The 20 Best Movies About Addiction: A Countdown
Where do we start a list of the best movies about addiction?
The morbid and grim truth is this: Addictive personalities have always generated great stories and characters.
That's why the cinema has made so many stories where its main characters have some kind of fixation. The narrative of people with a vice will continue to be something that we will be interested in knowing. We want to know how deep we can go, and how high can we rise after that.
Only by understanding the human mind and desire will we be able to help people who suffer from addiction. Movies can help us understand by placing us in the minds and lives of the characters.
This is a ranking of the best addiction movies ever made. The tonal spectrum is large, so keep your mind open. Enjoy.
20) The Man With The Golden Arm (1955)
Frank Sinatra. Eleanor Parker. Kim Novak. All directed by the always experimental--considering his historical context--Otto Preminger, with the legendary Saul Bass in the design department and the fantastic music of Elmer Bernstein. Already, those are plenty of reasons to revisit this strange semi-noir movie.
But in addition, The Man With The Golden Arm was perhaps the first respectable film that openly dealt with the subject of heroin addiction. It still used some weak euphemisms that are very tamed for today's standards (Sinatra's character is a "dealer" but of poker cards), but they were perhaps necessary to push the envelope at a time when the line between heroes and villains or winners and losers were too simplistic.
In addition, you gotta love the fact that in the height of Hollywood's golden age a figure like Sinatra wanted to play a decadent addict loser.
19) Clean and Sober (1988)
In perhaps the most escapist decade in film history, Clean and Sober decided to make a rather grim chronicle of the destructive process of ignoring an addiction.
Michael Keaton did the same with his career. Accustomed to being associated with comedies like Night Shift, Beetlejuice or Gung Ho, the first cinematic Bruce Wayne decided to embody the chaotic and self-destructive alcoholic and drug addict Daryl Pointer.
Mission accomplished. Keaton makes a visceral and muscular performance that gives a great texture to this dark tale with dark humor. He also has in the supporting cast other great talents such as Morgan Freeman and Kathy Baker.
Clean and Sober can be somewhat unstable, but its characters are so engaging that it's impossible not to follow their stories.
18) Don Jon (2013)
Poor little Joseph Gordon-Levitt. He desperately needed to stop being seen as the babyface fragile sensitive young adult. He had to produce, direct and star in this film so he can finally play the hit-and-quit-it Don Juan muscular beefhead type.
The good news is that in addition to repairing the fragile ego of Gordon-Levitt, Don Jon is actually and interestingly portrayal of the addiction to pornography and the sex enjoyed exclusively as a masculinity status and power.
It's a rare story about male toxicity and machismo, with enough humor and heart for the audience to really be interested in what happens to the protagonist in his search for love. It also has Scarlett Johansson and Julianne Moore playing a couple of really interesting characters.
In the end, Gordon-Levitt can't hide it. He'll always be the sensitive guy.
17) Candy (2006)
It turns out that The Joker and Ennis Del Mar weren't the only great characters that Heath Ledger played in his tragically short life. At the peak of his career, the Australian star returned home to star in a small local and independent film called Candy.
Candy is one of the best movies about addicted and codependent relationships. It's difficult and devastating to watch a loving couple end up enabling each other and degrading themselves by the enslaving power of drugs.
Both Ledger and Abbie Cornish manage to perfectly represent the beauty of youth eaten away by the wrong vices. It's borderline-morbid but revealing.
This is not an easy film, but its bittersweet and at the same time hopeful outcome offers a great light at the end of the tunnel.
16) Drugstore Cowboy (1989)
The Hollywood star playing a chaotic drug addict. The beautiful female counterpart who will end up prostituting. The novel-biopic based on real events behind the script. A death that will change the rhythm. A clumsy attempt to abandon drugs.
That structure would be repeated multiple times during the 90s, in different cases and presentations. Some would be gems, other film failures.
But what no one can deny is that Drugstore Cowboy opened that trend, in a big way. Directed by Gus Van Sant, with Matt Dillon, Kelly Lynch and Heather Graham in the leading roles, this is a dry and sharp comedy about addiction.
In addition, it has a scene with William S. Burroughs destroying the demonization of drugs that is pure gold.
15) The Basketball Diaries (1995)
If someone had the ability to play the darkest stage of the real life of poet and punk rocker Jim Carroll, it was that very young promise called Leonardo DiCaprio.
The Basketball Diaries is one of the most famous movies of that 90's drug movies wave, and for good reason. The biopic directed by Scott Kalvert is a good portrait of a part of the economically depressed youth of Manhattan, dealing with the enormous social pressure of a larger-than-life city and getting escapism in drugs.
Chaotic, surreal and very uncomfortable, DiCaprio is the absolute star of this project. He is also accompanied by "Marky Mark" Wahlberg, Lorraine Bracco and a very fatherly Ernie Hudson.
14) Half Nelson (2006)
The setting is interesting from the start: Ryan Gosling as a big-hearted junkie Brooklyn teacher who generates a "big brother" relationship with a struggling African-American female student.
It's one of the best portraits of white privilege and its fundamental contribution to the destructive machinery of the drug industry.
But the most surprising thing about Half Nelson is the ease with which it gives depth and motives to the addiction of his main character. You just have to take a look at the passion with which he tries to teach some revolutionary ideas and compare it with the reality in which we live.
13) Rachel Getting Married (2008)
The reason why this movie is on this list is its particular approach to addiction stories.
Kym (Anne Hathaway), does not relapse into her addiction even once during her entire visit to her older sister's wedding. Still, all her life seems to be defined by the tragic events that occurred during his most self-destructive past.
In that aspect, Rachel Getting Married, directed by the great Jonathan Demme, works almost like a homemade amateur video of a family wedding capturing in detail the strong scars of the horrific wounds of the past.
It's a unique experience and an essential vision for this list of the best addiction movies.
12) Blow (2001)
“Blinded by the light / Revved up like a deuce / Another runner in the night” Manfred Mann's Earth Band sings while American drug lord George Jung (played by Johnny Depp) begins to generate wealth overnight.
In real life, Jung is perhaps directly responsible for the 80's cocaine boom in the United States, which is a controversial "legacy" to say the least. His story, without a doubt, was an interesting one to tell.
Yes, Blow has Pablo Escobar, federals and small planes. But the emotional core is the tragic personal story of George Jung, dealing with his addiction. Clumsy, not very bright and completely slave to an illegal industry, his downfall is completely predictable.
And still, when one sees the photo of the real Jung in the end, it's impossible not to empathize with Escobar's US right hand.
11) Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot (2018)
Gus Van Sant evades all the possible clichés of the biopic genre and greatly portrays the story of cartoonist John Callahan, whose life was marked by his alcoholism and quadriplegia.
With a structure that mixes drama, dark comedy, and AA's 12 steps, this film is one of the crudest, honest and surprisingly positive portrayals about addictions.
This project is not only sustained by an amazing Joaquin Phoenix performance. The work of Jonah Hill and Jack Black is also award-worthy, giving great depth to the story.
It turns out that cynicism, well approached, does save.
10) Flight (2012)
Denzel Washington plays the pilot Captain William "Whip" Whitaker, who is justly praised as a hero after emergency-landing a plane in a dramatic fashion. However, the event will reveal his rampant alcoholism. That's an immediately engaging premise.
But in addition to letting Washington do his thing, Flight stands out for making us believe that this was based on real events. It's not. It turns out its fiction is really more absurd than we think.
Even with the religious naivety of director Robert Zemeckis, Flight is a great story about those addicts who manage to be functional and masters in hiding their vices.
9) Shame (2011)
In 2011, half of Shame's audience was devoted to admiring the size of Michael Fassbender's 'body'.
It wasn't that they didn't understand the point, but that Shame is malevolently designed to be enticing for the entire audience to better demonstrate its point. The women of Shame are gorgeous too.
Shame is probably the best film ever made about this kind of hooking up addiction. His protagonist is so engrossed and obsessed with the mechanical act and power related to intercourse, that he is unable to emotionally connect with virtually no other person.
Shame also takes an extra step, embodying the character of Sissy (Carey Mulligan), the perfect mirror for its protagonist. It's a story that achieves decadence in a place where nobody would believe exists, which makes it way more silent and poisonous.
8) Christiane F. (1981)
In the middle of the Cold War, with a Berlin cut into two pieces, Christiane F. emerged as a gray and cold portrait of the western part of the city. This movie definitely raised the stakes about how the heroin plague was portrayed in previous films.
Much more explicit and raw, Christiane F. is based on the real experiences of its protagonist. And by using real junkies and the same locations as the real story, it also kinda works as a documentary.
There are also several musical numbers by David Bowie--in his Berlin trilogy phase-as to balance the experience and make the portrait way more genuine.
7) Traffic (2000)
With the imminent arrival of a new millennium, director Steven Soderbergh set out to tell an honest story about the drug industry without resorting to the ultraconservative villainization of mustachoed-narcos of the 80's or the glamorization of the young-rave culture of the 90's.
Multi-Academy Award Winner Traffic narrates three pertinent stories linked by the addiction machinery. It's a not-accusing-finger, realistic portrait of traffic, distribution, consumption and the official efforts (and corruptions) to stop drugs.
Soderbergh manages to show personal stories which at the same time pull the strings for the big picture.
It's a somewhat cynical proclamation that seems to reaffirm that the War On Drugs is a lost, wrong strategy, without ever being a pro-drug statement. That's a balance really hard to achieve.
6) Gridlock’d (1997)
This forgotten little gem of the late 90s attacks the addiction issue like no other movie.
In dark comedy mode, Gridlock'd tell the story of two jazz/junkie musicians who want to start the rehabilitation cycle for various reasons. Their lifestyle, insecurity and above all the government bureaucracy will make the task practically impossible.
With a script and a very intelligent direction of Vondie Curtis-Hall, Gridlock'd basically show a neoliberal vortex sucking two addicts to their downfall. It's a great social commentary and an interesting vision about addicts.
In addition, there is something exquisitely surreal in seeing Tupac Shakur--in his last role before being assassinated--sharing the screen with Tim Roth and Thandie Newton.
5) The Panic in Needle Park (1971)
The 90s was undoubtedly the decade that most glamorized/demonized/portrayed the beautiful, young and charismatic junkies being destroyed by their addiction. 20 years before all that, The Panic in Needle Park was released. And it's undoubtedly the proto-film of all that trend.
With a fantastic Al Pacino in just his second film (first one as the lead) and with the enigmatic and evasive Kitty Winn, this story about an addicted, co-dependent couple in Manhattan's Sherman Square showed for the first time the beautiful youth being slowly consumed by heroin.
And as fantastic as Al Pacino is here, the film takes on an extra interesting mystique when you realize that The Doors' Jim Morrison almost starred in it.
4) Leaving Las Vegas (1995)
A suicidal alcoholic and a depressed prostitute swear love at each other at the most decadent point of their lives. How honest or real can their words be?
Perhaps the bleakest love story (?) ever filmed, Leaving Las Vegas shuts off any light at the end of the tunnel to concentrate on the improbable connection of two self-destructive human beings who seem to have given up any possibility of being the best version of themselves.
Supported in the great performances of Nicolas Cage and Elizabeth Shue, this film shows a dark portrait and above all leaves in the air several interesting questions. Are people defined by their addictions? Can you really love a chronic addict or do you love the ideal person hidden behind said addiction?
3) Requiem For a Dream (2000)
Of all the movies on this ranking, Requiem for a Dream is undoubtedly the one that strives the most to make clear how bad drugs are.
The result is the world's best directed High School Anti Drug Ad, in which the message goes in just one stubborn direction. Aronofsky is torn between being an ultraconservative grandmother and her talented artist grandson.
Yes, its message is somehow on the nose (drugs are the devil incarnate!), but if there was a masterful film sequence ever needed to portray the most destructive and decadent aspect of addictions, the third act of this film, with Clint Mansell and Kronos Quartet's score and a devilish rhythm, will undoubtedly do the job.
2) Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)
When approaching a film about drug use, it's easy to take the logical path of demonization.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, based on the gonzo novel of the great Hunter S. Thompson, is one of the rare cases in which drug use is simply the fuel for greatness.
That, of course, doesn't mean that Thompson and director Terry Gilliam ignore the chaos and the destructive aspect of consumption. There cannot be no doubt that Raoul Duke (Johnny Depp) and Dr. Gonzo (Benicio Del Toro) live at times in a sensory nightmare in what should have been a simple journalistic coverage of a motorcycle race.
But the trip is so amazing and glorious, that it is a mandatory entry on this list. It's one of the stupidly ignored reasons why addictions exist.
Drugs are a blast. The quicker we understand this, the faster we could attack addictions better.
What's Your Favorite Addiction Movie?
1) Trainspotting (1996)
Trainspotting is the absolute culmination of many drug movies. The perfect distillation of what it really means to be addicted to heroin.
This gem of the nineties has an almost perfect balance between the necessary glamorization (drugs are fun after all!) and extreme decadence (dead babies haunting during withdrawal!).
Listing the memorable sequences of Trainspotting is practically making a whole synopsis of it. Creativity never stops, and the iconic soundtrack that uses it as fuel (Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, and Underworld, among others) only increases its legendary level.
Danny Boyle went straight to the film elite thanks to this film. And with understandable reason. Supported by screenwriter John Hodge and Irvine Welsh's novel, Boyle managed to perfectly portray the drug culture of an entire generation, focusing on some local Edinburgh fuck-ups led by Ewan McGregor.
I still need to watch Beautiful Boy, don't have it on my streaming service at the moment, but I think it could be on the list. Watch the trailer below.
I hope you enjoyed this ranking of the best addiction movies. Getting a better understanding of addiction will help us create a future where addiction can be treated as it should and people get the help they need.
© 2019 Sam Shepards