The 86th Academy Awards are coming to a TV near you this Sunday—and if you want to know which of the 9 Best Picture nominees wins the Oscar, you’ll have to stick it out until the bitter end. This will give you several long hours to consider things like the fabulous variety of hair (feathered, permed, toupee) on display in American Hustle, the authenticity of Tom Hanks’s thick New England accent in Captain Phillips, and just how masochistic a diet Matthew McConaughey must have endured for Dallas Buyers Club. But! Have you thought about all the ways food is used in each of these movies? What does it mean? How did the director and screenwriter deploy food and drink to build character or develop their stories? If you’re a Bon Appétit reader, chances are these questions occupy your brain during all waking hours—unless, of course, you were too busy cooking and eating to catch all the nominees in the theater. In any case, we are here for you with a breakdown:
Gravity: I Can’t Keep My Food Down!
Gravity’s single greatest culinary flaw is that not one character consumes ANY freeze-dried astronaut ice cream. Not one measly bite! Early on, Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), the medical engineer on a space mission that goes horribly awry, mentions that she is having trouble keeping her lunch down in the zero-G environment. Things only gets worse once her shuttle is destroyed and she’s left somersaulting her way through the cosmos. She doesn’t even get to enjoy a swig of the Russian vodka the hallucinated ghost of George Clooney cleverly finds.
Her: Real Women Eat Food
In Her, Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore Twombly, a lonely writer of other people’s deeply personal love letters who falls in love with the Scarlett Johansson–voiced operating system on his computer. If you can take your eyes off the fabulous high-waisted pants that are apparently the not-too-distant future of men’s fashion, you’ll notice Twombly mostly consumes food on the run: a fruit smoothie, say, or a piece of pizza. He sits down to meals only twice, both times with the (real) women in his life: once on a date and once with his soon-to-be ex-wife to sign their divorce papers. His disembodied girlfriend’s appetites don’t extend to dinner, of course.
SEE MORE: Oscars Swag Bags: A History of Edible Gifts Since 2003
Philomena: I Won’t Be Having any Tea or Fruit Bread
Philomena is about a British woman’s search for the child who was taken away from her, and the snobby journalist who goes along for the ride. Perhaps predictably, food in this English film highlights class differences: Philomena’s (Judi Dench) favorite restaurant is a cheap chain with a salad bar, while Oxbridge-educated Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) has fancier tastes. Later, on a plane, Philomena accepts a drink only after Martin assures her it’s free; and she expresses a nearly American level of enthusiasm over the breakfast buffet at a D.C. hotel, especially delighting in the omelet bar. But it’s Martin who scorns tea and fruit bread offered at the abbey near the end of the film, a sign he’s no longer willing to stand on Commonwealth formalities with the “evil nuns” who kept Philomena from her son for decades.
Nebraska: Beer and Bonding
Nebraska’s Woody Grant (Bruce Dern and his crazily unkempt hair) is an aging, alcoholic dad convinced he’s won a million dollars. He’s more interested in booze than food, finding his way into every small-town tavern from Montana to Nebraska. He knocks back cold beers with all variety of men along the way, from his well-meaning son (Will Forte) to a hometown nemesis, making the least amount of conversation possible between sips. But for a guy who doesn’t open his mouth much, he still somehow finds a way lose his false teeth in strange locations when he drinks.
SEE MORE: All the Food (and Drink) in Martin Scorsese’s Movies
Captain Phillips: Enjoy Your Coffee
The Somali pirates who hijack a cargo ship and take Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) hostage chew an addictive, bitter leaf called khat throughout the movie. The pirates are a mostly skinny bunch who seem to substitute khat, an appetite-suppressant, for real food. They stand in stark contrast to the well-fed crew back on Phillips’s ship, somewhat whiny union workers who constantly take coffee and food breaks and complain they aren’t paid enough to be put in danger—an unflattering depiction the real-life crew has disputed, among other filmic licenses taken.
The Wolf of Wall Street: The Drugs Diet
With all the drugs and sex in The Wolf of Wall Street, there isn’t much time for food. Surely man—even the seemingly immune-to-hangovers Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio)—cannot live on martini olives alone! Deli meat does play an integral supporting role, however, when Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill sporting a set of gleaming prosthetic teeth) nearly chokes on some he hasn’t properly chewed—perhaps to highlight the absurd deaths courted by the truly gluttonous. Here’s hoping Hill didn’t have any trouble digesting the goldfish he swallowed with malevolent abandon a few scenes earlier.
American Hustle: An Italian-American Feast
In American Hustle, con man Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and his gorgeous partner/mistress (Amy Adams) are forced to work for the FBI. It’s over a very Italian-American meal finished off with cannoli, Galliano, and cappuccinos that combover-sporting Rosenfeld and his wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), bond with Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), whom Rosenfeld is attempting to entrap. By the time a tipsy Rosalyn falls out of her chair and is carried out by the group, their temporary friendship has been successfully cemented. Other food-related lessons learned from American Hustle: Bradley Cooper isn’t afraid to perm where he eats; Jennifer Lawrence will blow up your microwave.
SEE MORE: 5 Culinary Uses for Thor’s Hammer
12 Years a Slave: A Story of Survival
In 12 Years a Slave, the true story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), an African-American freeman who in 1841 was drugged and sold into slavery, food is one marker of the differences between freedom and servitude. Early on, while free, Northup consumes a decadent, joyful meal in an elegant restaurant with two white men—who ultimately betray him. Enslaved, Northup eats with his hands from a metal plate with not much of a dinner on it; the sky is gray and rainy, and although other slaves are present, no one says a word. Access to food and drink is about power, too. Witness the horrific plantation owner, Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a man who luxuriates in perpetual drunkenness and endlessly cruelty.
Dallas Buyers Club: Clean Living
An emaciated Matthew McConaughey stars in this film, set in 1985, about a Texas electrician/rodeo cowboy who learns he has H.I.V. Before he becomes determined to live, Ron Woodruff (McConaughey) seems bent on dying, ingesting copious amounts of drugs and alcohol—and possibly the handfuls of candy he steals from the hospital the day he’s diagnosed. Later on, though, he’s all about clean living. He shuns processed foods and urges his friend Rayon (Jared Leto playing a transgender woman) to forego them as well—just like he stops taking the legally prescribed medications for his illness that made him and countless others more, not less, sick.
The greatest food scene of the year, however, belongs to a film that didn’t get any Academy love. In Blue Is the Warmest Color, a coming-of-age story that doesn’t skimp on sex scenes, the young Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) stuffs her face while on a date with such a glorious lack of self-consciousness you’d think the NC-17 rating is gastronomy-related. And don’t even get us started on her encounter with oysters…