Tuesday, October 14, 2014

My Movie Rating Scale

Some of my personal all-time favorite films
How do you decide if a movie is "good" or not?

No, really. Take a minute and think about it. What are the qualities of a “good” movie, versus a “bad” movie?  A good moral message? Well-made and aesthetically interesting? Depicts something true or beautiful? Personal taste for the genre? You just sorta liked it?

It's an important question to consider, as it brings to the surface our motives, paradigms, values, and practices when it comes to engaging with art and culture. Why do you like what you like?

Everyone needs to find a system and framework that works for them. This isn't just pragmatics; this is an exhortation to do the hard work of figuring out your own tastes and learning how to thoughtfully expand them. As someone who has built a reputation for my love of film and faith, I've recognized that I need to have a sort of public framework, a ratings system akin to the ones critics use in their reviews. 

Let's be honest: nowadays it's all about the numbers and ratings. In a world of Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic, actually reading whole written reviews and reflections has (tragically) gone by the wayside for many people looking to critics for whether or not to see a film. I have never placed a numerical value or rating within my film reviews on my blog, but I do record them in my Film Journals. But seeing a number or some stars doesn't tell you much. So allow me to unpack the numbers, offering some clarity behind the system I use:

5-star Rating (100-point Rating) Personal / Aesthetic / Spiritual
5 (95-100) Favorite / Masterpiece / Divine Encounter
4.5 (88-94) Exceptional / Well-Crafted Work of Art / Enriching and Transformative
4 (78-87) Great / Exciting, Affecting, Memorable Achievement / Enlightening
3.5 (68-77) Very Good / Interesting Concept and Execution / Evoking
3 (58-67) Good / Interesting Concept or Execution / Eye-Opening
2.5 (48-57) Mixed Feelings / Flawed but Worthy / Moderately Insightful
2 (38-47) Disappointing / Mediocre and Uninteresting / Secular
1.5 (28-37) Regrettable / Notably Flawed and Frustrating / Guilt-inducing
1 (18-27) Enraging / Wholly Deficient / Shameful
0.5 (8-17) Failure / Offensive / Toxic
0 (0-7) Atrocity / Gouge My Eyes Out / Sinful
The first aspect is a 5-star rating scale. Some publications use only 4 stars--Christianity Today and Roger Ebert come to mind--but I've chosen the 5-star system for its easy parallel to IMDB, Netflix, and Letterboxd. If I've rated it 4 stars here, it has 4 stars on Netflix and an 8/10 on IMDB. (You can read more about the origin of the "stars" criteria and other ratings systems in this enlightening WSJ article.)

The second part is a 100-point scale. This is akin to a school grade, a more nuanced system for rating, as it can show the difference between two films given the same star rating. For instance, I gave both Class Enemy and Horse Money 4 stars, but I'd grade them as 83 and 78, respectively. Not much of a difference, but enough to show which film I liked better.

The third aspect is a breakdown of the personal, aesthetic, and spiritual dimensions of the film. Personal focuses on what the film was about, and whether or not I found it enjoyable or beneficial. Aesthetic focuses on how the film was made, its level of craftsmanship and artistic merit. Spiritual focuses on the truth of the film, its moral and spiritual themes and its transcendent nature.

In my Film Journals, I've highlighted the 4.5 and 5 star reviews in blue and red, respectively. I hope this allows for someone doing a quick scan of my journal to see the films which are personal favorites and films worth your time and energy to experience.

The difficulty lies in personal tastes and affections vs. critical appreciation. Is Pulp Fiction a masterpiece? In a historical and critical acclaim sense, yes. In my opinion, not really. I don't think its aesthetics outweigh its depraved subject matter and its Trying Really Hard To Be Cool tone. So, I'd give it 2 stars on my scale above. What about Ferris Bueller's Day Off? I gave it 5 stars in my journal, because it's a personal favorite and a film I frequently return to, particularly on sick days and when I'm feeling like I need a dose of the 1980s. But is it a film that would appear on a Top 100 Movies of All Time? Not likely.

Do my tastes change over time and repeated viewings? Of course. A recent example is The Giver, which dropped significantly from a 3.5 to a 2.5 after a second viewing and some time to ponder. Paul Thomas Anderson's Punch-Drunk Love was a film I declared "too artsy" in high school, only to fully appreciate it ten years later as a married adult who had seen a few more films and could appreciate Anderson's vision. My #1 favorite film in high school was The Matrix, but while I still would rank that film on a personal favorites list, it wouldn't even break the Top 20.

I'm admittedly prone to giving slightly higher reviews than many critics. Most of the films I watch will have a rating between 2.5 and 4, and rarely does a 2 or below end up in my journal. Perhaps this is because I've honed my tastes and judgments to a point where I can tell if I'll appreciate or enjoy a film before I see it. I don't have the time or energy to waste two hours on something that will get less than a 50 on a 100-point scale. Most of those films in my journal were surprises or risks I took. In my Film Journals, I couldn't find a single 0.5 rating, though there were a few 0-star reviews (Sharknado and Birdemic).

Keep in mind: just because I gave a film 4 or 5 stars doesn't mean you should see it or will enjoy it. Similarly, just because I gave a film a low rating doesn't mean I think you're a moron if you happened to like that film. There's value in finding and reading film critics who will make you think and challenge your paradigm, and I appreciate writers who will cause me to rethink my reactions to a film by offering a different perspective. I hope to encourage those who read my reviews to be wise and discerning, open to what a film offers while also using caution in determining whether or not to see that film. For example, I gave 12 Years a Slave a 5-star rating. While it is a powerful film on all levels, it's certainly not a film I'd want to revisit in the near future, and I would caution viewers who may just click the film on Netflix without realizing the violent and disturbing content it contains. I also really appreciated and enjoyed the film Noah, and gave it 4 stars, but I recognize that many viewers disagree with my perspective (you can read my review of Noah here).

I hope this helps you, the reader and film-lover, as I continue to watch, review, and reflect upon films of all varieties. Thanks for taking the time to read and share my film reviews, and I look forward to sharing more of them in the season to come!

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