1. The Passion of the Christ (Mel Gibson, 2004)
The Story: The Passion of the Christ focuses on the last twelve hours of Jesus of Nazareth’s life. The film begins in the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus has gone to pray after sitting the Last Supper. Jesus must resist the temptations of Satan. Betrayed by Judas Iscariot, Jesus is then arrested and taken within the city walls of Jerusalem where leaders of the Pharisees confront him with accusations of blasphemy and his trial results in a condemnation to death.
The Controversy: Gibson’s intention was to produce an unflinching depiction of Christ’s suffering on behalf of mankind. What resulted, however, was the ignition of a culture-war firestorm unrivaled in Hollywood history. For months prior to its release, The Passion was both denounced and defended sight unseen amid reports that the film wasn’t just brutal, but compromised by anti-Semitic sentiment. Gibson refused to let concerned parties view and vet his self-financed film.
2. A Clockwork orange (Stanley Kubrick, 1971)
The Story: In a futuristic Britain, a gang of teenagers go on the rampage every night, beating and raping helpless victims. After one of the boys quells an uprising in the gang, they knock him out and leave him for the police to find. He agrees to try “aversion therapy” to shorten his jail sentence. When he is eventually let out, he hates violence, but the rest of his gang members are still after him.
The Controversy: That the movie first landed an X rating and was deemed pornographic across the U.S. was nothing compared with its reception in the U.K.: Social uproar and reports of copycat crimes led Kubrick to withdraw Clockwork from distribution in his adopted country. It wasn’t officially available there again in theaters or on video until 2000, a year after his death.
3. Fahrenheit 9/11 (Mickael Moore, 2004)
The Story: In this film, muckraker Michael Moore turns his eye on George W. Bush and his War on Terrorism agenda. He illustrates his argument about how this failed businessman with deep connections to the royal house of Saud of Saudi Arabia and the Bin Ladins got elected on fraudulent circumstances and proceeded to blunder through his duties while ignoring warnings of looming betrayed by his foreign partners.
The Controversy: The documentary lit the fuse of right-wing America, detonating protests and hate campaigns to ban it (no dice). Moore was the first to break the post-9/11 moratorium on Bush bashing and set off a season of brutal smack-downs among the Bill O’Reillys and Keith Olbermanns of the world.
4. JFK (Oliver Stone, 1991)
The Story: Details of the actions of New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison, who takes it upon himself to investigate the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Taxas, in 1963. Garrison is extremely suspicious of the official story presented by the FBI, and what he already knows and what he subsequently learns lead him to suspect that there is more to the story than the public is being told.
The Controversy: Some saw Stone’s interpretation of those theories as lending them a certain patina of truth, raising fears that moviegoers would construe it as bona fide history. One result: a 1992 congressional act to release classified documents.
5. The Last Temptation of Christ ( Martin Scorsese, 1988)
The Story: The carpenter Jesus of Nazareth, tormented by the temptations of demons, the guilt of making crosses for the Romans, pity for men and the world, and the constant call of God, sets out to find what God wills for him. But as his mission nears fulfillment, he must face the greatest temptation: the normal life of a good man.
The Controversy: Religious fundamentalists picketed and threatened boycotts weeks before its release. One group offered to buy the $6.5 million film from Universal to destroy it; some theaters, and later Blockbuster, refused to carry it.
6. The Birth of a Nation (D. W. Griffith, 1915)
The Story: Two brothers, Phil and Ted Stoneman, visit their friends in Piedmont, South Carolina: the family Cameron. This friendship is affected by the Civil War, in which the Stonemans and the Camerons must join up opposite armies. The consequences of the War in their lives are shown in connection to major historical events, like the development of the Civil Was itself, Lincoln’s assassination, and the birth of the Ku Klux Klan.
The Controversy: The film’s depiction of African Americans as childlike, conniving, or rabid sex fiends, and the Ku Klux Klan as heroic saviors, sparked nationwide protests by the nascent NAACP. Censorship debates and protests have dogged the film in subsequent rereleases and when it was added to the National Film Registry in 1993.
7. Natural Born Killers ( Oliver Stone, 1994)
The Story: The misadventures of Mickey and Mallory: outcasts, lovers, and serial killers. They travel across Route 666 conducting mass-slaughters not for money, not for revenge, just for kicks. Glorified by the media, the pair become legendary folk heroes; their story told by the single person they leave alive at the scene of each of their slaughters.
The Controversy: Though intended as a satire on the media, the film actually inspired several copycat killers to seek their own 15 minutes of fame, some even using imagery and dialogue from the film. Over 12 murders in the U.S. and abroad have been linked to Killers. One victim’s family tried to sue Stone and Warner Bros.
8. Last Tango in Paris ( Bernardo Bertolucci, 1972)
The Story: While looking for an apartment, Jeanne, a beautiful young Parisienne, encounters Paul, a mysterious American expatriate mourning his wife recent suicide. Instantly drawn to each other, they have a stormy, passionate affair, in which they do not reveal their names to each other. Their relationship deeply affects their lives, as Paul struggles with his wife’s death and Jeanne prepares to marry her fiancé, Tom.
The Controversy: Critics and audiences were sharply divided on this X-rated erotic psychodrama. The film’s stark depiction of loveless, animalistic carnality horrified some, and landed its director and stars in an Italian court on obscenity charges.
9. The Deer Hunter (Michael Cimino, 1978)
The Story: Michael, Steven and Nick are young factory workers from Pennsylvania who enlist into the Army to fight in Vietnam. Before they go, Steven marries the pregnant Angela and their wedding-party is also the men’s farewell party. After some time and many horrors the three friends fall in the hands of the Vietnamese and are brought to a prison camp in which they are forced to play Russian roulette against each other. They escape and return home, but their lives are forever changed.
The Controversy: By the time it won the Best Picture Oscar, Deer Hunter had ignited major debate over its shocking Pow-camp scenes, in which American soldiers are forced to play Russian roulette. War historians argued there was no record of such atrocities, and others called the Vietnamese depiction racist.
10. The Da Vinci Code ( Ron Howard, 2006)
The Story: Symbologist Robert Langdon is thrown into a mysterious and bizarre murder. Alongside Langdon is the victim’s granddaughter and cryptologist Sophie, who with Robert discovers clues within Da Vinci’s paintings. To further find the truth, they travel from Paris to London, whilst crossing paths with allies and villains. They unearth a 2,000-year-old conspiracy to cover up the marriage between Jesus and Mary Magdalene.
The Controversy: It didn’t end up drawing mass pickets or boycotts, but there was much debate while the film was being made. Westminster Abbey wouldn’t allow Howard to shoot inside its halls, and some 200 protesters mobbed the set in Lincolnshire, England (Although Howard says most were merely “trying to get autographs”).