It’s Oscar time! And as I was deciding what snacks to lay in for the graveyard shift that is watching the Oscars live here in the UK, I got to pondering over the food movies I really love. Which slice of epicurean cinema has left me feeling the most pleasantly sated and lingered on the palate of my imagination the longest? What film would win my personal Food Movie Oscar?
Before I get to my nominees and winner, let me first make clear what the term “food movie” means to me. I define it as a film wherein food-how it’s prepared, how it’s eaten, and/or how it affects the characters- is a driving force in the film, both narratively and thematically. So that unfortunately excludes movies where food is featured heavily but rather tangentially really, hunger-inducing though they may be. Otherwise a lot of these movies would have made my list, movies like Woody Allen’s “Hannah And Her Sisters”, which features a series of delicious-looking Thanksgiving feasts, not to mention the efforts of the Stanislavski Catering Company. Or “The Big Chill”, which features the “throw it at a wall” method of testing the readiness of spaghetti alongside a lot more cooking and eating. Joan Crawford spends a lot of time in the kitchen in the fabulous noir “Mildred Pierce”, but this is a mother-daughter thriller. There are lots of delicious food moments in “Heartburn”, especially Carbonara in bed. I’m not always a fan of Martin Scorcese, but I do enjoy his evident appreciation for food in his films, most notably all the cooking that goes on throughout “Goodfellas”, from the hilariously delicious prison catering,to the absolutely yummy meal being prepared just as Ray Liotta is about to be get nabbed by the cops once and for all. Scorcese’s interminable “Ages And Ages Of Innocence”s is enlivened for me only by the incredibly elaborate banquets that pepper the film.
Now I realize that the definition of food movie that I’ve offered still leaves room for a very wide range of films, not least those involving cannibalism. After all, from “Soylent Green” to “Eating Raoul” and “The Cook, The Thief, His Wife And Her Lover”, man eating man has played quite a varied role in cinema. (It occurs to me as I mention “Soylent Green” that Charlton Heston spent a great deal of his career in the 60’s and 70’s receiving some nasty cultural shocks at the ends of his films.) But don’t get overly distressed; I have no intention of passing off either “Alive” or “C.H.U.D.” as food movies, whatever their relative merits.
So I suppose I’ve narrowed my definition a bit further: The five films that make my list of nominees, that truly moved me, are all about characters who cook, who express themselves sometimes entirely through food, whether they are home cooks or professionals, man or beast. Food- and the perils and sacrifices of its preparation- is the heart not only of these characters, but also of these films. So regretfully “Julie & Julia” doesn’t make my list. However much food and cooking appears in the film, it’s essentially a story about the writing of a book and the writing of a blog; food is really more of a means than the end. “Chocolat”, however beautifully made, also fails to make the cut. because although most of the film’s characters are transformed by chocolate, it’s really a story about a witch of sorts facing up to her nomadic nature. Plus I must admit to something of a bias: I personally don’t really care for chocolate. I wanted to edge “Sweeney Todd” on to my list of nominees, but although I adore the treacle-black satire inherent in the piece, that’s the gift of the far superior stage version. So no cannibalistic films make the cut. Likewise, I considered Morgan Spurlock’s fascinating documentary”Supersize Me”, but eventually rejected it. As scary and illuminating as his experiment with fast food was, I still think it was a fundamentally stupid thing to do.
So here, without further ado, are my nominees and personal winner for the Food Movie Oscar:
- Big Night. (1996) Campbell Scott and Stanley Tucci’s sad and tangy tortellino of a film about two brothers trying to keep their restaurant afloat in 1950’s New Jersey. Cooking is their life and their ambition, and the cooking on display is simply spectacular. The timpano at the film’s climax is an astounding culinary feat that reflects the layers of hope and artistry and determination that resound throughout the film, and the simple little omelet the brothers share at the end is simply heartbreaking. (Plus Stanley Tucci is briefly nude, which is pretty scrummy too. )
- Like Water For Chocolate. (1992) Food is sex and love and desire and grief in this Mexican feast of magical realism. Her thwarted love for a man causes family cook Tita to season chicken with rose petals, causing insatiable lust, and a wedding cake with her tears, driving an entire wedding party to ruin. Beautifully sensuous and odd, this is one delectable melodrama wherein food is both a gift and a weapon.
- Eat Drink Man Woman. (1994) Food is the what keeps families together and the expression of paternal love in this beautiful early film from Ang Lee. The story of a widowed senior chef who is losing his sense of taste as ha and his three increasingly wayward daughters navigate life in a changing Taiwan is like a perfect Chinese broth: light and clear, but surprisingly and warmingly complex and just a touch spicy.
- Ratatouille. (2007) Disney does food deliciously in this utterly charming tale of a rat who dreams of being a great chef. Not only does the film take the care to get the food details right and nail the hectic atmosphere of a busy restaurant kitchen, but that climactic dish of the titular ratatouille is surprisingly moving. The message that anyone can be a great cook is delivered sweetly enough to get kids into the kitchen themselves.
And drum roll please for the final nominee, and my personal Food Movie Oscar Winner:
- Babette’s Feast. (1987) Far and away the best film about the transformative power of cookery ever made, this Danish film is the slightest but most nourishing of tales. Two elderly sisters living in a remote and devoutly religious coastal community in 19th Century Denmark take in a Parisian refugee as their new housekeeper. She cooks for them for 14 quiet years, then one day learns she has won the french lottery. Instead of using her winnings to escape back to France, she uses the money to create an astounding feast for the sisters and their guests in thanks for them having taken her in so long ago. The resulting meal, exquisitely portrayed in both its preparation and consumption, brings love and light and life back to everyone who eats it. Simply and truly divine.
So there are my picks for the Food movie Oscar. Agree? Disagree? Think I may have made some egregious omissions or errors? We at Fabulous Foodie would love to hear your views.