Human Interest

More than a means of survival, food remains a vital force of culture and creativity around the world. One might even go as far as to say that nothing captures the essence of a specific area or region more than its local cuisine. Through the sharing of these recipes and dishes comes an ever-expanding sense of community, the kind of which breaks boundaries at first bite. Who doesn’t love a delicious meal?

No wonder that a number of classic films and documentaries treat food as the focal point. That said, no two approaches are exactly the same. Take a movie like “Julie & Julia,” which uses cooking as a source of ambition and personal expression, but also as a window into broader societal trends. Meanwhile, the documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” uses food as a way to examine the broader concepts of genius and perfectionism.

On the darker side of the proverbial aisle is a documentary such as “Food, Inc.,” which exposes the harmful impact of industrial food production. For a feel-good counterpunch, Jon Favreau’s “Chef” follows a fine-dining chef as he goes back to the basics and uncovers the pure joys of simple cuisine. Variety is the spice of life, as the saying goes, and it applies to food and film alike. Here are 20 great movies all about food.

  • 1. Babette's Feast (1987)

    Panorama Film A/S

    Hailing from Denmark, this historical drama takes place in a remote village in the late 19th century. Upon fleeing the violent uprising in Paris, a French refugee named Babette appears at the door of two Protestant sisters. Years later, she prepares for her hosts a “real French dinner” of epic proportions. It won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

  • 2. Big Night (1996)

    Stanley Tucci co-wrote, co-directed, co-produced, and stars in this delightful dramedy about two restaurateur brothers in the 1950s. With their Italian restaurant on the brink of collapse, the brothers stage an elaborate dinner party as a last ditch effort at survival. The celebratory vibes are so palpable that viewers practically feel as though they’re sitting at the table.

  • 3. Chef (2014)

    Aldamisa Entertainment

    Director Jon Favreau followed blockbuster action movies such as “Iron Man 2” with this feel-good dramedy. He plays the head chef at a fine-dining restaurant, who quits his job and opens a popular food truck instead. Making the film was such a positive experience that Favreau later appeared on the cooking series “The Chef Show” alongside chef Roy Choi.

  • 4. City of Gold (2015)

    Sundance Institute

    Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Jonathan Gold was a pivotal force on both the Los Angeles food scene and the modern restaurant movement at large. His curious palate and brilliant writing spanned multiple cultures and cuisines to uncover the universal language of the culinary arts. This acclaimed documentary tells his story.

  • 5. Eat Drink Man Woman (1994)

    Ang Lee Productions

    This Mandarin classic makes up part of Ang Lee’s “Father Knows Best” trilogy, which examines the tensions between tradition and modernity. It tells the story of a semi-retired chef and his three daughters, who gather every Sunday night for an elaborate dinner. Writing for Empire, critic Angie Errigo called it “a startlingly superior piece of craftsmanship, with the flavour of life and richness of the script conveyed via uniformly wonderful performances.”

  • 6. First Cow (2019)

    A24

    Minimalist master Kelly Reichardt takes viewers deep into the heart of Oregon Territory in this historical drama. Set in 1820, it follows a travelling cook and a Chinese immigrant as they go into business selling baked goods. Their ongoing success remains dependent on stealing the rich milk of another man’s cow—the only cow in the region. Beneath the veneer of this simple story is a poignant examination of American history as only Reichardt can tell it.

  • 7. Food, Inc. (2008)

    Magnolia Pictures

    Filmmaker Robert Kenner peels back the curtain on American agribusiness in this provocative documentary. It examines the wide-reaching corporate control over not just meat production, but grains and vegetables, too. The final segment takes a look at the economic interests and legal loopholes that allow certain hazardous trends to continue.

  • 8. Garlic Is as Good as Ten Mothers (1980)

    Flower Films

    For centuries garlic has been one of the planet’s most beloved and universal cooking ingredients. This documentary takes a closer look at the famed “stinking rose” from all conceivable angles. During early screenings, director Les Blank toasted garlic on-site so that its pungent smell would hit the audience at a cleverly timed moment.

  • 9. Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011)

    Ciné-tamaris

    French new wave icon Agnès Varda offers an intimate portrait of modern gleaners in this acclaimed documentary. Surviving on society’s waste, her subjects scour harvested fields and dive through dumpsters in search of their next meal. The film also explores the creative side of gleaning, whereby artists create new works out of recycled materials. It won numerous awards, including Best Non-Fiction Film at both the New York Film Critics Circle Awards and the National Society of Film Critics Awards.

  • 10. Julie & Julia (2009)

    Columbia Pictures

    Director Nora Ephron’s charming dramedy alternates between separate timelines and depicts the journey of two ambitious women. One is culinary pioneer Julia Child (Meryl Streep), who overcomes all kinds of antiquated hurdles on her way to the top of the home cooking industry. The other is modern blogger Julie Powell (Amy Adams), who attempts to cook every recipe in Child’s first book. Food functions as not just a source of pleasure and community, but expression and transformation as well.

  • 11. King Corn (2007)

    ITVS Films

    An acre of corn provides a window into America’s agricultural industry in this underseen documentary. It follows two college best friends from Boston to the heart of Iowa, where they plant crops and learn about their respective family roots. Their subsequent journey doubles as an exposé on the marginalization of independent farmers and the harmful impact of high-fructose corn syrup.

  • 12. Like Water for Chocolate (1992)

    Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes

    Based on a novel, this Mexican romantic drama incorporates elements of magical realism. Forbidden from marrying her one true love, a young woman expresses herself through the art of cooking. The film delivers a feast for the senses on multiple levels while exploring themes of tradition and identity. It broke box office records at the time of its release.

  • 13. The Lunchbox (2013)

    Sony Pictures Classics

    This endearing Bollywood drama centers on the unique relationship between a lonely housewife and depressed widower. What starts with a mistaken lunchbox delivery becomes an ongoing confessional between two strangers. “Lovely, with a lingering delectable after-taste,” wrote critic Shubhra Gupta for The Indian Express.

  • 14. My Dinner with Andre (1981)

    Saga Productions Inc.

    A dinner between old friends opens up a world of philosophical discussion in this acclaimed independent drama. Actor Wallace Shawn co-wrote the script and also stars opposite Andre Gregory. Shot on a low budget in an abandoned Virginia hotel, the film has become a cultural cornerstone in the time since its release.

  • 15. Ratatouille (2007)

    Disney Enterprises Inc.

    Pixar creatives ate their way through Paris when performing research for this computer-animated smash. It tells the story of a lovable rat named Remy (voiced by Patton Oswalt), who dreams of becoming a chef. With help from a hapless restaurant employee, those dreams just might come true.

  • 16. The Secret of the Grain (2007)

    Pathé Renn Productions

    Tunisian-born director Abdellatif Kechiche took inspiration from his own father when crafting this heralded French drama. Its title makes reference to both a grain of couscous and a small fish known as mullet, stalwarts of Tunisian cuisine. At the heart of the story is an Arab immigrant named Slimane, who dreams of opening a restaurant.

  • 17. Tampopo (1985)

    Itami Productions

    This Japanese comedy from multi-hyphenate Jûzô Itami uses food as a means to explore interpersonal relationships. A main narrative about a trucker and a noodle shop interweaves with several food-themed vignettes. Once marketed as the first “ramen Western,” the film consciously plays upon a number of American sub-genre tropes.

  • 18. The Trip (2010)

    British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC)

    The Trip (2010)

    Playing fictionalized versions of themselves, friends Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon take a tour of northern England’s best eateries. An abridged version of a British sitcom, the film is powered by the comedic chemistry between its two stars. It was followed by three more series and their edited film adaptations.

  • 19. The Gleaners & I

    Ciné-tamaris

    French new wave icon Agnès Varda offers an intimate portrait of modern gleaners in this acclaimed documentary. Surviving on society’s waste, her subjects scour harvested fields and dive through dumpsters in search of their next meal. The film also explores the creative side of gleaning, whereby artists create new works out of recycled materials. It won numerous awards, including Best Non-Fiction Film at both the New York Film Critics Circle Awards and the National Society of Film Critics Awards.

  • 20. Waitress (2007)

    Twentieth Century Fox

    Frustrated waitress Jenna Hunterson (Keri Russell) dreams of better things in this acclaimed independent dramedy. Impressive baking skills and an upcoming pie contest just might be her ticket out of town. The film performs a deft balancing act between gravitas and lightheartedness to create its unique tone and lasting impression. Director and co-star Adrienne Shelly was tragically killed before its release.