My life has few enough true pleasures. One of them is cooking. So it makes sense that I love food movies. Some are better than others. Here are my favorites:
- Babette’s Feast – The oldest of my list and still top of the heap. In Danish with subtitles, it won the Best Foreign Film Oscar for 1988. Like none of the others on this list, this film comes closest to the aphorism, “casting pearls before swine.” The feast is sumptuous in the nineteenth century European sense, the humor understated, and the conflict of cultures sublime. If you haven’t seen it, do so.
- Like Water for Chocolate – A favorite of mine that I can watch again and again. The characters are memorable, the story just this side of fantasy, the climactic love scene ethereal, and the food preparation a fascinating glimpse into turn-of-the-[20th] century Latin cuisine.
- Chocolat – An ensemble cast with some of our great actors, including Johnny Depp and Juliette Binoche, and if you are a chocoholic, it will truly be “death by chocolate” for you. (One of our consumate chameleon actors, Alfred Molina [Frida and The DaVinci Code] has a star turn.) The story is a teeny parable for our times and a strong vote for Bohemianism over sanctified righteousness.
- Eat Drink Man Woman – This is the second of two back-to-back movies that put director Ang Le (Brokeback Mountain) on the map (the other being The Wedding Banquet, which I’ve not seen). It does for Chinese cuisine what Babette’s Feast did for classic French cooking and Like Water for Chocolate did for Mexican. The story is rich and deals with interwoven personalities of a complex Taiwanese family with a super-chef at its head. Oh, and the climax is a wonderful surprise and will have you gasping while you laugh.
- Tampopo – Drama in a Japanese noodle shop? The descriptions of the technique of making an authentic Japanese ramen are priceless. This is probably the least known of all on this list. Lots of fun, however.
- Big Night – One of my top favorites, again with an all-star cast: Stanley Tucci (who also shows up in Julie & Julia), Tony Shalhoub, Minnie Driver, Isabella Rossellini and Ian Holm, all of whom have strong roles. This time the cuisine is Italian and the story the attempt to succeed as a Northern Italian restaurant on the 1950s Jersey Shore. Again a bit of “pearls before swine” — the dinner preparation (and consumption!) is culinary orchestration par excellence. The comparison to Ian Holm’s “Mamma Leone’s”-like spaghetti palace just down the street is priceless (does anyone out there remember Mamma Leone’s, the NYC meatball mecca that died in 1994?).I wrote earlier about the movie:
The scene in Big Night near the beginning is priceless, when Tucci serves to typically suburban 1950s New Jerseyites pasta with a Bolognese sauce (on which the customer demands that Tucci grate an overwhelming amount of Parmigiano) and (to his wife) a risotto with scallops and shrimp (a dish she finds incomprehensible and for which she requests a side of spaghetti and meatballs).
- Mostly Martha – This time the language is German, but the cuisine is nouvelle European with a heavy French accent. The story centers on perseverance and triumph following tragedy, but the richest scenes show the controlled chaos in a modern high-end restaurant kitchen. The story holds together from beginning to end, and this is a very enjoyable feast involving many senses, but not the most critical — I expect the smells in that kitchen would be overpowering and the taste of the food divine.
- Julie & Julia – This is a gem! Meryl Streep totally channels Julia Child. I have both her cookbooks and have cooked many a recipe from both. She taught me how to make homemade mayonnaise and, most importantly, hollandaise — which of the egg-based sauces I consider the queen. The movie jumps between Julia’s world (mostly in Paris) and Julie’s (in Queens), and stumbling efforts of each to excel in what was once a man’s world. (The scene where the Alfred A. Knopf editor tastes the Beef Bourguignon she has made from the book draft and says, with an ecstatic look on her face, “Yumm!,” is almost worth the entire movie.)
- Dinner Rush – We shift to a NYC restaurant, and the kitchen scenes are every bit as intense as in Mostly Martha. It’s actually a story of revenge on the Mob, but wrapped around the pressures of a hot, young chef and his patrons, including a stuffy art critic and an over-the-top restaurant reviewer (played to perfection by Sandra Bernhard). Danny Aiello has the lead, if understated, role.
- No Reservations – In watching this, I don’t recall an actual credit given Mostly Martha, but, trust me, it is a virtual rip-off. (At least it’s not the abortion that Bridget Fonda’s Point of No Return was compared to La Femme Nikita, but I’m getting off-topic.) That having been said, it’s a competent rip-off and enjoyable for all the right reasons. Catherine Zeta-Jones does a credible job as the driven NYC chef, and I loved the intermix of operatic music for the background in the kitchen.
- Tortilla Soup – As opposed to No Reservations vis à vis Mostly Martha where no credit was given to the earlier — and better — show (as I recall), here the film gives direct credit right up front to Ang Le’s screenplay for Eat Drink Man Woman. I need to watch it again to pick up the nuances, but the story is basically identical to EDMW with the cuisine being Latin rather than Chinese. Hector Elizondo nicely carries the patriarchal master-chef role, and the ensemble does a good job, made easier for us since the setting is southern California and the language is English. (If you’ve not seen EDMW, however, see it first!)
- Ratatouille – OK, it’s animation, but it’s very good animation about the kitchen in a French restaurant. And loads of fun.
- Pieces of April – An entrancing tale of a Thanksgiving feast prepared amidst intra-family angst, by an estranged daughter in the smallest of NYC apartment kitchens. I may promote this one to the main list.
- Fried Green Tomatoes – I don’t consider food the centerpiece here, although the title would suggest otherwise. The story is wonderful.
- Tom Jones – Not a food movie, the gluttony scenes notwithstanding.
- My Dinner With Andre – It’s been too long since I saw this. I should view it again.
- Joy Luck Club – Back to Chinese cuisine. The movie’s center is not food, but food definitely rules the periphery.
- A Chef in Love (Shekvarebuli kulinaris ataserti retsepti) – I’d almost forgotten this 1997 story of an innocent caught up in post-Russian Revolution Georgia, as the Soviets occupied that country to add it to the USSR. He happens to be a highly accomplished chef, and for most of the movie that is what saves him from being liquidated as a bourgeoie reactionary. A little gem.
- The Decline of the American Empire (Le Déclin de l’empire américain) – Were it not for the fact that the center of the movie deals with French Canadian sexual mores and acrobatics of twenty years ago, the dinner preparation would place this on the primary list.
- Woman on Top – Love-of-my-life Penelope Cruz as a TV food show star. A bit silly, but not too bad for the food scenes.
- Sideways – It’s a wine movie, not a food movie.
- Gosford Park – Not about food, but some critical scenes take place while eating. (Somewhat similarly, Mrs. Brown.)
OK. That’s the list (for now). Am I missing something? (And, yes, I’ve seen both The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover and Delicatessen and have no desire to include them among those listed above — likewise Sweeney Todd. Or “fava beans and a fine Chianti” from Silence of the Lambs.)