The best aspects of food are lost in film. A movie has no taste. There’s no smell-o-vision. As one of the cinematographers from Chef’s Table put it, “In a truly transcendent culinary experience, all senses — sight, smell, feel, sound and, of course, taste — are intertwined, and that’s true whether you’re eating at a three-star restaurant or at a taco truck at 2 a.m. So capturing that with the very limiting tool of sight (and a little sound) alone is tough.”
But the best food films manage to overcome. They make you hungry or thirsty. (Can you watch Mad Men without a whiskey in hand?) They make you feel the electricity of a good meal, when everyone’s drunk on food and wine and the chorus of conversation becomes a soundtrack.
It’s never just about food, after all. The dinner table transforms into a social gathering place, once a night, binding together friends and family. It’s why many of the films on this list are love stories at heart. It’s the home’s main junction, a transfer station of ideas and conflict. This is why others are crime dramas. (Imagine the Sopranos without Nuovo Vesuvio and Tony chewing in your ear.) And the politics and economics of how we eat are literally shaping the world we live in, giving reason for documentaries that touch all lives, no matter their class.
The following films represent a mix — documentary, comedy, love story — that’s as varied as the world’s cuisines. Dig in.
A Real French Feast: Two sisters take in a French refugee, Babette Hersant, who works to help maintain their home in a small Danish village. After winning the lottery, Babette decides to show her gratitude with an epic, French-inspired feast. It was the first Danish film to win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
Director: Gabriel Axel
Starring: Stéphane Audran, Bodil Kjer, Birgitte Federspiel
An Italian Gamble: In 1950s New Jersey, two Italian immigrant brothers, a brilliant chef and a businessman, run a slowly failing Italian restaurant named Paradise. In an effort to save their restaurant, the duo decides to bring in a well-known jazz musician to draw a crowd, including anyone and everyone they can invite, and spends their entire savings on a night that could determine the fate of their restaurant. The film was nominated for the “Grand Jury Prize” at the Sundance Film Festival.
Directors: Campbell Scott, Stanley Tucci
Starring: Tony Shalhoub, Stanley Tucci, Marc Anthony
Food Truck Cubans: A small budget film from Jon Favreau (whose first directorial debut, Swingers, always has my strong recommendation) in which he plays a head chef who, after a public confrontation with a food critic, decides to leave his post at Gauloise, a popular Los Angeles restaurant where he was constrained from experimentation, and head home to Miami. He fixes up a food truck and, along with his son and ex-wife, drives back to L.A. selling food along the way.
Director: Jon Favreau
Starring: Jon Favreau, Sofía Vergara, John Leguizamo, Scarlett Johansson
Coffee and Cigarettes
Meal Substitution: Shot between 1986 and 2003, the film is actually 11 short films that, taken together, talk to one another with themes, visual patterns (it’s shot in black and white) and of course, copious amounts of coffee and cigarettes. Each short consists of two people who disagree with one another, sitting down and passionately debating ideas ranging from Tesla coils to addiction to music, with cameos by Iggy Pop, Tom Waits, Steve Buscemi and Bill Murray.
Director: Jim Jarmusch
Starring: Roberto Benigni, Steven Wright, Joie Lee
Comfort Food: The first of Levinson’s set of four films based in Baltimore, Diner centers around five friends who reunite in Baltimore in 1959 for a wedding. They decide to return to their old haunt, the Hilltop Diner, to chat and catch up. The script, which is sometimes improvised by the cast, led to Levinson receiving an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay.
Director: Barry Levinson
Starring: Steve Guttenberg, Daniel Stern, Mickey Rourke, Kevin Bacon, Tim Daly
Lobster in Cream Sauce with Fried Spaghetti: This independent film takes place, aside from the first scene, over the course of one night in a NYC restaurant. A complex web of tension builds between the brilliant head chef and his father, a former mobster who owns the restaurant, before being masterfully wrapped up.
Director: Bob Giraldi
Starring: Danny Aiello, Edoardo Ballerini
For Losing Your Appetite: This searing documentary of the American food system first exposes the industrial farming practices behind American meat, grain and vegetable production before illustrating the economic power and political influence of the large companies that feed most of the nation. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.
Director: Robert Kenner
Starring: Eric Schlosser, Michael Pollan
The God of Cookery
Pissing Beef Balls: Allow me a Stephen Chow pick. The director, who is best-known in America for Kung Fu Hustle, this year directed Mermaid, the highest-grossing Chinese film of all time. The God of Cookery tells the story of Stephen Chow, played by Stephen Chow, a corrupt celebrity chef, who can barely cook but nonetheless has built a culinary empire. After being exposed, he teams up with local food vendors and sells “Pissing Beef Balls,” in a bid to regain relevancy and take back his title as “The God of Cookery.”
Director: Stephen Chow
Starring: Stephen Chow, Karen Mok, Vincent Kuk
Jiro Dreams of Sushi
Fatty Tuna Sushi: A stunning documentary that was groundbreaking for its cinematic presentation of food, the story follows Jiro Ono, the 85-year-old head chef and owner of Sukiyabashi Jiro, a bathroom-less, edo-style, Michelin three-star restaurant located in a Tokyo subway station. Inspiring for what it reveals about attaining perfection in any craft, you can’t watch without getting hungry for sushi.
Director: David Gelb
Starring: Jiro Ono
Dabbawalas Mix Up: A young woman in a rocky marriage begins a correspondence with an older widower due to a random mix-up in the dabbawalas lunch box delivery system of Mumbai. Through food, and penned notes, the two become close and make plans to run away together. Fans of food-based love story should also check out I Am Love and Eat Drink Man Woman. This Bollywood film won the Grand Rail d’Or at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival.
Director: Ritesh Batra
Starring: Irrfan Khan, Nimrat Kaur, Nawazuddin Siddiqui
Linguini Makes Ratatouille: Through nepotism, Alfredo Linguini, the young son of Auguste Gusteau, gets a job at his father’s restaurant as a garbage boy. An accident in the kitchen leads him to almost spoil a dish, if it wasn’t for an anthropomorphic rat named Remy who happens to be a gifted cook. The pair team up and become the talk of Paris. A true gem about chasing your dreams, this film by Pixar, their eighth, won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature.
Directors: Brad Bird, Jan Pinkava
Starring: Lou Romano, Patton Oswalt, Brad Garrett
The Search For General Tso
Truth About Chicken: From how to pronounce it, to exploring exactly how Chinese it really is and for that matter, where in the hell it came from, this documentary takes a light-hearted look at America’s favorite Chinese take-out dish: General Tso’s Chicken. Short and sweet, it’s a fun look at how food comes into being and evolves as it changes hands from culture to culture.
Director: Ian Cheney
Starring: Ian Cheney
Cheval Blanc 1961: Alright so its not food in the most technical, chew-it-up sense, but like any good food-based movie it, you’ll feel full, or in this case a little buzzed, just from watching it. Based on the 2004 novel of the same name, Sideways follows two college roommates, now in their forties, as they take a week-long road trip to Santa Barbara County Wine Country for one last blowout before one of them settles into marriage. The film won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, and was nominated for four other awards including Best Picture. It had a noticeable, significant impact on the wine industry, increasing demand for Pinot Noir.
Director: Alexander Payne
Starring: Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church, Virginia Madsen, Sandra Oh
A Ramen Western: While the film has many subplots involving food, love and sex, the main narrative follows Tampopo, owner of a struggling noodle shop who crosses paths with truck drivers who help her create the best ramen in town. Universally acclaimed by critics, this is the second film of director Juzo Itami, who used satire to effectively criticize Japanese culture. (His satire has also had unfortunate side effects: after a film satirizing the yakuza Itami was assaulted by members of the gang.)
Director: Juzo Itami
Starring: Tsutomu Yamazaki, Nobuko Miyamoto, K?ji Yakusho, and Ken Watanabe
North of England Restaurant Tour: In an attempt to impress and woo his girlfriend, Steve Coogan accepts an assignment from The Observer to tour the restaurants of northern England. But after his girlfriend decides to take a break from their relationship, Coogan is forced to take his colleague and source of misery, Rob Brydon. The two bicker, humiliate each other and have deep discussions as they are forced to dine together. Originally aired as a television show in the UK, with much of the dialogue being improvisational, it was edited down and released as a feature film.
Director: Michael Winterbottom
Starring: Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon, Paul Popplewell