Film Criticism: On Grading Movies

Criticism of art, as reviled and looked-down upon as it is, is a necessary and inextirpable facet of art itself. It is the checks and balances of the creative industry. As it relates to film, it is a mediated industry within what is perhaps arts most mediated field.

In many ways, the work of a critic is easy

Let us not, however, get caught up in the semantic confusion that is the claim that the medium of film is a mediated medium criticized by critics who are part of a mediated industry within that mediated medium. Let us instead simply look at critics and their systems of judgment as it relates to those who consume the critics’ criticisms.

The vast majority of modern mainstream critics will judge the merits of a film on some sort of gradated scale, whether it be 1-5 stars or F–A+ grades or some other percentage based system.

For the first year and a half of running CineFiles, this critic refused to put a marked grade on the reviews written. The philosophy is a rather simple one: why distill a 400-some word review into a single letter or star value, knowing that that means most people will not read the words but merely scroll to the bottom to see the final verdict?

A grade is a summary, one that can be helpful and properly summative. But it also is a shortcut, a headline that can take the place of proper critique of form. I started writing reviews with the aim of a) watching too many movies and b) shedding informative light on the flaws and gems of today’s cinema.

But, after further review, I see that this is an undoubtedly pretentious perspective.

Who cares if people don’t want to read a 400-some word review of a movie they are probably already in route to seeing? A grade is a shortcut, which means it is an expedient source of information in an internet landscape marked by an exigent demand for easily accessible information.

However, a grade is also an abstraction.

What does an A mean? Or an F? Or—most confusing of all—a C? If one movie is an A and another movie is an A, are they at the same level of quality? What about a film with low expectations that surprises and warrants a B and a film with high expectations that disappoints and warrants a B? Are those Bs the same?

Grades mean very little, and they only cause confusion when placed in conjunction with other grades. A C in one case may signify an utter failure, and in another case it may signify a half-decent piece of bland cinema. An A and an A- are almost the same thing, but they could mean the difference between a modern classic and a flawed fascination.

In short, what do we do as readers of film criticism with grades? Most people will not read online reviews in full. This can be understandable. When I get to rambling for 800-to-1,000 words on a given film, I can tell people are going to skim or jump down to the conclusion. But grades and Rotten Tomato percentages are almost never the full story. A 98% grade on Rotten Tomatoes may be 98% positive reviews comprised of all B- grades. A 70% may denote a film with 70% A+ reviews.

I often think little about what letter grade I give a film. I know a general area in which the review lies on the scale, but the difference between a B- and a C+ is largely arbitrary. An F can be definitive, but a D- film is often just as poor (perhaps just without the bad taste in the mouth when I walk out).

Letters, stars, numbers out of 10 or 100. None of it really denotes anything without the words that come with it. But they are also all but necessary. And if I am the only person who thinks about what a letter symbolizes, so be it.


As always, thanks for reading!

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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)


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