Food is life. Food is also death.
It’s pretty much everything in between, too. It is nurturing. It is political. It is sensual. It is disturbing. It is uplifting. It is love and violence. It is nourishment and poison, fellowship and frivolity. It defines cultural identities and defies them. The sharing of food is among the most profound experiences available to human beings, though it is arguably also the most mundane. In the preparing, sharing and consuming of a meal there is everything: ego and the dissolution of ego, vulnerability and fortification, kindness and cruelty. Sustenance, survival, saturation, sensuousness, sensibility.
So what makes a great food movie? Definitive lists are always a bit tricky, and well, taste is taste. We tried to gather a group of films that expressed the range of ways food, chefs, cooking and eating are treated onscreen. The celebratory and the macabre, the sensual and the silly: It all comes together on the table.
Director: Gabriel Axel
The cornerstone of modern foodie-filmdom turned 30 this year. Gabriel Axel’s Academy Award-winning film about a village of austere Danish Puritans whose lives are changed by a French banquet captured hearts, spurred high-end restaurants to copy the amazing menu, and became the first film ever to be referenced in an official Papal document. (It’s Pope Francis’s favorite.) Based on a story by Isak Dinesen and set in 19th century Jutland, this film is a keen meditation on sustenance, both physical and spiritual (often they turn out to be the same thing) and the power of communion. By turns funny, wistful, gently mocking of religious extremism and passionately valedictory, this film is absolutely required viewing for anyone who loves food. Or … being alive. —Amy Glynn
Director: Juzo Itami
Tampopo is all about food’s centrality in the spirit. The Japanese comedy-western-gangster film about a group of unlikely men trying to help a woman, Tampopo, turn her third-rate ramen restaurant into the best in town makes food its driving force. Alongside the main story are a number of vignettes and another secondary story, all about food. There is cooking, of course. There can’t be dining without cooking. But it is the experience of eating that’s firmly in the foreground. An early scene involves a master ramen eater teaching the ways of ramen—“apologize to the pork,” the master instructs—and sets the tone for the film. It’s irreverence about reverence itself. The film is extremely funny, but completely serious in its appreciation of food and the power of eating, and of sharing a dining experience with others. —Corey Atad
Director: Brad Bird
Remy (Patton Oswalt) is a connoisseur of fine food and a bangin’ cook, especially considering he’s a rat. Separated from his colony after an accident, he winds up at Gusteau’s, a famous but waning Paris restaurant. He meets Linguini (Lou Romano), a garbage boy who cannot cook. They combine forces to produce a recipe that puts the restaurant back on the map, much to the dismay of the eatery’s manager, Skinner (Ian Holm), who has discovered that Linguini is the rightful heir to the restaurant. With wonderful voice performances from Peter O’Toole, Janeane Garofalo, Will Arnett and Brian Dennehy, the characters are livelier and more human than those in plenty of live-action movies. This is a crafty story about the craft of cooking, playing with the “rat in the kitchen” trope in a whole new way. Remy’s tenacity, taste, discernment and determination are what make him a rat and also what make him… human. —Amy Glynn
Director: Ang Lee
Ang Lee’s story about a Taiwanese master chef and his three adult daughters gets at the heart of filial piety, the pursuit of perfection, the deadening and reawakening of the senses over the course of a lifetime, and the many distinct but related meanings of service. Serving a meal. Serving an ideal. Serving the greater good, serving oneself, serving God—even serving a volleyball. Old Mr. Chu is a legendary chef who’s lost his sense of taste, a widower who both wants and doesn’t want his three daughters to fly the coop and create their own families, and a man passionately in service to the artistry of cooking. The story oscillates between family drama and romantic comedy, and whichever mode it’s in, it emphasizes the need to nurture and be nurtured, to feed and be fed—and oh, man, can Ang Lee speak volumes with a camera. The depictions of Chu preparing Sunday dinner for his daughters are mesmerizing, poetic, lavish—and they will make you really, really hungry. —Amy Glynn
Director: Alfonso Arau
Laura Esquivel’s magical realist novel about Mexican cooking and and star-crossed love was not the first to feature a character whose emotions literally infused her cooking and affected all who consumed it—Salman Rushdie as well as many Latino novelists including Gabriel Garcia Marquez have toyed with it. But Alfonso Arau’s 1992 film adaptation might have been first to take it on as a major cinematic trope. Tita (Lumi Cavazos), a young Mexican woman in a 1910 border town, is forbidden to marry and must stay at home caring for her domineering mother (Regina Torné). Her lover Pedro (Marco Leonardi) marries her sister Rosaura (Yareli Arizmendi) in order to stay close to Tita. Tita’s tears falling into the batter as she prepares the wedding cake cause the entire wedding party to weep. A dozen red roses he gives her on the sly end up cooked into a quail dish that creates such arousal that one of her sisters basically bursts into flame and is swept off by a passing horseman as she runs naked through the street. Shakespeare famously called music “the food of love.” Esquivel’s novel and Arau’s adaptation make a good case for the food of love actually being … food. —Amy Glynn
Director: David Gelb
Jiro Dreams of Sushi is about one of the greatest masters of the culinary world, one of whom casual foodies have never even heard. Although Jiro’s work—literally, the dishes he so effortlessly prepares, and then the act of watching him as he watches his customers eating the dishes—is ostensibly the film’s focus, the story is truly propelled by the chef’s relationship with his two sons: The youngest started his own restaurant, and the oldest, at the age of 50, continues to work with his father, training to one day take over Jiro’s infamous restaurant. Devoid of the typical familial jealousy you may expect (and so devoid, arguably, of much conflict at all), Jiro Dreams of Sushi is only a beautifully filmed documentary about three men who have devoted their lives to the pursuit of perfection. Which in itself is conflict enough—as the film airily asks: Where do style, artistry, practice and perfection meet? —Emily Kirkpatrick
Director: Lasse Hallström
Lasse Hallström’s film about a war of wills between a haughty Michelin-starred French restauranteur (Helen Mirren) and her new neighbors who’ve created the horrifying affront of an Indian restaurant across the street is, like most stories, a love story. Hassan Kadam (Manish Dayal), the second son of a Mumbai restaurant family displaced by a political riot in which they lost their business and Hassan’s mother, is an avid learner and a gifted chef. Snobbery and bigotry melt in a high-BTU competition between the upstarts and the grande dame, love springs up like wild porcini in unexpected places, and a case of spice blends salvaged from a fire (along with talent and tenacity) propels Hassan to the heights of molecular gastronomy stardom, only to show him the firmament will never really taste as good as home. If you like feel-good movies that also taste good, this one’s kind of a gem. Mirren is … well, if she’s ever had a bad day at work, I have not seen it. Charlotte Le Bon is especially adorable as Marguerite, Hassan’s competitor and love interest, and Om Puri gives a gleaming performance as the unsinkable patriarch who will not be belittled by anyone else’s view of him. “We’ll turn our music down,” he tells the beleaguered village mayor. “But tell her: we’re turning the heat up”. —Amy Glynn
Directors: Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Marc Caro
After radiation and out-of-control incest, filmmakers would have you believe there’s no more common cause of movie cannibalism than apocalyptic dystopias. After all, when times get tough, the tough eat others who, if cooked right, are less tough. Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s 1991 film doesn’t make this list because it made a ton of money—it was a little-seen art house release destined to become cocktail conversation fodder (one possible response to someone who professes a love for 2001’s Amélie). No, as a delivery vehicle of hominid-sourced foodstuffs and the people who prepare them, Delicatessen departs from the horror genre altogether. It turns out a spoonful of surrealistic black comedy does help the horrific practice go down. —Amy Glynn
Director: Stephen Chow
Stephen Chow’s kung-food comedy about a fraud celebrity chef who flees to a secret Shaolin cooking school is a hilarious culinary competition satire. I’m not sure what needs to be said besides “explosive pissing beef balls,” but this fast-paced action-comedy is a deft take on the intersection between food and ego. Vainglorious “lifestyle brand” mavens should be forced to watch it. As with Chow’s better-known Shaolin Soccer there is a very predictable … um, recipe to this film, but the fact that it’s formulaic is not a drawback here. The hyperbolic acting, kooky editing, and pure zeal make this film a joy to watch. Witty, frenetic, strangely subtle and very self-assured, this is a food comedy you don’t have to be a kung fu zealot to enjoy. —Amy Glynn
Director: Stanley Tucci, Campbell Scott
“Sapienza” is Italian for “knowledge” and this spirited and completely adorable ensemble piece is all about the gap between what you know and what you know. Primo and Secondo (Tony Shalhoub and Stanley Tucci) lead a sparkling ensemble cast in this tale about a floundering Italian restaurant that’s on the brink of collapse because Primo (Shalhoub) is a high-octane chef who refuses to “give the people what they want” and insists on his integrity to the point of collapsing his business, while across the street, the hideous Pascal’s Italian Grotto, helmed by Ian Holm (who really shines in evil restauranteur roles) and Isabella Rossellini, packs ’em in with pure cheese (and I don’t mean cave-aged Parmigiano-Reggiano). Holm’s Pascal helps to kill Primo’s restaurant by persuading the brothers to spend their last dollars on a meal they’re told will be attended by jazz great Louis Prima. Of course Prima never shows, and of course in the meantime, dinner at the Paradiso that night is a life-changing experience for several people. Under its lighthearted, slightly neurotic exterior, this film has subtle and wonderful depths, speaking about foodways and the American immigrant experience, about the conflict between artistry and hustle, about sibling rivalry and family support, about food as a shorthand language for art and love and approval and moxie. It’s about know-how, and how it both is, and is not, enough. —Amy Glynn
Director: Nari Kye, Anna Chai
We chose to exclude most food documentaries from this list, and saved spots for one celebratory esthetic masterpiece and one more urgent, but also optimistic, note of caution on the need to take food seriously at a socioeconomic and political level. Narrated by the inimitably curmudgeonly Anthony Bourdain, and peopled with superstar chefs and food activists including Dan Barber, Tristram Stuart, Massimo Bottura and Mario Batali, this is a clear-eyed, nonjudgmental, non-apocalyptic but very direct call to action around reducing food waste, and it is something you should see and something you should watch with your kids. This is a sociopolitical and environmental crisis any civilian can make a discernible dent in, and we should all know how easy it is. This film makes sustainability and food security seem attainable with a little attention, and I suspect that’s because it’s the truth. With all the dismal news out there, it’s a worthy standout that will get you psyched to clean up your act. —Amy Glynn
Director: Mike Leigh
Man, no one rules the tragi-comic ensemble set piece quite like Mike Leigh. His third feature film follows the interconnected and fragile situations of several acquainted people in a North London suburb over the course of a few weeks. It’s not a “food movie” in the sense that, say, Like Water for Chocolate is a food movie, but food and eating and cooking are central preoccupations for most of the characters. In this film that’s a lot less about sensualism or a calling and much more about anxiety and existential pain. Jim Broadbent’s determined to trick out a food truck; waitress wife Wendy (Alison Steadman) is struggling to stay cheerful about her husband’s latest dubious scheme. Twin daughters Natalie and Nicola are each stuck in their own existential mire; Nicola’s bulimic and tomboyish, cheerful Natalie unclogs drains for a living, which is hopefully not a metaphor lost on anyone. Family friend Aubrey (Timothy Spall) is opening a “Parisian” restaurant called the Regret Rien, whose menu is as regrettable as they come. Mike Leigh’s unique improvisational approach to character and script development plays out to truly glorious effect here-this well-tuned machine of a cast transits through humor and heartbreak repeatedly in their isolated by interconnected efforts to find material and spiritual nourishment. —Amy Glynn
Amy Glynn writes for Paste. She also writes for herself.