What Does Four Stars Mean?

A few weeks ago, I reposted what each score out of a four star rating symbolizes in my movie reviews. I also added in a few fresh thoughts on why film criticism is important even if it is subjective -- just like every other art form. I think the hardest star rating to understand is the four out of four stars, and usually the one that is the most misunderstood by readers and listeners.

I wanted to dig a bit deeper into what it means when a movie gets four stars according to me. Since, this is about my four-star rating that feels like the smartest perspective to take.

Four stars doesn't mean its a perfect movie. You get ten out of ten on a pop quiz and you can start bragging you got perfect. Often, when I give four stars to a movie then there is a reader or listener quick to let me know that its far from a perfect movie. I will agree with them, because I don't even know how you determine a perfect work of art. There is always going to be someone that doesn't connect with even the most acclaimed movie, book, or painting, and a critic can always nitpick some flaws. This year I've given out four stars to six movies, but this doesn't mean that those six movies are flawless, but it does mean that they connected with my heart and soul.

Four stars is an emotional response. I usually know right after watching a movie that I've seen a four-star picture. I am soaring above the clouds and my heart is erupting into song. The movie haunts and lingers with me for days, and I've been through a spiritual experience. The movie could be fun, hilarious, scary, disturbing, or profound, but it instantly connects with me where the only score could possibly be four stars. I'll often need to figure out if a movie gets three stars (which I determine as the threshold for a recommendation) or a two and half star score, but the four star rarely needs too much debate. 

Any genre or type of movie is worthy of four stars. 'You gave that four stars?' Is a comment that I've heard or read a few times since I became a professional film critic. I rate a movie by how effective it is achieving its goals or how well it captures the best of its genre. This is why I have no problem giving four stars to movies like Big Trouble in Little China, Face/Off and It alongside accepted classics like The Godfather, Citizen Kane, and Casablanca. I am not measuring those movies against each other, because they are trying to achieve very different things. I am also not saying one movie is better than the other, but rather that both deeply connected with me in vastly different ways. 

Favourite vs. Best. I have discussed before how when it comes to art that opinions on it are subjective, which means there is almost no difference between something being the best and favourite. One can argue that a movie has superior technical elements like cinematography, acting, score, editing, and staging, but if it doesn't connect with me outside of appreciating the skill than how can I declare it one of the best movies. Art is more than just how it was crafted, and it is all about how it comes together to become something deeply personal and magical for the viewer. If I see great skill and craftmanship but a movie doesn't connect then I'll usually give it three stars or maybe even three and half as acknowledgment of the expertise, but a four stars needs to be the movie that grips my heart and soul making me fall in love with it. It is about more than just the skill, but something unique, special, and personal to my viewing experience.

Sometimes it takes time for the four stars to arrive. The four-star rating is usually an instant score, but it hasn't always been the case. Get Out was always a movie that I enjoyed but it took a few weeks for me to realize that I was constantly thinking about it and I needed to revisit it despite the initial three-star rating. I bumped it up to three and half on a rewatch, but after returning to it again near the end of the year, it was bestowed four stars and I suddenly realized it was one of my favourite movies of that year. I have been asked in the past why a certain four star movie missed my top ten of the year list while a three and half star movie made it. Four stars does mean one of my favourite movies of the year, but sometimes it takes a few months for it to simmer and prove that it is a movie that I can't shake. I will revisit it then I realize that it is connecting with me in a way that did not initially happen. I always stand by my initial rating because it was honest for the time, but sometimes we can get something new on a revisit where we now love it. I always stand by that if you keep on rewatching a movie than it is a four-star picture for you, but sometimes it takes time to discover that.

Four stars is personal. Any star rating is personal in a sense, because it is about your experience and reaction to the movie or art. A four-star rating is often a picture that is directly speaking to us, and is moving us emotionally because it is an experience that awakens something inside us. Under the Skin is an arthouse sci-fi picture that many probably feel is weird and hard to follow, but it continues to haunt me and I still think about what it is was trying to say after watching it all the way back in 2014. There are many people that will not love that movie as much as I do, but I find it a classic due to all the interesting themes it explores, how it juggles being great sci-fi while critiquing society, and Scarlett Johansson crafting one of the most chilling and personal performances of her career. I learned as I grew as a critic to not worry if my four-star rated movie is held up as a classic by other critics to be worthy of the score, because it should never be about such a superficial thing. I let my star rating stand on its own, no matter where that movie landed with others.

Tastes will change. I watch and review close to 200 movies every single year. I continue to try to learn about the art form and craft of cinema in order to be a better critic. I seek out film history, read reviews by renowned critics, and watch older classics in order to have a much better knowledge and grasp of movies. This means that my tastes and interests have changed a lot since I was a teenage movie buff. Since I watch so many movies, I tend to be less interested in formula or generic pictures, and want something that surprises and challenges me. Since I am constantly trying to learn more about the craft, I analyze and explore the technics much more than I would have done before I became a professional film critic. This means what I consider a favourite and four-star movie now is very different that it would have been in the 1990s. This is a good thing, because our tastes, opinions, and interests should always evolve. But they must be our own, and not what we perceive they should be, which is why I have no problem giving four stars to animated, horror, or quirky movies, because that is how my taste rolls. 

Any star rating matters but only if you read the review. In the end, any star rating is only as valuable as the review that is attached to it. You may see that I give four stars to Doctor Sleep, but it is crucial to delve into the review to learn about my experience with the picture and take the journey that landed me on that rating. One can't see four stars and suddenly declare this is a movie that they will love, and then get mad when it doesn't work for them, because the review explains and details how a critic landed on that score. The rating complements the review, and it is utterly useless without it. Always read or listen to the review to give value to the star rating.

Have you seen any movies this year that you would give four stars?