Great Food Movies

I have a plan: when I win 6/49 I’m going to throw a huge food and film festival in my town. Every available theater space will be showing great food movies. TV sets in bars will show back to back episodes of The French Chef and Iron Chef (the original Japanese program). All the restaurants in town will offer menus based on items in the movies. It will be a good time and of course you are invited!

The question is: what movies will I show? There’s lots of movies that have food in them — here’s a list of 107 — but not all of these are Food Movies, films where food and cooking form the narrative and plot. No movies about eating contests, please, nor ones about waitresses. We need cooks/chefs and food. So the Vancouver Sun just published a list of the twenty greatest Food Movies of all time. Of course I don’t agree with it but some of the choices are excellent. Here’s the list in no particular order:

1– Tampopo. This is my choice for the best food movie ever. I already talked about it here so I’m just going to leave it at that.

2– Julie & Julia. Okay, I don’t know about this one for my food/film fest. It’s really not so much about food as it is about a chef as life coach or something. I guess it’s obligatory, but I’d rather people watched the French Chef TV episodes that will be playing in the better quality bars and lounges that are not presenting live music that night.

3–Ratatouille. This fits very well into the festival but it’s a movie I don’t really care for, even though it is an animated Food Movie. There’s just something about rats in the food that doesn’t… Okay, when the restaurant critic is wafted back into his childhood via the ratatouille, that’s decent. And I don’t know of many successful attempts to do the Proustian madeleine bit in movies, still…  This is really irrational of me. I don’t mind mice in the food scenes, just rats. I love when the two mouseketeers, Jerry and Tuffy, get onto the banquet table– Now that looks good! But that food cooked by rats? I dunno.

Tom and Jerry in The Two Mouseketeers

4–Sideways. I definitely don’t think this belongs in my festival. Another festival perhaps, that features movies about booze like Strange Brew. See, that’s just a whole different thing.

Eat, Drink, Man, Woman

5– Eat, Drink, Man, Woman. Food and family dynamics in Taiwan as seen by Ang Lee. A master chef, a widower, has lost his sense of taste. Once a week his three daughters come to visit and he prepares a massive feast for them. Great pictures of food preparation and beautiful presentation, but no one eats any of it. Each visit, one of the daughters says, “I have an announcement.” and then says something that completely unhinges Dad. It’s a funny routine (at least for people whose children are long grown). Meanwhile, there are attempts to get Dad hitched again. By the end of the movie, Dad has recovered his taste and strengthened bonds with his daughters. (Most food movies are comedies). [Note: Many Food Films have three female characters, often at odds with each other. I think this is some kind of archetypal thing.]

6– Tortilla Soup. This is an Hispanic-American version of the movie above. I don’t know; I’m sort of opposed to remakes but the Sun is right: it’s a good, fun movie. (I still prefer Ang Lee’s film, though.) Another family food film:

7–Soul Food. Momma is hospitalized with diabetes and her three grown daughters have no one to stop their quarreling. But her grandson saves the family from dissolution by cooking them dinner that they eat together. (This movie spun off a TV series that lasted five seasons.)

Chocolat

8– Chocolat. A mysterious woman opens up a chocolate shop in an uptight provincial French town. Her candy contains magical ingedients that, generally speaking, cause people to open up emotionally. The notion that food awakens people to life and its pleasures — food itself being one — is a theme in several good food movies. Such as:

9–Babette’s Feast. A mysterious woman settles in a 19th Century Danish community built around a severe Protestant faith. She creates and serves a magnificent dinner that brings a taste of joy to these dour believers. This, with Tampopo, Like Water for Chocolate, and  Eat, Drink, Man, Woman is a must-have for my fest. A really great movie.

Like Water for Chocolate

10–Like Water for Chocolate. Food as the language of love. A woman shows her devotion to the man she is not allowed to marry through the food she serves him. Set in revolutionary Mexico, this has elements of the family drama that is part of Eat, Drink, Man, Woman and Tortilla Soup, but food and family is secondary to food and love in this movie. Also:

11–I Am Love. An Italian movie about love awakened by food amongst the comfortably well-off. I haven’t seen it yet so have to allow the Sun‘s choice on sufferance.

12–Then there is In the Mood for Love, a good movie but not a Food Movie even though its lovers share the same taste in noodle shops.

13–Likewise, I disagree with the Sun‘s choice of Volver, which is not a Food Movie. I like Aldomovar’s films but I think, if you had to add one to the Food’n’Film Fest, it would be Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown , because of the gazpacho. Okay, Volver is not a Food Movie, but it does feature food as a bridge between the living and the dead which is totally unusual and cool so I may allow the Sun a pass on this one.

14– Oh, Lord, did the Sun really include Delicatessen? Yes. Movies about cannibalism are not on my viewing list, otherwise I would cite Eating Raoul. But then, Delicatessen is political satire and maybe gets a nod for that. After all, we want to view the full gamut of Food Film sub-genres.

15– The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, Her Lover. No, no, no. I knew I would regret letting in Delicatessan. Look, this is definitely not a Food Movie. Yes, it’s political satire, aimed at Thatcher’s klepto-Conservatives but so what? A better Thatcher metaphor was that of the criminals in The Long Good Friday. And really there’s no connection to Food (except that you do have a Magic Chef) so you might as well have The Stuff, an anti-consumerist satire where addictive, brain-destroying goop becomes the world’s most-desired food. Or maybe Fast Food, where the special sauce is an aphrodisiac! No. TC,TT,HW,HL (as it is known in Food circles) will not play at my festival.

Carefully slicing the tympano in Big Night

16–Let’s look at a good choice by the Sun: Big Night. Now this is a fine fine Food Movie. These two brothers have a restaurant, one cooks, one manages. They are immigrants with dreams of the future. One night, they are told that the great band leader, Louis Prima, is coming to visit their restaurant! The chef brother decides to make a great Italian feast culminating in a tympano, a large drum-shaped stuffed pasta and we see him construct it. I have thought many times of cooking a tympano only because of this fine film. In the end there are personal dramas, life struggles, and a tremendous celebration that involves food, music, dance, and food. Yes, this is a great Food Movie.

17– But Waitress isn’t, not even with the pies. Why not Mystic Pizza if you’re going to do this kind of movie? Not at my Food Fest!

18–Woman On Top. Again, I think, not really a Food Movie. Penelope Cruz is a chef who flees her husband and asks, fairy-tale style, to be delivered from love. Not a bad movie. Not a Food Movie.

Mostly Martha

19–Mostly Martha. Martha is a great chef, but she has a problem: she is very structured and uptight and she has been saddled with a young child to look after. The child, and an engaging Italian sous-chef, make Martha loosen up and become more spontaneous. Chefs/cooks it should be said, have a very important part to play in Food Movies. They may be magicians or artists or life counsellors but are always important creative people. Sometimes, these heroes have problems. So this movie is about a chef with problems who finds a way out through childishness child-like behavior or learning from children or something. Or maybe it’s the child-like sous chef that tweaks her genius. Or whatever it is he tweaks.

Vatel

20–Vatel. In 1671, a petty noble tries to impress Louis XIV. His steward, Vatel, played by Gerard Depardieu, is a master chef who creates extravaganzas of food and fireworks. He is not so much creating great flavors as he is administering a grand spectacle. In some ways Vatel is the most realistic chef in these movies; he is the chef as organizer and executive rather than a magician of pots and pans.  

Now I’ve rejected five or six of the Sun‘s picks outright and would like to swap out one or two more so I need to come up with substitutes. First up:

A Chef in Love. An aging French chef winds up in Russia during the Bolshevik Revolution. He falls in love with a Georgian beauty (though he says he is too old for her). The chef cooks up some food including a dish of crow that he feeds to a Bolsheviki bully and winds up imprisoned, more or less, being fed by his lover. Fun fact: this is the first movie from Georgia to be nominated for an Oscar.

Eden

Eden. This definitely belongs in my Food/Film Fest. In this film, the Magic Chef is a kind of savant. He understands flavor and creates wonderful food. A woman likes him and loves his art but she is married to an uptight controlling man. This couple has a daughter with Down’s syndrome. Uptight Dad tries to control the daughter’s moods, chef indulges her with chocolate. Enjoy! is the message. Well, there are complications, violence, and tragedy but all comes right in the end. This is one of the few food movies that shows somebody licking a plate, which may or may not be a recommendation.

Perfectly Normal. Robbie Coltrane plays a chef who’s fallen on hard times since an unfortunate experience with fugo. He cons Renzo Parachi into funding a restaurant. Renzo, who works at a beer bottling plant and plays hockey, just wants a quiet life but the chef shows him the error of his ways. Did I mention beer and hockey? Yes, this is a Canadian film. In fact, it may not be available outside this country. Too bad for the rest of the world.

La Cuisine au Beurre. Fernandel plays a chef who travels from his home in Provence to fight in the north during World War II. He settles down with an Austrian woman for a while but, when her husband returns from a Soviet prison camp, goes back home. There, his wife who thought him dead has remarried to another chef played by French comedian Bourvil. Fernandel is a Provencal chef: he cooks with olive oil. Bourvil’s chef is a Norman: he cooks with butter. The battle lines are drawn. Fernandel and Bourvil were France’s top comic actors at the time (1963) this film was made. It’s the earliest movie on the list and it’s in black and white. It’s still funny.

Noodles are subdued in The God of Cookery

The God of Cookery. A martial arts Food Film! Yes! The God of Cookery, a great chef, has lost his Iron Chef-like position to a jealous rival largely because of his own arrogance. Now he must fight to regain his divine title. This movie is not meant to be taken a hundred percent seriously.

There’s lots of other movies out there and more being made. (A sequel to Eat, Drink, Man, Woman is being released as we speak.) If I allow Chocolat, then maybe Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory belongs. Both the Depp and Wilder versions might be screened and there could be a panel discussion on which movie had the better Willy. But, no, that’s not really a Food Film. Anyway, I think I have twenty movies selected after allowing in Delicatessen and Volver, so that’s my list for the moment, though I’d like to add some South Asian movies. Now it’s time to go buy some 6/49 tickets.