Movie ratings are reductive. A movie can’t be reduced to a number, nor can a response to a film. (A critic I know once griped in a tepid two-star review that “four yawns” would have been more appropriate, and that other films he had given a zero-star rating really deserve “four bombs.”)
A positive rating can’t tell you if a movie is entertaining, thought-provoking, funny, inspiring, exciting, challenging, surprising, insightful, witty or poetic. A negative rating can’t tell you whether it’s boring, pointless, crude, clumsy, confusing, obvious, exploitative, ugly, etc. That’s what language is for.
Ideally, a rating offers an index of the critic’s opinion as discussed and explained in the review. For readers familiar with a critic’s work, a B or three-star rating puts the film in a certain context relative to other B or three-star films.
Every movie review at Decent Films includes a letter grade prominently displayed near the movie title. (Essays don’t have letter grades.) This letter grade is a recommendability rating, and can be understood this way:
Any of these ratings (except F) can be nuanced with pluses or minuses: C+ isn’t quite a recommendation, but it’s leaning positive; A- is highly recommended, but with qualifications or caveats.
The “grade” metaphor isn’t meant to suggest an objective judgment on a film’s achievement or quality; it’s just an index of whether or not I recommend the film, and how strongly.
Of course, that raises the question: What makes a film recommendable or nonrecommendable? I offer two supplemental ratings meant to clarify and amplify on the recommendability rating, to break down why a film is or isn’t recommendable along two basic axes:
Artistic–entertainment value essentially goes to how well made a film is, how well it works or achieves its effect. The stars can be read this way:
Here, too, there are half stars between the full star ratings.
How well a film works, of course, depends in part on what sort of film it is, what it’s trying to accomplish. The merits of a top-notch character drama are different from those of a top-notch action film or thriller. Likewise, the defects of a lousy romantic comedy are different from those of a lousy biography or documentary. Any film can only be evaluated by the standards appropriate to the sort of film it is.
As essential as artistic-entertainment value is, how worthwhile a film is also depends on moral and spiritual factors. Here I write specifically as a Catholic Christian, though my intention is to write in a way that is accessible and worthwhile for interested readers of other faiths, or of none.
Moral–spiritual value can be positive or negative — or both. My moral–spiritual scale goes from +4 to -4; the sense of it is something like this:
The rating allows for the inclusion of both positive and negative moral-spiritual factors, e.g., +2 / -1. Rather than reduce every film to a single moral character, this system is meant to acknowledge that many films are mixtures of both praiseworthy and problematic elements.
Finally, there is a rating for age appropriateness:
Any of these ratings may be modified by an asterisk (*), indicating “discernment required.” Profoundly objectionable films (-4) are not assigned an age rating.
At the end of the day, what matters is not the numbers, but the thinking behind them — and for that matter above and beyond them.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.