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Apr 7, 2011

When you wish upon a star

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.

17 people have chosen wisely: on "When you wish upon a star"

Ryan McNeil said...

I did a post like this talking about ratings a while back, and I've come to the conclusion that everybody's different when it comes to this sort of thing (ask Univarn - I've never let up on his system).

For me, I go with the gut reaction. That overall impression on first watch, written within a few days of that viewing. They range the gammut - a handful of top scores, one or two donuts, and lots in between. There aren't a whole lot of 2-Star or less scores from me, mostly because the stuff I'm pretty sure I won't like I don't even bother with.

Jack L said...

I agree with Hatter, I always go with my gut reaction, if I loved a film and can't think of anything wrong with it, I'll give it a top score. I don't overanalyse a film to get a rating that will perfectly match my feelings.
That said, I rarely use a rating system, I use it in my weekly summaries but because I don't have time to elaborate.
In my more lengthy reviews, I don't bother with a rating, I think trying to some up ones opinions of a film in some complex fashion is unnecessary...
For example, I've got many films that I might have rated a 9/10 or something that are amongst my absolute favourites. Just because it's not perfect doesn't mean I like it less.

Anyway, very interesting post, hope you don't mind my rambling ;)

Univarn said...

Me and Mad have had more than our fair share of 'enthusiastic' debates on this very issue. I always give films several days to digest, much like I do most decisions in my life that require any great analysis. And yes, this almost always brings films that might have been initial high scores down, but it often helps movies that would be on the bubble of negative gain more appreciation in my eyes.

Often times this is because I reflected on something that I hadn't noticed at the time, or found myself stuck on an issue with the movie that appears worse upon reflection that it did initially (take some of the not so subtle racism of District 9 for example).

Truth be told, our opinions are fluid and altering things that will never stabilize. We all have to draw the line somewhere, and it honestly doesn't matter where you draw it. Just so long as you are consistent with it.

Courtney Small said...

I use to be cautious about giving out top marks, but realized that I was reacting more to what others were saying instead of what I actually felt. I now look at the rating system as a snap shot of a moment in time. When I look back on old reviews I am instantly reminded about what I loved/hated about the film(s) in a particular year. Cinema is constantly evolving, so there will always be a new films that might make the once five star flick seem more like a 3.5 star picture. Yet the original ranking is probably the purest response I will ever give.

Ryan McNeil said...

Courtney's comment just reminded me of something I was talking about after the podcast I recorded last night:

Why not just stop ranking them?

French Toast Sunday said...

I actually don't even like to use star ratings at all. I think it's too hard to express in a star rating what my overall feelings of a film are. So at our site we put together a formula we use to give the movie an overall score that can be compared to other films. At first glance it seems a little complicated but it actually really helps me put a number to something. This page explains the system and this is an example of it in action. It's not for everyone, but it seems to really work for me.


Sebastian Gutierrez said...

Interesting. I've always thought of a movie as a five star movie if it accomplishes one of two things. If it takes a risk, does something new and fresh, tries something daring, and pulls it off (INCEPTION, BLACK SWAN), or effects me on an emotional level (LET ME IN, (500) DAYS OF SUMMER). Everything else can almost touch those levels, but, if at least one of those boxes isn't checked, in no way will it receive an "ECSTACY: ON A WHOLE NEW LEVEL" from me. Star ratings limit the range a movie can get (although, who am I to speak. My system is only comprised of five categories), and I find a grade, letter or number, to be pointless, because I don't think you can effectively rate art of any kind, no matter how bad it actually is, with a score. Score implies finality and authority, and nothing about your opinion is final or authoritative, because there will always be someone who disagrees with you. Just look at Nick v. the rest of the world on the subject of SUCKER PUNCH. You rate it with an emotion though, as I have taken to doing, and you leave the field open for debate. I have changed my tune of a film because I saw in a bad state or something like that. Final scores are harder to change.

French Toast Sunday said...

@sebastian - That is one way of looking at it. I don't take the score as something that is final, because I completely agree, art can not have one deciding opinion. I guess I just think of it as a good indicator for readers, so they can compare how we rated a film vs what they may enjoy. We usually have multiple people review a film, so we try to use the score to get the group consensus. Similar to something like Rotten Tomatoes. And even a star rating is a score... 4/5 is a fraction that can easily be viewed as 80% depending on how you look at it.

Fletch said...

Sorry for the late reply, y'all. As a kicker to that, I'm going to more or less reply to everyone at once (so you don't just skip to the part where I "@" you, haha).

This isn't so much about the process of rating or confusion that I come about when rating or doubting the system that I have. I like my system. What I'm really wondering is - and if you don't think this applies to you, fair enough - how can one justify giving 5/5s (or the equivalent thereof) to upwards of 5-10 movies per year? This is my conundrum. The 5/5 rating is sacred, something that I feel very few films deserve, and I'm always a bit jarred when I see so many of them given out.

Not rating movies is an impossibility to me. Aside from being a numbers guy, and being competitive (and therefore shifting competitiveness to things I'm not directly involved in), I think you're only lying to yourself by not doing so. Everyone ranks them in their heads even if they don't give scores out in their reviews - whether there's a number attached to said ranking is not the issue, but merely a way to easily and quickly demonstrate one's own ranking to others. And like Courtney says, consistency on that point is paramount.

I realize that scores are not final and I'm okay with that. But I'd shudder to think that any sort of majority of films that I once rating 5s were downgraded over time to 3.5 (as an example). I guess it doesn't make much sense in the end, but I'd rather rank a film lower on initial review and come back after time to bump it up than vice-versa, and I suppose that may be where my disconnect is with those that do hand out so many more 5s than I.

It's all semantics, I guess.

Ryan McNeil said...

I'm not hesitant to give top marks to a film through the course of the year, the question is, how often does one do it?

Omitting screenings of classic films, I saw 96 new films last year. Of those, I gave a top score to nine. A 10% "creme-de-la-creme" factor isn't such a bad ratio.

To me, those are the films I think will still stand up in five or ten years. The ones that had that little something extra that shook me, or moved me, or gave me that extra bit of joy.

Thing is, to never give out a top mark is to be a cynic. It's as if one says "This film did everything it wanted to do, entertained me and gave me my money's worth...but I'm sure I'll find a flaw in in later, so A-Minus for now".

The top mark shouldn't be handed out willy-nilly, and should indeed be thought about long and hard before being slapped on a title...but it should still be given out.

Anonymous said...

And this is why I hate rating movies. It requires far too much thought, contemplating and internal argument. I'd rather just write about what I did and didn't like about the film.

Plus, even though I seem more like a downer on most new films, I do a terrible job of rating things consistently, especially after a first viewing. Most films I've watched I'd change the rating of on a later date. I tend to over rate than underrate for some dumb reason.

In the end, I like my list method better. It's much easier for me to say which films is better than another film than to ascribe a alpha-numeric value to a film.

Red said...

Castor and I rarely give out perfect scores, as I believe the only one currently on Anomalous Material is my review for The White Ribbon, which I found to a combination of flawless film-making and emotional connection. Looking back, I can't argue against that rating, but then again, I'm not sure I 100% support it.

Even films that Castor has watched several times and has loved for years like Thin Red Line or Days of Heaven, he won't give out a perfect score because he truly believes that no film can be perfect. I agree with him for the most part, as there is usually always something, no matter how small, that can be improved.

Same thing goes for the opposite end of the spectrum. While we tend to avoid the films that we think we'll dislike, both of us appreciate the effort put into a certain film and there's almost always something positive to pull out of a film. A movie might be absolutely horrible, but if you laugh even just once, it has still offered you some entertainment.

We have had discussions of getting rid of our grading/ranking system entirely, but in the end we decided to stick with it.

Fletch said...

@ Hatter - 10% is a more than acceptable number for most anybody, just not for me. I'm more comfortable with the neighborhood of 5%. And though I would call myself a cynic - absolutely - I actually do throw out some 5s...

@ James - But see, I want the impossible: I want my ratings to coincide and be consistent with my own list. Have you used Flickchart yet? It's perfect for your method, since that's all you do is decide between two films (at a time), so in the end, the list you compile will be complete and perfectly accurate to you. With the only downside being that in order to finish that list, you'd have to spend 1200 years perfecting it...

Fletch said...

@ Red - Yea, I see where you're coming from. Though, as I said, I will give out 5s, I'm more understanding of your mindset than that of someone that hands out an exorbitant number of top marks. That said, I can't completely go down that trail with you, since I (and many others) would tell you that there never will be a perfect film - just like there is no Great American novel - that will be universally loved (or even 100% perfect in your own eyes), so to grade everything against an altogether unachievable standard is unfair.

Anders Wotzke said...

I only just found this!

First of all, it thrills me to know someone is listening to our podcast, and second of all, it thrills me to know that someone as intelligent and respected in the blogging community as Dylan of Blog Cabins is listening in!

Fantastic read Dylan; I'll be sure to pass it on to Dave.

It always surprises me to hear Dave go on and on about how great a film is, only to turn around and give it, at best, four stars. While I seldom give away a five star rating (only two so far), I am always willing to give a film five stars should it leave me flabbergasted (which, like, "knocks your socks off", should never be used in public). Yet I get the impression that Dave could only ever give five stars some 10 years down the track, and only if it still leaves him flabbergasted after all that time.
To me, that seems unfair, particularly from a professional critic. Dave is paid to grade films on a scale of one to five on a weekly basis -- not a decade long one -- so if he can’t give a five star review within that timeframe, then I honestly think his grading system is fundamentally flawed. If you’re a teacher who grades papers, surely you consider that a flawless paper deserves the top mark? If that teacher then only graded the paper 80%, despite having nothing to nit-pick, then I feel that student has every right to complain.

I think a crucial part of reviewing products of popular culture is being pre-emptive. You just can’t be the guy who continually turns around ten years later and says, “Ok, yes I can now confirm that said film was worthy of five stars.” People read and respect your opinion because your job is to tell them then and there that it’s a masterpiece. Whether you’re right or wrong is a different matter entirely; at the end of the day, it’s just your opinion, so why not flaunt it?

(Ok, shameless plug time: Ep.10 of Film Spiel is now online over out our podcast site, film-spiel.com.)

Fletch said...

@ Anders - Flattery will get you everywhere, my man. :) I hope Dave enjoys it - I surely enjoy him on the show, particularly the way he flatly says, "Yes." to you so often.

I guess I'm in between you both. You make some solid points, but I can certainly buy into his mindset at all. I just try not to be so rigid about it, which is the difference. Then again, I'm not paid, so I can do whatever I want. No fives for anyone, ever!! ;)

Unknown said...

I'm a little tardy to this party, but if it wasn't for people griping at me about wanting something in my blog they could check at a glance, I wouldn't have a rating of any kind on my blog. I'd just write about the things I thought were good and what I thought wasn't good and let people decide for themselves. You said it yourself without actually saying it, the ratings systems are so subjective you might not rate the film the same way each time you watch it.