6. The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover
When I said that “Tampopo” is the strangest movie on our list, I lied. That distinction belongs to “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover.” Equal parts riotous and unsettling, director Peter Greenaway’s 6th outing is a marked departure from his earlier cerebral work like “The Belly of an Architect.”
Helen Mirren stars as Georgina, the put-upon wife of English gangster Albert Spica (Michael Gambon). With his gaggle of thugs, Spica has taken over chef Richard Boarst’s (Richard Bohringer) restaurant. Exhausted with her husband’s oafishness, Georgina starts an affair with restaurant regular, Michael (Alan Howard).
“The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover” achieves something rare: perfect chaos. It is, backwards and forwards, a masterclass in cinematic insanity. You needn’t look further than Pup’s torture scene or Georgina’s final grief-induced request of Boarst.
In moments like these, “The Cook” blurs the line between food and character, by the end making clear that anyone and everything can be food if you’re depraved enough. In that way, this movie is, by far, the darkest one on our list. But it’s calculated darkness, going further than most movies would dare, but never going too far. Even though it’s not for everyone, that balancing act is enough to warrant a watch.
Forced to flee from his nest, Remy, a rat and aspiring chef, takes refuge above his recently deceased idol Auguste Gusteau’s restaurant. Through the skylight, he watches the new hire Linguini royally mess up his job. One day, Remy intervenes and saves a dish Linguini nearly ruins. Though Linguini’s told by Skinner, the restaurant’s owner, to kill Remy, Linguini sees Remy’s intelligence and decides to keep him.
Anyone who’s seen the only animated movie on our list, “Ratatouille” is well familiar with the titular dish, but it warrants a deeper look anyway. The dish Remy (Patton Oswalt) crafts with Colette (Janeane Garofalo) is called confit byaldi, a variation on traditional ratatouille characterized by some ingredient substitution and the layering of said ingredients.
In the same way confit byaldi is layered with squash, tomatoes, peppers etc., “Ratatouille” is layered with humor and pathos. In one layer, you have Remy’s ambition and alienation, in another you have Linguini’s (Lou Romano) desire to please his dad and carve his own way, and in yet another you have the journey of Anton Ego (Peter O’Toole), the dour food critic at the movie’s center.
8. The Lunchbox
In Mumbai, there are people called dabbawalas. Essentially, they’re people who collect and deliver food to workers. In the Indian romance “The Lunchbox,” one of the dabbawalas makes a rare mistake and ends up bringing two very different people together.
One day, the soon-to-be retired Saajan (Irrfan Khan) finds a note in his lunchbox from Ila (Nimrat Kaur), an unfulfilled wife who wants the attention of her husband. Ila realizes her mistake and writes another letter to Saajan explaining what happened only to start a back-and-forth built on a succulent foundation.
“The Lunchbox” inspires the kind of heart-tugging that romance is made of. Unlike the cheesier romances out there, the movie offers no easy meeting for its protagonists. Saajan is deeply insecure with his age and terrified of losing his purpose. Ila is ignored by her husband, and reaches out in small ways because anything bigger might tear them apart. These conflicts bring a tinge of darkness to an otherwise light feature.
9. Spinning Plates
The second documentary on our list doesn’t focus on one restauranteur, but three. The first is Alinea, a world ranked avant-garde Chicago restaurant, owned by Grant Achatz.
A recent diagnosis of oral cancer forces him to delay pursuing his passion. The second is Breitbach’s, a family-owned restaurant in rural Iowa, that is leveled by a gas explosion. And the third is a struggling Mexican restaurant in Arizona, La Cocina De Gabby, which is on the verge of bankruptcy. To say anymore would be a disservice to the movie. Suffice it to say, it’s a tearjerker grounded enough to not feel maudlin or manipulative.
The story of the Martinez family, owners of La Cocina De Gabby, is an especially tough watch. “Spinning Plates” finds its strength in how different each restaurant is, but how similarly those behind them are driven to elevate their business. Whether rich or poor, there’s not a single person in “Spinning Plates” who you won’t be rooting for.
10. Big Night
Family and food are so deeply intertwined that it’s surprising our list doesn’t have more food/family dramas. Like Babette struggled to reconcile her French culture with the cuisine of rural Denmark, Italian immigrant brothers Primo (Tony Shalhoub), a brilliant but prickly chef, and Secondo (Stanley Tucci), the restaurant’s manager, struggle to bring real Italian food to customers who want the Americanized variety.
To help the brothers out, the owner of the nearby Pascal’s, Pascal (Ian Holm), tells the brothers that he’ll invite the popular jazz musician Louis Prima to a benefit at their restaurant. Invigorated, the two spend their savings to prepare for the night. Primo plans a complicated, but truly Italian feast while Secondo tries to keep the restaurant afloat.
Like “Babette’s Feast,” “Big Night” centers around a lavish and complex dinner. But the movie finds its heart in Primo and Secondo’s relationship. Shalhoub and Tucci have indelible chemistry. Shalhoub is at his manic best here, struggling to perfect the notoriously complicated Italian dish called timpano for Louis Prima. Tucci is suave as can be, struggling to maintain his composure through a series of failures and his brother’s perfectionism.
The tension between them is palpable, and the build-up to Louis Prima’s arrival is thick as can be. In the end, as Pascal, Primo, and Secondo’s lives overlap, “Big Night” becomes a deeper experience. But be warned, the deeper the experience, the heart-rending it is.