Top 10 Drug-Themed Films

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.

More top 10 lists you might like: Top 10 Christian Slater Films | Top 10 Cult Films | Top 10 Films You’ve Never Seen But Should Have | Top 10 Quintessential 1980s Films | Top 10 Slasher Films

10. Rush (Zanuck, 1991)

Top 10 Films about Drug Addiction & Rehabilitation
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)

Top 10 Films about Drug Addiction & Rehabilitation
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)

Top 10 Films about Drug Addiction & Rehabilitation
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)

Top 10 Films about Drug Addiction & Rehabilitation
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)

Top 10 Films about Drug Addiction & Rehabilitation
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)

Top 10 Films about Drug Addiction & Rehabilitation
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)

Top 10 Films about Drug Addiction & Rehabilitation
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 characters decline into crime and poverty. 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)

Top 10 Films about Drug Addiction & Rehabilitation
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)

Top 10 Films about Drug Addiction & Rehabilitation
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)

Top 10 Films about Drug Addiction & Rehabilitation
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.

See more top 10 lists from Neal: Top 10 Christian Slater Films | Top 10 Cult Films | Top 10 Films You’ve Never Seen But Should Have | Top 10 Quintessential 1980s Films | Top 10 Slasher Films

Written and compiled by Neal Damiano.
Follow Neal (@Nealreviews1) on Twitter by clicking here and read more of his reviews at FilmWad

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About the Author
Neal Damiano calls himself “an unhip film geek” who mixes his passion for movies with an enthusiasm for travel, music and journalism.

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  1. Dan Grant Reply

    You are the FREAKIN man Neal!!!

    Like Quentin Tarantino said about Battle Royale, “It’s the film I wish I would have directed.” My paraphrasing of his line would be, “This is the top ten I wish I would have wrote.” This is a great top ten. You have some excellent choices here, especially the Bright Lights Big City one, which many people forget about.

    However, when I saw the title, I immediately got scared, seriously frightened, that you would not mention Less Than Zero. And now that I think about it, that is another film I should have included in the oscar snubs piece. Simply put, imo, this is one of the best films of the 80’s. James Spader is one of the biggest sleaze balls you will ever meet. He grew up with Julien and yet he still made him do sexual favours for men to pay off his drug debt. Truly sad. I’m so glad you not only included this film on your list, but that you put it at number one, where it belongs.

    Excellent write up Neal!!

  2. Dan Grant Reply

    Oh, and Rush, another fantastic and unnoticed film. Really nice list.

  3. Neal Damiano Reply

    @Dan Grant,

    Dan your one of my best supporters and I appreciate that. I fell in love with Bright Lights, Big City and Less Than Zero the moment I saw both films. I had to come up with a list to include these two great films. I also have a liking for dark in nature style films.

    Keep reading, my friend
    Neal -

  4. Jack Deth Reply

    Hi, Neal and company:

    Great choices and critiques.

    ‘Drugstore Cowboy’ and ‘Rush’ are great additions.
    Was hoping to see ‘The Panic in Needle Park’ make the cut.
    Or go even more old school and add Nicholas Ray’s ‘Bigger Than Life’.

  5. Dan Reply

    @Dan Grant: “James Spader is one of the biggest sleaze balls you will ever meet.” – Whenever I think of Spader I think “sleazeball”! I suppose Stargate was a bit of an anomaly.

  6. Neal Damiano Reply

    @Jack, Yes, Panic in Needle Park is a great film and I considered it for the list. I just couldn’t find room for it in a top 10.

    @Dan top10, James Spader often plays an outsider or shady character and he does it so well. He’s one of my favorite actors.

  7. Dan Grant Reply

    @Dan and Neal: Spader’s character in Less Than Zero is what his character Seth would have grown up to be in Pretty In Pink. That rich, silver-spoon-stuck-in-his-ass kind of guy. Remeber the line in Pretty in Pink when he tells Blaine (McCarthy), “You really think I give a s**t about my parent’s house?” That’s RIP as a teenager. Spader is so good at being so bad, he’s one of the under rated actors of our lifetime…..hmm…another top ten topic?

  8. Rodney Reply

    Hoy bowdy, sticking Go in above Trainspotting will surely ruffle a few feathers. I liked Go, but would have had it a little further down this otherwise excellent list. Requiem For A Dream would have been at #1, and Trainspotting at #2, by my reckoning….

  9. Neal Damiano Reply

    @rodney, Laughing, I hear you man but like I said I stick to my guns with my lists. I absolutely loved the film Go, because of the stylization of It. It’s just one of those films for me, I can watch over again several times and never get sick of it. I can’t say the same about Trainspotting although a great film! Requiem for a Dream is just too harsh of a film my friend. I like to ruffle people’s feathers buddy. Make people see a different view other than the obvious ( with film)

    Thanks for the read-

  10. Evan Crean Reply

    This is one of the few Top 10 lists where I haven’t seen the majority of the films on it. I do agree that Trainspotting, Requiem for a Dream, Go, and Basketball Diaries all have well-deserved spots on it though. If there’s one film about addiction I can recommend it’s Permanent Midnight. A really obscure film starring Ben Stiller in a rare dramatic performance. There’s an amazing scene about smoking crack that makes me laugh every time. I’ll have to check out some of the other movies here that I haven’t experienced.

  11. Neal Damiano Reply

    @Evan, Permanent Midnight is a fantastic film I own the DVD. However I feel there are already several films on here adapted from novels or short stories, I like diversity on my lists. Ben Stiller’s performance as Mr Stahl is absolutely brilliant. Another amazing film based off a book!

    Thanks for reading
    Neal

  12. Pete Reply

    Less Than Zero and Drugstore Cowboy are going straight on my must-see list! Trainspotting, Requiem for a Dream and Basketball Diaries would be my top 3. I don’t remember anything about Go but I know I saw it.

  13. Mark Reply

    There was also that funny scene in French Connection II when Popeye gets addicted to smack by Frog 1 and the gang before recovery. Not sure he really rehabiliated though.

    Slower Learner by Schrader is another possibility, where Defoe is now on the straight and narrow (from speed I think).

    Then there’s Gridl’ked, when they are trying to rehabilitate.

    And isn’t Depp rehabilitated by the end of Blow (and, come to think of it, Liotta at the end of Goodfellas)?

  14. Neal Damiano Reply

    @Mark??? Why waste a comment space?

  15. Mark Reply

    Not a COMPLETE waste of time, surely … Slow Learner (forgive above spelling mistake), while not top 10 material, deserves something of a mention (afterall, critics did make a comparison between it and Bresson’s Pick Pocket). I think there’s also a case for the others as well, albeit in not such a profound way.

    BTW, good list … like a few of the others I would have put Trainspotting at the top – literally a mindblowing film. Also, does J Fox actually rehabilitate in Bright Lights, or does he merely resolve. Been so long I’ve seen the thing I’ve forgotten.

    Also, I’ve been rewatching Richard Brook’s In Cold Blood recently and it made me think back to the death scene in Looking for Mr Goodbar, which was most unpleasant. Well observed ….

  16. Dan Reply

    @Mark and Neal: Perhaps my fault for any confusion. Neal’s original title for this was “Drug Addiction”. I added “Rehabilitation” to wider the scope of the content (and because several films in the list feature characters rehabilitating for better or for worse – the “detox” of Trainspotting is particularly hard-hitting and relevant).

  17. Neal Damiano Reply

    @Mark, thanks for reading and the compliment. I just did not understand where you were coming from with the original reply, it was a bit confusing to me! I think your concentrating on the rehabilitation end of the topic, which again as he stated -Dan added in title to broaden the spectrum. My original title was Top 10 Drug Themed Films.

  18. Mark Reply

    And just to add to the confusion, it’s not Slow Learner (a collection of short stories by Pynchon), but Light Sleeper, the Paul Shrader movie which, in its own way, possibly could have found its way into a top 10 drug themed film list.

  19. Neal Damiano Reply

    @Mark, Light Sleeper with William Dafoe is a great film ………I had it on VHS ( laughing) William Dafoe is one of the greatest actors of our time!

  20. Mark Reply

    The Boost with Jimmy Woods and Sean Young is another worthy contender, as is Killing Zoe; meanwhile, two Australian possibilities are Dogs in Space (where heroin looks like its fun until Michael Hutchence’s girlfriend ODs) and Monkey Grip …

  21. Dan Grant Reply

    Another one I think deserves mention is Traffic. There is a lot more to it besides drug addiction but the addiction of drugs plays a major role in it. There is one harrowing scene, kind of reminiscent of LTZ, where Erika Christensen is so addicted to crack that she visits the slums, knocks on some dealer’s door and asks him for crack, but has no money. She of course ends up having sex with him and then after she gets high and the look on her face is one of just pure joy. Really powerful but disturbing stuff.

  22. Neal Damiano Reply

    Another Day in Paradise is also an excellent drug film with James Woods!! There are a lot of great drug films, could easily do another list o nthis topic, a part 2.

  23. Neal Damiano Reply

    Overall not a whole lot of response or reply to this list? I thought it made for an interesting topic?? What I I know (laughing)

  24. Neal Damiano Reply

    Correction- “What do I know”

  25. Dan Reply

    Robocop 2 comes to mind as an alternative when I think about drug addiction. Although the drug in the film has its basis in fantasy, the devastating impact it has on those that use it and the power-hungry nastiness of those that develop, manufacture and sell it highlights the overarching problems drugs create.

    I think Trainspotting is my favourite of the films listed above – not least because of its honest depiction of drug use but its intimate view on this underground culture amid economic strife.

  26. Neal Damiano Reply

    @Dan, Robocop is such an 80s classic. They’re doing a remake supposedly, I hope they don’t destroy it.

  27. Mark Reply

    Also …

    A Scanner Darkly

    Wonderland (apparently a lot of people – including critics – didn’t like this, but I thought it was pretty good; another strong Kilmer performance … )

  28. Dan Grant Reply

    I think there is a fair bit of response to the list. But it’s hard to get more than 30 comments now. Last year there seemed to be more people commenting on lists.

  29. Neal Damiano Reply

    @Mark, yes Wonderland was a great film but I didn’t want to put on the list a film based off a real person besides Jim Carroll. I’m a big fan of Kilmer!!

  30. Neal Damiano Reply

    @Dan, vey true but at least there’s a response here and people genuinely into film. Facebook is the worst place to display your art. Such a self centered invention.

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