It’s no secret that sex sells, and movies are no exception. But while plenty of films like to show gratuitous sex, they’re not always very good. That’s a problem, since movies have the power to shape not only the cultural norms, but personal ones. And what could be more personal than sex? Sexuality is an integral part of the human experience, not some sensational or shameful ploy to sell tickets (though it doesn’t hurt).
That’s why we think it’s important to single out the very best films that also happen to be incredibly sexy, titillating, and provocative. These are not only some of our favorite films in general, but they’re films that celebrate the broad spectrum of human sexuality while telling stories as cinematic as they are personal. Some don’t have any sex scenes at all, while some are notoriously near-pornographic. When these movies do show sex it is always in service of the story, and always in order to challenge, subvert, or celebrate contemporary beliefs about sexuality.
Turn on (and get turned on) by our list of the 25 best sexy movies of the 21st century (well, so far). You know you want to.
25. “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” (2008)
Undeniably sexy and amusing at once, Woody Allen’s 2008 Spain-set dramedy delights in pushing its various players into all sorts of romantic permutations and configurations. Anchored by Scarlett Johansson in a sneaky performance as the eponymous Cristina (pre-breakout Rebecca Hall is her best pal Vicky), the film follows a pair of friends as they meet and make lots of love with the beguiling Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), who isn’t at all thrown off by the possibility of having two lovely ladies in his bed. In fact, he’s got another one to think about too, his free-spirited ex-wife (Penelope Cruz), who he just can’t get out of his head (or heart). On the surface, “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” is a dead sexy romp about free-wheeling love-makers (complete with plenty of naughty bits), but it’s also a film that boldly explores issues of fluidity and fidelity with an uncharacteristically easy touch. -KE
24. “Shortbus” (2006)
With its three-person blowjob circle, non-simulated sex scenes including ejaculation, and close-up of a pee stream unleashing into a bathtub, “Shortbus” is not for everyone. It’s an ambitious film, one that attempts to have fun, be sexy, and tell a good story. If anyone could pull it off, it would be the man behind “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” John Cameron Mitchell. “Shortbus” feels as much like an ensemble comedy as a playful experiment, though the two main characters are a sex therapist who’s never had an orgasm and a retired gay sex worker experimenting with opening up his relationship. With their partners, they both begin attending a weekly artist and sex salon, each hoping inspiration will strike. Mitchell wanted to use sex in new cinematic ways, “because it’s too interesting to be left to porn.” If it’s interesting sex you want, “Shortbus” has got it. -JD
23. “Brokeback Mountain” (2005)
The end of this film is so movingly profound that your memory of it might not be that it was all that sexy. The love between these two men, buried under their rugged cowboy exteriors, ends with what can only be described as a sense of life-defining tragedy. Yet it is those brief moments where they let themselves go and unleash their animalistic passion, which “Crouching Tiger” director Ang Lee captures in his normal visceral fashion, that add a level of eroticism and physically affection that nearly makes all the pain worth it. Ennis and Jack rotate from almost fighting, as they pull at each others’ denim-clad exterior, to moments of being naked and incredibly tender. It’s virtually every cowboy fantasy rolled up into one. That they can only be themselves in the privacy of the great outdoors makes everything that much more liberating. Watching this film in 2005 felt taboo and rebellious, which resulted in a charged atmosphere in packed mainstream cineplexes around the country. -CO
22. “In the Cut” (2003)
Jane Campion’s handle on female desire has always been one of her best attributes as a director (and she’s got a lot of them), but nothing in her filmography is as overtly sexy and emotionally challenging as her 2003 Meg Ryan-starrer “In the Cut” (and that includes “The Piano,” which has a sexiness and eroticism all its own). Our first introduction to Ryan’s character is rooted in her coming to heady terms with her own sexuality, a theme that carries over throughout the often grisly drama. Increasingly drawn to Mark Ruffalo as a moody detective looking to solve a local murder that Frannie is tangentially involved in, Ryan’s character pushes the boundaries of “acceptable” desire. It’s a theme that Campion giddily plays into with some of modern cinema’s most satisfying and profound sex scenes, many of which center on — gasp — Frannie’s own pleasure over that of Ruffalo’s character. -KE
21. “Hustle & Flow” (2005)
Craig Brewer’s crowdpleaser about a pimp dreaming of music fame is anchored by strong performances from Terrence Howard, Taraji P. Henson, and Taryn Manning. Howard plays Djay, while Henson and Manning are Shug and Nola, two of his girls. Hot-tempered and passionate, Djay begins making tracks with his friend Key (Anthony Anderson), and discovers he has a gift for lyrics. The catchy original soundtrack helps sell the story, as Djay’s songs seem to actually have a chance at getting radio play. While the strip club setting provides ample shots of semi-nude women, Djay and Shug’s sweet romance gives the film its emotional core and shows a softer side to Djay (and his temper). Their undeniable chemistry leads the previously timid Shug to throw down a sexy hook, her raspy croon on “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” making Henson’s star power glaringly obvious. -JD
20. “Beyond the Lights” (2014)
Chemistry is the name of the game in Gina Prince-Bythewood’s freight-train fast music industry romance, which pairs up rising starlet Gugu Mbatha-Raw (pure charm) alongside pre-“Birth of a Nation” Nate Parker. The pair exhibit major fireworks from the start, imagining Mbatha-Raw as hot new pop star Noni Jean, a big talent who is dangerously close to burning out and fading away, before she falls into the protective arms Parker’s do-gooder cop, Kaz Nicol. Prince-Bythewood’s film cannily sneaks in big questions about fame and the entertainment industry, along with issues regarding what’s actually sexy (Noni Jean is frequently kitted out in teensy costumes that make record execs happy, while diminishing her own humanity with every stitch), deep issues that are lovingly cradled by full-scale love story. When the pair finally give into their obvious attraction, “Beyond the Lights” pulls out the big guns, all gauzy love scenes and one particularly hot trip to Mexico, but the film maintains its sensuality by remembering that nothing is so sexy as mutual respect and admiration. -KE
19. “In the Mood for Love” (2000)
Every Wong Kar-wai movie contains a kind of visual sensuality in every frame, but “In the Mood for Love” goes one step further — its slow-burning romance between a pair of would-be lovers who live across the hall from each other in sixties-era Hong Kong is rich with unobtainable desire. Much is left unsaid and unachieved about the fantasy of an extramarital affair shared by Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung) and Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung), but the hints of attraction between them, unfolding in small gestures and passing glances, imbues each scene with the intensity of emotions specific to a period of repression. It’s a grand tragedy of issed opportunities framed by erotic implications. —Eric Kohn
18. “Ex Machina” (2014)
If you like high-tech voyeurism and intellectual sparring, you might find Alex Garland’s cerebral sci-fi thriller unearthing some hidden desires. An affable young programmer, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), is invited to the secluded jungle home of the CEO of his company, Nathan (Oscar Isaac) to participate in a top-secret experiment. Nathan wants to know if the cyborg he has been developing, Ava (Alicia Vikander) can convince Caleb that she has real consciousness. The tension is ripe between Nathan and Caleb as each attempts to alternately impress and control the other, but it is Caleb’s obsession with saving Ava that raises questions about the hero myth. Ava is the embodiment of male fantasy, trapped within a body invented to please and serve. As the two men fight over who best understands her mind, it turns out Ava was pulling the strings all along. There’s nothing sexier than a woman in charge. -JD
17. “Quills” (2000)
It’s easy enough to get sucked into “Quills” based on the promise of Joaquin Phoenix playing an earnest (and incredibly sexy) young priest tempted by his attraction to a chambermaid. But somehow, much like Kate Winslet’s Madeline, we fall under the spell of the charismatic Geoffrey Rush, who plays his role as the Marquis de Sade with a deliciously dirty panache befitting the notorious French writer. The Marquis’ libertine ways run counter to the no-nonsense Royer-Collard (Michael Caine), who takes over the asylum with the intention of stifling the writer’s creative output. But even his own wife is no match for the words of the Marquis, which ooze both sensuality and liberty. Before long, any initial apprehension to the Marquis de Sade (he is a dirty old man, after all) is fully given over to the hope that his debauchery will win out, and that his desire, as well as that of Madeline and Coulmier (Phoenix) will be fully fulfilled — even though we know this is impossible. -JR
16. “A Bigger Splash” (2015)
Watching “A Bigger Splash” feels like observing a sizzling chess game of attraction. Luca Guadagnino sticks Ralph Fiennes, Tilda Swinton, Matthias Schoenaerts, and Dakota Johnson on the world’s most gorgeous island and lets the sparks fly. Swinton plays a world-famous rock singer vacationing with her lover, a chiseled Schoenaerts who is practically a walking and talking sculpture of male beauty. Their time together is disrupted by the arrival of the rocker’s former lover and his daughter, a promiscuous young 22-year-old. Each character is so ready to succumb to sexual desire and so pent up with sexual attraction that Guadagnino creates the ultimate emotional orgy. The fun is in seeing how each person uses their sexuality to outsmart the next. You’ll be seduced from the first frame to the last. It feels like you’re watching each actor for the very first time. -ZS
On the next page: wild adventures in Florida, some of the century’s most jaw-dropping pairings, and at least one murder.