The just-released film A Place at the Table, a documentary that aims to expose the issue of hunger in America today, is the latest addition in the growing genre of food-focused films swelling the festival circuits. Although many of these recent documentaries are issues-driven, the best among them, like any film (or work of art), transcend any explicit message—most lamely seen in the form of asking viewers to partake by “texting” whatever carefully branded word summarizing that message—and instead leave the viewer with a host of social or cultural themes to ponder. With this in mind I’ve created this list of best food documentaries for our month-long focus on food. In all of these films food is eaten, processed, cooked, farmed, sold, fretted over—but, above all, it serves as a form of inspiration.
Kings of Pastry (2009). D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus’s heartbreaking film chronicles the ultimate food competition: the pastry division of the Meilleurs Ouvriers de France, an award bestowed by the French government every four years to the best craftsmen in the country. Just try not to weep.
Thin (2006). Although Lauren Greenfield’s recent film The Queen of Versailles (2012), a gripping portrait of excess, is generating a lot of buzz these days, her first feature, Thin, on conceptions (or misconceptions) of excess is an equally brilliant film. This devastating profile of women with severe eating disorders powerfully and intimately exposes the depths of these illnesses and the fraught relationship far too many women have with food.
Le Cirque: A Table in Heaven (2007). Andrew Rossi’s film about an aging empire, Sirio Maccioni’s famed restaurant Le Cirque, reads in part as a who’s who of New York glitterati, particularly of the 1980s and 90s, but is mainly about family, the meaning of a restaurant, and the passing of time. And tortellini.
Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011). Similar to A Table in Heaven, this much-lauded elegiac profile of a three-star Michelin sushi stand in the Tokyo subway quietly captures the complexities a Japanese chef/owner faces towards the end of his career. David Gelb’s film delicately wraps the struggle between tradition and change and the weight of a legacy in this meditative portrait of rice and fish.
Super Size Me (2004). Morgan Spurlock’s iconic binge isn’t the best example of filmmaking but it offers an unforgettable sweep of the fast food industry through the eyes—and stomach—of an outsized character and his month-long McDonald’s escapade.
Food, Inc. (2008). The opening credits alone make Robert Kenner’s pivotal film prize-worthy. This film brought us the “notional tomato” and haunting images of chicken conveyor belts and although many others documentaries have attempted to tackle the disturbing corporatization of America’s food system, none have done so as elegantly and as effectively as Food, Inc.
The Garden (2008). Scott Hamilton Kennedy’s film profiles the largely immigrant community and controversy surrounding the 13-acre South Central Farm, the largest community garden in the United States with banana groves, cabbage patches, and corn stalks, and which emerged from the ashes of the LA Riots in 1992 and faced eviction in 2004.
Oma & Bella (2012). There aren’t enough films about grandmothers. And more films about grandmothers will mean more films about food. Alexa Karolinski documented her grandmother Regina and her friend, Bella, and their laborious and loving cooking in their kitchen in Berlin, where they have lived since surviving the Holocaust.
Garlic Is as Good as Ten Mothers (1980): If you need historical evidence that food is the new rock, take a look at Les Blank’s documentary ode to the stinking rose. Garlic centers largely on the Bastille Day garlic festivals of famed Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse in the late 1970s. If you were lucky enough to attend a viewing of this film, Blank has been known to roast several heads of garlic in toaster ovens surreptitiously placed in the back of the theaters for his own kind of smell-o-vision.
The Gleaners and I (Les Glaneurs et la glaneuse) (2000). Agnes Varda’s affecting film on the history and current state of urban and rural gleaning is a self-reflective social commentary on poverty and the original dumpster diving.
This month, we're challenging the GOOD community to host a dinner party and cook a meal that contains fewer ingredients than the number of people on the guest list. Throughout March, we'll share ideas and resources for being more conscious about our food and food systems. Join the conversation at good.is/food and on Twitter at #chewonit.