Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Top Ten Favorite Food Movies

With the relatively recent (2007) releases of “Ratatouille” and “No Reservations” my attention was drawn to the unusual phenomenon of “food movies.” Like love, food is a universal theme (witness the vast range of countries on the list below), but “food movies” are often dismissed by critics and crowds alike. The general perception, rightly or wrongly, is that they are light and shallow entertainment. Nevertheless (or because of this) they have greatly risen in production and popularity in the past few decades.

It is a slippery subgenre that clearly has certain common traits (sumptuous feasts, cooking montages, obsessive perfectionist characters and extensive use of food as a metaphor for life or sex or whatever), but it probably isn’t recognized as a distinct genre by most people. I’m not sure they have a special appeal to me (although who doesn’t love delicious food), but I decided to make a top ten list anyway. I certainly haven’t seen every food movie out there, but I’d like to share my favorites.

First of all, what are the ground rules? What counts as a food movie? Is it enough to simply have a restaurant owning character, thus accepting candidates like “Volver” (2006) and “Notting Hill” (1999)? Does it count if the film is focused around a giant meal like in “Festen” (1998) or “The Dinner Game” (1998)? What about the many great (and not so great) cannibalism films out there like “Soylent Green” (1973), “Blood Feast” (1963), “Eating Raoul” (1982) or “Cannibal: The Musical” (1996)?

As usual, I won’t be trying too hard to place restrictions on myself. I attempted to make the list fair enough such that anyone could understand why I would consider a film a “food movie,” but I had fun stretching the definition a little. There are movies from every category above (restauranteering, focal feasts and cannibalism) and plenty others, including films that simply revel in the sensorial delights of great cooking.

The ranking is based on a mixture of how much I liked the film in general and how well it does specifically as a “food movie.” My particular culinary likes and dislikes were given no weight, and indeed one mark of a success food film is that it can make you hungry for dishes you don’t even like! Enjoy the list!

(In reverse order)

10. “Felicia’s Journey” (1999) [Atom Egoyan] –Canada

This film might be the most arguable entry on the list, although I feel it is simply one of the more subtle, complex and psychological explorations of food as both a tantalizing obsession and everyday banality. The main character, Hilditch (played perfectly by Bob Hoskins), is a caterer whose mother was once a popular television chef. Hilditch meets Felicia, a naïve, but charming Irish girl who is searching rather hopeless for the boyfriend that abandoned her. Hilditch gradually befriends her, but we gradually learn that his troubled celebrity childhood and fastidious hobbies may spell trouble for the lonely companions. Unlike most of the Canadian-Armenian director’s films, “Felicia’s Journey” reverses Egoyan’s usual pattern of starting out disturbing and gradually revealing the underlying good-nature and normality of his eccentric characters.

9. “Delicatessen” (1991) [Jean-Pierre Jeunet] –France

“Delicatessen” was the first feature film by the team of Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro (who would later find success with “Amelie” and greatness with “City of Lost Children”). It’s a bit of an inversion on the food theme since it depicts apartment tenants in a vaguely post-apocalyptic France that live on the verge of starvation (there is an especial lack of meat). The landlord (and ground floor butcher) comes up with an inventive way of keeping his larder stocked: hiring handymen and covertly bumping them off in the night. The newest guest, Louison (Dominique Pinion), finds his life on the line even as he falls in love and encounters an underground food-hording resistance.

8. “God of Cookery” (1996) [Stephen Chow] –Hong Kong

Easily the most outrageous food movie I’ve experienced, “God of Cookery” is both a satire of the subgenre and a broader action-packed comedy, too. Chow (who crossed over to American success with “Shoalin Soccer” and “Kung Fu Hustle”) takes things to extremes (as usual) and works some of the best hyperbole gags around. You can read my full review here.

7. “Babette’s Feast” (1987) [Gabriel Axel] –Denmark

This Danish film remains a classic of the food subgenre and even won an Academy Award, but tries a little too hard to be disarming, heartwarming and redemptive. The somewhat contrived plot features a former Parisian chef who is forced to flee her homeland and takes shelter with two pious Lutheran sisters in a small Norwegian hamlet. After helping the two sisters administer charity for fourteen years, she wins the lottery and spends it all on a massive feast the likes of which the town has never known. The experience reunites the sisters with their former potential lovers and provides a chance for a nostalgic reflection on what might have been. The film may be syrupy, but it’s also quietly moving and glazed with a quaint, beautiful atmosphere. The combination of the earthy tundra with its humble inhabitants and the luxurious feast with its hedonistic implications allows for plenty of gorgeous cinematography and spiritual rumination.

6. “My Dinner with Andre” (1981) [Louise Malle] –USA

While this film isn’t so much about food per se, it is the ultimate picture about a meal as a social setting and as a slice of everyday life (albeit the everyday life of two very unusual people). Actors Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory (playing themselves) meet at a fancy restaurant. That is basically it. They recount stories from their past, argue over theater and philosophy and just generally chat. Much of the interest comes from the contrast of Shawn’s grounded New York attitude and Gregory’s free-wheeling experimental approach to life. This is one of the ultimate filmic examples of brilliance in simplicity, carried by the two performances and the elegantly polished screenplay.

5. “Like Water for Chocolate” (1992) [Alfonso Arau] –Mexico

Arguable the most successful magical realist film ever made (though ironically watered down), “Like Water for Chocolate” became an international hit immediately upon release. The film is adapted from Laura Esquivel’s novel about Tita, the youngest of three sisters living in the ranch of their oppressive matriarch. Tita is unlucky in love, but finds that her culinary gifts give her unusual powers; she can control moods and stimulate anything from memories to sickness to orgasms. The winding freeform tale sees the family through many celebrations and crises all the while accompanied by grand authentic cuisine. Americans would try something similar with the horrendous “Simply Irresistible” (1999), in which a magical crab turns Sarah Michelle Gellar into a food witch. Don’t see it.

4. “Eat Drink Man Woman” (1994) [Ang Lee] –Taiwan

Ang Lee’s follow-up to “The Wedding Banquet” (1993) is a feel-good family tale about a talented Taiwanese chef and his three career-age daughters. The gentle humor and skilled pacing makes the film irresistible, without seeming like it is begging for your approval. All four of the main characters are wonderfully crafted and convincingly acted. Fans of East Asian cuisine won’t be able to resist the many cooking montages, though the conversations and frustrations of the family who gathers around the table is the true draw. The ending is pleasant, but predictably unexpected (you heard me).

3. “Ratatouille” (2007) [Brad Bird] –USA

Pixar’s 2007 entry is yet another animated gem from the studio, and though it has more flaws than critics would like to admit and little ambition, it is an undeniable pleasure to watch. It teams a talented rat named Remy with an untalented teen named Linguini, who attempt to stay afloat in the fast and chaotic restaurant business. The mixture of adventure, humor and even action turns cooking into an exciting and invigorating experience (I don’t remember my stint at Sonic being so interesting, but there certainly were rodents) with CG dishes that look so appetizing you could swear they were real. The good voice acting and great visuals help gloss over the fuzzy characterization and the tried-and-true recipe and make this a sure fire hit with kids.

2. “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover” (1989) [Peter Greenway] –Britain

Greenway’s most famous film was the object of some mild controversy, owing to it receiving one of the first NC-17 ratings in the US. The reasons include a fair share of nudity and the consumption of at least two items not generally regarded as traditional food. The somewhat allegorical film is an art-house triumph, with some of the most gorgeous sets ever assembled (primarily five color-coded segments of an enormous restaurant shot in graceful camera dollies) including a well-stocked kitchen and a first-class dining room. The plot focuses on the title characters: a gangster (Michael Gambon) has taken over a restaurant catered by a renowned chef (who has allegiances of his own) while his wife (Helen Mirren) begins an affair with a bookish customer. It arcs and ends in modernized Shakespearian tradition.

1. “Tampopo” (1995) [Juzo Itami] –Japan

“Tampopo” is for me the ultimate food movie. It plays on the Italian term “spaghetti western” and features Goro, a cowboy who comes to the aid of Dandelion, a damsel-in-distress who can’t seem to turn her ramen establishment into a flourishing investment. Goro lends his well-honed noodle skills and chef-warrior-artist philosophy to her cause in a comical adventure that plays on the clichés of westerns. Itami digresses into bizarre food-themed vignettes throughout the runtime and drops plenty of references for film buffs. The palette of yellow, blue and pink pastels, the creative editing and the versatile script make this movie work on every level.

Some food films with merit, that didn’t make my top ten:

Supersize Me
Mostly Martha
Big Night
My Big Fat Greek Wedding


Patti said...

Where's Mantango?

FilmWalrus said...

An excellent point. I think "Matango: Attack of the Mushroom People" has always been particularly effective for me because of my overpowering hatred of fungus as a food.

Unknown said...

I find it brutally unfair to write off Volver's "restaurant," since that's such a big part of her journey and independence. Also, hello, her mom cooks meals from beyond the grave for the elderly neighbor.

Katie rules: Food movie indeed.

(also, who tf owns a restaurant in Notting Hill? That's not even a good example! Erg! Erg!)

Mad Dog said...

I find it incredibly easy to write off Volver's restaurant, since she gained it through trickery.

Also she can't sing.

FilmWalrus said...

I chose "Notting Hill" intentionally because I thought it clearly didn't belong. The point was to stress how nebulous the designation of "food movie" is and how easily it could be abused to include anything.

Perhaps some more realistic edge cases might be "Do the Right Thing," "Spitfire Grill," "Diner," "Good Burger" and "Coyote Ugly." I think you can begin to see why including every film in which an eating/drinking establishment figures prominantly could be problematic. I personally like "Volver" a lot and feel that it could be easily argued as a contender, but I chose not to out of irresponsible whimsy (or "personal preference" as I sometimes call it).

I know how you feel though. It is how I feel everytime somebody tells me a movie isn't "noir" that I say is. Here is my definition of film noir: eh, it feels like noir...

Patti said...

Brian, who do you come up with your lists like this? Do you just sit down and think about every movie that might fit certain criteria, or do you have to look at a list of every movie you've seen?

FilmWalrus said...

Usually the idea to make the list comes from a series of coincidences that makes me start wondering about trends. If I end up seeing three clocktower showdowns in a month, I get to thinking about the cinematic history of clocktower showdowns. Then I mentally skim through my brain (or imdb or a previous list) and rank the clocktower showdowns I've seen. Then I look around for any canonical clockwork showdowns that I haven't seen and try and watch them.

I periodically update about 50 lists that I have yet to post. When they get ripe, I write em up and ship em to market. I have about five lists in active pursuit right now (filling out the ones I've yet to see), but the topics will have to be a surprise.

Mad Dog said...

One day they'll diagnose the list-making disorder you have.

MisterE said...

Other food/sex classics:
'Jamon Jamon'
'La Grande Bouffe'

Elaine said...

Do you consider "Waitress" a food movie? On one hand, the main character isn't a obsessive perfectionist chef/restaurant owner, and I'm not certain her food had THAT much in common with her journey (except really as commentary on her situation).

But it did have a lot of food.

Mmm, pie.

FilmWalrus said...

I'm sure "Waitress" would count, but I haven't seen it yet. I also have not seen "Mistress of Spices" "The Grand Buffet" or "Who is Killing the Great Chefs of Paris?"