I Ponder the Utility of Movie Rating Systems….

Dear readers, is the rating system helpful at all?

Ever since I instituted my overly complicated rating system just about a year ago, I have struggled to rate the films I’ve reviewed previously. Last night, when forced to put a number on one of my favorite films, The Sting, I just couldn’t. I reread my review (which was not one of my better ones, unfortunately), and then I decided to look up the other films I have given my highest rating to. Did The Sting seem on par with these other films? Much to my dismay, I got distracted trying to figure out if these films were even on par with each other.

The answer is: they weren’t. Not even close. Here is a list of them: The Third Man, Vertigo, Notorious, Rebecca, Bringing Out the Dead, Paths of Glory, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Shining, Mulholland Drive, The Wolf of Wall Street, Her, Tom Jones, Under the Skin, and Heathers. Here’s a few of the films that made the rating below it: Black Swan, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Inception, Psycho, The Night of the Hunter, and The Social Network. Now, who among you is going to say that Tom Jones is really better than any of the films that I gave a lower rating to? Obviously there’s a difference of opinion, but I don’t even understand my decision myself, other than Tom Jones is a ton of fun and that’s exactly what I had when I watched it. Looking back, I wouldn’t put Her in the highest category either, even though I still think it’s an extremely well made, emotionally complex, and thought-provoking film, I haven’t really had any desire to see it again (and I do think rewatchability should be a factor, but that’s hard to tell on a first viewing). The corrections don’t stop there, at this moment I would bump Psycho up (obviously), maybe The Night of the Hunter, and probably Black Swan too, take Her, Tom Jones, and possibly Heathers down a level, while taking Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Inception lower still. That’s just me doing this off the top of my head; if I did this next week I would probably come up with a different answer.

I could continue on this panicked rant about the difficulties of rating films, but because most of you are bloggers or read reviews with ratings in them that more often than not don’t make sense, I’m sure you’ve all encountered the issues involved. The one I struggle with most when evaluating a film this way is whether or not to do it as a part of cinema as a whole or on its own merits. There are many things a film could or should be, but what about what it is? For example, Tom Jones was a hell of a good time, but looking back it wasn’t very deep, may have been overly stylized, and is certainly dated. It simply doesn’t fit in the pantheon of filmdom with films like Vertigo and The Shining. Simply on its own terms as being a hell of a good time though, Tom Jones gets full marks.

There have been many approaches to rating films over the years. There’s the classic so many out of four stars, which conveniently splits films into just four categories (instead of the seemingly limitless ones you have with a convoluted system like mine) with a bit of wiggle room if you want to do half stars (giving you eight categories, nine if you make zero stars an option). One can also employ a letter grading system like you see in school: A, A-, B+, B, and so on. If you use pluses and minuses for every letter, that gives you fifteen categories, more if you want to just keep adding pluses onto the As. Then you have the third option of coming up with your own crazy convoluted system as I have done.

As I see it right now, if I were to even bother changing my rating system as opposed to just scrapping it altogether, I would probably go with the star option. That seems to be the most widely used, but I’m not sure if it will help that much. My system is needlessly confusing; I developed it with the best of intentions so it would be more accurate but I think overall it’s just to hard to sort out my feelings like that. It’s hard to put a number, no matter what system you’re using, on something as subjective as a reaction to a film. Numbers are very precise, and reactions to art works simply are not as cut and dry as that. It’s really hard for me to muster up enough confidence to use one number to describe a film’s worth as opposed to 600-2000 words on the subject. The words give me enough space to say why I think what I’m saying, or why I have no clue what I’m saying. It’s hard to say “I don’t know” with a rating. Of course, that’s why ratings exist, because people like to have a bottom line. Isn’t that just an excuse for not bringing your feelings across in your writing well enough? I’m not sure, but the point of this paragraph before I rambled on hopelessly was that four categories would be a lot easier to deal with than what I have now.

There’s another problem with rating though, and it’s that I’m just too nice. I tend to rate my movies really highly; if a thing is watchable than I can’t rate it too low. I can’t help but thinking that a bunch of people put a lot of time and effort and probably put a lot of themselves into making whatever film it is I’m watching; that even if I can’t believe this based on what I feel about the film it may still be true. That’s a terrible way to go about evaluating something, but whenever I try to give films a low grade those types of thoughts just keep creeping in. It can’t have been that bad, I think, there must be hundreds of movies that are worse than that. Should that enter into my thoughts? Probably not. So I tend to cluster around the 90%. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug got a 90% just for that reason. I started to nod off during the end of that film; what was I thinking giving it a 90%? The problem is do I rate a film highly for achieving something (this should be the correct answer) or do I rate it highly for not making many mistakes (what actually ends up happening)? I end up going through bouts where I realize I shouldn’t be so nice to mediocre films for simply not screwing up too badly, then I feel bad about it and reverse the trend by giving everything a 90%. Consistency is not my strong suit here.

I’m not going to decide what to do about this problem right now; I’m fairly certain I came up with my rating system late at night with nothing to do, so I’m going to avoid the poor life choices I make in situations like that and think it over for a week or so. It would be really helpful to know whether you all actually pay attention to the ratings though. Specifically on this site, but in general as well. How much store do you all set in them? Do you struggle giving out ratings,  or accepting other people’s ratings in light of their reviews? I promise to persevere if people really like them, but it is pretty difficult. Changes, they are a coming, but I’m not quite sure how big or small they are going to be yet, and I could really do with some input.

11 responses to “I Ponder the Utility of Movie Rating Systems….

  1. I feel that the star system in general is a good indicator, though I’ve come across films where I disagreed with the review (like Prizzi’s Honor and Out of Africa, four-star films that I didn’t like at all). I base most of my reviews around the technical and emotional experience. Anyone can write solely on the technical aspects but it doesn’t mean a thing if you don’t feel.

    • Yeah I try to account for the technical/emotional thing with having the two grades for quality and enjoyment and then averaging them together. It’s not quite the same thing but it is similar.

  2. I have such a hard time with this, but I always try and grade a film based on two things…how much I personally love it and whether or not it lives up to what it was attempting to do. So, in that way I’ve given some high scores to films that weren’t the best but were exactly what they tried to be…and detracted points from films that may have been ‘better’, but tried too hard and failed to live up to hype.

    It’s tricky though, because I feel like grades are so permanent and yet my mind changes so much!

    • You’ve just hit upon two of my biggest struggles right there! It’s also hard for me to decide if films should get points for trying to do something original/unusual and not quite succeeding (if they completely fail than a bad grade is a no brainer) or suffer more. For example, I liked AI Artificial Intelligence even if the ending didn’t quite work; the film went for some really interesting stuff so it’s hard for me to rate it low.
      Thanks for the comment!

  3. Oh dear, you’re in a bit of a pickle, aren’t you?! I know what you mean, though. I use a 0-10 scale because I thought a 5 star scale wouldn’t give me enough scope to distinguish between films. The way I use the scale, varies, though and I guess that’s your point? Sometimes I give high scores because I think it’s a ‘good film’ while others do well because I really liked them, even if they weren’t exactly Oscar-worthy. I think the review itself explains what my score means, but I sometimes just give a little extra commentary.

    My advice is not to tie yourself up in knots; give the score your gut tells you to give and just enjoy yourself.

    • Yeah I was probably over-reacting a bit here, but I just want to be sure the grade matches up with what I feel and remains consistent. Otherwise the grades don’t have much meaning, or mean something entirely different.

  4. The rating system is pretty helpful imo. While reading the reviews are a great way to really understand the person’s thoughts on the film (haha obviously) sometimes i’ll skip the review just to read the conclusion and/or the final rating on the film. After a while of reading so many reviews from people, like Jordan and Eddie, Dan the man, Roger Ebert, and You. I have a good understanding of how you all look at films, and the similar interest. The first group use 0-5, Dan out of 10, Ebert with the traditional 4 stars. Which leaves me with your rating system. Since we’ve talked a lot, I have a good idea of what type of films you like, and I’ll almost like anything you recommend, because I agree with you almost all your reviews, however I become confused by your ratings. I can’t find any examples right now but usually the tone of the review will sound like you didn’t favor the film but it was rated in the 90% range, and in my brain 90% translates to an A category. Though in ways I’ve seen your rating system work perfectly with X-Men 80% and Only God Forgives 73%. I’m pretty sure that doesn’t really do anything to help you with the dilemma. I would suggest to try and be more honest with the film and not except mediocre films. I have a similar struggle as you with rating films. I will give a film 4 stars for example that I appreciated it cinematic qualities but on a emotional level was greatly effected, then I see I rated it on the level of Rosemary’s Baby which is a quality film, It’s frustrating at time’s so I try to be more clear cut about things ahah don’t even know if it works. I like the 5 star system though. I find the 4 film star difficult. with the 5 stars a lot of the time I view it as A,B,C,D,F, with the four I’m like so A,B,C,F? I may not be used to it though.

    Sorry if that was no help, however what I can say is that I like how you rate the enjoyment and the quality of the film. It gives an even more clear look at how you feel towards the film, that stars, letters, and numbers sometimes fail it.

    Best of luck to it though!

    • Thanks, that was very helpful. I feel the same way, I’m way too nice at rate things in the 90′s that really shouldn’t be there. But I feel like I shouldn’t go back and change because for some reason I felt that way at the time….
      I might try out the 4 star ratings for a while and see if it works, and if it doesn’t seem easier I might just scrap the ratings. They do seem to be helpful and it’s rare to come across a blog that doesn’t use them…. ugh it’s a mess. Thanks for the comment though!

  5. A very difficult situation indeed!!! Rule Number One: Do NOT lose any sleep over this……..i.e. FUGEDDABOUTIT!
    It’s not worth worrying about!
    There is a film magazine from Australia, which I highly recommend in it’s entirety, called Filmink. This magazine has the best rating system by far. It rates the film by the cost of a film ticket being $20, which is probably an average price of a movie ticket in Australia. I find their rating pretty accurate…….i.e. as mentioned previously, Only God Forgives (if I worked for Filmink) would rate, in my opinion, $1.50, which is very low! However, Mulholland Drive, to me would rate $19.90!
    I guess what it all means really, is that you have a wider rating system to use, which is not really any help to you at all, is it?
    So, having said all that, why not scrap ratings all together and just write in your own very readable style, which I find completely engrossing. Readers can obviously gather enough information from your comments to decide whether a film is worth following up.
    Further to this, personally, I have found that you can rate a film 10/10 one month and then maybe 9/10, the following month, even though you may feel the same way about it……..does that make sense?
    Anyway, if you still feel funny about it all…….leave the numbers /ratings out!
    Good luck…….hoping this has been some help.

    • Ha ha don’t worry. I’m just trying to find the best solution to this problem, and everybody’s comments have been very helpful.
      That is an ingenious rating system, though I’m not sure I would want to use it, because as you say it gives me more categories when I want less!
      Now that I’m down to the last comment here, I think I will try out the four star system for a couple of weeks, and if it doesn’t go well than I’ll just scrap the ratings and focus on the reviews themselves.
      Thanks for the comment!

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