On a recent episode of the Film Spiel podcast, Cut. Print. Review. editor Anders Wotzke and his co-host Dave Bradley were discussing Waiting for Superman, which Bradley had seen and thought an excellent documentary. Though this was in the midst of only their eight episode together, we were told early on that the two have known each other for some time, traveling in similar cinematic circles in Australia, and often disagreed with each other. Suffice it to say, Wotzke is familiar with the way Bradley rates films and vice versa.
When it came time to rate Superman, Bradley christened it a four-star film, which prompted Wotzke to ask, "What is a five-star documentary [or film in general] to you?," as Bradley apparently rarely, if ever, grants a film with such a rating. He went on to explain that for him to give such a rating, a film must endure the test of time to stand as such a classic. Wotzke even brought up Bradley's professed favorite film of all time, Terry Gilliam's Brazil, and it was worthy of only four-and-a-half stars according to him (though he granted the 1956 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers with five stars, ironically).
At one point, Wotzke delcares, "It's your reaction to it; you're giving it five stars, not a collective group of people." This got me to thinking about the way that I rate films, as well as the way others do.
Unless you haven't been paying attention, it should be obvious that my philosophy is pretty much akin to Dave's. While I don't (or try not to) worry about the collective group think of a film and how it's received by the populace at large, I maintain almost without exception that a film has to stand the test of time for me to earn such a rating. In four years of (sporadic) film reviewing here, I've given my highest rating to a scant number of films. Many of these would not receive such a rating were I to score them today - blame theatrical highs and/or emotion - though there might also be just as many of the next-highest rating that would move up (sadly - or it is thankfully? - film opinions are not written in stone). Either way, not a whole heck of a lot of five-star movies. Meanwhile, I see and/or hear people granting their highest rating (be it 4-, 5-, or 10-stars) with regularity.
This seems like a good time to explain my philosophy - if I even have one - and if I do, to do so in a way that makes sense.
I'm not sure how many films I've seen in my lifetime, but judging from the numbers that I see my peers throw around, it's safe to say that it's in the neighborhood of 2,000. The percentage of films that I would grade as five-star would have to be in the neighborhood of 50 - in other words, about 2.5%. And that seems like a high number, even though it isn't. 5/5 means perfect, right? Nothing I would change, or at least nothing significant. It speaks to my soul on an emotional level, or dazzles me with wit or visuals or all of the above to the degree that I don't possibly think it could be any more awesome. It is as close to flawless as my pea brain can possibly imagine.
How can I flagrantly throw such a rating around? To borrow from The Incredibles, "If every (or even many a) film is special, then no film is special." Right?
And more to Bradley's point, how can I possibly know that a film will have such an impact on me after 90 or 120 minutes, aka on first viewing? How many films do you walk out of and think to yourself, "God damn, that was a great movie!" How often are you uttering to yourself or those around you, "Best of the year, bar none!" Perhaps the answer to those questions are the essential root of this whole conundrum - my answers are "Not very many" and "Maybe once a year" (we often supplant our yearly favorites as we see more films through the course of the calendar).
Even the few times I have thought such a thing have been eroded by the test of time. I listed Inception as my personal best of 2010, and it was probably the last time I thought those thoughts (it was also the last film I saw in the theater more than once), and I wouldn't even grant it five stars today (though it still might get my site's highest rating, to add more confusion). The last film I saw that would receive such a rating would likely be 2009's Inglourious Basterds, and even up until my recent re-watch of it would it have received four-and-a-half.
The more films I see, the more depressed I can get. I'm getting a reputation for being 'meh' about nearly everything I see - not psyched enough for much to hit theaters and almost always disappointed with what I get. Most movies I watch seem to regress to the mean; I might talk a lot of shit about something like Transformers and/or Nic Cage, but I rarely have violently negative reactions, either. Odds are pretty awesome that I will rate just about any film I see with either "Darn Tootin" or "Decent Fellow," a span of star ratings that goes from approximately two-and-a-half to three-and-a-half stars (I also rarely give my lowest ratings, but I prefer to think that because I'm successful at avoiding the true dreck of cinema, like all of Gerard Butler films from the last four years).
But I've also come to believe that, boring as it might be to others (and certainly me) to see the same small range of ratings handed out, maybe that attitude isn't so bad. I go in to most movies with realistic expectations, but on occasion I get to hope that "This thing is going to knock my socks off," only I don't use the phrase "knock my socks off" because no one really says that phrase in public. Point is, every once in a while, I just might go in and be blown away by a product - or, conversely, filled with rage - and when I am, I'd like to think that those highest or lowest of marks that I've stamped on them with have that much more meaning.