Sharon Stone in 'Basic Instinct'

Many people think that a movie needs to avoid an R-rating in order to become a blockbuster. Most recent top earners have followed that dictum, with only four R-rated movies among last year's top 25 at the box office. Zack Snyder's 300 was a defiant exception in 2007, earning more than $456 million worldwide, and clearing the way for Snyder's R-rated dream project, Watchmen. Its content advisory warns / promises: "Strong graphic violence, sexuality, nudity and language." Can such an R-rated superhero movie become a blockbuster today, especially in the wake of PG-13 smashes like The Dark Knight and Iron Man?

If the history of the movies has taught us anything, it's that people will flock to see films that they really, really want to see, no matter the rating. As evidence, here are seven R-rated films with strong, adult content that may have made some folks blanch -- but it didn't keep the flicks from becoming blockbusters.

Basic Instinct
Paul Verhoeven's thriller has it all: sex, violence, profanity, and very adult themes. The most notorious shot features Sharon Stone's, er, legs, but the flick also includes male and female nudity, intense sex scenes, stabbing, blood spattering, dozens of profanities, and relentless sexual innuendos. But it's not just a sensationalist button-pusher. Indeed, Basic Instinct lives up to its title in its dogged, sometimes earnest exploration of the basest desires known to man or woman. It may have tittilated, but it also made you think long after the credits rolled.

Saving Private Ryan
Far too many war movies make war look like a glorious adventure, failing to acknowledge the sheer terror and random nature of a full-tilt battle royale. As a whole, Saving Private Ryan has its faults, but the D-Day beach storming sequence near the beginning left scars on my psyche. It's riveting filmmaking, to be sure, yet it's the sickening, explicit violence that drives home the impact. This is a case where the R rating enabled Steven Spielberg to depict very adult subject matter in a mature manner. The harsh profanity reflected the harsh reality the soldiers faced. People wanted to try and understand what "the greatest generation" experienced, and the film helped do that.

Just thinking about this movie makes me want to take a shower. Written by Andrew Kevin Walker and directed by David Fincher, Se7en begins on an ominous note and then tightens its grip minute by minute. The death scenes are grisly, grimy, stomach-turning, and disturbing. Though there's a ton of profanity, it's used wisely and judiciously: Brad Pitt's character spits them out as a means of expressing himself, while Morgan Freeman's character barely curses, if at all. Se7en is such a powerful experience that it transcends its potentially objectionable content.

There's Something About Mary
On first viewing, I thought this was the dirtiest comedy I'd ever seen. Cheerfully smutty, the Farrelly Brothers make a mockery of political correctness in their most fully-realized effort. Like Basic Instinct before it, There's Something About Mary has one notorious shot featuring genitals (Ben Stiller and his careless zipper). Another showcases a bodily fluid that had seldom, if ever, been seen in a mainstream Hollywood film -- and definitely not in a woman's hair. Mary became a 'gotta see it' sensation simply because it was so outrageously funny.

The Passion of the Christ
Wow, even I think Mel Gibson went too far, especially in the flogging and nailing scenes, but I can understand (without agreeing) with his viewpoint that explicit, bloody depictions of the violence were necessary in order to fully convey the pain that was inflicted. Not many sincere, religious pictures get made any more, and Gibson's dedication to making a respectful version of Christ's suffering definitely resonated with many spiritually-inclined people who don't go to movies anymore.

The Exorcist
On the flip side of things, religiously speaking, William Friedkin's The Exorcist was so intense that even without any sexually-charged profanity or blood and bodily fluid spillage -- which it has in fair abundance -- it might have deservedly received an R. Still, this became a must-see, with crowds lining up around the block, despite -- and perhaps because of -- the sensational content.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day
Like The Rock and The Matrix, James Cameron's T2: JD gots its rating primarily because of the violence. With all three movies, the intensity and explicit nature of the violence depicted gives the action scenes the extra "ouch" factor that marked them as being willing to inflict serious, permanent damage in the name of entertainment. Yet the sometimes sensational violence is only a small part of the overall scheme of things. Of all the films on this list, T2: JD is the one that sets the standard for would-be blockbusters like Watchmen by depicting outlandish action perpetrated by superpowered creatures in the context of a believable human story.

I drew my picks from the top 200 worldwide blockbusters published by Box Office Mojo. I left off some very decent flicks that barely glided into R-rated territory because of too many breasts and/or f-bombs (Beverly Hills Cop, Pretty Woman, Rain Man, Wedding Crashers, The Firm, Jerry Maguire) . Let us know your picks in the comment section -- you're definitely not limited to the relative few mentioned above -- and why their R-rating was essential to their success.

categories Cinematical