About the Decent Films Ratings

Introduction: Why critics don’t like ratings

Critics don’t like rating movies. Some prefer to avoid ratings altogether; others use them, but chafe to one degree or another at their limitations.

Film ratings may or may not be necessary, but at best they’re a necessary evil. For one thing, no rating scheme can adequately encompass a critic’s opinion of every film. A friend and fellow critic once griped in a tepid two-star review that a more appropriate rating would be “four yawns,” and that other films he had given a zero-star rating really deserve “four bombs.”

Part of the difficulty is that different films can be appreciated or disparaged for so many different reasons. Films that we appreciate might be variously entertaining, thought-provoking, beautifully crafted, funny, inspiring, exciting, challenging, surprising, insightful, witty, informative, poetic, or some combination of these. Alternatively, films that leave us cold might be variously boring, pointless, crude, clumsy, confusing, obvious, exploitative, offensive, ugly, decadent, etc.

To further complicate matters, few films are unambiguously one thing or another. Three films might be equally well-crafted, yet one might be inspiring and thought-provoking, another decadent and exploitative, and a third merely entertaining. Likewise, two films might be equally poorly crafted, yet one might be offensive and the other merely pointless. Moreover, both positive and negative moral elements often appear in the same film.

No possible ratings system could express the endless possibilities — nor should one try. To express endless possibilities is the function of language, which is why film criticism is not primarily about assigning ratings, but about writing about (or discussing) films.

Another problem with ratings is that readers may look at the rating as a kind of “bottom line” judgment on a film. They may even come to regard the review as secondary to the rating — a sort of accompanying judicial opinion justifying or expounding upon the critic’s decision of how to rate the film. Questions like “What did the critic say about the movie? What did he think of it and why?” are replaced by “What did he give it?”

This is unfortunate. A critic shouldn’t be seen as a judge handing down verdicts. In my view, a critic is more like a lawyer who both lays out the relevant facts and also makes a case for a particular construal or interpretation of those facts. The “judge,” as I see it, is not the critic, but the reader, who reads the review and finds the critic’s case helpful or not, interesting or not, persuasive or not.

In other words, the critic’s job is not to tell the reader what to think, but to offer a thoughtful, responsible interpretation of a film, in the process providing enough information about the film to equip readers to arrive at their own conclusions — and to do so in an engaging way.

That said, ratings can still serve a useful purpose. Rightly used, they are not authoritative judgments, but an index of the critic’s opinion as discussed and explained in the review. For readers familiar with a critic’s work, a B or three-star rating puts the film in a certain context relative to other B or three-star films.

Combined with search functionality, ratings can also be helpful for finding films or reviews of a particular sort.

The Decent Films ratings

The Decent Films rating system is an attempt to strike a balance between the complexities of what makes a film worthwhile or not and the built-in limitations of any ratings scheme. Instead of one rating, there are four. This admittedly complicates matters, but the system isn’t really very confusing. The four ratings are:

  1. Overall recommendability (A-F)
  2. Artistic-entertainment value (0-4 stars)
  3. Moral-spiritual value (+4/-4)
  4. Age-appropriateness

Overall recommendability (A-F). The basic function of any ratings system is to recommend or not recommend a film, and usually to indicate how strongly the film is recommended or not recommended. (Even the simplest ratings schemes can have some nuance in this regard; “Two big thumbs up!” is better than just “thumbs up.”) Thus, the main Decent Films rating represents overall recommendability, rated on a scale of A (highly recommended) to F (unacceptable).

The next two ratings seek to break down why a film is or isn’t recommendable into two basic categories: artistic-entertainment value and moral-spiritual value. Although the factors are really more complicated than that, this breakdown seems to work fairly well, and greatly enhances the expressive power of the ratings scheme.

Artistic-entertainment value (0-4 stars). Many factors that go into how worthwhile a film is can be considered together under the heading of artistic-entertainment value. This includes every kind of consideration about how well or poorly made a film is, how well it works.

How well a film works, of course, depends in part on what sort of film it is, what it’s trying to accomplish. The merits of a top-notch character drama are different from those of a top-notch action film or thriller. Likewise, the defects of a lousy romantic comedy are different from those of a lousy biography or documentary. Any film can only be evaluated by the standards appropriate to the sort of film it is.

As essential as artistic-entertainment value is, how worthwhile a film is also depends on moral-spiritual considerations. Thus, the star rating by itself doesn’t necessarily indicate whether a movie is recommended or not.

Moral-spiritual value (+4/-4). Considered under the heading of moral-spiritual value are any positive or negative implications with respect to moral principles, basic human values, or the historic Christian faith.

Factors relating to moral-spiritual value are rated on a scale from +4 (“a feast for the spirit”) to -4 (“poison”), with a baseline of zero (“basically harmless”).

The rating allows for the inclusion of both positive and negative moral-spiritual factors, e.g., “+3/-1.” Rather than reduce every film to a single moral character, this system is meant to acknowledge that many films are mixtures of both praiseworthy and problematic elements.

Age-appropriateness. Films are rated for age appropriateness based on content and themes, from “Kids & up” to “Teens & up” to “Adults.” Any of these ratings may be modified by an asterisk (*), indicating “discernment required.” Profoundly objectionable films are rated “No one.”

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