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Ranking Best and Worst NC-17-Rated Films, as 'Blue is the Warmest Color' Opens (Video)

by Anne Thompson
October 24, 2013 5:36 PM
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Carey Mulligan in 'Shame'
Carey Mulligan in 'Shame'


The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (1990), Brit auteur Peter Greenaway's most popular release, was well-marketed by Harvey Weinstein, who launched the initially X-rated film unrated so that theaters would book it--and only later adopted the NC-17. (UPDATE: Edward Copeland reminds that Blockbluster at first carried the film, then refused to stock it when it became NC-17.) Helen Mirren stars as the luscious, restless wife of brutal crime boss Michael Gambon; between meals at her husband's restaurant, she conducts a secret affair with sweet bookseller Alan Howard. 90% on Rotten Tomatoes.

Lust, Caution (2007) marked Taiwanese director Ang Lee's return to Asia. The film is a gorgeous sexually explicit espionage tale set in 1938 Hong Kong and 1942 Shanghai, when the city was occupied by the Imperial Japanese Army. Chinese university students from Lingnan University plot to assassinate a high-ranking special agent and recruiter of the puppet government (Tony Leung) by using an attractive young woman (Wei Tang) to lure him into a trap. In Asia the director had to trim the film by seven minutes. 72% on the Tomatometer.

Bad Education (2004), Pedro Almodovar's dark exploration of murder, sexual abuse, religion, transexuality and drugs, starring Mexican Gael García Bernal in one of his best Spanish-language performances, played at film fests and in New York, but was limited by its rating. 88% on Rotten Tomatoes. (See also Almodovar's NC-17-rated "Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!"(1990) and "Matador" (1986), which both star Antonio Banderas.)

Bad Lieutenant (1992), directed by Abel Ferrara, stars a deliciously out-of-control Harvey Keitel in the title role; later on Werner Herzog remade the film with Nic Cage. 77% on the Tomatometer.

Shame (2011), directed by Steve McQueen, demands to be seen more for Fassbender's no-holds-barred performance (which should have scored an Oscar nomination), than for its laborious long shots including miscast Carey Mulligan's renditon of "New York, New York." 80% on the Tomatometer.

Your call:

Crash (1996), David Cronenberg's Cannes special-prize-winner (for "audacity"), stars Holly Hunter as a car-crash victim who becomes part of a sub-culture of scarred, sexually voracious accident survivors who are turned on by automobile wrecks. 75% on the Tomatometer.

Henry and June (1990) was the first film labeled “No one under 17.” Set in 1931 Paris, the Phil Kaufman drama follows writers Henry Miller (Fred Ward) and Anaïs Nin (Maria de Madeiros, of "Pulp Fiction" fame) at work and erotic play. Nin also gets sexy with Miller's wife, June (Uma Thurman). 73% on the Tomatometer.

The Dreamers (2003), set in 1968 Paris, stars Michael Pitt ("Boardwalk Empire") as an American abroad who falls into a sexual triangle with brother and sister film enthusiasts. For its Italian release, the film was rated viewable by age 14 and up. 60% on the Tomatometer.

Must to Avoid:

Showgirls (1995), directed by Paul Verhoeven and starring “Saved by the Bell” alumna Elizabeth Berkeley as a pole dancer, was notoriously slammed by critics and released wider than any NC-17, but the $40-million film took a while to make a profit in homevideo release. It set an all-time RAZZIE Award record with 13 nominations, winning seven, tied with "Battlefield Earth: A Saga of the Year 3000." 12% on the Tomatometer. 

Trailers below.


  • zawminnaing | June 9, 2014 5:56 AMReply


  • Bill | October 29, 2013 12:49 AMReply

    "miscast Carey Mulligan's renditon of "New York, New York..." - I couldn't disagree more.

  • Nomi Malone | October 25, 2013 8:08 AMReply

    Anyone who would advise people to avoid watching SHOWGIRLS clearly has absolutely no sense of humor and should in fact, just stop writing about films altogether. SHAME is a colossally overrated bore. I'd rather watch SHOWGIRLS for 24 hours than have to watch the most boring sex addict in history peeing again.

  • Brent | April 26, 2012 2:56 PMReply

    What about Requiem for a Dream? It is definitely a must see.

  • dawn | April 3, 2012 12:16 AMReply

    No, LIE? That film was amazing. But now that I think about it, it might have been released unrated.

  • Charles | October 25, 2013 12:32 PM

    My thoughts exactly. "L.I.E." was a masterpiece and should definitely be on this list, especially for the amazing performance by Brian Cox and the breakout performance by Paul Dano (five years before "Little Miss Sunshine" and "There Will Be Blood"). If I remember correctly, the film was released with an NC-17 rating but when it was released on DVD, it was simply as an "Unrated" film.

  • James | March 28, 2012 5:12 PMReply

    "Bad Liutenant" was not remade by Werner Herzog.

    The Nicolas Cage with was not a remake of the earlier film. Just like the Crash staring Sandra Bullock and Matt Dillon isn't a remake of the Croneneberg film of the same name. ;p

  • Charles Cochran | March 28, 2012 11:22 AMReply

    Crash should be in the Must See section and Bad Lieutenant should be in the Your Call section.

  • Dave H. | March 28, 2012 11:43 AM

    I concur.

  • Rob | March 28, 2012 11:17 AMReply

    Crash isn't about Holly Hunter's character. She's, what, fourth lead at best?

    Bad Education played widely outside of festivals and New York, and made about $5 million at the box office, a good number for any foreign language film.

    Showgirls is essential viewing.

  • apricoco | March 28, 2012 11:10 AMReply

    You are missing a biggie in my honest opinion: Kids. I'd personally put it in the catagory of 'your call' but you can't deny that Harmony Korine made a film worth mentioning, even if it is for the lack of moral compass normally found in films. Telly as a character is highly watchable and makes your stomach turn. Plus, debut performaces of two future hollywood stars: Chloe Sevigny and Rosario Dawson.

  • Michael Mayo | March 28, 2012 2:16 AMReply

    No "The Devils" or "Performance"?

  • The Pope | March 28, 2012 8:14 AM

    I see what you're asking, but the rating NC-17 didn't exist back in the late sixties/early seventies.
    I reckon they would have been given an X, right?

  • Zachary W. | March 28, 2012 12:12 AMReply

    It should be noted that "Showgirls" has developed a devoted following--and not just among cultists and camp-lovers. This is Verhoeven at his most unhinged and wildly savage; there are few American films in the last couple decades as searing in their indictment of Hollywood's "A Star is Born" mythology. Forget the ironic camp. Anybody who can't tell that this is a satire frankly isn't looking very hard.

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