Grading Movies

I’ve never written for a publication that required grades, and I’ve always been firmly opposed to the idea on principle. Art shouldn’t be so casually and arbitrarily measured, obviously. But I’m beginning to have a change of heart, mostly because of Letterboxd, the social media platform that has served, since January, as my film diary. Letterboxd has a one-click, 5-star grading system that I’ve found irresistible. I suppose it represents one more reduction of the online film conversation–from static essays and reviews, to newsgroup discussions, to blog posts and comments, to Facebook conversations, to Tweets, and now, finally, to stars, the graphic equivalent of “I hated it,” “I loved it,” and a few points in between.

In March 2005 I wrote a short blog post called “Cinephilia in the Digital Age,” which is an ode to the joy of being able to access a bottomless archive of mail-order DVDs and watch them in my home theater. I dug it out today because I vaguely recalled this paragraph:

Technology is rewriting the role of film criticism as well. Do I really need to read my local film reviewer when Rotten Tomatoes can, in a millisecond, determine critical consensus? Why look at the position of one reviewer’s thumb when I can just as easily gather together all of the nation’s reviewers and ask for a roll call? Is there any particular value now in being film history- or trivia-literate when Google and the Internet Movie Database can provide all of the answers to all of our questions by simply feeding them the appropriate keywords?

Another eight years have passed, and with them have come further seismic shifts: social media, streaming, crowdfunding, DCP, and so on. Film criticism has continued to evolve, too, but I won’t try to categorize those changes because I so seldom participate in the hard work of criticism anymore and, so, am unqualified to do so. But I’m still part of the conversation, thanks to Twitter and Letterboxd and to the relationships I’ve developed over the years with other critics and cinephiles.

And I think I’m also still part of the conversation because of my taste, which brings me back to grading films. 100 or so people follow me on Letterboxd; six or seven times that many follow me on Twitter; and I have to assume that most of them do so because they share–or respect–my taste. That’s why I follow other film critics, at least.

Between Netflix, HuluPlus, AmazonPrime, and FestivalScope, I have access to thousands of great films, and because of the stage of life I’ve entered (demanding job, young children) I can only find five or six hours each week to watch them all. Twitter and Letterboxd have become important tools for deciding how to prioritize my use of that time. If, for example, several friends at Cannes give four stars to a film I’d never heard of, it matters. Frankly, their ratings matter more to me than their reviews, which I might or might not read months from now, after I’ve finally had a chance to see the film for myself. So, to answer my question from eight years ago, “No. In the age of Rotten Tomatoes, Critics Roundup, and Criticwire, I seldom read film reviews at all.”

Grading a film is not criticism; it’s a casual, arbitrary, and fleeting expression of taste. The following scale is my first attempt to make it less casual, less arbitrary, and more reflective of my own specific tendencies. I quickly discovered, while using Letterboxd, that I knew instinctively what a one- and five-star film looked like, but most of what I watched fell somewhere between two and four stars, which proved trickier to describe. As a result, I’ve more precisely defined those scores. Any score above 50 should be considered a recommendation.

Grading Scale

A+ 5 95-100 A film that is both a personal favorite and a work of historical and artistic significance. Among the greatest films of all time. Very Rare.
A 4.5 86-94 A masterpiece. Ranks among my favorite films of the decade in which it was produced.
A- 4.5 77-85 Exceptional. Ranks among my ten favorite films of the year in which it was produced.
B+ 4 70-76 Very good. A contender for the top 10 of its year.
B 3.5 61-69 A conceptually interesting and well-made film with a voice and/or occasional moments of greatness.
B- 3 55-60 A conceptually flawed but well-made film with a voice and/or occasional moments of greatness.
C+ 2.5 48-54 A conceptually flawed, uninteresting, or technically deficient film with potential (a voice, a spark of talent, a few great images).
C 2 39-47 A competently made film lacking a voice or moments of greatness.
C- 1.5 32-38 A conceptually flawed, uninteresting, or technically deficient film that is ultimately harmless and forgettable.
D+ 1 25-31 The kind of failure that makes me count the number of people I’d have to disturb in order to get to the exit.
D .5 16-24 The kind of stupid, angry-making failure that makes me rock in my seat and grumble audibly.
D- .5 08-15 Offensive. Distinguished by a smugness in the voice of the film.
F 0 0-7 Reprehensible. Very rare.