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Revisiting the Site (With New Thoughts and Insight): Explaining My Four-Star Rating System


(CS: I have written a great deal on film criticism, because I have some perspective since I've been doing it professionally since 2012, but also because there seems to be so many misconceptions on what it is.

I have been constantly pushing that any art criticism is subjective rather than objective. There is no universal declaration on what movie or series or book or painting or song is the best or worst ever. But being subjective is different from being pointless, flaky, or meaningless. 

Good film criticism is not merely spewing your opinion on the page. It is an informed opinion. One that comes from knowing film history, learning about the form and technical aspects, actively engaging with hundreds of movies, and being educated on the art form of motion pictures. It is itself an art form, and like any art form, you need to continue to work hard at getting better at it.

I personally know that my weakest aspect of film criticism is my ability to delve into the technical forms like cinematography, staging, and editing. But I continue to strive to be better at noticing those things, and I understand that a movie review should provide analysis and insight that elevates it above mere subjective opinion. There should be real value provided for the reader or listener.

A star rating is a much harder creature, and is one of the reasons that I initially avoided using them in my reviews. I was afraid readers would just look at my rating and not delve into the most important part, the actual review that explains the journey that took me to that star rating. But several readers kept requesting I provide a star rating, so that they had a better gauge on where a movie landed with me. 

Since Roger Ebert was my greatest influence when it came to pursuing film criticism, I decided that a four-star rating made the most sense for me. But the challenge became what exactly does each star rating out of four actually mean. Back in 2018, I tried to explain what the score for each movie means for me. 

Since it is an issue that still often comes up, I decide to not only repost it, but to update it with my current stance on star ratings. 

I have mentioned recently that a star rating is often a gut reaction. It is how I feel about a movie right after watching it. I've also stated that as the weeks pass that some ratings or feelings towards a movie can shift and change. This description of a star rating has been misinterpreted as my belief that they don't matter or don't provide value.

This could not be farther from the truth. The star rating is usually my launching point to the review. I land on a rating and then use the review to detail how I landed on that score. Though sometimes, my feelings on a movie are complicated, and in that case, it is my writing of the review where I finally realize where I've landed on a star rating for a movie. It is a crucial part of the analysis, and is a raw and honest depiction of where I feel a movie stands.

But what about the idea that a star rating can change over time? The fact a rating can change does not devalue the initial rating, because it was the truthful encapsulation of my view of the picture at that moment. The problem is that I don't know what my future relationship will be with a movie.

I may love a movie when I initially write about it, but then realize I never think about it several weeks later. So, was it really a four-star movie if I never desire to watch it again? Or on the other side like a Get Out, I may initially land at three stars, but find myself constantly thinking about it and wanting to watch it again. so maybe it deserves to be elevated to four stars.

But what I've learned is to never change a star rating until I revisit a movie. I rewatch a movie like Die Hard and I instantly am reminded it deserves the status of a four-star classic action movie because it offers much more characters, style, and heart than most movies in that genre. But something like Crawl, I revisit it and realize that even if I think about it often and may want to rewatch it, that the viewing experience still lands around 3 stars for my enjoyment level, and it is just something I built up in my mind rather than actually earning constant desires to rewatch it. Just because I crave a Hot Pocket does not mean it is a top ten food item.

I have learned that constantly wanting to rewatch something and then the movie delivering on that desire is really what elevated a movie that may initially has three stars to four stars. So, there is still a formula here, and it is not a random throwing of the dart board that I maybe have misled some to believe. 

If I love a movie, it deserves four stars, but then it is my job to dig and analyze why I feel this way. If I am effective in expressing that and adding value to the conversation, then that is where I can be considered a good film critic. Though, that is up to those that pay or read or listen to me to decide such things. 

I'll just keep working hard to earn your desire to discover my thoughts and insight on a movie.)

I've never been a huge fan of rating movies by stars or percentages. For me, the written review is where the value lies and allows a reader to explore the complexities of a movie. In an ideal word, a review should be enough for a reader to understand the critic's views and opinions on a movie. Apparently, my words are not enough because after a few months of professionally writing movie reviews back in 2012, several readers asked that I include star ratings, so they had a reference point. 

I've now been doing star ratings for over five years, (CS: Now, it has been 10) and there really isn't any turning back now. As we enter into another year of movies where I will be reviewing over a hundred flicks in written form and on the podcast, it seemed like a good time to explain the values of my star ratings. (CS: I definitely failed that year on a hundred plus written movie reviews, but I intend to jump back into that form, and that is part of the reason for this repost.) While I really hope you read or listen to my reviews to really understand where I stand on a movie, I want to explain what each star means when it comes to being rewarded to a movie. This will give you a quick guide on my feelings on a movie based on the star rating that I give it. 

0 stars: All movies take a lot of hard work to make, but a movie with this rating has no sign of effort and is completely irredeemable. The movie is likely morally reprehensible to not earn any stars. This is my rarest rating. (CS: I love movies. I realize how hard it is to make a movie. So, it pains me to say that a movie has absolutely no value. There have been many years where I avoided giving any movie zero stars. If I do give a movie a zero, it really means it was a painful experience. I admit there are some movies that likely should have been given this rating, but I avoided doing it due to how harsh it is to score it as irredeemable, and I battle to try to find value to up it a tick -- especially, if there are no moral or ethical issues surrounding the picture.)

½*: A very bad movie earns this because it accomplishes not being morally offensive. It still remains a powerful weapon for your worst enemies. (CS: Basically, it is a zero-star movie with very little value, but I want to distinguish from the truly horrendous and reprehensible.)

*: Basic storytelling and competent film making are lacking, but it might at least have an unintentionally funny scene you can laugh about with a friend after the movie. 

*½: Derivative, unoriginal, and formulaic but has a few glimmers of entertainment, but mostly just ends up disappointing. (CS: Every rating so far signify the movies where it feels like an actual job to do film criticism. The movies I squirm in my seat and the movies that feel like it refuses to end. I will confess that there are a few times that I was just not in a great place, and so my experience was diminished and I was harsher than I should have been on the movie. But for the most part, all the movies with this score and below are bad enough that they rarely warrant a rewatch or revisit.) 

**: Scott a few times on The Movie Breakdown mentions that two stars is the level where he declares a movie didn't insult his intelligence. I agree with that. It is likely a predictable, bland, and formulaic movie, but at least was decently made. Most years, this also means the movie will avoid my worst of the year list. (CS: I can get through these movies without getting mad at myself for daring to watch it. They tend to be more disappointing or dull rather than outright bad. I also am keener to rewatch it, but usually, this is still a movie that tends to not get better with a rewatch,) 

**½: This is either an unoriginal but well-made generic picture or an ambitious movie that failed to meet its aims. Three stars is my barometer for an outright recommendation, but usually this level means a decent rental for fans of whatever genre this movie is in. (CS: This is usually an 'on-the-fence' movie where I didn't leave the theatre knowing exactly its star rating. I had to give it a bit of time and think about it. I usually liked a lot of the elements, but it just didn't connect in some way. I must ask myself would I stand by recommending this movie, and if I don't, then it lands here. This is often a movie that was good enough to warrant a reappraisal in the future.) 

***: This is a good movie that offers a few different things to its genre and has some great memorable scenes. Most good movies will land on this star rating and is worth going out to the cinemas to experience. (CS: This is also often the score for a movie that I know was expertly crafted and has great performances and technical aspects, but for whatever reason just didn't soar with me, even if I mostly enjoyed it. This includes movies deemed as classic by some that I probably won't revisit too often, but I will acknowledge it does many great things for its genre.) 

***½: A great movies that elevates its genre and is a fantastic viewing experience. It succeeds at everything it aims and the type of movie that I gush about for days. (CS: Usually a strong contender for a Best of Year runner-up, if it doesn't land on a lower spot on the actual list. This is one of those movies that on another day may get the four stars, but at this moment, it completely works but just doesn't have that final aspect that makes me soar. It just misses the status of being considered an all-time favourite or a masterpiece of its genre. Instead, it is really good at what it does.) 

****: This movie has everything achieved by a three and a half movie, but this one haunts and sticks in my mind for months and even years. It is a total spiritual experience. There is never any debate after watching where the star rating lands for a movie like this, I always go out knowing I just experienced a four-star classic. (CS: This has changed slightly, because usually a movie I love is an instant connection, but there are those few that I grow to love over time. A movie that I initially gave a three and half, but then I keep thinking about it. I start wondering if it was circumstance and environment that caused it to stop me from entering me into the bliss of four-star love. 

I revisit it, and then discover it was better than where I initially landed. Then sometimes. I just discover that despite my constant desire to watch it again, that it was just a scene or the dialogue around it, and I was right the first time. Despite how much I've discussed changing tastes, it really doesn't happen as much as I've likely led readers and listeners to believe. But this doesn't discount the value of revisiting movies.)

(CS: This is a follow-up piece that I posted a few days later, that I feel has value in attaching here, because it furthers my view on star ratings.)

A few days ago, I wrote a piece on what each of my star ratings for a movies means. While I think it was accurate to how I feel about a movie when I award a particular rating, I missed out a huge part of how I rate movies. My star rating are not judged in a way where four stars means the perfect movie. I don't think any movie can be really perfect. Nor do I think all four-star movies are equal. The crucial part of understanding my star rating is to recognize that I am analyzing it based off its genre and how effective the movie was at achieving its goals with connecting to the audience (does a comedy make me laugh and does a horror movie scare me). 

I gave four stars to both Big Trouble in Little China and Taxi Driver. Does this mean that I think the campy Kurt Russell actioner is just as good as one of Martin Scorsese's masterpieces? 

No, because I'm not comparing them against each other. They are totally different movies trying to elicit completely different responses and emotions. One is an over the top homage to late night b-movies and 1970s kung-u pictures that is heavily leaning on humour and does not take itself seriously. The other is a gritty, dark drama about a very disturbed individual with heavy political examinations of the 1970s while also being almost a redemptive story mixed with tragedy. One is a very goofy popcorn muncher and the other is a prestige picture. (CS: My goal is always to rate a movie against how effective it was at achieving what it was trying to be. You can't compare Game Night up against Citizen Kane, because they have vastly different ambitions. Though I also admit some movies can achieve exactly what they want like Epic Movie, but I just don't enjoy or tolerate their goals and ambitions for cinema, so it fails in my eyes anyway.) 

It isn't fair to compare those two movies. Same reason it isn't fair to compare 12 Years a Slave to The Big Sick or Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets to Dunkirk. So, I don't. I go into those movies with different expectations and they all hit me in different ways. 

If it connects to me in that special way, no matter if it is a horror or a romantic comedy or a family movie or a prestige drama, then it receives a higher star rating. I never have tried making a case that all four-star movies are equal. I think that is an important thing to recognize when looking at my star ratings for a particular movie. It is all about being successful at achieving its goals and what is desired from that genre. Of course, the really great movies break the mold of the genre and achieve greatness by entertaining but doing something revolutionary and fresh. (CS: Two more things here. First, a movie that achieves its goals for the genre is usually a three-star movie, and to get the higher rating it must elevate its genre in some way or cross genres in an expert way. Second, this whole aspect of rating against what it is trying to achieve is more reason why reading or listening to a review is so important, so you understand why a movie got four stars or two stars. If you read the review, you may discover that the movie I disliked will totally work for you or the movie that I love just is not a genre that ever connects.

The review is always the most important part, even if the star rating does have value is gauging how it connected with the reviewer.)  

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