The Best Movie Ever: Food
Food, glorious food. This fabulous substance comes in all shapes, sizes and tastinesses, and yet even though we desperately need it to live, in our movies it's often just an afterthought, a window dressing to a scene (even if actual dressing isn't being served). Two movies are coming out this weekend that are exceptions to this rule: Chef, the new indie comedy from Jon Favreau about a gourmet chef reduced to working in a food truck, and Fed Up, the new documentary from Stephanie Soechtig that exposes the health risks associated with the crappy foodstuffs we cram into our mouths ever day.
But Chef and Fed Up aren't the first food movies, and they won't be the last. In fact, this unofficial subgenre – sometimes referred to as "food porn" – has enough entries that we asked the CraveOnline film critics to present their picks for The Best Food Movie Ever. Check out William Bibbiani, Witney Seibold, Fred Topel's picks, vote for your favorite at the bottom of the page, and come back next Wednesday for another installment of Best Episode Ever.
Although there are many, many movies in the world that center on food and eating, it's weird that we don't tend to think of them as a taxonomic genre; I have yet to see a video store section or video streaming category devoted solely to food films. Maybe it's because it would be weird to see Big Night, Chocolat, No Reservations, Ratatouille, and The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover all sitting next to each other on the shelf. I've certainly heard the term “food porn” bandied about when discussing such films, but they are rarely categorized in such a fashion. We need a name for the feeling these films give us. There should be a single word for the pleasure you receive from being made hungry. Maybe there's a German word for it. Liebeverhungern or something.
Since I'm to think up the best movie ever in the genre, and I'm not allowed ties, I will have to eschew Gabriel Axel's wonderfully contemplative Babette's Feast (an excellent film, by the way, and one I recommend wholeheartedly) for Juzo Itami's 1985 masterpiece Tampopo. Tampopo (which means “dandelion”), perhaps an obscurity in many respects, is often described as a “ramen western.” A modern-day drifter (Tsumoto Yamazaki) wanders into a young woman's failing ramen shop, and decides to teach her the complex Zen of creating the perfect ramen. In near-slapstick fashion, the drifter and Tampopo (Nobuko Miyamoto) discuss everything from the philosophies of ramen, to the recipes, to the logistics of taking orders. It's a master/student relationship in classic Japanese style. But that's only half the movie. Throughout the story, Tampopo will cut away to a series of short, unconnected vignettes, all centering on food. There is a short of a couple having sex with food. There is the story of the dying woman preparing her last meal for her family. There is an etiquette class on how to eat spaghetti. And so on.
Tampopo is not just a pleasant little story about ramen, but a calm, comedic meditation on our relationship with food. It's like an Eastern version of a Jacques Tati film, but with the intent of making you hungry. There is no way you can watch this film and not be hungry after.
There are three businesses in the sweaty Spanish pueblo depicted in Jamón Jamón: there’s the underwear factory, the ham factory and the whorehouse. Sound like a set-up to a joke? It is. But there’s more. The town has a billboard of a bull whose testicles are so large they can be seen from miles away. The sun rises and sets, casting shadows from two big balls.
Conchita (Stefania Sandrelli) has some pretty big balls, too. She’s not too happy that her son, José Luís (Jordi Molla), has impregnated Silvia (Penelope Cruz). For no underwear magnate son of hers will marry the daughter of a prostitute. Conchita hires a hunk at the ham factory, Raúl (Javier Bardem) to seduce Silvia away from her son. But then that’s complicated when Conchita decides that she wants Raúl, too. Those are the basic ingredients for a hammy (guilty pleasure) melodrama. So where does the food come in? Well, it’s everywhere. The characters are hungry for sex and power – and all the industries partake in animal flesh.
A delicious taste is damn near impossible to capture on screen. But an orgasm isn’t. Director Bigas Luna combines those two often: taste and sex.
The double ham is Silvia, who is renowned for her omelets: both the breakfast she makes and her breasts, which her lovers say taste like a ham omelet. When the men visit the brothel they explain that they’re hungry. With metaphors everywhere (you know those billboard testes will eventually get castrated; two men – pigs – fight to the death with big shanks of ham), Jamón Jamón is most delicious when it provides a dash of foreplay. Such as when Raúl inserts a garlic clove into a pig’s anus prior to one of his many sexual conquests. Afterward he’s gonna slaughter that pig, put it in an omelet and it’s going to taste just as good as his lovers body.
Time may sway me as the years roll by, since the recent documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi not only makes me famished but increases my respect for artisans of every stripe, but for nearly 20 years my answer to the question of "What's the best food movie ever?" has always been the same: Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott's sweet, sensitive celebration of Italian cuisine and dining culture, Big Night. I freely admit to being biased: as an Italian, even my recipes for chocolate cake all begin with chopping up a clove of garlic, if only so that the kitchen smells right.
Stanley Tucci and Tony Shalhoub co-star as Primo and Secondo, two Italian brothers whose New York City restaurant has the best food in the city. Too bad no one knows about it. When a suspiciously benevolent competitor (Ian Holm) offers to invite jazz musician Louis Prima to their little hole in the wall in order to spread the word about their exquisite Italian cuisine, they invite everyone they know for a private party and prepare dish after dish of the most delicious-looking cuisine I have ever seen on camera.
Big Night employs plenty of great character actors (Isabella Rossellini, Campbell Scott, Liev Scheiber, Minnie Driver and Allison Janney round out the cast) in the service of a tiny story about nobodies trying to be somebody, so it is perhaps natural the food itself emerges as the movie's biggest star. Long ago I tracked down the novelization of Big Night specifically because it also included many of the recipes featured in the film. And the soundtrack is spectacular too. Big Night doesn't just capture the allure of Italian food, it captures the allure of the Italian dining experience, and by god it makes me want some risotto right now just thinking about it. Excuse me while I tend to my needs. Take over for me, Fred…!
I can’t really think of a great movie about food. Big Night is all right, but nothing I’d call the Best Movie Ever. It’s certainly not Nine 1/2 Weeks. That neither makes me want to eat nor have sex. Waitress was cute, maybe Ratatouille, but that’s not what we’re doing this week. We’re actually picking the movie with the best food, essentially the one that makes us hungriest. Oh crap, I’ve never seen Julie & Julia or Eat Pray Love either, so I guess the caveat is my limited experience with food movies.
Spanglish is the one I remember where I really wanted to eat the food Adam Sandler was cooking. He plays a chef who lets the maid (Paz Vega) and her daughter (Shelbie Bruce) from Mexico into the family. It’s heartwarming James L. Brooks dramedy with Tea Leoni as a high maintenance wife who I’m convinced does not inhale or exhale throughout the movie.
I’m sure there was lots of incidental cooking in Spanglish but the one thing I remember was a particular sandwich. It was on fancy bread, pretty lettuce and all but the piece de resistance was he put a fried egg on it. Then when he cut the sandwich in half, the yolk oozed perfectly all over the plate. That is a sandwich I want to eat. The Spanglish Sandwich.