How I Rank Films

Ever since I started using Criticker in 2011, I rank films on a 0-100 scale,  and based on point totals give each film a rating ranging between Utter Shite and ****. Here’s the formula:

87-100: ****

77-86: ***½

65-76: ***

55-64: **½

40-54: **

26-39: *½

15-25: *

0-14: Utter Shite

Often, I’ll arrive at my score for a film my averaging out three scores:

  • Direction: This also encompasses the cinematography, production design, score, special effects, etc. One could also call it “Production” or “Handling”.
  • Writing: Pretty straightforward. I usually try to take a film on its own, separate from any source material, but I’m not going to pretend knowledge of the source material isn’t a factor.
  • Acting: I wasn’t a theater major for nothing.

So, as an example, we’ll take the film August: Osage County (which I just saw, so it’s fresh in my memory).

Acting: We’ll start here. It’s an acting-centric film, so it makes sense to. It’s very well-acted indeed. Julia Roberts, who I’ve been somewhat averse to, despite having seen little of her work (I looked it up; I’ve only seen Mirror MirrorI’m guessing it’s more because my mom doesn’t like her), pretty well deserved her Oscar nomination as Barbara Weston, and Meryl Streep, who I at first thought was a little hammy and theatrical, ends up doing very well as Violet–though the role is so good it would be hard not to do a good job. Chris Cooper, Margo Martindale, Julianne Nicholson, and all the others did good work; Abigail Breslin (as Jean) might be the weak link, but that might be due to the underwriting of the actual role. I’m not sure I would call the performances truly superlative, but at the same, it’s a good ensemble, although (and I can’t say for sure since I’m not deeply familiar with the play) it seems there may have been some trimming to put the focus more squarely on Streep and Roberts. But overall the acting was good enough for me to give a score of…87.

Writing: Tracy Letts adapted his own play. Now, it’s a very good play–it won the Pulitzer and Tony, after all. It’s a great acting showcase, and virtually every character gets at least one moment to shine. In the film, though, some of the supporting characters seem a bit short-changed; Benedict Cumberbatch, as Little Charles, has his two big scenes and does very little else, while Dermot Mulroney (the ultra-sleazy Steve), is likewise set up well and is then quickly dispatched with (more on that in a bit), but perhaps worst of all is Jean, in regards to whom Letts seems to have said, “Teenage girls, am I right?” and settled for making her closed-off and contentious without giving her a real moment of her own, at least in the adaptation (again, I don’t remember the play perfectly). That said, when Letts shines, he shines. Violet has to be one of the best-ever stage roles written for an older actress, her bluntness and stubborn willfulness providing many dramatic and darkly comic highpoints. The dinner scene is a marvel of family drama at its most sickly funny, and the film keeps it essentially intact. Elsewhere, there are moments that feel cut-down, and some of the attempts to open the material up feel forced, but it balances out decently well in the end, although the final half-hour feels somewhat rushed and clunky in tying up the threads of the story. I don’t bemoan Letts not getting an Oscar nomination; as an adaptation, it’s only adequate. But the original material is great. So, going 90-91 for the source material and 75-76 for the adaptation…I go 82. I’d go 83, but the last third really is kind of weak.

Directing: It’s a fairly no-frills directing job by John Wells; he mostly keeps the cast in line and keeps the action clear. He does a good job, but not an outstanding one. One climactic moment, though–the nighttime encounter between Steve and Jean–is really pretty clumsily staged, and smacks of squeamishness on the part of the filmmakers. It definitely loses points in that regard. The cinematography is fine. There’s an interesting angle on Sam Shepard in the first scene, but after that, it’s just kind of there. Gustavo Santaolalla’s score feels a bit heavier and more somber than the play requires; I’m not sure what the best score for the material would be, but it feels too…”standard”, I guess, is the word. The production design on the house is quite strong, though, and the makeup and costuming are spot-on. Sound design is all you could ask for. My issues with the directing put it down at around 76…maybe a point higher or lower, but that feels about right.

Now that that’s all out of the way, let’s do the math:

87 + 82 + 76 = 245. Divide by 3 gives 81.66666…round it up to…82. A mid ***½ film, which sounds good to me. I don’t always use this formula, and sometimes I nudge the final total around to fit what I think works best, but this basically how I do business.

Here is the breakdown of the 5-star rating system I used from March 9 to December 5, 2015:

After using a **** scale for many years, on March 9, 2015 I officially switched over to a ***** scale, which breaks down as follows:

  • *****: 90-100
  • ****½: 85-89
  • ****: 75-84
  • ***½: 65-74
  • ***: 55-64
  • **½: 45-54
  • **: 35-44
  • *½: 25-34
  • *: 15-24
  • ½: 10-14
  • Utter Shite: 0-9

In brief:

  • ***** encompasses those films which are either as perfect as films get, or so good as a whole that their weaknesses can be forgiven; in other words, it encompasses both a nearly flawless film like Snatch (100) and a marvelous film like Fritz Lang’s Fury (91), which falters a little at the end but is otherwise brilliant.
  • ****½ is an interesting rating, in that it covers those films, some of which I love dearly, but which are not objectively great enough to sneak into the ***** range. It sounds harsher than it is, but much as I love, say, Her (an 89), the execution was just not seamless enough to get into that highest tier. And a film like the wonderfully weird Computer Chess (85), while not an all-time masterpiece, is so memorable and imaginative in of itself that it belongs in this group.
  • **** is a very broad rating, as some 84 films (Smile) are really quite good and some 75 films (The Pirates!: Band of Misfits) are underwhelming. But at the same time, an 84 film doesn’t have the extra oomph to go higher and a 75 film has too much going for it to go lower. The majority of films I see will end up here–very good, but not great.
  • ***½ covers some contentious territory. A film that I score a 69–let’s take David and Lisa as an example–would at one time have been **½, and for quite some time would’ve been ***. Now it has a new home in the ***½, and I hope it fits in. ***½ films often either boast strong moments but don’t quite make it as a whole, or never threaten to become great, but are too solid to be considered mediocre.
  • ***, likewise, includes films that were once ** and then **½. Usually this means a film that is not meritless, but is lacking in major areas. A film like Life of Pi (which I do need to rewatch, but it works for this scenario), which has some truly stunning sequences, but which is burdened by a pointless framing device, a mostly extraneous first act, and a rather dubious message.
  • **½ is where we start to nudge into real mediocrity. A **½ isn’t bad necessarily, but it’s not good either. Don’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood has its funny moments, and I confess a certain fondness for it, but it’s a pretty scattershot film which never builds up a head of comic steam. It fits the **½ model perfectly.
  • ** is a bad rating to have. While **½ films can still be watchable, and *½ and lower films can be memorably bad, you’re unlikely to get much out of a ** film. Take 300: Rise of an Empire, which previously scraped the bottom end of my ** range (it’s now in the middle). It’s too adequate to sink any lower, but it’s boring and uninspired. It’s a thoroughly blah film, and I would never recommend it.
  • *½ generally means a film that is bad, but not always so bad it’s good. On one hand, there’s the awesomely shitty Winter’s Tale, but on the other hand, there’s a piece of wearisome crap like Hick. With *½, proceed with caution.
  • * is where we start getting into the great shit. Mac and Me, The Identical, Sextette…all fantastic garbage. What keeps a * film from being lower? Sometimes it’s just the luck of the draw. Sometimes it’s the presence of basic cinematic competence–Sextette‘s badness comes not from its technical qualities (which are drab but not memorable in of themselves), but from the sheer misguidedness of it.
  • ½ is the mirror of ****½. It includes a lot of films which are absolute shit, but they don’t necessarily cause your jaw to drop in amazement. Sex and the City 2 is ridiculous, offensive nonsense, but it’s just this side of Utter Shite.
  • And finally, there’s Utter Shite. The bottom of the barrel. As with *****, it includes films of absolute awfulness (like Black Devil Doll From Hell, which may be the worst film I’ve ever seen–a true 0) and films like Battlefield Earth, where any fleeting qualities (though don’t ask me to name them) are quashed by the horrors on display (in a word: Travolta).

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