Content Warning: The following article contains discussions of sexual abuse, rape, pedophilia, drug use and gun violence.Most film directors try to avoid the dreaded NC-17 rating like the plague. It has long been considered the kiss of death, deterring audiences and stirring up negative connotations. The NC-17 rating replaced the equally bad “X-rating” in 1990 and has been a point of controversy for general movie-goers ever since.
To many cinephiles, though, the NC-17 rating is a point of interest and even a badge of honor. It’s incredibly rare for mainstream movies to get slapped with the rating, so when movies do, it generates quite a bit of curiosity around them. Regardless of the label, American culture is still obsessed with the forbidden, the sexual and the shocking, and NC-17 movies will always hold an important place in the film world with some incredible stories.
Updated on January 11th, 2023, by Hannah Saab:
While NC-17 movies are admittedly in decline – with Netflix’s divisive 2022 film Blonde being an exception – there’s no shortage of classic films to choose from for viewers who are curious to see what stories, scenes and characters can earn this (often dreaded) rating.
15/15 ‘The Dreamers’ (2003)
Available to stream on HBO Max.
The romantic drama film The Dreamers is set in Paris in 1968 and revolves around a romantic relationship between three friends: an American exchange student called Matthew (Michael Pitt) and two French siblings, Isabelle (Eva Green) and Théo (Louis Garrel). Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci, the film delves into issues of sexuality, politics and the social unrest of the 1960s.
The film has several graphic sexual scenes and explicit nudity, which is why it was rated NC-17. Furthermore, the film is famous for its graphic and erotic depiction of sexuality, which some considered offensive. New viewers may appreciate its strong overarching message of sexual liberation, which is apparent in the way the characters experiment and sexually express themselves with one another.
14/15 ‘Crash’ (1996)
Acclaimed director David Cronenberg‘s Crash is a psychological thriller film based on an eponymous 1973 book by J.G. Ballard. The movie follows the story of a group of people in and around Toronto who develop a sexual obsession with vehicle crashes. The film delves into subjects such as human sexuality, fetishism and technology in shocking and often downright bizarre ways.
It’s no surprise that Crash was rated NC-17 for its violent sexual content and violence, as well as its main topic, which was deemed too controversial for an R rating. The movie contains multiple explicit sexual encounters and violent situations that were judged too graphic for a broad audience. Furthermore, the film’s subject matter, which deals with car crash fetishism, was seen as being too shocking and unorthodox. That said, the movie has gone on to become a cult classic among Cronenberg fans.
13/15 ‘The Devils’ (1971)
The Devils take place in the gorgeous setting of 17th-century France. Father Grandier (Oliver Reed) is a priest whose heretical views on sex and religion influence a passionate following of sexually-obsessed nuns. The power-hungry Cardinal Richelieu (Christopher Logue) realizes he must eliminate Grandier to gain control of France, though. And so Richelieu portrays the priest as a Satanist to spread public outcry and ruin his beloved reputation.
The Devils is simply a landmark in cinema, even with its NC-17 rating. It is based on actual historical events surrounding Urbain Grandier, who was executed. The movie was heavily edited before its release, though, removing graphic scenes that mixed sex and violence with Christian rituals and religious objects.
12/15 ‘Man Bites Dog’ (1992)
Available to stream on HBO Max and The Criterion Channel.
In this black comedy mockumentary, the activities of a rampaging serial killer named Ben (Benoît Poelvoorde) are recorded by a willingly complicit documentary team. As Ben provides commentary on the nature of his “work,” the team eventually becomes his accomplices and active participants in his crimes.
There is no real way to describe why the movie was given an NC-17 rating without going into detail about the horrifically graphic violence presented in the film. But critics also acknowledge its smart and thought-provoking messages—like how a morally gray journalist’s obligation to be “objective” might trump the natural human impulse to intervene in a terrible situation.
11/15 ‘Bad Lieutenant’ (1992)
Available to stream on Tubi TV.
It is no surprise that Harvey Keitel‘s crime thriller was the first movie ever to get struck with the NC-17 rating after the MPAA included it. The movie is filled with sexual violence, graphic dialogue and drug use. Hollywood is filled with numerous cop movies, but Abel Ferrara‘s foray into the genre doesn’t once come up for air while studying a man in the thrall of some of humanity’s worst impulses.
The movie follows the Lieutenant, a corrupt cop steeped in debt who exploits his authority to sexually harass teenage girls, abuse drugs, and embezzle money. His life of troubles comes to a head when the mob tells him to pay off his debts; or else. The Lieutenant learns of a reward for catching two men who assaulted a nun, and he jumps at the opportunity for the money.
10/15 ‘Shame’ (2011)
Available to rent on Apple iTunes.
Shame was a career-defining role for Michael Fassbender for a multitude of reasons—his superb acting talent, his unmatched onscreen presence, enough charisma and terror to bring even the strongest to their knees and of course, full-frontal nudity. The latter of which helped gain this movie an NC-17 rating.
The wild classic movie earned the rating because of its very explicit sexual content, which is fair. There is a lot of direct sexual matter as the movie follows a successful and handsome New Yorker, Brandon. He seems to live an ordinary life, but underneath it all, he hides the secret of being a sex addict. His constant need for gratification begins to numb him to everything in his life.
9/15 ‘Killer Joe’ (2011)
Available to stream on Showtime and fuboTV.
Killer Joe follows a cop who moonlights as a hitman. Played by Matthew McConaughey, Killer Joe Cooper agrees to kill the hated mother of a desperate drug dealer in exchange for the man’s virginal sister. The phrase “crooked cop” takes on a whole new meaning in William Friedkin‘s brilliant display of savage emotions and misplaced faux morality.
Killer Joe remains one of the most criminally underrated movies of all time. The psychosexual crime film got slapped with the NC-17 rating due to its excessive nudity, gory violence and disturbing depictions of psychological abuse. Despite its heavy subject matter, the film excels as a Southern Gothic trailer park tale, featuring unstable characters convinced they’re doing some good in the world.
8/15 ‘Happiness’ (1998)
Todd Solondz directed Happiness, a 1998 American black comedy-drama film starring Jane Adams, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Dylan Baker, Lara Flynn Boyle and Camryn Manheim. The movie follows three sisters and their families as they struggle to achieve happiness and satisfaction in their lives. The film delves into subjects such as sexual desire, melancholy, and family dynamics.
Because of its graphic sexual content and controversial themes of pedophilia and sexual abuse, the film was rated NC-17. The movie contains multiple explicit sexual scenes as well as graphic sexual elements that were considered too graphic for an R rating. Happiness is known today for its bold exploration of universal human flaws, as well as the way it manages to make terrible characters sympathetic.
7/15 ‘Mysterious Skin’ (2004)
Available to rent on Apple iTunes, Amazon Video and Google Play Movies.
As a significant part of the New Queer Cinema movement, Gregg Araki is no stranger to queer teens, explicit sexual content, and some of the most serious issues in LGBT+ culture. Not only has he helped shaped queer cinema, but his style of filmmaking is also breathtakingly bold and dripping with punk style.
Mysterious Skin was given an NC-17 rating for its strong use of profanity, sexual and drug content and nudity. The movie tells the story of Brian (Brady Corbet) and Neil (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the former who is sexually abused and becomes obsessed with UFOs as a way to repress it, and the latter who turns to hustling to deal with his childhood trauma.
6/15 ‘Midnight Cowboy’ (1969)
Available to stream on Hoopla, Tubi TV, Kanopy and Pluto TV.
Midnight Cowboy was released decades before the NC-17 rating was added to the Motion Picture Association film rating system. Still, it was smacked with the equally controversial X-rating during its release because of homosexual content. Despite the label, the film won Best Picture at the Academy Awards and remains the only X-rated movie to do so.
As time passed, Midnight Cowboy was eventually dropped to an R rating, which fits it better. The film follows Texan, Joe Buck, played by Jon Voight, as he makes his way through effervescent New York City. Thinking he’ll latch on to a rich dowager when he gets there, his appeal to women is not as irresistible as he once thought, and he allies with a sick man.
5/15 ‘Perfect Blue’ (1997)
Available to stream on Shudder and AMC+ Amazon Channel.
Arguably director Satoshi Kon‘s most iconic film, Perfect Blue is a legendary animated psychological thriller film that revolves around Mima Kirigoe, a young pop singer who decides to quit her popular girl group to establish a career as an actor. However, as she gains popularity and success in her new career, she starts to notice unusual events and is unable to shake off a rising sense of paranoia, causing her to think that someone is tracking her every move. The film delves into subjects such as identity, voyeurism, and the pitfalls of fame.
The film was rated NC-17 for graphic violence, sexually explicit content and disturbing scenes. A horrific rape scene, as well as many moments of bloodshed and violence, were deemed too explicit for an R rating. Furthermore, the film’s depiction of voyeurism and stalking was deemed unsuitable for younger audiences.
4/15 ‘A Clockwork Orange’ (1971)
Available to stream on HBO Max.
As one of the most iconic X-rated movies in film history, A Clockwork Orange truly lives up to its name. The movie’s rating eventually got reduced to an R, but not without a price. The new version released in theaters replaced 31 seconds of the original—with fewer orgy and assault scenes.
Despite its disturbing content, A Clockwork Orange remains among Stanley Kubrick‘s best movies. The movie is harrowing and difficult to watch, as it follows the character of Alex and his lascivious love for violence. After he is finally jailed for his unrest, he agrees to behavior modification to earn his freedom from jail, only to become a victim himself.
3/15 ‘Blue Is the Warmest Color’ (2013)
Available to stream on AMC+ Amazon Channel and Kanopy.
Blue is the Warmest Color (La Vie d’Adèle) is a coming-of-age romantic drama film directed by Abdellatif Kechiche based on the eponymous graphic novel. The story centers on a high school girl named Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) and an older art student called Emma (Léa Seydoux). The film portrays several years and follows the pair as they fall in love, face troubles in their relationship and finally confront a difficult decision. The film is famous for the lead actors’ outstanding performances as well as its raw and honest portrayal of two women in love.
The film was rated NC-17 for its graphic sexual content. The film contains several prolonged, violent and explicit sexual sequences that were judged too explicit for an R rating. Also, several of these scenes were shot in great detail, making them remarkably true-to-life, which the rating board was likely not ready for at that time.
2/15 ‘Y tu mamá también’ (2001)
Available to stream on AMC+.
Like many 17-year-olds, the lives of Julio (Gael García Bernal) and Tenoch (Diego Luna) are ruled by raging hormones, sexual thoughts and intense relationships. Y tu mamá también follows the two best friends over the course of an unforgettable summer where they live out a carefree cross-country adventure with an older woman (Maribel Verdú).
The boys and the woman form many deep connections, but the movie’s rating comes from explicit nudity and sexual content. It’s also quite wild to think about how director, Alfonso Cuarón, went on to direct a Harry Potter movie immediately after this NC-17 coming-of-age gem.
1/15 ‘The Evil Dead’ (1981)
Available to rent on Amazon Video.
The Evil Dead is a beloved horror movie directed by Sam Raimi – it was the first film in the Evil Dead series and spawned numerous sequels, with an upcoming fifth movie, Evil Dead Rise, premiering on March 2023. The film depicts the story of a group of friends who go to a cabin in the woods, where they unwittingly release malevolent spirits that possess them one by one.
The film is known for its graphic violence, gore and genuinely frightening horror. Initially getting an X rating, it received an NC-17 rating after some time due to its numerous sequences of such violence and gore, as well as extreme horror. The movie is famous for its use of practical effects and make-up to produce gruesome and violent sequences that were deemed too realistic and frightening for that time.