Tuesday, March 13, 2007

My movie grading scale... and why I don't like it.

Hey, all. (warning: this is a LONG post)

So I've decided to not give films grades anymore. No, I really mean it this time. I'll continue with grades for the Streepathon, and for the list of 2006 films, since I already started quantifying them in that way. But it's getting increasingly frustrating for me to assign films grades, for several reasons.

First of all, I just feel weird giving actual letter grades to works of art that are all attempting and accomplishing different things. Sometimes it's pretty easy to identify a film as "good" (B) or "mediocre" (C) or "highly uneven, but watchable and with some great elements" (that'd be a C+, generally), and it's a fun challenge to try and put a film in a specific category of quality. But much of the time, it just doesn't feel right. The frustration of it is that sometimes I feel grade about giving a film a grade, and then other times (i.e. with other films), the process just seems silly and pointless. And it makes me feel like much more of a film "nerd" than I'd like to be.

Also, I will often have a lukewarm reaction to something I can recognize as very well made (i.e. The Departed), and I feel weird giving it the same grade as something that's clearly not as ambitious, but still just as enjoyable (for me). But at the same time, I feel weird putting it on the same level as the films I really LOVED this year (The Fountain, Marie Antoinette, Volver, Children of Men, and even Little Miss Sunshine, which I adore despite its flaws and its slightness).

Also, since I generally avoid seeing crap, my grading scale is rather frontloaded, but getting an "A" from me is still difficult. So nearly everything I see gets some form of "B"... and giving everything a "B" just seems stupid. Though I guess that's how grading curves work. But again, are films even aiming for grades? Is that really the point? Um, no.

And furthermore, I feel pretty unqualified to give grades to older films. Since I'm less conversant with films from, say, the 50s and 60s and the culture from which they arose, I feel strange pretending to be qualified to judge them in the same way. Plus, without the context of all the other films from that year, I can't even really know how it compared to other films of its time (except of course from its reputation), and hence, I wouldn't know what to give it. I do of course have my own reactions to each film individually, but those are totally subjective, and not really enough to go on. And if I don't particularly LOVE some classic film I'm supposed to love, isn't it somewhat presumptuous giving it a paltry "B"? Plus, knowing a film is an established classic is likely to color my reaction.

Like, for example, I just watched M*A*S*H. And I didn't really love it all that much. And I'm not really sure why. I've at least really really liked all Altman's recent stuff (even The Company), so why don't I love a film regarded by many as his best? It is cause it's old? Is it cause it's about war? I dunno. But I'm sick of trying to force it into some specific grade. I still prefer grades to the "star" system (which I'm just sick of), but they have their own problems.

For the record, here is an explanation of my old grading system:

A+: Above and beyond a masterpiece; an exceedingly rare breed. Pulls off the trick of being both deeply resonant and consistently entertaining from start to finish (or if not "entertaining," then still utterly engaging... haunting? disturbing?). Totally transporting. Endlessly rewatchable. Thoroughly lovable. Really, I can't even know what will be an A+ until it's settled into my system and the love has had time to bloom. Ex: Moulin Rouge!, Dancer in the Dark, Thelma & Louise, The Empire Strikes Back

A: A masterpiece. Maybe not endlessly rewatchable, but a masterpiece nonetheless. Contains either brilliant comedy or resonant tragedy, but maybe not both at once (that'd be an A+). Feels intimate, yet large in scope. No flaws to speak of, but doesn't keep inviting you back for more the way an A+ does; you just wanna catch those few key moments and then fast-forward through the rest. Or else you DO watch it over and over, but its effect is not as deep as that of an "A+" film. But either way, still a great work of art, and a rarity. Ex: Brokeback Mountain, A History of Violence, Mulholland Dr., Tootsie

A-: Terrific. Hugely ambitious without letting the effort show. Has a uniquely cinematic energy. Might not feel totally complete, or may be somewhat flawed, but still contains moments of pure cinema. Distinguishable from a B+ in that it feels like a "near-masterpiece" instead of a "very good film." It has that special movie magic, and casts a powerful spell. It wows and then sticks with you. Ex: Kill Bill: Volume 1, Children of Men, Volver, The Incredibles

B+: Highly recommended, i.e. "very good." Isn't as uniquely cinematic or as powerful as an "A" film, but is still "better than good." Might have magical moments or elements, but still feels, on the whole, like a "B" film. Top ten list material, but probably not best picture material (unless its a crappy year). Ex: Pan's Labyrinth, The Lives of Others, The Squid and the Whale, Junebug

B: Recommended. In a word: "good." Competently made and entertaining, though not especially rewatchable in most cases. Not really "magical," but there's nothing really wrong with it either (if there is something wrong with it, then there's enough right with it to make up for it). Definitely worthwhile viewing. Ex: Casino Royale, Freaky Friday (2003), Million Dollar Baby, Munich

B-: Recommended with reservations. Generally good, but flawed. Films in this category might drag in spots, feel scattered or unfocused, or just strain credibility in some way. Often I give this grade to films that I generally like but find overly sappy or ponderous. Weaker than a solid "B," but still a good grade. ex: In America, The Science of Sleep, Scoop, Babel

C+: Generally mediocre, but with some great, highly watchable elements OR just highly unneven, with some things great and some awful. Films of this grade have as many misfires as direct hits. Frustrating. In any case, they're not really good films... but they're often recommendable anyway. "Fascinating disasters" usually land here. Ex: Dreamgirls, Cold Mountain, Stranger than Fiction

C: Mediocre. Not particularly ambitious or original. You feel all the the heartstrings being pulled, the thrills being engineered, the laughs being set up, the tearducts being worked; even if said techniques are successful, the effort shows. Might contain worthwhile elements, but they're trapped in the overriding tone of mediocrity. Might be enjoyable if you're into this specific genre or performer; not so much if you're not. But these films at least do what they set out to do, i.e. succeed in being mediocre. Ex: Bridge to Terabithia, The Family Stone, Bee Season, Something's Gotta Give

C-: Not recommended... unless it's REALLY your kinda thing. Decidedly aiming for mediocrity, but only partially successful even at that. This grade often applies to films that dramatize real world events in an inaccurate, tasteless or politically problematic way. These films may have redeeming qualities, but they still leave a bad taste in the mouth after viewing, and often sour more in the memory. But they often involve good production values, good acting, or at least something midly engaging. Ex: A Beautiful Mind, World Trade Center

D+: Not recommended. Just not up to snuff. Doesn't manage to engage me in any significant way, despite its best efforts. It might really be trying, too... but to no avail. Just not good filmmaking. Technically incompetent, narratively incoherent, appallingly acted, or perhaps more than one of the above. But it's usually really trying to be good. I feel bad for films like this; I don't exactly hate them, but I don't like them at all either. Ex: A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints

D: Not recommended at all. In a word: "bad." Just not a good film at all. Verging on offensive and/or insulting, but maybe not quite there. A chore to sit through. Ex: I no longer have examples ready, as I don't really seek out bad films... but they're out there, and they're often widely seen (Wild Hogs, anyone?).

D-: A train wreck. Could be worse, but not by much. Often outright insults the intelligence of the viewer. Truly, truly bad. Often made worse by the fact that it could've been good if done right. Ex: any number of bad comedies or action films

F: In Nat's words, F is for: "Find the negatives and burn them." I rarely, if ever, find myself watching any films this bad. These are the lowest of the low. Films of this ilk don't even know how bad they are; they actually take themselves seriously, which only makes them that much worse. I have sat through part of Lady in the Water, and I think it belongs here. But alas, I left before I could be sure.


Anyway... writing this all out has helped me respect my grading system more... but I still don't like it. It still doesn't work in all cases, especially for older films. So while I'll still use it for pending 2006 releases (and there are lots) and for the Streepathon, don't expect to see it used in the future. I could change my mind, of course, but... yeah.

In its place, I intend to put each year's films into broad categories like: recommended, highly recommended, not recommended, etc. without attaching a letter grade to each. It just feels more respectful that way, and also more reflective of the fact that it's only my opinion I'm claiming. I don't generally like to diss people's work (as an actor, I know how much that stings), and I also don't want to put things on a pedestal and expect everyone else to agree with me. I can only recommend a film or not. So, yeah.

How do others feel about this? I actually find the subject or grading films fascinating, though I find the actual process annoying. Anybody have any thoughts? Don't be shy.



Blogger Kamikaze Camel said...

I personally love that you spent all that time defining a now defunct system. Teehee.

My grades are pretty similar although I have some variations around the C-B sections.

And, I seriously still don't get the A History of Violence = A film. I reckon that's crazy talk.

8:24 AM  
Blogger adam k. said...

I also love that I spent all that time! There's a new system replacing it that's basically the same (see new post & sidebar).

I don't love A History of Violence the way I love most of my A films, and I get that it's not everyone's cup of tea, but I have to agree with Nat and the majority of critics and really bow down to Cronenberg. It's easily my #2 film of 2005.

It's the incredibly tricky mixture of tones that won me over. The music, the acting... it's almost FFH-like in its masterful reverence/mocking of typical suburban life. That, and the way it illuminates the theme of violence in all of us, and how we need it to survive, even when we claim we don't... man, that sex scene on the stairs is INTENSE.

Basically it's not something I'd wanna watch over and over, but it has a special magic to it. And I just respect the hell out of this film.

5:03 AM  

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