The 10 Best Sex Movies: A Countdown

Kevin Maher picks the ten seminal (sorry) films about sex

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10 | Wild Orchid (1989)

Meet slick corporate titan James Wheeler (Mickey Rourke). He likes helicopters, cars, motorbikes, boardroom takeovers and having complete erotic control over submissive women. He was abused as a child, doesn't like to be touched, and in almost every other way possible he articulates the character template for Fifty Shades of Grey's Christian Grey. He even speaks in that same halting, slightly sick-making, so-pervy-it's-sexy (yeah, right) prose beloved of …Grey creator EL James.

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For example, when out for a flirtatious stroll with potential conquest Emily (Carré Otis), Wheeler suddenly falls back and starts leering at Emily's arse, Benny Hill-style. When she asks him what's up, he simply smiles, super cool, half-winking at the boys in the audience, and sighs, "I just like watching you walk!" Wow, what a ladykiller!

And yet the eerie prescience of Wild Orchid is not what makes it great, or why it is one of the definitive moments in the history of movie sex. No, the film, written and directed by Zalman King, demands our attention because it is the literal, and chronological, highpoint of Eighties Hollywood erotica. Before it, 1986's 9 ½ Weeks (which King also co-wrote and produced, with Rourke in the lead role as yet another pervy bully) and Fatal Attraction (1987) had marked the parameters for a genre that would speak of liberal sexual permissiveness but was actually about conservative sexual fear (AIDS, anyone?). But Wild Orchid topped them both. For with its lurid Latin setting (Wheeler is in Buenos Aires to buy a hotel, as you do), rampantly fornicating locals and the suggestion that, if you opened the window of your limousine you were likely to get hit by flying spunk, it had the edge on the competition.

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Best of all, it boasts a closing sex scene (Wheeler and Emily in lotus, shot mostly from above, sparing no blushes) so protracted and explicit it troubled the censors (the film was originally rated X). It was shot to a $100m payday, and raised the great debate, not seen since Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie in Don't Look Now (1973), that asks, "Were they or weren't they? You know? Doing it for real?" In 2011, Otis finally addressed the issue, "Have you ever filmed a sex scene? Do you have any idea how many people were standing around? It was mortifying!" So, that's a no then?

9 | Blue is the Warmest Colour (2013)

Art house movies. We get it. They do sex. That's their thing. From Swedish nudes in 1953 (Summer with Monika) to the butter-based penetration of 1972 (Last Tango in Paris) to crazy irascible beach-side sessions in 1986 (Betty Blue), nothing screams "art house" more than a smartly directed and gamely acted sex scene. Then came Blue is the Warmest Colour.

The film, which won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 2013, wiped away everything that had gone before it. The hideous rape of Monica Bellucci in Irreversible (2002)? The grimly determined humping from Japanese 1976 classic In the Realm of the Senses? All gone. Faded in comparison. Plus, it was gay sex. So it made the cutesy girl-on-girl action in Bound (2006) and Mulholland Drive (2001) seem dubious and cheap. And the boy-on-boy action in Brokeback Mountain (2005)? Just lame.

Instead, what it gave us was two young and relatively untested actresses, Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos, deftly describing, in the grim northern French town of Lille, the heady emotional rushes and sudden power shifts of an emerging relationship. Looks are exchanged, picnics are arranged, kisses are traded and then everything grinds to a halt at approximately one hour and 11 minutes into the movie, when director Kechiche and his two lead actresses deliver the type of jaw-to-the-floor sex scene that has subsequently raised the movie-sex bar to insane heights of verisimilitude and has pushed the literal definition of "simulated" to breaking point.

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For here, over seven long breathy, sweaty, brightly-lit minutes, we run the unapologetic gamut of licking, sucking, squeezing, fingering, rimming, ramming, slamming, and general slithery, grindy, intercrural mayhem.

The scene has many detractors including the actresses themselves, who famously rounded on their director: Seydoux said making it was "horrible" and she would "never" work with Kechiche again. Once the film began sweeping up during the 2013 awards season, however, they recanted and said that they were "happy" with it. And yet, look at the scene now, within the movie, and away from the hype, and it doesn't play too well. It's crudely lit. It's brazen, and yet also crass. And what it says, in its many nipple shots, arse close-ups, and vaginal teases, is that perhaps all sex scenes, no matter how well-intended, or how groundbreaking and profound, are inherently, well, kind of sleazy.

8 | Tarzan, the Ape Man (1981)

"I've never touched a man before!" It's Bo Derek as Jane, kneeling over an unconscious Tarzan (Miles O'Keeffe) in their first screen encounter after 45 minutes of solo swimming, snake-dodging and needless knocker action on behalf of Jane and her lovingly photographed breasts (photographed, I might add, by director-husband John Derek, so that's OK). Tarzan is lying on the sand in his trademark loincloth and, oddly, a funky headband. Undeterred by the outfit, Jane starts touching. "It's nice," she says, going slowly, yet directly, for the crotch. "It's very nice!"

Tarzan, clearly uncomfortable with the whole date-rapey vibe, leaps back into action dragging the movie through a series of strange, breast-based set-pieces that climax in a quirky "native jungle village" (actual location: Sri Lanka). The film, of course, is genius. No, really. Because it parlayed over 20 years of Russ Meyer sexploitation flicks (see Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, 1965), and so-called "Nudie Cutie" stag films into a mainstream, studio-financed, money-making event.

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And what an event! There was a much-hyped lawsuit from Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs' estate, orders for nudity cuts from the studio, and publicised cries of "censorship!" from director Derek.

The film, which cost about $6m to make, made $37m at the box office (equivalent to a blockbuster like The Dark Knight today taking more than a billion dollars) and proved that in mainstream cinema the rubric established 40 years previously by Jane Russell in The Outlaw (see # 1) still held true, and was more relevant than ever, namely: tits sell.

7 | Monster's Ball (2001)

Something happened with sex scenes around the millennium. They went from being slightly tawdry (Angel Heart, 1987), titillating (Risky Business, 1983) and tacky (Porky's, 1982) to dramatically satisfying and, ultimately, Oscar-worthy. Kate Winslet in 2008's The Reader (Nazi sex), Charlize Theron in 2003's Monster (serial killer lesbian sex), Michelle Williams in 2010's Blue Valentine (Gosling sex), and Maria Bello in A History of Violence (2005) got a Golden Globe nomination for dress-up as a cheerleader then a bit-of-rough-on-the-stairs sex.

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Nowhere is the switch more evident than in Monster's Ball, where former B-list actress Halle Berry snagged the Best Actress Oscar partially because of the "bravery" she displayed during the terrifying sex scene. "Terrifying" because Berry's playing the date-from-hell against Billy Bob Thornton's straight man. He's a prison guard who meets her in a diner. She's grieving for her dead son. He takes her home. They drink whiskey. She starts blubbing. Thornton puts a nervous hand on her shoulder. "Er, I'm not sure what you want me to do?" he says, tentatively. Then, wham, she pulls down her top and starts chanting, "Make me feel good! Can you make me feel good?"

Naturally, he goes for it (good man, Billy Bob!), but you just know that he's keeping one eye open, in case she tries to clatter him across the back of the head. Thus follows five minutes of raw therapeutic ramming, artfully intercut with close-ups of hands freeing a birdie from its cage (hang on! I think I get this metaphor! Give me a second! Is it to do with freedom?). Director Forster said: "When I spoke to Billy Bob and Halle, I told them it was important that these two emotionally repressed characters start the sex scene raw and animalistic. They express everything that has been repressed for years." Of course, we all totally got that. So did the Oscar voters.

6 | Body of Evidence (1993)

I met Willem Dafoe recently and I asked him about Body of Evidence. The film, in which he stars as a lawyer in rainy Portland, Oregon, defending a part-time gallery owner and full-time dominatrix (Madonna) charged with murder-by-vagina, is generally derided as a giggle-inducing, all-time cinematic low. Perhaps typically, or not, Dafoe had much to defend in the film. He liked playing the bitch to Madonna's butch. He was disappointed with the marketing hype that revolved around Madonna's nudity. And mostly, he felt that Madonna became an unhelpful "symbol" for the bad buzz around the film.

"The timing was wrong, and it got presented the wrong way," he said. "Because it was essentially an old-fashioned courtroom movie, which I got a kick out of, where I'm almost like the woman's role and she's the man. And in the end, it was one of those cases where the symbol of the movie began to matter more than what the movie actually was, even for those people who hadn't seen it."

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And certainly, re-watched today, Body of Evidence is not any more preposterous or poorly acted than, say, Sea of Love (1989), Basic Instinct (1992), Sliver (1993), Disclosure (1994), or any one of the vapid, push-button Hollywood flesh-fests that came before or after it (although you possibly haven't lived until you've seen Madonna square up to Dafoe and hiss, "Have you ever seen animals make love, Frank? It's intense!"). And neither is its depiction of straight-faced, lip-quivering S&M rituals (melted wax on cock, broken bulbs in back) any more absurd than those enacted by Charlotte Rampling in The Night Porter, Juliette Binoche in Damage (1992) or Emmanuelle Seigner in Bitter Moon. Instead, what remains in Body of Evidence, and very much so, is a profound sense of the ridiculous ("That's what I do, Frank. I fuck!" says Madonna at the film's climax).

It proves something common to all S&M movies, and all films that take sex very seriously indeed (yes, that means you, Fifty Shades of Grey), is that, sometimes, it behooves all film-makers to be aware that sex is also, in its essence, never without humour (see # 3).

5 | Kids (1995) Kids is pretty much in its own category. For the questionably voyeuristic child-sex genre is, thankfully, a limited business, and mostly limited to the films of Larry Clark – see also Bully (2001), Ken Park (2002) and Wassup Rockers (2005). It doesn't help that, with Kids – a day in the life of teenage New York skaters, dossers, drinkers, stoners and shaggers – Clark shoots his subjects via a "documentary" style that borders on creepy cinematic stalking, where every lifted limb is captured, every naked profile, every panty flash noted. Neither is the subject matter going to win him any friends (Kids got a commercially damaging NC-17 rating [no children under 17] on release), especially when the film opens with odious 17-year-old protagonist Telly (Leo Fitzpatrick), a self-described "Virgin Surgeon", deflowering a doe-eyed 12-year-old girl, and closes with Telly's teen buddy Casper (Justin Pierce), raping stoned acquaintance Jennie (Chloë Sevigny), in her sleep.

And yet. It's hard to dismiss Kids. And there's certainly a sense that the cinematic world is a more complex and intellectually rigorous place because of its existence. Listen, for instance, to Clark himself questioning the validity of the film's NC-17 rating. "Maybe it's because Kids is not some fantasy bullshit. And every fucking movie now, has this sex scene in it, you know the guy's laying on his back and the girl's wiggling on top of him, he's got her breasts, and it's this stylised fake shit. But they're not NC-17.

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"I just saw that movie Clueless [1995]. Everything in that movie is in my film. It's about a teenage girl who's looking to lose her virginity. There's pot-smoking and drinking, and a scene where she walks out of a party and she's stepping over bodies and people are throwing up in the swimming pool. It's a lot of the same stuff that's in Kids, but it's done in the stupidest way, and everyone just finds it so fucking funny because it's so cute. Nobody puts that movie up to the standards that they're putting me up to. People say they find Kids depressing. I find something as fake as Clueless depressing."

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And the man, as they say, has a point.

4 | Casino Royale (2006)

Stay with me. Yes. Casino Royale. Think about it. The greatest sublimated sex scene in film history. Better than the train into the tunnel in North by Northwest (1959). Better than the chess game in The Thomas Crown Affair (1968). Instead, it's Bond (Daniel Craig), barely conscious and dragged into the rusty bowels of a moored torture tanker. Naked and bound, 007 is rammed into a seatless chair, forcing his balls to poke through.

Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), a terrorist financier desperate to recover his cash, repeatedly thwacks Bond's bollocks with a pendulous rope while gurgling sweet nothings, "Wow! You've taken good care of your body!" And yes, we've been here before. Goldfinger (Gert Fröbe) had certainly put some thought into laser-beaming the crotch of Bond (Sean Connery) in 1964. But this is different. It is making explicit all that was implicit, all those years, in the Bond legend. All that babe-bedding.

The defining antagonistic relationships with male villains versus the trifling female flings. Here it is, finally, in Casino Royale. It is homoerotica writ large. An S&M torture scene that wouldn't be out of place in Fifty Shades. Control and submission. Le Chiffre gets his man. And Bond gets his rocks (almost literally) whacked off.

Ultimately, the scene worked so well, in opening up the gay world of Bond, that it was revisited in Skyfall (2012), when Bond is tied to a chair once more by enemy Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem), who purrs, "First time for everything." To which Bond smirks and replies, "What makes you think this is my first time?" Silva gasps, "Oh, Mr Bond!" Quite.

3 | Team America: World Police (2004)

Sex is funny. We know this. Everyone who's ever done it knows this. Everyone who's ever said something really fucking stupid while they were fucking and then burst out laughing afterwards knows this. Movies, however? Not so well clued in. And the worst of them, and the ones that fall flattest on their faces, are the ones that box out completely even the tiniest possibility of humour. Sharon Stone and Billy Baldwin, ramming themselves repeatedly and energetically against a concrete pillar in Sliver is one of them (they're physiologically nowhere near coitus – unless his penis is penetrating her, through her black dress, somewhere above the fifth lumbar vertebrae). Most of Basic Instinct is another ("Have you ever fucked on cocaine, Nick?" No, it's mostly ale and kebabs, Shazzer), and all of Showgirls (1995). And no, contrary to received critical wisdom, Showgirls was never meant to be funny, camp or kitsch. Director Paul Verhoeven has always claimed it was intended to be, and still is, a "beautifully shot, and elegant" movie.

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So, thank God for Team America: World Police. The puppet-based action blockbuster arrived just in time, in 2004, when the movie world was still debating the issues of extreme sex in Irreversible, real sex in 9 Songs and Oscar-winning sex in Monster's Ball. Team America shat on that. Literally (the uncut centrepiece sex scene includes an extreme act of scatological humour). And you always knew that a sex scene was going to be special if it began with the lines, "The gorillas beat him to death before the zookeepers could gas them all. My acting got my brother killed, and I have to live with that every day."

The actor is Gary (director Parker), and the lover is ace psychologist Lisa (Kristen Miller). The sex scene that follows is 70 screen seconds of unadulterated, heart-warming lunacy that makes the possibility of future straight-faced sex scenes very tricky indeed. For it's all there. The fingers down the six-pack, the profile copulation with open windows and billowing curtains. The hair rock soundtrack (an Aerosmith knock-off called "Only a Woman"). And the increasingly ridiculous and giggle-inducing positions (more so, obviously, because of the puppet protagonists).

It's perhaps no coincidence the slick Hollywood sex scene almost entirely disappeared after Team America, and that within two years the populist comedies that emerged from Tinseltown were the comedies of Bromance (The 40 Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Superbad etc): all films that established as their fundamental subject the inherent humour of sex and sexual desire.

2 | Shame (2011)

Shame is the moment when everything collides. The art house, the S&M flick, the Oscar-worthy sex scene, the mainstream marketing hype. It's all there in Shame, a dark and grimly compelling tale of one man's increasingly insatiable appetite for both sexual fulfilment and emotional annihilation. And yes, as directed by Steve McQueen and performed by Michael Fassbender, the movie is conspicuously low on laughter. And there is, undoubtedly, a flipside Shame that lives in an alternate movie universe, and it's called The Shagger, and features the exact same characters, plot and location, but is shot mostly in daylight, with KT Tunstall playing on the soundtrack, and starring Ben Stiller. And it's pretty funny.

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But Shame is more than that. It's a sombre, serious film that reaches and eaches for greatness, and tries, and hopes, to speak about the dominant and oppressive sexualisation of the culture we live in today. It pitches Fassbender's anti-hero, Brandon, through a series of contemporary sexual scenarios – from the benign (internet porn) to the slightly, well, eccentric (fetishistic gay bar followed by a threesome with prostitutes) – and watches him crumble to nothing when faced with the seemingly simplest of sexual tasks, namely, to experience a physical encounter with a woman he likes, and indeed might love. Tragic.

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It helped too, for the hype around Shame (the film was given the dreaded NC-17 rating, which it didn't challenge and instead celebrated) that star Fassbender was perceived at the time (and possibly still is) as something of a man about town. An absence of long-term relationships in his past, plus a string of ex-girlfriends, plus a legal barring order from one of them (actress Sunawin Andrews), all pointed surely towards Brandon-esque tendencies in this white hot star?

I asked him about this when I met him, about the interplay between Brandon and Fassbender, and this is what he said. "People don't know me. But when you don't have some socially acceptable normative behaviour, where you're not married at a certain point in your life, people are always going to fill in the blanks. Was Brandon a performance that was relating to me, or cathartic to me? It's like, whatever! I brought my contribution to it, Steve did his thing, everyone involved did their bit. It's out of my hands from then on in. I know what my personal life is, and thank God I'm not going through the imprisonment that is Brandon's life."

1 | The Outlaw (1943)

Because it had to start somewhere. And no, I'm not talking about flashing thighs in Busby Berkeley numbers, or Claudette Colbert's leg in It Happened One Night (1934) or Fay Wray almost topless in King Kong (1933). Instead, The Outlaw is the movie, more than any other, where the decadent and often leery subtext of Hollywood product (what is King Kong, other than an interracial sex fantasy?) comes spilling out over the surface, and encapsulates the entire project.

The Basic Instinct of its day, the Shame, this movie, under the fetishistic gaze of millionaire director Hughes, pretended to be about Billy the Kid (Jack Buetel, a miserable actor) and Doc Holliday (Walter Huston, bored), but was really about the misadventures of feisty sidekick Rio McDonald (Jane Russell). The latter, then a young starlet known only for her impressive embonpoint, was the focus of everything about the movie, from breast-obsessed camera shots, to the marketing campaign itself. "What are the two reasons for Jane Russell's rise to stardom?" screamed the film's smutty, and frankly naff, tagline.

For its sins, the movie, which finished shooting in 1941, remained in distribution limbo for five years, bouncing from film company to censors' scissors, to public decency campaign, back to film company, to brief 1943 release, to limbo again, and eventually becoming a smash hit in 1946.

Ultimately, The Outlaw's raison d'etre, as no doubt Howard Hughes would have told you, is the depiction of Russell, who appears after 21 minutes of screen time, covered to the neck in a modest black top, and will spend each successive appearance on camera in lower and lower cut tops, in more and more lascivious poses, until finally, gagged and bound at a desert watering hole, she is splayed entirely, passively, for the (male) audience's delectation, arms aloft and body beautifully lit by one of the greatest cinematographers the medium has known, Gregg Toland (Citizen Kane (1941), The Grapes of Wrath (1940) etc etc). For The Outlaw, in its chromosomal essence, is the first time a complete film said nothing at all to the watching, leering, male audience, other than, "Fuck me!" The rest is history.

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