On Critical Evaluation and Grading: A Decidedly Unscientific Analysis


No single element of a movie review seems to cause greater reader indignation than the grade. “What?! This is an entirely subjective experience!” is the usual response, often followed by “You’re asserting that your opinion is absolute, the word of God!” Both of these statements are false, provided that the critic is worth the paper or screen he’s writing on and that movies can qualify as “art.”

Consider the ridiculousness of the first statement by analogy to other disciplines. If artistic judgment is entirely subjective, then a child’s errant scribblings can be deemed superior to the Sistine Chapel, The Beastie Boys to Mozart, and Nora Roberts to Dickens. Would any discriminating person not see that, though it is possible to like the former alternatives better, for whatever reason, the latter are aesthetically superior? As for the second statement, a person who evaluates art is not automatically claiming to be privy to divine insight. Quite the opposite. I would argue that to write an honest critical review is to shake off one’s personal agenda and prejudices in a humble attempt to ascertain the truth, even though that truth is ultimately unattainable. Really, it seems much more arrogant to me to assert the opposite: that aesthetic truth doesn’t exist so we shouldn’t seek it. How can you know it doesn’t exist unless you’re omniscient?

The main problem with assessing film as art is that it is a relatively recently developed artistic medium. Not enough time has yet passed to sift the the good from the bad, the meretriciously entertaining from the intellectually rewarding. How else could completely worthless, unintelligent crap like Titanic and Juno be lauded by masses and critics alike? Why would films like Schindler’s List or Brokeback Mountain, which pose as profound art but in reality seem like little more than painfully obvious PC dreck, be thought of as brilliant? I believe it’s the films like Shawshank Redemption and the Lord of the Rings, which argue for a higher moral teleology, that will be remembered in future centuries when all the fluff about anti-heros, race, and political posturing has been long forgotten.

There it is: a brief synopsis of my critical sensibilities, amateurish as they may be. In assessing a film’s worth, I particularly look for timelessness: a plot, characters, and language that transcend the banal realities of our mortality. The films I review on this site will thus be assessed against an absolute standard rather than according to the other films that were released in a given year.

I try to be fair regarding a film’s genre. Comedies and horror films, for example, are often put down by critics as lacking the depth of dramas or epics. That may be so, but I would also argue that depth need not a prerequisite for saying something witty or perceptive about human nature, as comedies and horror flicks sometimes do.

In my view, the most important criteria are that a film (1) present a unique perspective on the topics it is exploring and (2) fulfill the objective it sets out to accomplish. That said, self-consciously subversive films are not my cup of tea, since all they tend to do is scream “Look at me and how original I am!” while saying very little that’s actually new or different. The Coen brothers are pros at that.

In any event, please remember that my evaluations and grades are those of a total non-expert, just another film lover like you, and that there might be an infinite number of valid counterarguments to set against anything I say.

As for my grading scale, this table should give a rough idea:

A+ A masterpiece; among the greatest films ever made
A Excellent; a must-see
A-/B+ Very good; also a must-see despite a few flaws
B/B- Good; a decent cut above mediocre
C-/C/C+ Entering average territory; you might yawn or wince more than a few times
D+/D/D- Piss-poor; a visual torture
F Fails in every conceivable way; a piece of rotten filth that isn’t fit for human consumption

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