Controversy is an inevitable byproduct of art but because of the size and scope of the film industry around the world, movies have the ability to create controversy on a massive scale, more so than many other art forms.
However, there are controversial films, and then there are controversial films. The ones that get banned for years, incite mass protests, lead to directors being arrested and receive anti-humanist awards. Some of them are mere exploitation, others have changed cinema forever, and some fall somewhere between the two. Others still puzzle and confuse curious audiences around the world.
The films on this list have all incited massive controversy for very different reasons. Some have faced criticism for their depictions of sex or violence, others have spawned protests for their handling of racial or religious matters. And while the controversies regarding some of these films have died down or gone away, for other films the debates still rage.
These are the 20 most controversial films of all time. Some are legendary, others obscure, but all are important in one way or another.
Lars von Trier could probably have a controversy list all his own, but if one moment from his career sticks out for cinematic (and not personal) reasons, surely it’s Antichrist. The art-horror piece about a nameless couple who retreat to the woods to find closure over their child’s death starts out bleak and only gets worse. As the couple begins to slowly torture each other, first psychologically and then physically, the film presents a graphic account of the primal versus the rational, science versus nature, and man versus woman. Already brimming with graphic and frank depictions of sex, the film was further derided for its depictions of violence, including two instances of on screen genital mutilation.
Its premiere at Cannes 2009 caused an uproar, re-raising longstanding arguments about von Trier’s potential misogyny (though Trier stated that he identified more with the female character than the male), and featured a press conference where scores of journalists ripped into the film and its director, looking for an explanation for what they’d just seen. All this culminated with the Cannes jury creating a special ‘anti-humanist’ award to give to the film, which unfortunately overshadowed Charlotte Gainsbourg (rightly) winning the festival’s Best Actress award. Critical and public sentiment over the film (and Trier himself) are still sharply divided, but those who are willing to stick out the bumpy ride may find Antichrist to be a worthwhile yet troubling meditation on guilt, depression, and grief.
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