So with its super-long and undeniably graphic sex scene, among other explicit moments, “Blue is the Warmest Color,” which is released this week, was always going to get slapped with an NC-17 rating in the U.S. But unlike many other films in a similar situation, its unassailable position as a near-universally lauded (our own review is here) Cannes Palme d’Or winner has placed the idea of cuts being made for the U.S. market out of the question. For which we heave a sigh of relief, of course: better for us that the film is released, with whatever certification, uncut, than we get some kind of hacked up version that scrapes an R. Still, it’s a debate that surrounds the inevitably controversial rating ever since it was introduced to replace the old X certificate, with an NC-17 assessment being regarded by many as, basically, the kiss of box-office death for anything but the most buzzed-about film. It carries with it not only the automatic reduction of the potential audience by exactly that segment of the population most likely to go to the theater, but also distribution woes that range from certain cinemas refusing to screen NC-17s, to certain video stores refusing to stock the DVDs.
Ironically, the NC-17 was introduced by the MPAA to get away from any sort of stigma—it was brought in to replace an X certificate whose real meaning had been confused by the porn industry’s wholehearted embrace of it. While initially, films like “Midnight Cowboy” had performed solidly despite the X rating, as audiences understood that it was still intended for the general public even if not suitable for children, as time went on that understanding was eroded. Appropriating its air of salacious, transgressive ‘wrongness,’ porn producers started slapping Xs all over their product, despite the fact that the MPAA had nothing to do with them, and were legally allowed to do so because the X, amusingly, had never been copyrighted. But the association then became so strong that a film that had been rated X by the MPAA because its content was deemed adult, ran the risk of being further stigmatized (and therefore avoided) by audiences who simply saw that as shorthand for ‘obscene’ or ‘pornographic.’ A tipping point was reached in the late 80s, early 90s, particularly with two films: “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” and “The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover.” Both of these films are arthouse, adult movies that, while featuring acts of extreme violence and grotesque sexuality, are not, by any stretch of the imagination, pornography, and rather than suffer the indignity of an X, producers of both elected to limit their films’ potential distribution even further by releasing them unrated (most theaters will not screen unrated films). The MPAA responded to the clamor for reform (and also to accusations of its increasing out-of-touchness and irrelevance) and introduced the new, copyrighted NC-17 rating in 1990.
Initially NC-17 meant “no child under 17,” though that limit was raised in 1996 to mean “no child 17 or under,” which was bad news for all those 16-year-olds looking forward to watching Cronenberg’s “Crash” in the theater. But the rating has still somewhat failed in one of its stated aims: however it has happened there is still a significant stigma attached to it, far more so, say, than to the roughly equivalent 18 certificate in the U.K.. It has led to frequent stories of films being cut for the U.S. to qualify for the less restrictive R, and occasionally, as was the case with “Blue Valentine” a few years ago, a formal challenge being lodged against the ruling. The Derek Cianfrance film rightly won that appeal and was released with an R, but many other films have had to stagger on under the burden of the NC-17. For some of them, especially in the early stages (“Henry and June” was the first NC-17 title and is still the 2nd-highest grossing NC-17 ever) it may even have been a boon, and with canny marketing the controversial rating can manufacture buzz around a picture (“Showgirls,” the highest-grossing NC-17 did this rather brilliantly). Still, for others, it’s a cross to bear, and not always justifiably—the “independent board of parents” that makes the rulings decisions for the MPAA has been known to make mistakes, after all. Here’s a rundown of 17 NC-17 films, whether they deserved the cert, and whether, more importantly, they deserve your time.
“The Dreamers” (2003)
What’s It About? An American student (Michael Pitt) studying abroad in Paris strikes up a friendship with a pair of free-spirited French twin siblings (Louis Garrel and Eva Green) which leads to an exploration of sex, drugs, music and philosophy during the seminal Paris student riots of 1968.
Why Did It Get The Rating? A guileless romantic drama, drunk on the nostalgia for this sea-changing period held by the film’s director, Bernardo Bertolucci, “The Dreamers” is a love letter to Paris and to the filmmaker’s youth. And much like “Last Tango In Paris” three decades before it, this paean to this vibrant, electric, liberating and status-quo-challenging period of history is unfiltered and uncensored. Which means copious full-frontal nudity, the suggestion of an incestuous relationship between the open and unguarded siblings, lots of drugs and plenty of wild, sexual abandon set against the backdrop of political tumult.
Did It Deserve Its NC-17? Considering all the bush and peens liberally hanging out (oy vey Eva Green, be still my fluttering heart), not to mention wanton eroticism, and considering the puritan MPAA, yes, it got the rating one would expect in the U.S.
How Good Is It? This writer (RP) can’t speak for everyone—it’s a divisive film—and we’ve heard several times over that some people think the picture is just too damn precious and pretentious, but its reckless romanticism for art, ideas, music, cinema, philosophy and more is to us exhilarating, like a pure shot of intoxicating adrenaline. It’s an unapologetically beguiling film that imbues the dangerous and adventurous spirit of the times with a reverb-soaked edge that leaves you feeling woozy. And if you really love movies, and can revel in the affection Bertolucci shows for cinema (nods to Godard, Bresson, etc.), it’s hard to believe you could hate this movie. [A]
"Killer Joe" (2011)
What’s It About? Southern fried nastiness. A pitch black morality-tale-cum-crime-film with hilariously dark overtones, "Killer Joe" centers on a gormless trailer trash family and their various betrayals and opportunistic moves. When the family son (Emile Hirsch), gets in dire gambling trouble, he hires a venal and ruthless cop (Matthew McConaughey) to put a hit out on his evil mother in order to collect on her life insurance.
Why Did It Get The Rating? Directed by William Friedkin (his biggest and best comeback in ages) and adapted by Tracy Letts, who wrote the original play, “Killer Joe” is a faithful no-punches-pulled adaptation. Which means it’s ferociously violent, luridly sexual, twisted and comically mean-spirited. Oh, and it’s also obscenity-laced, features full-frontal nudity from a girl who is supposed to be underage and so this ugly, tabloid-esque mouth sore is like an unapologetic sleazy assault on all the senses.
Did It Deserve Its NC-17? Holy shit, yes. This movie is queasy and vile in every sense of the word. The violence stings and disarms the comedic moments with chilling ferocity and its repugnant climax—McConaughey getting off as he makes Gina Gershon’s manipulative character suck off a greasy piece of fried chicken he has protruding from his crotch, after he’s beaten the shit out of her, no less—is utterly shocking.
How Good Is It? As abhorrent as that all sounds (and as awful a human it makes this writer seem), "Killer Joe" is terrific, a greazy, stanky slice of pulpy trash that’s wickedly funny, delves in hilarious moral ironies and is gruesomely sharp. It’s not for the faint of heart, as its as visceral and unflinching as any recent survival narrative, but man, as the icky tag line says next to a bloody chicken wing, "murder never tasted this good." [A-]
What’s It About? Based on the writings of Jean Genet, Todd Haynes’ feature debut is an absorbing, experimental work intertwining three separate narratives in three separate styles: a Corman-esque 1950s-style B-movie about a doctor whose experiments with the human sex drive go awry turning him into a grotesque, murderous and extremely infectious leper; a meditative, sometimes violent account of a gay affair, partly told in flashback to childhood encounters, but mostly set in a stylized, stagey prison where both men are now inmates; and a documentary-style ‘investigation’ into the fictional case of a young boy who kills his father prior to taking literal flight, according to his mother.
Why Did It Get The Rating? While there is no doubt that “Poison” is an adult-themed film, it is far more psychologically disquieting and suggestive than it is explicit. However thematically, we can see how the parents’ board that judged it might have deemed the cert appropriate, as the throughlines about the eroticization of humiliation and the intertwined nature of shame and desire are probably things that a parent would rather even their mature teenagers not contend with. The rating caused a controversy, however, when the Rev. Donald Wildmon attacked “Poison” and criticized the National Endowment for the Arts for partially-funding it. In particular, he called out the “explicit porno scenes of homosexuals involved in anal sex,” which was probably a symptom of him having not seen the film, as while there are scenes of gay anal sex they are not particularly explicit nor pornographic, featuring no onscreen penetration, in fact as far as we recall, no onscreen penises.
Did It Deserve Its NC-17? Probably yes, simply for thematic content, but not for explicit sex, gay or otherwise, of which there is little to none.
How Good Is It? “Poison” is an exceptionally strong debut from one of the most interesting independent filmmakers at work in the U.S. Its knotted structure and intricate, thorny themes of sexual humiliation, untrammeled desire and erotic fixation make it a fascinating window onto the societal attitudes towards sex, even if it feels designed to be a puzzle never fully solved. Aside even from its heady, provocative themes, Haynes’ gleeful experimentation with different styles of cinema is constantly inspired and often very beautiful. In its portrayal of the psycho-sexual effects of social otherness (bullying and exclusion play a prominent role) it has been hailed as one of the founding documents of New Queer Cinema, but it’s a more universal film than that might suggest, in that it deals in, to quote one character, “the kind of misery the whole stinking world is made of.” [B+]
What’s It About? Nomi ("Saved by the Bell" icon Elizabeth Berkley) is a young woman with big dreams: to become a Las Vegas showgirl. (Has this ever been anyone’s dream?) Unfortunately, she’s stuck working at a seedy strip club instead. Still, this is the story of the American dream, and soon she becomes the protégé (and eventual successor) of a diva showgirl played by Gina Gershon. Other adventures include her getting violently fucked in a swimming pool by the guy who played FBI Agent Dale Cooper and mispronouncing the word "Versace."
Why Did It Get The Rating? Public opinion at the time had the staggering amount of nudity as the chief reason "Showgirls" was saddled with an NC-17 rating (at the time it was the most expensive and lavishly marketed film to carry such a rating; to date it’s the highest grossing NC-17 rated movie). There is also a fair amount of sex, but nothing even remotely approaching penetration. In fact, comparing the NC-17 version to the R-rated cut (that was released on home video and for television markets) shows that simulated masturbation was a huge concern, with whole sequences reframed to delete the suggestion of masturbation or anal play. There is also a pretty violent rape.
Did It Deserve Its NC-17? Absolutely not. There is more shocking stuff on pay cable than in "Showgirls," with the amount of violence, nudity, and rape regularly eclipsed on any given episode of "Game of Thrones." One of the things that remains at least somewhat shocking is Berkley’s pubic hair (or lack thereof); in the years since a shaved pubic region has remained a taboo that can tip an R-rated movie into NC-17 rated territory. In the commentary track for "Piranha 3D," director Alexandre Aja feared the wrath of the MPAA not because of the movie’s envelope-pushing violence but because costars Kelly Brook and Riley Steele "shave in between their legs."
How Good Is It? "Showgirls" isn’t a good movie by any stretch of the imagination, but it has reached that rarified air of the so-bad-it’s-good movie and remains an enduring cult classic, best watched after midnight and after several beers have been ceremoniously downed. [B]
“The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover” (1989)
What’s It About? An obnoxious gangster, or the titular ‘Thief’, played by a quite puffy Michael Gambon, takes over a fancy, surreal restaurant run by ‘the Cook’ (Richard Bohringer). Gambon shows up every night to engorge himself, and to disrespect and alienate the staff and customers, and partake in all manner of douchebaggery. Beyond his crew (including a young Tim Roth), he’s joined by his ‘Wife’, a ravishing Helen Mirren, trapped in a sadistic loveless marriage. When ‘Her Lover’ (Alan Howard), a bookish gentleman who eats alone, catches her eye at the restaurant, they partake in a series of trysts in different, progressively yuckier places.
Why Did It Get The Rating? The usual MPAA no-nos: lots of sex and nudity (both male and female), but there’s also a general nasty tone to all the proceedings, and that ending…well, you should see for yourself.
Did It Deserve Its NC-17? It’s a fair rating, given some of the crazy shit that goes down. When it was released in theaters, Miramax went with unrated to avoid the stigma of the X rating, which was associated with porn at that time. Its VHS release in the ‘90s featured an R-rated version almost 30 minutes shorter, of which we’d ask: why bother?
How Good Is It? Pretty goddamn good, a truly singular piece of work by Brit Peter Greenaway, known for his challenging arthouse films. The set where most the film takes place changes with different sequences (stark, near-monochromatic color variations. Think “Hero” but with grotesque sex instead of fight scenes) and the camera glides through it all in long takes in perfect synch with Michael Nyman’s gorgeous score. There’s a lot of ugliness amidst all the beauty, but the payoff is worth it. [A-]
"Bad Education" (2004)
What’s It About? Spanish director Pedro Almodovar has had a number of his films given the scarlet letter of the NC-17 rating, mostly having to do with his love of splashy sex and equally splashy violence. "Bad Education" is his most recent run-in with ratings board condemnation. It’s the story of a pair of childhood friends (one of whom is played by Gael Garcia Bernal), who reunite and get involved in an endlessly knotty relationship involving gay sex, stalking, and eventually murder. Yes, it is quite juicy.
Why Did It Get The Rating? According to the MPAA’s official ruling the film received an NC-17 for "a scene of explicit sexual content." When the movie was edited for an R, their ruling changed to "strong sexual content throughout, language, and some drug use." Instead of being trimmed out completely, the sequence in question (of a gay blowjob) is obscured as to render the scene totally powerless, like the cloaked figures standing in the way of the occultish sex in "Eyes Wide Shut."
Did It Deserve Its NC-17? No, absolutely not. There are undoubtedly countless instances of straight oral sex (or female-on-female oral sex) that have skimmed by without incident. And, again, there is much more outrageous stuff on pay cable these days. Comparably, Almodovar’s recent, horror-tinged "The Skin I Live In" is way more worthy of the super-naughty rating, but skated by with an R, maybe because a greater portion of the sex was heterosexual and not gay.
How Good Is It? "Bad Education" is really wonderful and so, so entertaining, sort of like Almodovar doing Brian De Palma doing Alfred Hitchcock. It’s a shame that its restrictive rating kept more people from seeing it, since it’s such a blast. [A-]
"Lust, Caution" (2007)
What’s It About? Ang Lee‘s adaptation of the beloved 1979 novella follows a group of college-aged Chinese dissidents who plot to assassinate a member of the political ruling class (who at the time were a puppet government, occupied by the Imperial Japanese Army). Of course, things get sticky when one of the college kids falls in love with their intended target (played by Tony Leung). Most of "Lust, Caution" plays like a sweeping historical romance, with an above average amount of sex, but because of its NC-17 rating, it hardly played anywhere, despite all of its press.
Why Did It Get The Rating? There are two reasons why the movie was burdened with an NC-17: sex and violence. The sex is pretty hot and heavy, with plenty of pubic hair and sweaty thrusting and the violence is even more intense, depicting the true difficulty of murdering another human being (fountains of blood and all).
Did It Deserve Its NC-17? Not really. The sex is somewhat more graphic than you’d expect in this kind of movie, but nowhere near the shocking levels that should warrant an NC-17. The violence, too, is pretty extreme, along the lines of an early Paul Verhoeven movie (or something), but compared to the average Hollywood action movie, in which countless innocent people are atomized without a single drop of on-screen blood, it feels more real and necessary. In "Lust, Caution," you feel the pain of murder. And that says a lot.
How Good Is It? While no one will mistake "Lust, Caution" for top tier Ang Lee fare, it’s still well worth watching, a frequently compelling, gorgeously acted and lushly photographed romantic thriller. It’s a shame that its rating kept people from seeing it, although at least there was an unedited home video version, so you can see it in all of its filthy glory. [B+]
What’s It About? Michael Fassbender plays a sex addict living in New York City whose life is further complicated when his sister (played by the usually quite wholesome Carey Mulligan) comes to visit. It’s basically an addiction drama, except it’s an extreme hankering for sex instead of booze or drugs that our main character is fighting against.
Why Did It Get The Rating? There is a whole lot of sex. Like, a whole lot. The opening sequence of the movie is Fassbender walking around his apartment completely nude and pissing on screen (and for real). Mulligan also shows full frontal nudity (in the most unflattering way possible), and there are various partners that come into Fassbender’s life who fully disrobe. The most disturbing sequence, and the one in where the possibility for an R-rating flew out the window for good, involved Fassbender hitting bottom and going to a crazily sleazy underground sex club. It’s there that he engages in raw, unprotected gay sex. (A similar sequence happened in "Rampage," a movie that opened around the same time. It goes to show you can’t keep a good sex dungeon down.) There’s also a graphic sequence where Mulligan tries to commit suicide. Ugh.
Did It Deserve Its NC-17? Eh, maybe. Americans are notoriously squeamish about sex, so it’s not a surprise that the hammer came down on "Shame." The question, if we discount the importance of the attempted suicide factoring into the rating, is if there was enough sex and whether or not that sex was hardcore enough. And it’s hard to feel like either apply. Maybe the nonstop sex and nudity on cable TV shows has dulled us to such things, but we’re not entirely sure that with "Shame" the punishment did fit the crime.
How Good Is It? The movie is absolutely wonderful—moving, disturbing and sad. Fassbender is a compelling addict and director Steve McQueen, whose newest movie "12 Years a Slave" was released in limited release last week, shoots the film beautifully. It’s McQueen who allows you to experience the deep sadness and the kind of propulsive kick of each new sexual encounter, in a truly incredible way. [A-]
What’s It About?: Car accident survivors convene to learn about an entire subculture of victims sexually aroused by automobile accidents in this J.G. Ballad adaptation.
Why Did It Get The Rating?: While there are no radically graphic moments of sexual intercourse in the film, the pervasive undercurrent of sexual tension was enough to alert the MPAA that this is a film dealing almost entirely with sex. And also, let’s be honest, the kind of sex it deals in plays a part here.
Did It Deserve Its NC-17?: Honestly, this is a film about sexual experimentation beyond standard expectations, so the material is only going to be understood and appreciated fully by the truly sexually adventurous, which excludes those less experienced with physical intimacy, i.e. a large majority of those under the age of seventeen. “Crash” is erotic, but in a fairly abstract sense, and should the material fall into the hands of a younger audience member, it’s likely to be immensely confusing. Also, James Spader was in this, “Sex, Lies And Videotape” and “Secretary,” so we feel confident saying that you really should be of a certain age to see Spader on the big screen (making his casting in 2015’s “The Avengers: Age Of Ultron” even more amusingly perverse).
How Good Is It?: “Crash” is a hyper-specific movie about a hyper-specific concept, and as per director David Cronenberg’s standards, its focus is at times surgical, suffocatingly clinical. His trademark black humor is in short supply as he focuses on those fatalistic enough to test the boundaries of their mortality by continuing to flirt with car accidents. It furthers Cronenberg’s fascination with the growing connections between man and machine as well as the idea of danger being the ultimate aphrodisiac, and though these concepts are borrowed from Ballard’s work, “Crash” never feels like anything less than Cronenbergian through and through. Despite its self-serious nature, registering as one of the more academic entries in a rigorously fascinating filmography, “Crash” is worth a look to see this elaborate, fascinating subculture brought to life, complete with boundary-pushing moments of lust that no doubt tickled the sensibilities of the kinkier cinephiles in the audience turned on by major actors playing out some of the stranger kinks captured onscreen: what happens with amputee Holly Hunter’s stump is something that is quite possibly burned onto your retina. [B+]
“Bad Lieutenant” (1992)
What’s It About?: Harvey Keitel plays a strung-out NYC plainclothes cop who has a crisis of faith when tracking down the murderer of a nun.
Why Did It Get The Rating?: Probably something combative director Abel Ferrara said. “Bad Lieutenant” has a pervasive amount of foul language, and a couple of moments of suggestive sexuality, including a lewd moment when Keitel masturbates as he instructs a couple of girls to perform suggestive, relatively benign (for an NC-17 movie) clothed sexual acts. Though it mostly earned its notoriety for the extended scenes of Keitel naked, feral, hairy and decidedly unaroused.
Did It Deserve Its NC-17 Rating?: A movie like “Borat,” which features significantly more full-frontal male nudity, skated by with an R-rating more than a decade later. So no. Even with that full-frontal material, “Bad Lieutenant” feels a bit more explicit because of the presence of Keitel, who somehow makes foul language seem more harsh than intended. When he breaks down in a church, his sweeping, vulgar condemnation of God feels like genuine full-stop blasphemy even to agnostic audiences: when Keitel drops an “F” bomb, he means it. The MPAA probably thought they were penalizing this film with the restrictive rating, but chances are Ferrara openly courted such controversy, given his outspoken defiance of industry “etiquette.”
How Good Is It?: Put “Bad Lieutenant” in a 90s time capsule, and open it in a couple of decades, and you’ll give audiences a good idea of where independent filmmaking was at the time. Despite the significantly higher profile for this film compared to Ferrara’s other material, it still feels like an intimate picture, a small character piece about one man coming apart at the seams. While the Werner Herzog-directed remake has a funny, surreal, more humanist side, this is a dark, psychologically complex film with a rougher, uglier edge. It may not be one of the dirtier films ever made, whether or not it lives up (or down) to its NC-17 rating, but it’s surely one of the angriest. [A-]
“A Dirty Shame” (2004)
What’s It About?: A sheltered suburban housewife responds to a bump on the head by becoming a nymphomaniac and leading a small-scale sexual revolution in her tiny neighborhood.
Why Did It Get The Rating?: Various scenes of sex-based gags and references, and the severely swollen breast implants carried by a promiscuous girl played by Selma Blair.
Did It Deserve Its NC-17?: Absolutely not. John Waters has done nastier things and pursued much dirtier storylines. “A Dirty Shame” feels more like the envelope being slightly pushed in accordance with an era permissive not only of “South Park” but also filmmakers like the Farrellys reaching the top of the box office. Waters had eluded the ratings board with some of his smaller, under-the-radar efforts: it’s possible slapping one of his more commercial films with the restrictive rating is some sort of childish payback.
How Good Is It?: While there’s no Divine to spice things up, and it does seem like Waters is holding back, it feels he has two spiritual companions with the film’s stars, Tracey Ullman and Johnny Knoxville. As the newly liberated libertine, Ullman gives a performance of cheeky abandon, seemingly game for a series of elaborate dick-and-vagina yucks requiring a performer who can thrust herself into onscreen sex tricks while maintaining an innocent enthusiasm. And as a traveling sex fiend, Knoxville captures the lawless debauchery of Waters’ id run wild, in one of the funnier screen turns from the lead blunt object of “Jackass.” Much of “A Dirty Shame” feels recycled from bad standup and rejected cable softcore debauchery: at times, the low-rent titillation is less John Waters and more Jim Wynorski. It’s Ullman, Knoxville, a dimly sarcastic Blair, and spirited character actress Jackie Hoffman who provide the film with the sort of spark that makes it mildly appealing mall-crowd Waters, more of a poppy cover song than a real-deal album cut. [C]
“Mysterious Skin” (2004)
What’s It About?: Gay youths struggle to process their past experiences of abuse in different ways.
Why Did It Get The Rating?: There are a couple of moments of homosexual intercourse between characters, but it’s largely a film that deals with the aftereffects of child abuse in an atypically frank manner.
Did It Deserve Its NC-17?: This is another case of the MPAA trying to distort and demean homosexuality, as the graphic sexual content (and the brief, harsh moments of sexual violence) would be entirely acceptable in an R-rated mainstream film had it involved heterosexuals. One could make a case for the truly discomforting flashbacks of child abuse, which are shot with an exaggerated unreality that suggests a horror film, but those segments are part of the lead characters’ own catharsis, and are not nearly as gratuitous as the lawless, confrontational sexuality present in director Gregg Araki’s earlier, unrated films. This seems to be another case of a director trying to move into a commercial realm and being punished by the MPAA for earlier work.
How Good Is It?: Araki, a bad-taste indie filmmaker along similar, though less comedic lines to John Waters, stepped up his aesthetics considerably with this mature, fully-realized work about an apathetic teen hustler, a boy hesitantly coming to terms with his sexuality, and the bond they share, which they believe might be the result of shared alien abduction. Araki’s films don’t shy from absurdism, but this picture honestly uses the alien material as a metaphor for not only the boys’ isolation, but also as a coping mechanism for survivors of sexual assault, and it replaces the snarky attitude of rebellion from Araki’s earlier work with a strain of mature humanism. It’s not like Araki sold out: the film still bristles with a counterculture energy the defines the picture squarely as Queer Cinema, and not just a Movie About Gays for mainstream consumption. But there are no performances as polished in the Araki filmography as the two that carry this picture: Joseph Gordon-Levitt turned heads for his showy portrayal of a loveless hustler who never looks back, playing his gay prostitute with a bit of James Dean swagger. But Brady Corbet, recently fantastic in the little-seen “Simon Killer,” is just as good as his meek doppelganger, a kid who just wants to know who he really is. [A-]
"Inside Deep Throat" (2005)
What’s It About? It’s a documentary detailing both the making of influential adult film "Deep Throat" (starring the iconic Linda Lovelace) and its unique cultural impact afterwards.
Why Did It Get The Rating? Because "Inside Deep Throat" dared to show actual footage from the pornographic movie it’s built upon. In particular the film showed Lovelace engaging in her signature sex act: a blowjob where she takes her partner’s member deep in her mouth.
Did It Deserve Its NC-17? Honestly, the sex act itself is still pretty shocking. (If you haven’t seen what Lovelace does, we’ll give you a few minutes to Google it, watch, and return. Wild right?) But "Inside Deep Throat" uses the footage fleetingly, mostly for dramatic and historical impact, and if you’re going to make a documentary about this movie, you kind of have to see it to believe it. Still, it became the first NC-17 rated film ever shown on pay cable giant HBO and the first NC-17 rated movie Universal had released since "Henry & June."
How Good Is It? Very good. Using a combination of archival footage and new talking head interviews, "Inside Deep Throat" gives a great portrayal of both the movie and the furor that it caused (including what happened to Lovelace afterwards). What makes "Inside Deep Throat" even more impressive is the lackluster narrative film based on the same events, this year’s "Lovelace." which, especially in comparison to this superior documentary, is just, well, limp. [A-]
“Requiem for a Dream” (2000)
What’s It About? In the words of “South Park”’s Mr. Mackey, “drugs are bad, mkay.” Darren Aronofsky‘s sophomore feature is an unrelenting, highly stylized piece of cinema following four desperate characters losing themselves to drug addiction. Adapted from the Hubert Selby, Jr. novel.
Why Did It Get The Rating? Do the words “ass to ass” mean anything to you? This one sex scene that comes at the end was the only portion edited down for an R-rated video release. Otherwise, the MPAA was totally cool with the rest, including an unforgettably disturbing image of a needle plunging into a rotting, infected arm. Writer/director Darren Aronofsky appealed the original rating given by the MPAA, arguing that any edits would dilute the film’s message. That was denied, so Artisan released it in theaters with the unrated tag.
Did It Deserve Its NC-17? Hmm… we suppose yes since its tone is so grim and unrelenting. But since the main issue for the MPAA was the sex scene, which is certainly graphic and depressing as all hell, it seems like this one should’ve been given the R just so more people could access it. The film has become quite cultish and well known since its initial release, so maybe the point is moot in the end.
How Good Is It? Though it’s an unbalanced, intense nightmare that only gives cursory acknowledgement to the fact that drugs can actually be fun, it’s so effective at making its very basic points (drug addiction = hell) that you can’t deny its power. Add that to Clint Mansell’s now iconic score and stylish visuals by Matthew Libatique and you’ve got a powerful piece of cinema that you may only want to watch once, but you’ll remember it for life. [A-]
“Last Tango in Paris” (1972)
What’s It About? While on the apartment search after his wife’s suicide, a middle-aged American widower (Marlon Brando) meets a young Parisian (Maria Schneider) and they start sexing each other, without all of that sharing intimate details nonsense. After some kinky sex (BUTTER) shot in all Bertolucci‘s explicit glory, Paul leaves the apartment/her and then just as abruptly tries to win her back by chasing her through the streets of Paris and a tango bar while shouting and unraveling all of his emotional baggage. Spoiler, the film ends with a bang.
Why Did It Get The Rating? Originally rated X (NC-17 wasn’t a thing until 1990), the film features not only realistic sex scenes (including a decent amount of improvisation) but also the sort of weird, disturbing sex that scars even the most jaded of modern arthouse cinemagoers (including us here at The Playlist). If you feel violated watching, here’s something to compound that with guilt—years later, Schneider went on record saying that both she and Brando felt manipulated during filming and that she felt "raped."
Did It Deserve Its NC-17? Yes, if just for children 17 and under to still be able to look at butter as food, or a food supplement (though really, if we want to help the childhood obesity epidemic….nah). Similarly, you’ll never look at corn the same way again after Claire Denis’ “Bastards,” which opened yesterday.
How Good Is It? A cinematic masterpiece. For the more prudish out there, get through the rough sex and you will find both actors at their most transcendently vulnerable and raw. Brando gives the performance of his career, which is quite a statement considering his lofty (and at times, not-so-lofty) back catalogue. Yes, we’re ready for hate comments below. [A]
“A Serbian Film” (2010)
What’s It About? A retired porn star, desperate for cash to support his young boy and wife, is brought back for one last fuck fest on film. But what sinister things does the director have in mind for him? In short, some really, really, really upsetting shit.
Why Did It Get The Rating? Where to start? A woman has her head chopped off midway through intercourse (and that’s just the beginning of the bad stuff); a newborn baby is raped on screen (seriously, this actually happens); death by skull fucking, a man rapes a young boy on screen. The list goes on. And on. And on. It’s been censored and/or banned in several countries. Netflix refuses to carry it.
Did It Deserve Its NC-17? Abso-fuckin-lutely! This writer has a very strong stomach for just about anything on film (read: desensitized as hell), but “A Serbian Film” is the test for even the most gore-houndish of movie lovers. It’s upsetting, disgusting and just so very wrong. If you watch it, we recommend a long cold shower. In short, it’s a day ruiner.
How Good Is It? Unfortunately, all of it is in service of a pretty weak and pretentious film, the kind of project even an angry teenager desperate to shock would think twice about putting out in the world. We don’t believe in censorship, nor do we think artists should compromise their vision, but this one just feels pointless and insane for no greater purpose. [D]
What’s It About? A young Mormon missionary (Trey Parker), spreading the word of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in hedonistic Los Angeles, becomes an unlikely porn star known as Orgazmo in order to pay for his expensive Mormon Temple wedding (don’t worry, he uses a Stunt Cock).
Why Did It Get The Rating? The film is set almost entirely on a porn set, there’s a lot of raunchy, raunchy talk about various porno stunts like DVDA (Double Anal Double Vaginal), Ron Jeremy plays a character known as Jizzmaster Zero, Orgazmo’s sidekick is named Choda Boy and wears a dildo on his head. It seems that frank and ultimately silly (Parker wears a hot pink onesie with a giant silver codpiece) portrayals of the porn world was just too much for the MPAA in 1997. In the initial ruling, they didn’t say what needed to be cut, but various online comparisons of the NC-17 and R versions note shortened shots during the scenes on the porn set, and there are also a few cuts for violence and language (they changed line to take out “dicks,” yes, really).
Did It Deserve Its NC-17? Eh, maybe? Kids under 17 probably shouldn’t watch this, but nowadays, most have them have seen enough of the real stuff online, that maybe they should all be treated to a dose of this decidedly unsexy yet hilarious parody. The cuts seem so slight between the two versions that it seems like a case of MPAA prudishness meeting the Parker/Stone signature aesthetic, just before "South Park" blew up. To be honest, the R-Rated version of this movie was a high school favorite of this writer (KW).
How Good Is It? Just because we liked it in high school doesn’t mean it’s actually “good.” Parker pulls triple duty as writer/director/star and the film does showcase his writing chops (writing partner Matt Stone plays a PA who doesn’t wanna sound like a queer or nothin’, but thinks Depeche Mode is a sweet band), which is stupidly funny, deceptively genius, and eminently quotable. “Orgazmo” is a sort of a loving, dumb send up of 90s-style porn, but it’s also a pretty smart skewering of cultural hypocrisy, religion, materialism, homophobia, etc. [B-]
Because we’re freaks for symmetry, we’ve only listed seventeen NC-17 films here, but of course there are a couple hundred others we could have chosen to assess. A few notable ones that just missed the cut were Almodovar’s “Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!” “Young Adam,” starring the rarely shy Ewan MacGregor, the still astonishingly violent and disturbing “Man Bites Dog,” Ken Russell’s self-explanatory “Whore,” and the first-ever official NC-17 title, “Henry & June.” It’s an interesting and broad topic, and we’re all adults here, so why not tell us your NC-17 tales in the comments below: why is it still such a stigma where in other countries the equivalent rating is not? What’s your favorite film with the cert, what’s the one you think least deserved it and which were the ones you emerged from thinking “really? That was NC-17?” Chime in below. —Drew Taylor, Erik McClanahan, Jessica Kiang, Rodrigo Perez, Katie Walsh, Diana Drumm.