I love to eat. I love to cook. I love to stuff myself into restaurant booths surrounded by companions, boozy creations, and another kitchen’s signature nibbles. I love to write about how filmmakers utilize food, whether it’s to set a mood, spark a connection, or layer a sense of comfort atop an otherwise deceptively tense standoff. Dinner tables alone set a stage for dysfunction, disillusion, and disappointment as homestyle perfection crumbles around honey-baked hams while nuclear families go, well, nuclear.
Since I’m always a hungry boy, allow me to highlight my favorite instances in 2020 where films found ways to repurpose culinary arts as visual storytelling devices. Whether that’s provoking a character’s traits, or doubling as classist allegories, or instigating internet users into a backlash frenzy. No morsel left uncontextualized, nor plate cleaned of its message. This article is the cherry atop my 2020 wrap-up coverage, so let’s dig into the goods that beat out other notables such as industrial deli slicers in Cadaver and SpaghettiOs Jell-O molds in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: Kimmy Vs. The Reverend).
Oily Cakes (First Cow)
In Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow, adapted from Jonathan Raymond’s novel The Half-Life, the name of the game is “oily cakes.” John Magaro plays a former baker’s apprentice who travels the Oregon wilderness with trappers as their chef (aptly dubbed “Cookie”) before teaming on a new business venture with Chinese immigrant King-Lu (portrayed by Orion Lee). Unfortunately, Cookie can only produce his frontier fry cakes with the right ingredients, including milk from a protected cow owned by the Chief Factor (Toby Jones). Cookie’s dairy theft is the very thing that gains him notoriety in the Chief Factor’s circle, perpetuating a greasy cycle of lies, opportunity, and delectable treachery for profit.
The cakes themselves represent the key of First Cow, nevertheless incorporating the titular mooer. To Cookie and King-Lu, the hot-and-fresh treats are their escape from poverty and introduction to wealthy socialites à la capitalism. To Jones’ Chief Factor, each bite returns him to the comforts of less sophisticated means that are now foreign. When Cookie crisps his batter golden brown, we’re shown a western that’s less gunsmoke and more Food Network. An otherwise unexpected approach to pioneer dramatics that Reichardt uses to trojan horse a buddy dramedy between two types of vagabond eyeing the American dream (and plump udders).
Frog Lady Eggs (The Mandolorian)
Remember when Grogu ate the Frog Lady’s eggs, and the internet entered “Danger Zone” territory? Because an adolescent alien munched a few orange-yellow embryo sacks out of a jar filled with electric-blue liquid? Star Wars faithful typed all-caps about moral repugnance as “The Child” behaves as a child would: by inspecting objects with his mouth (already a recurring theme), rebelling against Space Dad, and taking pleasure in defying rules. Yes, his revealed trauma as the key to Moff Gideon’s (Giancarlo Esposito) clone generation scheme and exposed Jedi training means maybe none of the lessons stuck – or, you know, he’s an infant still curious about the world.
The Mandolorian even conveys reasoning when Frog Lady and Frog Man babysit Grogu while Din Djarin (Pedro Pascal) aids Bo-Katan (Katee Sackhoff). After unsuccessfully ingesting more of Frog Lady’s valuables, Grogu is later seen interacting with one of the now-hatched offspring in a bowl. Frog Lady and Frog Man show Grogu what the eggs become, using a petting motion to convey gentle touches that Grogu replicates. Yes, he eats multiple eggs prior. Then learns a valuable lesson about life, the miracle of birth, and such an offhanded (yet outraged-to-death) moment becomes a sweet visual storytelling addition. Leave the baby alone.
Panna Cotta (The Platform)
Why yes, the Spanish horror film on Netflix about levitating slabs of banquet feasts finds a way to replicate societal downfalls. Specifically, Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia’s The Platform makes panna cotta the message. Quite literally. The film’s protagonist decides that he’ll disrupt the vertical facility experiment by keeping a dish of panna cotta untouched as “the platform” descends it’s unknown levels, insisting that prisoners ration their meals versus stuffing their faces.
Should the panna cotta survive its descent, the kitchen would presume that tyranny has not overthrown humanity. The panna cotta itself represents this decadent dessert that might be the first thing inmates lunge towards, so its untouched redelivery would land a more noticeable impact. What Goreng (Ivan Massagué) and his agreeable partner encounter spans unenthusiastic participation to violent revolts, as they preach the patient protest of their panna cotta credo. In a film that boils over with symbolism, none is more resilient than this usage of molded and thickened saccharine cream.
Bodega Egg Sandwich (Birds Of Prey)
I grew up a Jersey boy with neighborhood bagel shop access to immaculate Taylor ham, egg, and cheese sandwiches. Moving to New York City, the bodega breakfast sandwich became many a weekend staple. If you’ve devoured one, you understand Margot Robbie’s obsession with “seasoned” cooktops coated in scraps from weeks past and pushy chefs-slash-cashiers-slash-owners. If you haven’t? You’ve never been so deathly hungover that the only rejuvenation one can fathom is a fluffy greasebomb enhanced by salt, pepper, ketchup, and hot sauce (all necessary, sorry Harls).
Cathy Yan’s comical and daredevil introduction of the newly “emancipated” Harley Quinn cuts her infatuation with Sal’s silver-wrapped lifesaver oh-so short. Harley flees from both broken-legged thugs and Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), the sandwich tucked securely into her sports bra. Robbie’s narration keeps darting back to visions of fatty juices and bready bookends until tragedy strikes and deconstructed layers fly into the air as Harley laments the loss of the only thing she loves at that moment. Her bacon, egg, and cheese now scattered on roadway asphalt like a crime scene. Robbie is a legend given how she oversells the entire theatrical production in such magnificent Harley Quinn fashion.
Grilled Cheese (The Hunt)
At the end of The Hunt, we’re presented a grilled cheese recipe by Hilary Swank’s Athena, the ousted corporate bigwig who manages her own most dangerous game. As Betty Gilpin’s Crystal reaches the end of her deathmatch, she encounters Athena inside her ode to the “Manor” in the “Manorgate” controversy. Athena details what she considers the perfect grilled cheese, complete with gruyere and tomatoes explicitly sliced with a bread knife (um, duh). Then they smash, skewer, and pummel throughout the house, keeping consistent with the violence already enacted.
Writers Nick Cuse and Damon Lindelof could offer multiple reasons to convey villain motivations over crusty, melty lunches. Maybe it’s merely to represent psychotic calmness as Athena cares less about enacting revenge on the social media users who cost her professional career. Perhaps it’s a commentary on elitism, suggesting that something like a grilled cheese is disgusting when cooked with “common” ingredients, which plays into her disbelief when Crystal reveals her knowledge of George Orwell’s Animal Farm. A little of Column A and Column B me thinks, exemplifying how food can amplify the messages of a movie like The Hunt that’s punctuated by dismemberment, assassinations, and exploded corpses.
Baklava (The Old Guard)
Any action adventure about immortal warriors needs something to ground its characters. A sense of relatability between mortals and soldiers who reject bullets then breathe life once again. How better than to channel Andy’s (Charlize Theron) love-affair with Baklava? An Ottoman staple made from phyllo pastry filled with chopped nuts and sweetened with syrup or honey. A taste that’s endured centuries, as both a commentary on the vastness of Andy’s experiences and the importance of comfort even in the unkillable.
It’s such a minuscule-on-the-surface story element that cracks the hardened exterior of Andy. In scene after scene, Andy is this never shaken nor stirred operator who seems militant in her disconnection from humanity. Then she encounters, or bites, or even mentions Baklava in passing, and for a brief second, we’re assured that Andy contains multiple dimensions. Food is happiness, food is inviting, and food is the ultimate leveler of playing fields. In an asskicker spectacle, Baklava is the tasty additive that tells its own story.
BBQ & Wine (Uncorked)
I guess it’s cheating to include movies dedicated to food and drink, like Prentice Penny’s Uncorked. In it, Elijah (Mamoudou Athie) balances his dream of becoming a master sommelier with his destiny to overtake his family’s Memphis barbeque joint. It’s this juxtaposition of sauce-stained aprons versus the high-society attire that defines tasting rooms. Worn, overworked smokers billowing flavorful clouds in the wee morning hours and intense study sessions over spit buckets all night.
Is there anything more mouthwatering than slide-off-bone ribs? Tangy sauces, burnt ends, and butchered beauties? Then you introduce the French inspirations of Elijah’s true calling and in struts the script’s pitting of forced fates against personal trailblazing. Elijah versus papa Louis (Courtney B. Vance), illustrating the differences in each’s persona and how they could someday find unity across culinary realms through a marriage of new and old school. It’s a tender exploration of tradition versus reinvention, slathered in southern comfort with notes of passion, determination, and the best of all worlds.
The Feast (Gretel & Hansel)
In Gretel & Hansel, Oz Perkins’ wicked witch isn’t advertised as childhood fables insinuate. No gingerbread house or buttercream shellac. Alice Krige’s hospitable Holda lives in isolation but within a more gothic cabin, entered by malnourished scamps we know as Hansel (Samuel Leakey) and Gretel (Sophia Lillis). Still, Perkins retains the same motivations for each child’s decision, as tantalizing delicacies are laid atop a table fit for seventeen kings.
The spread is a masterpiece to behold. Succulent piggies lay roasted and glazed on silver platters, while egg-washed pies and simmering side dishes practically spill over the table’s boundaries. It’s the cumulative effort of multiple Michelin grade kitchens, all prepared by Kringle’s hostess. Food pornography that sells every unmistakably enticing morsel, only to then pull this gruesome switcheroo by disclosing preparations that would make Taco Bell managers gag. Quite the grim iteration of an already grim fairytale, as fleshy appendages are turned into layer-cake towers thanks to the darkest iterations of magic.
Mashed Potatoes (Shirley)
The genius of Elisabeth Moss’ performance in Shirley shines brightest whenever the dinner bell rings. In a house full of icons and demons, psychological warfare seasons whatever’s on the menu. Specifically, both Shirley Jackson (Moss) and Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg) torment their guests by crassly divulging secrets or issues with mediocrity over meats, vegetables, and starches. Meals should be safe havens, where friends or family participate in conversational fulfillment while refueling their tanks. Instead, Shirley sharpens her knife for improper usage.
In one specific scene, Shirley interrupts Stanley’s anecdote about sweat lodges by questioning Rose’s (Odessa Young) pregnancy until driving her live-in helper to her bedroom not soon after vino fills glasses. Fred (Logan Lerman) follows. Stanley isn’t thrilled about Shirley’s enthusiasm behind her new novel, so she belittles his adulterous tendencies until he pounds on the table and exits. Cut to Shirley, alone, scooping mouthfuls of fluffy, butter mashed potatoes with the oversized serving spoon straight from the ceramic tureen, a look of devilish enjoyment and victoriousness on her face the whole time. It’s an image made complete by the ignorance of proper etiquette.
Everything (The Trip To Greece)
One last pick, but you know what, I don’t feel bad about cheating this time. Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip franchise is about the exquisite joys of parlor roasting, shared plates, and cultural appreciation through regional cuisines. Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon play iterations of themselves as they accept writing gigs that send them to foreign lands on restaurant crawls. Their working vacations take them across Italy, Spain, Britain, and now, for their finale, through Greece. A closing chapter as the sun sets on their journeys of introspection, impersonations, and divine deliciousness.
In The Trip To Greece, Steve and Rob travel from Troy to Ithaca following in the footsteps of Homer’s Odyssey. Between impersonations of Mick Jagger and Michael Caine they’re served amuse-bouches fit for newspaper photography. Two friends jab each other with comedian punches until the other cracks, over the bond of top-chef offerings no patron might dare send back with a complaint. If anything, beyond the too-perfect-for-Instagram shots, Winterbottom reminds us of the laughs to be shared once indoor dining reopens safely in America. A reassurance that restaurants are just as much about the company we keep than food we salivate over, where memories are made based on whatever our appetite craves that day, night, or 4th-meal approved hour.
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