A Three-Star Rant About Thumbs (or, Why I Won’t “Rate” Movies)

Have you seen the new film-review site called Letterboxd? I like it. A lot. I need a convenient online moviegoing journal, and it provides that.

But most of my colleagues who are chronicling their reviews there are rating movies with stars or “likes.” I just can’t bring myself to start any such thing. So it’s time to say again what I said at Filmwell a few years ago… I think “rating” movies does us all more harm than good.

Here’s how I explained that at Filmwell in April of 2009… 

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I recently said farewell to a coworker who moved on to another job. We weren’t close, but we did chat occasionally about the movies we were seeing. One of his parting comments to me was, “You should sign up on Flixster.”

“Oh, I did,” I said. “For a while. But I don’t know… I got bored with just clicking stars all the time.”

“Ohhhh,” he said with deep disappointment. “You really should stick with it. I like your taste in movies, and when I’m gone, I want to know what you think of new movies, so I can decide what to see.”

I remember thinking, Well… why then would you go to Flixster, which is primarily a place for me to sum up my opinion of a film by clicking on one of five possibilities on a meter?

Fortunately, I didn’t voice my snarky, impulsive answer. After all, some people do post thoughtful reviews on Flixster, right underneath the star-rating they’ve selected for the film. But have you ever taken much time to read those reviews? I confess, I’ve never bothered to read beyond the opening sentence from one of those bazillion star-clicking users.

I’m not criticizing Flixster reviewers. I’ve rated a lot of films there myself. But you won’t learn anything about the films, or my interpretation of them, by scanning those ratings. You’ll be starry-eyed, but uninformed. I burned out on that game a long time ago, even though Netflix continues to hassle me for star-ratings of everything I see through their wonderful service.

That’s because I want to read perspectives and interpretations… not assessments of “I liked it” or “It sucked.” When I was a child watching Siskel and Ebert, the thumbs-up/thumbs-down was a suspenseful gimmick; I couldn’t wait to see the sparks fly when the critics’ thumb-ation of the film put them odds. But it was what they said beyond that, the thought process that inspired the thumb-arization, that affected me. They taught me that people could disagree on a film without one person being Right and the other person being Wrong.

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One of the things I like best about writing on cinema for Filmwell, or Image, or Looking Closer, is that I know that nobody’s going to be able to say “Overstreet gave The Last Temptation of Christ four stars.” Of what possible use would such a rating be?

Truth is, when I have been asked to “rate” The Last Temptation of Christ, I’ve consistently given it four stars. Doing so has earned me some snarky responses and even a few blasts of outrage. Some of those disgruntled readers have criticized me for not recognizing that Last Temptation is not as well-crafted as Scorsese’ s greatest works. In fact, I happen to agree. Some have hurled abuse at me for “promoting” a film that represents a flawed understanding of Jesus. In fact, I too happen to have some arguments with the theological ideas of the author whose novel inspired the film.

What was I thinking, giving Last Temptation four stars? Was I telling the world I thought it was a work of surpassing excellence? That’s not what I meant to convey. Was I telling the world that I thought it was a profoundly true depiction of Christ? That isn’t what I meant either.

What did I mean? I’m not sure. We’d need a long walk and probably a stiff drink before I ramble my way through a summation of how the film affected me, and why. It moved me deeply… at times. It made me wrestle with difficult questions… at times. Certain aspects of its creative collaboration dazzled me… at times. I was enthralled with the experience of seeing skeptical artists wrestle with the mystery of the Word Made Flesh. Such complex, revealing encounters with art are rare in my experience. So I certainly wasn’t going to stick Last Temptation with a three-star “ho-hum.” That would put it on par with enjoyable mediocrities like, oh, Die Hard with a Vengeance. Which I liked.

Does four-stars mean I like the movie? I like a lot of mediocre films. Cast your judgments if you must.

Does four-stars mean I consider a film a great work of art? There are a lot of films that I find almost unbearable to sit through, personally, that I also recognize to be great works of art. I admire Citizen Kane and have no argument with critical assessments that weigh it as one of the most influential and important films ever crafted… but I do not enjoy it much. So shoot me. What rating should I give it?

When most people ask me, “Did you like _______?” I tend to think they’re asking “Was it entertaining?” Often, when I begin to describe my experience, their grins fade and they start to slowly back away. They didn’t want more than a one-word answer. And most of the time, trying to wrap up my thoughts about a movie into a few lines is about as easy as folding soup.

When asked what kind of rating I give Brian Dannelly’s Saved!, the comedy about hypocrisy and peer pressure in a Christian high school, my response is this: “For whom am I rating it?” For an audience of Christians, I’d probably give it four stars — I think the film will provoke fruitful discussion for them. For an audience of the general public, I’d only give it three — it’s full of great ideas, but there’s nothing remarkable about the cinematography or the acting or the soundtrack. And the ending is cheap and sentimental. Even so, how can I be sure that either answer would convey any of my thoughts about the film?

I recently reinvented my website and I’m still in the slow, tedious process of restoring all of my film reviews for the archive there. As I do, I’m leaving behind my own rating-system. Granted, it was not a star-rating system… it was more like a school report card. When I eliminated this piece of the archive, it provoked a few complaints from readers. I don’t really care: I want people to care about the reviews, or move on.

Encounters with art cannot be reduced to numbers.

In fact, even a full film review only scratches the surface, giving a sketchy impression of a viewer’s thoughts and feelings at that particular moment. In my experience, feelings and thoughts about a work of art evolve. I might write pages of praise after seeing a film the first time, and then revise my thoughts later when I find that the film doesn’t offer anything more on the second time through, or when I find that the cracks begin to show upon closer examination.

“The truth must dazzle gradually,” wrote Emily Dickinson. How many times have we seen, over the course of a few decades, that a film initially dismissed was, in fact, a work of genius?

How many recognized, upon the release of Blade Runner, that it would stand as one of the most influential and beloved science fiction films in cinema history? We are only just now starting to see that it has a remarkable, lasting quality, and that it speaks not only to the people in the theater, but to generations.

How many of us even remember that Chicago won Best Picture at the Oscars just a few years ago? How many of us look back at A Beautiful Mind, which won Best Picture, and say, “That was truly one of the finest works of filmmaking in this decade?”

In 2004, David Hare asked,

… why does a self-respecting critic agree to a system of grading that renders his or her detailed reaction superfluous? “What did the Guardian think of it ?” “Oh, they gave it two stars.” Why would any critic let their presumably thoughtful work be so diminished?

Similarly, Kim Newman at BBC, in the post that inspired this rambling rant, writes that star ratings are

…a substitute for thought, insight, debate, and even consumer advice…

Newman also says,

I think star ratings are for people too busy to read or stupid to understand the actual review.

Many thanks to the film critics who have drawn me in with thoughtful analysis, with imaginative prose, and with insight that shows they really took the time to think things through. Roger Ebert, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Steven Greydanus, Doug Cummings, Ron Reed, Michael Sicinski, Matt Zoller Seitz, to name just a few, not to mention the contributors here at Filmwell. I’ve learned as much from movie reviewers as I have from filmmakers. I’ve learned about paying attention, about plot and character development and color and commerce. I’ve found new lenses through which to understand films that frustrated or befuddled me. And I’ve had some of my most fundamental convictions about art, life, politics, and even faith challenged by things I’ve read in considerations of artists as varied as Kieslowski, Tarantino, Spielberg, Jarmusch, Ozu, Kubrick, and Miyazaki.

I also greatly appreciate those who write with a humility that suggests their perspective is their own… and thus limited, personal, and inseparable from their own experiences, preferences, and passions. Ater all, despite what you’ll read in many reviews, no one person has the authority to describe a film with words like “Most” or “Best” or “Classic.”

Oh, how critics love superlatives. I think I’m developing an allergy. I look back at certain reviews from the ’90s and I get sick to my stomach at the shows of arrogance — particularly because I wrote those reviews. “The best film of the year so far.” Who has the authority to say such a thing? Who has already seen all of the films this year has to offer? Who ever will see them all, and be able to make such a pronouncement?

Blurb-ready superlatives do more to exalt the critic’s sense of self-importance, I suspect, or their eagerness or attention, than they do to convey anything truly meaningful about the film in question.

I recently invited people to comment at my blog, and to share what it is they appreciated about the film WALL-E, because I found it to be a film full of things to admire and enjoy. Some of those comments failed to convey much at all that was informative. Some merely declared that it was “one of the greatest movies ever made.” This is not helpful, except in convincing me that the person making the comment is enthusiastic… and probably prone to exaggeration.

I have continued to publish lists of my “personal favorites” for each year. I take great pains to explain them as accounts of those titles that have meant a great deal to me for whatever reason. But even so, I worry that I’m suggesting these are the Greatest Works of Art… or the films that I recommend most highly to anybody. Some of the films I treasure are films I wouldn’t recommend to very many people at all. How does one rate an experience like David Lynch’s Inland Empire?

I am writing this more out of regret for things I’ve published in the past than out of annoyance with any particular critic, so please, fellow moviegoers, don’t take this personally. Heck, most of my favorite film critics still use stars or point systems.

But ask yourself: Have you ever seen a rating system that was actually helpful? A system that helped you come to understand and appreciate films more deeply?

If so, do share. Perhaps it will catch on.

(Thanks to Joseph Hollies for the links to Newman and Hare.)

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About Jeffrey Overstreet

Jeffrey Overstreet is the author of a “memoir of dangerous moviegoing” called Through a Screen Darkly, and a four-volume series of fantasy novels called The Auralia Thread, which includes Auralia’s Colors, Cyndere’s Midnight, Raven’s Ladder, and The Ale Boy’s Feast. Jeffrey is a contributing editor for Seattle Pacific University’s Response magazine, and he writes about art, faith, and culture for Image, Filmwell, and his own website, LookingCloser.org. His work has also appeared in Paste, Relevant, Books and Culture, and Christianity Today (where he was a film columnist and critic for almost a decade). He lives in Shoreline, Washington. Visit him on Facebook at facebook.com/jeffreyoverstreethq.

  • Gaith

    I’m all for long, luxurious film reviews – especially ones which truly analyze the content in question, spoilers and all, for the benefit of those who’ve already seen it, and are interested in the critic’s unfiltered opinion.

    Case in point: I very much admire “Inglorious Basterds”. Like you, Jeffrey, I also had serious qualms about its celebration of violence, revenge, and “good” terrorism. But to my mind, the sheer, unabashed outlandishness of the finale makes the whole movie fundamentally silly on a certain level, one that frees us from connecting it to closely to reality, and allows us to bask in its ridiculously suspenseful and entertaining pulp fairy tale.

    Of course, in a traditional film review, especially for a new movie, a critic ideally shouldn’t even let on that there’s a surprise to the ending. Sure, s/he could say “I was uneasy with it, but the ending won me over”, but that doesn’t make for very compelling prose.

    I think, therefore, that the virtue of a quantitative evaluation system is, as Evan says, an optional tool that communicates a value judgment without risking spoilers. As great as Ebert is, he gives away away far too much on occasion (he basically says how Spalko meets her demise in Indy 4!), and I’m therefore wary of reading his full reviews before seeing a movie.

    Also, quantitative scores make Metacritic’s arrangement of quotes easier, which I think justifies the whole endeavor in of itself. I really love that site.

    Conclusion? “A-” for “Inglorious Basterds”. Because Cinema kills the Ger -

  • Evan

    While I have never seen a rating system that helped me understand and appreciate a film more deeply, (I think that’s what the reviews are for) some rating systems have encouraged me to check out a film that I might have otherwise passed on. If a critic I highly respect (and the respect comes from reading several well written reviews) gives a film a good rating, I realize s/he saw something of value in the film, and I am encouraged to watch it. I know I may or may not agree with the critic, but I enjoy trying to discover something of value on my own, whether that be solid acting, impressive editing and cinematography, or even good discussion provoking content. For instance, I would not have seen “Summer Hours” had Steven Greydanus not given it an A, and I would not have watched “Munyurangabo” had you not said it was one of your red films.


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