10 delightfully horny films to watch tonight

Lorenza Centi
Culture

If Twitter is good for anything other than micro-dosing outrage, it’s exposing people’s moral and ethical hangups. In recent months, an old cinematic argument has rekindled: Are sex scenes in movies necessary? There have been many off-shoots from this genesis conversation, particularly when considering nudity, queer representation, and that oh-so nebulous element of “good taste.” But it begs the more essential and potentially important question of what viewers find erotic and how they respond to those things onscreen.

There was a time when you could count on the larger studios for adult-focused entertainment engineered to titillate and provoke; erotic thrillers of the 80s and 90s like Basic Instinct and Fatal Attraction, along with more experimental films from the 70s like Don’t Look Now and Ganja & Hess come to mind. But now we live in the era of gargantuan media conglomerates and streaming variety, where ROI isn’t so much measured in box-office dollars, but heavily guarded viewership metrics meant to appeal to the widest audiences.

As Spanish director Pedro Almodovar said to IndieWire two years ago, “There are many, many movies about superheroes. And sexuality doesn’t exist for superheroes. They are neutered. There is an unidentified gender, the adventure is what’s important. You can find, among independent movies, more of this sexuality. The human being has such sexuality!” Not only is he right in this estimation, sex in cinema continues to be rare, even in independent circles.

So, with this latest backlash against sensuality and human desire in mind (and for subsequent such cycles to follow), here’s a list of films that, in one way or another, indulge in the lustful, tender, and outright horny.

Bound (1996, Apple TV and iTunes)

The Wachowskis’ directorial debut starring Jennifer Tilly and Gina Gershon as lovers trying to escape the clutches of the Mafia is featured on many “sexiest” lists, and for good reason. Beyond its famous one-take sex scene, Tilly and Gershon share an infectious, compelling spark that makes the film’s shocking bursts of violence and danger even more exciting. Bound also acts as a revealing predecessor to the Wachowskis’ eventual, extremely hot Netflix series Sense8.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992, Apple TV and Vudu)

Horror has always been a fruitful space for the marginal, profane, and irreverent. It’s where fear, desire, power, tension, and relief all work together, which only makes the presence of the erotic even more integral. Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of Dracula is a sumptuous, operatic ensemble that leans heavily into the vampire genre’s fixation with bodies, forbidden love, bodily fluids, and the sensual subconscious. Starring Gary Oldman as the Count, Keanu Reeves as Jonathan Harker, Winona Ryder as Mina, Anthony Hopkins as Van Helsing, and Monica Belucci as one of Dracula’s wives, this film is both over-the-top (see Keanu’s atrocious British accent) and unlike any other horror movie.

Desert Hearts (1985, HBO Max, also Hulu and Apple TV)

One of the first wide release films featuring a lesbian couple, Desert Hearts remains a beautiful, odd classic. Set in 1959, the film follows Vivian (played Helen Shaver), a New York professor, who travels to Reno, NV, to obtain a quick divorce. While staying at a ranch with other women waiting for their own divorces, Vivian meets Cay (played by Patricia Charonneau), a young sculptor who is also the adopted daughter of the ranch's owner. Both women fall for each other over the course of the film, which, in director Donna Deitch’s hands, is by turn cautious, hopeful, and hot.

Sibyl (2019, Apple TV and Google Play)

The psychosexual drama is difficult to pull off, particularly when filmmakers want the audience to be as aroused and confused as their protagonists. With Sibyl, it helps that director and co-writer Justine Triet employs talented actors who are also insanely attractive. Virginie Efira (soon to be seen in provocateur Paul Verhoeven’s erotic lesbian nun drama Benedetta) stars as Sybil, a therapist with writer’s block and a decidedly messy personal life. When Adele Exarchopoulos’s insecure actress Margot barrels into a session one day, Sybil is hopelessly fascinated and soon entangled in Margot’s personal life. If Sibyl doesn’t always hit its mark, it still provides a fascinating character study and moving meditation on the consequences of thwarted desire.

The Pillow Book (1996, Apple TV, Vudu, and Google Play)

Often derided as “that weird movie about the woman with the body-writing fetish,” The Pillow Book is an idiosyncratic erotic period drama that, while imperfect, is one of the first films I remember seeing where an Asian woman’s sexuality was taken seriously. Vivian Wu stars as Nagiko, a half Chinese, half Japanese model whose obsession with calligraphy stems from her childhood, when her father would draw characters on her face. As an adult, Nagiko seeks out partners that share her sexual appetite as well as her fascination with reading and writing. One of these partners includes Ewan McGregor’s Jerome, a bisexual British translator. Nagiko’s exploits over the ensuing years find her grappling with jealousy, ambition, and no shortage of desire.

Phantom Thread (2017, HBO Max, also Apple TV and Google Play)

Love is sometimes about being poisoned and finding out you quite like it. Maybe that’s an oversimplification. Paul Thomas Anderson’s masterpiece about fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his new muse Alma (Vicky Krieps) is a riveting, often anxious film about objectification, the ego of artistic pursuits, and how gaze influences desire. There are no steamy sex scenes here, but the interplay between Reynolds and Alma is thorny and full of wonderful erotic tension.

Suspiria (2018, Apple TV and iTunes, also Vudu)

A visceral, often brutal film, Luca Guadagnino’s remake of the 1977 horror classic about a coven of witches who run a dance studio is nonetheless a lush, tactile, and highly lascivious experience. Sex, attraction, and the movement and proximity of sweating bodies are juxtaposed with trauma and scenes of sometimes shocking violence. Guadagnino’s take on gender and power might give some viewers pause, but this is singular, bold filmmaking at its most hedonistic.

Crash (1996, Criterion)

Streaming services are younger generations’ cultural lingua franca, a fact I mourn if only because kids these days are unlikely to experience the pleasure of flicking through channels and stumbling upon a film like Crash. Conceived by North American cinema’s resident naughty boy David Cronenberg, this film is one of the most adroit and unflinching depictions of how sex and psychology are deeply, bewilderingly entangled. Broadly, the film is about three individuals, James (James Spader), his wife Catherine (Deborah Kara Unger), and a woman named Helen (Holly Hunter) who bond over their shared trauma after a car crash. Soon, the trio are caught up in a cult of car-crash fetishists, with some members trying to recreate the vehicular deaths of famous actors.

In Secret (2013, Apple TV and iTunes, also Google Play and Vudu)

I suppose I should state outright that In Secret is not a “good” movie. But as far as bodice-rippers go, Elizabeth Olsen and Oscar Isaac make for a compelling, exceedingly libidinous pair. Olsen stars as a sexually repressed woman trapped in an awful marriage to her gross cousin (Tom Felton). Cue the entrance of her cousin’s hot friend (Oscar Isaac). This is a movie about an illicit affair in late 1800s Paris, where no one has a French accent and it takes a decidedly Shakespearean turn for the tragic. But the main pair, along with Jessica Lange as the domineering mother, deliver engaging, admirably stoic performances.

Out of Sight (1998, Apple TV and iTunes, also Hulu and Google Play)

The thrill of the chase and flirtation with danger are key with this one. This often-hilarious caper points more toward director Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s franchise future than the likes of Sex, Lies, and Videotape, but it still showcases his eye for casting and playfulness. Jennifer Lopez and George Clooney star as a U.S. Marshal and bank robber, respectively, who cross paths in Florida, subsequently courting and hunting each other while a ploy for uncut diamonds unfolds. Clooney’s easygoing charisma is at its most potent here and his chemistry with Lopez makes for easily one of the most compelling onscreen pairings ever.

Honorable Mentions: Ex Machina, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Atonement, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, The Duke of Burgundy, Ghost, But I’m A Cheerleader, Raw