In the world of cinema, there exists a category of films that challenges societal norms, sparks debates, and pushes the boundaries of storytelling. These are the best controversial movies, the cinematic gems that dare to explore themes and subjects that leave audiences both captivated and contemplative. From forbidden love to political intrigue, from violence to thought-provoking narratives, join us as we journey through these debatable movies that have left an indelible mark on the art of filmmaking.
10. Lolita (1962)
We start our top 10 controversial movies list with Lolita, a 1960’s classic. With a screenplay penned by the author himself, Stanley Kubrick brings Vladimir Nabokov’s controversial tale of forbidden love to the screen.
Humbert Humbert (James Mason) is a European professor who relocates to an American suburb, renting a room from lonely widow Charlotte Haze (Shelley Winters). Humbert marries Charlotte, but only to nurture his obsession with her attractive teenage daughter Lolita (Sue Lyon).
After Charlotte’s sudden death, Humbert has Lolita all to himself–or does he?
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Cast: James Mason, Shelley Winters, Peter Sellers, Sue Lyon
Release date: June 13, 1962
Runtime: 152 minutes
9. Irreversible (2002)
Most controversial movies shake up our thoughts for a bit. And then there’s films like Irreversible. A French mystery/thriller that depicts so much violence, that film critic Roger Ebert thinks most folks will not be able to take it.
His review alone may interest a few to watch. Violence at the hand of a fire extinguisher and the raping of a woman that will leave you uncomfortable to say the least, are just two samples of the shock in store.
Shown in a non-linear format, the film stays true to its purpose if no more.
Director: Gaspar Noé
Cast: Monica Bellucci, Vincent Cassel, Albert Dupontel
Release date: May 22, 2002
Runtime: 97 minutes
8. Dallas Buyers Club (2013)
This popular movies 2013 explores life living with HIV/AIDS in the mid 80’s. Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto both won Oscars for their performances for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor respectively.
Rodeo cowboy Ron Woodroof (McConaughey) is diagnosed with AIDS and has 30 days to live. Refusing to believe the news he searches for a far better diagnosis.
The role of the transgender character Rayon (Jared Leto) is not offered to a transgender actor. Thus, The Dallas Buyers Club controversy.
Director: Jean-Marc Vallée
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Garner, Jared Leto
Release date: November 1, 2013
Runtime: 117 minutes
7. Baby Doll (1956)
The most controversial films can rock an audience’s moral compass easily. And stories like this 1950’s movie do their job well.
Elia Kazan’s Baby Doll centers on a dispute between two competing cotton gin owners in the rural south–Archie Lee Meighan (Karl Malden) and Silva Vacarro (Eli Wallach). The narrative turns nasty as Archie sets fire to Silva’s gin.
To uncover the truth, and prove Lee is responsible, Vacarro attempts to seduce his neighbor’s nineteen-year-old virgin bride. The famed playwright Tennessee Williams wrote and produced this Oscar nominated picture.
Director: Elia Kazan
Cast: Karl Malden, Carroll Baker, Eli Wallach
Release date: December 18, 1956
Runtime: 114 minutes
6. Freaks (1932)
How’s this for contention–original versions of the 1932 horror picture Freaks aren’t available. Tod Browning’s film is so polemic it ended his directorial career.
Hercules is castrated and Cleopatra’s hands are melted and shaped into duck feet. This is a lot to stomach for an audience. As a result, the overly grotesque images led to lawsuits.
Freaks is easily one of the most controversial movies of all time.
Director: Tod Browning
Cast: Wallace Ford, Leila Hyams, Olga Baclanova, Roscoe Ates
Release date: February 12, 1932
Runtime: 64 minutes
5. United 93 (2006)
At the halfway mark on our top 10 controversial movies list visits 9/11. United 93 recounts the terrible events of September 11th.
Controversial because many argued that the movie was made too soon. However, a good many critics, and theater goers too, disagreed as was apparent with ticket sales ($76 million).
Sensitivity was the goal throughout the production of this film. From the actors chosen to star, to getting every single family member of the survivors to sign off on filming, United 93 stays true to its mission.
The result is very little “acting” in depicting real-time events.
Director: Paul Greengrass
Cast: Christian Clemenson, Cheyenne Jackson, David Alan Basche, Peter Hermann, Khalid Abdalla
Release date: April 28, 2006
Runtime: 110 minutes
4. Do The Right Thing (1989)
#4 on our top 10 controversial movies list is a groundbreaking 90’s film. One of the most popular of all the Spike Lee Joints, Do The Right Thing pushes all the right buttons.
Spike ensures theater goers talk about the film long after watching it. The film takes place on one of the hottest days of summer in the Brooklyn area of New York. You will experience police brutality, blatant hostility, ethnic pride, and compassion for others.
Director: Spike Lee
Cast: Danny Aiello, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Richard Edson, Giancarlo Esposito, Rosie Perez, Martin Lawrence, Spike Lee, Bill Nunn, John Turturro, John Savage
Release date: June 30, 1989
Runtime: 120 minutes
3. Straw Dogs (1971)
#7 on our top 10 controversial movies list is Straw Dogs. What will one man do when pushed to his limits? In the case of math whiz David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman) it’s more than taking the law into your own hands–its survival in the most primitive means imaginable.
After relocating with his wife Amy (Susan George) to a small town where she grew up, they’re met with hostility at every turn. The culmination is the eventual raping of David’s wife. Significant editing of the rape scene was required to achieve the “R” rating.
Director: Sam Peckinpah
Cast: Dustin Hoffman, Susan George
Release date: December 22, 1971
Runtime: 114 minutes
2. Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004)
How well do we know our leaders? Michael Moore challenges everything we think we know to be true regarding our government, and its highest officer, in his controversial documentary Fahrenheit 9/11.
From the contentious George W. Bush election storm to the uneasy relationship of the Bin Laden and Bush families over the course of many decades, Moore pours on the dissension.
Director: Michael Moore
Cast: Michael Moore, George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld
Release date: June 25, 2004
Runtime: 122 minutes
1. The Passion Of The Christ (2004)
Mel Gibson knows controversy. In fact, his outrageously successful 2004 film The Passion of the Christ caused so much of a stir, its tickets sales exceeded $600 million. Betrayal and physical abuse fill the last hours of Jesus. In short, this story borders on obscene.
Director: Mel Gibson
Cast: Jim Caviezel, Monica Bellucci, Maia Morgenstern, Sergio Rubini
Release date: February 25, 2004
Runtime: 127 minutes
As the credits roll on our exploration of the best controversial movies, one thing becomes clear – cinema has the power to provoke, challenge, and ignite conversations that linger long after the screen goes dark. These films, with their audacious storytelling and unflinching portrayal of contentious subjects, remind us that art has the capacity to test the boundaries of our understanding and empathy. Whether you agree or disagree with their messages, these movies remain a testament to the enduring ability of film to push the envelope and make us question the world around us. In the realm of cinema, controversy, it seems, is an integral part of the storytelling tapestry.