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10 Must-See Controversial Films

Updated: Sep 26, 2022

Given the thousands of films that are produced and released each year, remarkably few provoke widespread public debate or make headlines. Those that do transcend the entertainment category to become part of social history.

According to Sophia White, writer for Culture Trip, here are 10 that have never ceased to shock. I'd be interested in your thoughts after you read this. If this topic can't spark a discussion... what would?

The Birth of a Nation’ (1915) shows how cinema audiences, thankfully, have changed over the past century. Gone are the days when a 190 minute film – at full length, or 133 minutes on its original theatrical release – portrays the Ku Klux Klan as a heroic force. The portrayal of black people in film has, too, come along way, with very few films having white actors in blackface. On release the NAACP unsuccessfully led a campaign to ban the film, and it opened to widespread protests among African-American groups. Nonetheless, in 1992 it was added to the National Film Registry.

A Clockwork Orange’ (1971) should always be on the tip of your tongue when you’re talking about controversy. Anthony Burgess’ original text is brought vividly to life in Stanley Kubrick‘s acclaimed adaptation of A Clockwork Orange, although with the intense portrayal of the ultraviolence it is arguably brought too much to life. Disturbing images litter the film, from the opening scene which features a brutal beating, through to the iconic scene with Alex’s rehabilitation. The film marked a turning point in the portrayal of violence on film, particularly British film, but it was still met by numerous detractors. A modern classic that is nonetheless a disturbing watch.

Freaks’ (1932) is a horror film which managed to get away with things that would no longer have been possible after the introduction of the Motion Picture Production Code. Many of the main cast members worked as genuine carnival sideshow performers as their day job, and had genuine physical deformities. Despite undergoing extensive cuts prior to its theatrical release and the plot framing the “freaks” as the good guys and the “normal people” as the real monsters, it was still widely critically derided and a commercial failure. It has since gained a semi-cult status, but it goes to show that a film with the tagline “can a full grown woman truly love a midget?” can only gain so much success.

The Interview (2014) doesn’t necessarily have to equate to fine cinema, but it was one of 2014’s biggest news stories, one which led to the re-ignition of discussion of free speech in cinema as well as a painful – for the executives at least – insight into the inner workings of a major film studio.

Kids’ (1995) ignited public debate over its artistic merit and was released with an NC-17 from the MPAA, before later being distributed without a rating.

Last Tango in Paris’ (1972) received an X rating from the MPAA and was subject to various recuts in different territories. Its portrayal of sexual violence and emotional suffering makes for a troublesome watch, one which led to some rare government interference and censorship in various countries. In France, however, it gained near universal acclaim, with audiences travelling from across the border and waiting for hours in line in order to catch a glimpse of this much talked about film.

Salò’, or’ The 120 Days of Sodom’ (1975) portrayals of rape, torture and murder, particularly of under-18s, has led to its banning in multiple territories and there was still high profile debate around its artistic merit some 20 years after its release.

Straw Dogs’ (1971) was part of the canon of films which produced a rise in the active debate surrounding violence in cinema.

Triumph of the Will’ (1935) is the famous Nazi propaganda film directed by Leni Riefenstahl, who would later have to attend several trials regarding her association with the National Socialists and who would always maintain that she had no knowledge of Hitler’s genocidal or anti-Semitic policies. The techniques that Riefenstahl employed, including moving cameras, aerial photography, and the use of long lenses to create focal distortion, were still innovative at the time and has helped the film to gain the accolade of being one of history’s greatest propaganda films.

Viridiana’ (1961) is now widely regarded as a masterpiece, but the reception on its initial release was tepid at best. Its close-to-the-bone, though unusual, portrayal of events within the Church, with incest, sexual perversion, greed and violence all being explored, made it a ripe target for criticism.

This is Sophia White's list. If you'd like to see the article, which contains the trailers for each film, here is the link:

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1 Comment
Aug 18, 2022

I'll start the discussion off by saying I am very surprised that the Passion of the Christ by Mel Gibson didn't get on this list. Once filming wrapped and the movie made millions worldwide, Jim Caviezel's career all but died. In addition to calling Mel Gibson "a horrible sinner," Caviezel has claimed he's been blackballed by Hollywood for playing Jesus.

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