My top 10 foodie films
By Linda Barnard
There’s a feast of food-themed films on streaming services. But like a restaurant with a huge menu, how do you choose?
Here are my 10 of my favourite food movies, a banquet of films worth devouring from your couch. They’re in no special order and I know there are many others that could have made the cut. Just make sure the fridge is full before you press play.
The Big Night
Brothers Primo (Tony Shalhoub) and Secondo (Stanley Tucci) can’t make a go of their restaurant in 1950s New Jersey. Perhaps the new world just isn’t ready for authentic Italian cuisine. “She’s a Philistine!” chef Primo hisses when a customer wants to know why her risotto doesn’t have a side of spaghetti. Timpano, the elaborately stuffed pasta-wrapped dome, is the star dish of the brothers’ attempt to turn their fortunes around with a meal for a celebrity guest. (My dad once spent a day on his version, all us sitting big-eyed as it was brought to the table.) But it’s the almost wordless final scene where Secondo makes a simple omelette in an olive oil-slicked pan with a dancer’s grace that gets me every time.
Jiro Dreams of Sushi
Jiro Ono sees the universe inside an opalescent slice of squid or a grain of perfect rice. Director David Gelb’s 2012 documentary about the legendary Tokyo sushi chef makes each piece of sushi resemble an offering to the gods as it’s gently presented to the diner. The ideal piece of sushi is his unattainable ideal: the elegantly simple, yet profoundly flavoured morsel the 85-year-old chef had yet to make. The pursuit fills Ono’s dreams and makes us ravenous for a taste of his perfection.
When cartoon food makes you hungry, you know they animators hit the mark. Outliers Remy the culinary creative rat teams with nervous non-cook Linguini to transform the garbage boy into a great chef in this Disney-Pixar comedy. Bonus: the rat is such a pro, he even washes his hands before cooking. The scene of the cheese trolley that introduces (makes that exposes) Remy shows youngsters the delights of the cheese course. And now all I want is a slice of runny Époisses.
Food is love. The late Irrfan Khan is sublime as Saajan, an office worker who mistakenly gets the hot homemade mid-day meal Ila (Nimrat Kaur) has made for her husband when one of Mumbai’s army of lunch-delivering dabbawalas mixes up the delivery. The round, neatly stacked tiffin tins hold a colourful daily feast. I can almost taste the spices, the heat of red chilies, the soft lentils and vibrant vegetables. There is more than food in these metal boxes. When Khan inhales the aroma from the tiffin tin, his joy is palpable.
When I interviewed Khan about The Lunchbox at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2014, I confessed the movie made me very hungry. “I hope it makes your soul hungry as well,” Khan replied. Indeed.
A movie you’ve likely heard of but perhaps never seen, Babette’s Feast is joyous, visually stunning and often heartbreaking. The crackling kitchen fire illuminates quail and vegetables, artfully pilled on plates like a still life.
There is so much gastronomic delight in this 1987 Danish Oscar winner, from the astonishing wines to the lavish serving of caviar, it’s almost overwhelming. There’s a tender story here, too, a tale of self-sacrifice and longing, meeting in divine indulgence at the table.
Like Water for Chocolate
If food is love, it’s also lust. This Mexican film is heavy on both magic realism and deliciousness. Tita (Lumi Cavazos), denied the chance to marry the man she loves, finds all her emotions literally transferred into the dishes she’s cooking. When the family sits down to sublime-looking roasted quail with rose sauce and finds the meal sparks an itch that can’t be scratched it’s the sexiest food scene since Tom Jones.
Eat Drink Man Woman
I’d argue Ang Lee’s 1994 family drama opens with the best food scene in foodie film history. Mr. Chu (Sihung Lung) spends the day making a weekly elaborate feast for his three daughters and it’s just marvelous to watch. More than six minutes long and shot mostly in closeup, the cooking, rinsing and frying sounds of the kitchen are punctuated by the rapid work of Chu’s flying cleaver. Has pork belly ever looked so succulent, or dumplings more enticing?
This delightful “ramen Western” has comic charms and plenty of quirk in the story of a widow who wants to transform her struggling ramen shop into the place for the best noodle soup in Japan. Several scenes explore the role of food in character’s lives, but, like the best ramen, it all comes back to the broth. Steaming bowls packed with chewy noodles are slurped with appreciation and satisfaction. Tip: make sure you have a ramen takeout in your contacts.
I Am Love/A Bigger Splash
Italian director Luca Guadagnino knows how to film a food scene to make it seem like a religious experience. Tilda Swinton seems to swoon over a deceptively simple restaurant lunch made from the freshest ingredients, her face and the food shot in sensual close up. A Bigger Splash sees Swinton as a rock star Marianne resting her blown vocal cords on Pantelleria, an island villa off the Sicilian coast. Then her ex (Ralph Fiennes) shows up. He scandalizes their cook by stuffing chilies along with fistfuls of herbs into a fish before roasting it. No chilies, she scolds him. But I’d eat it. Whole fish baked in a salt crust cracked open to reveal the treasure inside, a lazy, wine-soaked lunch on a sunny terrace shielded by a grape arbor, Marianne’s face as she tastes warm, fresh ricotta, it’s one food-lover’s delight after another.
Hamburg chef and kitchen obsessive Martha (Martina Gedeck) is a perfectionist who isn’t about to take any guff from customers. With the arrival of an Italian chef that she sees as rival and interloper, the two face off across the stove, the has cooktop filled with bubbling dishes as Paolo Conte’s playful Via Con Me plays. Racks of lamb, lobsters poaching in cream, sauces reducing, director Sandra Nettelbeck makes it all look so good, down to the simple plates of spaghetti with fresh basil and a few shavings of cheese. Remade as unfortunate American version No Reservations starring Catherine Zeta-Jones.