Rating Movies

What makes a movie worth four stars? One star? What about half stars? What's the point of rating a film anyway? Isn't it all a bit arbitrary? What everyone has never been waiting for: an explanation of the rating system used to rate movies here at The Illuminated Lantern.

We've all seen them. At the end, or at the beginning, of just about any movie review you read, there must also be a rating. The rating is supposed to be a shorthand for the review as a whole, a short, visual summary letting you know, at the most basic level, what the reviewer thought. The review itself is often designed with one purpose in mind: to inform the reader whether they should spend their own time and money on seeing the film or not. The reviewer, by making it his profession to watch everything, thus saves the casual viewer the pain of enduring the worst of the garbage that passes for entertainment these days, and informs the viewer when something truly extraordinary has come around.

In it's purest incarnation of this kind of rating, we must bow to Roger Ebert and his simple binary "thumbs up, thumbs down" rating system. See it, or don't. That's it.

But in Roger Ebert's writing for the Chicago Sun-Times, he uses a different rating system, a series of stars, from zero to four, including half stars, for a total of nine possible ratings. At this point, the ratings are telling us something more. There is still the see it/don't see it evaluation (around three stars for most people), but then there is an additional measurement, of the film itself. This type of rating system pretends to be able to judge the film itself, and how it measures up against other films. Ebert does not pretend his ratings are objective, but others do. I find this system to be messy myself, and not entirely comprehensible. What, really, is the difference between a movie that gets two stars and one that gets two and a half? More importantly, why should I care about that slight distinction, especially since it appears to already be below the threshold rating of a film that might actually be worth seeing.

Jonathan Rosenbaum, writing for the Chicago Reader, uses a simpler five point system, beginning with zero, meaning "worthless," to five, meaning a "masterpiece." It is somewhat difficult to tell if he is suggesting the rating system is being used to assign an objective quality to the film or if it is subjective to the reviewer, until you see that three stars mean, "A must see," and two means, "worth seeing." Clearly, this is a more advanced model of "thumbs up, thumbs down," giving you a few additional options. In this rating model, the stars are shorthand for the reviewers opinion of whether you should see the movie. They are not shorthand for the reviewers opinion of the quality of the film, evaluated according to some kind of objective criteria and compared to other films. I would never then say, "That's a four star film!", instead, I might say, "I gave that film four stars." The rating and the reviewer cannot be separated.

My own system follows Rosenbaum (much to my surprise), though with one rating omitted. I use a simple four star rating system. It breaks down like this:

One star: I don't recommend watching this film. It's boring, badly made, incoherent, or just plain stupid. You have been warned.

Two stars: Marginally Recommended. Rosenbaum calls his one star rating "A redeeming facet," and that's what I think of here. There is something in this movie that will appeal to some, but not all, viewers. Perhaps there is one actor who is quite good. An excellent scene. Perhaps it is a low budget effort with a decent script. Perhaps it is in a genre which you love. Whatever the case, the film is not a total loss.

Three stars: Recommended. Regular viewers of a particular cinema (Hong Kong cinema, Indian cinema, etc.) or a particular genre, will find much to enjoy here. I think of this rating as saying "This is a good ________ movie." (Fill in the blank with Hong Kong, or Science Fiction, or what have you.) If the film lies outside your area of interest, or is from a country whose productions you are not sympathetic to, chances are you won't enjoy the movie. Otherwise, by all means, get it and you won't be disappointed.

Four Stars: Highly Recommended. These movies would be considered quality in any language, in any genre. Lovers of good movies and or/great entertainment should seek them out.

Rosenbaum also has the rating "Masterpiece." I don't. If I think something is a masterpiece, I'll give it four stars and mention it in my review. But I find that the main effect of having a rating of, essentially, "perfect," means that no film ever gets that rating. So what's the point?

Four ratings seem more than adequate to describe whether a film is worth your while or not. A nine or ten point scale seems needlessly complicated. What do you think?

Posted by Peter Nepstad on December 21, 2004.

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