You don’t usually hear the phrases “critically acclaimed” and “erotic movie” in the same sentence, so that’s a good reason to list the top 10 critically acclaimed erotic movies. It’s a sad fact of modern cinema that so few sexy films are really good, and so few good films are really sexy. Here’s a double handful of movies that are both.
- “Henry & June.” Director Philip Kaufman literally rewrote the ratings code with his 1990 film about the real-life love affair between writers Henry Miller and Anais Nin. Just as Miller’s books forced governments to revise censorship laws, Kaufman’s film caused the MPAA to create a new rating, NC-17, so mainstream erotic films could avoid the stigma of an “X.” But you don’t need to know any of that to enjoy the sensuous three-way play between Miller, Nin, and Miller’s wife June, played in a star-making turn by a young Uma Thurman.
- “Body Heat.” A throwback to erotic thrillers of the ‘40s like “Double Indemnity,” Lawrence Kasdan’s 1981 film noir played on the same concept: kill the husband. Film aficionados appreciated the steamy new addition to an old genre. Others enjoyed the top-flight acting of the lovers played by William Hurt and sexy Kathleen Turner, in her film debut.
- “Last Tango in Paris.” Bernardo Bertolucci’s drama of a dangerous love affair found its perfect moment in 1972. A few years earlier, and it would have been banned in every country; a few years later, foreign films were considered pretentious by many American viewers. But in 1972, everyone had to see if the sex scenes involving Marlon Brando were as explicit as they’d heard; the film became a box office hit and Oscar nominee.
- “In the Realm of the Senses.” This taboo-shattering 1976 Japanese film won accolades while shocking audiences worldwide. Its graphic portrayal of a sado-masochistic love affair taken to the extreme is transgressive even by modern standards. It was even more controversial in Japan, where frontal nudity is forbidden in films.
- “9 ½ Weeks.” Adrian Lyne’s flashy, stylish approach to erotic drama would become a cliché by the 1990s, but in 1986, it was something to see. It became the sex film everybody talked about, much as “Last Tango” had done fifteen years before. Kim Basinger and Mickey Rourke had several memorable love scenes, but it was the “refrigerator” scene that had everybody talking.
- “The Unbearable Lightness of Being.” Director Philip Kaufman has a way with a literary love story. His 1988 adaptation of a critically acclaimed novel was nominated for two Oscars. Lena Olin and Juliette Binoche were the lovers of lucky Daniel Day-Lewis, in the film that made all three into international stars.
- “The Lover.” Another acclaimed film that dared to push the boundaries, 1992’s “The Lover” explored forbidden love in 1920s Vietnam. Lovely French student Jane March experiences a sexual awakening with a Chinese businessman, despite the fact that he’s a stranger. The love scenes were convincing enough to inspire years of Internet speculation as to whether they were faking.
- “sex, lies and videotape.” This independent film was the talk of the indie circuit in 1989. Stephen Soderbergh’s debut film explored the boundaries of relationships and privacy, prefiguring the obsessions of the following decade. James Spader, Andie MacDowell, and Laura San Giacomo starred in the film, which won the Palme d’Or, the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival.
- “Like Water for Chocolate.” By 1992, sex in films was no longer shocking, and everyone fell in love with this Mexican import. The sensual love scenes between Lumi Cavazos and Marco Leonardi were seen as another way to reveal depths of character, as pioneers like Bertolucci had intended. It’s no accident the film equates sex with eating, both natural functions that can be enjoyed a little…or a lot.
- “Eyes Wide Shut.” Legendary director Stanley Kubrick’s final film was an erotic thriller starring real-life married couple Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise. That alone was enough to inspire months of speculation, but the actual film was perplexing to many viewers. Like many Kubrick films, its critical acclaim has only grown in the years since its release; director Martin Scorsese called it one of the best films of the 1990s.
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