Monday, October 27, 2008

The Dreaded Grading Scale, or: How I Felt About the Films I Saw This Year but Did Not Review

Want to know the method behind my madness? I can barely explain it myself.

Owen Gleiberman, who shares the title of chief film critic for Entertainment Weekly with Lisa Schwarzbaum, has famously said that he detests the movie letter grade scale used by the pop culture bible that employs him. I don't go by letter grades (far too many variables of + and -) but by stars -- five of them (with nearly as many variables of 1/2). Rating scales are necessry when judging things on their quality; when all is said and done, when all strengths and weaknesses have been observed, how, in one succinct number or letter, does the item hold up against the competition?

For me, week after week, one of two things occurs (sometimes at once): I see a film and a grade sticks out in my mind, or I see a film and words to be written stick out in my mind. Once I sit down and start typing, one of two other things occurs (usually not at once): what I'm writing dictates a grade, or a grade dictates what I'm writing. Sometimes, a movie warrants such a clear and specific position on the quality meter, that all one needs to do is explain why. Unfortunately, this is usually not the case.

Film, the most collaborative art form, has so many factors that affect whether or not it's a successful piece of work. Personally, I'm a sucker for gorgeous and colorful movies. That affection may save a beautiful title with a mediocre script from a low grade (ex: Wong Kar Wai's "My Blueberry Nights"). I also believe that strong acting can greatly elevate a film (ex: Julianne Moore and co. in "Savage Grace," an alluring but soul-sucking picture with little to say). Since most movies are mediocre and the great ones are few and far between, these elements within the lesser titles -- elements that hint at greatness, make the grading process that much more difficult.

Take "Pride and Glory," a needlessly circuitous, all-too-familiar cop drama that I reviewed the week of October 26 and gave the see-saw-ing 3 stars. For me, this grade can lean either way in terms of recommending the film in question. I normally won't endorse something if its given a rating lower than 3.5 stars, but many 3 star pictures posess praise-worthy parts, even if their sum is underwhelming. "Pride and Glory," as I wrote in my critique, has bursts of intensity that grab you by the throat. It also boasts a crop of solid performances from a solid cast. Is that enough to suggest seeing it? Well, no. Ultimately something we've all seen before, the flick hits the low end of the see-saw.

I saw a handful of other films this year, reviewed in complete and simply rated, that were also branded with 3 stars. Some were better than others. Some leaned to the see-saw's higher end. Either way, the 3 star grade is usually the most crowded because, sadly, most flicks are just okay. Below is a collection of grades for the films I've seen in 2008 but did not review. They run the gamut from 5 star excellence to 1 star putridity. But, there in the middle, you'll see that the 3 star titles are greatest in usual.
(Bear in mind that there are still two months to go in the year and most of the "finer" films have yet to be released. Expect this list to grow considerably).

Wall-E = 5 stars
I.O.U.S.A. = 4.5 stars
Vicky Cristina Barcelona = 4.5 stars
The Visitor = 4.5 stars
A Girl Cut in Two = 4 stars
Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day = 4 stars
Mongol = 4 stars
Young @ Heart = 4 stars
The Grocer's Son = 3.5 stars
In Search Of = 3.5 stars
My Blueberry Nights = 3.5 stars
Were the World Mine = 3.5 stars
Bigger, Stronger, Faster = 3 stars
The Book of Caleb = 3 stars
The Edge of Heaven = 3 stars
Fear(s) of the Dark = 3 stars
Funny Games = 3 stars
Savage Grace = 3 stars
Paranoid Park = 2.5 stars
What We Do is Secret = 2.5 stars
Mamma Mia! = 2 stars
Patti Smith: Dream of Life = 1 star

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