An entirely winning, self-aware genre mash-up, Juzo Itami’s beloved ode to the bedrock of Japanese cuisine — the humble ramen — is by turns broad, bawdy, sexy, satirical and sweet, but never less than delicious. Like the bowls of noodles served up throughout, the key to this utterly delightful film is how all its constituent ingredients remain distinct yet work together, so their separate flavors become a single, satisfying meal. Love of food, and its place in Japanese culture, is the binding broth, but the noodles (the main substance of the plot) deal with the titular Tampopo. The widowed owner of a roadside noodle shack, with the help of two connoisseur truck drivers, she attempts through intensive training, and a little light recipe theft, to make hers the best and most successful ramen shop in town. Beyond that, we get seemingly disconnected sketch-like side stories: the callow young man at an intimidating business dinner who turns out to be a true gastronome; the joyous slurping of spaghetti from a bunch of finishing school girls in defiance of instructions; the gangster and moll who engage in explicit food-aided sex acts before he is killed, using his dying breath to relate his secret sausage recipe. Probably the best western/comedy/satire/underdog/gangster film hybrid about noodles ever made.
“The Trip” (2010) & “The Trip To Italy” (2014)
Originally conceived as a BBC TV show, the first season of “The Trip” was chopped into the eponymous feature film in 2010, and – riding on its predecessor’s appropriate amount of acclaim – the second season followed suit in 2014 with “The Trip To Italy.” The project sees the blistering team-up of Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, playing themselves, commissioned for a restaurant tour by The Observer, the two gallivant through northern England in “The Trip” and from Piedmont to Capri in “The Trip to Italy,” wrestling with each other’s bloated egos while not having much of a clue on how to properly handle the exquisite English and Italian delicacies along the way. As much about the camaraderie between two peas in a pod as about who does a meaner Michael Caine impersonation (sorry Steve, it’s Rob), director Michael Winterbottom punctuates the comedy by going into the kitchens, and zeroing in on the lavish meals themselves. From scallops and black pudding in “The Trip,” to kumquats (hilariously igniting a battle of enunciation) and scrumptious pasta in “The Trip to Italy,” the viewer is treated to a cornucopia of edible riches and some poignant glimpses into the hard work that goes into making them. And while it’s crystal clear that the two comedians are hardly culinary experts, the food evolves from a comedic premise to dramatic balance on both trips. Coogan and Brydon are rendered into a dynamic duo not least because neither have the good sense to stop and truly savor the taste of what’s right under their noses.
The term ‘Europudding’ has rarely been used more accurately than with Roland Joffé’s stodgy, opulent period drama, which wanted to be a sort of “Rules Of The Game,” and ends up closer to “Downton Abbey.” Opening that year’s Cannes Film Festival, and billed by Miramax as “From the writer of ‘Shakespeare In Love’” (Tom Stoppard was involved, but only in translating Jeanne Labrune’s script), “Vatel” tells the story of the last days of chef François Vatel, who as legend has it killed himself over a late seafood delivery to a banquet for King Louis XIV. Joffé reframes the act as a martyrdom in the class struggle, with Vatel (Gérard Depardieu, in the dying days of his viability as a romantic lead) fallilng in love with the King’s mistress (Uma Thurman), and finding that he’s valued as property, not as a man, by his masters. It’s a smart and admirable take on the story, but uneven casting and a truly Versaillian emphasis on the banquet over the people makes it something you’d be more likely to send back to the kitchen.
“Who Is Killing The Great Chefs Of Europe?” (1978)
Fitting into that odd, rarely-repeated sub-genre of the all-star darkly comic murder-mystery (see “Theatre Of Blood,” “Murder By Death,” “Clue”), “Who Is Killing The Great Chefs Of Europe?” is a great title and premise in search of a movie quite as good, though it passes the time amiably enough. Jacqueline Bisset plays a pastry chef invited to London to cook for a great banquet, organized by gourmand Max (Robert Morley), only to find her fellow chefs being picked off one by one in the manner of their signature dishes, and must find the killer with the help of her ex-husband, fast-food magnate George Segal. It’s an odd, uneven picture, and director Ted Kotcheff (“Wake In Fright,” “First Blood”) doesn’t quite have the light touch needed to really make it sing, but it is a fair bit of fun, with some ingenious murders, a genuinely surprising culprit, good chemistry between Bisset and Segal, and some truly delicious-looking food. Best of all is the great character actor Morley, who truly relishes his role here, and was given Best Supporting Actor by the National Society Of Film Critics, among others.
“Woman on Top” (2000)
Even since the slight food-related “Jamon Jamon,” few actors have exemplified the sensual mix of food and sex better than Penelope Cruz, and “Woman On Top” was based seemingly entirely on that supposition. Directed by Venezuelan helmer Fina Torres, it sees Cruz as a Brazilian woman who gives up both her marriage and the restaurant she cooks in when she discovers her husband (Murilo Benicio) is having an affair, where she moves to San Francisco, befriends a transsexual woman (Harold Perrineau, not quite offensive but coming close to it), and starts presenting a local cookery show made by dreamy producer Cliff (Mark Feuerstein). Coming across a sort of team-up of Nancy Meyers and Pedro Almodovar, it’s a slightly bonkers, utterly slight rom-com that’s occasionally oppressed by its own quirkiness (Cruz has motion sickness when she’s not in control! She sacrifices mac and cheese to a sea godddess!), but nevertheless has a ton of charm, not least from Cruz in one of her most winning English-language roles.
Aside from some of those mentioned in passing above — “Chocolat,” “Tortilla Soup,” “Jamon Jamon” — there’s plenty more that could have made the list with unlimited time and space. Among them — Keri Russell rom-com “Waitress,” the two versions of “Charlie & The Chocolate Factory” (which are nothing if not food-centric), Gallic comedy-drama “Haute Cuisine,” starring Catherine Frot as the President’s personal chef, brilliant Lord & Miller animation “Cloudy With Chance Of Meatballs” and its less brilliant sequel, chocolate-themed romantic comedy “Romantics Anonymous,” the eatery-set “Fried Green Tomatoes,” Julia Roberts pic “Eat Pray Love,” which is in theory one-third food-related, Sarah Michelle Gellar magic realism rom-com “Simply Irresistible,” Wayne Wang’s “Dim Sum” and ace Tilda Swinton starrer “I Am Love.”
We mostly stuck to fiction films for our main list (bar the transcendent ‘Jiro’), but there’s obviously plenty of strong food-related documentaries out there. Most are somewhat unappetizing, though still obviously worth watching: “Super Size Me,” “Food Inc,” “Fast Food Nation.” But those looking for something more celebratory would do well to check out “The Search For General Tso,” “Spinning Plates,” “Step Up To The Plate” (unrelated to the dance-movie franchise) or “El Bulli.”
And in terms of films that aren’t food-related, but have memorable food-related scenes, ones that spring to mind include “The Scent Of The Green Papaya,” German movie “Wing Or Thigh,” “Solyent Green” and its cousin “Snowpiercer,” “Goodfellas” (and Scorsese’s short “Italianamerican,” which has Momma Scorsese’s meatball recipe), “Sleeper,” “Mystic Pizza,” “Five Easy Pieces,” “Oliver!,” “Tom Jones,” “Sideways,” “My Dinner With Andre,” “9 1/2 Weeks,” “Marie Antoinette,” “Felicia’s Journey,” “Bridesmaids,” “Silence Of The Lambs” and dozens more. Did we miss your favorite? Shout it out in the comments section below.
— Oliver Lyttelton, Jessica Kiang, Nicholas Laskin, Nik Grozdanovic, Rodrigo Perez