Neal Damiano investigates the trials & tribulations of characters dealing with drug use & addiction as Top 10 Films presents the best movies this powerful, controversial genre has to offer.
When thinking about the top 10 films whose central conceit involves addiction of any kind, it is rarely, if ever, a joyous experience. Indeed, addiction by its very nature, whether it is for chocolate or cocaine, is defined by an overindulgence in something that can, and probably will, cause emotional and physical suffering.
Particularly in the case of drug addiction, withdrawal is the hardest thing; a prolonged internal struggle between body and mind that threatens to derail the psyche of both the addicted and the friends and family who try to help as best they can. It is a battle worth fighting but the journey isn’t easy. In Top 10 Films about Drug Addiction and Rehabilitation we take a look at the best films to deal with this evocative subject.
10. Rush (Zanuck, 1991)
Rush is a very dark film that deals with deceit, loneliness, and codependency. A rookie fresh out of police academy meets his new partner – an attractive female on the force. They get assigned to a dangerous undercover operation to bust a drug ring in Texas. Soon they realise to fully get the true essence of being a drug addict, they have to experience drugs themselves. Eventually, during the course of their work, the two become personally involved with narcotics and each other. The chemistry between Jason Patric and Jennifer Jason Leigh radiates on screen.
9. Looking For Mr. Goodbar (Brooks, 1977)
A very dark film and shocking for the time period in 1977, and by today’s standards. Diane Keaton stars as a sexually adventurous teacher from a strict catholic family who escapes the normality in her life by retreating into the sordid, vacuous world of New York City’s singles bars. She has an affair with her older college professor but that doesn’t turn out very well. She spends her nights doing massive amounts of cocaine on a daily basis and picking up random guys until one night she picks up the wrong cowboy. Tom Berenger plays a bar hopping drifter and is the final man she brings home. The ending is quite shocking and disturbing, through the brilliant use of cinematography and light/sound. It would hold up to today’s shock value easily. Keep in mind this movie came out in 1977. A story about an insecure woman constantly rebelling, going on a misguided search for love and acceptance, and who could not come to grips with her estranged relationship with her father. Her journey is, in a sense, seeking a father figure. One of my favorite dark genre films.
8. Jesus ‘Son (Maclean, 1999)
Based on the popular short stories by Denis Johnson, the film starts out in 1974 when a disheveled young hitchhiker, who goes by the name FH (Billy Crudup), is standing on the side of the road, looking for his girl. How he gets to this point becomes clear as the film flashes back to Iowa City, three years earlier, when he meets up with a heroin addict named Michelle and they spend their days arguing and breaking up, only to get back together again. In between these fights they waste their days shooting up heroin in a Holiday Inn.
7. Basketball Diaries (Kalvert, 1995)
Jim Carroll’s autobiographical life story is the basis for this cult classic of the early nineties. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Jim Carroll, a poet-writing basketball-star at a Catholic prep school in Manhattan whose future comes tumbling down when he gets addicted to heroin after progressing from glue sniffing. Mark Wahlberg co-stars as Mickey, his partner in crime, as they skip school and do drugs. Jim realises his future of becoming a pro basketball player are gone when he sees a local kid that he used to run with, and who decided to stay clean, make it to college ball. Eventually his mother kicks him out and he is saved by a preacher, an ex-drug abuser himself. A powerful story about addiction and the negative affects it has on one’s dreams. Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance is amazing, as is the soundtrack which is essential to any collection. A must see film.
6. Requiem for A Dream (Aronofsky, 2000)
This was only Darren Aronofsky’s second film and many consider him a genius. Requiem For A Dream is one of the most graphic and honest depictions of self destruction and addiction to ever grace the screen. The imagery alone is frightening. Following a group of desperate drug addicts on the hard streets of Brooklyn these shady characters will do anything for their next fix.
5. Bright Lights, Big City (Bridges, 1988)
This is one of my favorite eighties films set within the New York City night culture. The film is based on Jay McInerney’s classic novel and tells the story of Michael J. Fox’s Jamie Conway, a cocaine-addicted fact-checker for a New York publisher, who can’t let go of the past. His character really struggles with letting go and a feeling of adversity. Phoebe Cates plays his model wife who leaves him while he also has to deal with the death of his mother. The flashbacks really show how the past haunts him. His life is spinning out of control with cocaine addiction and New York nightlife. A film about one man’s high expectations on himself without letting go of the past. A breakout role for Michael J. fox and he does it quite well.
4. Drugstore Cowboy (Van Sant, 1989)
This is the second time Drugstore Cowboy made one of my lists. Gus Van Sant is known for making movies about disillusioned youth. This film stars Matt Dillon, Kelly Lynch, James LeGros and Heather Graham. A gang of drifters travel around and knock off drugstores, doing prescription drugs of all sorts. This is yet another powerful tale of the dangers of drug use and realistically illustrates each character’s decline into crime and poverty. Checking out the ratings for Promises Austin treatment center might be their only hope for redemption. In my opinion this is one of Matt Dillon’s best performances. A brief encounter with William S. Burroughs, Dillon’s character has a moment of clarity and redemption, and decides to go completely drug free.
3. Trainspotting (Boyle, 1996)
Trainspotting is the film adaptation of the novel by Irvine Welsh. Taking place in Scotland, the film is a roller-coaster ride following a group of heroin addicts, led by a very young Ewan McGregor. All the characters are down and out, quitting and restarting their drug use. Chock full of memorable scenes and lines, this is a definitive film, extremely entertaining and eye opening. It also includes the filthiest toilet in film history.
2. Go (Liman, 1999)
The film is more entertaining than tragic and sports an all star cast including Sarah Polley, Katie Holmes, Scott Wolf, and Jay Mohr. In the style of an Altman or Tarantino film, Go intertwines the lives of 15 reckless youths
that get into all sorts of high jinks in the course of one night. Sarah Polley is very convincing as a young girl unable to pay her rent, so she sells baby aspirin disguised as ecstasy. This is one of my favorite films purely because of the stylised way it was filmed. A very entertaining story, keeps your interest all the way through.
1. Less Than Zero (Kanievska, 1987)
Less Than Zero is my favorite film adapted from a novel. Based on writer Brett Easton Ellis’ contemporary classic, the film shows us a vivid glimpse into the lives of spoiled rich kids, who have everything but want more. Centered around Los Angeles, three best friends – Clay, Blair, and Julian – graduate high school, and go their separate ways. Clay decides to go to college on the east coast, while Blair and Julian stay behind, taking a downward spiral into the seedy world of drug addiction. Upon returning home from college on Christmas break, Clay finds Julian has developed a debilitating heroin habit and Blair is coked out of her mind. Clay tries to help his friends, but realises it is far too late. A sad film about privileged kids who seem to having everything on the surface, but constantly search for meaning to an empty existence.
Your turn – what are your favourite films in the genre?
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