Don Groves dishes up some of the tastiest, and most turgid, examples of food on film.
28 Jun 2012 - 5:01 PM  UPDATED 28 Jun 2012 - 5:01 PM

Food, glorious food, has long been an overarching theme or key prop in movies, sometimes with mouth-watering effect, at other times about as appetising as a dish of cold porridge.

Some will have made you ravenously hungry while others may have put you off your tucker or left you craving for something far more substantial.

With Le Chef, a French confection starring Jean Reno and Michaël Youn, recently releases into Australian cinemas, let's reflect on the most memorable foodie movies of the past few decades as well as those that, for various reasons, were less tasty or digestible.

Among the off-cuts that don't make our list but are worth mentioning are My Dinner with Andre (1981), Tampopo (1985), Jamón, jamón (1992), Eat Drink Man Woman (1994) and Woman on Top (2000).

The Gourmet Dishes

Babette's Feast
This foreign-language Oscar winner is a gastronomic delight, a beautifully photographed, sublimely-acted, whimsical tale set in Denmark's remote Jutland coast in the 19th century. Elegant Parisian Babette (Stéphane Audran) is hired as a maid-cook by two spinsters. On the 100th anniversary of their father's birth, the saintly sisters decide to stage a modest celebration but when Babette wins 10,000 francs in a lottery she persuades them to let her prepare a grand feast. Yum!

Ratatouille (2007)
Remy, the rat with a taste for fine food, is the unlikely star of this wonderful animation creation from Pixar. Food never looked more tempting in this charming, witty tale of the rodent who infiltrates the kitchen of a restaurant owned by the famous chef Gusteau. After Gusteau dies, Remy teams up with lowly kitchen hand Linguini to whip up cordon bleu dishes. The result is a feast for the senses as well as food for thought.

Big Night (1996)
Stanley Tucci and Tony Shalhoub play bickering Brooklyn brothers who hatch a plan to save their floundering restaurant in this smart dramedy co-written and co-directed by the talented Tucci. Their scheme involves preparing a magnificent feast for famous Italian-American singer Louis Prima that will surely put their eatery on the map.

Chocolat (2000)
Juliette Binoche is terrific as a footloose woman who together with her young daughter opens a chocolate shop in a conservative 1960 French town, in Lasse Hallström's whimsical tale. The townsfolk are won over by her exquisite chocolate, except for the mayor who organises a boycott of her decadent, immoral treats. Johnny Depp adds to the fun as an Irish gypsy.

Like Water for Chocolate (1992)
Set in turn-of-the-century Mexico, Alfonso Arau's movie is an erotic and humorous tale of a woman who is passionately in love but not allowed to marry because, as the youngest of three daughters, tradition demands that she takes care of her mother until she dies. Her swain marries her sister but she continues a sensual relationship with him via the delicious food she cooks.

Mostly Martha (2001)
This beguiling German comedy/drama about a lonely but gorgeous chef who finds love with an Italian sous chef while struggling to cope with her young niece inspired the Hollywood remake No Reservations (see below). Martina Gedeck plays Martha, who's rated by her demanding boss as the “second best chef” in Hamburg. After a car accident which kills her sister and injures her eight-year-old daughter, Martha reluctantly agrees to look after the traumatised girl while she searches for her long-gone Italian father. Martha initially resents the new sous chef, the playful, boisterous Mario (Sergio Castellitto) as a threat to her dominance of the kitchen.

The Trip (2010)
Two of Britain's funniest men, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon (pictured, top), hit the road to the north of England in Michael Winterbottom's entertaining comedy laced with a touch of pathos. The nominal reason for the journey – Coogan being commissioned by a Sunday newspaper to review restaurants in the region – is merely a prop which enables the comedians to match wits, bicker, trade insults and tell stories. The food looks sensational, belying the old idea that Pommy food is stodgy and uninspiring.

Great Movies, but Appetite Killers

Food Inc. (2008)
Robert Kenner's gut-wrenching expose of the US food industry is an appetite killer. The doco spotlights the handful of agribusiness giants that control what the vast majority of Americans consume every day, making you wonder if any of those unhealthy and at times lethal practices are happening Down Under. In part, it plays like a real-life horror movie with gory scenes shot in a pigs' slaughterhouse by a hidden camera, sick cows being pushed around by a forklift, a researcher sticking his hand into a hole in a cow's stomach, and offal being funnelled along a conveyor belt.

The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover
Food, sex, murder, torture and cannibalism are among the ingredients of Peter Greenaway's blackly comic fable which was widely interpreted as an attack on Thatcherism. Helen Mirren plays the wife of a boorish restaurant owner/criminal (Michael Gambon) who has an affair with a gentle bookseller. Critics labelled some scenes as grotesque and disgusting and advised against seeing the film on a full stomach.

Delicatessen (1991)
Can cannibalism ever be funny? Well, yes, when the subject is treated with such flair and imagination in this surreal, darkly humorous film from French directors Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro. Set amid the post-war rubble of a deli/apartment house, it features an assortment of oddballs including a depraved, wild-eyed butcher, his shy, myopic daughter and a man who lives ankle-deep in water where he raises frogs and snails. Dominique Pinon plays a former circus clown who turns up in response to an ad for a job as a handyman, not knowing the ravenous tenants intend that he'll be their next meal.

Who Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe?
Robert Morley stars as a gourmand whose doctor orders him to lose 63kg, in this deliciously black comedy directed by Ted Kotcheff. As Morley faces the prospect of a crash diet, suddenly Europe's finest chefs start keeling over in various bizarre ways, including being crushed by a duck press, baked in an oven and drowned. Jacqueline Bisset plays a world-renowned dessert specialist and the ex-wife of fast-food entrepreneur George Segal, who's determined to protect her.

Movies with Little After-Taste

Julie & Julia (2009)
Granted, this comedy starring Meryl Streep and Amy Adams as a famous chef/author and the blogger who idolised her delighted a lot of people. But I found it a half-baked effort that was akin to consuming a Chinese meal: Okay at the time, but soon forgotten and not terribly satisfying. The usually faultless Streep's caricature of Julia Child, who almost singlehandedly introduced the US to the delights of French cuisine, rarely rang true, the narrative was light on laughs and there were no dramatic pay-offs.

Eat Pray Love (2010)
Right, this movie starring Julia Roberts and based on the best-selling novel by Elizabeth Gilbert had plenty of admirers, almost all female, I'd guess. To this unreconstructed male, it was a corny and overly sentimental tale of a narcissist who takes a very long time to find the right balance between body, mind and spirit. The 'eat' section in Italy had its appetite-whetting moments but the spiritual interlude in India and the romance in Bali were extremely trite.

No Reservations (2007)
Scott Hicks' romantic comedy, a remake of Mostly Martha, feels under-cooked, not least due to the lack of chemistry between Catherine Zeta-Jones' cold, lonely New York chef and Aaron Eckhart's cocky sous-chef. Abigail Breslin has the thankless task of playing Zeta-Jones' bratty niece for whom she becomes a reluctant guardian after Breslin's mother is killed in a car crash.