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The Biggest NC-17 Movies Of All Time At The Box Office

Without a doubt, the most controversial rating the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) can hand out is NC-17. Originally known as the X rating, NC-17 means that nobody under the age of 17 can be permitted into a screening of a movie, even if they have an adult guardian. 

Most North American movie studios avoid releasing NC-17 fare due to factors like massive theater chains rarely exhibiting NC-17 titles. The stigmatization of the rating was also exacerbated in the 1990s when Blockbuster Video announced it wouldn't carry NC-17 features. Thanks to these and countless other factors, studios have often avoided releasing NC-17 movies altogether in North America, which has ensured there are limited opportunities for films with this rating to shine at the box office.

But even with all the hurdles facing NC-17-rated movies, many of them have gone on to amass notable box office numbers, particularly in international markets that are usually more open to explicit sexual material than U.S. moviegoers. The majority of the highest-grossing NC-17 movies at the worldwide box office show these particular movies are just as capable as any other kind of film of turning a major profit. (A note before going forward: This list focuses on mainstream cinema from around the world, but it doesn't include explicitly adult films like "Deep Throat.")

13. Hell - $6.7 million

Director Luis Estrada has often made films that are unflinchingly brutal critiques of Mexican politics. This trend continued with the especially incendiary "Hell," which was released as "El Infierno" in its home country. In "Hell," we watch the people who prosper from the Mexican Drug War revel in their excess, which includes lots of violent mayhem and sexual material. Covering this content was crucial to ensure that Estrada's satire had some bite, but it also guaranteed that, in it domestic release, "Hell" received an unsurprising NC-17 rating warning viewers of its "graphic violence and explicit sexual content." The movie may not have been for the faint of heart, but its eventual box office success suggested it was still a feature with plenty of wide-ranging appeal.

In its box office run, "Hell" grossed $6.7 million, all of which came from moviegoers in Mexico. That made it the biggest movie of 2010 in Mexico as recorded by The Numbers. No other countries reported box office figures for "Hell," including the U.S., where the film never got a proper release date. However, "Hell" didn't need any other territories to be a wildly successful venture. To boot, its embrace of controversial material involved both a satirical edge and a real awareness of real-life hardships. Among the film's many other achievements, the box office success of this NC-17 satirical drama further cemented the notable legacy of Luis Estrada as a filmmaker.

12. The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover - $7.4 million

Having an affair with a mobster's wife can never end well. But the heart wants what it wants, and so the primary plot of "The Cook, The Thief, The Wife, and Her Lover" is set into motion, with Georgina (Helen Mirren), wife of mobster Albert Spica (Michael Gambon), carrying on an affair with the quiet Michael (Alan Howard). All of the romantic duplicity in Peter Greenaway's film contained enough adult material that it faced enormous difficulties securing a marketable rating in North America. Per Roger Ebert's review for the film, "Her Lover" opted to go into domestic theaters unrated rather than garner the precursor to the NC-17, an X rating.

The website Mondo Digital notes that the hubbub surrounding "The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover's" MPAA rating would inspire the creation of the NC-17 rating. All that controversy helped to put "The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover" — which would later score an NC-17 rating – into the mainstream conversation and helped its financial run mightily. Despite never playing in more than 239 theaters, this title managed to crack $7.4 million in North America. Instead of warding away viewers, the more adult material of "The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Love" just made it a must-see fixture of the 1990 arthouse scene.

11. Beyond the Valley of the Dolls - $9 million

Roger Ebert was most famous as a film critic, but he also worked as a screenwriter for the 1970 Russ Meyer film "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls." Functioning both as a sequel to and a parody of 1967's "Valley of the Dolls," the material that garnered "Beyond" an X rating decades ago isn't quite as scandalous for modern moviegoers. As pointed out by Matt Singer in IndieWire, the feature does contain nudity, drug use, and depictions of sex, a natural byproduct of how the film tells a story about an all-girl band becoming immersed in all the debauchery of Hollywood. However, the depiction of this material will seem relatively tame for adult fare in today's world. Nothing in "Dolls" is anywhere near as disturbing as, say, what passes for an average set-piece in the R-rated "Hostel" movies, for example. 

Of course, the material that the MPAA circa. 1970 saw fit for an X rating drew in hordes of moviegoers. On just a $1 million budget, "Dolls" ended up grossing $9 million. Needless to say, the project was exceedingly profitable and proved the appeal of both sex and other transgressive material on the big screen. Ebert was never quite as prolific of a screenwriter as he was a film critic, but at least his most notable contribution to screenwriting turned out to be a moneymaker like "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls."

10. The Dreamers - $15.3 million

"Before you can change the world you must realize that you, yourself, are part of it. You can't stand outside looking in." So goes one of the most introspective lines of "The Dreamers," a 2004 feature from director Bernardo Bertolucci. The three lead characters of the film, Matthew (Michael Pitt) and twins Théo (Louis Garrel) and Isabelle (Eva Green), end up taking this to heart as they opt to become more and more vulnerable with each other. Rather than just be spectators of one another, they dive right into exploring themselves, including a lengthy intimate encounter. Such raw material ensured that "The Dreamers" was destined to score an NC-17 rating. However, this restrictive label, not to mention the provocative material of the film itself, did not ward away moviegoers.

Grossing $2.5 million in its domestic run, "The Dreamers" was one of the top 40 biggest limited release titles of 2004 in North America despite never playing in over 116 locations. At the time of its release, it was noted that moviegoers in big cities were drawn to the movies flashy material, while suburban areas like Orange County were not. Resonating with arthouse viewers was enough to put "The Dreamers" on the right box office track, especially since it grossed another $12.7 million internationally for a $15.3 million worldwide haul. Clearly, moviegoers took a cue from the introspective line in "The Dreamers" and opted to watch this taboo movie rather than "stand outside looking in."

9. Shame - $20.4 million

Shortly after playing Magneto in "X-Men: First Class," Michael Fassbender took on a much darker role by playing a sex addict in Steve McQueen's "Shame." Considering the proclivities of its lead character, it's no surprise that "Shame" scored an NC-17 rating for its brutal handling of sexual material and nudity. But there's no glamor to be found here — this is an uncompromising look at a man spiraling and losing himself and his closest relationships to his addiction. Such raw treatment of this topic entailed nudity on the part of Fassbender, which helped secure "Shame's" NC-17 rating and inspired a media frenzy that was often much more frivolous than the harrowing film that inspired all those think pieces.

In a reflection of just how challenging the North American marketplace can be for NC-17 titles, "Shame," despite hailing from Fox Searchlight and starring Fassbender, never played in more than 95 domestic theaters. Its $4 million sum in this territory feels like an immense accomplishment since its theater count never reached triple digits. Internationally, "Shame" had way more success making back its $6.5 million budget thanks to a $16.4 million haul. In the end, "Shame" ended up grossing $20.4 million worldwide, a noticeable increase over the $192,872 global cume of McQueen's previous film, "Hunger."

8. Blue is the Warmest Color - $22.8 million

Like many NC-17 movies, "Blue is the Warmest Color" earned its rating due to graphic sex scenes. But unlike many other NC-17 titles, "Warmest Color" inspired a different sort of controversy over its sexual material. Specifically, the film, which centers on two women lovers, was critiqued for widespread perceptions that the lesbian sex scenes were unrealistic and made more to conform to the male gaze than anything else. The pronounced controversy dominated the discourse over "Blue is the Warmest Color" and served as a reminder that just because a movie is restricted to just adult moviegoers, that doesn't mean a film will always be mature about sensitive matters.

While "Blue is the Warmest Color" wasn't very successful in avoiding controversy, it did yield much more success in drumming up noteworthy box office figures. Worldwide, "Blue is the Warmest Color" scored $22.8 million. Only $2.4 million of that came from a perfectly fine domestic box office run, though it was in foreign territories that the production hit its financial stride. "Warmest Color" grossed $20.4 million from overseas markets, with the feature scoring $8.3 million alone in its home country of France. Costing just $5.2 million to make, "Blue is the Warmest Color" was an undisputed champion when it came to its box office total.

7. Henry & June - $23.4 million

A complicated romantic triad is at heart of "Henry & June," which begins with June (Uma Thurman), who's married to author Henry Miller (Fred Ward), engaging in a relationship with Anais Nin (Maria de Medeiros). Their rapport can't stay a secret forever, and things get further complicated once Anais sleeps with Henry. This births an unusual love triangle, one that warranted an NC-17 rating so that it could be properly explored. "Henry & June" receiving this particular MPAA rating was a momentous occasion, as it was the first feature ever to get designated with an NC-17 moniker instead of an X rating.

"Henry & June" wasn't just notable because of its historic MPAA ratings feats. It also proved noteworthy because of its box office run, which included $11 million domestically. That makes it one of only a handful of NC-17 movies to crack $10 million in North America and the second most recent to achieve that feat (only "Showgirls" exceeded that mark at a later date). Internationally, "Henry & June" continued to be a lucrative venture thanks to a $12.4 million haul. All of the romantic treachery and deception in "Henry & June" spawns only turmoil for the film's characters, but all that drama turned out to be a great way to drum up a sizeable box office for the world's first NC-17 movie.

6. I Am Curious (Yellow) - $27.7 million

The frank depictions of sex that earned "I Am Curious (Yellow)" an NC-17 rating didn't just make it controversial. "I Am Curious (Yellow)" was outright banned in the state of Massachusetts. Superior Court Chief Justice G. Joseph Tauro declared the film "obscene" and prevented the film from being exhibited in the state. In 1971, the Supreme Court would rule that there was no reason Massachusetts moviegoers should be deprived of "I Am Curious (Yellow)," and the ban was removed. As if all that weren't enough, someone burned down Houston's Heights Theatre (via A Curious Historian) because it was holding screenings of the film.

While "I Am Curious (Yellow)" attracted an avalanche of negativity, that buzz didn't deter people from seeking out what director Vilgot Sjöman had concocted. In its domestic box office run, "I Am Curious (Yellow)" managed to hit $20.2 million while its worldwide gross stood at $27.7 million. Per the essay "Tricky Film: The Critical and Legal Reception of 'I Am Curious (Yellow)' in America" by Ulf Jonas Björk, "I Am Curious (Yellow)" proved so popular in North America that it even topped the domestic box office for two consecutive weekends, an impressive feat for a foreign-language title. Though many tried to suppress it, it's apparent that "I Am Curious (Yellow)" had a massive reach in its lucrative box office run.

5. The Evil Dead - $29.4 million

The 1980s weren't short on super violent horror movies. However, Sam Raimi's chilling directorial debut, "The Evil Dead," still managed to stand out from that pack with its gruesome kills. The story of five friends who go to an old cabin and accidentally unleash ancient, murderous spirits, the feature had no shortage of over-the-top deaths. Add in elements like a lengthy sequence in which a tree sexually assaults someone, and it's pretty apparent how the movie stood out from other scary films of the era. These details also make it apparent why "The Evil Dead" was slapped with an X rating by the MPAA. 

Like many titles given either X or NC-17 ratings, "The Evil Dead" didn't make much of a financial impact in North America (it was more of a midnight movie favorite), but it became a smash hit overseas. In its domestic run, "The Evil Dead" made just $2.4 million. Not too shabby considering it cost $375,000, but even by 1981 standards, it was apparent the film wasn't a mainstream hit. But internationally, "The Evil Dead" was far more successful with a $27 million haul. Per The A.V. Club, controversy over "The Evil Dead's" disturbing nature in territories like the United Kingdom didn't ward away viewers. On the contrary, after Britain's British Board of Film Classification condemned the film, that just made it more enticing for horror fans.

4. Last Tango in Paris - $36.1 million

You don't have to do much digging to realize how exceedingly controversial "Last Tango in Paris" was in its initial theatrical run. This story about two people (Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider) who engage in a totally anonymous, physically intimate relationship had enough adult material to score an X rating by the MPAA. The New York Times reported that its theatrical run in a New Jersey theater was greeted with hundreds of protestors and even a bomb threat that turned out to be a false alarm. This was just one of the countless instances across the country of the movie's extreme sexual nature scoring high-profile disapproval and protests. 

Of course, the ironic thing here is that such expressions of disdain only exacerbated the reputation of "Last Tango in Paris." This wasn't just a new Marlon Brando movie — this was a salvo against oppressive authority. In its worldwide box office performance, "Last Tango in Paris" grossed a massive $36.1 million. In a retrospective of its release, IndieWire pointed out part of its box office success came from how United Artists released the film. Tickets for "Last Tango in Paris" had to be bought in advance and were extremely expensive. Rather than deterring prospective moviegoers, this just turned "Last Tango in Paris" into a must-see special event. Of course, having all those headlines decrying "Paris" as a new low in cinematic morality certainly didn't hurt its profile either.

3. Showgirls - $37.7 million

There was never any doubt that "Showgirls" would be getting an NC-17 rating. The story of a young dancer trying to hit the big time in Las Vegas had nudity for days, tons of course dialogue, and unforgettably graphic sex scenes, particularly one set in a hotel pool. All of this raunchiness didn't come cheap, as "Showgirls" cost $40 million to make. While much more expensive than usual for an NC-17 title, this budget wasn't inexplicable. After all, it was $9 million less than the $49 million budget "Showgirls" director Paul Verhoeven got for his last erotic thriller, "Basic Instinct." Considering "Basic Instinct" made over $350 million worldwide, the hope was clearly that Verhoeven could make lightning strike twice at the box office and justify the costs of "Showgirls."

Unfortunately, "Showgirls" fell far short of those expectations. This feature grossed only $37.7 million at the worldwide box office, a tremendous failure that put it nowhere near profitability. This was a massive step down from the worldwide box office grosses of Verhoeven's three preceding movies, and that's despite something like 1987's "RoboCop" costing way less than "Showgirls" to make. The saddest part is that, at the time of its release, "Showgirls" was the biggest NC-17 film of all time worldwide. However, its sizeable budget ensured that, even with this remarkable feat, it was nowhere near profitable. "Showgirls" was no "Basic Instinct" in its global box office run, though its randy antics would later garner a significant cult following.

2. Bad Education - $40.3 million

Shortly before its domestic theatrical debut, Pedro Almodovar's 2004 film "Bad Education" was given an NC-17 rating. The filmmaker appealed to the MPAA rating board to try and get it a softer R rating, but they wouldn't budge. This NC-17 designation was given solely because of one shot of Gael Garcia Bernal's character doing something pretty intimate. So Almodovar and Sony Pictures Classics opted to release "Bad Education" without any cuts in North American theaters. Of course, this severely limited how many movie theaters "Bad Education" could play in, as it only ever played in 106 North American locations. For comparison's sake, Almodovar's 2002 feature "Talk to Her" screened in 255 domestic theaters.

But "Bad Education" still managed to score a strong North American box office total with a $5.2 million total. In discussing the film's domestic opening weekend, Michael Barker, co-president of "Bad Education" distributor Sony Pictures Classics, said (via IndieWire) the movie's robust performance was due primarily to it appealing to a wide range of moviegoers, as well as smart scheduling that let this intimate movie play as counterprogramming to much bigger holiday season tentpoles. Worldwide, "Bad Education" made $40.3 million, making it the fourth biggest Almodovar movie ever. Just as impressive was that, at the time of its release, "Bad Education" was the biggest movie of all time at the worldwide box office to carry an NC-17 moniker, exempting "Deep Throat."

1. Lust, Caution - $65.1 million

To date, there has been only one movie with an NC-17 rating that's crossed $50 million worldwide (without adjusting for inflation). Director Ang Lee has the honor of being the filmmaker in charge of this production, with 2007's "Lust, Caution." The story concerns a woman (Tang Wei) who's assigned a mission to get close to in a Japanese government official (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) and then kill him. But the mission gets difficult once she actually falls in love him. This story of intrigue and forbidden romance seduced $65.1 million from global audiences. Nearly all of that came from international territories, with China and Hong Kong pulling in tons of box office revenue.

Domestically, "Lust, Caution" made $4.6 million, one of Lee's lower North American box office hauls. However, given that "Lust, Caution" only played at 143 locations at its peak, with dialogue all in Mandarin, that's still a respectable domestic sum. Plus, it cracked the top 10 highest-grossing NC-17 movies of all time in this territory, and it's the second-biggest 21st-century NC-17 movie domestically. Even with a $15 million budget — significantly higher than most NC-17 titles — "Lust, Caution" still proved to be another box office hit for Lee and one that broke unprecedented box office ground for movies with this rating.