“Do I make you horny? Randy?” – Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery
Playing out the fantasies of one’s wild imagination, cinema has long been linked with sensual desire and romance telling wondrous tales of girl meets boy, boy meets boy, girl meets girl and indeed beauty meets beast. Exploring our innermost desires, a satisfying romance film is not unlike a great sexual experience, supplying love, drama, surprise and (in the good ones) a fulfilling climax.
The definition of what makes a film ‘sexy’ has changed dramatically through the course of cinema history, with early 20th-century cinema daring to show bare skin whilst the likes of 365 days on Netflix may as well be pornography in comparison. Much changed as the new millennium loomed and cinema became increasingly explicit into the 1980s and ‘90s, with the internet culture of the 21st century set to wildly accelerate the dial once more.
Whilst it’s easy to make a bad, explicit movie, (Gaspar Noé’s Love comes to mind) making a truly great sexy film is an intricate task that involves careful creative control, balancing the scales so that it rides the line and doesn’t tip over into being ‘smutty’. The following ten films have been carefully selected as fulfilling these criteria, perfectly nuanced in their delivery between being undeniably seductive and shockingly explicit.
The 10 sexiest films of all time:
10. The Dreamers (Bernardo Bertolucci, 2003)
Possibly the most explicit film on this entire list, Bernardo Bertolucci’s penultimate film before his death in 2018 would go on to be known as one of his most sexually adventurous having also made the classic romance Last Tango in Paris in 1972.
With an impressive cast that included the likes of Micahel Pitt, Eva Green and Anna Chancellor, the film follows a young American student studying in Paris with a French brother and sister during the riots of 1969. A sexually charged romantic ride, Micahel Pitt’s lead character falls deeply in love with both siblings and engages in explicit intercourse where nothing is left up to the imagination.
9. Lust, Caution (Ang Lee, 2007)
Love and war have always gone hand in hand with the emotional toll of such brutal events providing the perfect background for stories of yearning romance, just look at 1942’s classic Casablanca.
Taiwanese filmmaker Ang Lee took his hand to such a particular sub-genre of filmmaking in 2007 with Lust, Caution, a WWII drama about a young woman who gets swept up in the intrigue of a powerful political figure. Starring Tony Chiu-Wai Leung and Tang Wei, Lust, Caution unravels into a dangerous, romantic and undeniably sexy love story that is embroiled with simmering tension and steamy sensuality.
8. Basic Instinct (Paul Verhoeven, 1992)
No list of the sexist movies ever made is complete without one of the most infamous moments of movie nudity ever put to film, when Catherine Tramell crosses her legs whilst being interviewed by police.
Becoming an iconic film of 1990s popular culture, actor Sharon Stone and co-star Michael Douglas elevated Paul Verhoeven’s film into something far more enduring than previously imagined. Though melodramatic and rather extravagant, Basic Instinct remains a highly enjoyable watch, with the ploy following a violent police detective who suspects a seductive novelist as the main suspect of a murder.
7. Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Céline Sciamma, 2020)
Toying with the entire concept of the ‘male gaze’ that has long dominated western cinema, Céline Sciamma’s influential modern classic Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a lesson in moderation.
Teasing the audience with titillating sensual hints, Sciamma’s historical romance set on an isolated island in Brittany at the end of the eighteenth century follows a female painter and her subject, a young woman. Opening a wider conversation about the nature of sex and nudity in popular film, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a sexy, defiant piece of cinema, with several moments purposely built to provoke the constructs of the western industry.
As Sciamma stated in a Q&A regarding the iconic ‘armpit scene’: “The fact that you could be lost in this image, and wandering, and having fun with it… I mean, that’s a journey of sex. That’s the idea of sex”.
6. Stranger by the Lake (Alain Guiraudie, 2013)
Well balancing romance and sensuality, Alain Guiraudie’s gay love story is a scintillating drama that simmers with sexual tension at the height of French summertime.
Picking up several awards from around the world, including two from the Cannes Film Festival, Alain Guiraudie’s modern romance is an intellectual and emotional journey that imposes its own rugged style to the world of queer cinema. Set in a coastal summer hideaway, the story follows Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) who falls for Michel (Christophe Paou), an attractive and potentially dangerous man whom Franck decides is worth the risk to pursue.
5. Call Me By Your Name (Luca Guadagnino, 2017)
A sexy film for the contemporary world of cinema, Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name seized the attention of audiences upon its release in 2017 thanks to its leading stars Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer.
Based on the novel of the same name by André Aciman, the film follows a romance that blossoms between a 17-year-old student and his father’s work partner in 1980s Italy. Taking popular culture by storm after its infamous ‘peach scene’, Call Me By Your Name has since become an iconic film of queer cinema and remains one of the sexist films to have been released in the past decade.
4. Sex and Lucía (Julio Medem, 2001)
Known for its graphic arthouse sex scenes, Sex and Lucia is much more than its explicit nature, creating an emotional and visually stunning narrative that accesses a deeper human truth than it seems.
Starring Paz Vega in the titular role, the film fluctuates between stories, following an author telling connecting tales from his past and present that ties closely with the life of waitress Lucía. An erotic Spanish modern classic, Julio Medem’s film became an international success upon its release winning Vega a Goya Award for Best Female Newcomer whilst Alberto Iglesias also picked up a win for his work on the soundtrack.
3. Y Tu Mamá También (Alfonso Cuarón, 2001)
Later becoming known for the likes of modern science fiction classics such as Children of Men and Gravity, Alfonso Cuarón’s Y Tu Mamá También would be the film that would catapult him to international acclaim.
A raunchy coming-of-age tale that opened the door to a new Mexican cinematic identity, Y Tu Mamá También tells the story of two teenage boys, Julio (Gael García Bernal) and Tenoch (Diego Luna) who form a love triangle with fellow traveller Luisa (Maribel Verdú). Reminatinging the classic road movie, Cuarón creates an intense, nostalgic and deeply sexual love story that reminds us of the liberty of youth.
2. Belle de Jour (Luis Buñuel, 1967)
Romantic, sensual and carefully titillating, Luis Buñuel’s romantic classic Belle de Jour follows a young, unsatisfied housewife who cannot express her sexual desires so decides to spend her midweek afternoons as a prostitute.
Featuring Catherine Deneuve in the lead role of Séverine Serizy, Luis Buñuel’s film oozes with sexual desire and deep-rooted emotion as Serizy indulges in her most sadomasochistic fantasies. Spiked with psychological drama Belle de Jour takes the viewer on a sexual journey of the back-alleys of one’s own fantasies, managing to allocate a space of cinema that exudes romance.
1. In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-wai, 2000)
Whilst many films on this list lean on their promise of explicit nudity, Wong Kar-wai creates the sexiest film ever made by showing no sex at all, not even the suggestion of nudity or bare skin.
The iconic film director does this by creating a truly seductive and romantically-charged atmosphere, carefully built from the music to the cinematography that each feeds into a fairytale of love. Set in Hong Kong in 1962, the story itself follows two neighbours who form a strong bond after suspecting that both of their partners are engaging in an affair. What follows is a poignant love story about beauty, lust, temptation and loyalty. It’s a sexual masterpiece.