The Best Movie Ever: Sex

There’s a Sex Tape running around the multiplex this weekend. It’s a naughty comedy about a married couple played by Jason Segel and Cameron Diaz who film themselves having sex, then spend the rest of the movie trying to make sure no one accidentally watches it. But watching films is exactly what we do at the CraveOnline Film Channel, and we decided to ask each of our critics – William Bibbiani, Witney Seibold, Fred Topel and Brian Formo – what The Best Sex Movie Ever really is.

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Any movie that’s fundamentally about sex qualifies, although for the sake of argument we’re ignoring straightforward pornography (a category we may get to in a future installment of The Best Movie Ever somewhere down the road). So check out what our critics picked and vote for your own favorites at the bottom of the page. (We apologize in advance if the list doesn’t include one or more of your favorites… there’s a LOT of movies about sex, after all.)

William Bibbiani:

There’s a very good argument to be made that “The Best Sex Movie Ever” is probably whatever pornographic film you personally like best. But we’re eschewing pornography for this list, and as such I found myself going in the completely opposite direction, selecting a film that is entirely about sex but which never actually shows us any of it: Max Ophüls’ playful, romantic and somewhat insidious La Ronde.

The film’s spritely storyline begins with a short vignette about two people having an affair. It then continues, following only one of the characters as they have another affair with another person. La Ronde then follows the next character all the way to their next sexual encounter and so on. The Oscar-nominated script is at turns romantic, humorous and more than a little sexy. The merry-go-round storyline touches upon something beautiful in its cavalier scenic route through society: if you really are having sex with everyone your partner has ever had sex with, we are all of us intrinsically connected through attraction, sympathy and love. That’s sex for you. A very enlightened point of view.

But pay attention: we’re following every character from sexual affair to sexual affair. What else travels from person to person as they find new sexual partners? Yes, as La Ronde continues the subtext rears its ironic head, revealing that we’re watching something endearingly human, and also the perpetuation of a Sexually Transmitted Infection. Moreso than any other mainstream sex film that tries to explore the downside of coitus, many of which usually falling into an awkward and socially-enforced spiral of shame, La Ronde is a reminder that there is a downside to human contact of the most intimate variety, even though it simultaneously tells us that this is the very thing that makes the world go ’round. That’s sex for you too. Very matter-of-fact too.

Witney Seibold:

There is a weird dichotomy (at least in America) splitting movies about sex. On the one hand, you have frothy, fun, immature sex comedies that approach intercourse like a distant, unattainable activity for teenage boys (or adult men who act like teenage boys). Films like American Pie or A Dirty Shame leap to mind in this regard. Light, silly, and highlighting just how buffoonish the lead characters are. On the other hand, you have sex films about the “dark” side of sexuality, and the pain, jealousy and shame tat can be associated with the activity. Films like Eyes Wide Shut, or Bliss or Shame. These are typically films about damage or damaged people, working through trauma using sex. The sex films that are positive on the activity are out, but seemingly rare (The Sessions comes to mind). All sex films, though, whether they be “light” or “dark,” are typically about intimacy and closeness. The light films show that intimacy can break through desperation. The dark ones show what happens when people reject it.

The best sex movie is from the second camp, but has notes of hope. Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1972 classic Last Tango in Paris is most decidedly about emotional trauma, and how sex – some pretty extreme stuff – is used as a simultaneous distraction and healing mechanism. The woman (Maria Schneider) is a young Parisian looking for love. The man (Marlon Brando) is a middle-aged widower looking to escape his past. They meet in an empty apartment and come to an agreement: They will begin having sex – any kind of sex they want – provided that’s the only thing in their relationship. Some of the scenes that follow – involving butter and clipper fingernails – were some of the more extreme sex acts depicted in a non-porn film. Eventually, of course, the two of them, through a swirling haze of emotional chaos, come to the conclusion that intimacy can be achieved through this sex, and that he has been using sex as a shield.

Last Tango in Paris is one of the most moving, raw, deep arthouse films of the 1970s, and features one of Brando’s best performances. This is no mere exercise in ennui. This is a, well, penetrating drama that cuts to the heart of love and sex. And you feel every brutal cut. 

Fred Topel:

The ‘90s were a Golden Age of erotic thriller. As much as I’d love to champion my favorite Shannon Whirry film Private Obsession, I can’t honestly say it’s a better movie than Basic Instinct, or artful sex films like Last Tango in Paris or The Dreamers. This was actually the most difficult Best Movie Ever to narrow down because, A) the list of sex movies on IMDB is so long (even if you narrow it down to sex comedies, erotic thrillers, etc.), and B) so many of the movies on the list are legitimately good. Quite impressive for an oft-maligned genre.

The Last Seduction was the apex of Linda Fiorentino’s seductive powers. She’d already been enticing in After Hours and Gotcha! After The Last Seduction she would exploit her legacy in the likes of Jade, but The Last Seduction was the perfect femme fatale role. The sex scenes between Fiorentino and Peter Berg are indeed hot, but the plot twists brilliantly as the levels of manipulation reveal themselves long after the obligatory post coitus shot. The script by Steve Barancik keeps us guessing, and John Dahl’s directing updates the classic film noir with ‘90s levels of MPAA-approved eroticism.

Brian Formo:

I was prepared to write about the Ronald-Reagan-shaming sex opus Crimes of Passion. But for all of Ken Russell’s absurdly subversive dialogue and the distinct ownership of a woman’s sexuality who doesn’t need to be rescued by a man (and a wholly committed Kathleen Turner who, pardon the film-critic-speak, sets the screen on fire) it is lacking one thing: actual sexiness. Seek out the director’s cut, though. You’ll find new ways to talk back to religious creepers who want to lord over bedrooms. And you can laugh (and cringe) at the American movie hypocrisy that prefers piles of dead bodies to piles of nude bodies. 

Then watch Secret Things. Long ago, the French invented a more adventurous way of kissing, and they’ve similarly led the way in film sexiness that doesn’t actually punish (or rescue) women for enjoying sex.

The film begins with a woman masturbating (Coralie Revel) to an opera on a stage. Later she teaches a young woman who tended bar at the public pleasure event (Sabrina Seyvecou) on how to unlock her own sexual confidence. They’re seduced by making more money and decide to get jobs at a bank. They sleep their way to the top. But the man at the top is a sadistic voyeur. He attempts to make them jealous of each other. And director Jean-Claude Brisseau dares to present their progress as a sexual hijacking that’s aided every step of the way by the false idols at the top. It’s a simple glass ceiling/glass house parallel with a climactic orgy, but it oozes confident sensuality and, because Brisseau doesn’t distance himself from his two leads, Secret Things even offers some direct talking points pillow talk.

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