Why I Don’t Rate Films

Among film critics, movie bloggers and film buffs, there’s a  popular practice I don’t follow: rating films. From the iconic two thumbs up to the five star review, ratings have become a quick shorthand for how a critic feels about a particular film. And this shorthand is something I decided to not practice when I made this film blog. It’s not something I discarded along the wayside, but a decision I made after some thought.

One of my major reasons for not rating films is that I think it often cheats the reader out of actually reading the article without some predisposed feeling towards the content. A lot of readers, me included, often glance at the rating first before reading a film and I think this can often be a detriment to the way we read reviews because it either suddenly sets us up to immediately disagree with the disparity we have in the rating or agree with the praise and adulation.

It also can become a point of contention, an easy way to rag on a writer’s opinion. If someone gives Citizen Kane two stars, it’s highly likely a lot of people will latch onto that rating and condemn the reviewer for that rating. It becomes a way to turn the thoughtful effort of a film critique into one little letter or number that people can set up and attack instead of engaging and thinking about the ideas and logic set out by the writer.

The other issue I have with ratings is that it demeans films to a form of consumer entertainment. Ratings like “thumbs up” or “rent it” treat film as something you spent ten bucks to see. Yes, I understand that movies cost money and that many readers want to know what is worthy of their money, but to simply debase certain films to a skip it even though the critic might concede is has some merits and artistic strengths detracts from the complexity of film.

Take the recent film The Tree of Life. It’s a film I have problems with and if I was forced to rate it (which I was for one site) I’d give it four out of five stars. People might then conclude I’d recommend people a five star film more. They’d be wrong. Even though I think it’s a flawed film, I’ve been recommending it to people left and right because I think it’s challenging and provoking in a way few films are and I think people should see it for that reason. It has far more artistic merit than a film like Die Hard, which I’d also recommend and would give five out of five stars.

And yes, Die Hard is the safer bet, the one that I’m more confident is a great film and one I have very little qualms in recommending to just about anyone. But A Clockwork Orange, a film I have higher in my top 100, is a film that I’d have a hard time recommending to anyone because of the maturity of the content and the moral grey area it explores. I’m sure most will be revolt and disgust on a gut level, unable to see the subtext of the film.

So it’s a film I’d rate higher than Die Hard, it’s much better than Die Hard, but there are maybe two or three people I know that I would tell to watch this film. But simply looking at the ranking in my top 100 or glancing at a hypothetical five star review, it seems like I’m telling people to rush out and see this film, that it’s a must watch, when that couldn’t be farther from the truth.

Another issue is the plurality of rating systems. If I was to adopt such a rating system, which one would I use? The five star system? It used to be big, but now it seems that critics prefer four stars. And if I go to stars, do I issue out zero star ratings for truly despicable films? Do I give half stars? Or maybe I just ditch the stars system and go for a 10 point scale or the letter grade system. But does a C equal a 70 or is it more like a 50? Maybe I adopt my own scale, but then how do I go about expressing the parameters of that system?

The point is that for a brief shorthand, there seems to be a strong need for a lot of though, questions and explanation for what is supposed to be a shortcut. There are bloggers I love who use their own rating system and I couldn’t tell you the difference between two of their ratings that are right next to each other on the scale. Every time I get to their score, I’ve got to revert to their scale to see it, which strikes me a completely opposite of the intention of a rating shorthand.

And, to make an even more personal observation of myself, I don’t think I can summarize my complex, and occasionally contradictory view of a film with a simple numerical value. I know I baffle some people with some of my reviews where I simultaneously praise a film and take it to task for the same elements. That’s part of the nuance and complexity I think I can express through words, but not through a 2 star rating.

Plus, I don’t want to go to all the work of writing these opinions only to have people comment on the rating. If you want to engage what I do, you’ve got to read what I’ve written, you’ve got to talk to be about my opinion. And that’s the kind of engagement I want, not bickering over a number. I’ve gotten some thoughtful and insightful comments on my blog that often disagree with my take, some of which are better than my entire review and I honestly think some of that would be truncated or nonexistent if I added a rating. Some wouldn’t read the review, others might jump to conclusions and even others might only comment or the score itself.

Now I don’t say all this to belittle those who use rating systems or try to convince them that they are inferior or misguided. I’m saying this more to convince myself than anyone else to ascribe to my personal reasoning for not having ratings. There are people who find great value in the ratings and I’m sure they could come up with a strong argument against everything I’ve written here. And I hope they do, because it’s the well-written responses I want people to see after my reviews, not a letter, number or a group of stars.

© 2011 James Blake Ewing