Note on Review Grades

With my reviews adding up on the site, I thought it would be appropriate to include a sort of guidepost for my rating system. Various grades mean different things to different people, so it seems like it would be helpful to know what I mean to communicate when I give one.

I’m actually not a huge fan of rating films with letters or stars, because impressions come across far better via actual reviews and opinions are prone to change over time (with rumination and/or multiple viewings). However, I do see some value in the shorthand provided by assigning ratings, and so I’ve tried to develop a consistent system that makes sense.

I’ve included my grading criteria below (with links to example articles).

A (3.5-4 stars)
This distinction marks what I believe to be a great film (i.e. Skyfall). A+ is a rare grade reserved for personal favorite types (only Life of Pi got one from me in 2012), and an A- is basically a very good film that falls just short of outright greatness for one reason or another (i.e. The Dark Knight Rises).

B (2.5-3 stars)
These go to what I generally consider good films. Usually, that means a worthwhile experience that is not quite great (i.e. Beginners) or a well-made entertainment (i.e. Oz: The Great and Powerful). Occasionally, a really ambitious film that does a lot of things well but didn’t quite work will wind up here. That’s why, despite having the same grade, some reviews will seem like pans (i.e. The Master), while others will seem like raves (i.e. Gangster Squad).

In my mind, B+ is often really close to A-. This distinction has proven toughest for me. Generally, I view anything with a B+ or higher as a really strong film, and given some time, any film reaching that bar could rise or fall in estimation along that strong scale. A good example of this is Forgetting Sarah Marshall, which I initially deemed a B+, but has since jumped all the way up to an A (it’s just so damn funny, watchable and emotionally potent). The late Roger Ebert mentioned this type of change of heart in many of his great movie reviews, including those on Groundhog Day (an A+ movie for me) and Planes, Trains and Automobiles (a B/B+ for me), and his words are potent to remember when considering film grades:
"Certainly I underrated it in my original review; I enjoyed it so easily that I was seduced into cheerful moderation. But there are a few films, and this is one of them, that burrow into our memories and become reference points. When you find yourself needing the phrase This is like "Groundhog Day" to explain how you feel, a movie has accomplished something."

"Some movies are obviously great. Others gradually thrust their greatness upon us. When "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" was released in 1987, I enjoyed it immensely, gave it a favorable review and moved on. But the movie continued to live in my memory. Like certain other popular entertainments ("It's a Wonderful Life," "E.T.," "Casablanca") it not only contained a universal theme, but also matched it with the right actors and story, so that it shrugged off the other movies of its kind and stood above them in a kind of perfection. This is the only movie our family watches as a custom, most every Thanksgiving."
C (1.5-2 stars)
I give this grade to films I deem passable. Usually, films with this grade aren’t all that, but they are serviceably enjoyable (i.e. American Reunion) or sufficiently accomplished to merit better than a failing grade (i.e. Les Misérables). Some bad movies that turn into guilty pleasures may wind up sneaking in on the low end of this category as well.

D (0.5 – 1 stars)
This ranking is designated for bad films. Sometimes, they have a few redeeming qualities, but not enough to garner even a C- (i.e. Battleship). Other times, they just aren’t quite bad enough for an outright F (i.e. This Means War).

F (0 stars)
I reserve this distinction for the worst of films – those that have no redeeming qualities and are just totally horrible experiences. Because of that, they are about as rare as A+ ratings, but they do exist. I haven’t posted a review of one on this Web site, but this category is reserved for absolute trash like Snakes on a Train.