A Taste of Reality: Top 5 Food Documentaries
Tommy Lee Jones once didn't do a film because there was a scene in which he was supposed to eat on camera. Tommy Lee Jones doesn't eat on camera. Ever.
That film was Man of the House, and it's a good thing that the producers caved to his demands, for the world would be a far, far worse place if that film had never been made.
From Breakfast at Tiffany's to Diner, film has followed food to great celluloid success.
Reality, however, is far different from what Hollywood would have you believe, so skip the Audrey Hepburn and Steve Guttenberg (two equally prolific and talented actors) and get right down to the nitty-gritty of the food world with these stunning documentaries about what we eat, how we eat and why we eat.
5. El Bulli: Cooking in Progress
El Bulli, once the greatest restaurant in the world, closed its doors permanently in late July 2011.
Ferran Adrià, head chef and mastermind behind the restaurant, is a remote character in this sparse and reserved documentary, observing, critiquing and generally being a demanding and exacting, perfectionist prick.
When the place, located two hours north of Barcelona, was in operation, six months out of every year found the doors barred and the windows shuttered as Adrià, the father of molecular gastronomy, and his loyal staff of culinary geniuses invented an incredibly fine-tuned, refined menu under the scrutiny of scientific method, meticulous documentation and peer review. Adrià oversees each and every step that his loyal, hard-working staff takes as they try to meet their master's almost impossible standards of excellence.
The film is by no means energetic or well-paced, but if you really want to know the level of concern and detail that one can possibly possess for things that you put into your mouth, then El Bulli is worth a visit.
4. Kings of Pastry
At times whimsical, at times starkly serious, this is a film in which grown men weep, judgment is harshly passed by epicureans of vast self-importance, and all of it boils down to how well you can make sweets.
Sincere to the point that it is beyond pretension, legendary documentary filmmakers Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker chronicle an incredibly important yearly French culinary battle known as Meilleurs Ouvriers de France.
Former President of France Nicolas Sarkozy himself makes an appearance to congratulate the winners of the event, all of whom are adorned with a special medal/collar piece. To wear the collar, a ribbon of the blue, white and red colors of the French flag, is a great honor. Such is the importance of the yearly awards that to falsely wear the collar as an impostor is by law worthy of jail time in France.
The film makes the cake and confectioner competitions of the Food Network and Cooking Channel look like child's play, as chefs pour all their cunning and malice into one cake.
One cake to rule them all, one cake to bind them. One cake to bring them all together, and in the sweetness bind them.
There are no dark lords, hobbits or elves, but it's still a remarkably good film.
3. Pressure Cooker
Combine R. Lee Ermy; Louis Gossett Jr. from An Officer and a Gentleman; Elisabeth Hasselbeck shrieking about our country's downfall; and a mad Roseanne Barr, and you might just come close to the level of expectation and tough love that emanates from this film's moral compass/antihero, Mrs. Stephenson, as she instructs her culinary arts class at Frankford High School in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
She is loud, rude and abrasive, and she is usually right, but there is no guff taken and no sass tolerated as you watch Mrs. Stephenson take underprivileged, at-risk high-school students to task in an attempt to give them a way out of endemic poverty.
Fighting for scholarships, achievement and a way to improve not just their own lives but those of their families, the students chronicled in this somewhat difficult and harsh documentary stand at once as a testament to the faltering public school system and to the value of educating our young ones, not just with the fruits of knowledge and critical thinking but also with valuable trade skills and marketable, hands-on experience.
2. Super Size Me
By far the most entertaining (and by this I mean that it takes a page from Michael Moore's clever editing and agenda-driven narrative) documentary on this list, Super Size Me is a film that has crossed over from being a somewhat biased critical examination of our fast-food habits to a film with almost iconic pop-culture status.
The movie poster featuring writer and director Morgan Spurlock with his mouth stuffed full of french fries is as recognizable as the growling lion of MGM for a certain generation of moviegoers.
While certainly pointed in its intent and at times somewhat forced to the point of disingenuousness, the film is still very funny, very telling and absolutely worth a watch. Many of the points Spurlock makes about our eating habits and the rise of obesity in our country -- two-thirds of American adults and a third of our children are overweight or obese -- have been echoed in more recent films, such as HBO's Weight of the Nation, which doesn't make the list but is worth watching if you have ever wondered why so many people in your office eat that leftover birthday cake in the break room for breakfast.
1. Food, Inc.
This Oscar-winning film, combined with Jonathan Safran Foer's wonderful, incredibly enlightening and funny Eating Animals, turned my older brother into a vegetarian.
It will make you mad, sad, hungry, confused and concerned. Mostly, though, it will make you think.
Rich in characters and broad in its message, Food, Inc. examines the food and farm industry equivalent of the military-industrial complex. Our supply of food is closely monitored, and oversight is internally controlled and vastly archaic. The film highlights the illusion of choice that we have as consumers when we shop in a supermarket, and it reveals the depth of manipulation taken with food products in an attempt to maximize profits at the expense of nutrition and scientific research.
Recently, finely textured beef, otherwise known as "pink slime," has been making media waves, and if you want to know how it's made, what's in it and why it's used, then look no further than this engaging film.
A warning is due, however, that watching this film will make you look at what you are eating in an entirely different way, for better or for worse. Fortunately, learning new things isn't always terrible for you, unlike some of the topics that are discussed in this movie.
What could be better?
Pop some popcorn, crack open a bottle of wine or beer and lose yourself in the lives of others. There's nothing wrong with a little perspective.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Houston dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.