Starting at Thanksgiving and running all the way to the New Year, the holiday season is consistently highlighted by one thing: eating. But before you sit down at your holiday table, take a look at this list of great documentaries about food—some that celebrate what and how we eat, and others that will make you think twice about your relationship with food.
10. The Real Dirt on Farmer John (2005)
Free spirit Midwestern farmer John Peterson struggles to save his farm in the face of the declining agricultural system in America. Friend and director Taggart Siegel effectively uses John’s story to depict the larger picture of the decline of agrarian life and the rise of the community-based, local/organic food movement in the U.S. today.
9. Food Fight (2008)
Chris Taylor’s slick, ambitious documentary uses star-studded testimony by food celebrities like writer Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma) and Wolfgang Puck to tell the story of how food has changed in America, and to tout the growing organic-food movement. A worthy film, it makes effective arguments even if the dazzling array of culinary stars and the wide breadth of information sometimes leaves out the particulars.
8. All in This Tea (2007)
A lifelong obsession with tea takes aficionado David Lee Hoffman on a journey to the tea plantations and factories of China. Celebrated documentarian Les Blank follows him, using his hand-held camera to create an intimate, evocative film about the tastes, scents and, ultimately, people behind the best tea in the world.
7. The Price of Sugar (2007)
This devastating film about the deplorable, oppressive conditions of immigrant Haitian sugar cane workers in the Dominican Republic will make you think twice before sweetening your coffee. Paul Newman narrates the film directed by Bill Haney.
6. Garlic is as Good as Ten Mothers (1980)
This ode to all things garlic is a sumptuous, loving tribute to the smelliest bulb that we eat. The famed Les Blank alternates visceral shots of garlic dishes being made with testimony about its health and culinary virtues from garlic experts in a passionate portrayal of all things pungent.
5. King Corn (2007)
The most subsidized and ubiquitous American crop is explored in this documentary about two friends who plant an acre of corn and follow it from seed to food products. Director Aaron Woolf presents a provocative film about America’s increasingly controversial agricultural staple.
4. The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil (2006)
In the face of economic embargo from the West and the fall of the Soviet Union in 1990, Cuba’s access to fossil fuels dropped dramatically. In an effort to remain self-sufficient in this crisis, the island country managed to transition successfully from huge, oil-dependent plantations to small organic farms and urban gardens. Filmmaker Faith Morgan centers her story on agriculture, not politics, in an instructive and hopeful film about how to deal with the economic and environmental uncertainties of our future.
3. Our Daily Bread (2006)
Austrian filmmaker Nikolaus Geyrhalter unflinchingly presents a stark, cruelly beautiful look at industrialized food production in Western Europe. With no narration, no information about specific locations and little exposition, Geyrhalter’s unique approach skillfully and powerfully presents all the information needed to inspire the viewer to question the source of their food.
2. Super Size Me (2004)
At turns funny, outrageous and disturbing, celebrity documentarian Morgan Spurlock steps in front of the camera to participate in a 30-day experiment in fast-food eating. Eating McDonald’s morning, noon and night causes him numerous health problems at an alarmingly immediate rate. A picture is worth a thousand words, and Spurlock’s brutally honest depiction of the multiple, often ugly, physical and emotional ailments resulting from his new diet is the most effective cautionary tale that could have been made about the most ubiquitous fast-food chain in America.
1. Food, Inc. (2009)
Director Robert Kenner creates a persuasive and utterly effective diatribe against 21st-century food production and eating practices in the U.S. He travels from slaughterhouses to agricultural conglomerates to family farms to explore the fallout of the ways we consume food. Discussing the obesity epidemic, health disasters like e. coli outbreaks and political apathy, Kenner highlights the crises that have come from the corporatization of food production in this country. Kenner makes no attempt to veil his personal opinions on the subject, but his effective interviews with writers Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma) and Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation) and with the sympathetic lobbyist whose son died of e. coli from tainted meat, Kenner makes a convincing argument. He uses witty illustrations and some eccentric, but lovable, small-time players in the production chain to make an impressive case for a movement to non-mass-produced food. Little else will make you re-evaluate your eating habits like this groundbreaking film.