Most Controversial Movie Moments of All Time

Just because a movie is good doesn’t mean it’s without issues. In fact, many of the greatest and most memorable movies of all time feature controversial scenes that shocked audiences or even got them banned.

This list features heavy doses of sex and violence, but there are also plenty of other ways to cause controversy. Here are just 20 of the most controversial movie moments of all time.

20. Silence of the Lambs

Buffalo Bill looks into the camera during his dance scene in 'Silence of the Lambs'
Buffalo Bill during his dance scene in Silence of the Lambs | Orion Pictures

There’s no denying that Silence of the Lambs is a great film. But it’s also impossible to ignore the sheer creepiness of it all — and no scene exemplifies that better than the one where Buffalo Bill dances.

This iconic moment takes place most of the way through the movie, with scenes of the man in question getting dressed and applying makeup interspersed with those of the young woman Catherine Martinm who he captured and is keeping in a well. As she calls out to his toy poodle to save her, Buffalo Bill stares into a camera, writhing while nearly naked, with his penis tucked between his legs.

What the scene came under fire for was the idea that this depiction of Buffalo Bill painted any man who pretended to be a woman as insane and dangerous. But it’s actually a very humanizing scene, showing the character’s frustration at not being taken seriously in regards to his gender identity.

19. American History X

Derek pulls down a white shirt to reveal a swastika tattoo in American History X
Derek in American History X | New Line Cinema

This intentionally terrifying yet riveting drama from the late ‘90s contains several shocking scenes. But there’s no doubt that the interaction between Edward Norton (who earned an Oscar nomination for this role) and Antonio David Lyons is the most controversial of them all.

Derek, a white supremacist, becomes extraordinarily violent one evening. The moment in question sees him attacking a pair of black men — one of whom he murders by forcing him to bend down and “bite” the curb of the sidewalk, then disturbingly stomps on the man’s head. Derek is sent to prison for this incident, but the depiction itself is unshakable.

18. Reservoir Dogs

A man stands in an torture chamber in Reservoir Dogs
Perhaps the most famous scene in the iconic movie | Miramax Films

Every Quentin Tarantino film has at least one truly disturbing scene. Arguably the most famous is featured in his first feature length film, the cult classic Reservoir Dogs.

Mr. Blonde ties up and tortures Marvin Nash, a cop he kidnapped. Blonde cuts off Nash’s ear, all while dancing around and smiling and then pours gasoline all over him. Just as he’s about to light him on fire, a very injured Mr. Orange sits up and shoots him several times, killing him, before revealing to Nash that he’s an undercover cop.

This is twisted Tarantino at his finest and, therefore, his most controversial.


17. Brokeback Mountain

Two men lay next to each other in Brokeback Mountain
The infamous love scene from Brokeback Mountain | River Road Entertainment

Films that break barriers often stir up controversy. Brokeback Mountain, one of the most highly acclaimed movies of 1997, featured a star-crossed lovers situation between two men — and this didn’t go over well with everyone.

The scene that was cited time and time again comes early in the film. Cowboys Ennis and Jack, after working together all summer, break down and give in to their sexual attraction to one another. Conservative groups had a lot to say about this, despite the relatively tame nature of the sex scene (the men were both fully clothed, and no explicit body parts were seen).

16. A Clockwork Orange

A woman in red opens a door in a mirrored hallway in A Clockwork Orange
This scene was considered highly controversial. | Warner Bros.

Sometimes it’s not about what happened, but how a scene makes the audience feel, that makes an impact. The violent dystopian Stanley Kubrick film, A Clockwork Orange, features such a scene.

In showing just how awful Alex DeLarge and his gang of droogs are, a terrifying scene depicts them breaking into the home of an author and attacking him and his wife. At one point, Alex appears to rape the woman while singing the usually cheery tune, “Singin’ in the Rain.”

However, despite this being deemed “the rape scene,” some have pointed out that it’s more alluded to than anything else. Take from that what you will.

15. Requiem for a Dream

A young Jennifer Connelly in Requiem for a Dream
Jennifer Connelly in Requiem for a Dream | Artisan Entertainment

Surrealist filmmaker Darren Aronofsky is another who likes to push the limits with his directing. In fact, his second film, Requiem for a Dream, was met with such controversy that it was released as unrated, for one scene in particular.

While the parallel drug use of the Goldfarbs is shocking alone, what really got to the MPAA was a sex scene featuring Jennifer Connelly. Her character, Marion, is so inflicted by her heroin addiction that she performs a disturbing sex act with another woman as several men watch. All four of the leads hit rock bottom at the same time, but Marion’s is arguably the most scarring for audiences.

14. American Psycho

A man in a suit stands with in a room with two woman in lingerie
American Psycho definitely raised a few eyebrows. | Lionsgate Films via YouTube

Outside events often shape the way a film is perceived. American Psycho, which chronicled the downward spiral of a serial killer, featured many depictions of violence. However, as Nylon reminds us, Columbine was still fresh in our minds at this time, and there was a lot of backlash in regards to the Bret Easton Ellis novel the film was based on.

The scene in question features Patrick Bateman engaging in his second threesome of the film. In the first, he had tortured two prostitutes, athough we only saw the aftermath, where they left the apartment sustaining injuries.

But when Bateman calls upon one of them, Christie, for another threesome, things get more violent. He kills the third in their tryst and then, when Christie runs away, chases her with a chainsaw, which he drops down a stairwell, killing her at the very bottom.

13. Apocalypse Now

A man in underwear performs an animal sacrifice in Apocalypse Now
The controversial sacrifice scene | Omni Zoetrope

Many people encourage realism in films, but there’s a reason directors rely on movie magic sometimes. In the case of Apocalypse Now, there was a real life-and-death consequence to maintaining authenticity.

At the end of the film, a group of Vietnamese soldiers perform a ritual sacrifice in which they slaughter a water buffalo. In fact, they actually kill the animal in the scene, in a horrific moment involving a machete. The American Humane Society was not pleased, among others.

12. The Birds

A hoard of black birds from The Birds
The Birds | Universal Pictures

When it comes to horror films, what’s seen on camera is rarely the way things play behind the scenes. But in rare instances, the reality is even worse than the final product.

Playing the leading lady in Hitchcock’s The Birds was a monumental task for actress Tippi Hendren. In the infamous bedroom scene, she’s attacked by birds — which she was told, prior to shooting, would be mechanical.

According to People, it took five days to film the shot, and Hedren called the experience “brutal and ugly and relentless.” Of course, no one knew this at the time, but more details about the film and Hitchcock as a whole have come to light in recent years, painting a dark picture of the once-revered man.

11. The Birth of a Nation

Men in white robes and masks throw up their hands in The Birth of a Nation
The Birth of a Nation | Epoch Producing Co.

It’s hard to pick just one moment from this controversial 1915 film. The Birth of a Nation was a staunchly racist piece of propaganda and has been credited with reinvigorating the Ku Klux Klan at the time. From white actors in blackface to the inaccurate and demeaning depiction of people of color, perhaps the sum of all of these is the climax, in which the Confederate soldiers rescue a white woman from “sex crazed” black men.

If such a film were made today, there would inevitably be repercussions. However, at the time, the movie received almost universal acclaim, even as the NAACP fought tirelessly against it.

10. The Godfather

A man pets a horse in The Godfather
The Godfather | Paramount Pictures

The lack of regard for animal rights in the ‘70s in Hollywood is sad. A movie as classic as The Godfather made waves for several reasons, but none as controversial as this one.

The famous horse’s head scene was meant to show just how far the Don will go to fulfill a request. He has the head of a film executive’s stallion cut off and placed in his bed in order to convince the man to cast his godson in a movie. But what’s truly shocking is that a real horse’s head was used on set, information that was found unsettling to most when it was later revealed.

9. Seven

Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman stand outside and face each other in Seven
Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman in Seven | New Line Cinema

An intriguing concept for a film, Seven follows Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman’s detective characters as they investigate a series of murders, each one linked to one of the seven deadly sins. While all are gruesome in their own right, it’s the scene featuring the Sloth victim that most offended audiences.

The first two victims discovered are dead when they arrive, and this appears to be the case as well with the third. However, upon closer inspection, they learn that the mutilated body in front of them is actually still alive. This scene set a standard for shocking creepiness.

8. Wolf Creek

A man in a flannel shirt and fedora stands in a garage in Wolf Creek
Wolf Creek was full of horrific scenes. | Roadshow Entertainment

When sexual assault and seeing a person nailed to a crucifix aren’t the most horrifying elements in a film, you know it has to be a controversial one. Indeed, horror flick Wolf Creek is one that went heavy on the shock value, even being marketed as “based on true events,” despite a very loose correlation.

The scene that topped them all was the “head on a stick” moment, in which a woman is stabbed, has her fingers chopped off, headbutted, and then paralyzed when her spinal cord is severed, all in a very short period of time. Oh, and at the end of this, she was still alive, so that her torturer can interrogate her.

7. The Human Centipede

The Human Centipede's Dr. Josef Heiter stands in front of a projection screen
The Human Centipede isn’t for the faint of heart. | Bounty Films

If it wasn’t obvious that this film was controversial from the moment it was announced, you weren’t paying attention. For many, it’s cringeworthy just to discuss the idea behind it — a surgeon who captures victims and stitches them together, mouth to anus.

So what scene really disturbed viewers? Likely when we first see one of them defecate and the person who is forced to swallow the excrement. Somehow, enough people are fascinated by this horrifying concept that sequels were made.

6. The Passion of the Christ

A bloodied man lays on the ground in The Passion of the Christ
The Passion of the Christ | Bryanston Pictures

Many films, including some on this list, have faced a backlash from conservative Christian groups. But this one was on the receiving end of a different form of criticism, coming from Jewish organizations.

In one scene, a character, Caiaphas, says a line that has been cited as placing blame on the Jewish people for Jesus’ death. In addition to this, the film was incredibly violent, which offended even those who didn’t believe it was overtly anti semitic.

5. Aladdin

A castle in the opening scene of Disney's Aladdin.
The opening scene of Aladdin | Disney

What is a Disney movie doing on here, you may ask? Well, before it became a bit more PC, the Mouse was often careless in its racism and sexism. A lot of this was primarily inadvertent, but one major example was pointed out that actually resulted in real action.

In the opening song “Arabian Nights,” the narrator sings about Agrabah as a place “where they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face,” then acknowledged that this is “barbaric.” This line was changed when the film was released on VHS, but the impact was still felt.

4. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

A man in a mask and suit holds a chainsaw in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
It wouldn’t be a horror movie night without The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. | Bryanston Pictures

It can be hard to shock an audience when it comes to horror these days, which is why classic films of the genre were the ones that faced most of the backlash back in their day. But there are still scenes that give us the chills for decades, including this one from the original The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Overall, the film was one of the most controversial of all time, but one moment, in particular, was called out by critics. In it, a girl has a meat hook pushed through her skin into her back, and she is forced to hang there while watching her boyfriend murdered in front of her.

3. Team America: World Police

Team America: World Police character poster.
Team America: World Police | Paramount Pictures

When a film sets out to offend its audience, the result is often laughable. And while Team America: World Police may provoke a few chuckles, almost every scene was a punch in the gut to someone out there.

Due to the 2004 release date, one of the most timely (and therefore, most provocative) elements was the focus on terrorism. Audiences are even, at one point, made to feel sorry for North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il.

2. The Brown Bunny

A woman sits on a man's lap and looks into his eyes in The Brown Bunny
The Brown Bunny | Wellspring Media

Hyperrealism strikes again in The Brown Bunny. The art house film became known for the feud it invoked between creator Vincent Gallo and critic Roger Ebert, but there was a particular scene that also brought in a lot of attention.

The scene in question sees Chloe Sevigny, in character, perform oral sex on Gallo’s Bud Clay. No movie magic or camera tricks were involved here — the two did, in fact, engage in the sexual act on camera. Sevigny has spoken about the moment since, saying that she’s “proud” of her performance in the film, but doesn’t wish to ever repeat the experience.

1. Last Tango in Paris

A man and woman sit in front of a mirror
The scene that got Bernardo Bertolucci in hot water | United Artists

Saving the best (or worst) for last, Last Tango in Paris is known for one thing above all else: The controversy surrounding the scene in which Marlon Brando’s character anally rapes Maria Schneider’s Jeanne using butter as a lubricant.

Schneider spoke out against the scene after the fact, and it drove a wedge between her and director Bernardo Bertolucci. Bertolucci faced criminal charges for the scene, though he later went on to call the outrage “ridiculous.”

Read More: 15 Movies With the Worst Twist Endings

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