The 2023 Naughty List: Kate Hagen highlights the best of the year’s cinematic sex stories

Another year of sex-scene discourse, another year of slim pickings at the cinema. From furious jumping to consent conversations, Kate Hagen selects the best of 2023’s mainstream offerings.

As a lifetime lover of lists, a decade-long employee of The Black List and an expert on sexy movies, it is my privilege and honor to bring you Letterboxd’s first-ever Naughty List, highlighting 2023’s very best cinematic sex (and related themes).

While several worthy new films out this year have contributed towards a canon of interesting, and important, sex scenes (a great Letterboxd list curated by Justin LaLiberty), the volume is nowhere near what you’d imagine from the sex scene discourse wars, which have continued onward into their 699th month, with no signs of a resolution anytime soon.

Insofar as IMDb’s contributor-provided tags can be relied upon as a statistic, 55 out of a total 18,027 features released in 2023 are tagged as including a sex scene. That’s a mere 0.3 percent of all released films this year, and even if that number is point-zero of a degree off, it’s still an absolutely devastating statistic you can now use when your Republican uncle starts complaining about there being “too much sex in movies” at the holiday dinner table!

While it does remain quite challenging out there for home-video voyeurs and picture-show perverts like me (and Letterboxd member Serial Chat Killer), I do feel there were a few exciting signs of (sex) life at the movies this year. So I’ve picked five of the best, from horny thrillers and comedies to (content warning) one deeply important examination of virginity and consent.

First, a few honorable mentions.

Always a pleasure to see Ayo Edebiri in the driver’s seat.
Always a pleasure to see Ayo Edebiri in the driver’s seat.

Best Reimagining of the Raunchy Studio Sex Comedy: Bottoms

Directed by Emma Seligman, written by Seligman and Rachel Sennott.

Bottoms is the violent, meta, queer, horny high school romp of my teenage dreams (even if it needed more kissing!) Letterboxd member Analeigh agrees in her review, vowing to: “Look[ing] up girls kissing videos on YouTube after this.”

Best Erotic Thriller Riff: Sanctuary

Directed by Zachary Wigon, written by Micah Bloomberg.

Femdom is so hot right now it revived the screwball comedy and the erotic thriller (and gave Margaret Qualley her best role yet!). Tyler describes Sanctuary as “the craziest episode of Succession I’ve ever seen “on Letterboxd.” Roman Roy wishes!

Best Horny Lit Adaptation: Eileen 

Directed by William Oldroyd, written by Luke Goebel from Ottessa Moshfegh’s novel.

Ottessa Moshfegh’s husband’s noxiously intoxicating adaptation of her own novel asks an important question: “What if Jim Thompson, but for the girls and the gays?” Letterboxd member Patrick Sullivan describes Eileen as “sort of the Wario Carol,” which is… stunningly accurate.

Best Barbenheimer: Barbie and Oppenheimer

Directed by Greta Gerwig, written by Gerwig and Noah Baumbach; written and directed by Christopher Nolan.

Even the cinematic event of 2023 embraced the realities of the human body and sexuality. I will never forget the cackle my own father let out at the final, gynecological line of Barbie! And in Oppenheimer, a nude Florence Pugh was powerful enough to garner a Showgirls-on-cable level edit—that’s a power money and prestige cannot buy, baby!

And now, onto the big winners.

The Feeling That the Time for Doing Something Has Passed

Written and directed by Joanna Arnow.
For fans of: Secretary, Sex Is Comedy, Girlfriends.

The excruciating eroticism of Joanna Arnow’s feature debut begins when Arnow dry-humps her way into our hearts in the very first scene. Arnow (who also wrote, directed, and edited the film, which debuted in the Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes) stars as Ann, a New Yorker who can’t quite dump her disaster of a daddy dom, Allen (Scott Cohen), or escape the stagnant subspace created by her wacky family, her crushing corporate job and unfulfilling situationships with men her own age.

The Feeling That the Time for Doing Something Has Passed veers into rom-com territory when Ann tries to break her own bad BDSM habits to become vulnerable with Chris (Babak Tafti), who’s eager to explore her darkest desires, be they singing Broadway in bed or bound blowjobs. But Arnow’s film eschews convention at every turn, especially in a surprising finale that finds Ann (and Allen) both getting exactly what they deserve.

The Feeling… understands the inherent absurdity of kink in a way we rarely get to see in American film, but never demonizes Ann’s masochistic desires—the girls who get it will really get it. This film even led me back to one of my own erotic roots: Scott Cohen’s primal personification of Wolf in The 10th Kingdom. Thanks for making me sit with that delicious discomfort, Joanna!

Passages

Directed by Ira Sachs, written by Sachs and Mauricio Zacharias. 
For fans of: The Dreamers, Y Tu Mamá También, Henry & June.

This year, Passages became the first significant art house release to keep its NC-17 rating and draw critical acclaim in nearly a decade. The film is reminiscent of the kind of vaguely European, sexy sex movie IFC used to show late at night—and feels like a fresh reimagining of that genre. Sachs understands that the single most compelling image one can capture onscreen is the human form, and the beautiful faces and bodies that form Passages—belonging of course to Franz Rogowski, Adèle Exarchopoulos, and Ben Whishaw, proving once again to be one of our most ebullient actors—are impossible to look away from.

Exploring the classic, almost inevitably tragic two-guys-and-a-girl dynamic, Passages draws a distinctively queer lens on the accidental triad formed when Exarchopoulos’ Agathe disrupts the already disintegrating marriage of Rogowski’s Tomas and Whishaw’s Martin after beginning an affair with Tomas, which includes a volcanic rendezvous outside an edit bay. A sex scene between Tomas and Martin that garnered the film its for-adults-only mark is gloriously graphic, but what I found most compelling about it was its particular focus on flesh. What a marvelous thing, to let the human body alone fully fill the frame… Can someone please send these three a copy of The Ethical Slut though?!

White River

Written and directed by Ma Xue.
For fans of: The Unbearable Lightness of Being, sex, lies, and videotape, Breaking the Waves.

“Time gets hotter by the minute,” whispers Yang Fan (Tian Yuan), a housewife on the verge of a sexual reawakening, early in Ma Xue’s first film, White River. Yang Fan’s marriage to Yuan Yong (Song Ningfeng) has hit an impasse, with Yong’s voyeuristic (and as we later see, cuckolded) tendencies failing to fuse with his wife’s own erotic curiosity, seen in self-directed, POV phone shots that feel perfectly tied to this moment in our own Pornhub-ified sexual history. Fan becomes unstuck from the banality of her quarantine routine outside Beijing with the arrival of Xiao Fang (Xu Weihao), a handsome waiter she soon beds.

But instead of kicking Yong to the curb for her younger lover, Fan decides to have her cake and eat it too, involving both men in her sexual escapades, allowing all participants to fully enjoy their role in the proceedings. There’s a deep, grounded tactility in Xue’s film, especially when it comes to a few memorable moments of soft, sensual sound design. And, the silence amongst the central trio throughout the film speaks volumes—especially in the film’s climactic, cathartic threesome.

Mainstream erotic films from Asia, particularly China, are still rare given the region’s strict censorship laws, but Xue’s (who was born in Beijing and works in South Korea) exhilarating debut feels like it breaks convention across more than just cultural lines—it blows up modern marriage in favor of something more enigmatic… and exciting.

How to Have Sex

Written and directed by Molly Manning Walker.
For fans of: Morvern Callar, Foxes, Thirteen.

Content caution: This film depicts sexual assault.

How to Have Sex follows Skye (Lara Peake), Em (Enva Lewis) and Tara (Mia McKenna-Bruce, who won Breakthrough Performance at the British Independent Film Awards for her indelible lead performance) on a holiday rumspringa of sorts in Crete, just before Em goes off to university, leaving Skye and Tara behind. Manning Walker juxtaposes the candy-colored discos and party politics of hot, young bodies with the impossible emotions of being seventeen for Tara, who embodies the immense pressure she feels as the last remaining virgin among her peers in sheepish smiles and oppressive corset dresses.

As copious amounts of alcohol and the hubris of youth blur the lines of lust for Tara, Manning Walker’s film thoughtfully explores the often-confusing contours of what sexual assault can look like, without ever romanticizing it. I hope audiences carry the compassionate complexities of these moments with them into their own love (and sex) lives. And, Manning Walker pulls off a tricky balancing act by portraying the harrowing tribulations of Tara alongside Em’s carefree coupling with another party-goer, Paige (Laura Ambler), proving that not every holiday hookup needs to be filled with angst or lead to an unhappy ending.

Tara is the kind of trying-her-very-best teenage protagonist that, at 34 years-old, I wish I could hug, buy some condoms and assure that it does indeed get better over a cuppa. While How to Have Sex is often painful to watch, it does feel so very true to what it means to be a young woman on the cusp of becoming herself: sexually, romantically and completely.

Poor Things

Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, written by Tony McNamara from the novel by Alasdair Gray.
For fans of: Gothic, A Dangerous Method, Working Girls.

Topping the psychosexual delights of The Favourite would be a challenge for any filmmaker, but Yorgos Lanthimos isn’t just any filmmaker. In adapting Alasdair Gray’s 1992 novel with screenwriter Tony McNamara, Lanthimos has crafted the boldest erotic film from a major studio since The Shape of Water. Poor Things is led by the luminous Emma Stone as babywoman Bella Baxter, 2023’s most fascinating feminist protagonist.

As the reborn Bella travels from a self-created sexual awakening in London to lascivious escapades in Lisbon with a dastardly suitor (Mark Ruffalo, somehow in his hottest role since In the Cut, which came out twenty long years ago) to a cozy Parisian brothel where she’s welcomed by a maternal madame (a movie-stealing Kathryn Hunter) and a working girl-friend (Suzy Bemba), Bella gets to come into her own sexual power over and over… and over again.

Bella uses her second chance at personhood as an opportunity to luxuriate in life’s pleasures large and small, be they orgasms, custard tarts, or exquisite latex looks from costumer Holly Waddington. As a result, her story becomes a rapturous viewing experience, especially for those with hedonism on their mind in these impossible times. Bella is never truly punished for her prurient pursuits, though to detail the happy ending would be a spoiler, except to say that it fits precisely with the fulfilling personal life she’s shaped for herself throughout the film. 

I don’t think that I can name another studio movie with this much joy, enthusiasm or curiosity towards the full spectrum of sexuality and the personal pleasure of women—and Hollywood has been making movies for over a century now. Poor Things is a seismic, singular work of erotic cinema and the year’s most daring Best Picture contender.


I must also mention a few repertory titles featuring great sex seen in 2023: the Cammell cut of Wild Side (thanks to the podcast You Must Remember This), Donna Deitch’s Criminal Passion (thanks to the Criterion Channel) and the 30th anniversary of Gregg Araki’s Totally Fucked Up (thanks to the Academy Museum). I also loved the raw intimacy of John Sayles’ unsung lesbian drama Lianna, the cerebral, sexual puzzle that is Atom Egoyan’s The Adjuster, and the incendiary romance at the center of Tigr Mennett and Juliet Bashore’s Kamikaze Hearts.


Poor Things is in US cinemas now and in UK and Irish cinemas January 12, 2024. ‘How to Have Sex screens in the spotlight section of the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. ‘White River came to premium demand services in the US this month. ‘Passages’ is streaming on MUBI and available to rent or buy on demand in the US and UK/Ireland. The Feeling That the Time for Doing Something Has Passed’ is currently on the festival circuit.

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