Food is so important in all of our daily lives, it’s surprising that there are so few movies in which if plays a leading role. I’m not talking about documentaries and fad diet videos (though I admit that some of the documentaries can be fascinating). No… I’m talking about the good stuff: drama, comedy, mystery, and romance! For many of these titles we have to visit the “Foreign Films” section of the video store (are there still video stores?), but if there is an exception to the general paucity of American movies about food, it is the sub-category of movies about chocolate.
So, here is my list, in no particular order:
1. Babette’s Feast (1987)
The only Oscar winner in our list, Babette’s Feast is a French food lover’s dream. This Danish film, set in a small coastal town in 19th century Denmark, highlights the power of the flavors and aromas of special foods to encapsulate a moment in time and to conjure up those vivid memories and emotions of times past.
Babette is a French refugee cook working for a Danish family, and after winning a substantial sum of money, she decides to cook a true French dinner for a small, village celebration. A synopsis of the plot, though, will just make the movie sound dull… so ignore what I’ve written here and set aside a couple of hours to watch it!
In the late 1980s, this film played at art-house theaters in the USA, but now it can be found in on Bluray / DVD, or streamed online through Amazon or Hulu Plus.
2. Tampopo (1985)
Not just a great food-film, also one of my favorite movies, period (GattMore). But let me get this out of the way first: this movie is weird. That’s part of what makes it so wonderful, really.
Primarily, this Japanese dramatic comedy is about Tampopo, the widow proprietor of a floundering ramen shop, and her quest to transform herself into a first-class ramen chef with the help of two foodie truck drivers and their cohorts.
But the movie also includes brief vignettes of several other characters: a yakuza gangster with a food fetish, a criminal on his way to prison, a dying mother preparing dinner for her family, and a girls’ table etiquette class, among several others.
This masterpiece is available on BluRay and DVD, though both can be hard to find. It’s available as a DVD through Netflix, but not as a streaming video.
3. Eat Drink Man Woman (1994)
Director Ang Lee is well known for movies like Brokeback Mountain and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but this gem is not quite as widely known.
Just watching the first 5 minutes of this movie makes me crave good Chinese food. The movie opens with the household patriarch preparing the food for their Sunday dinner, and the skill and techniques displayed there alone are enough to make the movie worth watching for anyone who cares about food. A great movie all around, though.
OK, I know I said that I wasn’t talking about documentaries, but this one is really good!
As the title suggests, the movie chronicles the life of Japan’s master sushi chef Jiro Ono, who has dedicated his entire life, waking and sleeping, to creating the most perfect sushi possible, regardless of the cost to his family life and his own health. If you love sushi, you can’t miss this film.
While the original “Iron Chef” was reaching the peak of its popularity in Japan, Stephen Chow wrote, directed, and starred in the Chinese satire “God of Cookery,” a wacky comedy about a pompous celebrity chef who falls from grace and is forced to rebuild his culinary empire and reputation by selling street food. There’s nothing subtle about this movie, and the humor can be sophomoric, but it is always irreverent and amusing, and frequently LOL funny.
This movie hasn’t made it to BluRay yet, and in fact, it’s not easy to find on DVD. If you’re lucky, you might get one of the remaining copies on Amazon.com, or you can watch a low-res version on YouTube for free.
6. Julie and Julia (2009)
A movie about Julia Child and an obsessive food blogger? Of course it has to be on this list. I am hard pressed to think of a role in which Meryl Streep did not offer an outstanding performance, and this movie is no exception. This film is also an homage to butter.
As a relatively recent movie, the BluRay and DVDs are readily available, and it’s also available for rent on Amazon.com or as a Netflix instant video.
7. Like Water for Chocolate (1992)
In this Mexican period-drama, a mother and her three daughters are making a good living running a ranch, but according to their family tradition, the youngest daughter (Tita) is not allowed to marry, since it is her duty to care for her mother as she grows old. Magically, as Tita prepares her family’s meals, her emotions are infused into the food, lacing it with sorrow, lust, or whatever else her complicated life has plunged her into.
I avoided this movie for years because the advertising made it look like a simple romance flick, but Johnny Depp’s character doesn’t even appear in the film until after the 54:00 minute mark. It turns out to be a much more interesting story about disregarding convention and finding happiness.
An American movie set in 1950s France, Chocolat is the tale of a woman and her young daughter who move to a small, tranquil town and open a chocolate shop, upsetting the ingrained routines of the residents. Judi Dench is wonderful as the surly, estranged mother of the mayor’s secretary (Carrie-Anne Moss) and landlord of the chocolaterie. In this story, chocolate plays every role: it symbolizes indulgence and sin to some, joy and freedom to others, it provides strength and it leads to destruction. In that way, it is very much a metaphor for love.
If you like murder mysteries and food, this is a good way to spend an evening. It’s not what I’d call a brilliant mystery, but it’s fun and witty, and it all revolves around food. It’s probably been 10 years since I’ve seen this movie, and even though the plot details have faded, I still remember the food. It’s also worth noting that the film’s music was composed by the great Henry Mancini.
This movie is available on DVD, but it wasn’t available for streaming anywhere yet, the last time I checked.
10. A&E’s “A Nero Wolfe Mystery” (2001-2002) : Poison à la Carte, Champagne For One
America’s greatest detective is also an “aristologist,” and many of the Nero Wolfe mysteries revolve around food in one way or another. Rex Stout also produced the renown “Nero Wolfe Cookbook”, featuring such savory dishes as “Champagne For One’s” Veal Birds in Casserole. Since very few of them have been made into films, I’m listing the A&E series “A Nero Wolfe Mystery”, which is essentially composed of a collection of made-for-TV movies. Timothy Hutton does a masterful job at bringing Archie Goodwin to life, and the late Maury Chaykin was perfectly cast as Mr. Wolfe. Like the first several seasons of “Poirot”, these are more fun and clever than serious film noir, which suits Stout’s books well.
What this really means is that we’re going to need a list of our Top 10 Fiction Books about Food!