Addictive Cinema: 17 Intoxicating Films for the Holiday Season

One of the central and most rewarding aspects of the Intoxicating Spaces project is our work with sixth formers from schools in Utrecht, Oldenburg, Sheffield, and Stockholm. We’re all film-lovers, so Stephen suggested we assemble for our participating pupils a ‘must-watch’ list of family-friendly movies that deal with drugs and intoxicants in time and space at various points in history. We’re pretty pleased with the resulting roster, so, with the holiday season looming and sofas and widescreens poised for action, we thought we’d share it on the blog as well! Let us know if we’ve missed anything…

1. Amadeus (1984)
Dir: Miloš Forman

Miloš Forman’s celebrated take on Mozart. No serious, high-brow classical composer here, but instead a life of heaven-sent musical genius, laughter, crudity, and excess that leads, inevitably, to an ignoble end. Mozart composes and conducts his way through late eighteenth-century Vienna – from the fine opera to the common people’s theatre, and from the Hapsburg court to all-night musical parties – with the aid of drink, dirty jokes, and that laugh: much to the disgust of his more abstemious musical rival, the composer Antonio Salieri. Watch the trailer. Gaby Robilliard

2. Babette’s Feast (1987)
Dir: Gabriel Axel

Set in nineteenth-century Denmark, this is one of the great food history movies. Babette is a Parisian servant to two elderly sisters who preside over a dwindling Lutheran congregation on the Jutland coast. When she wins the lottery, she prepares a spectacular repast that sees their abstemious diet (which includes coffee and ‘ale bread’) replaced with exotic delicacies imported from France: blinis, turtle soup, roasted quail, and a magnificent rum baba, all washed down with expensive wines and spirits. Despite initial misgivings on the part of the sisters, in a powerful statement of the transformative – even transcendent – power of food and alcohol, all are won over by the sensual and spiritual pleasures of the feast. Watch the trailer, or the full movie on Amazon Prime. James Brown

3. Big Night (1996)
Dir: Stanley Tucci

A wonderfully poignant film, set among the New Jersey restaurant scene of the 1950s, about the importance of food and drink to family, friendship, and identity. The final scene when omelettes are made is worth the entry fee alone. Watch the trailer, or the full movie on Amazon Prime. Phil Withington

4. Emma (2020)
Dir: Autumn de Wilde

This one’s a bit of a cheat – the movie isn’t actually released until next year – but if the trailer’s anything to go by it promises to be one of the more interesting and stylish Austen treatments (the director’s a photographer, which probably explains the artful framing and gorgeous lighting and colours). Barbed nineteenth-century repartee over tea sets will certainly feature, while it will be interesting to see if the film references the basis of the genteel lifestyles and consumption depicted in imperialism and enslavement, a prominent and pointed subtext of the books largely absent from previous adaptations. Watch the trailer. James Brown

5. Fanny and Alexander (1982)
Dir: Ingmar Bergman

This Ingmar Bergman movie started with a rollicking Christmas celebration in a bourgeois family home at the turn of the twentieth century, complete with coffee, cigars, and sweets. As we might expect from this director, there is a morning after. Watch the trailer, or the full movie on Amazon Prime. Karin Sennefelt

6. A Field in England (2013)
Dir: Ben Wheatley

This modern cult classic set during the English Civil Wars of the 1640s turns on intoxicants; the soldiers’ quarry is a mythic alehouse, while the field-based ordeal of the ragtag band of protagonists is caused by their ingestion of hallucinogenic mushrooms. Trippy, experimental, and atmospheric, like other examples of the so-called ‘folk horror’ genre the film also has a very strong sense of (rural) space, place, and landscape. Watch the trailer, or the full movie on Amazon Prime. James Brown

7. The Insider (1999)
Dir: Michael Mann

This film tells the true story of Jeffrey Wigand – a scientist and whistle-blower who exposed malfeasance within the Brown & Williamson tobacco company in the mid-1990s – and the efforts of broadcast journalists at CBS to get his interview to air in the face of legal threats and corporate interference. Wigand’s testimony turns on whether nicotine can be considered an intoxicating or mind- and body-altering drug, still denied by tobacco companies at the time. While (perhaps appropriately) a slow burn, the film is every bit as good as better-known investigative journalism films such as All the President’s Men (1976) and Spotlight (2016). Watch the trailer, or the full movie on Amazon Prime. James Brown

8. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
Dir: Frank Capra

This is a late entry into my top four after a friend reminded me of the early scene in the pharmacy, when drugs are confused with poisons and the apothecary is paralytic with alcohol and grief for his dead son. Later, it may be bankruptcy that makes George Bailey think about suicide, but it’s alcohol that leads him to the brink. Watch the trailer, or the full movie on Amazon Prime. Phil Withington

9. La Dolce Vita (1960)
Dir: Federico Fellini

This famous Italian movie starring Anita Ekberg and Marcello Mastroianni is literally filled with the consumption of intoxicants: from coffee, wine, and nicotine through to LSD. I remember watching the film back in the early 1980s and experiencing it as an acid trip. Watch the trailer, or the full movie on Amazon Prime. Toine Pieters

10. Las Palmas (2011)
Dir: Johannes Nyholm

This short film is about the middle-aged Marja, alone in a bar on holiday in the Spanish resort of Las Palmas. The part of Marja is played by a one-year-old actress. Watch the trailer, or the full movie. Karin Sennefelt

11. Maria Full of Grace (2004)
Dir: Joshua Marston

Maria is a young girl working under terrible conditions on a flower plantation and trying to support her family. On her way to Bogota to find a better job, she is recruited as a drug mule. While not historical, the film is excellent on the relationship between corruption, poverty, smuggling, violence, and drugs in early twenty-first century Colombia, and the gruesome ordeal for drug-runners. Watch the trailer, or the full movie (unfortunately without subtitles) on YouTube. Gaby Robilliard

12. Marie Antoinette (2006)
Dir: Sofia Coppola

Historian Wolfgang Schivelbusch once described the eighteenth century as the age of the peacock, during which the nobility and wealthy bourgeoisie dressed up in flamboyant colours: pink, red, pale blue, and beige. In this film, the age of the peacock on the eve of the French revolution is visually expressed in a stunning way to a soundtrack of 1980s new wave and new romantics songs. A highlight is the hedonistic use of pastries, chocolate, sugar, and champagne by the queen and her courtiers while on shopping sprees or playing cards. The film vividly imagines the secluded world Marie Antoinette lived in, and encourages us to believe that ‘Let them eat cake!’, her famous words when hearing of the Paris bread riots inaugurating the Revolution, are more than apocryphal. Watch the trailer, or the full movie on Amazon Prime. Stephen Snelders

13. Max Havelaar (1976)
Dir: Fons Rademakers

Another essential connection between Western intoxicant use and the East is portrayed in this Dutch drama film, which has a supporting role for Rutger Hauer as a colonial officer. The film was based on the eponymous 1860 eponymous novel of Multatuli, one of the most famous works in Dutch literature and a scathing attack on Dutch colonialism in what is now Indonesia and the colonial exploitation of Javanese labour in the production of coffee. Since Javanese aristocrats working with the colonial regime were also criticised it took more than a decade before the film was shown in Indonesia as well. Watch the trailer, or the full movie on Amazon Prime (a free version is also available on YouTube). Stephen Snelders

14. Out of the Past (1947)
Dir: Jacques Tourneur

Smoking is one of the foundations of film noir, and this one, about a private detective whose past comes back to haunt him, has the deepest foundations: the template for all films that want to dwell on the aesthetics and semiotics of smoking. Watch the trailer, or the full movie on Dailymotion. Phil Withington

15. Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)
Dir: Gore Verbinski

This first instalment of the Jack Sparrow saga, partially set on the fictional Rumrunner’s Isle, is especially loaded with the lavish rum consumption that was common on board of pirate and marine ships between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. Watch the trailer, or the full movie on Amazon Prime. Toine Pieters

16. Together (2001)
Dir: Lukas Moodysson

Set in 1975, this is a deeply human comedy about Elisabeth and her two children who move into the hippie commune ‘Together’ to get away from her alcoholic husband. There, Elisabeth is freed with the help of cigarettes, red wine, and a lesbian housemate. Director Lukas Moodyson uses consumption and lifestyle to both skewer individualism and satirise revolutionary wannabes. The children finally rebel and buy hot dogs. Watch the trailer, or the full movie on Amazon Prime (a free version without subtitles is also available on YouTube). Karin Sennefelt

17. Withnail and I (1987)
Dir: Bruce Robinson

Perhaps the greatest film about alcohol and drugs ever made, and hilarious to boot. It is the end of the 1960s and two out of work actors go on holiday to the Lake District by mistake… Watch the trailer, or the full movie on Amazon Prime. Phil Withington

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