The Seventeen NC-17 Films You Really Honestly Should See

Go ahead. Let's get weird.

By The Editors
March 21, 2014 9:00 am

You’ve probably wondered: What’s the deal with the NC-17 rating?

It’s always been an odd designation, as if the MPAA was saying a film is not just adult, it’s really adult. So adult that only the adultiest of adults should see it.

But not because of all the skin flutes and flesh tacos. Oh no. Because an NC-17 film contains sex and actual, real-life uncomfy emotions. (For an excellent perspective, and a quaint look back at the ‘90s, see “Blame Blockbuster, not the MPAA” in Slate.)

There are plenty of those uncomfy emotions in Nymphomaniac, in which Charlotte Gainsbourg’s sex-obsessed character (played by Stacy Martin in early flashbacks) tells her story to a bachelor played by Stellan Skarsgard.

The film forces us to question societal norms, the nature of love (is it “lust plus jealousy?”) and male-female power dynamics.

It’s even funny. On purpose.

9 Songs / Revolution Films

9 Songs (2004)

In which a sex-addicted Manhattan ad-exec shows off his junk and self-loathes for two hours.

Why We Like It:  All love affairs should come framed by a fantastic mid-aughts soundtrack (The Von Bondies, Elbow, Franz Ferdinand). It’s equal parts live rock show and love story.

Where to See It: On DVD/Blu-ray

Shame / Film4 and See-Saw Films

Shame (2011)

In which a sex-addicted Manhattan ad-exec shows off his junk and self-loathes for two hours.

Why We Like It: Carey Mulligan’s haunting, pseudo-incestuous rendition of “New York, New York” will send shivers down your spine. Plus, free lessons on picking up girls on the subway using only your eyes.

Where to See It: Amazon Video

Irréversible / Studio Canal

Irréversible (2002)

In which a brutal rape inspires an equally brutal act of vengeance.

Why We Like It: Director Gaspar Noe’s decision to tell the tale in reverse, Memento-style, makes this a worthwhile watch. Each passing scene adds a layer of heartbreak to the violent conclusion, owing in no small part to monster performances from Monica Bellucci and Vincent Cassel.

Where to See It: Netflix

Dogtooth / Boo Productions

Dogtooth (2009)

In which a father home-schools his children to think that crazy is normal. Incestual bathtub hijinks ensue.

Why We Like It: Bizarre. Provocative. At times hilarious. A tongue-in-cheek parable on the dangers of heavy-handed parenting.

Where to See It: Netflix

Happiness / Killer Films

Happiness (1998)

In which a surburban father matter of factly describes his interest in his son’s friends. Did we mention it’s (sort of) a comedy?

Why We Like It: Seemingly normal Dylan Baker does creepy better than anyone. And for laughs: Philip Seymour Hoffman (RIP) as an impotent obscene caller.

Where to See It: Blu-ray/DVD

The Dreamers / Recorded Picture Company

The Dreamers (1998)

In which Eva Green loses it in front of her brother before everyone kisses, smearing the … eh, you figure it out.

Why We Like It: The deflowering signifies that the siblings’ twisted behavior is a product of their own innocence and sheltering. Nixing this scene would negate the film’s revealing climax. Though there’s certainly no shortage of revealing climaxes.

Where to See It: Blu-ray/DVD

Bully / Blacklist Films and Gravity Entertainment

Bully (2001)

In which aimless Florida teens plot the murder of their abusive friend, losing their innocence and minds along the way.

Why We Like It:  The murder of their friend is the exact opposite of most killing scenes. It’s awkward, sloppy, hesistant and difficult to watch. As it should be.

Where to See It: YouTube

Crash / The Movie Network and Telefilm Canada

Crash (1996)

In which a bored married man discovers sexual excitement by recreating car accidents. Apparently a run-of-the-mill fetish, because he joins a cult of like-minded individuals.

Why We Like It:  It’s David Cronenberg + J.G. Ballard, not necessarily at their finest, but certainly at their usual level of WTF. Props to Holly Hunter, whose leg wound is used in new and unusual ways.

Where to See It:  Blu-ray/DVD

The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover / Allarts and Elsevier-Vendex 

The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (1989)

In which a gangster’s wife (Helen Mirren) exacts revenge on her barbaric husband. Over dinner.

Why We Like It:  Best revenge scene ever? Spoiler alert: Albert (the gangster) is confronted by all the people he’s abused and made to eat the roasted body of his wife’s lover, whom he killed. After he takes a few bites, she shoots him. #dropsmic

Where to See It: Netflix

Last Tango in Paris / Produzioni Europee Associati (PEA) and Les Productions Artistes Associés

Last Tango in Paris (1973)

In which an American widower (Marlon Brando) engages in an affair with a betrothed Parisian woman.

Why We Like It:  Brando. Bertolucci. One of the more creative uses of a stick of butter you’ll ever see.

Where to See It: YouTube

Y Tu Mamá También / 20th Century Fox, IFC Films and Good Machine

Y Tu Mamá También (2001)

In which two moneyed best friends with high-strung libidos meet an older woman and take a road trip to sexual discovery.

Why We Like It:  On the surface a sex-crazed male escapist fantasy, further probing reveals a nuanced snapshot of contemporary life in Mexico that confronts class, politics and gender equality.

Where to See It: YouTube

The Lover / Fox Pathé Europa

The Lover (1992)

In which a young, poor (underage) French girl and a wealthy, older Chinese businessman find full frontal love in Colonial French Vietnam.

Why We Like It:  Incredibly well-shot — especially the sex. And a love affair forbidden by class, race, age and nationality should be as steamy as possible (penetration shots included).

Where to See It: DVD

Nymphomaniac / Les Films du Losange and Concorde Filmverleih

Nymphomaniac (2014)

Wherein a young woman, Joe, screws her way through an entire train, her prissy boss (Shia LeBeouf) and enough guys that she develops a complex scheduling system.

Why We Like It:  Did we mention it’s funny? (Kudos, Uma Thurman.) And the movie speaks volumes on the hypocrisy of Joe’s willing, oft-times married male partners.

Where to See It: Amazon Video

The Brown Bunny / Wellspring Media

The Brown Bunny (2003)

In which a rather dour Vincent Gallo has a graphic but ultimately downbeat sexual encounter with Chloe Sevigny.

Why We Like It: Didn’t see that twist ending coming. Pun intended. More entertaining: the post-Cannes screening war of words between Gallo and Roger Ebert, which ended with the actor threatening to hex the film critic.

Where to See It: DVD

Midnight Cowboy / United Artists

Midnight Cowboy (1969)

In which a naive Texan (Jon Voight) struggles to succeed in New York as a gigolo.

Why We Like It:  Hoffman as Rizzo. A New York long lost to history. Cowboy won Academy Awards for a reason, and it wasn’t titillation.

Where to See It: Vudu

Kids / Miramax

Kids (1995)

In which a pack of teenagers wander the streets of NYC, fueled by booze, drugs and the need — at least for ringleader Telly — to have sex with as many virgins as he can.

Why We Like It:  Proves teenagers are scary. Possibly the best safe sex campaign masquerading as an indie film ever. Plus, solid first appearances by Chloe Sevigny and Rosario Dawson.

Where to See It: DVD

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