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The Best Sex Scenes of the 21st Century Ranked, From ‘Y Tu Mamá También’ to ‘Call Me by Your Name’

You'll want to have a peach handy for this one.

Best Sex Scenes

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)

Secretary

“Secretary”

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. —Kate Erbland

19. “American Honey” (2016)

American Honey

“American Honey”

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

18. “Weekend” (2011)

Weekend

“Weekend”

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)

Her

“Her”

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)

Team America: World police sex scene

“Team America: World Police”

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

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