Thumbs Sideways: A Note on Ratings
What's the best way to rate movies — and should we even bother?
Ride-or-die Film Occasionally subscribers will have noticed over the last month or so that I’ve been using circular symbols in lieu of traditional star ratings:
The above is a two and a half out of four, and while I’d like to say there’s a high-minded reason for this design the truth is there’s simply no keyboard code for half-star increments and I couldn’t be bothered to make images. (It’s true that they’re reminiscent of the moon phases and my favorite book cover, but that’s just a happy coincidence.)
More important than the visualization is the scale. There’s no one agreed-upon metric when it comes to rating movies, with everything from stars and thumbs to numbers and letter grades being used; many eschew them altogether, and in fact most of my reviews haven’t had any formal rating attached to them. But they’re fun and provide an easy shorthand, especially for those who, like me, prefer to write about what a film is getting at rather than simply offering evaluative judgements.
Letter grades are, I think, the least helpful. Everyone thinks of school when they see an A- or C+, and GPA anxiety has a tendency of making us look at anything less than a B as being worse than it is. As for stars — or circles, or moons, or whatever — four is preferable to five. Because the latter can be mentally doubled so that it’s actually on a scale from one to 10, people have a habit of seeing, say, four stars out of five and thinking of it as actually being an eight out of 10 — which, again, would be a low B on a test and likewise sound less impressive than it actually is.
It’s actually precisely because most numbers on a four-star scale don’t convert to even numbers that I like it. I had to look it up to confirm that two and a half out of four comes out to 63 and three and a half to 88, two fairly random numbers that don’t have such clear associations with anything else — which is to say, they exist on their own terms in a way that others don’t.
To get really in the weeds, what I most like about this approach is that it allows me to use as ●●○○ a sort of default score and add or subtract accordingly. Hence, ●●◐○ is fairly positive, ●◐○○ fairly negative, and so on and so forth.
Part of what influenced this thought process was, of all things, Metacritic. I began paying obsessive attention to the review aggregator in high school, well before Rotten Tomatoes (which has always been inferior) became the cultural force it is today, and instantly appreciated its approach to assigning scores. Metascores are on a scale from 0-100, with different tiers denoted by color: 0-39 is red, 40-60 is yellow, and 61-100 is green, with anything above 81 indicating universal acclaim. (Rotten Tomatoes assigns an average score along with its percentages, but I suspect far fewer people pay attention to those.) As it’s uncommon for anything to reach that highest threshold, I was quicker to seek those films out than I would have been if scores of 81 or higher had been as common as “fresh” scores are on Rotten Tomatoes.
Because I decide what to write about and am under no obligation to cover movies that I expect to be bad (take that, editors!), I don’t expect to write many pans here — which is a relief, since I’ve always considered some aggressively negative reviews to be self-serving attempts by their authors to draw attention to themselves rather than the ostensible subject of their review. But I do consider myself a tough grader, meaning that anything higher than ●●●○ will also be rare. If everything is special then nothing is, and genuinely great movies shouldn’t be lumped in with the rest.
So while it may not seem like it, ●●◐○ really is a solid score in my book — lukewarm, maybe, but high enough to be color-coded green on Metacritic. This is undoubtedly an arbitrary way of looking at things, but ratings and rankings are by their very nature subjective and arbitrary, so meh.
As for the full ●●●●, I suppose I’m just a bit literal and don’t think a movie should receive a perfect score unless it at least verges on perfection. These may only come around once every few years, but just makes it more special when they do.