Ten Essential Films About Addiction

Addiction has inspired many directors to make great films and actors to give unforgettable performances. Cinema has often treated addiction with sensationalism, stereotyping the role of the addict. Nevertheless, there are plenty of brilliant films out there that not only thrill and delight on a cinematic level, but, more importantly, also provide thoughtful insights into substance abuse and the challenges faced by people suffering from addiction.

1. The Man with the Golden Arm (1955)  The Man with the Golden Arm (1955) on IMDb7.5/10

Subject to controversy and criticism upon its initial release, Otto Preminger’s film noir is one of the first major Hollywood films to treat the subject of heroin addiction honestly, head-on and without the sensationalism of previous cinematic takes on addiction. The film follows the story of Frankie Machine, brilliantly portrayed by Frank Sinatra, who is struggling to stay clean after having kicked his heroin addiction while in prison. The protagonist’s craving for heroin and eventual relapse are well scripted and convincingly acted by Sinatra, who visited various drug treatment clinics and met several users and recovering addicts in order to research the role.

2.  Days of Wine and Roses (1962)  The Man with the Golden Arm (1955) on IMDb7.9/10

Jack Lemmon plays Joe, an alcoholic whose wife also turns to drink. The film excels at showing how relationships can fuel addiction. Despite eventually managing to sober up, Joe is drawn back into alcoholism while trying to help his wife, Kirsten, to kick the habit.

3. The Lost Weekend (1955)  The Man with the Golden Arm (1955) on IMDb8.1/10

This film tells the tale of alcoholic author Don Billman, who goes on a weekend-long binge while those close to him try to encourage him to quit. The film won four Oscars in 1955, including Best Picture and Best Actor, and is a portrayal of the alcoholic’s typical self-destructive and egotistical nature. Billman lies, cheats and steals to pay for his addiction, convinced he is utterly incapable of kicking his habit. It is ultimately his love for his work as an author that allows him to admit to his problem and attempt to go clean.

4. Requiem for a Dream (2000)  The Man with the Golden Arm (1955) on IMDb8.4/10

Requiem for a Dream is the story of three childhood friends and their addiction-fuelled self-destructive lives. What is particularly interesting about this film is that the characters’ addiction is presented not so much as being a consequence of their environment, but more the result of their addictive natures. Director Darren Aronofsky portrays the protagonists’ fall from grace with an equal combination of humanity and brutality. A beautiful yet ultimately depressing work of cinema, Requiem for a Dream provides a sobering experience like no other.

 5. Leaving Las Vegas (1995)  The Man with the Golden Arm (1955) on IMDb7.6/10

Leaving Las Vegas tells the tale of screenwriter Ben Sanderson, who after losing everything moves to Las Vegas, where he intends to “drink himself to death”. Ben’s story is somewhat reminiscent of that of Don in The Lost Weekend. But while Don finds salvation in his work, Ben disconnects himself from everything and everybody that could help him quit his habit – with tragic consequences.

6. Trainspotting (1996)  The Man with the Golden Arm (1955) on IMDb8.2/10

For many years the go-to film about addiction in the 90s, Trainspotting takes you on an emotional roller-coaster as it follows the antics of heroin addict Renton and his drug-fuelled lifestyle. Based on an Irvine Welsh novel, it depicts the heroin epidemic in 90s Britain and chronicles the way addiction can destroy lives and friendships.

7. Flight (2012)  The Man with the Golden Arm (1955) on IMDb7.3/10

Based on real events, Flight tells the story of experienced airplane pilot Whip Withaker who is sued for flying a plane while under the influence of alcohol despite managing to land it in impossible conditions. His life is split between love for his job and his addiction to cocaine and drink. He sinks deeper and deeper into his addiction until he is finally able to admit he has a real problem. This film is great at showing how people suffering from addiction generally find it hard to accept they have a problem.

8. Clean and Sober (1988)  The Man with the Golden Arm (1955) on IMDb6.7/10

Clean and Sober is one of the few mainstream films with a clear focus on recovery from addiction. It follows the story of a drug addicted real estate agent that refuses to acknowledge his addiction and checks into a rehab program only to avoid the law. With a solid performance delivered by Michael Keaton, Clean and Sober provides a good introduction to the challenges chemical dependents face during treatment and recovery.

9. Nil by Mouth (1997)  The Man with the Golden Arm (1955) on IMDb7.4/10

With a tour-de-force performance by Ray Winstone as an abusive husband and father, Nil by Mouth paints a convincing picture of the challenges faced by chemical dependants who come from violent family backgrounds. Billy is an addict who has been kicked out of the house by his violent and abusive father, who shows little understanding or compassion for his problem and sees addiction as his son’s own choice and not as a disease.

10. The Cooler (2003)  The Man with the Golden Arm (1955) on IMDb7/10

One of the very few films about gambling addiction, The Cooler features a brilliant William H. Macy in the role of an addicted gambler who thinks he’s on a lucky streak. The film provides a great study of a gambler’s habits and obsession with luck, as well as the denial that he is suffering from an addiction every bit as serious as drug or alcohol abuse. 

Photo: Frank Sinatra in The Man with the Golden Arm