Twinkle, Twinkle

March 08, 2007
A thought by James Berardinelli

Addressing this subject is nothing new. I have done it many times in e-mails and written a prior ReelThought or two devoted to the subject, but it keeps coming up. What exactly do the star ratings mean?

Every film critic who uses a rating system has a different definition of what those ratings mean. For some, it's an attempt to be objective. That would mean a perfect score (four out of four, five out of five, ten out of ten) would indicate that the movie is flawless. For me, this approach to rating is problematic because it attempts to affix objective criteria to a subjective analysis. Using a rating system like this may be the easiest to understand but it's the most difficult to justify.

I often get e-mails asking why Movie X got ***1/2 instead of ****. Why, someone asks, did it "lose" half a star? Such a question indicates a fundamental misunderstanding of my rating scale. This belief assumes there's some kind of mathematical formula involved and if the movie hits all the right notes, it should get a ****. For me, at least, it doesn't work like that. Frankly, I don't like having to assign stars to movies but the reality of the business side of film criticism is that it's a necessity. My readership would be cut in half within a couple of months if I dropped the ratings.

Any critic's rating system should be used as a general guideline. The meat of the review is the text. If you just look at the number of stars a movie gets, you're missing a lot of important information. Unless you have very similar tastes to mine, making a determination solely based on the rating may lead to some bad choices. Someone who writes to tell me I'm out of step with mainstream appeal doesn't understand the point of what I do. I'm not assigning stars based on how I think the public is going to react a film; the rating represents how I reacted to it.

For me, any "critic" who simply assigns numbers then moves on to the next title is a fraud. That's laziness. It's something anyone can do. The job of the critic is to write about (or talk about, depending on the medium) a movie, not just stamp it with "three stars" then check it off a list of titles. I'm irked by reviews that provide three sentences then assign a rating. As far as I'm concerned, those are worthless.

Having written all that, it's time for me to explain what my rating system means. Simply put, the four star scale represents how strongly I recommend a film to someone with similar tastes to my own. If you agree with me about 90% of the time, then the stars will be valuable. If you agree with me 75% of the time, they can provide a general guideline. If you agree with me 60% of the time or less, their value is limited (or worse). The more we disagree, the more important the review's text is.

As I have indicated, subjectivity plays a strong role in star ratings. Movies that I love will get very high ratings. Movies that I'm lukewarm about will fall in the middle. Movies that I hate won't fare well. But the correlation isn't perfect. There are some ***1/2 films I like better than some **** films. (See my Top 100.) How do I explain this? If you understand the rating scale, it's not difficult. I give my highest recommendation (****) to some films because they're damn impressive, but when it comes to the pure pleasure of sitting back and watching something, I may prefer a movie that's a little lighter (***1/2). Few would argue that A Clockwork Orange is not a more impressive movie than When Harry Met Sally, yet the latter is on my Top 100 list while the former is not. Why? Because while I recommend A Clockwork Orange more highly than When Harry Met Sally (in part because of its thematic depth and powerful direction), I enjoy Harry more. (My Top 100 represents my 100 favorite films, not the 100 I most strongly recommend. That's another list. It may have many of the same titles on it, but there will be differences.)

Here are what my star ratings equate to:

****: Highest recommendation. Must-see.
***1/2: Highly recommended. Worth enduring the inconvenience of going to a theater to see it.
***: Recommended for either theatrical or home viewing.
**1/2: Recommended with reservations. Probably a better bet to wait for it to arrive on DVD.
**: Barely recommended, and only for home viewing.
*1/2: Not recommended, unless drunk.
*: Not recommended, even if drunk.
1/2: Not recommended. Borders on physically painful.
No stars: One of the most torturous experiences possible. Should be outlawed by the Geneva Convention.

That's what it all means.