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Food Films: A Cornucopia of Entertainment

by Zillah Bahar

If the beauty of film is that it transports the viewer into other worlds, films about food act as the bridge between those worlds and your own realm of the senses. At their best, they serve up gustatory experiences as delicious and memorable as a dinner at an elegant chateau in Provence. The trouble is, vicarious eating isn't very filling. So, on the evening you choose to view one of the following food films on video, make yourself a seven-course meal to tide you through the closing credits. If you don't, you'll spend the rest of the evening hitting the pause button and running back and forth from your easy chair to the kitchen, in a futile quest to recreate a feast meant only for the eyes.

Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1974)

This movie inspired the long running TV series "Alice" and won Ellen Burstyn an Oscar. Burstyn plays a widow who goes to work at a diner to support herself and her son, a job she never expected to have. Mel's Diner is the scene and Diane Ladd portrays the wise-cracking waitress Flo. (Sally Bernstein)

Babbette's Feast

Based on a short story from Isak Dinesen's Anecdotes of Destiny, Babbette's Feast is the story of two minister's daughters who forgo love and the promise of fame in youth for the sake of piety. Their beauty has long deserted them when, middle aged, they hire the refugee Babbette, whose restaurant was the toast of Paris before she took up with revolutionaries, enemies of her illustrious clientele. Babbette wins 10,000 francs in a lottery, and spends the entire sum on a sumptuous banquet for her Lutheran employers and their wan church brethren. Cooking and eating take up the main of 102-minute film, directed with wit and subtly by the Danish director Gabriel Axel. Babette's Feast earned an Academy Award for best foreign film in 1987.

Big Night

This 1950's era film is set in a small Italian restaurant named Paradise in an unnamed town on the Jersey shore. Paradise is owned by two Italian immigrant brothers who serve delicious food. One brother, Segundo Pilaggi (Stanley Tucci), runs the dining room while Primo (Tony Shalhoub) is the purist cook. Primo's commitment to perfection makes for great art, but it's not very good for business. The customer's just don't get it.

Primo prepares a subtle seafood risotto for a loutish diner. A customer wants to know why she can't see the shrimp, then, in exasperation, requests an accompaniment of spaghetti and meatballs. It doesn't go with her meal, she's told; too much starch. Primo won't argue with her. She's just a criminal, he proclaims in a tirade.

Most of the film is set in the dining room and kitchen of the Paradise restaurant, where a banquet is being prepared for a famous jazz player. It's the brothers' last shot at keeping their languishing restaurant alive. Timpano, a Calabrian specialty, is the focal point of this lavish dinner. This 1996 release lasts107 minutes.


Juliette Binoche plays an enchantress who is also an itinerant chocolate maker. She and her daughter blow into a staid French village in the 1950s and awaken its residents with her magic chocolates. Is she a witch, as some believe, or a pagan priestess? Movie includes Judi Dench, Johnny Depp and other non-French co-stars plus lots of wonderful looking chocolates...cakes, truffles, hot chocolate with peppers, chocolate almonds and more. (Sally Bernstein)

The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover

This is not your normal food film! Be prepared for a dark film set in a restaurant. The food displays are in many stages, from carcasses to preparation, over the top displays to scenes after the food has been consumed. Peter Greenaway directs Michael Gambon, who is the thief with Helen Mirran as his wife. (Sally Bernstein)

Dinner Rush (2001)

This independent film is a dark comedy that tells the story of 2 simultaneous struggles in the restaurant business. A realistic depiction of a behind-the-scenes look at a trendy New York restaurant was actually shot in a real TriBeCa Italian spot named Gigino Trattoria. You'll see the father-son struggle for control of the restaurant and the father deal with mob members who want to take control of his business. Danny Aiello, Sandra Bernhard and Edoardo Ballerini star in this film showing the high and lows of restaurants. (Sally Bernstein)



Eat, Drink, Man, Woman (1994)

Imagine sitting down to a multi-course Chinese feast prepared every Sunday in your home by Taiwan's most renowned master chef. It might sound heavenly to you, but to the three young women living with their chef father in Eat, Drink, Man, Woman it's Chinese ritual torture. Family squabbles and misunderstandings are the mainstay of the film, released in 1994. Over the course of this 104-minute Ang Lee film, the young women mature in interesting ways while their father prepares for a new life. Sweet and melodramatic, Eat, Drink, Man, Woman says a mouthful about love, acceptance and, of course, food.

Eating Raoul (1983)

Eating Raoul is the only exception to my advice to eat well while watching a food film. By the time you get to the end, you may wish you'd passed on dinner all together. The black comedy released in 1983 features Paul and Mary Bland, a happily married couple who've fallen on hard times. (Paul is played by Paul Bartel, who also directed this 87-minute movie.) The caper begins when Mary is assaulted by a creepy swinger who lives in the apartment upstairs. Paul accidentally kills him with a cast-iron skillet while defending his wife. Recovered from their horror, they rifle through the victim's wallet which contains mounds of cash. Paul and Mary hit upon a scheme to lure all manner of perverts to their apartment with ads in sex tabloids, do them in with the skillet and take their money. (What a great service to society!) Question is, how to dispose of the bodies? When Raoul the locksmith discovers their secret, the problem is solved. A fellow who knows a good opportunity when he sees one, Raoul cuts a deal with the Blands: He'll sell the corpses to a dog food company. Unfolding in matter-of-fact style, Eating Raoul is a sure-fire gross-out, but the laughs are well-worth it, even if you wind up with a growling stomach at the end.

Frankie and Johnny (1991)

This adaptation of a Terrence McNally play is set in New York City where Johnny (Al Pacino) falls in love with Frankie (Michelle Pfeiffer). They both work at the Apollo Cafe, where he is a short-order cook and she, a waitress. (Sally Bernstein)


Fried Green Tomatoes (1991)

The Whistle Stop Cafe in the "Deep South" is the setting for a story of food and relationships in the 1920's. Idgie and Ruth run the cafe while weathering the storms of life. The movie stars Mary Stuart Masterson, Mary-Louise Parker, Jessica Tandy and Kathy Bates. (Sally Bernstein)

Like Water for Chocolate (1993)

You're not likely to complain that the film version of Like Water for Chocolate is "not as good as the book" or unfaithful to its spirit. It's a family affair both on screen and behind the lens. The author, Laura Esquirel, also wrote the screenplay. Her husband, Alfonso Arau, directed and produced this 1993 Mexican fable of a gifted young cook, Tita, denied the chance to marry her beloved Pedro due to a cruel family tradition binding her to a vituperative mother until the older woman's death. Desperate to be near Tita forever, Pedro proposes marriage to her older sister. Tita, charged with preparing the wedding banquet, weeps into the wedding cake batter and transforms it into something enchanting that moves the wedding guests to tears of grief. It turns out that Tita possesses a repertoire of miraculous dishes with outrageous effects on those who eat them. The 113-minute film ends on a happy note, but not one you could anticipate.

Tampopo (1987)

Although a homely noodle soup, rather than a grand feast, is at the center of Juzo Itami's Tampopo, the passion that underlies a lowly cook's maniacal pursuit of the definitive recipe is no less acute than Babbette's. This 1987 satire of Clint Eastwood spaghetti westerns opens with a cowboy-esque truck driver musing over the attributes of the perfect noodle as a nocturnal rain crashes down on his raging rig. The trucker is overcome by a yen for his favorite food and he stops at a noodle stand where he dazzles the feckless, albeit sweet, proprietor Tampopo with his connoisseurship. Infused with a sense of higher purpose, Tampopo implores him to be her teacher in all things noodle. A culinary quest is thus launched. The film is disjointed, repetitive and prone to puzzling digressions. Yet Tampopo's touching kookiness and wacky antics make it well worth its 117 minutes.


Tom Jones (1963)

While food doesn't play a big role throughout Tony Richardson's Tom Jones, it comes to the fore as aphrodisiac in an unforgettable scene featuring huge pieces of meat and fruit. The 1963 film stars a dashing Albert Finney, who plays a rake with a disreputable family background and a heart of gold. A social satire set in the 18th century, the 122-minute film features sword fights, a Romeo and Juliet-like romance between Finney and the dazzling Susannah York, and plenty of lusty romps. Funny and off-beat, this Academy Award winner is the kind of film Kenneth Branagh's Much Ado About Nothing should have been but wasn't.


The Wedding Banquet (1993)

At the center of an other Ang Lee film, The Wedding Banquet, is a ruse staged by gay Taiwanese business man Wai Tung, his American companion Simon and their lovely female friend Wei Wei. Wai Tung, who lives uncloseted in New York City but not Taiwan, is getting a lot of heat from the folks back home over his resistance to marriage. His mother, a habitual matchmaker, admonishes him for his pickiness. Simon advises Wai Tung to marry Wei Wei, in desperate need of a green card, to placate the parents. The ruse begins to unravel when Wai Tung's parents make a surprise visit and begin pressing for a traditional wedding ceremony. A family friend offers to host a wedding banquet for the newlyweds, and how can they refuse? At the banquet... well, who could have guessed that such a dignified event would disintegrate into such a bawdy show? The Wedding Banquet was released in 1993 and runs 112 minutes.

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