Sometimes food is a supporting player, and sometimes it is quite literally the lead. From low-brow raunch comedies starring anthropomorphized hot dogs to gorgeous coming-of-age dramas to noir-ish thrillers, food played an essential role in the films of 2016 — and not always where you'd expect it.
Without further ado, and in no particular order, our nominations for the finest food scenes to hit U.S. theaters in 2016.
1. Maggie's Plan: Depressive Pickle Eating
Some food is erotic, while other food is the embodiment of existential angst. At Manhattan's Union Square farmers market with her new husband's kids, Maggie's sperm donor (it's complicated) gives her an enormous jar of his artisanal Bavarian pickles as an impromptu wedding present.
But Maggie's new marriage is crumbling, and moments later Maggie (Greta Gerwig) is in the kitchen fighting with her husband (Ethan Hawke) between angry bites. (By now, the pickle jar is mostly empty.) It is hardly a "food scene," traditionally defined, but it is without question the year's best dramatic use of pickles. And, let it be said, those are some fine-looking pickles.
2. Moonlight: The Diner Reunion
"When you cook for someone, this is a deliberate act of nurturing," Moonlight's director, Barry Jenkins, told Bon Appétit's Julia Bainbridge. "This very simple thing is the currency of genuine intimacy."
And never is that more clear than in the film's third act — when Chiron, now living in Atlanta, grown up, toughened, and quiet as ever — drives back home to Miami to see his childhood friend, Kevin, now a cook at a diner. As Kevin prepares the Chef's Special (it's arroz con pollo) for Chiron, the tenderness is palpable.
It is a rare thing, to find yourself moved by a man chopping cilantro. And yet as Kevin molds the rice into a careful pile, the meaning is unmistakable — it is a gesture of love. (For film buffs and foodies alike, the whole Bon Appétit interview is worth a read.)
3. La La Land: The Fire-Alarm Dinner
Making an unannounced stop home while on tour with his electro-jazz band, Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) surprises his aspiring actress girlfriend, Mia (Emma Stone) with an elaborate home-cooked meal.
But the sad truth of surprises is that they do not always go as planned, and the romantic mood sours when Mia accuses Sebastian of compromising his dream — and Sebastian fires back. To add insult to injury, the fire alarm goes off. But then, isn't that always the way?
4. City of Gold: Visit to Chengdu Taste
I do not know if this is the right scene to pick, or if I just have a craving for noodles, because almost every minute of this documentary (still streaming on Hulu) is a mouthwatering celebration of food, food criticism, and the incredible diversity of the city of Los Angeles.
The film follows Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic Jonathan Gold on what is essentially an eating tour of Los Angeles, from the mouth-watering seafood tostadas to Grand Central Market (also featured, albeit very briefly, in La La Land) to the Iranian feast at Atari Sandwich Shop.
5. Sausage Party: The Orgy
Well, it is possible this scene (this film?) will turn you off of food forever — proceed at your own risk — but there is no way to do a 2016 food-in-film retrospective without acknowledging the literal food porn that is this animated comedy about the sexual desires of groceries.
Every scene is a food scene here — again, this is a movie about a hotdog anxious to consummate his relationship with a sexy bun — but the edible orgy is, what we'll call, a singular experience.
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But the ballot's not yet full. Got another nomination? Let us know in the comments!