[Editor’s note: The below list, originally published in 2017, has been expanded from 20 to 30 entries and republished on May 11, 2022.]
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. But though many thinkpieces have been written about “the death of the sex scene” there’s still been a lot to celebrate over the last 22 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.
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.
30. “Love & Basketball” (2000)
©New Line Cinema/Courtesy Everett Collection
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
29. “Midsommar” (2019)
Everett Collection / Everett Collection
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
28. “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
27. “Moonlight” (2016)
Photo by David Bornfriend, courtesy of A24
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
26. “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 coolly 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