The 10 Highest Grossing NC-17 Movies, According To Box Office Mojo

With rare exception, the NC-17 rating has always been the kiss of death for most movies at the box office. By legally restricting who can see the film to anyone over the age of 17 only, most theaters won't even bother showing such controversial films.

However, a few films have cracked through and managed to make a small fortune despite their restrictive rating from the MPAA. From classics such as The Last Tango in Paris to underrated gems such as Happiness, Box Office Mojo has reported major gains for a selective few NC-17 hits.

10 Happiness (1998)

Box Office: $2,982,011

There are a plethora of reasons that a film can garner an NC-17 rating, and Happiness earned every bit of its restrictive reputation. The film follows an ensemble of disparate characters as they all engage in aberrant behavior in order to feel something in a world that has made them numb.

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Director Todd Solondz pulled no punches with his film, and it seemed as if no topic was truly off limits. Though profoundly disturbing at points, Happiness makes a legitimate critique of the repressive nature of American society. Most of the "issues" dealt with by the characters are actually the result of repressed emotion and sexual desire, and the film challenges viewers to see other people suffer.

9 Shame (2011)

Box Office: $3,909,002

Explicit sexuality is an easy way to gain a restrictive rating from the MPAA, especially when it is the hinge by which the plot of a film moves. Shame chronicles the life of an unrepentant sex-addict, who's usual life of debauchery is disrupted by the arrival of his estranged sister.

Though the film's rating automatically gives it a reputation, Shame is actually a gripping character study about a man who struggles with his relationship with the outside world. Michael Fassbender delivers one of his best performances, and the story soars despite its explicit nature. Like many NC-17 films, it suffered at the domestic box office despite receiving a heap of critical praise.

8 Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1990)

Box Office: $4,087,361

Director Pedro Almodóvar has gained a reputation as a master of cinema, but his early film Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! brought a lot of controversial attention to the young auteur. The film concerns a man who has recently been released from a mental health facility. In a desperate attempt to get her to love him, the man kidnaps a famous adult film star.

In typical Almodóvar fashion, the characters are witty and strange, and the movie flows with an unmistakable lyrical energy. Unfortunately though, the explicitly sexual nature of a few scenes made it a controversial item in the United States and its restrictive rating limited its audience severely. The MPAA has always been harsh on sexual content, and the films rating reflects the stark divide between American and European sensibilities at the cinema.

7 Lust, Caution (2007)

Box Office: $4,604,982

After his groundbreaking film Brokeback Mountain, director Ang Lee once again turned his sights to another controversial film with the release of Lust, Caution. The story concerns a young woman in WWII era Shanghai, who becomes involved with a powerful political figure who is the subject of frequent assassination attempts.

The film is dramatically taut, and practically brimming with prickly energy through the two main plots. Filled with tension of all kinds, Ang Lee uses the instruments of cinema to keep the audience on the edge of their seats throughout. Naturally, because the film directly concerns sexuality, the MPAA judged it harshly and saddled it with its NC-17 rating. Despite this, it is still one of Ang Lee's best films in his vaunted catalogue.

6 Bad Education (2004)

Box Office: $5,284,284

Despite its bright imagery, Pedro Almodóvar's Bad Education is a dark look at recent Spanish history. The film follows a pair of friends as they navigate their lives through their religious schooling, and a myriad of abuses that are heaped upon them by a repressive system.

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Controversial everywhere it went, Bad Education shined a bright spotlight on parts of history that many viewers hoped to forget. Showing his prowess as an auteur filmmaker, Almodóvar manages to make a scathing critique while also giving his film life, and rich characters. Its frank depiction of the LGBTQ community rubbed some puritanical viewers the wrong way, but it was ultimately made a tidy profit at the box office.

5 Kids (1995)

Box Office: $7,412,216

Some films embody the independent spirit so fully that their NC-17 rating does little to dampen their cultural impact. Kids is a low-budget drama about a group of teenage friends who spend the day in New York City, getting into all sorts of debauchery and trouble.

Teen dramas are nothing new, but Harmony Korine's vision was utterly unique in the coming of age sub-genre. Eschewing any of the flashy filmmaking techniques of Hollywood, Kids has a D.I.Y aesthetic that makes its controversial scenes all the more convincing. Because it was never destined to be a blockbuster, the film did well in arthouse cinemas and made a killing on its relatively small budget.

4 The Cook, The Thief, His Wife And Her Lover (1989)

Box Office: $7,724,701

Director Peter Greenaway is known for his opulent films, but audiences were shocked by the stunning vision presented in The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover. The films follows the titular characters as they all come together at a swanky restaurant and get wrapped up in a complicated plot of murder and lust.

With a slew of great performances, and a hilarious script, Greenaway's artistic vision leaps off of the screen. Its explicit nature is worn on its sleeve, and the audience knows exactly what sort of story they are getting just by watching the first few moments. Despite its harsh NC-17 rating, the film received a heap of critical praise and is one of the most celebrated fixtures in Greenaway's lavish filmography.

3 Henry & June (1990)

Box Office: $11,567,449

Historical films aren't usually very controversial, but Henry & June narrowed its focus on a particular slice of a notable person's life. The film concerns a young woman who experiences an awakening through her relationship with author Henry Miller and his wife June.

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Even into the 1990s, sexuality was a recipe for a strict rating, and the addition of sexuality that is deemed to be aberrant, usually garnered even harsher censure. Generally considered one of the best films about a famous writerHenry & June captures a bit of the essence of Miller's unique lifestyle that translated into his classic works. In a rare triumph for NC-17 rated cinema though, the film fared surprisingly well at the box office.

2 Showgirls (1995)

Box Office: $20,350,754

Some films are simply too big to fail, and Paul Verhoeven's head-scratching opus Showgirls had tremendous studio support behind it. The film follows a young woman who moves to Las Vegas in order to become a dancer. Through a series of cut-throat decisions, she manages to claw her way to the top of the showgirl pecking order.

Critically lambasted upon release, Showgirls still managed to rake in a tremendous amount of doe because of what it promised audiences. However, it totally lacked the biting wit of Verhoeven's other works, and left many audience members totally bamboozled. Outside of the details that helped it garner its NC-17 rating, the film had very little else to offer viewers.

1 Last Tango In Paris (1972)

Box Office: $36,144,000

Controversy creates cash, and few movies were as instantly polarizing as Last Tango in Paris. The film follows a young Parisian woman who begins an illicit affair with an American businessman, and their relationship is put to the test by his ever increasing demands for secrecy.

A master class in performance, the film isn't without its controversy that goes beyond its harsh rating. The film is notorious for its problematic production process, and it is practically dripping with sleaze. Despite this, many audience members turned out in droves to see Hollywood legend Marlon Brando make one of his most unique career turns.

NEXT: 10 X-Rated Movies That Are Now Considered Classics



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