In terms of classification, it’s difficult separating the “romantic movie” from the “sex movie.” While so many films about “love” feature the venereal, just because a storyline includes sex doesn’t mean the movie is about the act. And while everything, to some extent, may be about sex, we have to create some boundaries—or else we’ll just be making a list of the best movies of all time.
Here’s what we’re not talking about. It should be obvious, but we’re not talking about nonconsensual sex. That’s not sex. That’s a crime. And so those movies are movies about sex crimes. (While there are plenty of films that walk the line for thematic and extratextual purposes—think Promising Young Woman—we’re just going to avoid the category altogether.)
We’re also going to limit the sex comedies, mainly because they feel like their own category, and, in fact, we already have a list of those; we’ll include some of the big ones, though.
For the purpose of this list, we’re talking about movies that are really about sex—where consensual, if not sometimes messy, sex is a fundamental part of the storytelling. Sex isn’t ancillary; it’s the major act, the inciting incident, the purpose for the narrative. It’s the rite in the rite of passage story. It’s the character’s primary goal, or, sometimes, affliction.
Ultimately, it’s a movie that has something to say about human sexuality. The movie and the depicted act reveals something about us, and though it can sometimes be ineffable, we know it when we feel it. Here, in no particular order, are the best sex movies—the best movies about sex—ever.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights is maybe the ultimate “sex movie.” Loosely based on the real-life story of John Holmes, the film follows a nightclub worker’s adult film rise during the Golden Age of Porn. This is sex truly seeping into art and making everyone ask: but is it art?
Unlike PTA’s above classic, the pie hasn’t aged all too well; like most R-rated sex comedies of the 90s and early aughts, the drives were all carnal, the lubricant alcohol, and the manner of consent, well, sometimes a little fuzzy. Still, American Pie made a big impact on the genre and, ripe or rotten, is still one of the most iconic films on this list.
Stanley Kubrick’s final film is also his most erotic and sensual. If you’ve only seen images of Tom Cruise and a mask orgy, well, that’s from Eyes Wide Shut, where Tom Cruise … attends a masked orgy. Kubrick originally got the rights for the story (based on 1926 Austrian novel) in the 1960s. We doubt the film could have taken the same form back then, but we’re happy Kubrick got the chance to make it. He died shortly after filming.
Arguably, the most personal form of sex is the type you have with yourself, and Don Jon artfully explores the burden of expectations on one’s sex life and beyond. Written, directed, starring (and probably inspired by) Joseph Gordon Levitt, the multi-hyphenate filmmaker plays Jon Martello, a womanizing playboy who has to come to terms with his unhealthy relationship with pornography. The film is about sex, but like everything with sex, the film is really about connection and how constant immersion in fantasy can numb one to life’s pleasures, like having sex with Scarlett Johansson (Barbara Sugarman).
Had Kubrick directed Eyes Wide Shut in the ’60s, it might have been the more toned down (though still erotic for its time) Belle de Jour, a film about a French woman who, unable to be intimate with her husband, decides to become a high class prostitute. The film unpacks all kind of sexual fantasy, which would have likely been censored in most countries only a decade or so earlier.
While the film is often remembered for its nude scenes that made a sex symbol of Sharon Stone, the film is also just a straight up great crime thriller. R-rated sex movie or not, Basic Instinct works on several other genre levels.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)
Few movies in recent history delicately capture the intimacy of painting someone like French director Céline Sciamma’s stunning Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Painter Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is tasked by La Comtesse (Valeria Golino) to surreptitiously paint her daughter Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) to attract a male suitor. Due to Héloïse’s reluctance to being painted for the sole purpose of marrying her off, Marianne must memorize parts of her body from their daily walks to paint her when she’s not around. Eventually, the pair grow close and defy 18th-century standards on sexuality by expressing their love through sex. Their sex and sexuality are a subtext of the entire movie and are a rebellious act of liberation from puritanical values. And it all unfolds as the painter intimately learns her subject’s body until the connection is too strong to ignore.
We’re gonna go out and say it: Steve McQueen’s exploration of sex addiction is maybe the best film on this list. It captures, in its incredibly lean run time, everything related to its titular emotion, and it features knockout performances by leads Michael Fassbender and Carrey Mulligan, all set to an arresting soundtrack. Never will you feel more alone than when watching this movie. We recommend you watch by yourself.
Based on the novel of the same name, The Piano Teacher tells of a woman who enters into a sadomasochistic relationship with her piano student. While the storyline might sound a bit … pornhub, the film features standout performances by both actors and garnered much critical praise upon release. It’s the psychosocial erotic movie done right.
Written and directed by provocative auteur Lars von Trier, Nymphomaniac is one of the most brutally honest explorations into sex addiction you will ever watch. Following self-professed nymphomaniac Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg and Stacy Martin) in different stages of her life, she recounts the dangerous maze of sexual experiences that range from adolescent sex competitions with strangers on a train to depressively being aroused staring at her abusive father’s dead body. With a star-studded cast featuring Shia LaBeouf, Uma Thurman, William Dafoe, Christian Slater, and an early appearance from X star Mia Goth, Nymphomaniac tears sex open and magnifies the darkest complexities you usually won’t see, and how destructive it can indeed be to a person.
Stranger by the Lake (2013)
Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake features a nude beach, sexual passion, a drowning, and more passion. As with Basic Instinct it works just as well as a thriller—with, at its rapidly beating heart, a lot of artful sex. Guiraudie took home the director’s award at Cannes for this gem.
Last Tango in Paris (1972)
Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris with Marlon Brando premiered to public controversy and would eventually be released with an X rating (now NC-17), the most adult of the MPAA rating scale. While the film features sexual violence, which would very much make it not a “best sex movie,” the focus on the two protagonist’s sexual union remains cinematically unparalleled; it caused the kind of uproar to solidify the film’s place in the history of sex in cinema. In many ways, it made many other films on this list possible.
Blue Is the Warmest Color (2013)
Prudish controversy apparently never goes away. Adbellatif Kechiche’s film was controversial for many reasons, including a very explicit sex scene between the two lead characters. But for a coming of age film about discovered sexuality, what do you expect? Unlike Call Me By Your Name, which tends to put a blanket over actual sexual contact, Blue Is the Warmest Color goes there and nests the scene in an epic of a bildungsroman. It’s not smut; it’s goddamn art.
There’s not a lot of sex in Barry Jenkins’ tender coming-of-age story because there doesn’t need to be to show how it can change one’s life. Following the maturation of Chiron, played in different stages of his life by Trevante Rhodes, Ashton Sanders, and Alex Hibbert, Moonlight artfully depicts how a young Black man’s struggles with his sexuality reverberate later in life. Teenage Chiron and teenage Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) share a kiss before Kevin gives Chiron a handjob, an intimate moment adult Chiron tearfully explains was the last time he was able to be intimate with anyone. Moonlight proves a film doesn’t need to be littered with sex scenes to show the complex consequences of the act.
In the Mood for Love (2001)
From explicit sexual contact to the heart-aching anticipation of sexual contact: Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love (part of an incredible love trilogy, including Days of Being Wild and 2046) finds two neighbors drawn closer and closer in to one another. The cinematography will make you fall in love and then step on your heart.
Sex, here, is the rite of passage, though not in the way its lead protagonists first assumed. Alfonso Cuarón’s film finds two friends and an older woman journeying across Mexico at a moment of transition for each. But the film is way more than a sex road trip movie; it’s a masterfully-told coming of age film that has aged like fine wine.
Call Me By Your Name (2017)
Based on the novel by André Aciman, Call Me By Your Name is a summer afternoon’s hazy dream put to screen. The much-more-than-a-fling between its lead characters makes the movie one of the best romances/sex films of modern cinema. While the chemistry isn’t always clearly developed (the fault of the medium) and the film’s final speech wraps things up a bit too didactically, the film is still a success. Director Luca Guadagnino has only gotten better since.
Fifty Shades Of Grey (2015)
BDSM toys-filled rooms, non-disclosure agreements as a form of courtship, and punitive sexual whippings are parts of the hedonistic dalliances 50 Shades of Grey exposes to the viewer. Some may compare the thinly written characters and, at times, dependence on gratuitous sex to maintain viewer interest makes the film tantamount to a trashy novel. However, while the film is based on an eponymous novel from British author E.L. James, the film’s lasting legacy is helping to de-stigmatize once frowned upon sexual acts to the tune of a record-breaking $500 million+ box office.
The Realm of the Senses (1976)
Nagisa Ōshima’s The Realm of the Senses was released as artistic porn. The film features unsimulated sex between actors (more on that below). The film was so explicit that Ōshima wouldn’t have been able to make it in Japan had he not partnered with French producers. The film was, nevertheless, censored upon release. Now, it’s seen as one of the most artfully provocative and taboo-shattering movies ever made.
If American Beauty is the suburban ennui meditation that has grown a bit of mold, Paolo Sorentino’s La Grande Belezza (The Great Beauty) is the urban ennui meditation sure to age like the best of Italian wine. A Roman socialite, coasting through the city’s high life—parties, dinners, women—undergoes crisis. And then everything gets very sad and then very beautiful. It’s one of those films you just have to block off a night and watch with a bottle of red.
Strella is a love story between a recently-released prisoner and a transgender woman with whom he shares a night just after release. The film was controversial in director Panos H. Koutras’s home country of Greece, but that controversy is all bollocks. The film is simply a real, visceral statement about family and love.
She’s Gotta Have It (1986)
Spike Lee’s first feature-length film from 1986 is still his best movie about sex. Centered around sexually liberated and romantically illusive Nola Darling (Tracy Camilla Johns), the film shatters the fragility of male masculinity with a woman who not only can’t be conquered but views her three suitors as individual pieces of the type of man she desires. While her sexual conquests revel in her intimacy, sex is more so a lens through which to look at power and choice. Ending the film with Nola alone in what she refers to as her “loving bed,” She’s Gotta Have It is as much about sex with others as it is about falling in love with yourself.
Blue is the Warmest Color was incidentally “shocking,” but Love was practically designed to shock. Featuring unsimulated sex between the actors, the film will exist always on the argumentative boundary between gimmick and sincere intention, smut and art. We lean toward the latter, only because we know director Gaspar Noe, like Ōshima, doesn’t play around. Besides, he’s not interested in your puritanic judgements, anyway.
Como Agua Para Chocolate (1992)
Like Water for Chocolate is unlike anything you’ve probably seen. It’s a romantic drama nested in magical realism with themes of gender, sexuality, and family tradition. Also food. Lots of sensuous food.
Films about sex are often, at their roots, films about desire, and, more often than not, a desire in conflict with something—tradition, the self, another desire. In The Graduate, the conflicting desire—here for a mother and daughter—is played off as a comedy. But it’s one that still pulls at the heart and kicks you in the stomach. One of the best sex movies of all time.
In Easy A, sex is a currency, sin, identity, and liberator, and that’s when sex is nothing more than rumor. Directed by Will Gluck, this critically acclaimed teen romance comedy finds Olive Pendergast, played terrifically by Emma Stone, unintentionally tearing the social fabric of her high school apart when she lies about losing her virginity. The school church group tries to save her from her promiscuity; horny teenagers bolster their popularity by paying her to lie about having sex with them; Olive becomes a scapegoat for people’s repressed sexual secrets. Distilling the subtle nuance of slut shaming and gender politics into a teen comedy without preaching to your intended demographic or watering down the subject matter’s severity is an accomplishment that would make The Scarlett Letter author Nathaniel Hawthorne proud.
Cruel Intentions exists in that American Pie era of sex films (this one obviously more dramatic), which, let’s be real, we’re not gonna bend over backwards to justify. Nevertheless, it’s an aggressively seductive film, and it does not care what you think.
Adrian Lyne’s Unfaithful could also make this list, but we’re going to focus on his Fatal Attraction, which turns a steamy one night stand into something much less sexy. Sex has consequences and nowhere is that felt more than here.
Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Director Ang Lee simply knocks it out of the park with this one. What’s there to say and praise about Brokeback Mountain that hasn’t already been said and praised already? Maybe just a reminder that it lost to Crash at the Academy Awards. Now there’s an unsexy film.
We’ll end this list in South Korea, whose cinema is finally starting to explode in America. Chan-wook Park (Oldboy, another movie about sex, if not, a little more uncomfortable sex) spins a Victorian tale into the present, adds a dash of Hitchcockian suspense, and a lot of erotic tension. Absolutely fantastic.
Josh St. Clair
Joshua St Clair is an editorial assistant at Men’s Health Magazine.
Keith Nelson is a writer by fate and journalist by passion, who has connected dots to form the bigger picture for Men’s Health, Vibe Magazine, LEVEL MAG, REVOLT TV, Complex, Grammys.com, Red Bull, Okayplayer, and Mic, to name a few.