The 10 Greatest Drug Movies of the Past 50 Years

Cheech and Chong. Tony Montana. Reefer MadnessBlow. These are some of the characters and films that normally come to mind when you bring up drugs in cinema. But let's get real, folks. It goes so much deeper.


Drug movies are both fascinating and titillating. Whether it's the "War on Drugs" or depictions of the counterculture or portrayals of Big Pharma and the business community, all sorts of movies have been made about the illicit drug trade, pill-popping, and even more that simply feature drug use. But what are the best drug movies of the past 50 years? High Times has got some ideas. Buzzfeed has done it. And so has IMDB.

Now it's time to offer a fresh take on the list.

Before we begin, though, let's establish a boundary or two. What is a drug movie, one might ask? The best way to think about it has to be through heavy drug use and a focus on the drug trade, organized crime, or medical marketplace. This means that Dazed and Confused, which only has mild drug use, doesn't make it. Neither does The Program, with James Caan. Or Rocky IV.  Or the relatively new Alice in Wonderland. These films feature some drugs use and are at times trippy to watch, but to make this list drugs have to be absolutely central to the plot. There are other rules, too. First off, alcohol is NOT a drug. (In fact, there'll be another alcohol list in the future.) Second, power - money, politics, sex, the ability to get others to do what you want - is NOT a drug. Finally, altered perceptions or dream sequences, which are NOT based on explicit drug use, are thrown out. So, for example, Raising Arizona, The Matrix, or Fight Club have to get bumped from consideration.

Enough rules? I think so. 

Here's my Top Ten and watch those other more standard lists go Up in Smoke.

10. Sicario (2015)

French Canadian director Denis Villeneuve crushes it. Again. With Sicario (meaning hit man), he drops us into the grisly world of drug enforcement, organized crime, and drug trafficking.

I've been an outgoing proponent of Denis since Incendies (2010), and he's continued to crank out brooding and thought-provoking pictures, including Enemy (2013) and Prisoners (2013). After having worked with Jake Gyllenhaal for both films in 2013, he casts Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, and Benicio Del Toro to headline his take on the War on Drugs's primary theater of war - the US/Mexico border.

Emily Blunt is playing Ellen Ripley, again. (Think of Edge of Tomorrow - wait, is that what it's called? - where she was super tough). Really, it's not a bad place to be as an actress. She's steely-eyed and intrepid. And she's posing moral questions as the focal piece of the film.

The soundtrack is hauntingly grim, the acting is understated, and the cinematography - by the incomparable Roger Deakins - is Spartan. Rapid cutting is superseded by long, lingering shots. Movement gives way to stillness. A great example is one of the signature battles of the film, when a traffic jam, not a car chase, heightens the tension. Deakins, who was sadly snubbed at the Oscars once more, uses most of the arrows in his quiver to generate one of the most gorgeous films of 2015-2016. By itself, that's enough to make this list.

9. Good Fellas (1990)

Good Fellas tells the true story of Henry Hill, played by Ray Liotta in a star-making performance and it wasn't till Blow (2001) and Narc (2002) that he reached such heights once more. Am I fond of Liotta? Somewhat. But not a lot. I like Liotta as much as, say, Al Gore or John Kerry or, I don't know, porridge. In this, however, Liotta's simply compelling. His Henry Hill is chaotic and flawed. He's shallow and violent, as well as understandable and all too human. At times, I find myself cheering him and pitying him simultaneously. When he suggests, "as far back as I can remember I always wanted to be gangster," I shake my head and, at the same, kind of wonder. Hmm? This is a testament to Liotta's best and breakout performance.

In 1990, Martin Scorsese wasn't unique in addressing organized crime. A tipping point, it seems, had been reached, and audiences that year were treated to an abundance of mafia, mob, and crime films, including: Miller's CrossingKing of New YorkThe KraysThe Grifters, and, yes, The Godfather Part III. But Good Fellas stands apart and above.

As Henry is initiated into the world of guns and drugs, gambling and prostitution, he is mentored by Robert De Niro's Jimmy Conway and Joe Pesci's Tommy Devito. Both actors have been understandably lauded for their vibrant portrayals of tough guys. Eventually, Henry and his wife Karen (played by Lorraine Bracco) discover the sex and violence of organized crime is thoroughly intoxicating, just as much as the cocaine that they inhaling far too often.

This movie - its soundtrack and cinematography, and so much more - is just as addictive.

8. The Constant Gardner (2005)

Big Pharma. Big Bad Pharma. This is the subject of John Le Carre's novel and ultimately the movie, directed by Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles. The story is disjointed, relies on flashbacks, and, according to Roger Ebert, is a far distance off 'a logical exercise beginning with mystery and ending at truth..." Instead, we are pulled into a maddeningly elusive conspiracy and a fragmented narrative in which Ralph 'Rafe' Fiennes (i.e., Voldemort, The Red Dragon, Hades, and M) plays a widower in search of the truth. Why is his wife dead? Who is responsible?

His answers rest in the multinational pharmaceutical corporations. In particular, a company that is using Kenya's population for fraudulent testing of a fictitious tuberculosis drug ("dypraxa"). The drug has known harmful side effects, but this is disregarded, as is the health of the African test subjects. Of course, this sort of testing is based in reality and spots like China, Estonia, Romania, Tunisia, as well as other African countries, have served as fertile testing grounds.

Fiennes, playing Justin Quayle, confronts Big Bad Pharma and suggests that the pill we take - whether for Tuberculosis or Tachycardia -  is more than just an 'an inanimate fucking object.'

If you like underdog tales, especially ones where caricatured corporations are fucked over by the 'little guy' (see Erin BrockovichThe InsiderMichael Clayton, etc.), this movie is for you.

7. Easy Rider (1969)

It's difficult to begin with Easy Rider, which nearly everyone regards as one of the greatest and most influential drug movies of all time.

Disclosure: I should not have watched Easy Rider at an early age. I found it incredibly jarring. I was in grade 9 and not at all battle-hardened or street-smart. The cruel ending forced me into a funk. It challenged me to think about human nature, the nature of the United States, and served as a bewildering counterpoint to many of the testosterone-fuelled and predictably satisfying action movies (think Arnold, Jean Claude, Sylvester) to which I was exposed in the 1980s.

Wyatt and Billy didn't deserve that! Who were they bothering? What, there's not going to be any payback? That's it?! Jesus Christ. Dammit.

Plot and Characters: Peter Fonda plays Captain America with the old stars and stripes on his back, helmet and bright long-barreled motorbike. Dennis Hopper plays the sidekick, sporting pioneer trooper buckskins, long mustache and hair. They're touring around the beautiful USA and shit happens to them: there's a drug deal, parades, bordellos, Mardi Gras, LSD trips, and unexpected violence.

Easy Rider is a quintessential American road movie.

And the best part of the piece is Jack. This is his breakout. Vincent Canby, writing in the NY Times in 1969, was tepid, even haughty, about the film, but he sure loved Nicholson:

'Suddenly, however, a strange thing happens. There comes on the scene a very real character and everything that has been accepted earlier as a sort of lyrical sense impression suddenly looks flat and foolish.Wyatt and Billy are in a small Southern town—in jail for having disturbed the peace of a local parade—when they meet fellow-in-mate George Hanson (Jack Nicholson), a handsome, alcoholic young lawyer of good family and genially bad habits, a man whose only defense against life is a cheerful but not abject acceptance of it. As played by Nicholson, George Hanson is a marvelously realized character, who talks in a high, squeaky Southern accent and uses a phrase like "Lord have mercy!" the way another man might use a four-letter word.'

In Jack, we trust.

6. Apocalypse Now (1979)

Francis Ford Coppola had a mental breakdown during shooting, as he wrote the script on the fly and had to negotiate with a hard-partying, spaced-out crew, in addition to the fickle President Marcos of the Philippines. Coppola had to fire the original leading man, Harvey Keitel. Then, Martin Sheen - the replacement - had a heart attack.

Marlon Brando showed up to film his scenes as Colonel Kurtz much like Shaq often did to start the Lakers training camp - in less than ideal shape. Coppola would also have to tread carefully with the mercurial Brando, who hadn't learned any lines and insisted on being filmed in shadow. And Dennis Hopper. Dennis Hopper being Dennis Hopper, well, he was regularly stoned on marijuana, cocaine, speed and many other drugs. He was manic. Crazed. Demented. A feature of this list a second time, he didn't have much acting to do in portraying a whacked-out photojournalist drunk on the Colonel's Cool-aid.

The story, based loosely on Conrad's Heart of Darkness, follows a booze-fuelled, PTSD-suffering, lone-wolf agent as he journeys up a river to find a rogue soldier, Kurtz, who has slowly gone mad, raised his own army, and established his own territory in Vietnam. As this troubled agent/assassin, Willard (first Keitel, then Sheen), heads up the river, the visuals gets increasingly trippy. The imagery, in short, becomes more hallucinogenic. By the time Kurtz converses with Willard, the audience has gone way down deep into the proverbial rabbit hole.

The film is improvisational and chaotic. It's intoxicating and brazen. And it's a masterpiece.

5. Dallas Buyers Club (2013)

In the excellent 2013 movie, Dallas Buyers Club, we are exposed to valiant patient activism during the AIDS crisis in the United States. Based on the true story of AIDS-stricken Ron Woodroof, a cocaine-snorting cowboy and homophobic Texas tradesman, the film shows a shockingly thin Matthew McConaughey battle his sickness, inner demons, and the authorities in Texas Mercy Hospital, the drug industry, and government.

I've reviewed the film elsewhere and I've used it to try and communicate the complexities of medical marijuana dispensaries, in particular. I remain convinced that the movie provides a harrowing, insider overview of drug regulation and the politics of medicine in modern society.

Woodroof, who’s unhappy with his illegally purchased zidovudine, known as AZT, and on the edge of death, seeks out alternative and experimental drugs from a doctor in Mexico. Then, Ron, being the savvy entrepreneur/hustler that he is, quickly establishes a club (charging a $400 membership fee) to sell his smuggled wares, including vitamins, DDC, and Peptide T. In doing so, he runs afoul of the Food and Drug Administration and the Drug Enforcement Administration and is essentially forced to confront the existing power structure of drug regulation.

At one point in the film, he storms a town hall meeting of citizens, drug company leaders, and FDA regulators and, while still quite ill and attached to his IV bag, Ron starts finger-pointing. “People are dying. And y’all up there are afraid that we’re gonna find an alternative without you.” Inevitably, bums shift in chairs. Chests are puffed up. And murmurs echo in the room. “You see,” Ron continues, “the pharma companies pay the FDA to push their product. They don’t want to see my research. I don’t have enough cash in my pocket to make it worth their while.”

The film has strong performances, namely McConaughey and Jared Leto, who plays his cross-dressing compadre. Jennifer Garner,  on the cover of a recent Vanity Fair and recovering from the newest Batman's infidelity, offers up some of her best work.

With Dallas Buyers Club we see the problems inherent in the relationship between big business, regulators, and interest groups. And while the film didn’t get it all right, it’s still a stimulating film and a significant reminder about the power of Big Pharma, the complicated nature of drug regulation in the 20th century, and the ways in which everyday citizens like Ron Woodroof can influence the system.

4. Requiem for a Dream (2000)

The first time I watched this film I was nearly sick. Darren Aronofsky’s film adaptation of Hubert Selby Jr.’s book is a graphic, petrifying depiction of prescription pills, coke, heroin, and ecstasy.  The movie features hallucinations, infections, and prostitution, with Ellen Burstyn, Jared Leto, Jennifer Connelly and Marlon Wayans giving gut-wrenching, ass-kicking performances.

Jared 'freaking' Leto. Yeah, Leto. Here he is again. This time, of course, he's not in drag. He's not bringing balance to Ron Woodroof in Dallas Buyer's Club. But he's again struggling with addiction and love. He's self-destructive and tragic. My sister was smitten with him (stemming from his My So-Called Life days) and I was super skeptical going into this. But damn. The future Joker knocked it out of the park.

The film is deeply disturbing and hypnotic. It's cringe-inducing and lurid. And you can't look away.

3. Thank You For Smoking

I like this film so much I give it away on birthdays and at Christmas. I give it away for Easter instead of chocolate and I give it away at Hanakkuh. Basically, it's a winner.

As David Koechner (Champ from Anchorman) says, "Rock on, Kennedy."

Thank You For Smoking is a biting, witty satire. The movie,  based on Christopher Buckley's eponymous books, follows the peaks and troughs of a Washington lobbyist (Aaron Eckhart's Nick Naylor) who's feverishly working to fend off critics of Big Tobacco. He serves as the Vice-President of the Academy of Tobacco Studies and forms one part of the unholy Merchant of Death trinity. He's smooth, handsome, and has an air of mischief about him, as well. He's a sharp-tongued, finger-pointing, spin-doctor. As he tells the audience: "I get paid to talk. I don't have an MD or a law degree...I have a bachelor's in kicking ass and taking names. You know that guy who can pick up any girl. I'm him. On crack!"

It's one of Eckhart's most memorable performances. He's a villain, but certainly a likable one. He deceives, bribes, and cajoles people. He twists the truth and gleefully destroys the self-righteous. "My job," Nick says, "requires a certain moral flexibility." And, really, besides Rabbit Hole, The Dark Knight, and In the Company of Men, this is some of Eckhart's best work. The rest of the cast is perfectly serviceable, if not overly outstanding. Mario Bello, Robert Duvall, David Koechner, Rob Lowe, and J.K. Simmons are all fine. The former Mrs. Cruise - Katie Holmes - is fine. Sam Elliott, as the Marlboro Man, is fine. William H. Macy is fine.

Director Jason Reitman's body of work has blossomed since this, his first film. With Juno and Up In the Air, he established himself as a stylish and thoughtful movie-maker.

This is one of the cleverest drugs movies out there. It's sweet and sour. More than that, Thank You For Smoking has staying power. Like the smell of stale cigarettes, it sticks on you.

For Nick, "That's the beauty of argument, if you argue correctly, you're never wrong."

2. Trainspotting (1996)

"Holy shit, dude! Did you hear?" a semi-frothing-at-the-mouth colleague asked me the other day.

"No,what?" I responded.

"Trainspotting II is coming out next year...!"

Well, damn. Yes, it has been confirmed. Will it be any good? Ah.......

Trainspotting, based on the book by Irvine Welsh, follows the lives of five Edinburgh-Scots called Renton, Spud, Sick Boy, Tommy, and Begbie. The movie, like the book, is a black comedy. It's daring and honest. Writes Peter Travers, it's that "rare movie (Drugstore Cowboy is another) that owns up to the euphoria of drugs as well as their risks."

Is there moralizing? Nope. Is it predictable? Nope. Is the plot altogether reasonable? Nope. But, as Renton notes, "Who needs reasons when you've got heroin?"

This wasn't Danny Boyle's first film and it's definitely not his magnum opus.

It's also a trip to watch, even as it talks about the positives and negatives of getting high.

CHAMPION: The French Connection (1971)

Based on a true story about heroin trafficking. Grimy NYC in the 1970s. A main character named 'Popeye.' One of the greatest car chases in cinematic history. William Friedkin's coming out party. Incredible suspense and near constant energy. A shockingly nihilist ending, perhaps as dark as Polanski's Chinatown conclusionn.

In a nutshell, that's the The French Connection, which was immediately hailed as a potential great.

It went on to win Oscars for best picture, direction, screenplay and editing.

The story is relatively straightforward, as both Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider (both wound up, slightly slimy, and definitely racist New York City narcs) track down a multi-million dollar shipment of heroin. The shipment originated in Marseilles - thereby putting the "French" in the Connection - and is being bought up by the mafia.

BEGIN HISTORY DIGRESSION.

The Nixon administration interpreted drug addiction and the heroin scourge as a product of both foreign invaders and criminal gangs, from Turkey and Mexico to Harlem and the Bronx. In the face of mounting domestic protest, increased public awareness of heroin in American society because of celebrity deaths (Janis Joplin, 1970 and Jim Morrison, 1971) and major motion pictures (Jennifer on My Mind, 1971; Midnight Cowboy, 1969; More, 1969; The French Connection, 1971; The Panic in Needle Park, 1971), as well as the publication of congressional reports highlighting that American GIs were addicted to high-grade heroin, the government launched a “big and bold” drug war, which, according to Science, was “basically a war on heroin.”[1] Popular culture, in short, reinterpreted, translated, and ultimately galvanized ideas about heroin’s dangers in late 1960s and early 1970s. This served to accelerate the rehabilitative and enforcement initiatives.

Following the passage of the Comprehensive Drug Abuse and Prevention Control Act of 1970s, in June of 1971, Nixon officially declared a War on Drugs and called drug abuse “enemy number one in America.”[2] That same year, Nixon created the Special Action Office for Drug Abuse Prevention (SAODAP) within the Executive Office of the President as a “dramatic way to highlight the problem.”[3] In 1973, the National Institute of Drug Abuse was established. During this period, the national treatment effort jumped from $18 to 350 million between 1966 and 1975, while Methadone morphed from an experimental opioid to a legitimate treatment method.

In the short term, President Nixon’s initiatives produced results. An East Coast heroin shortage in 1973, mixed with dwindling lines of heroin addicts seeking treatment, signaled a victory of sorts. Quick to claim victory, Nixon declared that a “corner had been turned.” This of course was not accurate and certain inner-city areas within New York, Boston, and Washington, D.C. began to suffer alarmingly high overdose rates in 1974. With federal funding leveling off, by as early as 1974 the problem of heroin (emerging from Mexico) was “coming back in full force.”[4] According to social scientist James Q. Wilson, the “crisis mentality” that was associated with heroin in the early 1970s, like any other strong passion, could not endure. Heroin seemed localized to ghetto areas and when the problem touched the “lives of comparatively few people,” the public, press, and national politicians let the matter “slip away.” For Wilson, “the popular mind deals with the heroin problem as it deals with horror movies – alternately fascinated and repelled, but ultimately bored, and so its attention is episodic.”[5]

[1] Constance Holden, “Drug Abuse 1975: The ‘War’ is Past, the Problem is Big as Ever,” Science 190 (November 1975) 638-641. See also James Q. Wilson, Mark H. Moore, and I. David Wheat, “The problem of heroin,” The Public Interest 29 (1972): 3-28; see “Kids and Heroin: The Adolescent Academic,” Time 95.11 (1970): 20.

[2] Jeremy Kuzmarov, “From Counter-Insurgency to Narco-Insurgency: Vietnam and the International War on Drugs,” The Journal of Policy History 20.3 (2008): 344-378.

[3] See also Carolyn Jean Acker, Creating the American Junkie: Addiction Research in the Classic Era of Narcotic Control (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002) and Eric Schneider, Smack: Heroin and the American City (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008).

[4] Holden, 638-639.

[5] James Q. Wilson, The Fix,” The New Republic (October 25, 1982) 24-29.

END HISTORY DIGRESSION.

Whew. That was intense. But I am a trained historian, after all.

The film's acting is solid, but not spectacular. Save for Hackman, likely the best of his career. His excellent performance as the gritty New York cop, Popeye Doyle, was based on the real life narcotics office Eddie Egan - and it bagged him an Oscar. Roger Greenspun, of the New York Times, summed it up this way: “The Hackman characterization, one of the most successful in his career, and the only one that is allowed to emerge in much detail, virtually defines the attitude of ‘The French Connection.’ Hard-nosed, pork-pie-hatted, vulgar, a tough cop in the latest measure of a fine tradition, he exists neither to rise nor to fall, to excite neither pity nor terror— but to function."

Okay, yeah. That sounds about right.

Of course, one of the more memorable elements of The French Connection is the "car chase scene." Yes, a chase that is regarded as one of the best of all time (another list, anyone?).

Hackman, while tailing a suspect, loses him on a train. Totally pissed, slightly nutty and certainly determined, he commandeers a '71 Le Mans and rips through city traffic at 75 mph. to keep up with the unorthodox getaway vehicle. Things get even more wild after the train's operator dies from a heart attack.

As Roger Ebert put it, "This makes the chase psychologically more scary, in addition to everything it has going for it visually."

When Hackman's prey is forced off the train (after it has rammed another one!), he shoots him in the back. And this became the poster and one of the iconic images of the film.

Then there's the finale. It is a perfectly fitting end to Friedkin's brutalistic and cynical interpretation of New York City, a virtual wasteland with devoid of hope. Conspiratorial, angry, and unresolved, The French Connection fails to provide comforting redemptive beats. Its starkness and honesty, however, make it the greatest drug movie of the past fifty years.

Honorable Mentions

Up in Smoke (1978)

Drugstore Cowboy (1989)

New Jack City (1991)

Dazed and Confused (1993)

The Big Lebowski (1998)

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)

The Insider (1999)

Traffic (2000)

Blow (2001)

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