 28 Comments Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Filed in: The Lists

28 responses so far

  • 1 10-12-2010 at 6:30 pm

    Thierry said...

    There’s no way the NC17 ruling on BV will hold up on appeal. I mean, seriously. Are these people on crack? Scene for scene, note for note, there are so many precedents with tougher films that got R. I’m convinced the committee saw it back to back with MARMADUKE.

    Harvey better not dare cut it.

  • 2 10-12-2010 at 6:35 pm

    americanrequiem said...

    Requeiem for a dream hands down, one of my top 10 ever, great great movie

  • 3 10-12-2010 at 6:39 pm

    Speaking English said...

    “Requiem for a Dream” is Rated R, though… ???

  • 4 10-12-2010 at 6:40 pm

    Anthony Nicholas said...

    You forgot the Peter Greenaway classic The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, Her Lover.

  • 5 10-12-2010 at 6:49 pm

    Patryk said...

    How about Larry Clark’s films? Maybe “Kids” and “Ken Park” were released without a rating?

  • 6 10-12-2010 at 7:02 pm

    Rashad said...

    Showgirls is biting social commentary. Verhoeven is no dummy.

  • 7 10-12-2010 at 7:11 pm

    Chad Hartigan said...

    I’ve only seen two of these jams

  • 8 10-12-2010 at 7:56 pm

    Estefan said...

    No love for Bernando Bertolucci’s excellent ode to the French New Wave,The Dreamers?

  • 9 10-12-2010 at 8:10 pm

    Speaking English said...

    Speaking of Bertolucci, and I don’t know if it counts, but “Last Tango in Paris” was given an NC-17 rating in 1997. Perhaps you could replace the R-rated “Requiem for a Dream” with that phenomenal film.

  • 10 10-12-2010 at 8:46 pm

    Tom Houseman said...

    1. Requieum for a Dream
    2. Lust, Caution
    3. Short Bus
    4. The Cook The Thief His Wife and Her Lover
    5. Bad Education
    6. The Dreamers
    7. Orgasmo
    8. L.I.E.

    I think those are the only ones I’ve seen, all of which were very good. It’s generally a good sign for me when a movie gets stamped NC-17. I was excited for Blue Valentine before, but now… oh man.

  • 11 10-12-2010 at 9:12 pm

    al b. said...

    ORGASMO!!!! Quality film!

    Also, The Dreamers is simply gorgeous!

  • 12 10-12-2010 at 9:40 pm

    rosengje said...

    Can we get an official ruling on this? Was Requiem rated R or NC-17 upon its release?

  • 13 10-12-2010 at 11:53 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Speaking English: Check your facts before getting snotty. Yes, an R-rated edit of “Requiem” was released on video/DVD — but the theatrical cut was ruled NC-17 by the board. After Aronofsky’s appeal was denied, they decided to go unrated — but I counted for this list since they did go through the MPAA and it was handed that rating.

  • 14 10-12-2010 at 11:57 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Speaking English: Check your facts before getting snotty. Yes, an R-rated edit of “Requiem” was created for video/DVD. The theatrical release, however, was ruled NC-17 by the board. When Aronofsky’s appeal was denied, they decided to go unrated — but I still counted it for this list since they did initially go via the MPAA and it was formally given that rating.

  • 15 10-12-2010 at 11:57 pm

    Robert Hamer said...

    Guy is correct about Requiem for a Dream. MPAA slapped an ‘NC-17,’ Aronofsky appealed, it was denied, and Artisan decided to theatrically release the film unrated.

    I think the confusion stems from the film’s second life on video, which had its more explicit content toned down for an ‘R.’

  • 16 10-13-2010 at 12:41 am

    Glenn said...

    I remember the “Requiem” drama. It was the overhead shot of Connelly and the other girl going “ass to ass” on the sex toy that sent it over the edge for the MPAA, apparently. Aronofsky refused to cut that shot. Of course, there was then the Blockbuster controversy when they refused to stock it despite being an Oscar nominee and so forth.

    Anthony, maybe Guy didn’t “forget” the movie. Yeah?

    I’ve seen of this top ten except “Blue Valentine”, “Crash” and “Henry & June”. “Showgirls” is a bona fide masterpiece, meanwhile “Requiem” and “Bad Education” are very darn close and could even be called the same if the mood takes me. “Lust” is quite great and “Poison” has its moments, but is incredibly flawed.

    “Bad Lieutenent” and “Man Bites Dog” are horrendous though. Well, I think they are, anyway.

  • 17 10-13-2010 at 5:10 am

    GlenH said...

    As much as I love individual scenes from “Bad Education” (the pool scene in particular – I don’t think Bernal has ever been better) I can’t get behind the film as a whole because of the way a character’s transformation of psyche seems to be linked less to their traumas and more to the physical act of getting a sex change.

  • 18 10-13-2010 at 9:33 am

    Ben M. said...

    As far as films with actual NC-17 ratings (rather than unrated) go, I feel the best are The Evil Dead and Last Tango in Paris. Though granted both were rated NC-17 for video releases as their initial releases predated the rating.

  • 19 10-13-2010 at 11:04 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Yeah, I was only counting theatrical releases that received the rating.

  • 20 10-13-2010 at 12:29 pm

    deeks said...

    Requiem for a Dream is tops for me. Certainly in my Top 10 of all time. I’ve seen it a couple of times and it sticks with me on a fundamental level moreso than any other film I’ve seen.

  • 21 10-13-2010 at 12:38 pm

    /3rtfu11 said...

    I own both Showgirls and Crash (1996). Philip Kaufman’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988) is far more explicit than Henry and June (1990).
    Guy did you turn seven in 1990 or were you seven going on eight? I ask because I’ll be twenty-eight this November.

  • 22 10-13-2010 at 5:11 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    I turned seven in February 1990. You are my elder.

  • 23 10-13-2010 at 6:51 pm

    Alex said...

    The Cook the Thief His Wife & Her Lover ftw.

  • 24 4-13-2011 at 1:04 am

    moves said...

    Mysterious Skin is my favorite and some of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s best acting

  • 25 7-23-2011 at 8:14 pm

    Andy O said...

    A Clockwork Orange…doesn’t count?

  • 26 7-24-2011 at 1:58 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Andy O: Thanks for the suggestion (and for digging up this article!), but see comment #19 — for this list, I only counted theatrical releases that received the rating since its inception in 1990.

    In any case, A Clockwork Orange was never rated NC-17 — its initial X rating was later dropped to an R by the MPAA after a few cuts, and the rating stuck even after they reinstated the cut material for video.

  • 27 7-24-2011 at 5:59 am

    Rashad said...

    I think Showgirls is better than Requiem

  • 28 9-14-2011 at 12:59 am

    Adam said...

    PINK FLAMINGOS!!!!!!!!!!!!!