Food and film: Sometimes they’re two great tastes that taste great together, other times it’s like eating fudge with barbecue sauce. In honor of our cover story and this month’s feasting, here’s a short menu of noteworthy food movies—good, bad and Wonderbread boring.
Big Night (1996): Most movies about culinary delights try to convince audiences of the food’s deliciousness by saturating the screen with actors’ mmms and ahhhs. While Big Night doesn’t skimp on the lip smacking, Stanley Tucci’s directorial debut (co-directed with Campbell Scott) convinces viewers with images of food, not just eaters. Boasting one of the most mouth-watering dishes of all time—the timpano, a massive quiche-like creation with Genoa salami, hard boiled eggs and cheese—Big Night might frustrate or confuse viewers accustomed only to spaghetti and meatballs. And the plot’s just as rich as the food. Tucci, who also stars in his film, plays alongside Tony Shalhoub, Ian Holm, Minnie Driver, Isabella Rossellini and co-director Scott. As the cooking heats up, so does the drama, with Tucci and Shalhoub’s characters metaphorically duking it out over their failing Italian restaurant, withering cultural roots and strained relationship as brothers. Like any good food movie, there’s romance and sex. Rent it while visiting your grandmother in Little Italy. Then again, maybe you oughtn’t. (Jed Gottlieb)
Like Water for Chocolate (1992): A potent combination of magical realism, chick flick and food movie, directed by Alfonso Arau and based on the book by Laura Esquivel. Actually, any movie with the word “chocolate” in its title is probably rocking Chick Factor Four, at least, out of a possible five. Lumi Cavazos (Bottle Rocket) stars as Tita, the youngest daughter of a Mexican family whose matriarch forbids her to marry the handsome Pedro (Marco Leonardi), because in the Mexico of yore it fell to the youngest daughter to serve as the mother’s caretaker for life. Luckily for Tita, Pedro marries one of her older sisters just to be close to her. Meanwhile, she sublimates her sexual desire (the name of the film is itself an expression of sexual desire, hearkening back to a time when chocolate was simply a drink made with boiling water, i.e. lust) in her cooking, at one point crying straight into a batch of dough. Which is totally gross, but fellas: If watching this movie with a date doesn’t scratch you up a little action, you’re probably hopeless. (Andy Smetanka)
Tortilla Soup (2001): Kind of a light Mexican snack of a movie compared with the artery-clogging richness of Like Water for Chocolate, María Ripoll’s Tortilla Soup is an extremely faithful retelling of Ang Lee’s Eat Drink Man Woman. It stars Hector Elizondo as a chef whose failing sense (in the five senses sense) of taste parallels his loss of control over his three strong-willed daughters: the freewheeling youngest, Maribel (Tamara Mello), the career-driven Carmen (Jacqueline Obradors) and the straight-laced Leticia (Elizabeth Peña). In contrast to Like Water for Chocolate, in Tortilla Soup it’s the oldest daughter who feels duty-bound to care for an aging parent, in this case out of respect for the deceased mother, and Peña gives a career-best performance. Raquel Welch nearly steals the show, however, as a flamboyant divorcée with designs on Elizondo. A really delightful movie, one of those rare remakes that might even be better than the original. (Andy Smetanka)
The Cook the Thief His Wife & Her Lover (1989): The food looks just as spoiled and obscene as everything else in Peter Greenaway’s most notorious film, the cinematic equivalent to being carpet-bombed with dog excrement at dinnertime. Michael Gambon (the new Dumbledore in the Harry Potter movies) stars as the Thief, Albert Spica, a ruthless bully who presides every night over a disgusting banquet in a London restaurant. It’s supposedly a savage attack on Thatcherism, but all the apologist sophistry in the world can’t make this maggoty slick of vomit worth watching. Not only does it not make you want to eat, it makes you not want to eat, and also drink Liquid-Plumr for good measure. (Andy Smetanka)
Babette’s Feast (1988): Often named as a food movie (maybe because it’s got “feast” in the title—duh), Babette’s Feast is more like 20 minutes of feasting preceded by 80 minutes of grace. The inhabitants of a 19th-century Danish coastal village stop praying, sermonizing and singing hymns only long enough to gossip that an elaborate meal to be prepared by a transplanted French servant-woman to mark the birthday of a Protestant sect leader is actually a witches’ Sabbat. And then, when Babette finally does blow her lottery winnings making an authentic French banquet for the villagers, who don’t know their Veuve-Clicquot from a hole in the ground, one course looks like a dead buzzard baked in a bread bowl. Piety has rarely looked so unappetizing. Still, after endless shots of salted flounder drying in the sea breeze, even Babette’s icky chop starts looking pretty good. (Andy Smetanka)
Also worth munching for adventurous foodies: Red Sorghum (dir. Zhang Yimou, 1987), 301/302 (Chul-Soo Park, 1995), Tampopo (Juzo Itami, 1985), A Chef In Love (Nana Djordjadze, 1997), Dinner Rush (Bob Giraldi, 2001).