1. Requiem for a Dream (1996): This movie has it all, the young druggies spiraling into harder drugs and graver consequences and the older woman addicted to prescription meds. And, for extra credit, the visuals and the editing are really trippy.
2. Jungle Fever (1991): This Spike Lee film ranks so highly because of Samuel L. Jackson’s breakthrough performance as the crackhead Gator – the most searing depiction ever of a hardcore addict.
3. Rachel Getting Married (2008): Every moment of this film about rehab, recovery and relapse – and drug addiction as a family disease – rings true.
4. Easy Rider (1969): This is the definitive drug film. It’s about a pair of drug dealers, after all, and it would make this list for any of three great drug scenes. First, there’s this marijuana smoking scene; you will not be surprised to read that the actors were really toking up. And, finally, there is the scene in the southwestern commune that unintentionally exposes the pretentiousness of the ritualized dope culture of the period. (Smoking in front of your toddlers – yikes!) As a druggie bonus, there’s an early cameo by Phil Spector as a coke kingpin.
5. Trainspotting (1996): This visually original film about Scots junkies has a unique energy and Iggy Pop on the soundtrack. The moral: junkies are not your best childcare option.
6. Drugstore Cowboy (1989): A gaggle of young druggies goes on a crime spree.
7. Fat City (1972): In all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, you will find sad sack barflies. Stacy Keach and Susan Tyrrell give dead-on performances as pathetic loser drunks. Tyrrell was nominated for an Oscar.
8. Maria, Full of Grace (2004): The gripping drug trade drama about a Columbian girl who becomes a cocaine mule.
9. Crazy Heart (2009): Jeff Bridges’s Oscar winning performance as a somewhat functional alcoholic, whose disease finally endangers a child and ruins yet another relationship.
10. Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009): Nicholas Cage is a gloriously drug-addled and corrupt New Orleans cop in this crime dramedy. Contains this brilliant stakeout scene where he realizes that only he can see the iguanas singing Johnny Adams’ soulful “Release Me”.
Other Notable Drug Movies
It’s Complicated (2009): This light comedy has one of the funniest pot smoking scenes, as baby boomers Meryl Streep and Steve Martin smoke some 2009 grass (much more potent than the stuff they were used to in the 70s) and try to maintain at a suburban cocktail party.
Midnight Cowboy (1969): Hitting the bottom in grimy late 60s NYC.
Walk the Line (2005): The Johnny Cash biopic, with the star getting hooked, flaming out and hitting bottom until June Carter Cash picks up the pieces.
Sid and Nancy (1986): Another music star biopic, but with heroin and without June Carter Cash picking up the pieces.
Come Back, Little Sheba (1952): Burt Lancaster plays a bitter, recovering alcoholic who is trapped in a depressing marriage to Shirley Booth; a comely young renter shakes things up.
Winter’s Bone (2010): A drug trade movie where a 17-year-old girl must hunt down her meth cooking dad (dead or alive) to save the family home.
Down to the Bone (2006): Vera Farmiga won acting awards for playing a grocery clerk mom who undergoes drug rehab without support from her husband or employer.
Sherrybaby (2008): Maggie Gyllenhaal plays a formerly incarcerated mom who hasn’t resolved her addiction issues.
Lost Weekend (1945): Ray Milland won the Oscar in this definitive alcoholism classic, but I think that it’s dated.