A three-star rant about thumbs.


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.


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.)

  • Chris H

    Well, I give this rant two stars.

    (Actually, I agree).

  • Tim Greiving

    Bravo! Easily one of the best criticisms of star ratings in 2009!

  • http://facesunveiled.wordpress.com Tyler

    I rate all the Netflix movies I get, not because I want people to see them, even though they can now because of a new facebook application, but because whatever preference syncing database thing the site uses has led me to several movies I’ve really enjoyed that I wouldn’t have even known about otherwise. I’m not a big fan of starred reviews, though; I guess the Netflix system is useful to me because of what it can tell me about myself, and not so much for distilling other peoples’ reviews into a single-digit opinion.

  • Adam Walter

    I used to enjoy looking at the grades you gave films, Jeffrey. Sorry to see it go. You have to admit this, though: you looked at the idea of grading itself, and you gave it a “fail” on the pass/fail chart.

  • http://www.cvfilm.nl Obi-Cus Kenobus

    As a matter of fact, I liked Jeffrey’s old rating system and Steve Greydanus’ current rating system. But perhaps the question is what I liked it for. It’s usually a start. A start when I want to check what to rent for the kids for the weekend. Or a start to figure out how to go about reviewing movies myself. Where to loo? What to look for? But, true, it’s certainly not the end. I have to form my own perspective on a given movie and find I disagree with some of the ratings JO and SDG. But I’ve got to get my hermeneutic cycle going at some place. And sometimes, it’s a simple rating system.

  • http://moviegoings.wordpress.com/ Jared

    Definitely agree about the Netflix rankings, but I really appreciate a lot of what you have to say here. When I reviewed “Brokeback Mountain” for my school’s newspaper a few years ago, there was a bit of controversy, most notably from an outraged Bible professor. It wasn’t anything that I actually said about the film that provoked this response, however . . . It was the number of stars I gave it! And, yes, I often find it very difficult, when someone asks how good a movie is, to figure out what they *really* want to know.

    I’ve always thought it would be very interesting if annual awards ceremonies operated on a time-delay. What if we were just now trying to decide what the best film of 2004 was? Seems like there’d be a better chance of getting it right . . . but maybe not.

  • Anders

    Star ratings can be frustrating, especially when you start thinking “What does an B- rate on a four-star scale? Or a five? Or out 10? 100?” It’s exhausting. And it reminds me too much of my job (Is an A- at our international school equal to a Cambridge IGCSE A-? Do I move it up or down?)

    But still, I use Flixster on Facebook, not as a way of really reviewing, but more as a replacement for the movie journal I used to keep. It’s a movie journal that friends can easily peruse. For that, it’s useful. And there are times that I’ve changed my mind about films and it allows me to do that too, while remembering what I said about it before.

    So, I guess I agree with you. But I wish you (and others) would fill in more than just the star ratings on Flixster. 😉

  • Adam Walter

    Another thing I should say: Individual reviews are indeed far more meaningful than individual ratings of individual films. However, when I look at several of my favorite critics and see the ratings they’ve given a particular film, the relative consensus may be more helpful to me (in determining whether a film is worth my time) than any one opinion expressed in a review.

    Also, take the cumulative rating averages that appear on IMDb or Metacritic. Usually, they really are a good indicator of a film’s quality. This is not so different from James Surowiecki’s solid central thesis in his book The Wisdom of Crowds: “Large groups of people are smarter than an elite few, no matter how brilliant — better at solving problems, fostering innovation, coming to wise decisions, even predicting the future.” And I don’t think box office sales are a good counter example; no decision is “purely rational” when being influenced by advertising hype. The “wisdom of the crowd” is much more apparent in what they thought of a film after they saw it; that’s why the cumulative IMDb user ratings are so fascinating.

    Of course, another issue is this: does any critic want to be associated with “the crowd”? That issue alone may be sufficient reason for eschewing a rating/grading system.

  • http://unscene.blogspot.com Joel

    At the risk of jumping into a conversation I don’t feel all that qualified to be a part of due to my lack experience writing movie reviews (I think I wrote a review of “Fantasia 2000” when I was in college) while fueled by nothing but a can of beer and a bowl of fried rice, I feel tempted to take this thing further and mention that in my opinion the very idea of writing “reviews” is fraught with, if not peril, at least enough ambiguity to make me question whether or not it is something I want to do. (And I’ve done it a lot.) Although I get a certain amount of satisfaction making aesthetic judgements based on what is — I think — years of carefully considering the type of thing I write about (popular music), I feel a bit like Andy Bernard in “The Office” when he talks about being an art critic or food critic: “This food tastes bad.” “That painting is bad.” The fact is that my experience of popular music is so subjective, so based on autobiography and personality, that I am simply not qualified as a judge of objective “goodness.” And I guess I don’t think anybody else is, either.

    That doesn’t mean that I think nobody should write reviews, but sometimes — and especially nowadays when everyone in the world has a blog (I have something like four, I note with horror and amusement) — the idea that we are “reviewing” things (probably while wearing Homer Simpson style “smart glasses”) seems, as JD Salinger once wrote, “tiny and meaningless and sad-making.” Whether or not I LIKE a record or even whether or not I thought it was GOOD maybe isn’t even that interesting to a lot of people, I bet. The “”””reviews”””” I get most jazzed about are ones in which writers dig deep into weirdly personal stuff, or draw out hidden meanings and connections I hadn’t thought of or expected.

    So basically, I agree with Jeffrey — if you (the general you) write about “titles that have meant a great deal to me, for whatever reason,” and you do it regularly, with clarity and grace and revelation, and people get to know you through your writing and come to have some kind of personal stake in knowing what these things meant to you and why — that seems like a pretty worthwhile enterprise. I rarely live up to that ideal in my own writing, but I’d like to.

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  • Cameren Lee

    I only rate to play the little recommendation games that sites rely on your little star allocations to play with any competence – though that doesn’t stop unwelcome suggestions.