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 (we’re looking at you, “Blue Is the Warmest Color”). 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.
Still, there’s been a lot to celebrate over the last 17 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.
20. “Secretary” (2002)
19. “American Honey” (2016)
18. “Weekend” (2011)
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. —Jude Dry
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? —Michael Nordine
16. “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