by Marion Nestle
Nov 26 2010

Sustainable food films for the holidays

Focus Features has been asking people in the food community for five recommendations of films they particularly like.   Here are my picks:

Folks From the Food Movement on Sustainable Cinema: Marion Nestle

By administrator November 19, 2010

Marion Nestle

Marion Nestle: I would not pick Thanksgiving as the optimal time to watch films about food production systems but I’ve chosen films—documentaries and not—that tell stories worth watching for their entertainment value as well as for their more serious messages.

Super Size Me

1. |Super Size Me

I have to begin with this one because it’s my screen debut! I appear in it for ten seconds as a talking head defining calories, among other things. This is Morgan Spurlock’s account of a month-long experiment eating nothing else but food from McDonald’s. Spurlock’s depiction of his 25-pound weight gain is not only a commentary on the role of fast food in America’s obesity epidemic, but also a fast-moving and riveting examination of the corporate side of our country’s love affair with burgers and fries.

King Corn

2. |King Corn

It’s hard to imagine that a story about how two guys grow corn on one acre in Iowa could be so utterly delightful, but Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis have a sense of humor along with plenty of imaginative smarts. This is the best place to see how industrial farming really works. Spoiler alert: I love the scenes in which they start with corn and cook up a batch of high fructose corn syrup, take two minutes to plant their acre, and discover that their acre is eligible for corn subsidies. This film may be a documentary about corn production and harvesting, but it is a pleasure to sit through again and again.

Food, Inc.

3. |Food, Inc.

This is the most commercially successful of the recent documentaries exposing the evils of the industrial food system, and for good reason. Starting with the splendid opening credits, it is wonderfully directed (by Robbie Kenner) and narrated by food movement superstars, Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser. Even for people who know something about industrial food production, the film breaks new ground. For me, the most moving episode was the 4:00 a.m. immigration raid on hapless Mexican workers at a Smithfield packing plant. The film tells stories ranging from the infuriating (seed patenting) to the heartbreaking (the lethal effects of toxic E. coli on a small child). Best, it is a rousing call to action. Join the food movement!


4. |Tampopo

Who knew that the Japanese made spaghetti Westerns? As it happens, they do or at least used to. A lone cowboy rides into town and teaches a young woman how to cook noodles so delicious that customers line up to eat them. The message? It takes hard work to develop real cooking skills but the results are worth it. The hero may ride off into the sunset, but this film carries its lessons lightly and is marvelous cross-cultural fun.

La Grande Bouffe and Ratatouille

5. |La Grande Bouffe and Ratatouille

I can’t decide between these two films for my number five. La Grande Bouffe (The Great Binge, in my translation) is a French film of the 1970s that doesn’t seem to show up in food film festivals. It deserves a revival, not least for its splendid cast: Marcello Mastroianni, Philippe Noiret, and Ugo Tognazzi, among others. As I recall, the guys spend a weekend gorging on food and sex, giving entirely new meaning to the pleasure of food in general, and to fruit tarts in particular.

Ratatouille is, of course, about a cartoon mouse who yearns to become a chef, and does so with great panache. The film is surprisingly faithful to the day-to-day reality (OK, exaggerated) of professional kitchens, and the extraordinary amount of teamwork involved in producing superb restaurant food. It may not make anyone want to become a chef, but it gives plenty of insight into what it takes to do so.

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  • It has to be Ratatouille.

    The disclosure list of these researchers was almost worrying in this otherwise interesting study on protein and GI:

    Larsen et al., Diets with High or Low Protein Content and Glycemic Index for Weight-Loss Maintenance, nejm, 363;22, 2102-2113

    All that effort and cost, when all they needed to do was read the Seven Countries Study by Ancel Keys.

  • Li Ti

    The best ever food movie is “Babette’s Feast”

  • Cathy Richards

    Thanks Marion for introducing this list to a broad audience. The first 3 movies are definitely worth watching.
    I’ll look for the noodle one, and watch it with my friend who makes his own noodles!

  • Joseph Docu

    tampopo offered up several innovative new ways to enjoy food. The rice omellette scene is priceless. This movie is a jewel of cinema.

  • Abe

    I think anytime Supersize Me is mentioned, however, you need to also mention Fat Head, where Tom Naughton takes on and exposes some of the fallacies in that movie. For example, it is mentioned a couple of times that Mr. Spurlock was eating 5000 calories per day, but you can’t achieve that total without adding a lot of desserts and other extra calories. Even by supersizing 2 meals per day (even though he only supersized 9 times over the month), you’d still need to add a couple of desserts to reach that many calories. It sounds like Mr. Spurlock was intentionally stuffing himself to try to make a point. Try watching Fat Head, and you’ll see that fast food can be eaten for a month without such deleterious effects on the health. Not that I’m defending fast food – but it’s just not as simple as Morgan Spurlock makes it out to be.

  • Caron Campbell

    I have a real thing for food movies! Babette’s Feast is definitely one of the best ever, as is Eat Drink Man Woman, Like Water for Chocolate, the final scene in Big Night, and The Happy Chef.

  • I saw “Super Size Me” a few years ago and it really resonated with me. I used to work for them (first high school job) and use to eat that crap all the time as a child. It was interest that he put his body through this and it makes me wonder about those who all they eat is fast food and junk food.

    Having gone through a slight food addiction myself with sweets, I’m curious to know what did he do to detoxify himself of all that fast food and others who are addicted to either sweets or junk food on what they did to overcome their addiction.

    A lot of people judge heavier people but I feel there’s more to it than meets the eye (2 sides to every coin, right?)

  • Kim

    Neema, I decided to give up sweets when I was diagnosed with diabetes in 2003. It’s not easy to do but I’ll tell you how I did it. I used to have at least one type of sweet every single day and on many days, I’d have 2 or 3 things, sometimes more. It was often a matter of an unexpected treat at work or a friend’s home or a restaurant and I just didn’t pay attention to how much sugar I consumed. The first thing I did was to get into the habit of eating 2 or 3 pieces of fresh fruit every day without fail. It was a struggle at first because fresh fruit didn’t really appeal to me which I gradually came to realize was because I was addicted to sugar. Even eating fruit didn’t help at all at first but I stuck with it and gradually, I lost my sugar cravings and started looking forward to having fresh fruit. It really works if you stick with it. Now I have some sort of sweet treat about once a week, it’s a moderate portion, and I choose very, very carefully because it’s going to be a week before my next treat. I’m satisfied with less and some super sweet things (like icing) don’t really taste good to me anymore. About 2 yrs. ago, I cut HFCS completely out of my diet. I’m very careful to avoid it. I think that was what really got me off sugar once and for all. I think HFCS is highly addictive and wish I had known about it back in 2003. I think it would have been much easier to kick sweets if I had given up HFCS first. I also gave up diet soda about a year ago and that has cut down even further on my sugar cravings. It’s remarkable how much better I feel and all food tastes better to me now.

    Marion, I love your list but I have to agree with Abe on Supersize Me. I think Spurlock took the experiment overboard when he ate so much he vomited. I think that ruined the movie’s message. If someone is eating until they puke, fast food isn’t their most serious food issue. I found Spurlock’s girlfriend rather melodramatic, too. I’d sub Like Water for Chocolate.

  • Brandon

    I didn’t like Supersize Me because he skewed the results. He ordered twice on camera (who knows how many times he did it off camera) double quarter pounder with cheese value meals within the first seven days. Too much self-fulfilling prophecy.

  • Emily

    Cheers for “Tampopo!” Except that it always makes me want ramen, which you can’t really get in most of the US, other than those awful packages. (Those are to ramen what McDonald’s is to a backyard burger. Probably– I’m actually vegetarian and I don’t remember burgers particularly well. Or, for that matter, ramen.) I also enjoyed “Ramen Girl,” though that’s much less about the actual food than about dedication and finding oneself.

  • Erin

    The main character in Ratatouille is a rat, not a mouse.

    Great movie suggestions – I am looking forward to watching the films here that I haven’t already seen.

  • Mike

    I think you should have mentioned “The Real Dirt on Farmer John” & “The End of the Line” Both made a profound impression on me.

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