Criticwire Survey: The Rating Game

Criticwire Survey: The Rating Game

Every week, the Criticwire Survey asks film and TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday morning. (The answer to the second, “What is the best film in theaters right now?” can be found at the end of this post.) Send suggestions for future questions to sam at indiewire dot com.

Q: In his response
to Vocativ’s ranking of critics by how often they agree with a movie’s
Metacritic average, “most reliable” critic J.R. Jones takes exception to
the practice of affixing letter grades or a star rating to a review. How do you feel about placing movies on a scale?
Would you give your reviews a grade if you were calling the shots? And
when you write for publications that require them, how much thought goes
into choosing the rating versus writing the review itself?

Matt Zoller Seitz, RogerEbert.com, Vulture

If it were up to me, RogerEbert.com wouldn’t give star ratings, because too often readers either get hung up on parsing them or don’t even read the reviews because they mistakenly think the star rating covers the “gist” of the reviews. Star ratings, numeric ratings and other ranking systems are also problematic because they are pretty much useless when it comes to measuring what used to be known as a mixed review — you know, where you think the cinematography and the lead performance are utterly brilliant but the rest of the movie is forgettable. What’s that? Two-and-a-half stars? What if it’s a mid-period Marlon Brando film where it’s worth seeing because Brando is amazing? When Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes come into the picture things get even more complicated. Still, I understand why people enjoy parsing numeric ratings and stars, and why critics enjoy reading other people’s top ten lists even if they don’t particularly enjoy having to make their own. I’m mostly against all this sort of stuff because I’m a romantic about criticism. But the fact that I keep making lists and assigning star ratings tells you that I’m either a realist or a hypocrite. I do know that I wouldn’t trade those Sight & Sound lists for anything.

Keith Phipps, The Dissolve

I’m now the veteran of two different grading systems and, honestly, I prefer it. It gives readers a frame for the review and it removes the option to deliver a lot of equivocating thoughts that don’t really arrive at a conclusion. (I should clarify that I’m not talking about any writers that work for me so much as my own worst tendencies as a writer.) What bothers me is when readers put too much stock in them. To me, they’re meant to be looked at, absorbed, but then superseded by the words of the reviews themselves, which will always have a lot more to say than any ratings system ever could.

Glenn Kenny, RogerEbert.com, Some Came Running

For the first two years I was the film critic at Premiere we did not have any kind of rating. Oh, what a paradise it seemed. It was. Then we had a new editor, and I was terrified that I was gonna get fired because I was a drunk irresponsible blowhard asshole who never got to the office even vaguely on time, so when he asked, “Is there any reason we don’t run star ratings in the reviews section?” I said, “Oh no, no reason at all, absolutely not, would you like star ratings in the review section if you like and I can figure out how to do it I can make it retroactive do you want a base four or base five?” And so we had star ratings in the reviews section. And then that editor was relieved of his duties, less than a year later, and the next editor, when I asked “Can we go back to not having star ratings in the review section?” (for some reason I had gotten a little of my gumption back), thought about it and said, “You know, once you start that sort of thing it’s really hard to go back.” Using star ratings makes your work more blurb-able and recycle-able for advertising and promotion people, and they like that, and they don’t like when you try to take that away from them. So, you know, sure, I’d love to review movies and not have to star-rate them. I’d also love to do a lot of other things that I don’t do. And I don’t begrudge the sites that use star ratings one bit. In the current clotted competitive atmosphere etc etc etc. Actually it’s kind of fun to make the differentiations involved in awarding stars. Doing it for MSN was a stitch because they used a five-star system which allowed for some droll (at least to me, in the privacy of my own assessment process) distinction-juggling. And as a long-time Christgauite I’ve always been rather fond of the letter-grading system, although I think that works best with his short-form style.

It occurs to me now that I could have saved a lot of time by just answering “Whatever.” 

Joanna Langfield, The Movie Minute

I have always bristled when editors and program directors encouraged me to “grade” my reviews. It was hard enough when I had to consolidate my thoughts from a rambling 4 hour talk show into the admittedly far more commercially viable “Movie Minute” (although it has been an interesting challenge, honing and self-editing, aching for the one right word instead of an easier loose babble)! But even those of us who refuse, or have been lucky not to have been pushed, to assigning stars have to deal with juicy or squishy tomatoes, if we link to Rotten Tomatoes. And back in the day when Variety editors would call us, asking if our reviews were “positive”, “mixed” or “negative”, we were eventually told to stop using the “mixed” option so often. “But what if my feelings really ARE mixed?” I asked because, honestly, I almost always see high and lowlights in the pictures we review. The answer? Essentially, it was a strong request to get over myself and pick a side. Like, you know, Ebert and Siskel: thumbs up or thumbs down. 

Scott Renshaw, Salt Lake City Weekly

I’ve used a numerical/star rating scale of some kind for as long as I’ve been writing criticism, and I’ve hated it almost as long. Deep in my heart, I recoil at the idea that a reader won’t look through the entirety of my nuanced argument, and will instead possibly rely on the shorthand, or maybe even proceed to wonder why the 2-1/2 star review I wrote this week sounds like a slight recommendation, while the one I wrote a month ago sounded like a slight dismissal. While it’s been the tradition of my outlet to include a star rating with film reviews, no such metric accompanies reviews of local theater productions, or books, so I suspect if I pushed hard enough to kill the star rating, I’d get my way. Yet on some level, I understand that I can serve different readers in different ways. We can’t pretend criticism doesn’t also become a consumer guide, and to the extent that we can serve readers efficiently in that area, star ratings have a certain value. And I also like to think that I’ve shown enough restraint with both extreme ends of my rating scale that readers might really want to dig into a rare 4-star rave or zero-star evisceration. So the bottom line is: I wouldn’t miss the star rating if it were gone, but I’m not prepared to invest all of my professional capital in its eradication. There are bigger battles to fight.

Stephen Whitty, The Star-Ledger, Newhouse

Stars, letters, hats, apples, clapping men — I’ve seen and hate the lot of them. You don’t see them on book reviews, or play reviews, or classical-musical reviews — just movie reviews and restaurant write-ups. Why? Because I think both types of writing are generally, sadly seen by most outlets as consumer guides, not as real criticism.

We know better, of course.

I use stars because I have to, but they’re problematic for a variety of reasons. I can agonize over the difference between two-and-a-half or three; wonder if I’m rewarding movies for succeeding at limited goals, and punishing movies only for daring too much.

Over the years, I’ve developed my own internal scale. Four stars? Buy this on Blu Ray when you can. Three stars? Go see it in a theater. Two and a half? Worth a look, as a rent. At one and a half stars and below, a movie has to have done something to ACTIVELY offend me. 

James Poniewozik, Time

Hate, and I wrote about this at length forever ago — (“What other writer is regularly expected to append his work with a shorthand tag to help people avoid reading it altogether?”). But since I probably hate it for the same reasons many other critics here do, I’ll say where I DO find stars, grades, and point ratings useful: in aggregations of recommendations. If I’m looking for somewhere to eat in a strange city, I freely admit I’ll go on Yelp and look at the star ratings. But if I then want to go drop some serious bucks on a restaurant, I might then read a lengthy critic’s review — and then I don’t care whether he/she gives the restaurant an A or an 8.5 or 4 1/2 sporks, I want to read the prose. Basically, the more I value your individual opinion, perceptiveness, and taste, the less I care about the grade you give something.

Robert Levin, amNewYork

In an ideal world, readers would read film criticism because they loved the art, they appreciated every last flourish and nuanced argument and admired the ways a well-written review can see a film in a whole new way. We all know that’s not the mindset of 95% of the criticism-consuming population, especially in the Rotten Tomatoes era. Once you’ve reached that understanding, you’re faced with a choice: Become one of the lucky few who works for a publication that is high-minded enough to live without star ratings, or accept the reality and embrace the fact that, for better or worse, readers are drawn in by the stars. I look at ratings as a challenge, a motivator to write well enough that my readers are as interested in what I have to say as the fairly arbitrary indicator attached to it. I probably give the specific ratings too much thought in the grand scheme of things, but as I’ve continued to do this I’ve become more flexible when it comes to last-minute shifts or changes; I see them as wholly malleable and forever subject to reconsideration and I’ve stopped perseverating on the difference between two-and-a-half and three stars etc.

Ed Gonzalez, Slant Magazine

I loathe rating movies on a scale about as much as I do comments sections and placating the spoiler police, and I wish my job never entailed having to answer questions such as “Does this piece sound like a two-star or two-and-a-half-star review?” or “Should this be a rotten or ripe tomato?” I would prefer to live in an alternate universe where Slant Magazine didn’t rate movies using a star system, where people came to our reviews and actually engaged with our criticism, where we didn’t have to deal with individuals calling for our heads because we gave “12 Years a Slave” the same star rating we gave “Neighbors.” But as has been drilled into my head over and over by fellow shot-runners on the site, as a business practice, it’s a necessary evil, and its practicality has at least been confirmed over the years by individuals who claim to come to the site prior to seeing a movie in order to take note of our star rating before then returning to read the actual review after seeing the movie.

Richard Brody, the New Yorker

It’s a mistake to assume that words can be translated into numbers or numbers translated into ideas, as seen in the trivial ranking of critics by supposed consensus-value. Criticism is writing, the creation of an experience arising from the experience of watching movies — but, still, there’s an element of hierarchy to that experience, an assertion of merits and preferences, of tastes and distastes that is essential to criticism and, for that matter, to the best criticism. A review doesn’t need righteous austerity or clinical detachment to be substantial and worthwhile any more than a movie does; the problem with numbers isn’t their opinionizing but their one-dimensionality. I recently wrote a pretty negative blog post about a movie and was delighted to hear a few days later from a colleague that it made her want to see the movie; that was my intention, and I doubt that a translation into a number or a letter grade would have conveyed it.

Peter Labuza, The Cinephiliacs, Masters of Cinema

Dan Sallitt said to me that even if you don’t do ratings or rankings, you probably have some internal mindset that is doing them for you anyways. I keep an internal record for my own tastes, and include it in a review if I’m asked to. I put as little thought into as possible, which is what I am now doing for this question.

Kevin Lee, Fandor, Sight & Sound

Like so many things in life, there are rules, and then there’s what you do with the rules. Ratings and letter grades are inevitable, because people desire bullet points and short cuts and one-stop-shops to get through life with minimal complication. I suspect that if a clinical study were conducted to see just how many people actually read beyond the letter grade to the actual review, the findings would depress a lot of critics (and make their editors wonder if that space were better filled with ads — then again a lot of reviews basically amount to ads). In the face of these realities, it becomes imperative to fuck things up a little. Rosenbaum was the first critic to make me realize that a rating could be used as a rhetorical device, and a provocation to deeper engagement. Back when he gave two stars to “Fargo” in the midst of the film’s unanimous acclaim, my first thought was “Is the son of a bitch out of his mind?” Of course, I had no choice but to read the review. I came out of that review with a totally new perspective on the Coen brothers that stays with me to this day. So rather than reject a rating or a grade system, a critic can be resourceful about how to use them to engage a reader. In some ways doing it well requires as much intelligence as the crafting of a memorable sentence.

Jordan Hoffman, ScreenCrush, NY Daily News

I don’t mind doing them too much. It is a reasonable shorthand. As a freelancer with many outlets, however, I deal with this nice bit of comedy: one of my outlets does letter grades, another uses a 1 out of 10 scale and others use stars. And one outlet allows for half-stars, while the other does not. What’s annoying is the apples-and-oranges effect. A very ambitious movie with marvelous scenes but a flubbed ending can end up with 3/5 stars, same as a wafer thin comedy that had some quality zings but not much else. One outlet that I work for on a once-in-a-blue-moon basis, Badass Digest, uses no grading whatsoever. I must confess that when I file for them it’s a bit of a fresh breeze.

Luke Y. Thompson, Topless Robot

I LOATHE having to give a rating, especially if it has to be as limited as a scale of 1-4 stars. It gives people an excuse to ignore my actual argument, and use it as a metric to invalidate any given review by saying, for example, that I gave “Sharknado” a higher star rating than “Schindler’s List,” when you really cannot compare those movies to each other in any meaningful way — other than my arbitrary number ratings of them that I am theoretically required to give.

Readers LOVE ratings, though. They also love ranked lists. So even though I don’t currently give movie rankings, I probably should. And if I must, I’ll go with letter grades as being among the best, though I don’t entirely agree with Rotten Tomatoes that anything below a B- is “not recommended” (i.e. “Rotten”). Relatively little time goes into conjuring that rank when I have to give it – beyond the aforementioned Rotten Tomatoes B- divide distinction.

Alonso Duralde, The Wrap, What the Flick?!

I would happily never have to do give a number/letter grade score, mainly because I think it makes it easy for people to skip reading the review and just grasp the yea/nay-ness of it all. But since I currently have to (not for my own outlet, but for other places where my my reviews run), it’s definitely something I think about only after the writing is finished.

Neil Young, Hollywood Reporter; Tribune

I fully accept the absurdity and arbitrariness of ratings, stars and scales, and it can’t be a coincidence that none of my favorite critics (Danny Peary, Graham Greene, Pauline Kael, James Agee, Vern) ever went anywhere near them. However, I’m not those folks, nor was meant to be, and I’ve deployed stars/ratings/scales of one form or another since I started watching films on any kind of methodical basis, i.e. when I kept tallies of my horror-film viewings on TV from the age of 9, in 1980. Over the years this evolved, through various fits and starts, into Jigsaw Lounge’s long-notorious out-of-28 scale (maintained in tandem with a universally-graspable out-of-ten-but-please-no-zero assessment) which makes total logical sense to me and baffles the bejesus out of most everyone else.

It’s a gut thing: only rarely will my final assessment differ significantly from the “grade” I scribble down in my notepad (often in the preliminary form “6^/6” — i.e. 17/16 out of 28) towards the end of a film. I don’t spend much time on this aspect at all, especially in comparison with how long I spend note-taking, note-typing-up and review-writing; but I do find it a very handy way of getting to mental grips with the daunting surfeit of pictures we tireless critics are expected to cope with month after month, year after year.

Ratings are bunk! Long live ratings!

Q: In his response to Vocativ’s ranking of critics by how often they agree with a movie’s Metacritic average, “most reliable” critic J.R. Jones takes exception to the practice of affixing letter grades or a star rating to a review. How do you feel about placing movies on a scale? Would you give your reviews a grade if you were calling the shots? And when you write for publications that require them, how much thought goes into choosing the rating versus writing the review itself?

Gary M. Kramer, Gay City News, Philadelphia Gay News

I have always preferred not to use a rating system — stars or grades — for film criticism. I find such measures provide a shorthand way for readers to know if the film is good or not, and therefore, they become less inclined to read the review because they “know” from the stars or grades if they want to see the film, much less read about it. I’ve long wanted to advocate a simple three point grading system: Rush to the theater; wait/see it at home; skip it entirely. Because that’s really all the guidance folks need when it comes to deciding if/when/where to see a film, right? For the few outlets where I do have to rate films with stars, I find 1/2 stars are lazy — it’s Poor Fair Good Very Good or Excellent. There’s no in-between, and a review should justify why Good is neither Very Good nor Fair. I could get into a whole debate about 4- vs. 5-star rating guides (when pressed I do prefer a 5-pt system). Letter grades without + or – operate the same way, but on Criticwire, I rely far too much on assigning pluses and minuses because I feel that’s my one way to provide nuance, especially in cases where I don’t comment about the film. 

Josh Larsen, Filmspotting, Larsen on Film

I understand ratings systems serve a certain collative function and can also be a handy guide for a critic’s readers, but in a perfect world I could let my words speak for themselves. A clue as to how much thought I put into my ratings would be the fact that it took me a few months on Letterboxd before I realized a 3 out of 4 star review on my own site should be a 3.5 out of 5 star review there, and this was only after it was pointed out to me by others who put more stock in such stuff.

Edwin Arnaudin, Asheville Citizen-Times, Ashvegas

I subscribe to the “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” school of thought and have no problem rating films. I grew up on letter grades and stars and they still seem appropriate to me. As reviewers, our readers are accustomed to some sort of score that summarizes the film. If we stray from that format, we become essayists instead of critics. The two blur more and more these days, but I think it’s important to separate the approaches and ratings do just that.

Greg Cwik, Indiewire, Wall St Cheat Sheet

I’m not a fan of rating films with traditional grading systems. The inherent problem with rating a film is twofold: it creates this idea of a “perfect” film, which is a fugazi; and it spurs this temptation to compare the ratings of different films. For example, I don’t think “Under the Skin” is a perfect film. But its flaws are part of the film, and they can’t be ignored, and yet they arguably contribute to its greatness. In a written review I would discuss those flaws and what they mean, and how they impact the film. So do I give the film an A, or a 5/5? And if I don’t, but I give “Raiders of the Lost Ark” or “Aliens” a 5 because they’re the pinnacle of escapist cinema, does that mean I think they’re “better” films than “Under the Skin”? You can’t compare them like that (and yet Rotten Tomatoes and its spawn do.) I recently gave a slew of Jackie Chan films 5 stars on Letterboxd because, despite their inane plots and lack of coherence or character development, they’re ineffably fun. Movies don’t get much more fun than “Drunken Master 2” or “Project A” (even the bastardized American cuts). Does that mean they’re on par with “Vertigo” or “The Godfather”? Come on, now. Having to grade a film for a professional review is, for me, the worst part of the whole process.

Adam Batty, Hope Lies at 24 Frames Per Second 

I don’t use a star rating myself. The closest I come to any such measurement device is via the Criticwire database, which uses the slightly-more preferable A-F scoring system. At their best a star rating acts as a shortcut for the fleeting reader (which isn’t the kind of person I’m interested in attracting), while at their worst they’re used as some kind of bizarre currency in attempts at discrediting critics who’ve provoked the wrath of a fanboy scorned; how many times have we seen “Critic X gave Largely-Maligned-Film 4 stars, but only gave Film I Love 3 stars!!!!” used to belittle a writer who dares go against the popular grain? 

Michael Pattison, Sight & Sound, Fandor

I prefer to file reviews for outlets that don’t assign grades, as it carries an implied trust in both the writer and the reader. Can you think of a more odious term in film criticism than “consumer review”? (Don’t spend too long trying to answer that question; I don’t want to ruin anyone’s mood.) But: star-ratings have meaning, letter-grades have meaning. To claim otherwise is to defile the whole idea of signifiers and signifieds. The trouble is is that the meaning’s more interpretable than the written word, especially in a publication with multiple contributors, each with her own idea of what five stars might mean. Another problem is that a star-rating (presumably) encapsulates an overall level of enthusiasm that might contradict the (possibly) narrower focus of the review itself. I’ve been known to write a review without listing any negatives, and then award the film “only” three stars out of five. While that’s the right side of positive to me, to the financiers for whom nothing but absolutes will do, anything less than five stars is “unusable”. I try my best to make every sentence I write impossible to lift-quote.

Of course, the appeal of criticism ought to be that opinionship is only a small part of it. Even in a critical culture that emphasizes how fast you can say something over what you actually say — in a critical culture that encourages a publish-now, think-later attitude — none of this is science: as writers, we’re in a creative profession, and as thinkers, we should embrace dialectical contradictions wholeheartedly: not as historical anomalies in need of correction, but as necessary symptoms of a wider society in dire need of wholesale transformation. The revolution will not be star-graded: in fact, until we rid our cause of the avatars of yesterday, we’ll never free ourselves from the burdens of resuming 1917.

Piers Marchant, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, phillymag.com

I suppose I understand the interest of a reader who just wants a super-quick idea of what a given critic feels about a film, though its certainly frustrating. It’s for people who don’t really want to bother to read the full review (and/or readers who don’t want any of the plot details revealed to them), though it’s a service I find difficult to even grudgingly embrace, as it makes our actual review that much less relevant. In this, I find myself guided by something my former film professor (and current popmatters.com editor) Cynthia Fuchs once said to me when I asked her if she had “liked” some particular movie or other. “It doesn’t matter if I liked it,” she said firmly, “that’s totally irrelevant.”

Mike McGranaghan, The Aisle Seat, Film Racket

I have a love/hate relationship with the rating system. The biggest negative is that not every movie is well served by it, specifically those that fall somewhere in the middle. I recently had an unusual occurrence in which I gave a particular movie 2.5 stars in my review. Some people involved with releasing the film asked why I hadn’t rated it “fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes. They felt 2.5 stars was fresh, I always rate it as rotten. In cases like this, the rating system seems somewhat pointless because it feels like you’re splitting hairs. Another big problem is when different sites don’t use the same rating system. I write for one website that rates on a 0-4 star scale. A different site I write for uses 1-5. Three stars on the first site is a recommendation, a miss on the other. It can be confusing for readers who check out my reviews on both sites. Heck, it can be confusing for me! And, of course, you’ve always got the potential problem that people will focus more on the rating and less on the words one has so carefully chosen in crafting a well thought-out review. Having said all this, I also kind of like the rating system. It can help pack a punch. Seeing an image of four stars next to a review drives home the point that it’s a film the reader should pay attention to. Seeing an image of one star conveys that the critic strongly dislikes it. In the end, any kind of rating system is wildly imperfect, and it’s quite likely many of us use them more out of tradition than actual usefulness. But readers almost demand a system of some sort, and if that’s the case, it’s an imperfect thing I can live with. 

Tony Dayoub, Cinema Viewfinder, The House Next Door

I’m not militant about this, so while I avoid rating a movie at my own blog, I don’t have an issue doing it for another outlet I might be writing for. Many of these outlets are offering a consumer review for their readers, so why not? Personally, the idea of doing that is anathema to me, because I often find that I find things I adore in movies I don’t and vice versa. A reader once told me he wished I would just say whether I liked a given movie in the first paragraph of my review. That’s not really a person I’m writing to. Quantifying a film is a reductive exercise and who am I to tell anyone how they should perceive a film? What I strive to do at Cinema Viewfinder is tell you how I felt about a movie and support it with some facts. The rest is up to you.

Ryan McNeil, The Matinee

Placing movie on a scale has long been a sticky wicket. On more than one occasions, I’ve been asked to explain how certain reviews merited the score it got. Questions have ranged from the score seeming high, to the score seeming low. Films that I’ve scored 3.5 out of 4 stars have prompted questions of “What cost it that last half a star?”…reminding me of bringing a test home with a mark of 97% and my father asking me where the other 3% went.

To me a score feels like the most arbitrary part of the review. Putting aside the notion that one might feel the urge to ratchet it up or knock it down on rewatch, a score is so subjective. There’s no metric for a rating — no series of criteria that makes a film succeed or fail. It’s possible to give a film with highest production value a scathing pan, just as it’s possible to give a film that looks like it was made for $5000 top marks. The moment you realize how backwards that seems, all bets are off.

A further question for those that use grades is to see if critics notice a difference when their grade is kept at the bottom of the review, and nowhere near the headline where agreeing or disagreeing could turn into click-baiting. 

I believe in grades as a form of shorthand, but when a critic has dedicated a few hundred words to the topic at hand, credence should primarily be paid to that part of their review, not the letter, number, or starts that punctuate it. Grades are impulsive and immediate – the writing is where the thought is.

Jason Shawhan, The Nashville Scene, Interface 2037

Ideally, I’d rather not use grades, stars, or any of the usual evaluative shortcuts, and I’m fortunate that my current home paper doesn’t use them. I like the idea that the reader is expected to do just that in finishing out what all is afoot in the cinematic universe at that time, mainly because a film can never really be reduced to a letter or a number of stars. I’ve written for outlets that require them, and I’ve found ways to make do in those situations. It makes things easier for the reader, but it also makes them to some degree more likely to skip the rest of the review.

Josh Spiegel, Sound on Sight

I’m not wholly against placing a rating on any of my reviews (I do it every week when updating my Letterboxd account). The issue is that too many people, and I include myself in that group, often pay more attention to the numbers on websites like Metacritic or Rotten Tomatoes than the content those sites are aggregating. The rating, whether it’s a star or letter, may be a quick guide to know if a critic liked or disliked a film, but what they’re writing is always going to be far more important than the grade. For me, there’s not much thought in what rating I assign a film when I review it; it’s more of an afterthought than anything else.

Danny Bowes, RogerEbert.com, Indiewire

When it’s up to me, I don’t give stars/letter grades, because all anyone ever says when I give star ratings (as is the policy at RogerEbert.com, and with which I comply agreeably) is “How could you give ‘Ramaiyya Vastivaaya’ two and a half stars and ‘Madras Cafe’ one and a half? You’re an idiot!” It gives people an excuse to not read reviews. And, thus, I don’t generally dwell overmuch on how many stars I give something, although I do take it seriously as part of the job and try to arrive at a number that accurately reflects the substance of my review. I’ll always be fond of Mr. Ebert’s tendency to give things that kind of sucked but that he still liked two and a half stars; a two-and-a-half star review from him often made me more interested than a three-star one. That, though, is the limit of my affinity for them. If they vanished from the earth, a brief pang for the proverbial Ebert two-and-a-half would be the extent of my suffering.

Joey Magidson, The Awards Circuit, First Showing

Maybe I’m in the minority these days, but I still find a value in star ratings. I’m even a stickler for the zero-to-four star system. Usually, I come up with the star rating as I’m initially thinking about what I want to say in my review, so it has an inherent usefulness for me as well. Keeping in mind that the reader also values these ratings, I think it’s silly to get rid of them. Focus on the text of the review for sure, but don’t make a big deal over whether you have to give something two and a half stars or not, for example. That’s just me though.

Peter Keough, Boston Globe, Criticsagogo.com

Evaluation is a key component in criticism but reducing it to a rubric makes grading the entire purpose. Instead of an analysis and discussion of a film, a review is seen as a consumer guide, thus confirming criticism as an adjunct to the marketing process. That said, because of this requirement I have gotten into the habit of starting with a star rating, which often changes in the course of thinking about the film and writing the review.

Marc V. Ciafardini, Go See Talk, Big Fanboy

A reviewer has the right to evaluate a film in whatever format they (or their outlet) desire. So be it the famous “thumbs,” numbers, stars, whatever, the scale in question should always be meant to support the written evaluation not take its place. If a film has lots of nuance or subtlety it can be difficult to grade it on a scale without undervaluing or overhyping anything. It’s really a means of summing up a review but if the scale, should one be necessary or mandatory, seems limiting then widen it up to be as fair (or unfair) to the film as the written review.

A scale is a really good thing to have because it offers the reader a quick evaluation if they prefer not to know too much about the plot, events, etc. or they simply care less about a written opinion. I never read a review unless I’ve seen the film (call me weird if you must) so I prefer a good/bad/indifferent scale and am glad of those outlets and reviewers who have one.

Further, I find many review scales are limiting which is why I created our own system and rating graphic (it’s based on the dramatic theory Aristotle documented in his work Poetics; we’ve narrowed those 11 principles down to 4 key criteria we use to evaluate films). But again it’s always meant to support the review and be as fair and thorough as possible. I asked my reviewers to think of the rating graphic going into each film and some have found it helps them better structure their write up because of the criteria on which it’s based. At the end of the day the content of a review is a subjective opinion and not a factual doctrine. So if you have fun with your review then, if you’re able, try to have a little fun with your scale. 

Sean Chavel, Flick Minute

Star ratings are fun and amusing to see how they come out on average, I wouldn’t take it away. But it shouldn’t be taken too seriously. Movie fans should find a couple of critics that appeal to their vibes, and actually read them. Right now, I love Wesley Morris.

Scott Weinberg, FEARnet

I never do it! My only concession is for Rotten Tomatoes, and even then I only go with “fresh” or “rotten.” No number grade. One reason is pure ego: I want people to read the review. The other reason is even more pretentious: I don’t think art should be graded on a numerical scale.

John DeCarli, Film Capsule
No, star ratings are not particularly insightful as criticism, though I
do find them valuable both as a reader and a critic. Assigning a star
rating via a quick gut check helps me organize my thoughts on a film and
establish a starting position from which to start thinking about it
more deeply. And for me, star ratings are always subject to change.
Mostly though, star ratings appeal to the obsessive side of my nature,
the side that likes to catalogue what I watch and to crudely rank things
in my head. Over time, a personal rating system helps you keep track of
an expanded list of favorite films — which movies matter most to you.

John Keefer, 51 Deep

How many Oscars, how high on the Tomatometer, how much in box office receipts, what ranking in the most recent list of the ten best movies released in the last ten minutes. These are the things that people who know nothing about movies care about when it comes to movies. That and their own uninformed opinions, which they hold dear. How else would you determine exactly how vile of a thing to say in the comments section without it? The faceless mass thinks in terms such as “good” or “bad”, which are terms completely useless to the hopelessly obsessive. I can love a film because of the grain count of the film stock used to shoot it. I can be floored by the timing of a cut. Floored! I am a lunatic who is of no use to you because you aren’t an obsessive lunatic. You think in terms of “good” or “bad” rather than interesting. You want to be coddled and made to think that if called upon you could indeed fight off a group of highly skilled kung fu zombie chickens who want to take over the world. And you can so get to it! So how do we, the lunatics hiding in dark places and you sheep I mean lovely normal people, communicate? We all went to school, presumably, so grades! That’s the solution. We all get what a B+ means. That means pretty good or better than normal or if you’re the kind of lunatic obsessive who cares about grades and higher education it’s an invitation to extended self-flagellation. The point is it gets the job done in the quickest, most meaningless way possible. It is, like everything else, mostly useless and the best idea we’ve had so far. So if you enjoy movies about highly skilled kung fu zombie chickens attempting to rob every bank on Earth at the same time than this is the survey question answer for you! I give it a Z plus or minus 20.

Q: What is the best movie in theaters?

A: “Only Lovers Left Alive”/”Under the Skin” (tie)

Other movies receiving multiple votes: “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” “Ida,” “Blue Ruin,” “Locke.”

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Comments

Sean

Because I tend to watch movies before reading about them (to avoid coloring my interpretation too much), I generally find the ratings pretty unhelpful and often contradicted by the review itself. I think a binary type system would be more useful – less of a good/bad but rather a watch/don't watch. Richard Brody wrote a fairly negative review of Under the Skin that also conveyed that it was essentially a must watch film, something a star could not do.

In college, I was the film editor for the campus newspaper and my first order of business was dropping the letter grade. The head editor demanded something, so I instituted an intentionally absurd scheme of animal ratings (e.g. a movie could get a koala, a crocodile, or a whale). I was quickly forced back to letter grades, but I resented it.

zé

Ratings are very helpful, because "normal people" don't have time for watching every movie there is, so we have to choose somehow. Usually my choices are based on the ratings, because I don't like reading reviews before watching the films. Those who'd rather experience a film without reading anything about it beforehand would have a hard time without critics' ratings.

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