Every Major NC-17 Movie Since The Rating Was Invented

Voting Rules
Vote up the NC-17 movies that earned their grown-up rating.

For many years, filmmakers taking on excessively mature subject matter had to cut their films in order to achieve an R rating. This was done because the sole “adults only” rating, the X, had been co-opted by the pornography business. The Motion Picture Association of America (known as the MPAA then, but just the MPA now) famously got a copyright for all its ratings except the X. That allowed the adult film industry to self-apply it, and also to make up meaningless variations like “XXX.” Newspapers wouldn't accept ads for X-rated pictures, and they could not be advertised on television. That put directors in a tough spot.

Many cinephiles, including famed film critics Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel, spent years calling for the MPAA to create a new “adults only” rating between the R and the X, one that would designate serious artistic works that were meant to be seen solely by grown-ups. In 1990, they got their wish. The NC-17 - or “no children under 17 admitted” - rating was established. Unfortunately, it didn't solve the problem. Only a small handful of major movies have accepted the rating since its inception, and none of them have been massive hits. 

What follows is a list of those films. These are the ones released theatrically with the NC-17 rating. Movies that earned the NC-17 but chose to hit theaters unrated are not included, nor are older films, like Last Tango in Paris, that were originally rated X and re-rated later on. Vote up the ones you think the NC-17 was most appropriate for. 

  • 1
    878 VOTES

    Rosario Dawson had one of the finest roles of her career in 2007's Descent. She plays Maya, a college student with more interest in studying than in dating. She attends a party and gets the attention of a guy named Jared, who tries to pick her up. She rebuffs him, and he responds by sexually assaulting her, screaming racial epithets in her face the entire time. Traumatized by the incident, Maya turns to drugs to cope. Then, she plots revenge. Upon returning to school the following fall, she flirts with Jared, luring him into a trap that will scar him emotionally just as much as he scarred her.

    Descent is a very gritty movie that shows how rape is an act of power and rage rather than of sex. The scene where Maya is assaulted is extremely difficult to watch. So is what Maya does to Jared. The scene goes on for almost eight minutes and involves not only her sexually assaulting him but also bringing in another male to do likewise. For the homophobic Jared, this is a traumatizing event. Descent aims to show the full horror of assault, yet also to indulge in a revenge fantasy where a culprit is made to suffer as much as his victim. Without a doubt, it's an unpleasant movie to watch. Dawson's performance is powerful, though, helping to convey the deep psychological damage her character endures.

    878 votes
  • 2
    517 VOTES

    Ken Russell is not the kind of director to get fazed by a restrictive rating. After all, he made the X-rated The Devils, widely considered one of the most blasphemous movies ever made. He does what he wants to do, without worrying about anything else. His 1991 movie Whore practically begs for the NC-17 from the title alone. Theresa Russell stars as Liz, a Los Angeles prostitute. Rather than having a traditional plot, the film is more episodic, showing a typical night on the job and having her occasionally break the fourth wall to share her thoughts with the audience. Critical reception wasn't great, as most reviewers felt the movie was more tawdry than artistic. It came and went from theaters quickly.

    With a title like that, sex is obviously the thing that caused the film's NC-17 rating, although some nasty violence probably helped. One shocking scene finds Liz helping a fellow prostitute who's been stabbed in the stomach by a man who hired her. There's plenty of nudity in the picture, along with a scene involving rape. The intent here is to show the types of dangers sex workers face on a daily basis. While that could be a viable subject, the general consensus on the film was that it was too much of a downer, without much to redeem the bleakness.

    517 votes
  • 3
    606 VOTES

    David Cronenberg specializes in “body horror” - unnerving films that involve objects going into or coming out of human bodies. Videodrome and Scanners are two of his best-known works. For 1996's Crash, he upped the ante by putting a more realistic spin on body horror. Based on J.G. Ballard's novel, the story revolves around film producer James Ballard (James Spader). After surviving a car crash, he becomes fascinated with near-death experiences and the potential for the body to be maimed. This leads him to fall in with a group of people who are sexually aroused by car accidents and the injuries they cause. Crash received a Special Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, but divided critics and audiences who saw it. The subject matter is either totally off-putting or weirdly hypnotic, depending on your point of view. 

    Either way, fetishizing car accidents is a deeply uncomfortable topic. It wasn't just the graphic sex scenes and frequent nudity that earned Crash the NC-17, it was the incorporation of bodily wounds in an erotic manner. One especially shocking sequence finds James having sex with the large wound on a woman's leg - an act she is clearly aroused by. The MPA recognized this was something children and teens should in no way be exposed to, hence the awarding of the restrictive rating. The AMC theater chain felt similarly, even going so far as hiring security guards to ensure minors couldn't sneak in. More than two decades later, the movie is as shocking and divisive as ever.

    606 votes
  • 4
    471 VOTES

    The Dreamers

    Bernardo Bertolucci knew a thing or two about making explicit films. His 1972 Last Tango in Paris is one of the all-time “adults only” films. In 2003, he was at it again with The Dreamers. Set during the 1968 Paris student riots, it stars Eva Green and Louis Garrel as siblings who take in an American student, played by Michael Pitt. At first, the trio bond over a shared love of cinema. Over time, though, a sexual dynamic emerges between the three. The film's point is that, for these characters, sex is an escape from the turbulence happening outside, as well as from their fears of growing up and facing the world as an adult. Critics were mostly positive in their response, although variations of “it's no Last Tango” were common in reviews. 

    As befitting the subject matter, The Dreamers contains full frontal nudity and multiple scenes of graphic sex between the characters. The casualness of those things is part of what sets the movie apart. The siblings, for example, think nothing of lying naked in bed together, and the movie presents that behavior in a matter-of-fact way. Incestuous overtones of that sort were sufficient to earn the NC-17 rating. In part because of Bertolucci's reputation as a master filmmaker and frequent provocateur, Fox Searchlight - the company that distributed The Dreamers in North America - allowed the director to release the uncut version and embrace the more restrictive rating.

    471 votes
  • 5
    424 VOTES

    Director Abel Ferrara likes to push buttons, and he did that in a big way with the 1992 crime drama Bad Lieutenant. Harvey Keitel plays the unnamed central character, a New York City cop who's just as dangerous as the crooks he's sworn to put away. He gambles, consumes excessive amounts of drugs and alcohol, has sexual hang-ups, and is generally a menace to anyone he encounters. The plot finds him seeking redemption by tracking down the lowlifes who raped a nun. By all accounts, the movie represents Keitel at his finest. His fearless, committed performance, which includes full frontal nudity, is stunning in its power. 

    The reason why Bad Lieutenant works so well is that Ferrara doesn't hold back in showing the depravity of the character. Aside from smoking crack, he's shown participating in a three-way sex act with two women. The most famous scene, and the one that undoubtedly cemented the NC-17 rating, shows the lieutenant pleasuring himself in front of two teenage girls he's just pulled over. Keitel goes to town in the scene, moaning and carrying on in an unabashedly lewd manner that is seriously creepy. Only by taking such a no-holds-barred approach is the movie able to convey the character's loathsomeness.

    424 votes
  • 6
    283 VOTES

    Director Ang Lee followed up his Oscar-nominated Brokeback Mountain with 2007's Lust, Caution, a Chinese-language period drama. Tang Wei plays a young woman who falls in with a group of revolutionaries during the Chinese occupation of Shanghai in 1942. Under the fake identity of “Mrs. Mak,” she is assigned to seduce and assassinate Mr. Yee (Tony Leung), an official who has been deemed a traitor. The mission does not go smoothly. One thing after another makes it difficult for the assassination to be carried out. Mr. Yee also likes his sex on the edgy side, meaning that the previously inexperienced Mrs. Mak finds herself in challenging, sometimes scary situations. 

    Graphic sex scenes guaranteed Lust, Caution would get an NC-17, but it's more than just the nudity and depiction of sex that go beyond the norm of a typical R-rated film. Mr. Yee likes his bedroom encounters violent, a fact that is obviously meant to disturb the audience. Sadomasochism is shown unflinchingly, and part of the movie's fascination - aside from the great artistry with which it's made - is that Mrs. Mak goes back and forth between being repelled by it and being drawn to it. A few scenes of bloody violence are in Lust, Caution, too. In theory, this is the kind of film the NC-17 was created for. It's a serious work, where the frank depiction of sexuality and violence are used to deepen both the characters and the story's themes.

    283 votes