The attention paid to the food in Tampopo is extraordinary. Despite being one of the major pillars of all human life, few other films focus so intently on food, especially with the same vigor, humor, and cultural interest. Part of this is for an obvious reason: nearly all of our enjoyment of food is about taste, smell, and to a lesser degree touch, basically all the senses that cannot translate through the screen. The food movies that get it right, however, can do so through emotional connections between the characters and the food they make and share.
On the other hand, there is something inherently compelling about the preparation and the preparer of food that lends itself to the many films, documentary profiles, and reality television competitions that have become increasingly popular. Celebrity chefs aren’t just known for starting upscale chain restaurants or selling food products on store shelves, but as legitimate and powerful television personalities. Anthony Bourdain [whose Parts Unknown series is available on Netflix] and Gordon Ramsay [basically his entire TV empire is available on Hulu] are among the new most identifiable chefs in the world, though I would wager that a small percentage of their fans have ever eaten their food. Their presences on television, however, highlights the high stakes in the kitchen, the tireless work and vast cultural landscapes that food brings to the table.
Another subset of food films and programming is catered to those looking for something a little headier. The number of food activist documentaries currently on Netflix are too large to count, but films like Food, Inc., Fed Up, and Forks Over Knives inquisitively discuss the multitude of economic and health issues that stem from the ways we produce and consume. On the more artistic side, recent documentary series such as Chef’s Table and Cooked approach these similar issues while profiling the most interesting minds and personalities in food.
Food may still be a difficult subject for narrative films to broach, though there are plenty of notable examples that are currently and easily accessible. Please enjoy this tasting menu of food films available on the various streaming platforms or to rent.
Available on Streaming Platforms:
Babette’s Feast [Gabriel Axel, 1984] – FilmStruck: The Godfather of food movies, the Foreign Language Oscar winner is a heartwarming [stomach-tempting?] tale of community and food. A French refugee in Denmark wins the lottery and uses the winnings to supply the elderly sisters who took her in with the best, most extravagant meal of their lives. No other film has more clearly shown the power of food, the happiness it can bring to a world filled with tragedy, loss, and hardships.
Like Water for Chocolate [Alfonso Arau, 1992] – Amazon Prime, w/ STARZ subscription: Based on a popular novel, this film explores another popular international cuisine through the course of a sexy romance. Told in a magical realism style, the food of Like Water for Chocolate takes on a higher, spiritual significance—like when Tita’s tears mix in the batter of her sister’s wedding cake, the guests break out in an emotional fury.
Kings of Pastry [Chris Hegedus & D.A. Pennebaker, 2009] – Amazon Prime, w/ Sundance Now subscription: Master documentarians Hegedus and Pennebaker intently follow one of the most cutthroat awards in the world, the Meilleur Ouvrier de France. The film primarily profiles an American pastry chef coming into foreign territory to compete against the most dedicated traditional pastry chefs of France. This setup offers the thrill of your favorite cooking competitions, but with an eye to capture the beautiful, decadent, innovative sugar concoctions.
The Trip [Michael Winterbottom, 2010] – Netflix: It may be remembered more for the dueling Michael Caines, but Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon’s trek through the best restaurants in the Northern U.K. doubles as a food travelogue. As the comedians send humorous barbs across the table, the scallops on the table are mouthwatering. The sequel’s excursion to Italy is also available on Netflix.
Jiro Dreams of Sushi [David Gelb, 2011] – Netflix: One of the most lovely documentaries ever photographed, this look at the master of contemporary sushi is a beautiful look at a seemingly simple craft. The film looks inside the world and craft of Jiro Oro, whose dedication to rice, fish, and seaweed is extraordinary. This is also a fantastic look at the culture of a Japanese family, as Jiro’s son waits in the wings to take over the famed restaurant.
Chef [Jon Favreau, 2014] – Netflix: A look at cooking as a metaphor for independent filmmaking. Favreau plays a disgruntled chef who, after a disagreement with his restaurant’s owner, decides to hit the road in a food truck. A funny and heartwarming film about rediscovering one’s passion for art, it also features some ridiculously delicious looking Cuban sandwiches.
For Grace [Mark Helenowski & Devin Pang, 2015] – Netflix: One of the most recent chef profile documentaries, on Curtis Duffy, previously of the groundbreaking Chicago restaurant Alinea, as he opens his own restaurant. For Grace is a fantastic look at new cutting edge food trends that are pushing the limits of the medium into an actual art. It also highlights the extraordinary personal sacrifices chefs face when striving for their dreams.
Available for Digital Rental:
Delicatessen [Jean-Pierre Jeunet & Marc Caro, 1991]: An early work of French auteur Jeunet, this film brings food into the post-apocalyptic. With food being a scarcity, a butcher begins to hire unsuspecting victims only to murder, filet, and feed his customers. An incredibly bleak dark comedy, Delicatessen has to be the most stylish and whimsical film about cannibalism ever made. It may not be as appetizing as some of the other films listed here, but it is strangely fun.
The Lunchbox [Ritesh Batra, 2013]: A touching story of friendship and food from India, highlighting the dabbawala delivery system, where women prepare food for working men, which is delivered to their offices during the day. After a delivery mishap, two lonesome people strike up a romantic kinship by passing notes through the daily lunch box. Anchored by wonderful performances from international stars Irrfan Khan and Nimrat Kaur.
City of Gold [Laura Gabbert, 2015]: A profile of legendary Los Angeles Times food critic Jonathan Gold, the film doubles as a love letter to the diverse food scene of Los Angeles. Like the preferences of its subject, this focuses more on the joys at the invisible Korean restaurant in some random strip mall than the glitzy 4-star fine dining scene.