Who doesn’t love to eat? Gathering over and devouring a great meal is one of the most memorable things we do as humans. That succulent first bite of a favorite dish can conjure up some brilliant memories. A bite of a McDonald’s hamburger or an oyster from the chilly waters of northern Maine can take you back to childhood, to a first kiss, to the wake of a person you dearly loved. Food, like film, is–or at least can be–magic.
The movies often try to reveal this magic, but as when they try to capture the spontaneous joys of sex and baseball, failure is usually the result. Go to any list of the great food movies, and you’ve got a ton of garbage that is for serious foodies only. Even the lauded Big Night is a dud in my book–characters that amaze me in that they manage to be both dumb and pretentious at the same time. Julie and Julia, directed by the risible Nora Ephron, is one half of a lovely film, namely the Julia Child half. Julie’s half–oh, my. Why is it so hard?
I think the key is in the showing, not telling. And shots that linger over diners twisting their faces in joy as they masticate every bite is definitely telling. Half of Big Night consists of people squirming as they suck down pasta–and it’s not alone, as so many foodie films seem to think that shots of people eating equals great art.
But these movies, well, they get it–they eat with gusto, they open us up to the beauty in the discipline of great cooking, and take us deep into the world of food. For better and for worse, as you shall soon see.
One honorable mention: TV’s The Rockford Files. If only because I’ve never seen a TV show or movie in which the main character eats as much as Jim Rockford. Not those small, actorly bites, but Jim cooks, opens bags of food, sits down at a diner, and, before your eyes eats everything on his damn plate. All the while the plot spins along, merrily.
Sorry for the digression. The top five:
1. Ratatouille (2007, Brad Bird). Beware any food movie list that does not include Ratatouille. I’d say watch out for anyone who doesn’t put this at the tippy-top, but then, I love this picture, love it like I love the films of Howard Hawks. Ratatouille is not only a brilliant examination of what it means to be a chef (writer/director Bird spent months following around acclaimed chef Thomas Keller) but it’s a wonderful examination of the relationship between the artist and critic. I’ve said it before, but the Pixar movies, especially Bird’s films, are going to be regarded with the greats someday, outside of just being thought of as simply cartoons (we’re close to that point already, and yet their movies typically miss most critics’ top ten.) This scene perfectly captures the ecstasy of a great bite. It brings tears to my eyes every time.
2. Mid-August Lunch (2008, Gianni di Gregorio). Poor Gianni! Money woes have forced him to spend his Mid-August holiday (a big deal in Italy, so I’m told), entertaining his elderly mother and three other feisty old women. Mid-August Lunch was criticized for being “slight”, but it is an almost holy examination of family, of friendship, of sacrifice, and of cooking. Little is resolved (lonely, aging Gianni doesn’t have a “gotcha” revelatory moment, and thank God for that), but the scenes of eating are honest and touching. This is as delightful as a picnic lunch that remains in your memory for years.
3. Eat Drink Man Woman (1994, Ang Lee). Before Ang Lee was hefting Oscar gold, he was making smaller romantic comedies that were startling for their surprising plot twists. Eat Drink Man Woman is about an elderly chef and his three daughters living, fighting, loving and eating in Taipei, Taiwan. Eat Drink is, at its heart (stomach?) the story of the three women’s relationships, not only with men, but with one another, and it serves up a delightful surprise later. Lee somehow got his actors to show off some serious cooking chops. In the YouTube montage below, you can see the mastery–which never interferes with the plot. The scene in the restaurant of the Taipei Grand Hotel is amazing. This film made me hungry!
4. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971, Mel Stuart). Pardon my French, but fuck you Tim Burton. Burton took a solid little movie that was a nice adaptation of a great, great children’s book and ruined it with grotesque CGI and a fey performance by Johnny Depp, who’s quickly growing tiresome. The book, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, by Roald Dahl, is rightly considered a classic–an embittered, sad, hopeful tale, and man, does he know how to write about candy… and poverty and what a bite of something sweet means to a child who eats next to nothing.
Director Mel Stuart and his production team knew to make the whole thing trippy–because it is a freaking head trip, even in the book–but the intensity of the chocolate river and the giant candy bars comes screaming on through. You’ll need a shot of insulin after watching this one.
5. Tom Jones (1963, Tony Richardson). You’re right: Tom Jones is not a movie about food. But it has, without question, the greatest eating scene ever. Ona recent episode of Top Chef Masters, one of the critics groused during a “date night” competition that “eating off the bone isn’t sexy.” Dude hadn’t seen Tom Jones. For this scene, and this scene alone, communicates sex and eating like nothing else before or since. This scene made me hungry… but not for food.