Editor’s Note: This story was originally posted on July 23, 2017, and has been updated multiple times since.
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.
The list below is filled with some 21st-century American classics, indies and foreign films, and plenty of unexpected films you might not expect to make their way into a list of the best sexy movies of the last two decades. Often, it’s the erotic charge between characters approximating their desires, the sex that’s not being had that could be, that makes these films winning contenders for such a list.
Turn on (and get turned on by) our list of the 45 best sexy movies of the 21st century (well, so far). You know you want to.
Kate Erbland, Jude Dry, Eric Kohn, Ryan Lattanzio, Zack Sharf, and Jamie Righetti also contributed to this story.
45. “The Love Witch” (2016)
Everett Collection / Everett Collection
Any horror lover should get a kick out of Anna Biller’s “The Love Witch,” which dutifully captures the Technicolor aesthetic in a playful tribute to 1960s horror movies. As the title suggests, the film follows a witch who uses her supernatural powers to lure men into her bed. The film is actually an intelligent commentary on gender roles and the unique power that women have over men in the real world, but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the multitude of delightfully campy sex scenes too. —CZ
44. “Lingua Franca” (2019)
Isabel Sandoval’s masterful portrait of a trans Filipina immigrant is so intimately rendered it almost feels too close at times. The elegant breakout film was entirely directed, written, produced, and edited by Sandoval, who also plays the film’s sympathetic lead Olivia. The film follows an undocumented trans woman as she saves up for a green card marriage while working as a home health aide for an elderly Russian woman (Lynn Cohen) in Brighton Beach. Her plan becomes complicated by a simmering romance with the ne’er-do-well grandson Alex (Eamon Farren), a lost but gentle soul with a Slavic sex appeal. Their scenes are laden with a sexual tension that eventually gives way to latent desire, foreshadowed by intimately erotic scenes of Olivia’s self-pleasure. With her many hats translating into such confidently crafted cinema, Sandoval is the closest thing queer film has to a trans auteur working on such a level. Sharply edited and shot with an austere beauty, “Lingua Franca” is a profound example of what happens when marginalized voices are given full creative control. —JD
43. “The World to Come” (2020)
Mona Fastvold’s frontier lesbian romance is fraught with all manner of hardships that afflict living life on the edge in the 1850s — apocalyptic snowstorms, perishing livestock, buried desires confined to secret diary entries. But the spark between Abigail (Katherine Waterston) and Tallie (Vanessa Kirby), two women coupled in heterosexual relationships to difficult men, is volcanic. What’s not seen is what’s most throbbingly romantic, as the two women do a sort of drawn-out dance over the course of a blooming friendship that always had an electric erotic current. Eventually, they take it to the bedroom in a kind of supercut of sharp sex scenes that punctuate the film’s inevitably tragic last passage — underlining that their affair was doomed from the start, but one that will stay indelibly close to Abigail’s heart (and loins). —RL
42. “Parallel Mothers” (2021)
©Sony Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection
Pedro Almodóvar is never one to shy from a complex erotic bond, and here the one between Janis (Penélope Cruz) and Ana (Milena Smit) is both a kind of mother-daughter connection, but one that takes increasingly kinky turns. Their dynamic is ever-shifting from the maternal, to the erotic, and back again. Plenty of Almodóvar films have featured raunchy, vigorous sex scenes, but “Parallel Mothers” is sexiest for the electricity humming between Janis, who is childless in middle age and derailed by a busted affair, and Ana, a scared teenager staring down the precipice of parenthood. All these threads are tied up in a twisted little package that’s also one of Almodóvar’s most sumptuous love stories to date. —RL
41. “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
40. “The Favourite” (2018)
Fox Searchlight / Everett Collection
Hot and heavy royal trysts are nothing new, with bodice rippers like “The Tudors” and “Bridgerton” attracting viewers who like their onscreen sex with a dash of historical sophistication. But nothing is ever as it seems in a Yorgos Lanthimos film, and the director of “The Lobster” and “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” took the period piece in a decidedly different direction with “The Favourite.” His black comedy trades royal romance for a Machiavellian power struggle, complete with blackmail and a torrid lesbian love triangle. Olivia Colman stars as Queen Anne, the 18th-century English monarch who sleeps with both an influential duchess and, eventually, Emma Stone’s conniving Abigail. While the film’s story is an excellent reminder that powerful women can be just as susceptible to making bad decisions based on sex as men can, the fraught bedroom moments stand out as some of the most vividly bizarre love scenes in recent memory. —CZ
39. “Promising Young Woman” (2020)
Courtesy Everett Collection
Yes, “Promising Young Woman” is a tragic psychological thriller. It’s also an intoxicating portrait of one woman’s rape revenge fantasy, crystallized in a candy-colored female gaze aesthetic that’s cheeky, playful, and more than a bit sexy. Unflinching in its cynical perspective on pervasive rape culture, writer/director Emerald Fennell’s Best Original Screenplay Oscar winner includes very few intimate moments that end well; even the film’s main romance with a boyishly charming Bo Burnham proves a thorny rose. But the film’s bait-and-switch premise — a young woman (Carey Mulligan) leads strangers in bars to believe she’s drunk enough to take advantage of, only to turn the tables on the men once they’re alone — crackles with seductive trickery. From an orchestral “Toxic” cover to that unforgettable nurse’s costume, “Promising Young Woman” is a multi-faceted genre defier that will break your heart. —AF
38. “Blue is the Warmest Color” (2013)
Wild Bunch/Sundance Selects
No sexy movies list would be complete without Abdellatif Kechiche’s three-hour romance that prompted prudish walkouts at Cannes before winning the Palme d’Or — split three ways between Kechiche and the two lead actresses. Based on a graphic novel, the film is a sexual coming-of-age tale about a young teacher named Adele (Adele Exarchopoulos), who finds herself immediately drawn to a blue-haired lothario named Emma (Lea Seydoux). The room stops when they lay eyes on one another in a crowded club, and they begin a sex-fueled affair that results in three epic sex scenes (though not as long as they feel). But it’s not only the sex scenes that are long, Kechiche’s commitment to realism extends to long shots of Adele eating spaghetti, Adele teaching young children, and Adele in the shower. In fact, the character is named Adele because Kechiche so often filmed Exarchopoulos without her knowledge. Still, even with the controversy surrounding the film, we wouldn’t throw “Blue is the Warmest Color” out of bed. —JD
37. “Raw” (2016)
“Raw” is not for the faint of heart, but those who can stomach it will be rewarded with an unforgettable viewing experience. Julia Ducournau’s story of a vegetarian who develops an insatiable craving for flesh when she tastes meat for the first time is unapologetically violent and erotic, but never gratuitously so. The film eschews romance in favor of showing its protagonist satisfying her needs through rough, primal sex. It is certainly one of the sexier films about cannibalism ever made, but when you can look past the excessiveness, there’s a very real metaphor to take away. —CZ
36. “The Worst Person in the World” (2021)
Joachim Trier builds life-destroying sexual longing as so few do in his portrait of a woman in romantic crisis, “The Worst Person in the World.” Julie (Renate Reinsve) weighs romantic options between the more stable Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie) and more chaotic choice Elvind (Herbert Nordrum). In her first encounter with Elvind, they agree not to touch, instead spending a night together at a raucous party outlining all the things they might do to each other if they both weren’t already in other relationships. A gorgeous and literally slow-burning shot of Julie and Elvind passing a smoke ring is one of the sexist moments on screens in recent years. And when she finally runs toward her future and into Elvind’s bed, the delayed psychosexual gratification is worth the wait. —RL
35. Take This Waltz” (2011)
Magnolia Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection
Sarah Polley’s hothouse will-they-or-won’t-they adultery drama “Take This Waltz” is sexiest in moments where there’s no actual sex happening at all between Michelle Williams’ aspiring travel writer Margot and Luke Kirby’s Daniel, an unctuously handsome artist and rickshaw driver. As Margot flirts with the idea of leaving her husband (Seth Rogen), she and Daniel share a volatile chemistry over midday martinis, detailing the not-safe-for-public things they would do to teach other if she wasn’t spoken for. Margot and Daniel eventually do turn their emotional affair into a physical one — and in a very torrid montage full of bodies undressing and kink stakes raising, set to the Leonard Cohen tune that gives the film its title. But the film’s most palpably erotic moments simmer in the longing gazes and unspoken passion that flame between the central pair. —RL