Wong Kar-wai

Is 2046 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.

Seven years ago I watched every move that had ever won Best Picture at the Oscars. I wrote about them all here; not everything on there is something I stand by, but it was an interesting journey through film. The self-imposed timeline of one year kept it fresh and forced me to often watch movies when I didn’t really want to, which may not be the best way to watch nearly a century of iconic films. I had to watch 2046 because it was going to leave The Criterion Channel, but I really wanted to see it. It’s a sequel to In the Mood for Love, a movie I once called the Best Movie of All Time on this very dumb series.

It’s just not very good. I feel a tremendous amount of shame for saying that because it’s a celebrated masterpiece and because In the Mood for Love was so excellent. The New York Times called it an “unqualified triumph,” which is crazy praise. I tend to side more with Roger Ebert’s review where he said “I wonder what it could possibly mean to anyone not familiar with Wong’s work and style.” Director Wong Kar-Wai is obviously a master and it feels crazy to criticize a movie like this from where I sit, but I don’t think 2046 is very good and I don’t think you should watch it.

Think about whatever cultural touchstone you don’t like. I met someone years ago who said they couldn’t understand why Parks and Recreation was funny and I still think about that person. It’s not a perfect show, but they were deliberate in saying they couldn’t even access whatever made it a comedy to other people. It read like an alien text to them, just shut off completely. 2046 isn’t that, but it is equally hard to approach something with near-universal appeal and say it isn’t good. You feel like it’s you. It probably is, statistically speaking, you.

2046 is a sequel in that the main character continues into this text, but it’s largely a different thing. The main character is jaded now, so he resists the emotional trappings of love and relationships. We watch him have meaningless sex and label it as such, even as other people try to connect with him. He monologues in voiceover about how these are mistakes but also how they are the only way he can see the world. It’s not really as bad as all that, but he definitely becomes hard to root for and that lends a certain Cassavetes vibe to the whole thing. These are sad people who wish they could behave differently, but we are wired how we are wired.

There is a science fiction story draped on top of 2046, where supposedly humanity tries to go to a specific place in the future to realize their true desires. This is a story that is written and I mean this when I say that it is not interesting at all. The main thrust of 2046 is about how we deal with the fallout of lost love. That part, truly, is interesting, if not necessarily explored in a way that fills a full feature film. The futuristic elements of 2046 are not worth watching and they are not worth discussing here.

I did not hate this movie. I really like about 60% of it and I think those parts are a worthy story to tell. They are interspersed with a story that is absolutely not worth watching and I have spent a few days trying to find a way to talk about that and I have not found it. There’s just a lot here that I don’t think anyone could like. I have to say, from where I sit, that much of 2046 is poorly wasted time.

That’s the whole of it, right? The only purpose of talking about a movie here is to tell you if it’s worth your time. Most people would tell you this is. I am breaking from those ranks. The problem seems to be with me, as I watched the trailer again and the comments are from people who count this among their favorite films.

The premise of this series is to challenge the author, me, to experience every film as if it is trying to achieve an impossible standard. I thought In the Mood for Love achieved that. I don’t think 2046 does. Does that mean it’s terrible? Of course not. Should you watch it? I think it depends on your love of the last one. This is a big drop off, mostly because I don’t think the synthesis of ideas works, but if you found yourself hoping for more then you will find some of it here. Some of it is even beautiful. It just tries your patience in a way that greatness probably shouldn’t.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? Yes, this is better than The Nowhere Inn. I don’t really like either movie, but this one has pieces I do enjoy.

Is it the best movie of all time? No. It’s not as good as the original film and it’s not as good as Persona. I think you owe any movie that anyone loves a chance. I asked people to tell me their favorite movies before I started this and I’ve watched almost everything everyone mentioned. I do not mean to discount anyone who loves 2046, but it doesn’t do for me what it does for those folks.

You can watch 2046 on Tubi or Pluto TV. You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.

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 @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.