What Are the Best Movies About Addiction?

Addiction movies represent a genre that grew from small beginnings in the early twentieth century. Their number has grown, reflecting the rise of addiction itself. Most forms of addiction have been covered over the years, although the majority deal with substance abuse. Anyone involved with addiction at first or second hand would do well to acquaint themselves with at least some of these films. They have the power to inform, inspire and deter.

The Power of Addiction Movies

Great movies about addiction are inspirational stories because of the challenges and the successful changes that they portray. Some addiction movies are informative about the process of recovery too.  And yet others are downright terrifying as they portray the reality of dependence run riot, often with unhappy endings. Altogether, there are well over a hundred movies where addiction is a major part of the story line.  At Castle Craig Hospital we recognise the therapeutic value of this genre and regularly show such movies as a part of our recovery programme.

Early Addiction Movies

Before 1950, such movies were rare though there are a few great examples, notably The Lost Weekend, released in 1945. But the genre started well before then. Before World War Two, Charlie Chaplin was portrayed using cocaine in his 1936 movie Modern Times (calling it nose powder). The earliest known movie featuring addiction is said to be a Danish film about morphine addiction called The Morphine Takers, which was made in 1911.

All Addictions Are Covered

Since 1950 movies about addiction, especially alcoholism and other substance abuse, have become increasingly abundant, reflecting the huge increase in numbers addicted, but other addictions have been featured too. Gambling, eating disorders and pornography are well represented as well as less well-known disorders. Examples are Confessions of a Shopaholic (2009), Screened Out (2020) – a movie about phone addiction and Habi Gabji (2022) – an Indian film about video game addiction in the young.

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The Value in Seeing These Movies

Anyone who has been touched by addiction, including family and friends would do well to see some of these movies. Whether you are in recovery, struggling for sobriety or just worried that your behaviour is starting to produce unpleasant consequences, these celluloid dramas serve many purposes – as cautionary tales to those in denial, as models of how to proceed for those wanting to change, and as a source of hope for people in despair.

Some of the Best Movies About Addiction

Here are some of the best-known and most influential movies of the genre. There are many other fine examples not included here, too many to name:

  • My Name is Bill W (1989)

This beautifully produced film tells the true story of the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous in 1935 when Bill W met Doctor Bob and what followed therefrom. Apart from the sublime acting and production itself, it gives valuable insight and wisdom into the practice and principles of Alcoholics Anonymous and all subsequent self-help groups, making it a must-see for anyone in recovery or contemplating it, who wishes to follow that path. 

  • Days of Wine and Roses (1962)

Nominated for multiple academy awards, this heart wrenching film tells the story of a respectable couple who meet, marry and have a child while jointly descending into alcoholism. The familiar self-destructive rampage is horribly realistic. Only one of them (the husband, Joe) achieves lasting sobriety through AA. He tells his wife Kirsten, played by Lee Remick, that they cannot get back together while she is still drinking as his sobriety comes before everything. She is unable to do this, and they part in sadness, but the film ends nevertheless on a note of hope, when Joe replies to his child’s question ‘is mom going to get well?’ with the words ‘I did, didn’t I?’ 

  • 28 Days (2000)

In this ‘rehab movie’, actress Sandra Bullock memorably portrays an alcoholic who ruins her sister’s wedding before entering rehab where she struggles with self-defeating behaviours before finally ‘getting it right’. 

  • The Lost Weekend (1945)

The power of this grim story of alcoholic behaviour shocked 1940’s America so much that some thought it might cause the return of prohibition. It won four Oscars. Not for the fainthearted, it portrays one man’s descent to rock bottom. Made before rehabs were generally recognised, it nevertheless ends with a glimmer of hope.

  • Trainspotting (1996)

In Edinburgh, young Mark Renton and some of his friends struggle with heroin addiction which they keep returning to, despite efforts to quit. The momentary pleasure mixed with the grinding awfulness of their lives is the reality for many people. More deterrent than inspirational, the story is shown in an entertaining way, but reinforces the stigma attached to drug and alcohol addiction.

  • Rocketman (2019)

Elton John’s colourful life and variety of addictions (alcohol, drugs, shopping and sex) from which he successfully recovered make for a powerful and inspiring film that won large audiences and many awards. There’s great music too.

  • Uncut Gems (2019)

This is basically a crime thriller, but it is also a moving portrayal of a gambling addict struggling with the financial and relationship consequences of his addiction. No happy ending here but lots of painful reality.

  • When a Man Loves a Woman (1994)

This is the story of a wife and husband torn apart by addiction and their attempts to reunite when sobriety is achieved. It is a masterclass in family therapy, co-dependency and the benefits of self-help groups, especially Al-Anon. Meg Ryan gives a great performance as the addicted wife.

  • Shame (2011)

This explicit film about a man in the grip of vicious sex addiction was critically acclaimed causing the British journal The Art of Psychiatry to comment: “a moving and accurate portrayal of psychopathology (that should be) compulsory viewing for all practising clinicians).”

Walk The Line (2005)

The well-publicised life story of singer Johnny Cash and his successful struggle with drugs and alcohol is both entertaining and inspirational. It gives insights into the links between lifestyle and addiction.

  • A Star Is Born (2018)

This intensely emotional tale of an ageing musician who helps a young singer to find fame and fortune while he battles his addiction amply demonstrates the fact that addicted people are not monsters but good people struggling with a bad problem.

Be a Star in the Movie of Your Own Life

Recovery from addiction makes an excellent story because it focuses on change, the fundamental requirement of all good stories – you have only to read anything by Charles Dickens to understand that. People in recovery should be the first to recognise the importance of their own stories. This is not simply a matter for self-congratulation but a means for helping others, too. Spreading the message is an important part of recovery and they should not be shy doing so, whilst always acknowledging those famous words from the AA Big Book, Chapter Five: “that probably no human power could have relieved our alcoholism, but that God could and would if He were sought.” They may not have made it into the movies, but they are the heroes of their own recovery stories and as such, are a powerful example to others.

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