Four Stars

May 06, 2006
A thought by James Berardinelli

It's well documented that I don't give out four star reviews easily. In fact, over the past 28 months, I have accorded this rating to only three movies: Maria Full of Grace, Munich, and United 93. My stinginess can be attributed to two things: an innate feeling that a film has to be something truly special to be given four stars, and a depressing lack of such features in recent theatrical release. That's not to say the period of 2004-2006 has been devoid of cinematic quality. There have been plenty of three-and-one-half star films. But not a lot has been happening in the four star arena.

So what, exactly, is a four star film? One of the problems readers may encounter is that, for reviewers who use the four star system, there isn't a lot of consistency from critic to critic. Some are more liberal than others. In 2005, I handed out one four star citation. Roger Ebert gave out more than 30. That's more of a difference than can be explained by personal taste. It means Roger and I have fundamentally different interpretations of what "four stars" means. I can't (and won't) speak for Roger. But I can (and will) speak for myself.

To me, four stars represents the highest, most enthusiastic recommendation I can give a film. It's a "must see" for anyone with similar cinematic tastes to mine. (For reference, three-and-one-half stars is a very high recommendation. For those with similar cinematic tastes to mine, it's worth going out of one's way for to see in a theater.) Please note that star ratings are strongly tied to the degree of recommendation. I do not claim that a four star film is an instant classic or even a "great" movie (although it may be one or both of those). The star rating system, at least as I interpret it, does not attempt to tag a film with a representation of objective quality. Instead, it reflects my enthusiasm for a movie and how strongly I recommend it. [Three stars and up: recommended theater viewing. Two-and-one-half stars: recommended for home video viewing but not worth a special trip to a theater. Two stars: marginal home viewing recommendation (if you're bored or desperate for something to watch). One-and-one-half stars or less: not recommended.]

The key phrase as far as I'm concerned is for anyone with similar cinematic tastes to mine. If you don't share my overall perspective on movies, the star ratings I assign will be of little value. (That's why I write 700-or-so words - to provide an understanding of why I rate a film the way I do, so people who don't agree with me will be able to figure out where I'm coming from.) Star ratings can be a useful shorthand for those without the time or patience to read a review, but there are inherent dangers in divorcing them from the text to which they are wed.

All four star films are not created equal. Consider two cases. For me, Raiders of the Lost Ark and The War Zone are both four star films (and both reside on my Top 100 list). But it would be difficult to identify to more dissimilar movies. Raiders is about as fun a film as one can get. The War Zone is a hard-hitting drama that's so uncompromising that many viewers can't sit through it. Those who share my cinematic world view will be impacted by both movies, albeit in different ways. For others...? I think it would be hard to find someone who doesn't enjoy Raiders, but The War Zone is not a film to be enjoyed. It delivers a gut punch. And there are a lot of viewers who don't want to be subjected to that. Therein lies the danger of blindly seeing something that gets four stars. Read the review first and make sure that the movie in question doesn't push some buttons you don't want pushed.

So how do I determine whether a film is three-and-one-half stars (highly recommended) or four stars (must see)? It's not a scientific or quantitative process. When the movie is over, I know if it's four stars. If there's any question in my mind, I give it three-and-one-half stars. To me, a four star film asserts itself so forcefully that it cannot be denied. Typically, it's a movie that engages on many levels: emotional, psychological, intellectual… Sometimes, I can leave a four star movie in a state of euphoria (Raiders). Sometimes, I will be reeling from the intensity of the experience, and sunk into a state of contemplation.

In the specific case of United 93, here are some stream-of-consciousness thoughts: powerful, intense, couldn't stop thinking about it for hours. Four stars. Must see. But I'm cognizant there will be those who won't be able to sit through it. And there are others who won't want to see it in public, but will wait for the DVD so they can see it in the privacy of their homes.

Now the wait is on to see whether another 2006 film creates the same kind of reaction necessary to land on my restricted list of four star films.