Is In the Mood for Love the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

A lot of the discussion in this series so far has danced around what makes a film even eligible for the discussion. I don’t think it’s even possible to know, which is why this is an “eternal search.” As an American born in the 1980s, I have a specific perspective and most of the film I’ve seen is American film. I try to branch out when I can, but a lot of my background and a lot of what’s available to me is one kind of cinema.

The great lists are a place to start, but even that is imperfect. For every list, someone has a criticism. The most famous list used today is probably AFI’s “100 Years… 100 Movies” list. The “American” in “American Film Institute” should tell you one problem, but the critic Jonathan Rosenbaum offers many others in his rebuttal and alternate list. You could do worse than the list Sight & Sound puts out once a decade. Robert Ebert called it the only one that real cinema folks “take seriously.”

The detail I find most interesting in all versions of “great” lists is that recency bias works against you. On the one hand, this isn’t all that shocking. People are more likely to list films in the canon on their list than to put something they just saw on it and it takes a long time for any collective consensus to form around anything. The more democratic lists like IMDB’s Top 100 work the opposite way. Everyone’s favorite movie is the thing they just saw.

AFI’s top 100 lists exactly one move from 2000 or later: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. The Sight & Sound list only has three. IMDB’s lists 37. This is a bigger statement about IMDB than it is anything else, but it’s interesting to see how these things shake out over time.

Yi Yi and Mulholland Drive come in at #93 and #28 respectively on the Sight & Sound list, but In the Mood for Love beats them both at #24. The methodology is not built exactly this way, but as the most recently movie released ahead of it is from 1979 (Apocalypse Now), we are left to assume that Sight & Sound says this is the best movie of the last thirty years. Those are pretty big shoes.

Chow Mo-wan and Su Li-shen meet in a hallway in Hong Kong in the 1960s. They both are in marriages that seem to be stressed, but in ways we struggle to understand at first. We see only parts of life, and even then only for extremely brief moments. We see the passing of time made clear, but no progression seems to take place.

Chow is a journalist and Su is a secretary. Their spouses both work and are frequently away, which creates a space for a friendship except for the external forces against them. Their neighbors are in the hallway all the time, asking after each of them and their spouses, and the pressure of society drills into them over and over. Su frequently dresses up to go to the noodle shop down the alley and Chow finds himself running into her in ways he can’t avoid or really handle.

The experience of these run-ins is powerful. Director Wong Kar-wai really wants us to feel the social constraints of two married neighbors who have no one to talk to but also can’t really talk to each other without creating a scandal. The pair and the supporting cast encounter others over and over in cramped hallways and have short conversations. In another director’s hands we’d get this explained to us, but here we just see so many versions in a row that we feel overwhelmed by the experience. It’s a better way to convey the world around them and how they feel moving around in it and the experience really works.

It’s also important to see this to realize this isn’t a couple slowly forming, exactly. It becomes clear that each of them is in a failing marriage and that infidelity is likely, but then even more shocking realizations become even more clear. This could be the setup for a love-rectangle, but that’s not exactly it. The two form a partnership, more accurately, and pass time with clandestine, chaste encounters. They even become business partners, after a fashion.

The film eventually follows the pair as they pursue their own version of happiness, but it isn’t the conclusion you’d anticipate. It isn’t even the direction you probably would expect, with really “important” narrative pieces omitted. This omission isn’t confusing, but it is just enough to make you wonder how our cast made it through all this, and if they could have done any of it differently.

It’s a love story with less love than you’re probably used to seeing in a genre film, but it’s definitely still a romance. I found it beautiful, often, and shocking without being extreme. Most of the film happens in hallways and offices and it asks you to look at characters, often obscured by railings or door frames, who have to consider very carefully if they are willing to reach for something new. I don’t think “love story” really sets the tone correctly, but this is too complex for any one identifier. The most powerful emotion is the tension of possibility that runs through the whole thing and really, though all of our lives. There are so many moments where another decision in the past would change your present life, and In the Mood for Love shows both the really obvious paths not taken and the small, quiet moments that only turned out to be other paths much later.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? Dick Johnson is Dead is “modern” even compared to a “modern classic” like this one. This would be a better question with a documentary. There are a few more documentaries on my current list and I’ll revisit the question then. I certainly liked In the Mood for Love more.

Is it the best movie of all time? There are a handful of scenes where the two main characters act out other conversations, but we only realize they were acting after one of them breaks the scene. The film would work without these, but they’re what will stick with me for a long time after seeing it. The performances are strong, and they’d have to be with this small of a cast, but they are never stronger than these immediate shifts between swept-up lovers and then their real characters, neighbors who might be falling for each other and might not. These small touches, including an ending that I won’t spoil, pushes this one over the top for me. It’s not my favorite movie I’ve ever seen, but it is, I think, enough to edge out Badlands from the current top spot on our list.

You can watch In the Mood for Love on The Criterion Channel or HBO Max. You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.

Tough Questions: What’s the Worst Thing You’ve Ever Eaten in a Restaurant?


Every Monday we ask everyone who hangs out around here to answer a tough question. This week:

What’s the Worst Thing You’ve Ever Eaten in a Restaurant?

Rules are simple: What’s the worst of the worst? Everyone had that phase as a kid where you filled a glass with all the grossest stuff in the kitchen and dared your friend to drink it for a dollar, but then they didn’t want to so you drank it yourself? Nope? Just me? Anyway, what is that one special absolute worst dish you’ve ever been served by a supposed professional?

Alex Russell

I can eat just about anything, but I can’t eat mayo. It’s everything: the texture, the smell, the taste, everything. It’s almost “food-hack” at this point to hate mayo, but I stand my ground that this is something I cannot abide. Every time I order anything that might even conceivably have mayo on it as an option I essentially plead for them to not put any on it. Asking for no mayo seems to activate some secret bonus round of mayo in which you win the mayo lotto and get six times the mayo it would be reasonable to get. At a Hardee’s in Peoria once I got a burger that was more mayo than not mayo. It was mayonnaise that maybe, if you held it right, could hold beef and bread.

Brent Hopkins

I think the worst thing I have eaten in a restaurant is something called Gaebul (개불in Korean) which is a pretty common seafood dish. It is served raw with salt and sesame oil and it looks a lot like a dog’s penis. The full creature is disturbing enough, but the sliced bits are considerably worse to prepare your mouth for as they still move and are a two-tone wonder of brown and blood-red. The texture is somewhat crunchy (imagine constantly biting through the skin of an apple) and tough, and it is supposedly good for a man’s sexual stamina. I have had this on multiple occasions (not gonna turn down free stamina) and probably will have it again in the future, having just moved to a coastal city. But man, it just isn’t something I would like to see on a plate, ever. Pics are included of before and prepared[Editor’s note: GROSS WARNING.]

Jonathan May

I visited my sister in Vancouver, BC, Canada last July while she was working there in her third of three years. We had a great time exploring the city, taking pictures of ourselves with the city’s faux terracotta Chinese statues. But one day, two of my sister’s Chinese friends (a married couple) took us to lunch in the Chinese mall. We were the only white people in the restaurant for sure, probably the entire mall. They asked us what we liked and then proceeded to order, quickly, in Chinese. Pots of deliciously hot white rice arrived, followed by plates of curried chicken, garlic noodles with black bean curd, and shredded lamb. I was quickly overwhelmed by the intense and glorious flavors raving inside me. But halfway through the meal, a plate of thick, bone-white slivers arrived in a light sauce without explanation. The couple looked expectantly at me and my sister. “Beef lung,” the wife said. “You’ll like.” Horrified, I saw my hand clutching the chopsticks, picking one of the biggest, whitest, most unnatural pieces from the pile, and stuffing it in my mouth. It felt like my tongue was wrestling a stingray. I was sure I would vomit right there onto the table. But I didn’t. After my sister ate a piece as well, the couple, satisfied, returned to their meal.

Andrew Findlay

This is not a story about something that tastes bad. This is a story about poor choices and dire consequences. It’s not so much what the food tasted like as what it did to me. I was in Switzerland last summer, and Switzerland is the home of fondue. I ate like three buckets of fondue during the few days I stayed there. I do not know this for sure, but I’m close to certain that the Swiss don’t pasteurize some of their cheese. The cheese tasted pretty good, and the only drawback at the time was feeling like you’d eaten about 10 pizzas after the meal. The aftermath was horrendous. Something was living in and feeding on that cheese as I ate it. Something colonized my insides so thoroughly and with such reckless abandon that it fundamentally severed any link between my intestines and proper function. Right before a 13-hour plane ride home. On which the only movie available was The Hobbit. I spent half a day in a tube of misery and despair, I hate The Hobbit more than I already would have, and I couldn’t eat solid food for about a week.

Mike Hannemann

Red Robin is a wonderful establishment. Let’s preface my experience with that. I used to eat there once every two weeks when I was working out in the suburbs. Until one day. And I haven’t been back since. In high school and college, I always resisted peer pressure. I didn’t drink or anything until I was ready to. But, for some reason, I gave into it when it came to The Wiseguy. The Wiseguy was a “special” burger that month (and I use the word “special” very loosely here) that was only offered for a limited time. It was a cheeseburger that had cheddar and mozzarella cheese, marinara sauce, pepperoni slices, and three fried mozzarella sticks sandwiched together. I was convinced by co-workers that this was going to be the best burger I’d ever eaten. It resulted in a weekend of being violently sick and a lifelong distrust for one of America’s more popular restaurant chains.

Alex Marino

If anyone here has tried Balut, they win.

As for me, I fucking love sushi. Whenever I’m home I make sure to go to my family’s favorite sushi spot with my dad and devour more rolls than is permitted by the FDA. One time we put in an order for so many rolls that the waitress asked if more people would be joining us. We’ve tried almost every piece of sushi on the menu but there’s only one I’ll never have again: eel roe with a raw egg yolk on top. I don’t know what possessed my dad and me to believe we were some kind of Japanese Rocky but it was a nightmarish mistake. As soon as the roll was brought to us we knew it was going to be terrible but we had made our bed and now we had to lay in it. We decided to eat it first because if we looked at it any longer we weren’t going to make it. Eggs, slime, salt, seaweed, and rice just don’t mesh well. I gagged a little as I forced it down and my dad was stone-faced as always. The only thing he said about it was “We won’t be ordering that again.”