As 2017 draws to a close, it’s time to look back on the best moments in food on film over the last year. I’ve singled out my picks for the top five movies about eating and drinking down below, and next week, I’ll share my list of the best food TV episodes.
But before we dive into this week’s list, I wanted to offer an apology about one detail in last week’s edition of Eat, Drink, Watch. Shortly after sending out the newsletter, which included a recommendation for Bill Murray’s Netflix special A Very Murray Christmas and a roundup of sexual misconduct reports about TV chefs, a reader pointed out that Murray had also been accused of abuse several years ago. I wish I had remembered these reports, and hadn’t included his holiday special as one of last week’s recommendations.
Personally, I don’t want to endorse anything that celebrates a chef or celebrity who has been accused of sexual misconduct or abuse. With that in mind, I look forward to surveying the TV and film landscape in 2018, and sharing with you all the best movies and shows that are out there.
And now, without any further ado, here are my picks for the top movies of the year, in descending order.
The 5 best food films of 2017
This Netflix original movie is like Charlotte’s Web meets E.T. meets Taken with a splash of ’90s-era Tim Burton thrown in for good measure.
Bong Joon-ho’s comedic fantasy about a Korean girl and her superpig is ostensibly a message movie about why it’s wrong to eat animals, but odds are, if you’ve already spent some time thinking about the ethical implications of meat-eating, the movie won’t sway you too far in one direction or the other.
It’s not an especially scathing rebuke of the omnivore lifestyle, but what Okja does nail is the weird intersection of the artisan/farm-to-table movement and the business of big food corporations. Mirando, the evil company headed by a dishonest CEO (played with aplomb by Tilda Swinton), wants to melt everyone’s hearts by showcasing the unique relationship between a Korean farm girl and her rhinoceros-sized porcine BFF, while also getting the public hooked on cut-rate sausages made from the rest of the superpigs. Although Mirando’s motives are cartoonish, you see a shred of this spirit in every fast-casual chain that posts a mission statement on the wall about providing “real food for real people.”
Okja is, first and foremost, an entertaining yarn, and a good example of Netflix’s talent for creating entertainment that appeals to a wide audience while still, somehow, feeling like it’s made for a niche crowd.
Stream it on: Netflix
2017 saw the release of some food documentaries with questionable facts and motives. But this tidy, 90-minute film from Zero Point Zero, the production company behind Anthony Bourdain’s TV shows, has a bunch of smart people talking about a very real issue and the ways, both big and small, that we can all work to improve it.
Some of the facts are staggering: 1.3 billion tons of food get thrown out around the world every year, and 40 percent of all food in America ends up in the landfill. As you might expect from the team behind Mind of a Chef, Wasted uses all sorts of clever visual setpieces to relay this information. It’s definitely one of the more visually inventive food documentaries out there, but its most memorable parts are the scenes where chefs like Dan Barber and Danny Bowien learn news ways to cook scraps and employ them in their own kitchens. Even if doesn’t turn you into a food waste crusader, Wasted will perhaps give you a few new ideas about how to cook and shop.
Note: My one misgiving about this film is that it has a few segments featuring Mario Batali as a talking head (it’s one of, by my count, three major food documentaries he was part of this year). The film was released before the reports of his alleged sexual misconduct came to light. If you’re interested in the subject matter, Wasted is still worth watching because the emphasis is on a larger food movement, and not the chefs who are talking about it.
3) Ingrid Goes West
After watching this dark comedy about a trend-chasing LA influencer and the stalker who briefly becomes her BFF, you might look at your Instagram feed in a completely different light.
Taylor, the Venice, California Insta star, lives an avocado toast and rosé-fueled existence that’s enviable but inauthentic. Ingrid, her biggest fan, is a relative nobody from the Midwest who visits the cafes and boutiques she sees on her phone in the hopes of meeting her idol. To infiltrate Taylor’s real life, Ingrid tells a few lies and breaks a few rules. And once she gets inside the Taylorsphere, that’s when things really start to get weird.
Ingrid Goes West is often hilarious and occasionally bleak. But the film does have a heart, thanks, in large part, to charismatic performances by Aubrey Plaza, Elizabeth Olsen, and O’Shea Jackson Jr. The film also offers a sharp take on the performative and sometimes toxic nature of social media. More than anything, it reminds the audience that there are real, flesh-and-blood people on both sides of the screen.
2) The Trip to Spain
Like the previous two installments in Michael Winterbottom’s series, The Trip to Spain is a mixture of ridiculous jokes and soul-searching moments between Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, set inside some of the world’s finest restaurants. The actor/comedians are experienced diners who appreciate high-minded cuisine, and yet the restaurant scenes in this film are never really about the food — it’s the Mick Jagger impressions, improvised James Bond sketches, and gripes about aging that fill up most of their meals.
As we hurdle through the era of Peak Food Appreciation, it’s refreshing to see a movie that understands how meals are largely about the company you’re with, and how spending a few hours in a restaurant is often the best way to take a breather from the more jarring moments in life.
1) The Founder
Due to bad timing and a handful of other Hollywood handicaps, this biopic of McDonald’s mastermind Ray Kroc didn’t last long in theaters and barely got any awards recognition — which is a shame, because it’s definitely a Prestige Drama that avoids many of the pitfalls of that genre.
The Founder is a story about restaurant obsession to the highest degree. Kroc (played by Michael Keaton), a businessman with a career full of failures behind him, sees more than just a potentially profitable business in the San Bernardino, California burger stand operated by the fastidious brothers Dick and Mac McDonald (Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch, respectively). He see an establishment that, like a church or a post office, could be an integral part of the community, were it tended to properly. The tension in the film comes from Kroc’s drive to take this model and replicate it, despite the McDonald brothers’ desire to keep things small and safe. Kroc burns more than a few bridges on his path to fame and fortune, but he also brings up a few like-minded individuals along the way.
Unlike most tales of famous artists or thinkers, this one doesn’t include an “aha” moment where the protagonist becomes aware of some inner power or talent. In The Founder, the major discovery comes when Kroc realizes that someone else has opened his dream restaurant, and he can somehow inherit that sense of authorship by bringing it to a different audience. He’s not really the founder. He’s more like the copier.
You don’t always like the guy very much, but you gotta admire his tenacity and his clarity of vision. The film also contains a few lessons that will ring true to anyone who has worked in the food industry — namely that there’s a ridiculously high failure rate, and sometimes the most popular restaurants are just facsimiles of other, less popular establishments.
The Founder is one of the better recent arrivals on Netflix. Perhaps now that it’s streaming, the film — like Kroc himself — will find success later in life.
I hope your holiday weekend is full of delicious things to eat and entertaining things to watch. I’ll see you next Friday.