From 1934 to 1968, the majority of Hollywood films abided by the Hays Code, a system of self-censorship with scrupulous moral standards promulgated by the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America. The Hays Code was discarded in 1968, and what had by then been renamed the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) introduced a new rating system, dividing films into four categories based on perceived appropriateness for various age groups. (Today there are five categories, defined slightly differently.)
The original R (for “restricted’) rating limited viewers to those over 16 unless accompanied by a parent or adult guardian (today’s R raises the age to 17), and it free filmmakers from the restraints of censorship. A school of emerging directors seized the moment, channeling new modes of expression and changing the face of cinema in the process.
Some of them used the new freedom as an excuse to depict copious violence and dispense as many F-bombs as each character could muster. Nevertheless, precious few movie-lovers will argue against the glorious benefits of undiluted creative expression.
Nowadays, R-rated movies make up the majority of releases, by a wide margin; in 2018, it was reported that out of 29,791 films rated by the MPAA since 1968, 17,202 had been R’s. 24/7 Tempo has assembled a list of the best R-rated movies ever made — but they certainly haven’t all been masterpieces. (Check out this list of the worst R-rated movies ever made.)
To identify the best R-rated movies ever made, 24/7 Tempo reviewed a database of over 17,000 movies and calculated an index of each movie’s rating on IMDb and its audience score and Tomatometer scores on Rotten Tomatoes. IMdb is an online movie database owned by Amazon. Rotten Tomatoes is an online movie and TV review aggregator. Domestic box office figures came from The Numbers, an online movie database owned by consulting firm Nash Information Services, last updated in April 2021. Box office figures are not inflation adjusted. Casting and other supplemental data comes from IMDb.
But it’s no coincidence that a number of cinematic classics also happen to be rated R. Obvious examples include everything from “The Godfather” to “Pulp Fiction” to “Raging Bull,” to name just a few. Not just adored by critics and audiences alike, at least some of these films also performed quite well at the box office. (On a related note, here are the biggest box office hits since 2000).