Pulling together a wholly objective list of the sexiest movies ever made is impossible: One person’s erotic fever dream is bound to be another’s snoozefest, and vice-versa. But survey any moderately sized group of individuals (or TIME’s culture staff) and certain titles come up again and again.
Some movies—like In the Mood for Love and Before Sunrise—are more noteworthy for their ambient erotic charge than for outright graphic sexiness. Others, like Body Heat and Mulholland Dr., feature sequences of such exquisite and tantalizing carnality that they’ve come to define all that we think a sex scene should be. The sexiest movies often showcase glamorous, otherworldly creatures (like David Bowie and Catherine Deneuve as The Hunger’s vampire lovers) or disreputable schemers (like Sarah Michelle Gellar and Ryan Phillippe’s conniving stepsiblings in Cruel Intentions, a modern take on Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ 1782 sexual-manipulation masterpiece Les Liaisons Dangereuses). Sometimes the nastiest or naughtiest characters are the biggest turn-ons.
There are as many ways of defining a movie’s sexiness as there are, well, ways to have sex. But in one way or another, all of these movies on this list have the power to put us in the mood for love.
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Y Tu Mamá También (2001)
Most movies about the sexual conquests of horny teenage boys overcome with rabid hormonal urges fail to register as “sexy.” Alfonso Cuarón’s Oscar-nominated Mexican drama, which stars Diego Luna and Gael García Bernal as best friends who take a road trip with the older and unhappily married Luisa (Maribel Verdú), is the exception. Some movies are sexy because they submit to fantasy. This one, which broke box-office records in Mexico, is sexy because it feels real. Cuarón achieved this not by relying on handheld cinematography and improvised dialogue, but by the plot’s acknowledgment that beyond the pleasures of the bedroom, there are harsh realities that make fleeting ecstasy all the more ecstatic. In Y Tu Mama También, the inherent fluidity of male sexuality is treated with rare honesty and intimacy. Mature tenderness triumphs over adolescent lust in the end.
Blue Is the Warmest Color (2013)
Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) is a teenager who enters into a passion-fueled relationship with the slightly older, blue-haired Emma (Léa Seydoux) in this NC-17-rated French drama and groundbreaking exploration of desire. Beginning with their very first encounter, the nearly three-hour long film exudes the intensity and raw emotion of what the French call amour fou (“crazy love”). Despite critical acclaim, the film’s explicit sex scenes—some called them pornographic—were controversial. Both stars have talked about the difficulties of working with director Abdellatif Kechiche. “It was kind of humiliating sometimes,” Seydoux said of one particular sequence that reportedly took 10 days to film.
Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)
It must be something about the buttery light, or maybe the playful Spanish guitar or perhaps just Maria Elena’s (Penelope Cruz) tousled hair and petulant anger. Woody Allen’s jaunt through southern Spain stands as a quirky, lust-saturated meditation on attraction and compatibility. Juan Antiono (Javier Bardem) is the quintessential Lothario, oozing sex from his first line. “I’ll show you around the city, and we’ll eat well. We’ll drink good wine. We’ll make love,” he purrs to Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) and Vicky (Rebecca Hall) by way of introduction. Meanwhile, Cruz imbues Maria’s every action—from throwing a tantrum to painting in a makeshift smock—with sex appeal. The ensuing ménage à trois is just the icing on the cake.
Belle de Jour (1967)
In Luis Buñuel’s surrealist erotic treasure, Catherine Deneuve plays a frigid bourgeois housewife who tries her hand at prostitution, using her previously empty afternoons to entertain clients. The picture is funny and strange and hypnotic, an experience that leaves you wondering if you’ve dreamed the whole thing. Only a filmmaker as inventive and gently twisted as Buñuel could have dreamed it up for us.
Thirteen years before Christian Grey ever spanked anyone into submission, James Spader played Mr. Grey, an extra bossy boss whose demands really rev up his employee (Maggie Gyllenhaal.) Under the direction of Steven Shainberg, the award-winning film showed how a sadomasochistic relationship could evolve from a tilted dynamic that traps the female submissive into one that empowers her. The quirky brilliance of this indie redefined Spader’s career and made a star out of Gyllenhaal, who masters all office tasks while she’s cuffed to a bondage bar.
The love story of lonely cowboys Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Ennis (Heath Ledger) is a tour-de-force. Director Ang Lee uses minimal dialogue to deliver maximal impact. Brokeback‘s story of repressed gay love resonated with audiences on its way to the Oscars. Despite its tragic finale, the movie’s beating heart is the electric romance portrayed by Ledger and Gyllenhaal. Their rough passion in a dark, cold tent in the wilderness deepens into anguished love forbidden in its time.
Mulholland Dr. (2001)
A gorgeous amnesiac (Laura Harring) and a bright-eyed movie-star hopeful (Naomi Watts) fall into bed before, possibly, falling into the abyss. David Lynch’s noir Hollywood reverie is like midnight in a bottle. It’s a sunlight-and-shadow view of a dream-busting town that leaves a heady perfume in its wake. No other film offers quite the buzzing erotic charge this one does.
Cruel Intentions (1999)
With a cast of pretty young things and plenty of youthful debauchery, Cruel Intentions could easily be mistaken for just another teen drama. But there’s a menacing, provocative edge to director Roger Kumble’s film adaptation of Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Because for Manhattan’s ruthless prep school elite (Sarah Michelle Gellar, Ryan Phillippe, Reese Witherspoon and Selma Blair) seduction is the ultimate way to get what they want. This film gave audiences a cold, hard look at just how sexy the art of manipulation, including that famous sapphic kiss, can be. Even when it’s also serving as an exploration of teenage sexuality.
In the Mood for Love (2000)
Wong Kar-wai’s drama, set in early 1960s Hong Kong, may be the sexiest movie to feature absolutely no sex. The moody romance of the film exists in the negative space between bodies that will never make contact. Starring Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung as next-door neighbors whose spouses are having an affair with one another, the story of unconsummated love aches with desire. There is no nudity, yet Wong serves up shot after shot of lush imagery: the lonely glow of a red lampshade, a disappearing wisp of cigarette smoke, steam escaping from a kettle. It’s a melancholy affair, sure, but also a reminder that sometimes the possibility of sex can be sexier than the act itself.
Love and Basketball (2000)
If you don’t think sports movies can be sexy, you’ve never seen this one. Gina Prince Bythwood’s first film (she went on to make the also-sexy Beyond the Lights) is about two ambitious basketball players (Omar Epps and Sanaa Lathan) trying to figure out if professional and personal happiness are compatible. The film, which begins when they are childhood sweethearts, follows them through adolescence and into adulthood. It’s shot primarily from the woman’s perspective. And the sexiest scene may be when the two face off on the court, first in a playful strip basketball game and later in a more serious competition for each other’s heart.
Swimming Pool (2003)
Charlotte Rampling is at peak provocation in this thriller, trapped as she is in a French country house where she presumed she’d have peace to work on her novel. She didn’t count on a young guest (Ludivigne Sagnier) coming over to sun herself and to entertain various local men. The tension between the two women comes to be deliciously unbearable. With a final twist that reinvents Rampling’s aging-writer character and forces you to wonder just how rapacious the erotic imagination can be, Swimming Pool is as taut and tense as its sun-drenched setting is louche. The contrast is electric.
Dirty Dancing (1987)
Few film scenes have more sex appeal than the moment in Dirty Dancing. You know the one. The one when roguish dance instructor Johnny Castle (Patrick Swayze) teaches naive Baby Houseman (Jennifer Grey) how to swivel her hips to the beat of the music. Or maybe it’s actually the one when they crawl across the floor mouthing song lyrics to each other. Or the big dance finale with that lift. You get the idea. The Emile Ardolino picture (with a screenplay by Eleanor Bergstein) has become a re-watch mainstay for one good reason: you can’t beat their chemistry.
Magic Mike (2012)
Welcome to the secret lives of male strippers. This film (and its sequel) used gleaming six-packs and Channing Tatum’s lithe charm to hit a raw and lucrative nerve. Objectifying men has never been so fun, and women fell head over heels for the chance to turn the male gaze inside out. Director Steven Soderbergh’s first movie employed tough economic times to give its characters depth. While the sunnier XXL directed by Gregory Jacobs was satisfied to give audiences a bumpy, grindy show. There’s nothing subtle about these movies. But then again, who needs subtle when hedonism, fantasy and shallowness look this good.
Director Adrian Lyne’s erotic thriller invites viewers to get lost in the fantasy of an illicit affair between married suburban mom Connie Sumner (Diane Lane) and young French bookseller Paul Martel (Olivier Martinez). The film—which also stars Richard Gere as Connie’s husband Edward—plays up the suspense as it delves deep into Connie’s obsession with her infidelity. A scene of Connie riding the train back from a tryst with Paul shows her struggling with a flood of pleasure and pain.
Cecilia Tallis (Keira Knightley) and Robbie Turner (James McAvoy) smolder in Joe Wright’s adaptation of the Ian McEwan classic. Audiences found it impossible not to root for the lovers separated by a tragic lie—and class. The raciest scene, easily, is their furtive encounter in a library. Even more memorable: Knightley’s emerald evening gown, possibly the sexiest sartorial flourish on film. In literature, the color often represents magic and folly. In Atonement, it stood for desire.
Body Heat (1981)
A sweltering Florida heatwave is the perfect backdrop for this legal thriller about an adulterous tryst between unhappily married socialite Matty (Kathleen Turner in her first role) and her enamored lover Ned (William Hurt). What ensues is a game of cat and mouse in which Matty convinces Ned he’s in control while, in fact, she’s the one pulling all the strings. Director Lawrence Kasdan was inspired by another famously tantalizing film noir, Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity.
The Hunger (1983)
Tony Scott presented horror at its most sensual with this early work about a doomed relationship between a sexually violent flesh-feasting vampire (Catherine Deneuve) and her conquests (David Bowie and Susan Sarandon). The topless woman-on-woman sex scene was controversial in its day. It also helped turn Sarandon into a sex symbol. The Hunger may have been light on story, but it became a template for high-concept style. Bowie’s curled mouth, Deneuve’s bewitching stare, and Sarandon’s innocent eyes still burn for the film’s cult followers.
Two men meet at a gay club late one Friday and spend the night together. That alone may have been a fairly avant-garde proposition for a film with artsy ambitions, given the state of funding for LGBTQ+ cinema. But what’s really shocking about Weekend is what follows, an ongoing hang session suffused with longing and angst and possibility. Russell (Tom Cullen) and Glen’s (Chris New) liaison has a hard endpoint, as Glen is leaving central England at weekend’s end for an arts program in the U.S. The pair’s fleeting time together is punctuated with passionate, we-may-never-meet-again coupling. But it’s also imbued with something even sexier: real conversation. The gay men of Weekend are more than just a demographic label—a feat director Andrew Haigh would repeat with his HBO series Looking. They’re two people who, ever so briefly, genuinely fit together.
9½ Weeks (1986)
The brief, ill-fated romance between Elizabeth McGraw (Kim Basinger) and John Gray (Mickey Rourke) only lasted 9 ½ Weeks. Director Adrian Lyne used kinky sex (with some not-so-subtle nods to BDSM) and the underlying psychological power play to full effect. The film’s steamy encounters—including a notorious kitchen scene that gives a whole new meaning to “food porn”—have been noted for being some of the most sexually explicit in their day.
Do the Right Thing (1989)
No film re-creates the feverish chemistry of a heat wave more than Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing. This movie shimmers with a restless energy that pulses through one sweltering New York City day where tempers flare on one block. But it’s Rosie Perez’s Tina who sets the sultry mood of the film with a mesmerizing, impassioned dance sequence in the opening credits set to Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power.”
The Graduate (1967)
Mike Nichols’ era-defining film rolled through boring suburbia like a Sherman tank. It forever established Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) as the posterboy for aimless post-college youth. Influential in its time and far beyond, The Graduate broke new ground with an all-Simon & Garfunkel soundtrack and radical camera angles that brought the desperation of being young in the 60s into focus. It went even further with its eroticism: Mrs. Robinson’s (Anne Bancroft) outstretched, stocking-clad leg gave Ben a new sense of direction. And, of course, today the name “Mrs. Robinson” is synonymous with an enticing older woman.
The main character in Barry Jenkins’s lyrical drama is young, black, broke and gay—a demographic that rarely features in romantic films. The three actors who play Chiron at various ages (Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes) each grapple with the challenges of developing masculinity. The film’s imagery too is at turns vibrant, at others ethereal. Human skin has never looked so beautiful or alive on film before. This is a film of quiet moments, repressed longing, and the barest of consummation.
Before Sunrise (1995)
Imagine the best date you’ve ever gone on in your life. That date sucked compared to the 24-hours depicted in Before Sunrise. In this early Richard Linklater film, Jesse (Ethan Hawke) is an American who meets Céline (Julie Delpy) by happenstance on a train. They decide to disembark and bum around Vienna before parting ways, possibly forever. Before Sunrise (and its two sequels) prove the brain is the most vital sex organ. The two meander and chat for two hours, sharing their life philosophies, stories of their exes, time travel and—of course—love. It’s the best kind of foreplay.
The Handmaiden (2016)
The eroticism of The Handmaiden is inextricably linked to its themes of deception and cunning. Movie sex, after all, is more exciting when there is a possibility that its participants may turn out to be enemies. South Korean director Park Chan-wook’s historical crime drama transports the plot of Welsh writer Sarah Waters’ novel Fingersmith to Korea under Japanese rule in the 1930s. The less you know about the plot, the better actually. Suffice it to say that a pickpocket (Kim Tae-ri) becomes handmaiden to an heiress (Kim Min-hee) whom she intends to swindle out of her fortune. Though its most scintillating moments are those when the two women find passion in one another’s arms, the question of when and how they will find it again—and what the consequences may be—maintains the tension even when all are fully clothed.
In 1996, Lana and Lilly Wachowski—then known as the Wachowski Brothers—made their first movie, the gorgeously tawdry romantic thriller Bound. Mobster’s minx Jennifer Tilly and sultry ex-con plumber Gina Gershon play a duo of schemers out to steal a bunch of mafia money. Violent, sensual and funny, Bound is sly and intelligently made entertainment. But it’s the love scenes between Tilly and Gershon that’ll really steam up your glasses.