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

  • The bottom line is, like Ebert has said so many times before, … ratings are relative, not absolute.

  • I get what you’re saying. You want peope to be able to read the full entry and understand the difference between an affectionate 3/5 and a wanting 3/5.

    Heh…I vote you rate films pass/fail.

  • All I took away from this article was that you gave Tree of Life 4 stars.

    Jokes! I kid you and your star nazi ways, James. I totally hear where you’re coming from. You put out a good deal of content and you shouldn’t be lumped in with same sort of reviews that you get in your local newspaper. You in it for for different reasons.

    It could be argued though, if a person were the type who only looked at the ratings and never read the articles then really, what are the chances of them reading the article if the rating wasn’t there in the first place? Isn’t it more likely they just find another site? It seems likely that those folks will skip over what you write no matter what system you use. So to heck with ’em. That’s not your audience and never will be. The question I think becomes, does a rating deter or negatively impact those potential viewers who DO read articles. Will they not read an article because it has a rating? Well, if you consider that those people, those ones who read, are probably just like you and I, you could ask yourself the same question? Would a rating stop YOU from reading an article?

    Of course there’s other questions too, which you mention, and I guess that’s where it gets tricky. As a reader does it help or hurt? That depends on the reader. I think it would be fair to assume that anyone who makes it around to a film blog is fairly serious about film, and therefor probably has also toyed with ratings in some way… thought about what they mean, their short comings, etc. They’ve probably realized as you do that ratings aren’t to be taken at face value. Because of that realization I feel they wouldn’t be prone to the sort of misinterpretation between a 4 and 5 star rating you mention. They’d allow for the underlying nuance. To me that kind of understanding of ratings, which it could be assumed you readers possess, kind of neutralizes the inherent inadequacies and what you’re left with is the benefits.

    Excluding aggregate style ratings, like imdb and rotten tomatoes, and focusing on single person ratings, what I like about ’em is that jumping off point. I know what I rated a film and now I can compare it to what you rated a film. I can find out why we differ or don’t. And if what I read is in line with my own experience, and yet the rating differs, I think says something interesting. I helps me sort of give definition to what you value. And the more articles I read the more samples I have to work with and the better I’ll get to know you, in a way.

    But don’t worry, I’ll read what you have to say ratings or no. 🙂

    • You make a lot of good points. To an extent, I think your right that the audience that is looking for that rating probably isn’t a very big part of my readership. And yes, it can also be a good point of comparison, although, I find I’m often in totally agreement with someone on a film even though we would rate the film differently.

  • I give this post a 4 out of 5. Now it’s your job to figure out if that’s a Tree of Life 4/5 or a National Treasure 4/5.

    • Ha – I was gonna say the same thing…

  • btw, very good article

  • To a point I agree, but with the vast wealth of films now being released monthly I believe it’s becoming somewhat of a necessity to implement these rating systems. For my reviews I’ve pinch the ‘Little White Lies’ approach but simplified it. I give a score out of five for initial enjoyment and then another retrospective score out of 5, giving a total out of ten. I often find that the disparity between the initial excitement/disgust at a film can often lead to a more positive/negative view much later on (delete as appropriate). It’s not to say it isn’t a flawed system but for me it works better than a definitive rating out of 5 and allows scope to consider a wider audience than your own cinematic preferences.

    • Yes, retrospect is another reason I’ve found using ratings frustrating in the past, because I use to look back at the score and completely disagree with it. It’s an interesting idea to rate with that gut reaction and then rerate at a later date. Not sure I’ve heard of anyone doing that before.

  • It helps prevent giving ‘classic’ status to something which whilst seeming amazing at the time, has little lasting impact. Most importantly though is the opposite effect. Many times I’ve finished viewing a film and felt incredibly negative about it, but found when deconstructing it for a review that it had hidden depth. Now that new found interest won’t necessairly resonate with an audience so you find yourself stuck in a condry. Rate it on how it played out or how smart and subtle it was. This way you get to do both 🙂

  • During my years with Epinions.com, there’s a few things I don’t like to do whenever I post a review. Come up with a review title, state a bottom line, and give a rating. Since leaving last year and going on my own. I gave up the notion of rating films because I don’t really feel it’s necessary anymore. I’m a very different writer than I was a few years ago. I’ve learned what not to do and decided to keep things simple by letting the review speak for itself. Let others think what I give the film based on a rating. I’d rather have them figure it out what I would rate the film.

  • Good call James! Pretty much sums up why I don’t use ratings either. Plus I always end up second guessing myself, and end up writing the review to fit the rating (if that makes any sense).

  • I have long been debating this myself, whether to do away with the rating or not. Certainly, I hate to spend hours on a reviews only to see comments that make it obvious that only the final concluding thought and grade were read, However, I have come to accept that most people (the average joe) simply aren’t interested in reading entire movie reviews and simply want a couple sentence blurb and a rating (hence the popularity of Rotten Tomatoes). If that’s what it take to maybe have some folks go and read the review then so be it. Ultimately, a post that isn’t read doesn’t exist.

  • Roger Ebert just released a new review of “The Man Who Fell to Earth” that can be seen here: http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20110713/REVIEWS/110719991

    He states that star ratings are meaningless as he changes his opinion of the film from 2.5 out of 4 to 3 out of 4.

    • It’s so true. I’ve found that even within a week, I’ll find myself doubting a rating which seemed so arbitrary to begin with and even more so after the fact.

      • I do the same.

        Many others have already made the points I was going to make, and you pretty much covered both sides within your article, but I do have this: what about the challenge of rating films? Is it not a bit too easy to skip the rating process altogether (and any necessary explanations you might have, i.e. your Tree of Life 4 vs. Die Hard 5)? Throwing aside the possibility that we’ll have a change of heart within a week of granting the score (and what that does to its relative importance), I enjoy the internal struggle of deciding just where to rank it – whether that’s the star rating, its place on a yearly list, or on my own all-time list. I imagine you do, too.

        • I like the challenge of ranking a film, but rating I find arbitrary and frustrating, while I often can come up with good reasons why I put one film above another film in a list of rankings.

  • Wow, so true, all of it! You’ve just described exactly why I don’t rate movies either.
    When I write a review I want people to read it without prejudices based on a rating. Besides, since a film is made up from different components, how would you rate with one single grade? What if the acting was bad but the script was incredible? Do you rate it good, bad, somewhere in between? It’s something I wouldn’t want to overthink all the time. I just like to write all my thoughts on a film and let readers conclude for themselves what rating it deserves, or not!

  • Like you, I don’t generally rate films on my own site. I do for others because that’s part and parcel of reviews on those sites, but I tend to find a number/symbolic rating (3 out of 5 skulls! Woo!) too restrictive. Part of that is also my own faith in my writing. You should be able to tell what I think of a film based on what I have said about it, not some set of digits at the end.

    What it really comes down to, though, is that I put effort into my reviews and I want people to actually read them, not skip to the spoiler/number.

    And if I’m totally honest with myself, part of it is also that I worry I’ll be completely inconsistent with ratings. I’m not sure I could do it well–and some people really do this very well.

  • I wrote similarly about a year ago ( http://www.picknmixflix.com/articles/ratemovies.php ) but I bowed to public pressure and caved in. Hold on to your ethics! (unlike me)

    • I have a bit of a contrarian streak in me, so I think I’ll stick to this method as long as I can.

  • It becomes difficult when you write for publications. Getting a poster or DVD quote is near impossible if there isn’t a standardised 5 star score to accompany it. Sad state of affairs