By Steven Erickson
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In the past decade, the term “artsploitation” emerged to describe films that have one foot in the arthouse and another in the grindhouse. They combine elements of international art cinema with pornography and horror flicks, often using extremely explicit sex and violence. Not surprisingly, most artsploitation films that play in the U.S. are screened without an official rating by the MPAA (who would likely bestow the “kiss-of-death” rating of NC-17), and many have faced censorship problems around the world.
Yet the scenes in these films are no less objectionable than PG-13 summer blockbusters where 100 people get shot with no serious consequences. And they follow a time-honored tradition of envelope-pushing work that dates back to the Surrealist films of Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali. Some of them, like Michael Haneke’s Funny Games and Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible, could hardly be more earnest about their desire to push the ethical boundaries of cinema. One thing’s for sure: looking at these films, you won’t be bored.
10. Shortbus (dir. John Cameron Mitchell)
Set around a raunchy salon, whose atmosphere one character describes as “like the ‘60s, but with less hope,” Shortbus lays out the oft-tormented relationships and sex lives of its characters. One of the few recent American films to feature unsimulated sex, Shortbus is also notable for looking remarkably upbeat compared to the rest of the films on this list.
9. Irreversible (dir. Gaspar Noé)
Infamous for its 10-minute rape scene, Irreversible is also a stylistic tour-de-force, drawing inspiration from the respectable likes of Stanley Kubrick and Michael Snow. It’s been criticized for making its rapist a gay man, but few of its critics have noticed that some of the straight characters are equally vicious.
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8. The Idiots (dir. Lars von Trier)
Lars von Trier’s neo-hippie commune of “idiots” like to hold orgies when they’re not pretending to be mentally and physically challenged in public in order to shock the bourgeois. Into this hothouse climate, an innocent woman enters. Can her idealism withstand the ambient hypocrisy? The MPAA spared sensitive American viewers the sight of the actors’ genitalia, placing black bars on top of them.
7. Funny Games (dir. Michael Haneke)
Haneke’s reflexive thriller depicts the physical and psychological torture of an upper-middle-class family at the hands of two psychotic young men. However, the villains know they’re in a movie, and they speak to the audience as if talking to willing accomplices. Upon American release in 1998, Funny Games was savaged by critics. However, it eventually found a receptive audience on cable and DVD. Its power to disturb is unquestionable. Haneke uses sound design and off-screen space brilliantly, suggesting way more disturbing bloodshed than the film actually shows. Opt for the Austrian original over the mediocre American remake.
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Steve Erickson is a freelance critic who lives in New York. He writes for Gay City News, The Nashville Scene, the Tribeca Film Festival’s website, ArtForum, Film Comment and other publications.