Foodie films haven’t been with us for very long, but neither have foodies themselves. Until 15 years ago, food in pictures was infrequently simply there to be drooled over: the drool itself came freighted with significance. Graphics like Soylent Green (1973), La Grande Bouffe (1973), The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989) and Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (1983) – believe Mr. Creosote and his wafer thin meat – used food and eating as metaphors for category, power and overindulgence.
It was only in the Nineties when we became comfortable with food as a joy that is democratic, that it also became widely pleasurable on screen. Burnt, in which Bradley Cooper plays a troubled Michelin-starred chef, is the latest in a now-apparently endless line of pictures, from Chocolat to No Reservations, Julie and Julia to The Hundred-Foot Journey, that play to our taste buds as much as our souls. Here are the 10 that made me feel the most hungry – including a few that were far enough ahead of the trend to qualify as amuse-bouche.
1. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)
Part of growing up in the 1970s and 80s was craving Everlasting Gobstoppers, Lickable Wallpaper for Nurseries and also the other sugary treats scattered throughout Mel Stuart’s musical adaptation of Roald Dahl’s classic children’s novel. From Charlie’s awestruck unwrapping of the Wonka Bars to the glass crunching as Wonka bites into a sugar buttercup, the movie paid close attention to the multi-sensory delights of eating – which made it all the easier to imagine yourself joining in.
2. Tampopo (1985)
Juzo Itami’s comedic “noodle western” takes it as read that even a rough and ready dish like ramen – wheat noodles in a meaty broth, served with various toppings – can inspire fanatical devotion. A scene in which an aged connoisseur passes on wisdom about how best to approach a bowlful turns the fast food encounter into a meditative ritual while a love scene including the creative use of an egg yolk playfully links eating and another type of sexual, life-sustaining fun.
3. Babette’s Feast (1987)
The meal in Gabriel Axel’s Oscar-winning play might be the best dinner engagement to date: seven lessons of French cuisine at its most trouser-strainingly opulent, functioned to a little group of abstemious Danes on their pastor’s centenary year on screen. Although Babette (Stephane Audran) understands her guests won’t fully appreciate her complex, labour intensive dishes, she needs to give them the experience nonetheless, but over the course of the meal, her menu works its magic.
4. Goodfellas (1990)
Whether or not you actually go on to try slicing garlic using a razor blade, the penitentiary dinner scene in Martin Scorsese’s mob movie makes an enduring impression. The food looks delicious, and binds it being cooked by the convicts, but there’s a subtle violence running through its groundwork too. Scorsese has a gift for using food to sensually draw us into his characters’ skewed universes – as does Quentin Tarantino, whose beer and white cake in Django Unchained (2012), nachos in Death Proof (2007) and strudel in Inglourious Basterds (2009) all leave lingering flavors.
5. Eat Drink Man Woman (1994)
Food is the adhesive that adheres a family together in this sharply observed play from Ang Lee, in which the Chu, an ailing professional chef, attempts to keep his three single adult daughters close with complex Sunday dinners. The dishes are for sharing, but they are also staunchly traditional: Peking duck, pork belly, steamed buns hotpot. He might be changing around, but cooking is Chu’s anchor to the past, fireplace and home.
6. Big Night (1996)
This Stanley Tucci fire job (he co-wrote, co-directed and co-starred) is arguably the first of the modern foodie films. Two Italian immigrant brothers in 1950s New Jersey, played by Tucci and Tony Shalhoub, throw away their savings on a feast so munificent, it could save or destroy their restaurant. Cooking here is a kind of self-expression as soulful as jazz – rather than crowd-pleasing crap, as served by their competition (Ian Holm), the brothers strive for excellence, even if it might be their downfall. The final meal, crowned by a multi-story baked pasta timpani than reassures you it was worth it.
7. Ratatouille (2007)
The meals in Pixar’s culinary-themed eighth film might be computer-generated, however, you can almost taste the pixels.
8. I am Love (2009)
Of all of the movies to link eating and sex, maybe none has been more swoonily powerful than in Luca Guadagnino’s story of forbidden romance in Italy – and it is all down to Tilda Swinton and also a sequence that can only be described as hardcore prawn-biography. This is perilously difficult to get appropriate – Burnt battles especially on this front – but when it operates, the consequence can leave you as horny as you’re not full.
9. Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011)
The foodie craze meant eaters needed to learn more about their meals than ever before – so came a number of food documentaries to fulfill that appetite. Many focused on the ethics and logistics behind our daily bread (and beef, and fish), but a handful ventured into the inner sanctums of Michelin-starred temples, to reveal us the high priests of foodie-ism at work. David Gelb’s narrative of an aged Tokyo legend of the sushi circuit and his long-suffering son and apprentice is the pick of the bunch: as well as supplying a crash-course in sushi-ya customs and etiquette, it has the texture of a great Ozu play, with subjects of purpose, love and loyalty all investigated with heartbreaking delicacy. As for the sushi, it glistens like couture jewellery – and happens to be just about as expensive.
10. Chef (2014)
A once-great cook rediscovers his passion by touring the States in a modest food truck: any similarities to the career of the movie’s director and star John Favreau, down-sizing here after the starchy and flavourless blockbuster Cowboys & Aliens (2011), are completely deliberate. Chef’s secret ingredient is the way the gaze of his camera turns into a kind of famished longing – there are shots of grilled cheese sandwiches here, especially, that boundary on obscene. Never mind Chef’s customers, happy as they seem to be: this time, the pleasure’s all ours.