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11 Classic Films About Addiction to Watch This Oscar Season

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Editor's Note

If you or a loved one is affected by addiction, the following post could be triggering. You can contact SAMHSA’s hotline at 1-800-662-4357.

Films with addiction as a centerpiece make for intense storylines. Even though I have been sober for nine years, these movies always jibe with me. Drugs and alcohol are fodder for some exquisite Hollywood filmmaking, and these topics have been ripe for the picking for decades.

The 93rd Annual Academy Awards take place Sunday, April 25. I’ve seen all eight of this year’s Best Picture nominees. And some of the movies on my list have won Academy Awards or nominations in the past.

What makes a good addiction film?

As someone in addiction recovery, a good addiction film makes me never want to to drink or do drugs ever again. I’m talking about movies that scare you sober. From prescription-drug thievery to heroin overdoses to alcoholic binge drinking, these films haven’t shied away from the darkest of subject matter, addiction, which makes watching them a total authentic experience. 

Trigger warning — addiction. And spoilers ahead.

1. Trainspotting (1996)

“Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a fucking big television. Choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players, and electrical tin can openers. Choose good health, low cholesterol, and dental insurance… But why would I want to do a thing like that? I chose not to choose life: I chose something else. And the reasons? There are no reasons. Who needs reasons when you’ve got heroin?”

With those words — one of the best opening monologues in Hollywood history — “Trainspotting” cemented its role as the definitive film about drug addiction. Focusing on the misadventures of Renton — a Scottish bloke played by Ewan McGregor in his breakout role — the movie combines a little bit of comedy with horrifying portrayals of heroin addiction, detox and overdose.

The soundtrack is as much a character in the story as Renton himself — with Iggy Pop, New Order, Blondie, Lou Reed, Blur and Underworld among others propelling the storyline as if it were a movie musical. It’s a soundtrack for the ages. The creepy detox scene is trippy, and the overdose scene is well-done and ironic, with the Lou Reed song “Perfect Day” underneath it. Perfect day? How about perfect film? 

2. Requiem for a Dream (2000)

If there’s any movie that discouraged me from doing drugs, it’s this one. “Requiem for a Dream” — by one of my favorite directors, Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan” “The Wrestler,” “Pi”) — is extremely difficult to watch but well worth your time.

The cinematography — time-lapse effects, mini montages and splitscreens — propels this tragic story.

Jared Leto plays Harry Goldfarb, a nice young boy who dabbles in heroin and progressively becomes a junkie along with his girlfriend Marion, played by Jennifer Connelly. His elderly mother, Sara (Ellen Burstyn), watches TV infomercials all day and struggles with an addiction of her own. When she gets a call saying she is invited to appear on said infomercial, she becomes obsessed with fitting into a red dress she wore at Harry’s graduation. She goes to a quack doctor and gets hooked on “diet pills,” which are essentially speed.

The juxtaposition of how “socially acceptable” prescription drugs can indeed turn as ugly as something as heroin addiction earns this film spot #2 on the list. 

3. Drugstore Cowboy (1989)

The ugly side of drug addiction takes center stage in this one from prolific director Gus Van Sant (“Good Will Hunting,” “Milk,” “My Own Private Idaho”). The story follows Bob and his crew of friends who are addicted to a prescription medication called Dilaudid, an opiate that, when injected, produces intense highs.

“Upon entering my vein, the drug would start a warm itch that would surge along until the brain consumed it in a gentle explosion,” narrator Bob says early in the film. “It began in the back of the neck and rose rapidly until I felt such pleasure that the whole world sympathized and took on a soft, lofty appeal. Everything was grand then…Everything took on the rosy hue of unlimited success. You could do no wrong, and as long as it lasted, life was beautiful.” 

This eloquent monologue might be construed as a glamorization of drug addiction, but what transpires in the film is anything but glamorous. Depressing and hard-to-watch, the film’s payoff in the end is worth it.

4. The Basketball Diaries 

The first time he did heroin, he was frolicking in a field of pink flowers. At least that’s how it was portrayed in the memoir “The Basketball Diaries,” which was made into a film starring Leonardo DiCaprio as an adolescent Jim Carroll. Jim is known as a prominent poet, musician and author of the titular novel.

“First, it’s a Saturday-night thing when you feel cool like a gangster or a rock star — just something to kill the boredom, you know?” Leo narrates. “They call it a chippie, a small habit. It feels so good, you start doing it on Tuesdays…then Thursdays…then it’s got you. Every wise-ass punk on the block says it won’t happen to them, but it does.”

Catholic schoolboy Jim is a mostly innocent star on the basketball team at the film’s start — until he encounters heroin and eventually becomes a full-fledged junkie. The detox scene is absolutely agonizing and anxiety-producing.

5. Beautiful Boy (2018) 

 This one’s interesting because it is affiliated with two memoirs. The first book is “Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction,” written by David Sheff. David’s son Nic Sheff wrote “Growing Up on Methamphetamines” and it looks at addiction from the point of view of the addict.

Scenes of crystal meth and heroin abuse, rehab and relapse abound in “Beautiful Boy.” There’s also a close-call of an overdose. In a role that earned him a Best Supporting Actor nomination at the Golden Globes, Timothée Chalamet artfully plays Nic while Steve Carell turns in a serious performance as Nic’s father. Since this movie is based on nonfiction source material, it has a decidedly genuine flavor of truth. 

6. The Lost Weekend

Don Birnham is an author who can only write drunk. The 1945 film “The Lost Weekend” won the Oscar for Best Picture for its authentic portrayal of an alcoholic Manhattan writer. The movie showcases the powerful urge to drink as Don goes so far as to steal money and pawn stolen valuables to pay for his habit. His “lost weekend” is fueled by cheap whiskey, falling down stairs and begging for money. He will do anything for that next drink, as any alcoholic will attest to.

7. Pulp Fiction (1994)

Famed director Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction”  isn’t entirely about addiction per se, but it’s still a classic piece of film. 

While Vincent (John Travolta) is in the bathroom, Mia (Uma Thurman) spots a bag of white powder in his jacket pocket. She snorts it, thinking it’s cocaine, but it’s actually heroin. She overdoses, convulsing and spouting blood from her nose.

Vincent drives her to the house of his dealer, where he administers a shot of adrenaline straight to the heart. In true Tarantino style, what should be grotesque turns out to be quite comedic. The humor takes the edge off this classic yet harrowing scene.

8. Traffic (2000)

Stephen Soderbergh (“Ocean’s Eleven,” “Magic Mike,” “Behind the Candelabra”) directs this intense film about the war on drugs, starring Michael Douglas as Washington drug czar Robert Wakefield, Benicio Del Toro as a police officer on the drug-trafficking beat and Don Cheadle as a DEA agent. A Mexican cocaine drug cartel is prominent in the storyline. 

The war on drugs hits home for Robert, as his teenage daughter gets hooked on cocaine and is later found whoring herself out in the ghetto in exchange for coke, crystal meth and heroin, which she freebases. It all comes to a head when Robert realizes that a “war on drugs” is really a “war on people”– a revolutionary idea after decades of Just Say No propaganda. It hits home the point that addiction is indeed a disease, an idea that for many is a tough pill to swallow. 

9. Days of Wine and Roses (1962)

It’s the incredible story of two drunks in love. And it very well may be the definitive film about alcoholism. In “Days of Wine and Roses,” we see Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick intertwined in a romance with both each other and the bottle. This is what it’s really like to be on a downward spiral into alcoholic abyss.

Alcoholism is a progressive disease and these characters just keep on sinking. With scenes of desperation aplenty, the film follows Joe (Lemmon) and Kirsten (Remick) as they go from successful business people in San Francisco to alcoholic bums with no jobs and one reason to live: the next drink.

There are rubber rooms and relapses. Hysteric crying episodes and fits of rage and this is probably the first film to feature a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Both Lemmon and Remick were nominated for Best Actor/Actress at the 1963 Academy Awards and for good reason. The acting shows a limitless range of human emotion. This is powerful stuff for its time. And portrayed perfectly. It still stands up today. 

10. Party Monster (2003)

 It’s a drug-infused candy store captured on film. 

“Party Monster” stars the once-innocent Macaulay Culkin of “Home Alone” fame, and his  performance is dead-on as notorious club kid Michael Alig. The movie is based on a true story adapted from the book “Disco Bloodbath” a.k.a. “Blood on the Dance Floor” a.k.a “Party Monster” by James St. James.

The film captures an accurate picture of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s drug culture in New York City. Alig promotes parties at the legendary Limelight nightclub in Manhattan, where drugs flow like wine in the rave-era, ecstasy-fueled electronic music scene.

In one part, Alig is seen dressed in a nurse outfit at the Limelight, doling out free pills of ecstasy to fellow club kids in tiny paper cups on a silver platter. Seth Green plays Alig’s flamboyant cohort James St. James and the two isolate, taking copious amounts of drugs in their Manhattan apartment. As Alig falls deeper and deeper into addiction, he ends up murdering and dismembering his drug dealer, ending the party on a horrifying note.

11. Reefer Madness (1939)

I’m throwing this one in for good measure. “Reefer Madness” isn’t authentic at all, but it makes the list because it is just plain silly. Teenagers maniacally puff away at the demon weed in this 1936 propaganda film about the perils of marijuana. The tagline: “Women Cry for it, Men Die for it.”

The Academy Awards take place this Sunday 4/25 at 8 p.m. EST on ABC.

Lead image utilizes images from the following YouTube channels: Miramax, Warner Brothers and Eureka Entertainment

Originally published: April 23, 2021
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