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The 50 Greatest Sex Scenes in Cinema

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40. The Lover (1992)
As a teenager having an affair with an older Chinese man, French actress Jane March is nothing short of luscious in this 1992 Jean-Jacques Annaud film. The fact that she is unknown to American audiences, while our tabloids overflow with waifs like Kirsten Dunst and Kate Beckinsale, should make the Weinsteins ashamed of themselves. Based on Marguerite Duras' erotic autobiography, The Lover is ultimately a bit of a cold narrative, exploring the sexual and racial mores of 1929 Indochina but never saying much. But the film is worth it for the heated scenes in which March, playing a role called only The Young Girl, breaks taboos with her world-weary lover (Tony Leung Ka Fai). Annaud shoots the sex in extreme close-up: the plump, wet lips barely parted, a zoom on the soft, quivering belly, nipples and ass and probing fingers. It's highbrow spank material, frankly, but who doesn't enjoy a little softcore porn? — Sarah Hepola  Watch the scene.

39. The Piano (1993)
Erotic blackmail gets a bad rap in reality, but it's hotter than Hades in fiction. That is, at least, what we take away from this mid-19th-century fable about eccentric mute Scotswoman Ada (Holly Hunter) increasingly succumbing to her neighbor George's (Harvey Keitel) sexual demands in exchange for her beloved piano's return. While this scenario might make the Andrea Dworkins of the world tut-tut in dismay, the deliciously wrong power games between Ada and George are unquestionably hot — even more so in contrast to Ada's nominally repressed, Victorianesque persona. AdaÕs nudity becomes a metaphor for her gradual sexual awakening in a time of prim propriety, rendering this film more meaningful than similar fare on, say, The Spice Channel. A sex scene that's both hot and non-gratuitous? Rare, yes — but The Piano serves it up. — Jessica Gold Haralson  Watch the scene.

38. Shortbus (2006)
Sofia (Sook-Yin Lee) is a sex therapist who has never had an orgasm, and is painfully aware of the irony. When she snaps during a therapy session with a very understanding couple, her clients suggest that she visit "Shortbus," an underground performance space, salon and sex club. When Sofia walks through the door, she encounters the best orgy scene to appear on film after 1979. Piled on the floor, dangling from swings and squirming against the walls are dozens of bodies, of all genders and descriptions, screwing and licking in every possible combination. Sofia's eyes focus on one dark-haired, tattooed beauty in the foreground, who has a shuddering, very real orgasm as her boyfriend fucks her from behind. One second later, she looks at Sofia with a devasting combination of empathy and post-coital bliss. We never learn the girl's name, but we see her again in the final scene, where she helps solve Sofia's orgasm deficiency (as well as the New York City blackout). — Gwynne Watkins  Watch the scene.

37. Shaft (1971)
Gordon Parks's classic action film wasted no time in establishing the sexual agency of its lead character: no sooner had Isaac Hayes warbled "he's a sex machine with all the chicks" in the opening credits, did we see the lead character in bed, generating a fingernail-baring orgasm from his latest conquest. It was a first impression worthy of the character's iconic status. — Michael Martin  Watch the scene.

36. Boogie Nights (1997)
As befits a film about the adult film industry, most of the sex scenes in Boogie Nights are casual, unshocking — a zip of the trousers in the supply closet, two naked bodies grinding in the corner of the frame. But the one scene actually filmed for a porno, in which Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg) makes his big debut, is downright touching. As a newcomer facing the ultimate screen test, Adams is nervous and boyish and eager to please. He wants to make this sexy. His partner in the scene is veteran Amber Waves, played with a brilliant mix of maternal feeling and self-destruction by Julianne Moore. She coaches him through his first time, and the scene is that much more exciting for its primness — no nudity, no sweaty body parts, all we see are facial expressions, and the flicker of tape as the reel runs out. A boy has become a man. And that man will be named Dirk Diggler. — Sarah Hepola  Watch the scene.