I’m fascinated by the affliction of addiction. I’m enamored with the struggle, the pain, and, if it exists, the resurrection in overcoming.
Not-so-coincidentally, many of my favorite films focus on the varying types of addiction. In fact, since 2000, I believe only four films have been released that justify being labeled as a masterpiece. Among them, three focus on addiction.
Dozens of films (and TV shows) are released every year that concern themselves with the tumultuous areas of addiction. Most get it wrong. Some get it right. Here are the 10 best I’ve seen.
Dir. by Billy Wilder
The Lost Weekend is arguably the most daring film on this list. That is, if you take into account when it was released. Movies like The Lost Weekend weren’t made in 1945. The film, which documents the four-day binge of Don, a hopeless alcoholic played to Oscar perfection by Ray Milland, was so far ahead of its time, I frankly have no idea how Wilder had enough clout to move it passed censors. But he did, and nearly 70 years later, we all continue to reap the benefits.
As Don, Milland is the personification of a man who has tiptoed the edge, and passively jumped off it. Every single thing he does – every spoken word, every penny saved, every slow step – is done in order to achieve that next drink. Based on a novel by Charles Brackett, who co-wrote the script with Wilder, The Lost Weekend is a moving poem of self-destruction. Watch it once, and it will haunt you forever. In the best possible way.
Days of Wine and Roses (1962)
Dir. by Blake Edwards
When we first meet Joe Clay (Jack Lemmon, delivering his finest screen performance) he is an avid social drinker, who slowly introduces his new girlfriend, Kirsten (Lee Remick) to the wonders of a two-martini lunch. But as the film progresses, Joe becomes heartbreakingly dependent on the sauce, and, perhaps more devastatingly, drags his now wife down with him.
And that’s the beauty (for lack of a better word) of this film: it starts with two people deep in the throes of love, and chronicles them through their absolute worst. There’s nothing safe and cushy going on here – Days of Wine and Roses depicts alcoholism for what it is, sugarcoated sentimentality be damned. It should also be noted that this one of (if not the) first films to depict the inside of an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. And depict it truthfully.
The Fire Within (1963)
Dir. by Louis Malle
Alain Leroy wants to die. A recovering alcoholic who has sobered up in a treatment facility in Versailles, Alain now suffers from debilitating depression, and wants to spend his final day visiting what few friends he has left, before he takes his own life.
Mind you, none of this is plainly spelled out – Malle always preferred to have his characters live in subtext – but at the heart of this broken man is, well, just that… a broken spirit. Alcohol ruined any sense of composure he had in himself, and any confidence he had as a writer. He moves slow and thinks deliberately, quietly pacing himself to his bitter end. The Fire Within is a haunting hour and 50 minute exercise in human desolation.
Raging Bull (1980)
Dir. by Martin Scorsese
I’ve never considered Raging Bull a sports movie, let alone a movie about boxing. Rather, Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece is a film about the addiction of rage. And while no one diagnoses Jake LaMotta as a rageaholic, that is precisely what he is. His sole intention in life is to inflict pain, and to have it inflicted upon him.
When he’s in the ring, his enemy is obvious. He is there to destroy his opponent, or, depending on his mood, have his opponent destroy him. Kill or be killed. And make no mistake, Jake LaMotta was a killer. Whether he knocked an opponent out in the first round, or played possum by being a human punching back for 14 rounds, LaMotta could give and take as well as any person who has ever stepped into a ring.
In the street, LaMotta’s life was more complicated. With no real opponent, he focused his rage on his wife, his family, and really anyone within right hook’s reach. That is, of course, until he had no one left to fight. Most of the films on this list contain at least one scene of the addict in question at their absolute worst, and few are more effective then watching Robert De Niro mercilessly pound the concrete wall of a prison cell, begging to know “why.” Why what? Exactly.
Drugstore Cowboy (1989)
Dir. by Gus Van Sant
I’m not an addict, so please don’t take what I’m about to say as the analysis from someone who has “been there.” But, basically, drugs are fun, right? Drinking, popping, coking, smoking – it’s all fun and games… until it’s not. And that’s the best way I can describe Drugstore Cowboy: a fun a frenzied satire that glamorizes the ecstasy of substances, until it swiftly shows the true horror drugs can bring.
So, sure, there are far more heavy-handed addiction dramas to be listed, but there’s something about Drugstore Cowboy that I am completely taken with. I suppose my affection could be rooted in the film’s unique, absurdist tone, but no matter how you shake it, this is a pioneering documentation of addiction.
Leaving Las Vegas (1995)
Dir. by Mike Figgis
Leaving Las Vegas is the best, most accurate portrayal of alcoholism I have ever seen. And, to push it further, I have yet to see an actor dive into the destruction of alcohol better than Nicolas Cage does here. The man embodies the pitifulness that so often plagues addicts. To call his Ben Sanderson hopeless would be to denote that, at one time, he was a man equipped with hope, which I simply do not think is the case.
Ben leaves L.A. with the sole intention of drinking himself to death in Vegas. He packs booze, a separate shirt for everyday, and just enough money for rent and limitless sauce. Meeting Sera (a typical hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold character portrayed flawlessly by Elisabeth Shue), only adds to the dreadful tone of the picture. Sera should be able to save him – that’s what American movies have taught us. She helps him, he helps her, and they drive off into the sunset. Figgis had a slightly different version of the American dream in mind. It’s impossible for this film to not lurk in your brain once you’ve seen it.
Requiem for a Dream (2000)
Dir. by Darren Aronofsky
Requiem is a kind of companion piece to Drugstore Cowboy, while, at the same time, being the perfect antithesis of it. The film so convincingly displays the benefits of being embedded with drugs. You get richer, skinnier, more popular – you name it. Stick with it though, and it all goes to shit. And then some.
You could take the final 10 minutes of this film as reason enough to include it on this list. Those minutes, in which Aronofsky ingeniously, horrifically, maddeningly cross cuts four separate character arcs at the peak of their worst, represent a level of repulsion that is rare outside of real life. It’s as if Aronofsky said, “Yeah, you’ve seen addiction before, but now you’re going to fucking see addiction.”
He went all in and blew it wide open. And goddamn if he didn’t leave exactly the impact he was hoping for.
Dir. by Steven Soderbergh
To be fair, Traffic as a whole is a film about drugs; drug addiction is only one part of it. But as we watch poor Caroline Wakefield (Erica Christensen) quickly spiral out of control, it’s impossible to not appreciate the weight of her struggle.
When crudely summarizing humanity into categories, there are really two types of people who use drugs: the people who freebase a hit and say, Yeah, cool, rock ‘n’ roll, then carry on with their day, and the people who hit from the same stash and say, Yeah, cool, more, now. Caroline falls heavily into the latter category. That’s all it takes for her: one hit, and she is completely hooked. Her addiction moves her from her cushy life in the Ohio suburbs to the worst crack bedrooms of America.
The first time I saw Traffic, Caroline and I were nearly the same age. Her struggle spoke to me on a number of levels, mainly as a lesson on what to avoid. Now that I’m a decade older than her, I want so desperately to stop her from falling. But, in the end, I think she’s right. I think she’ll make it through today.
There Will Be Blood (2007)
Dir. by Paul Thomas Anderson
There Will Be Blood is as much about oil as Raging Bull is about boxing, which is to say, not really. I’ve long since considered this film an exploration into the addiction of wealth. Greed, personified.
Soon after meeting Daniel Plainview, he has a horrendous fall down a silver mine shaft and breaks his leg. After he climbs out of the hole, the camera pans up to a vast desert, then ingeniously jump cuts to Plainview sprawled out on the floor of a trade office, waiting for his earnings. How in the hell did he manage to get to that office? He was alone, badly injured, and not within earshot of anything. I’ll tell you how: greed. From the onset, Anderson makes clear that Plainview’s single objective is to get filthy rich by any means necessary.
Most of Plainview’s tricks don’t fully reveal themselves until the film is concluded, but when you take everything into context, you see that the majority of his life was a lie. A lie perpetuated solely to gain financial wealth. And, in the end, alone and eating steak off the floor like a dog, I ask: Why, Mr. Daniel? Why indeed.
Dir. by Steven McQueen
By this point, I hope I’ve made it clear that I’m fascinated in seeing addiction depicted on screen. Now, couple that notion with the fact that I am fully aware that I first saw Shame only 10 short months ago. What I’m getting at is that I understand the weight of what I’m about to say, for Shame, to speak bluntly, is the best film I have ever seen about addiction. Period.
My limitless affection for this film relies on numerous factors, chief among them is how it so uniquely chronicles something very few people understand. Everytime I have seen sex addiction depicted in films or TV, it has always been used as a punch line. It’s the whole How can something so right really be so wrong argument. Well, in watching Shame, it’s clear that an addiction to sex can be as crippling as heroin, alcohol, or anything, really.
As the lost, beyond-broken Brandon Sullivan, Michael Fassbender is the incarnation of an invisible disease. On the surface, it appears that this Madison Avenue heavy hitter has everything going for him, but inside, nothing is what it seems. He’s as displaced as a junkie begging for change on a street corner. If only the people around him knew.
I’ve dedicated a good chunk of blog space to this film, and not once have I felt that my writing has done justice to what this film provides me. I mentioned earlier that most all of these films contain at least one scene of the addict losing to their disease. Shame has that, and it is one of the most gut wrenching, effective sequences ever put on film. You want to know what addiction looks like? Watch Brandon Sullivan’s skeletal face bathed in harsh orange light in the moment he achieves something most guys would kill for. That’s pain.