In America, the NC-17 film rating carries a lot of baggage. Because of the nature of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) – in all its absurd censorship – if a film is rated NC-17, it is more or less dead theatrically. The marketing for an NC-17 rated film is restricted both in print and digital form. Major movie theater chains (like Regal and AMC) won’t screen NC-17 films, many national stores (like Target and Wal-Mart) won’t sell them… so basically, you have a shot at seeing them in an independent art house theater, or searching for them on DVD.
But this list isn’t a bash against the MPAA, rather, a call out of some truly great films that fought to see the light of day. Despite the limitations set against them, these risqué flicks managed to push through.
10. Showgirls (1995)
Had to do it. Is Showgirls a good movie? No, of course not. But it is a genuine cult classic; a film you can truly love to hate. Occasionally, a movie this ridiculous is well aware of how insane it actually is. As if it is in on its own joke. Not Showgirls. Upon its release, Paul Verhoeven’s Las Vegas romp demanded to be taken seriously. When no one did, Verhoeven and Co. embraced the film’s lunacy. And the rest is history.
9. Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970)
Call it whatever you want to call it, but the Russ Meyer-directed, Roger Ebert-written Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is one of the best satire/cult/exploitation films ever made. Watching three impressionable young girls move to L.A. only to have the city devour them is nothing short of a manic thrill. The movie is a 110-minute long trip, of which kind, I’m not entirely sure.
8. Descent (2007)
Getting drastically more serious now, this obscure indie stars Rosario Dawson as a college student who suffers an atrocious victimization. The film is split up into three distinct chapters, and is increasingly relentless in its emotional and physical brutality. By no means an easy film to stomach, but, for the record, I consider Dawson’s work in Descent one of the very best female screen acting performances ever. She’s utterly fearless.
7. Man Bites Dog (1992)
This jet black crime comedy may be the most horrific (and effective) found footage film ever conceived. A deranged serial killer lets a group of young filmmakers follow him around and film his horrible misdeeds. The crimes committed by the magnetic Ben start off relatively tame, then steadily grow more ghastly. And once the crew starts to partake in the violence, well, things get… bad. Please note that while I appreciate what this film is, I certainly have no need to ever watch it again.
6. Lust, Caution (2007)
I have pretty relaxed sensibilities when it comes to movies. I’m not easily rattled or shaken up, which is much of what fuels my angst for the MPAA. My point is that, while Ang Lee’s bold Lust, Caution features three rather… inventive sex scenes, I’m not entirely sure they deserved the stigma of an NC-17 rating. Anyway, Lust, Caution is a terrific, slow-paced thriller of deceit, void of exposition, full of juicy character development. Shame that Tang Wei’s courageous (and debut) performance was mostly overlooked.
5. Killer Joe (2012)
William Friedkin’s trailer park, white trash depiction of hell may very well be the most accessible film on this list. It’s rated NC-17 for one very, uhhh, unique scene that, as Friedkin humorously points out in his director’s commentary, is, after all, just a piece of poultry. Look, I’m not trying to make slight of the horrors Gina Gershon’s character suffers in this film, but for the most part, Killer Joe plays out like a superbly written thriller, fully aware of what it is trying to do. A fascinating examination into the redneck macabre.
4. Crash (1997)
David Cronenberg’s persistently fetishized Crash depicts people who love sex and car crashes, preferably together, at the same time. The film lets its vehicular violence motivate the characters’ sexual desires, while occasionally letting the sex motivate the crashes. It’s a vicious cycle of love and death, copulation and savagery. It’s one of the most Cronenbergian films the director has ever helmed, and it remains a great character study of a very exclusive group of people.
3. Last Tango in Paris (1972)
Bernardo Bertolucci’s erotic love story of an American widower (Marlon Brando) and a young Parisian girl (Maria Schneider) is as fierce a depiction of anonymous intimacy as I’ve ever seen. The film’s most notorious moment caused Schneider to sink into a deep depression and nearly give up acting for good. When the actress died in 2011 at the age of 58, Bertolucci said he wished he had the chance to ask for her forgiveness. So, yeah, intense stuff.
2. Bad Lieutenant (1992)
You don’t hear the name Abel Ferrara much anyone, and that’s mostly because the guy does things his own way. He doesn’t care about money, budget, Hollywood suits – he makes the movies he wants to make, the way he wants to make them. Sometimes this produces pure garbage, but occasionally, it merits fearless and disturbing works of art. Bad Lieutenant is privy to the latter category. I’m not even going to begin to roll call all of the awful stuff that happens in this flick, but watching a very enraged Harvey Keitel (in what will always be his best performance) abuse his power all over New York City will never make for dull viewing. This film is utterly remorseless, but really quite fascinating. If you can handle it.
1. Shame (2011)
Throughout this post, I’ve made frequent use of words like fearless, relentless, bold and daring. That’s because when NC-17 films embrace their ratings, they open themselves up to completely unfiltered cinema. Cinema that is different, rare, extraordinary. Steve McQueen’s masterpiece, Shame, is one such film. In depicting the very trouble life of a very closeted sex addict, McQueen’s film is a patient, uncompromising exposé of a life shattered. Everytime I watch this film (and I watch it quite often) I become more entranced with the world it depicts. There are many exceptional performances in the films on this list, but surely Michael Fassbender’s work in Shame is chief among them.
Funny story: Because McQueen is British, he had no idea what an NC-17 rating was, and the restrictions that go with it. Fox Searchlight didn’t bring the rating to McQueen’s attention because they felt the film was perfect as is and believed “it is time for the rating to become usable in a serious manner.” Amen to that.