I can’t believe I missed the Academy Awards this year. I simply wasn’t paying attention to all the red-carpet hype because like many Americans, I didn’t see most of the nominated films. But I love seeing the glamorous gowns, the entertaining songs, and the tributes to Hollywood legends.
In the spirit of awards, let me share some of my favorite films where food plays a starring, or supporting, role.
Lately it seems there are more movies that deal with the lack of food, as in the “Hunger Games” trilogy, and “Unbroken,” where a World War II soldier endures starvation on a lifeboat, then in a Japanese war camp.
I’ll admit, I’m not an avid movie-goer and there are many films I haven’t seen. So I’d be interested in hearing from readers with their recommendations.
1. “Julie Julia.” I did a telephone interview with Julia Child as she neared her 90th birthday, and I’ve read several of her biographies. So I enjoyed seeing how some of Child’s stories and recipes were brought to life, thanks to the super-talented Meryl Streep. The food scenes seemed so real, I half-hoped to walk out of the theater seeing concession stands selling hors d’oeuvres and bouef bougignon.
I admire the ambition of Julie Powell (played by Amy Adams) to cook all the recipes in Child’s “Mastering The Art of French Cooking,” The movie might have sparked a renewed interest in French cuisine, but it definitely helped the booming food blogging movement.
2. “The Hundred-Foot Journey .” It took me awhile to get around to seeing this film, because it seemed that this scenario has been done before. An upstart comes to a small French town and upsets the status quo with a different type of food. (I was thinking of “Chocolat.”) In this case, it’s Indian food, and the status quo is French haute cuisine, the elitist type awarded with Michelin stars.
One problem with food on film is that you can’t taste, smell or touch it, three important senses when you’re eating. So the sight and sound have to portray the taste, textures, aromas, and the emotional pleasure or displeasure from eating. I thought this movie did it so well. The food looked stunning, but the mixing and stirring, the sizzling sounds, and the look on the actors’ faces as they were sampling the food made you imagine what it would taste like. I’ll never think of an omelet in the same way again. Toss in some romance, some angst and self-awareness, and it’s a winning recipe. Besides, Helen Mirren just elevates every movie she’s in.
3. “Dan in Real Life.” This low-key romantic comedy is one of my favorite all-time films. Although it’s not totally focused on food, it still plays a prominent part. Time magazine described the movie as a “sweet, yet tangy dessert,” so I’m not the only one who thought in food metaphors.
In the beginning, the widower Dan (Steve Carrell) is shown packing lunches, letting you know he’s shouldering the responsibility of raising his daughters. Later on, there’s a scene where his love interest Juliette Binoche is angry with him. The burned pancake she slams down on his plate conveys a message that she can’t say out loud.
4. “Fried Green Tomatoes.” Southern food has a lot of personality, and so do stories based in the South. So this tale-within-a-tale has a lot of satisfying flavor. A modern-day pushover (played by Kathy Bates) learns to have a lot more spunk after meeting an elderly woman (Jessica Tandy) and hearing her life story centered around the Whistle Stop Café. Ruth and Idgie run the café, with fried green tomatoes and barbecue as specialties. When Ruth’s abusive husband Frank goes missing, and Idgie and Big George are suspects…and what about that barbecue?. The story runs the gamut from comedy to tear-jerker, and it is elevated by strong women actors — Kathy Bates, Jessica Tandy, Cicely Tyson, Mary Stuart Masterson, and Mary-Louise Parker.
5. “Babette’s Feast.” My former boss and long-time movie critic Chris Hicks lent me his copy of this Oscar-winning Danish film. A French refugee named Babette shows up in a small, bleak 19th century Danish community and is taken in by two spinsters. She works as their housekeeper for 14 years, and wonder of wonders, she wins the lottery. Instead of spending the 10,000 francs to start a new life, she buys sumptuous ingredients and cooks a gourmet feast for the sisters and their congregation. More than just a feast, it represents her appreciation. At first the people are afraid the dinner too sensually sinful, and vow not to take any pleasure in it. But the lovingly made meal nourishes them physically and emotionally, and brings about much goodwill for those who partake.
5. “No Reservations.” So many culinary terms conjure up romantic thoughts: Steamy. Sizzling. Hot. Flaming passion. So it’s not surprising when Hollywood sets up kitchen romances. “No Reservations” stars Catherine Zeta-Jones as an obsessive executive chef at a high-end restaurant, who ends up falling for her brash sous chef (played by Aaron Eckhart), who has a flair for singing and sauces.
6. “Gone With the Wind.” Food is sometimes used as a backdrop in this epic. The Twelve Oaks barbecue is where pretty, pouty Scarlett O’Hara first meets the dashing Rhett Butler (and is jilted by Ashley Wilkes). In one of the most dramatic scenes, a starving Scarlett retches while trying to eat a radish root, then holds it up declares, “As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again!”
7. “Ratatouille.” It sounds like a far-fetched culinary caper — a rat who becomes a French chef. But I took my kindergartner grandson to see this animated movie back in 2008, and found it to be entertaining and heartwarming. The name “Ratatouille” probably made more people aware of the relatively obscure French eggplant dish. But I didn’t see any fans jumping on the bandwagon and taking in pet rats.
8. “Food, Inc.” explores the darks side of the food industry. The documentary shows the industrial production of meat, and some of the inhumane practices used on the animals. The second segment looks at the industrial farming of grains and vegetables, and then it looks at food labeling regulations and how unhealthy eating habits are promoted by big food corporations. Former Deseret News movie critic Jeff Vice gave it three stars, calling it “powerful, disturbing stuff. However, you might not want to eat before you see it. Or afterward, for that matter. ” Truth can be unpleasantly unappetizing.
9. “Napoleon Dynamite.” This film has a lot of weird food references, such as the fight over tater tots and his grandmother telling him to make himself a “quesa-DILL-a.” In my favorite socially awkward moments, Napoleon tells his love interest Deb, “I see you’re drinking 1 percent. Is that ’cause you think you’re fat? ‘Cause you’re not. You could be drinking whole if you wanted to.”
10. “A Walk In The Clouds.” You don’t have to be a wine-drinker (I’m not) to appreciate this romantic tale set in a wine vineyard. Keanu Reeves plays a returning World War II veteran who meets a pregnant, unmarried (and of course beautiful) daughter of a wealthy vineyard owner. He agrees to pose as her husband for a day to avoid her father’s anger. But, in the movies, you know this is one of those agreements meant to be broken.
Some also-rans: “Chocolat.” Juliette Binoche serves up so much beauty and grace, and the mystical chocolate drinks and confections seemed to cure a lot of what was ailing a small French village. But although I’m not a Catholic, I was turned off by the underlying theme that all church-goers are hypocritical zealots, and everyone will be better off by simply indulging their appetites. Moderation, folks.
“Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” Although there was a lot of weirdness going on, seeing Johnny Depp floating on a river of chocolate could be considered two-for-one eye candy. Compared with the 1971 version, called “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” the remake followed the modern-day trend in chocolate: a bit more dark and bittersweet.
Here are some other food-related movies:
“Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs,” (2009)
“Soul Food” (2001)
“Tortilla Soup” (2001)
“What’s Cooking?” (2000)
“Eat Drink Man Woman” (1994)
“Like Water for Chocolate” (1993)
“Mystic Pizza” (1988)
“Who Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe?” (1978)