What makes a sex scene sexy? More to the point, what makes a sex scene good? That’s become an especially thorny question in recent years, with detailed accounts of what goes on behind the scenes of movies we love complicating our relationship with their most memorable moments. And though we’re ever so slowly moving away from the male gaze serving as the default perspective on love, sex, and everything between, there’s still a long way to go.
That is, if sex scenes still appear in movies at all. They do, but with greater infrequency, certainly in Hollywood studio productions. Though many think-pieces have been written about “the death of the sex scene” there’s still been a lot to celebrate over the last 23 years. A number of sex-positive, LGBTQ-friendly, and otherwise forward-thinking filmmakers have directed scenes that are as steamy as they are moving. There’s nothing missionary about the movies below — S&M, threesomes, self-love, peaches, and puppet sex all abound — but there is substance to these sex scenes. Here are the best sex scenes in cinematic history, listed chronologically from 2000 to 2023.
Samantha Bergeson, Jude Dry, David Ehrlich, Kate Erbland, Eric Kohn, Jenna Marotta, Noel Murray, Michael Nordine, Chris O’Falt, Jamie Righetti, and Zack Sharf also contributed to this list.
[Editor’s note: This list was published in 2017, and has been updated multiple times since.]
“Love & Basketball” (2000)
Gina Prince-Bythewood’s 2000 romance “Love & Basketball” is memorable for its star-studded cast —Alfre Woodard, Regina Hall, Dennis Haysbert, and Gabrielle Union — and kicking off the portrayal of the WNBA in cinema. But it’s the love scene between childhood soulmates Monica (Sanaa Lathan) and Quincy (Omar Epps) that is among our top tender love scenes of all time. Why? Well, it’s the pent-up emotion between the two characters spanning a decade together that grounds this sports movie-meets-rom-com.
Prince-Bythewood previously described the scene as a feminist fantasy of what a woman’s first sexual experience should feel like. “I kind of wanted to give a blueprint for boys and girls of what to expect,” the director told Madame Noire. “Love & Basketball” even first earned an R rating from the MPA because the sex scene felt too “real” despite a lack of onscreen nudity. Eventually, the film landed a PG-13, but that sex scene is still just as powerfully memorable. —SB
You’d be forgiven for never having watched (or even heard of) Joel Schumacher’s “Tigerland,” an early digital feature about a ragtag group of draftees waiting to go die in Vietnam; very few people saw the movie, but every one of them wanted to cast Colin Farrell in whatever they made next. Farrell plays Roland Bozz, a rebellious young soldier who specializes in helping guys wiggle out of the war, and we learn all about his fun-loving philosophy in a memorable early scene that forever redefines the term “grunt.”
Farrell and the most tight-assed member of his unit (Matthew Davis) sneak out to a strip club, where they run into two incredibly thirsty young ladies (Arian Ash and Haven Gaston). Roland announces he’s rented a hotel room where they’re all going to “fuck until the war’s over.” They don’t last quite that long, but the four actors do manage to engage in the sweatiest sex scene of the 21st century (and one of the loudest, to boot), Matthew Libatique’s DV cinematography infusing an intimacy to a scene that’s almost too seedy for its own good. Schumacher cuts things short, but all that humping makes it clear that there are better things to do in this life than get killed for nothing. —DE
“Y Tu Mamá También” (2001)
In Alfonso Cuarón’s ravishing coming of age drama, horny bros Julio (Gael García Bernal) and Tenoch (Diego Luna) launch on a freewheeling road trip with Luisa (Maribel Verdú), a sultry older woman whose husband has been cheating on her; on a whim, she decides to follow the guys on an extensive trip to the beach, where erotic hijinks ensue. Early in the movie, Julio and Tenoch’s sexual confidence collapses to great comic effect in separate encounters with the experienced Luisa, whose own desires speak to a deeper emotional frustration simmering just below the surface. After the trio feud and the boys nearly destroy their friendship, the group reunite at a dusty bar and get hammered, finally stabilizing their chemistry in a boisterous evening that culminates with the three of them hitting the sack together.
Unlike the fleeing earlier sex scenes, this one unfolds with a slow-burn passion and an unexpected homoerotic twist that brings unspoken aspects of Julio and Tenoch’s bond to the foreground with radical results. Imagine “Jules and Jim” with a progressive eye towards sexual liberation: Cuarón stages this bisexual union less as a kind of shock-and-awe revelation than the inevitable outcome of two men whose bond is so close it may as well lead to lust. It’s a powerful sequence so rich in ambiguity it remains one of Cuarón’s greatest achievements almost 20 years down the line. —EK
“Mulholland Drive” (2001)
“I’m in love with you.” David Lynch’s masterpiece veers between the horrific and the surreal from one scene to the next, but very rarely is it genuinely touching. Here, in Betty and Rita’s long-awaited love scene, it’s that and more — we finally see all the ways in which they not only desire one another but, on some cellular level that they’ll never fully understand, can’t exist without each other. Naomi Watts and Laura Elena Harring are tasked with a lot in the scene, conveying steamy passion and soul-baring longing all at once; that there isn’t a stitch of clothing between the two of them only makes the balancing act more impressive (and, yes, painfully sexy).
It’s a tender reprieve from the waking dream they find themselves navigating, together at first but then separately, and one that neither will enjoy waking from. —MN
Adrian Lyne’s last great film “Unfaithful” is stuffed with all manner of sex scenes, as Connie (Diane Lane) throws herself into oblivion over a sexy and insinuating, vaguely European book dealer named Paul (Olivier Martinez). Their feverishly unfettered affair finds them having sex in all the places, public and private, from a restaurant bathroom to a movie theater during a matinee. These two never met a place they couldn’t get down in.
But the film’s greatest throwdown arrives as Connie becomes consumed by jealousy, confronting Paul at his apartment over a possible other flame. In the heat of her flying out the door, he rips off her clothes and, well, takes her from the back in the hallway of his comically large Soho apartment, the sort that only exists in an Adrian Lyne movie. Connie’s utter tragic downfall is fascinating to watch — look for a key scene where she hastily wipes herself down in the bathroom of a commuter train, electrified — and here meets its apotheosis. —RL
Steven Shainberg’s 2002 romance is a sticky wicket — especially these days — detailing the burgeoning sadomasochistic relationship between timid, titular secretary Lee (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and her exceedingly demanding boss (James Spader). While Shainberg’s movie treats the kink respectfully — and, honestly, quite sexily — the film eventually moves into different waters, using it as a mechanism from which the two explore past traumas and attempt to move past them, literally healed by love.
When Spader’s Mr. Grey (tee hee) balks at the progression of their relationship, Lee refuses to give up on their love, eventually breaking him down and pushing them into a true romance. They consummate that choice with a truly tender love-making scene that still packs the pop of their earlier sequences, all with the added wallop of eternal emotion. —KE
“The Dreamers” (2003)
The first of many sex scenes in Bernardo Bertolucci’s “The Dreamers” is, uh…well, it’s a bloody mess. Let’s start with Matthew (Michael Pitt). After weeks of palling around with a pair of vaguely incestuous French twins (Eva Green and Louis Garrel as Isabelle and Théo), the three kids hiding from the turmoil of the 1968 Paris student riots by staying cooped up inside the siblings’ apartments and playing all sorts of cinephile sex games, he and Isabelle finally break the fourth wall and deflower each other.
Théo doesn’t miss a moment of the action — on the contrary, he orchestrates the entire tryst, standing over his sister and her suitor as they writhe on top of each other on the kitchen floor. The further they go into each other the further they distance themselves from the outside world, and that can only end in a very rude awakening. But, for the first time since they initially discovered the movies, these crazy kids aren’t living their lives through a screen. —DE
“Swimming Pool” (2003)
The hallucinatory imagery of François Ozon’s film looks and feels like an erotic dream, but what makes it so sexy is the line is often blurred between what is a secret desire and open lust. It’s a dynamic that becomes incredibly charged in the relationship between a middle-aged British author (Charlotte Rampling) and a sexually liberated French teen (Ludivine Sagnier). In this scene the camera explores the young woman’s glistening sun-bathing body almost as if gently stroking her. When we see the shadow of Rampling standing over her, Ozon breaks continuity and enters a dream like state where the Sagnier is touching herself. Eyes closed as she masturbates, the sound makes it seem like it is almost shared experience, but it remains intensely private and voyeuristic. —CO
“Team America: World Police” (2004)
The most (in)famous moment in “South Park” creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s second movie is also the funniest. After professing their love for each other, two members of the eponymous counterterrorism force engage in the most graphic puppet sex you’ve ever seen — first with a quiet sensuality, and then with a level of kink that no live-action movie could hope to get past the MPAA. The scene is quite long, because it’s not as though Parker and Stone were going to restrain themselves when it came time to film their puppet-sex sequence, and increasingly hilarious as it goes on.
It’s also among the most over-the-top ridiculous set-pieces the two have ever devised — which is really, really saying something — as well as further proof of what they’re capable of when unbound by the restraints of television (and, for that matter, good taste). With so many sad and/or moving sequences to ponder on this list, revisit the uncut version of this one to remind yourself that sex scenes can be funny, too. —MN
“Brokeback Mountain” (2005)
On a ranch in 1960s Wyoming, sheepherder Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal) and cook Ennis (Heath Ledger) become unexpectedly intertwined in Best Director winner Ang Lee’s poignant film. After gaining each other’s trust over late-night, whiskey-soaked tales of foreclosed farms and rodeo glory, Jack beckons Ennis into his tent when their campfire goes out. Ennis wakes up aghast to be sharing such intimate space with a man, Jack grabs his shoulders to steady him, then they lock eyes for long time, calculating what is about to happen, nearly erupting into punches. Before they have sex, Ennis undergoes a mental battle between remaining an “acceptable” man and giving himself to Jack, who he desires. Soon after, Ennis contends their coupling was a “one-shot thing,” but neither they nor the audience believe it. —JM
Despite what the Amazon Prime censors might think, “Shortbus” is more than just a depraved string of unsimulated sex scenes (though if that’s your thing, you won’t be disappointed). In his bold and beautiful second feature, the great John Cameron Mitchell followed up “Hedwig and The Angry Inch” with a provocative love letter to his post-9/11 New York. Following a compelling trio of lonely protagonists and the eccentric characters in their orbits, “Shortbus” is one of the funniest and most sincere portrayals of alternative sexualities ever made. That it’s wrapped in a surprisingly touching celebration of human connection that presaged our increasingly isolating world is just Mitchell’s boyish genius at work.
Though there are a wealth of sex scenes choose from — a dominatrix session ending with a splattering takedown of Jackson Pollack, a real-life orgy featuring Mitchell performing cunnilingus for the first (but perhaps not the last) time, and an anatomically impressive self-fellatio — the title of best sex scene in “Shortbus” must go to its most joyous and playful: The wildly creative threesome between partners “the Jamies” and their new lover Ceth (pronounced: Seth). From an intimate twist on the very hungry caterpillar to an oddly delightful rendition of the Star Spangled Banner sung into a butthole, this blessedly lengthy montage of a blossoming triad’s evolving configuration is an unmitigated pleasure. It’s funny, inventive, celebratory, and wholly unique. And it won’t be forgotten anytime soon. —JD
“Black Swan” (2010)
“Black Swan” is in many ways a male director’s fantasy of what it means to drive a woman, or an actress, insane, a “Repulsion” revamp that makes a definitive and horrifyingly beautiful stamp on the genre. The film’s trashiest apex finds virginal ballerina Nina (Natalie Portman) finally under the MDMA-induced sway of Lily (Mila Kunis) at a nightclub, and the pair wend their way woozily back to Nina’s Upper East Side apartment, which she shares with her equally mentally unstable and domineering mother (a fabulously off-kilter Barbara Hershey). But is this a hallucination, and is Nina actually just fucking herself? Lily goes down on her, revealing an anthropomorphic, wing-like tattoo that takes on a creepy, undulating power as Nina breaks the wall down to her own sexuality.
The whole point of the movie is really that she needs to tear down her sexual barriers (partly courtesy of her ballet instructor played by Vincent Cassell) to realize who she is. This scene is wild, but in the harrowing light of the hungover next day, she’s only alone with herself, and was it all a dream? It’s exacerbated by Clint Mansell’s menacing score and Darren Aronofsky’s typically perverse eye. —RL
“Blue Valentine” (2010)
The doomed romance between Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams) is explored through a series of intercut flashbacks that reveal a portrait of a very real relationship in “Blue Valentine.” Although the passion between Cindy and Dean is undeniable, it is also hampered by the past, both by Cindy’s ex-boyfriend, Bobby, and the baby she carries, which is likely not Dean’s. But even when they are fighting, their attraction to each other is undeniable. In one of the film’s more infamous sex scenes, Cindy lays on the edge of the bed trembling as Dean slowly pulls off her boots one by one, slips off her underwear and performs oral sex.
It isn’t a graphic scene, there isn’t any nudity, but instead we see Cindy’s heightened pleasure, hear her gasps and moans intermingled with Dean’s own muffled exhales as traffic whizzes by outside of the window. Cindy grips a fistful of Dean’s hair, whispering “not yet, not yet,” eager to hold onto that one moment of joy for just a moment longer. The scene of course caused the film to receive an NC-17 rating from the MPAA, and Gosling spoke out about the double standard in cinema, highlighting that there are plenty of films that depict oral sex given by women that are never labeled as pornographic and asking why depicting a woman receiving pleasure would be seen so. Eventually, the film was given an R rating without any edits and it remains one of the most heartbreaking but realistic depictions of relationship sex in cinema. —JR
Andrew Haigh’s intimate and finely tuned debut includes at least two sumptuous sex scenes, but it’s the one we don’t see that kicks off its two-day liaison, taking us along for the ride. Haigh artfully captures the unique thrill of an unexpected connection with a stranger, and the singular pleasure of the first hookup with a person you might actually like. As Glen (Chris New) cajoles Russell (Tom Cullen) into recounting the details into his tape recorder, we learn that Russell is quite shy about sex.
Through Russell’s coy recounting and Glen’s cheeky prodding, the new lovers write their shared memory of that first night together. Someone hesitated to take his shirt off, someone else has a “thing” for armpits. The interpersonal dynamics are clear; the cruder details made more intimate by their absence. It is only later on that we are treated to the sticky stomach hair, or the measured exhales of a first-time act, each rendered with artful eroticism. But that first encounter, the one we never see, is the movie’s most important. —JD
17. “Her” (2013)
It was only a matter of time before we were offered a memorable sex scene featuring no physical contact. Spike Jonze’s virtual love story is one of the most affecting in years not despite its digital component but because of it — no other movie this side of “The Social Network” captures modern-day yearning with such vivid precision. Like nearly everything else in “Her,” Theodore and Samantha’s first “physical” encounter could easily have been laughable were it not carried out by Jonze, Joaquin Phoenix, and Scarlett Johansson.
The scene in question consists of little more than him telling her what he’d do to her if they were actually, truly together, but it’s preceded by so much tension and connection that it feels no less real than the kind of racy scene that requires a closed set. The screen goes dark as his descriptions get more detailed and graphic, leaving us to imagine the scenario just as they are. “You feel real to me,” Theodore tells her before they start. At the end of the day, what else matters? —MN
“Gone Girl” (2014)
With her Best Actress–nominated performance, Rosamund Pike also delivered a diabolical sex scene in which she was the sole survivor. To punish her husband Nick (Ben Affleck) — who not only cheated on her, but also uprooted their union from Manhattan to Missouri — sadistic Amy Dunne (Pike) first frames him for her murder, then decides to return home after witnessing his talk-show mea culpa.
To justify her disappearance, the cinematic sister of Alex Forrest and Catherine Trammel pretends as if she was assaulted: While having sex with her ex-boyfriend, Desi (American sweetheart Neil Patrick Harris), Amy retrieves a boxcutter hidden underneath a pillow and slashes his throat as he climaxes. Doused with Desi’s blood, Amy cooly gets on top for a few final thrusts. She immediately drives home to dramatically collapse into Nick’s arms, flanked by a yard-full of paparazzi. —JM
The 21st century has given cinema two sex classic scenes involving puppet characters, but where “Team America” goes bombastically over-the-top, “Anomalisa” goes piercingly intimate. Charlie Kaufman’s characters are deeply insecure and imperfect in a way every human can relate to, which makes the sight of puppets performing oral sex on each other feel necessarily awkward, sweet, and, ultimately hopeful. You don’t expect the “Anomalisa” sex scene to move you the way it does, but that’s what happens when you have two damaged souls finally realizing they have a chance at deep human connection. —ZS
Gaspar Noé’s “Love” has some of the most graphic sex scenes ever filmed, and they were all designed to be shown in 3D no less, but none are as erotically stimulating as the initial threesome that rattles the world of the film’s central couple. Filmed with a pulsating energy that captures the carnal attraction between the characters, Noé crafts a sex scene that actually feels like it will be a relationship game-changer for his characters. Much of the movie takes place in the threesome’s aftermath as the characters aspire to reach that level of connection again. By expertly making the audience feel what that connection is, Noé lays the groundwork for an effective relationship saga. —ZS
12. “Carol” (2015)
One the beautiful aspects of “Carol” is how much weight and emotion is held in a single glance between Carol and Therese, and these moments hold just as much tension and release as the film’s eventual sex scene between the women. The attraction between Carol and Therese is undeniable and it upends everything Therese thought she knew about herself, sending her on her own journey of self-discovery both intertwined and apart from Carol. While staying in a dingy motel in Iowa, Carol stands behind Therese and watches her in the mirror before leaning forward and sharing a passionate kiss. She lays Therese down in bed, running her hands and mouth across Therese’s body, both exploring and initiating Therese.
The scene is packed with passion, as the women simply cannot get enough of each other, their bodies and hair are entangled, their mouths pressed against each other exhaling pure ecstasy. It is both beautiful and erotic but also tinged with heartache as both we and Carol know that finally giving in also means the end. When the women see each other again at the end of the film, Therese is a different woman, more secure and sure of who she is, thanks in part to Carol. It isn’t their final words but Carol’s hand on Therese’s shoulder than sends another surge of emotion (and a wave of tears) once more. —JR
“The Handmaiden” (2016)
The key to the first sex scene in “The Handmaiden” is the prior charged moments of intimacy director Chan-wook Park creates between Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee) and her handmaiden (Kim Tae-ri), which pierce through hierarchical roles between the two women. The moments are oral — shaving a tooth, sucking on a lollipop — and create an atmosphere that feels like they could go at it at any moment…but don’t.
When the two women crawl into bed with each other more than 40 minutes into the film it is not sexual, but open, so open that a naive Hideko feels comfortable to ask what her future husband will want from her in the bedroom after she’s married. Reaching for one of her Lady’s favorite lollipops, the handmaiden uses the prop to role-play. The sex scene slowly builds around the two women’s ability — through dialogue — to be increasingly vulnerable and free with each other, until they eventually lose the lollipop and do things that have little to do with pleasing a future husband. —CO
“American Honey” (2016)
Andrea Arnold’s rangy slice of Americana and freewheeling youth finds its initial footing in the ill-fated romance between Star (breakout Sasha Lane) and Jake (Shia LaBeouf), which crackles with chemistry even as it’s crystal clear how very wrong for each other they are. As the pair and their ragtag mag crew make their way across the country, all in search of a buck and a buzz, the pair move ever-closer together. Part of the pleasure of their courtship is the push-pull factor, with Jake never quite given himself to Star, much as she wants him to.
After a particularly bad day attempting to sell magazine subscriptions to some (possibly?) dastardly cowboys, Jake swoops in to save Star, the kind of gallant move he rarely pulls, with the pair all but dashing off into the sunset in a stolen car. It’s there that they finally consummate their attraction in a hazy, sensual, pink-hued sex scene that’s as satisfying as it is dangerous. —KE
Barry Jenkins’ Oscar-winning “Moonlight” follows the protagonist Chiron through all of the moments that define his coming-of-age, none more sensual or thrillingly intimate as a hand job that occurs late one evening on a beach. Chiron is a teenager at the time who is experiencing his first sexual encounter. Jenkins directs the moment by heightening the sounds of the ocean and the wind and showing images of clenching hands. He shoots the two bodies from behind, Chiron’s head resting on Kevin’s shoulder.
The scene represents more of a climax of bliss than a climax of passion. It’s a delicate moment of serene peace for Chiron and perhaps the first moment where he’s allowed to truly lose himself in his own skin. For one fleeting moment, Chiron’s troubles fade away like the ocean receding from the beach. —ZS
Like the controversial Naomi Alderman novel on which its based, director Sebastián Lelio’s “Disobedience” is a movie about boundaries: generational, religious, social, and sexual. When an Orthodox rabbi dies, his estranged bisexual daughter Ronit (Rachel Weisz) returns to her London home, where she reconnects with Esti (Rachel McAdams), a childhood friend from her father’s congregation. Esti, a lesbian, is trapped in a loveless heterosexual marriage and constantly under the scrutiny of her community. So when she and Ronit sneak away to have sex, they share a moment of absolute freedom, giving in to their wildest desires and giving each other unfettered access to their bodies. The intimacy is epitomized by a moment where Esti licks Ronit’s mouth and Ronit responds by spitting into Esti’s. It’s a scene equal parts erotic, transgr
“God’s Own Country” (2017)
“God’s Own Country” came out the same year as “Call Me by Your Name” and so was largely overshadowed in terms of being a gay coming-of-age romance. But where that film chose to pan to a tree during its hottest scene, “God’s Own Country” goes full throttle into the primal carnalities of its two devastatingly sexy leads, played by Josh O’Connor and Alec Secareanu. Johnny (O’Connor) is intensely closeted, choosing to act out his desires in the loos of the local pub in which he drowns himself nightly.
His family’s new farmhand Gheorghe (Secareaneu), however, is much less restrained, and the simmering eroticism between the pair finally come to a head in a steamy and quite literally filthy moment amidst the muck of dirt and animal excrement: One minute they’re suspended in silent, unspoken attraction, the next they’re rolling around in filth going crazy on each other’s bodies. It’s a wonderfully disgusting and beautiful moment anchored by two actors unafraid to, sure, bare all physically, but also to go there emotionally. —RL
“Call Me by Your Name” (2017)
Luca Guadagnino’s lushly told story of first love is brimming with eroticism and romance at every turn, thanks to both its stunning Italian setting (what doesn’t seem sensual during a Mediterranean summer?) and the rippling chemistry between leads Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer. While contractual agreements keep the film from going all-in on more traditional sex scenes (shout out to that well-placed tree), Chalamet and Hammer do manage to pull off one banger, involving a literally ripe piece of fruit. As Elio, Chalamet is all hormones and nerves and wants, and that eventually leads him to experiment on an innocent peach this sounds weird, but it’s not, it’s actually quite charming — ratcheting up to a decidedly piercing encounter between the two.
Alone, it’s a keen insight into the way desire drives us to do insane things, but it’s bolstered by a late appearance from Hammer as Elio’s newly minted lover Oliver, who delights in both the peach and Elio’s actions in a way that’s raw and tender. Overcome by sharing this level of intimacy with someone he already loves so much, Elio crumbles: “I’m sick!” Oliver has the perfect, pervy response: “I wish everyone was sick like you,” and takes a big old bite of the pilfered peach, letting it become a part of him, too. It’s a perfect profession, the kind that only “CMBYN” could ever pull off. —KE
Ari Aster’s twisted pagan breakup drama “Midsommar” unravels a dysfunctional couple, Dani (Florence Pugh) and Christian (Jack Reynor), over the course of a very unwell vacation gone wrong at a Swedish commune. Their relationship was doomed from frame one, as Dani is hugely traumatized by the mass death of her family, and Christian is fed up with her grief and their sexlessness.
And so, when he’s offered sex in the context of a mating ritual by the maypole-dancing women of the commune, he’s jumping at the offer, but there’s also something a little bit rapey about it even as he’s the one driving the plow. The double-sidedness of the scene is its very edge: Actor Reynor insisted on going full-frontal for the scene, making his vulnerability especially crucial in the lead-up to Dani literally burning him to the ground with a rictus grin. —RL
“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” (2019)
Céline Sciamma’s Cannes-winning epic uses the stifling Victorian era to mirror (literally, you’ll know which scene) the forbidden love between painter Marianne (Noémie Merlant) and bride-to-be Héloise (Adele Haenel). While both women take hallucinogenic drugs, they begin to explore each other’s bodies, slipping their hands under their respective armpits, giving the visual sensation of fingering. The foreplay soon gives way to a fully nude sex scene with Marianne painting Héloise, learning the curves of her hips down into her nether regions with the stroke of her paint brush fingertips. Sciamma told IndieWire that “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is meant to be a heartbreaking memory of a love story, one that reflects a universal romance harkening back to all viewers’ best sex scenes in their personal lives. It doesn’t get any more real than that. —SB
“The Lighthouse” (2019)
Robert Eggers is only three films into his feature directing career, but he has already earned the title of Hollywood’s top chronicler of mermaid vaginas. From the unsubtle phallic symbolism of its title to the early scenes of Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) masturbating, sex is never out of focus for long in “The Lighthouse.” So much of the film is about isolation, sexual, frustration, and mermaids, so it was inevitable that Winslow would have to copulate with one at some point.
When it eventually happens, Eggers does not hold back, crafting a stunningly realistic set of genitalia that took inspiration from a variety of real-life sea creatures. Neither does Pattinson, as he releases a lifetime’s worth of pent-up lust on the mermaid in a sequence that reminds fans why he deserves his spot as an indie film darling. It’s such a thrilling, disgusting, captivating scene to watch that it almost doesn’t matter if the sex actually happened or was a vivid mirage. —CZ
Nobody would mistake the short sex scene in “Booksmart” as the sexiest moment in film history. But the hook-up between shy Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and her sort of school nemesis Hope (Diana Silvers) is one of the sweetest and most realistic teen love scenes in any high school movie. After a blowup fight with her best friend Molly (Beanie Feldstein), Amy finds herself in the bathroom at the end-of-year school party, where she runs into Hope, and, after a brief argument, unexpectedly kisses her. A steamy make-out ensues, and Hope prepares to go down on Amy, but the moment is ruined when the low tolerance Amy barfs up the alcohol she’s been drinking throughout the night on her sudden new romantic partner. It’s a sex scene perfect for the funny, raunchy world of “Booksmart,” but Dever and Silvers makes the sudden connection between the two young women really sing. —WC
“Drive My Car” (2021)
The mystique surrounding the relationship between Yūsuke and Oto looms over every frame in Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s “Drive My Car.” While much of the movie is driven by Yūsuke’s introspection, none of that would be possible without giving audiences a clear image of what he’s thinking about. The anchors of the film are the undeniable love between the two of them, the creative inspiration they both found in each other, the pain of infidelity, and the grief that her death brings him. In that sense, the sex scene between the two of them that opens the film is less significant for its contents than for what it represents, illustrating their complex relationship in a way that never feels contrived. They have relatively normal sex, then Oto comes up with a haunting fictional story idea that even she does not quite understand.
The idea of relatively mundane romantic moments being the catalyst for profound ideas is an idea that returns again and again in the film, but it is never encapsulated better than in this first scene. The moody opener combines the film’s stark realism with esoteric musing, making it one of the most Murakami-esque moments in the film and setting the tone for the beautiful three hours that follow. —CZ
Well, this was one storyline yet to make it into the “Fast and Furious” franchise. The steamy opening sex scene of Palme d’Or winner “Titane” is between woman and machine as a muscle car really puts the hot in hot wheels. Model Alexia (Agathe Rousselle) chooses to strip atop cars after having an inexplicable attraction to metal following an adolescent car accident that led to a metal plate being placed in her scalp.
Director Julia Ducournau told IndieWire that the sex scene was meant to showcase the “hyper-violent” tendency of Alexia. The BDSM rage is channeled in Alexia both taking a backseat and revving the engine of her vehicle lover. Her arms are restrained by seat belts as she writhes over leather. Ducournau explained that “Titane” set out to be “going against every feminist stereotype of softness, being polite, having a great body, all that shit.” In Ducournau’s “Titane,” men are irrelevant to pleasure — all you need is a metal machine to be in the driver’s seat. —SB
“X” is ostensibly a horror movie set on a porn set, but in truth, the characters only start getting picked off by the killer once the porno wraps filming. That results in the odd slasher movie where the most interesting part is the half before everyone gets killed, because Ti West has a lot of fun shooting his actors making “The Farmer’s Daughters”: a cheap porno movie filmed on a run-down Texas farm. The “plot” of the porno — about a hunky stud (Scott Mescudi) seducing the virginal daughters of an elderly farmhand — is nonsense, but it’s a masterpiece to the people making it, from star Maxine (Mia Goth) to director RJ (Owen Campbell), and their enthusiasm makes their very raunchy work oddly endearing. A sex scene between Mescudi and Goth’s characters in the hay of the barn is gorgeously shot, lit with a golden hue, and features Maxine giving the performance of her lifetime with her moans, a sequence that proves porn can be art… even if the conservative killers stalking the cast and crew disagree. —WC
“Good Luck to You Leo Grande” (2022)
“Good Luck to You, Leo Grande” is one long buildup to a fantastic final release. A talky film mostly focused on the connection between two people, Sophie Hyde’s feature focuses on Nancy (Emma Thompson), a woman in her 60s who has never experienced an orgasm, and a younger sex worker (Daryl McCormick, very dashing), who she sees in the hopes of finally achieving one. Most of the film is the two sitting in the hotel they meet at discussing sex instead of having it, unpacking Nancy’s relationship with sex, the role of sex work in modern society, and how older women are desexualized in life. Their conversation is plenty interesting, but it makes it all the more thrilling when Nancy and Leo finally engage in a lusty montage of banging; like Leo with Nancy, the film keeps you waiting for the real pleasure. —WC
“Beau is Afraid” (2023)
Sex is beautiful and loving and natural; it’s also, for many people, mortifyingly awkward, frightening, and even painful. The best scene of Ari Aster’s “Beau is Afraid” channels nearly every negative emotion one can feel about consensual sex and puts it on screen, as a shining monument to sexual hang-ups. Joaquin Phoenix’s title character, a lifelong virgin who was told by his mother he would die if he ever orgasms, reunites with his childhood crush Elaine (played by Posey Parker), and, before he knows it, finds himself in bed with a woman for the first time. As Elaine matter-of-factly coaches the inexperienced Beau, starting and stopping her chosen banging song “Always Be My Maybe,” Beau steadily grows terrified of losing his life — treating the experience of an orgasm like a heart attack. He’s happy and relieved when he doesn’t die, having finally found something resembling peace; it’s short-lived however, when he realizes his semen killed Elaine, her body completely frozen mid-climax. The scene is horrifyingly, darkly funny, but it also captures what it feels like to approach the act of sex with baggage, where it feel less like the sharing of pleasure and more like a sin. —WC
Ira Sachs’ “Passages” takes a cold, hard look at love that hurts. Franz Rogowski plays Tomas, a Parisian filmmaker who self-immolates when he leaves his husband Martin (Ben Whishaw) for the kind-eyed Agathe (Adele Exarchopoulos, who does not appear naked once in this film despite what you’d expect from the “Blue Is the Warmest Color Star”), a collaborator on his latest film. Tomas’ emotional and pan-sexual ricochets set off a grisly chain of psychological reactions. At one point, Tomas, realizing the peril of his decisions, returns to Martin in their Paris apartment. They make primal unfussy love in a long unbroken take helmed by Josée Deshaies where Martin fucks Tomas, Tomas’ legs wrapped around him in tortured ecstasy. Director Sachs never shows us their faces, and obfuscates their bodies with off-centered camera blocking, but the scene underscores the banality of sex as seen from a distance, even if it seems like the most important thing ever to happen to us at the time. —RL