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)

Showgirls

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)

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls

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)

Descent Rosario Dawson

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)

Man Bites Dog

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)

Lust, Caution

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)

Killer Joe

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)

Crash James Spader

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)

Last Tango in Paris

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)

Bad Lieutenant Harvey Kietel

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)

Shame

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.

About The Author

Alex Withrow has been entranced with cinema since the moment he became aware of its power. He has dedicated his life to film, as a fervent viewer, dedicated writer and passionate creator. He founded the movie blog, And So it Begins in 2007 and has worked as a professional film critic for two newspapers and various cinema websites. In addition to film criticism, Alex runs his own production company, which produces both fictional and documentary films. Follow him on Twitter here.

  • http://twitter.com/Nikhat_Z Nikhat Zahra

    As soon as I saw the name of this list, I just knew Shame’s going to make it. And very appropriately too.

    I’ve only seen one other movie in this list and that is Killer Joe. That was some crazy awesome shit.

    • http://twitter.com/shiftingPersona Alex Withrow

      Shame reigns supreme! “Crazy awesome shit”… yeah, that’s Killer Joe all right.

  • Steven Flores

    Yes, “Showgirls” is a terrible film but dammit, it’s fucking hilarious. It’s so bad it’s good. I’ll watch if I need to be entertained. The ones I need to see in that list are “Man Bites Dog”, “Killer Joe”, “Descent”, and “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls”.

    So far, I’ve seen 3 NC-17 films in the theaters. “The Dreamers”, “Lust, Caution”, and “Shame”. 2 of which in the Tara Theater in Cheshire in Atlanta while “The Dreamers” was the first NC-17 film I saw at the Midtown Arts Center in 2004. They were worth it and I could see why it got the rating although I don’t sort of agree with it. Why are the MPAA offended by penis and women’s pubic hair? I hope to make some NC-17 films in the future as the current script that I’m still outlining is going to be NC-17.

    • http://twitter.com/shiftingPersona Alex Withrow

      Dude, I so hope you get to make an NC-17 rated film. That’d be amazing. Glad you’ve been able to catch a few in theaters, I only wish more theaters played them.

  • http://nevermindpopfilm.blogspot.com/ Colin Biggs

    Wasn’t surprised to see Lust, Caution get slapped with that rating, but it seems irresponsible considering The Hills Have Eyes 2 is only rated R.

    • http://twitter.com/shiftingPersona Alex Withrow

      Exactly! It seems like a great many foreigner directors don’t even bother appealing their NC-17 rating, which I definitely respect, but yeah, there are far worse R-rated films.

  • http://twitter.com/videovangaurd TheVern

    Very cool list Alex. I have not seen Descent, but I will be sure to check it out very soon. I’m glad I saw Showgirls so I know how bad it is I dont think I would watch it again, unless to show at a party. Man Bites Dog is one of the first found footage movies and its still pretty effective. and disturbing

    • http://twitter.com/shiftingPersona Alex Withrow

      Thanks man! Descent is heavy stuff, but damn good. And Man Bites Dog… whoa.

  • http://twitter.com/TheBackFilms At The Back

    Some great films on this list. I think we are lucky in the UK because the top ’18 certificate’ is rare in cinemas but I’ve been able to see the likes of Shame and Killer Joe in my local multiplex.

    I personally hate how film makers aim for the ’12A Cert’ which must be similar to PG13 in the US, just to get people through the doors.

    • http://twitter.com/shiftingPersona Alex Withrow

      Yeah it really is a bummer that most movies are made and released solely based around how many people will see them. Not as many people see R and NC-17 rated films. Sad truth!

  • http://twitter.com/nifkin nifkin

    How the fuck is Enter the Void not on this list?

    • Christopher Runyon

      I believe Enter the Void is not at all NC-17. It’s considered “Not Rated” or “Unrated” depending on the person, which doesn’t count.

      • http://twitter.com/shiftingPersona Alex Withrow

        Yep, Christopher has got it.

  • http://twitter.com/EzShake Ezekial Shake

    What a boring list

    Here’s a much better one:

    1900
    A Clockwork Orange
    Female Trouble
    Hellbound: Hellraiser II
    Kika
    Kill Bill, Vol. 1
    L.I.E.
    Pink Flamingos
    Seed of Chucky
    Tie Me Up Tie Me Down

    • http://twitter.com/shiftingPersona Alex Withrow

      1900 – Originally released in the US as Rated R. Reedited and released later as NC-17. Doesn’t count.

      Kika – Released in the US as not rated. Doesn’t count.

      A Clockwork Orange, Hellbound, Kill Bill: Vol. 1, Seed and Chucky were not originally released in an American theater with an NC-17 rating.

      Anything else?

  • Grammar Nazi

    How are you an author if you don’t even know the proper usage of “lets” versus “let’s”? Seriously? This is grade school stuff here. “Let’s” is the concatenated form of “let us”. That’s the only valid usage. Re-read your paragraphs except substitute “let us” everywhere you typed “let’s”. If it doesn’t make sense, you’re doing it WRONG.

    • http://twitter.com/shiftingPersona Alex Withrow

      I used “let’s” improperly once and you’re making me out to be the antichrist. Is everything… okay?

    • You Don’t Impress Anyone

      Also forgetting to put a comma between the words ‘paragraphs’ and ‘substitute’ .
      #doingitWRONG .
      (-_-)

  • http://twitter.com/Aar_It_Up Aaron Hoefling

    That movie doesn’t translate into “Man Bites Dog”. It translates to “It Happened Near You”.

    • http://twitter.com/shiftingPersona Alex Withrow

      On the cover of the Criterion DVD, it translates to “Man Bites Bog.”

  • http://twitter.com/SV_films Tyler

    Great, great list. Definitely knew Shame would be at number one, but it’s a great surprise to see Bad Lieutenant at #2 as I love the hell out of that movie.

    • http://twitter.com/shiftingPersona Alex Withrow

      Thanks man! Bad Lieut. is insane, and I love it.

  • Dewa

    hi, I liked to act in NC 17 rated films..Please attention >>…