It was 1964 when Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously ruled against an obscenity case banning Louis Malle’s The Lovers, offering the ultimate definition of pornography: “I know it when I see it.” Erotica lives up even more vividly to that level of subjectivity, and on film, it tests the outer limits of ambiguity—so much so that we may not even know when we see it. So many stories of sexual awakenings begin with a shared kiss or cuddle; an extended glance between two characters never meant to be together; a hemline or article of clothing a few inches higher, or shorter, than spotted in a viewer’s daily life; and even an emphasized word or phrase hinting at untold, even unintended meaning. And of course, sometimes it’s obvious enough that everybody notices, when an actor or actress bares all, grapples with a scene partner, or simulates intimacy under idyllic, sumptuous lighting.
All of which is to say that selecting the best erotic films feels a bit like decoding a Rorschach test of a writer’s own appetites and interests. Because movies don’t merely document sexual and romantic fantasies, they uncover them. How many moviegoers watched, say, a teen comedy where their first favorite star appeared in a swimsuit, applied lipstick, or showed up at a roller rink looking like the embodiment of attraction? Or found themselves fantasizing about a lick of lips or touch of fingers after a scene where two characters merely brushed each other’s bodies? Erotica is, again, profoundly subjective. As a consequence, this list collects some of the benchmark moments captured on film, ones that touched on topics previously considered taboo, showcased and actor or actress in a role that fulfilled or transformed audience expectations, or simply captured moments of beauty, passion or sexuality in provocative, arousing or transcendent ways. Some are funny. Some maybe a bit frightening. Others seeded with risk, regret, melancholy, or irrepressible humanity. But all of them are more than a little bit hot.