Due to criticism from certain dissident elements of the general public, I’ve decided it’s time to lay out how exactly I assign scores to the movies I review. A rubric, so to speak.
Before I go into what each number means, I want to briefly explain how I judge movies. I also want to give a disclaimer: I have officially taken the Hypocritic Oath, which allows me to freely contradict myself whenever convenient. I wouldn’t want any reader to think I’m unlicensed. Anyways, here are the two general elements on which I judge a movie:
It may sound obvious, but I should stress that the number one criterion that I use to determine a movie’s quality is how entertaining it is. I’m not one of those snobs who thinks only dreadfully dull films are worth watching. I think that if you spend two hours watching a movie, you should probably enjoy the experience…with a couple of caveats. First, while this criterion applies to documentaries, it isn’t as important. A documentary should be lively enough that I don’t fall asleep, but I also don’t necessarily require ‘entertainment’ from it. This is especially true for documentaries that have particularly sober subject matter. On a related note, the second caveat is that there are certain types of films—heavy dramas, and more realistic tragedies, mostly—that really aren’t meant to be ‘entertaining’. In fact, for some that word could be almost insulting; I can’t really imagine anyone who I’d want to spend any time around ‘enjoying’ Schindler’s List, for example. Which leads to criterion number two, which is nearly as important.
Again, it’s probably obvious, but I do enjoy movies that are, well, good. Ideally a good film will be well acted, directed, produced, and written, and have some sort of interesting subject matter. If it’s thought provoking, or innovative in some way, even better. Now, quality and how important it is somewhat contextual—what I ask from an action movie is going to be very different than a period drama. Comedies are usually nearly totally exempt; all I really ask for them is to be funny, and anything extra (like an interesting story) is just gravy.
I have a word that I like to use, that I think encompasses both of these elements: engagement. How engaging is a movie? Was I totally pulled into its world? How often did I think about something else while watching it? What I like about the word ‘engaging’ is that it’s very genre flexible. A comedy engages with humour and an action movie with adrenaline, but a dark drama can be just as engaging with story or characters. When I finish watching a movie, the first thing I ask myself is how thoroughly did the movie engage me? Why? How eager would I be to watch the movie again (although again, particularly heavy movies are can get exempted from this criterion if they’re good enough)? Everything else flows from there.
Now, more specifically, what does each individual rating mean? Well, let’s dive in:
1/10 Life-Threateningly Horrendous—I’ve never given this out, and I hope I never have to. I’m saving it for something truly special, something that I hope I never see. And I may never. Considering the fact that I don’t get paid to do this, I don’t have any sort of obligation to see—or sit through—anything I don’t want to. But you never know.
2/10 Atrocious—The lowest rating I’ve actually used (once), this is for a movie that I truly detest. An atrocious film is more than just bad; it has to thoroughly fail in virtually every way, and have absolutely zero redeeming features whatsoever. Movies this bad are rare but unfortunately do exist, and I’d have a lot more than one of them if I was obligated to see every movie released instead of just ones I want to see. Examples: The Tango Lesson.
3/10 Horrible—In a step up from the last level, I may not actively want to find a genie and blow one of my three wishes to erase my memory of seeing a film that is merely horrible. But I did still thoroughly, thoroughly hate it. A horrible movie might have one or two minor mediocre elements, but they’re still submerged in an ocean of crap. Examples: The Cat in the Hat, Barnyard, Hulk, The Star Wars Holiday Special, Home Alone 3
4/10 Terrible—The first level with any real number of members for me (22, as of March 20, 2011), a terrible movie is well worth avoiding but not necessarily actively painful to sit through. It’s certainly going to be bad, and more than just a little, but it could be of the boring variety rather than the ‘colossal misfire’ variety. Or just really dumb. Examples: Cats & Dogs, Baby Geniuses, Election, The Last Airbender
5/10 Bad—A bad movie, for me, is one that I regret seeing. It may have some parts (maybe a few scenes, or a performance or two) that I genuinely like—in some cases more than a few—but there is enough that I didn’t like about the movie that it outweighs the good stuff, even if only by a little. I’d never want to see it again but, if I was with a group of friends and they insisted, I wouldn’t put up too much of a fight. Examples: Armageddon, White Men Can’t Jump, A Knight’s Tale, American Psycho, The Sixth Sense
6/10 Decent—I enjoy watching movies, and so even something mediocre will entertain me. And that’s what a decent move is: mildly but definitively entertaining. This could be because the film was just generally mediocre (like Transformers, which is forgettably entertaining), or something that has more pronounced successes and failures (something like Gran Torino). Still, even more blandly entertaining “okay” movies will have some sort of easily identifiable problem, and usually more than one. This rating means I liked the movie, and didn’t regret spending two hours or so on it…I just didn’t feel any sort of enthusiasm for it. I might not want to see it again, but that’s only because it probably wouldn’t be worth the time, not because I didn’t enjoy it. I feel this way about a lot of movies, and my average rating is usually right around 6.5. Examples: Transformers, Gran Torino, American Pie, The Devil Wears Prada, Twelve Monkeys.
7/10 Good—Now we’re starting to get the point where I can more unequivocally say that I liked a movie. This is one that I’m glad I watched, and that I’d be happy to watch again at some point in the future (the former point can be true of okay movies, but not so much the latter). This is the point that I’d start to actually recommend a movie, and bring it up in conversation. It may still have some problems, but they’re rarely going to be anything major, and easily outweighed by a lot of things that I liked. Also a very common rating, as the average mentioned above indicates. Examples: X-Men, Ghost Busters, The Terminator, Munich, The Last Samurai
8/10 Very Good—A very good movie, to put it simply, impressed me. These movies are memorable—at least one major aspect is outstanding, and usually more than one. With few exceptions, it is a movie that I actively want to see again, usually more than once. A very good movie can have flaws, but not very large or very many, and they’re vastly outweighed by the good. At this level we’re starting to taper off the edge of the bell curve again, but not dramatically; I’ve given somewhere in the vicinity of 100 movies this rating (out of slightly less than 800, as of late April, 2011). Examples: Chinatown, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Good Will Hunting, On the Waterfront, Toy Story 3
9/10 Great—The absolute cream of the crop, these movies don’t come around very often. To be truly great, a movie has to do more than impress me; I have to be downright floored, for whatever reason. Although I can nitpick anything, a great movie is one that I really don’t want to. They’re not all flawless, but they come damn close. If I leave the theater (or couch) wanting to see it again immediately, that’s a pretty good sign that it’s a great film. Unsurprisingly I don’t give this rating out very often; there are around 25 movies that I’ve seen that I’d call great. Examples: Citizen Kane, Gladiator, Wall-E, Memento, Inception
10/10 Scrumtrulescent—I’m not sure it’s possible for a movie to be truly perfect, but these ones come as close as we’re ever going to see. To get this rating, a film has to be a masterpiece, the pinnacle of the career of everyone who worked on it. It has to make me want to spew hyperbole and upbraid anyone who dares to question it’s merits. So far I’ve given this out to only three movies. I like to keep it exclusive, but I’ll be thrilled to see something that makes me give it out again. Examples: The Godfather, Schindler’s List, The Lord of the Rings
Now, you may have noticed that these aren’t the only rating I give. Instead, I actually give half-points too—essentially, I use a twenty-point scale. All this means is that the movie falls somewhere roughly halfway between the two descriptions given above. A 6.5, for example (which is almost exactly my average rating) is enough better than a six that I feel that it’s better than merely ‘okay’, but also not quite ‘good’. I don’t think I need to write a separate rubric for these, but I’ll give a couple of examples for each:
1.5/10—None, yet, praise the lord
4.5/10—The Ballad of Jack and Rose, Nights of Cabiria
5.5/10—Ninja Assassin, Despicable Me
6.5/10—Invictus, Get Smart
7.5/10—Black Hawk Down, Aladdin
9.5/10—Saving Private Ryan, The Emperor’s New Groove