I love movies featuring lavish displays of food but am always confronted with the same decision: Should I see the film when I’m hungry or full? If I am famished while watching a mouth-watering banquet scene, I may not make it through the movie. On the other hand, if I’ve just had a heavy dinner, all that onscreen scrumptiousness may not provoke the desired response. After much trial and error, I believe I have hit on the proper solution: Eat a big late lunch.
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Everyone has favorite food films, or food scenes. To an extent, these choices are, literally, a matter of taste. Some of the titles cited most often include “Like Water For Chocolate,” “Eat Drink Man Woman,” “Soul Food,” “Chef,” and even the animated “Ratatouille.” All of these movies, the good and the not so good, are prime candidates for my late lunch admonition.
In the best food movies, the delicacies may be eye-popping but it’s the people preparing and consuming them that rightfully take center stage. Before I move on to my “main course” selections, I’d like to suggest a few cinematic hors d’oeuvres that whetted both my culinary and filmic appetites.
“The Lunchbox” (2013) is a lovely little charmer from India about a lonely housewife whose delicious lunchboxes are mistakenly delivered each day not to her husband but to a widower, eventually prompting an exchange of ardent letters sharing stories of their lives. The widower is played by the great Indian actor Irrfan Khan, who passed away last month. It’s one of his finest performances. (Rated PG; English subtitles)
“The Hundred-Foot Journey” (2014), set in a small French village, is engagingly hokey but what gives it heft, besides the close-ups of fine cuisine, is the pairing of those two world-class actors, Helen Mirren and the late Om Puri. She plays the proprietor of an upscale establishment who is outraged when an Indian family opens a restaurant across the street – 100 feet away – from hers. It’s all rather predictable but then again, isn’t predictability what we crave from comfort food movies? (Rated PG)
And as long as people are citing “Ratatouille” as a foodie classic, I’m going to go with the spaghetti and meatballs love fest in Disney’s “Lady and the Tramp” (1955). The cocker spaniel and the stray mutt are so smitten that each spaghetti slurp is like a stolen kiss. (Rated G)
And now for the entrees.
Set in the late 1950’s on the New Jersey shore, “Big Night” (1996) is a marvelous movie about two Italian immigrant brothers, perfectionist master chef Primo (Tony Shalhoub) and restaurant manager Secondo (Stanley Tucci), who open a fancy authentic eatery that does almost no business. This is because their food, unlike the popular Americanized Italian joint nearby, caters to gourmets. The grand finale arrives when Primo prepares, in close-up, his famous timpano, a baked concoction packed with eggs, sausage, meatballs, rigatoni, salami, and marinara sauce. The final scene, shot in one wordless take, when Secondo makes up with his irate brother by cooking a perfect omelette, is as quietly beautiful as any fade-out in movies. (Rated R)
“Babette’s Feast” (1987) is on just about everybody’s list of best food movies. This austere drama, set in a remote 19th century Danish village, culminates in the serving of the eponymous feast prepared by Stéphane Audran’s Babette, once a great Parisian chef, now housemaid to two spinster sisters. No other movie conveys with such loving exactitude the artistry of a great cuisinier. If you can gaze upon the rum sponge cake with figs and candied cherries without weeping, you are made of sterner stuff than I. (Rated G; English subtitles)
Billed at the time as a “ramen Western,” “Tampopo” (1985), Juzo Itami’s racy jamboree of movie genres is like no other film, foodie or otherwise. A surly trucker teams with a widowed noodle shop owner and together they search for the perfect ramen. Spoiler alert: Search successful. (Not rated; English subtitles)
These films are available to rent or buy on at least one of these platforms: Amazon Prime Video, YouTube, Google Play, iTunes.