Thursday, July 10, 2014

Too much good stuff

Or, "The Breakdown of my Personal Star Rating System."

If I look at my month of July so far on Letterboxd, it is nearly collapsing from the weight of all the stars.

I've seen seven movies in the young month, and only two of them have received a rating of lower than 4 stars (out of 5). In fact, the number that have received 4.5 stars, which was once reserved for movies that reached my personal cinematic stratosphere, exceeds the number that received 3 or 3.5 stars (three to two). And the one I gave 3.5 stars -- in other words, the second-worst of the month -- is one I'm still thinking about three days after I saw it.

This is good. It means I'm spending my time on good movies.

But this is also bad. It means I'm losing my grasp on which movies get which star ratings.

Take Mistaken for Strangers, a very good documentary that I saw last night. Is it a great documentary? It might be. But I'm not sure about that. I have to think about it a bit longer.

I gave it 4.5 stars, not necessarily as a sign of its absolute quality, but to differentiate it from the heap of movies I've been giving 4 stars.

And this is where my true crisis lies: the loss of my understanding of what makes a 4-star movie.

Let's go back a few months.

When I came out of Nebraska and gave it a 4-star rating on Letterboxd, a friend of mine wondered what my problem was with it. "Problem?" I thought. "I gave the movie 4 stars!"

The same has happened with a couple other movies, with the same friend (I'm not picking on him, it's just that I talk movies with him a lot), to the point that I started to think of 4 stars as some sort of "insult" to a great movie. The rating I used to give to a movie that did a lot right, but not everything, was 3.5 stars. Three-point-five indicated that I thought a movie did quite a good job, but it wasn't a personal favorite.

So -- are you sitting? -- when I finally saw 12 Years a Slave a few weeks ago, and was underwhelmed by it relative to what I was expecting, I felt the only "responsible" star rating to give it was 4 stars. Three-point-five would be like some sort of slap in its face. So even though my primary instinct after seeing 12 Years was to pick at the things I thought it could have done better, there I was giving it a ranking of 4 stars on Letterboxd.

And if I gave this movie that I found somewhat problematic 4 stars, then how could I give the same rating to Mistaken for Strangers, which I may have loved?

Four stars is a tricky rating. On its own it looks quite impressive, all those stars lining up together in support of a movie. But it's still two notches below the maximum. It still means there's something wrong with the movie, flaws you can clearly pick out -- or maybe just that it wasn't in your wheelhouse, so it had a maximum potential enjoyment factor just based on its subject matter.

I don't mind being the type of cinematic optimist that's implied by giving out so many high ratings. I mean, clearly I love movies, so I would rather enjoy watching them and shower them with praise than to spend all my time grumbling about how they could have been better. I'm comfortable with the fact that on Letterboxd, I've given 174 films the highest possible rating (5 stars) and only 20 the lowest possible (1/2 star).

But I don't want one of my most reliable ratings -- 3.5 stars -- to become too weak for me to employ it without worrying that it means I don't really care for the film. Four stars is really creeping up on 3.5, with 653 movies that now hold a 4-star rating on Letterboxd and only 804 ranked 3.5. You'd think that 3 stars should be the highest represented, because that's the midway point between the lowest and the highest rating. But it's only second at 730.

And if damage has been done to the 3.5-star rating, just think how much damage has been done to 3. Three stars means I barely liked it. Some people use 2.5 to indicate that, but I use 3. If I give that out less and less, then what kind of terrible sins does a movie have to commit in order to get 2.5 and lower? There are a whole five star ratings down there that need to get their share of the love.

I do have to consider the possibility that 2014 has just been a really good year for movies. I've seen 18 films this year, and only one of those have I disliked -- and even then only mildly (2.5 stars). Only seven of those 18 films (including the 2.5-star Veronica Mars) have been given a rating under 4 stars, in part because I used the above logic to inflate the 3.5-star Lego Movie to 4. To counterbalance that, though, I'm wondering if I might have given 4 stars to both Frank and Blue Ruin, if at the time I ranked them I didn't already feel I'd been giving out 4 stars too much.

See? I don't know what anything is anymore.

And at this point, I feel almost desperate to see something that is just unambiguously god-awful.

This whole discussion just lends further weight to my appreciation of the Flickchart model, which duels movies against each other to create a customized list of favorite to least favorite. The Flickchart guys have identified the weaknesses in star ratings, and their mission statement can be summarized in this slogan that appears atop the site: "If they're all 5-star movies, which is the best?"

If I keep going in the direction I've been going, pretty much all the movies I see will be 5-star movies.

A nice problem for a cinephile to have, I guess.


Zach Murphy said...

Sounds like a good problem for the most part.

By the way, I also loved Mistaken For Strangers. It helps that I'm a big fan of The National, but the film itself is so much more than the typical band/tour doc.

Vancetastic said...

Yeah, I really appreciated how they were willing to show themselves warts and all. Most bands make a gesture toward that in band/tour docs, but it often feels empty. It's not like anything so controversial was revealed about The National here -- in fact, they seem like very decent guys -- but they definitely weren't trying to control their image through it.

I actually have almost no familiarity with The National, but I am excited now to seek out more of their stuff. Matt certainly puts his all into his stage performance -- not something you would really guess by looking at him.

Thanks for your comment!