It’s still a taboo subject, even in an era of so called freedoms and contemporized morality. Whenever the issue comes up, some scream “think of the children” and prudes produce proof that all life’s issues stem from and struggle with its carnal components. Yes, sex is still a four letter word, especially in the movies, where violence and gore are far more acceptable subjects. Movies about the physical act of love and the ramifications that can result are tricky. Go too far, and you might as well be making smut. Pull back on the realism and suddenly everything is a silly softcore fantasy. Oddly enough, there are some films that easily walk the line between provocative and porn, resulting in something very special indeed. In that regard, here are the 10 best films about sex ever made. Some may taunt the NC-17 label, but for the most part, there is much more to these movies than skin on skin sentiment.
Granted, on the surface, this is just another of Russ Meyer’s over the top, large-breasted sex farces. But dig beneath the doodling and you’ll find one of the most insightful and witty scripts around, thanks in no small part to the return of Roger Ebert to the Vixen fold as a screenwriter. After working with Meyer on Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, the duo collaborated on a movie which, in between the bonking, has a lot to say about society circa 1979… and today.
At first, it sounded like your typical teen comedy. A young man — Tom Cruise — left home alone by his parents, turns his house into a brothel to earn money when valuable objects belonging to his parents are ruined and/or stolen. On the other hand, writer/director Paul Brickman decided that it would be more important to talk about maturing and the pitfalls of life than to focus on the fornication. The end result is an epiphany, a stunning statement on meeting/failing expectations and taking control.
While it’s lately become a viral meme, mostly used in response to bad casting choices or the stupid movies that result from same, George C. Scott’s performance as a highly religious father looking for his daughter in the LA porn industry was a late ’70s shocker. The whole tone of the film was foul and disturbing, writer/director Paul Schrader taking the material he mined in his screenplay for Taxi Driver to horrific extremes. The ending will be a gut punch for any parent.
Lars Van Trier’s insane genre mash-up begins with a tragedy attached to sex. While a couple enjoy each other physically, their newborn child dies. The rest of the movie plays out like a series of sadistic psychological litmus tests, the unnamed parents retreating to a cabin in the woods to work out their depressing differences in more and more bizarre ways. Then animals start speaking. Then she starts lashing out, resorting to violent outbursts to “blame” her husband — and his “manhood” — for what happened.
Another oddity, this time from the equally eccentric vision of Peter Greenaway. Some have called this a political allegory bathed in gourmet food, gourmand excesses, and naked trysts amidst the culinary inventory. Helen Mirren and Michael Gambon are the duo in the middle of the title, she an unhappy spouse to a raging London crime boss. She escapes through her dinner time affair with a bookshop owner. Her husband’s comeuppance, controversial at the time, stands as one of the most defiant film acts ever.
No, not the godawful Oscar winner about race relations in LA. This amazing movie, from body horror hero David Cronenberg, remains a true piece of perverse art. The story centers around individuals who get sexual arousal and pleasure out of recreating tragedies — in this case, car crashes. The insinuation alone was enough to make prudes apoplectic. Cronenberg, ever the provocateur, decided his masterpiece’s sex scenes needed to be as surreal and graphic as possible (within not hardcore limits, mind you).
The first X-rated movie ever to win an Oscar (though, later, the MPAA reduced it to an “R”), this story of a street hustler and the “pimp” who prods him along is both a creative character study and a commentary, a look at our then burgeoning sexual revolution as well as the decline of our cultural norms. Jon Voight’s backwater rube is the perfect parallel for Dustin Hoffman’s inner city nebbish. Together, they combine to argue that, sometimes, sex and gratification is all we have.
Mike Nichols would come to define the late ’60s/early ’70s and its obsession with free love and frank, open-minded discussions of sex. In this, his first of two films on this list, he concentrated on the classic coming of age ideal. Dustin Hoffman is a recent college grad who finds himself being seduced by his girlfriend’s mom, the iconic Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft). Oddly enough, the raging hormones soon fade and our hero is left wondering if there is really more to life than lust.
If The Graduate centered on a young man and his affair with an older woman, this brilliant slice of sexual satire (and dramatic disobedience) became a benchmark in gender honesty. Even the oddball casting of singer Art Garfunkel and supposedly “safe” sex kitten Ann-Margret didn’t undermine the bite found in Jules Feiffer’s script. This was the first film to use the “C” word, and some theater owners were arrested when it played. In 2014, it’s not really shocking so much as insightful and profound.
Porn. What’s more indicative of cinematic sex, right? In this sprawling erotic entertainment industry epic, writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson plays with dreams and their determined owners, showing us how simple it is to get lost in the fantasy of fornicating on film. Mark Wahlberg’s well-hung babe in the woods discovers that even being exceptionally endowed doesn’t protect you from the horrors that come from selling yourself. Like Scorsese, Anderson tells his tale in movements, with the finale forcing us to face the truth of the toll it takes on everyone.