As the credits began to roll on Rabbit Hole, the excellent John Cameron Mitchell film starring Aaron Eckhart and Nicole Kidman as grieving parents, one crucial, all-encompassing thought went through my mind: Should I give this film three-and-a-half stars or four stars?
The distinction would not have changed the content of my review. For classification purposes it helps to organize my feelings on films through the year, but the difference of half a star, ultimately, is only as important as I make it.
And that’s precisely the problem. I’ve made it too important.
I’m prone to overthink. Sometimes that’s helpful: I notice details and have good recall, especially when I write. But it’s become less and less helpful when it comes to the stars. I’ve defended star-rating systems in the past. In 2008, I commented on a blog entry by Roger Ebert, who hates the stars but is editorially obligated to use them. I wrote:
You’ll forgive me, Mr. Ebert, if I actually like the four-star rating system, though you can be sure that if I am interested in a movie, I never take the star-rating at face value. The stars are meaningless unless you read the review.
Why I like them? Most simply, they organize the opinion of the critic and are useful in making comparisons. For instance, if you enjoy the work of a particular director, the star ratings throughout his or her career might spark a discussion. Why does this Scorsese film merit 3.5, while several others earn 4? Why does David Lynch merit 4 stars for one picture, and a lowly 1 star for another? Of course, you need to read the review to find out, but it’s a good place to start.
They’re also helpful in organizing opinions more broadly. You say that the one and four-star ratings are easy. They’re helpful to us as well. Which movies did Roger Ebert really hate? Which did he truly love? Your books of negative reviews consist of ratings of 1.5 stars and lower, and that is certainly a fair standard of extreme dislike. In the same way, if we seek a terrific Ebert recommendation, we can search the stars and then read the review to find out why. I know you dread the stars, but I’m grateful that you use them. They aren’t the be-all-end-all of film criticism, and they can be arbitrary at times, but they are useful.
Reading that comment again, I still agree with its sentiments. The star-ratings are useful. They are a tool for organization helpful to readers in searching, interesting in making comparisons. In this blog my reviews have been tagged so that you can browse my reviews by rating, so you can see, clearly and empirically, which films I loved, which ones I sort of liked, and which ones I hated. It’s the review that matters, but if you’re looking for a recommendation — or an entertaining pan — you can search the stars and have a wide selection immediately available to you.
But sometimes it becomes more about the stars than the review. I was questioned about my two-and-a-half star rating of Star Trek and my three-and-a-half star rating of The Social Network, as if I was nitpicking. Maybe I was. My review of the latter found nothing to criticize. It simply failed to inspire that intangible level of adoration, that you-know-it-when-you-see-it greatness. It lacked precisely half a star of je ne sais quoi.
More often, though, I find myself in a position like I was in during Rabbit Hole, thinking about the stars when I would rather have been thinking about the film. (I still remember agonizing over a half-star for The Insider in 1999, almost twelve years ago – I ended up giving it the full four.) Especially with late calendar-year releases the stars become more fraught. If it’s been a slow year, I tend to be more generous. If it’s been a strong year, I tend to be pickier. That’s not a conscious choice on my part, but a habit I’ve noticed; the more good films you see, the higher your standards of goodness become. 2010 was a very good year. If I had seen Rabbit Hole near the end of 2009, it’s likely I would have given it the full four stars. The Social Network too. Does this or that film deserve the stars needed to qualify for my list of the year’s best films? Do the stars even matter in that regard? I’ve placed several three-and-a-half star films on lists above four-star films. That’s because some films grow in the mind, long after you’ve bestowed your rating, and others, however good they are, recede.
I discussed film ratings with a knowledgeable contributor to a message board. He dislikes them, arguing, among other objections, that a review states an opinion, while a rating presumes to pass judgment. I disagree to the extent that my stars are intended to measure my subjective reaction rather than impose a final verdict. My opinions of many films change over time, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse. Some don’t age well. Others benefit from repeat viewings. My star ratings are snapshots, non-binding, open to reevaluation.
However, making the minute and sometimes arbitrary distinctions has become wearying after more than a decade of them. They seem less helpful to me than they used to be, open to misinterpretation and preoccupation in a way precise words are not. For that reason, I’ve decided to commit to a year-long experiment: beginning with 2011’s theatrical releases, I will go a year without ratings of any kind — no stars, or letters, or thumbs, or numbers — to see if it changes my experience of films and how. Because no matter what you use to measure, they’re always apples and oranges.