There are few things more unanimously adored as a delicious meal. Food itself is nearly obsessed over, and rightfully so. Cuisine and its endless diversity is powerful enough to bring people together, break them apart, inspire impassioned soliloquies, cause lifelong grievances about what is right or wrong in a certain dish. So inseparable are food and culture that certain dishes can prove to be crucial to regional, even continental identity. Given its cultural inescapability, there’s no surprise that food is featured prominently in such a large number of films. There's the culturally iconic spaghetti kiss scene in Lady in the Tramp, the “grab the cannoli” scene in The Godfather, or nearly any episode of The Sopranos where you're more likely to see James Gandolfini chowing down on some Italian fare than you are mob hit. Even Wes Anderson’s latest film, The French Dispatch, features a quirky vignette centered around a police force’s personal chef.
Yet, there are a number of fantastic films that not only feature scenes with food, but are as a whole actually about food. Perhaps it’s because food isn’t just a necessity for survival, but also an art, a form of expression, a source of pleasure and joy. Or perhaps it’s simply because food, when prepared, when prepared correctly, is delicious. Here are 7 of the best films about food guaranteed to kickstart your appetite.
Babette’s Feast (1987)
While filled with a number of scenes featuring cooking, the 1987 film Babette’s Feast primarily centers itself around a single meal. After mercifully being taken in for 14 years by two sisters, Parisian refugee Babette (Stéphane Audran), spends her lottery winnings to create an extravagant banquet for the sisters and the community to which they belong. It’s a lavish meal, made up of dishes including, but not limited to, bountiful bottles of wine, wedges of cheese, turtle soup, blinis demidoff, and cailles en sarcophage. So unbearably elegant is this meal that the guests, lost in the ecstasy of their sensuous pleasure, find themselves changed. More than that, they become spiritually affected by the magnificence of Babette’s meal.
Babette’s Feast is a patient, quiet film, capturing the ambiance of the kitchen and the intimacy of a meal eaten delightedly. Unlike many other films about food, here the scenes of cooking are equally sumptuous to the scenes of eating, with the diners cutting softly into figs, taking delicate bites of each dish with a type of proper politeness appropriate at such a meal. It’s a scene of unbearable beauty, and arguably the greatest meal ever captured on film.
Big Night (1996)
Italian restaurants play a pivotal role in numerous films, but Big Night, a comedy about two Italian immigrants who run a restaurant, is one of the few films to take place almost primarily in an Italian restaurant. The film follows entrepreneur Secondo (Stanley Tucci) and his chef brother Primo (Tony Shalhoub) as they plan to prepare a lavish feast intended to impress jazz singer Louis Prima, who is expected to dine at their restaurant as a special guest. Secondo is practical, understanding that a restaurant isn’t profitable if nobody’s eating at it, while Primo is a traditionalist, scornful of any American diner dissatisfied with the nonconforming subtlety of his risotto.
While often gleefully prancing into comedic absurdity, Big Night remains nevertheless loyal to its ode to immigrants, restaurant owners, and brotherly love. It is also a fantastically beautiful film when it comes to its presentation of food, culminating in a stylish montage of the evening’s second course, soundtracked by Claudio Villa’s “Tic Ti, Tic Ta”. Until, at last, Primo’s magnum opus is served: timballo, a multilayered baked pasta dish resembling a massive cake of noodles, meat, and eggs. With incessantly quotable dialogue, larger-than-life performances, and a tender heart at its center, Big Night remains one of the most delightful films about food ever made.
Early in Chef, Jon Favreau’s 2014 dramatic comedy about a chef struggling to culinarily express himself after abandoning the creatively suffocating world of commercial restaurants, Carl Casper (Favreau) sets off on an impassioned rant about the endless effort put into his creative process and the inherent cruelty of a critic’s (Oliver Pratt) negative review. It’s an explosive scene played partially for laughs—Casper, in his passion, remains blissfully unaware of the inevitable consequences of his unfiltered—but it’s a scene of tender vulnerability relevant to chefs and creatives everywhere. He simply cares too much about his craft to accept that somebody’s published criticism could dismiss it as irrelevant.
Chef studies the balance between the artistry and commodification of food. On one hand, a restaurant cannot exist if nobody eats there; on the other hand, food, in all its social significance, can and perhaps should be considered one of the purest outlets for creative expression. Chef Casper has plenty of ideas for delicious, boundary-pushing dishes, and Favreau shows us this inventiveness, with the film’s quick-cut cooking sequences showing a master at the top of his form. This sincere love of cooking, of inventing something new, causes him to reflect upon himself and those around him. It’s food, and his adoration of it, that causes him to change. Chef is a return to form for Favreau, a refreshingly low-key film after nearly a decade of high-profile blockbusters. It’s also an excellently-told tale of staying true to oneself, whatever that may mean, and holding onto one’s love of the craft amidst much soulless conformity.
Eat, Drink, Man, Woman (1994)
Few films are as indulgent in their scenes of cooking as Ang Lee’s 1994 comedic drama Eat, Drink, Man, Woman. Serving as the final installment of Lee’s thematically connected “Father Knows Best” trilogy, the film follows the Zhu family, whose patriarch (Sihung Lung) was once one of Taipei’s most revered chefs, as they attempt to adjust to rapidly modernizing Taiwanese culture. As Zhu’s three daughters (Kuei-Mei Yang, Chien-lien Wu, and Yu-Wen Wang) struggle to understand their lives in relation to love, work, tradition, and family, Zhu’s intricate meals remain an ever-present force, bringing the family together in intimate scenes of familial conversation crucial to the characters’ understanding of themselves and one another.
Lee draws a clear connection between the sensory and emotional importance of food. The meals themselves, while meticulously crafted and delicious, serve largely as a symbol of reliance on tradition, an excuse for the increasingly distant family to come together and be close once again. Given the narrative importance of the meals, Lee gives their preparation and consumption their fair share of attention. Featuring some of the most mouth-watering food preparation scenes ever committed to film, Eat, Drink, Man, Woman sets the tone immediately by serving up a five-minute credit sequence in which Zhu prepares an extravagant feast for his daughters from scratch. Fish are scaled, peppers cut, broth simmered, with each shot of the process photographed in intimate close-ups so delicious that it’s nearly impossible not to work up an appetite.
Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011)
Jiro Dreams of Sushi studies with fascination the Japanese sushi chef Jiro Ono, one of the most revered culinary figures on the planet, as he quite simply continues doing what it is that earned him his fame in the first place. To Jiro, there is little else in the world beyond his sushi. He exists solely to make his sushi, to make it excellently, and to accept nothing else short of utter perfection, and he does this every day at Sukiyabashi Jiro, his ten-seat, three Michelin star-winning restaurant located in a bustling Tokyo subway station. The film tells us that this is the type of sushi worth traveling across the world for. It’s the type of meal that, when presented to the viewer in stark, Phillip Glass-soundtracked imagery as minimalistic and beautiful as the sushi itself, one can’t help but wonder what it could possibly taste like.
This is only part of what Jiro Dreams of Sushi sets out to do. Once it becomes inarguable how unbelievably good the man’s sushi is, the question becomes not if, but why? The documentary examines Jiro and his sushi-slinging sons as they discuss the man’s legacy, his rise to reverence, and the unfaltering obsession with which he treats his craft. While food-centered documentaries are a dime a dozen, Jiro Dreams of Sushi stands above most others through its candid vulnerability, meticulous attention to detail, and tendency to ask insightful questions into the concepts of perfectionism and mastery. As with guests at Jiro’s highly exclusive eatery, there are few, if any, left unimpressed.
“Anyone can cook”, the maxim at the center of Ratatouille, is a simple but effective summation of the film’s main artistic statement. It is a wholesome phrase that, when uttered, dispels the conception that the joy of cooking need be reserved for the culinary elites of a certain background. Through its endearingly unique premise, the film ingeniously extends these words to a rat, albeit a rat born with an incredible knack for all things culinary, to show that great artists can come from anywhere, be anybody, so long as their skill and passion are utilized to create something sincere. Remy is a rat, a gastronome, and a life-long devotee of the French master chef August Gusteau, whose ambitions of pursuing his dreams are prevented solely by his socially unfavorable status as a rodent.
But Ratatouille isn’t just about cooking. It’s also largely about food itself. Early in the film, a magnificent sequence visualizes the complexities of food and the infinite varieties of taste with an orchestra of sight and sound that expresses the concept in a way that words fail to. Committed to its Parisian setting, with composer Michael Giacchino’s French jazz-inspired score serving as an aural backdrop to the lavishly detailed aesthetic, the film also serves as an appreciation of the City of Light and its notoriously excellent cuisine. What really elevates the film into a complete observation of what food can mean, though, comes near the end of the film, when Anton Ego, a pretentious and nearly impossible to please food critic, is brought back to a memory his childhood after tasting Remy’s presentation of the film’s titular dish. In a beautifully realized sequence, Ratatouille portrays the deep emotional resonance that food can offer to those who eat it and those who prepare it, whomever they may be. At face value, it serves as a landmark of animated storytelling, but at its core exists something much more significant: an allegory for the unconquerable power of passion in the face of social biases, and the lasting emotional power of a truly great meal.
Writer/director Juzo Itami’s Tampopo, billed as a “ramen western”, is a highly original, often hilarious film about a widowed noodle shop owner who aims to reinvent her restaurant after meeting a handsome truck driver (Tsutomu Yamazaki) unimpressed with her food. At least, that’s what it’s about if explained as simply as possible; in fact, it’s a wild ride of a movie, interspersed with allegorical and occasionally connecting vignettes on the topic of food and all its vastness. Watching Tampopo is an unrivaled experience due to its commitment to its vision. It is as often bizarre as it is heartwarming, tragic as it is comedic. If it aims to surprise, even shock, it succeeds. There is little hope in pinning down exactly what Tampopo is, especially at first viewing.
A number of unforgettable moments, with virtually none of them excluding food, are peppered throughout the film. A slow-simmered and steamy romance between the two leads is later juxtaposed against a recurring gag involving a white-suited yakuza (Kōji Yakusho) and his lover (Fukumi Kuroda) as they explore the erotic possibilities of food. Perhaps the film’s most glorious moment is a hunger-enticing montage on the “art of noodle-appreciation”, where an old man teaches his pupil the proper way of enjoying a bowl of ramen, a beautiful moment suggesting that the way in which we eat is as crucial as the way we cook.
No word yet on if Charlie Day will voice Odie.
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