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.
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.