Everyone needs to find a system and framework that works for them. This isn’t just pragmatics; this is an exhortation to do the hard work of figuring out your own tastes and learning how to thoughtfully expand them. As someone who has built a reputation for my love of film and faith, I’ve recognized that I need to have a sort of public framework, a movie ratings system.
Let’s be honest: nowadays it’s (sadly) often about the numbers and ratings. In a world of Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic, actually reading whole written reviews and reflections has tragically gone by the wayside for many people looking to critics for whether or not to see a film. Seeing a number grade or some stars doesn’t tell you much, but it also tells you something. So allow me to unpack the numbers, offering some clarity behind the system I use:
5-star Rating: Personal / Aesthetic / Spiritual
★★★★★ Favorite / Masterpiece / Divine Encounter
★★★★½ Exceptional / Well-Crafted Work of Art / Enriching and Transformative
★★★★ Great / Exciting, Affecting, Memorable Achievement / Enlightening
★★★½ Very Good / Interesting Concept and Execution / Evoking
★★★ Good / Interesting Concept or Execution / Eye-Opening
★★½ Mixed Feelings / Flawed but Worthy / Moderately Insightful
★★ Disappointing / Mediocre and Uninteresting / Soulless
★½ Regrettable / Notably Flawed and Frustrating / Guilt-inducing
★ Enraging / Wholly Deficient / Shameful
½ Failure / Offensive / Toxic
☆ Atrocity / Gouge My Eyes Out / Sinful
The first part is a 5-star (★★★★★) rating scale. Some publications use only 4 stars–Roger Ebert comes to mind–but I’ve chosen the 5-star system for its easy parallel to IMDB and Letterboxd. If I’ve rated it 4 stars here, it has 4 stars on Netflix and an 8/10 on IMDB. (You can read more about the origin of the “stars” criteria and other ratings systems in this enlightening WSJ article.)
The second part is a breakdown of the personal, aesthetic, and spiritual dimensions of the film. Personal focuses on what the film was about, and whether or not I found the experience enjoyable or beneficial. Aesthetic focuses on how the film was made, its level of craftsmanship and artistic merit. Spiritual focuses on the truth, goodness, and beauty of the film; its moral and spiritual themes and ideas; and its ability to inspire viewers towards the transcendent.
I’m admittedly prone to giving slightly higher reviews than many critics. Most of the films I watch will have a rating between ★★½ and ★★★★, and rarely does a ★★ or below end up in my journal. Perhaps this is because I’ve honed my tastes and judgments to a point where I can tell if I’ll appreciate or enjoy a film before I see it.
Keep in mind: just because I gave a film 4 or 5 stars doesn’t mean you should see it or will enjoy it. Similarly, just because I gave a film a low rating doesn’t mean I think you’re a moron if you happened to like that film. There’s value in finding and reading film critics who inspire contemplation and challenge your paradigm, and I appreciate writers who will cause me to rethink my reactions to a film by offering a different, thoughtful perspective–the truth about a work of art is often found in the benevolent conflict of interpretations. Thus, I hope to encourage those who read my reviews to be wise and discerning, open to what a film offers while also using caution in determining whether or not to see that film.
“The role of the critic is to help people see what is in the work, what is in it that shouldn’t be, what is not in it that could be. He is a good critic if he helps people understand more about the work than they could see for themselves; he is a great critic, if by his understanding and feeling for the work, by his passion, he can excite people so that they want to experience more of the art that is there, waiting to be seized. He is not necessarily a bad critic if he makes errors in judgment. (Infallible taste is inconceivable; what could it be measured against?) He is a bad critic if he does not awaken the curiosity, enlarge the interests and understanding of his audience. The art of the critic is to transmit his knowledge of and enthusiasm for art to others.” – Pauline Kael