When Does a Movie Deserve a Five-Star Review? A Reviewer Explains All

Having written reviews for over a decade now, I have by this point been asked to explain myself more times than I could possibly count. Of course, these are often rhetorical inquiries… sometimes they aren’t even phrased as inquiries at all. Nevertheless, among the now countless film critics out there, it isn’t uncommon for some explanation of one’s rating system to exist. In fact, I’ve written the idea up before myself.

Certain recent events have moved me to put my ideas down again, not so much because of the interest in what I might mean by any particular 4-star rating (or whatever), but more because of what readers might expect a 4-star rating to mean, and the ways in which these ideas may clash.

I also decided to write on the subject based on a panel I attended at SXSW, which was called Hyperbole in Film Criticism. On the panel were several critics, including Cinematical‘s Scott Weinberg, James Rocchi, HitFix‘s Drew McWeeney, and eFilmCritic’s (and elsewhere’s) Erik Childress.

You can imagine the general discussion of such a panel. In short, we find ourselves in a somewhat new age of film criticism really. Never before have you seen so many critics losing their jobs, and so many quotes in ads that list the source of the quote in really tiny print. Every movie gets five stars from someone, and every movie is “The Best Comedy of the Year!” (well, mostly just the comedies)

Considering the reviews, liberal use of exclamation points, and especially the fact that someone rates everything pretty highly, what are we to make of film criticism these days?

At any rate, I felt like explaining my theory of attaching the stars to films, and you’re welcome to play along. But first, I think I must say that I’m generally opposed to rating movies at all. I see it much like the opening to Dead Poets Society. How “good” is this poem by Keats? 67.

Why the Face?

That out of the way, the short version of my thoughts on ratings is that I agree pretty much Roger Ebert’s thoughts on the subject, even if I don’t think he actually follows his own theories anymore. On the other hand, Flickchart does a pretty good job summing up my feelings as well – If these three are all five star movies, how do you choose between them? (I probably don’t mean what you think I mean by that.)

While most every critic can spin you a yarn about their theory of ratings, I don’t know that many of them really see ratings as “doing work,” and I actually do, which is odd since I’ve already said I don’t like them. You can wander the internet and see things like – Five Stars = Run out and see it! – but, what the hell does that mean?

You can also see some people working out theories that suggest that before it starts every movie is zero stars (or five stars), then if this happens it gets half a star… whatever. The directing was good. The plot was bad. The acting was so-so. It was much better than Cats. I’m going to see it again and again.

I have, I think, a somewhat unique system for coming up with the stars, and I keep it completely separate from the actual reviewing of the film. I usually come up with the rating right after I finish writing my review, and try not to think about stars until then. Then I ask myself four questions, and whatever star measure pops into my head, that’s what the film gets. I do this right after writing the review, because I’ve been going over the film in my mind quite a bit… hopefully.

Here are the questions-

1) What was this movie trying to be/do, and what level of merit is attached to that effort?

2) To what degree does the film succeed in delivering on that effort?

3) In what ways, and to what degree, does it stand out as noticeable that the film could have been better?

4) Will you watch it again?

That’s it.

That last one might warrant some explanation, especially because there are movies that I give five stars (or otherwise high marks) that I absolutely will never watch again. It’s a factor that I feel is worth confronting though, and even if I never actually wind up watching a movie again, there is some worthwhile sentiment inherent in the idea.

Of course, it’s all subjective nonsense, but it’s my subjective nonsense, and the truth is that every theory is subjective nonsense. The point is that it’s a sort of structured nonsense, and one that I think makes at least some sense out of the idea.

You may notice that the general question is actually a bit different, because I save my focus on “goodness” for the review. The rating is really looking more at how well the film worked, not whether or not it is some level of “good.” Ok, except insofar as the “out” built in there such that Freddy Got Fingered might have been exactly the film it was trying to be, I simply offer up no merit whatever in trying to be that.

It also, and just because I want it to, removes rating a film from comparison with any other film. Notice again that there is nothing in those questions which has anything else to do with the general state of the film world, similar films, or anything else that is outside the thing itself. Of course, knowledge of other such things plays a role in how those questions are answered, but it isn’t direct, and I don’t want it to be.

Among film critics, one of the most frequent comments you get is of the form, “You gave X 4 stars, but only gave Y 3 stars!” It is a comment that at some point becomes legitimate – “You gave Casablanca 1 star and Freddy Got Fingered 5?” – but in almost all cases it only serves to point out the commenter’s lack of sensible thought on the subject. It’s rarely such an outlandish example, and the background idea that films can be compared in such a way is just plain silly… marketing purposes excluded, because then it’s gold.

However, it raises an interesting point about those who read (or otherwise consume) film criticism, because there appears to be a fascination with which film is better – Best Comedy of the Year!, Better than Star Wars! – even though no one really reads a film review in order to find out what movie beats what in some global, history-spanning top trumps movies game.

Though I don’t really like them, I do believe that ratings serve a real purpose. You probably want to find a critic that has somewhat similar tastes, and you can get a good feel for their general bent without having to read through dozens of full reviews. There is also something to be said for having a way to consolidate the opinions of many critics. You might trust your favorite critic’s opinion, but it might not be your kind of movie. If everyone is giving it high marks, that might add some incentive.

Most importantly, I think it can do actual, legitimate work in that I may write a review that seems pretty negative, but give the film four stars. That rating can then change the reading to a degree.

The idea has gone wrong though, because so many media outlets have (for so long) latched onto the idea of providing very little else. Film critics are often lucky to get more than 500 words for a review, and quite a few get around 200.

Though some believe film criticism is hovering at death’s door, I think quite the opposite is true. No matter what manner of wordsmith you are, you can’t say much in 200 words, and the truth is, not many try. Even if you could manage it well in 200 or 400 words, I don’t think it’s truly film criticism.

Film criticism is like any other article, and the fact that someone stuck a rating on it once doesn’t change that. If a travel piece on Spain had 200 words, but was followed by three stars, you’d know something had gone wrong, and the point doesn’t change because we switch to a film.

We read film reviews, mainly, because we want to know something about the subject. We want to know if we are going to like, and why. Hopefully, we eventually read them for the same reason we read any other author or columnist, because we want to read what they write, whatever it is.

It was really a treat to be at that SXSW panel, even though the topic was more or less, “What the hell is going wrong with film criticism?” when I think that quite a bit is going right with it, and it was a treat for exactly the same reason that I love film reviews. Talking with people who are knowledgeable about a subject you love is a lot of fun, even when really you’re just listening to them. As McWeeney pointed out during that talk, some film reviews are better than the film in question, and I’d read the right person review any movie, even if I hated it and they loved it. I might not agree with their opinion, but it would be a long and happy disagreement. When it’s done right, a film review can completely change the experience of a film.

It may seem like we’ve gone far down a side road here, but I don’t think so.

What do the ratings mean?

You guessed it.

Read more at Are You Screening?

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