film.Antrikshy | Thoughts on film and games

The Complex Nature Of Film Ratings


Movie ratings are complicated.

Is The Shawshank Redemption better than Inception? At the time of writing, that’s what their respective IMDb user ratings suggest. The former ranks #1 on IMDb’s top film charts (and has been for years), while the latter is a bit lower down, but squarely in the top 20.

How exactly does Crazy, Stupid, Love compare? Is it wrong to enjoy or appreciate the three in a different ranking?

Can movies be objectively good or bad, or better and worse than each other?

As I’ve mentioned earlier, I have watched and rated over 1000 movies. After the first few hundred, I started running out of titles that I would gravitate towards at the time. So, I lowered my standards, so to speak. I gradually broadened my selection to include movies with lower user ratings, and genres that I would not normally watch (romance, horror, biography).

Naturally, I have developed quite a few opinions about movie quality over time.

So What?

We have limited time to point our eyeballs at all the content produced in the world. I think it’s safe to say that no single person could realistically watch all the movies ever released in a lifetime.

That’s why movie ratings are important. Whether you watch 5 movies a year or 3 a week, you probably base your movie choices on something in order to optimize your time. If you watch movies based on a random number generator, please get in touch with me. I would love to chat about that experience!

The Good, The Bad

For one, I believe that no film is objectively good or bad. And it doesn’t matter anyway.

I heavily frequent online (read: Reddit) conversations about film, which has led me to believe that people believe in good and bad movies. I routinely see people say

You have good taste in movies.

(read: we have similar taste in movies, eyeroll)

or

Movie X is objectively good.

or

I know movie Y was objectively bad but I love it nonetheless.

(this one is one of my biggest pet peeves in general)

or

Movie Z is definitely a guilty pleasure of mine.

I don’t think I will ever get this mentality or understand where it comes from.

Movies are art. Art is subjective.

Unless the world decides to agree upon scoring criteria for objectively judging movie quality, I don’t think the word “objective” should ever come up in anybody’s opinion about movies. And I hope we can agree that such universal criteria to judge movies isn’t necessary, or a good thing. Restricting any form of artistic expression to mathematical criteria is gatekeeping at best.

I wish this pressure to conform to the supposed “right” opinions about films simply didn’t exist, and everyone could just enjoy what they naturally get enjoyment out of.

Scoping It Down

I don’t mean to imply that there should never be criteria for judging film (or other art forms). It’s completely fair to have personal criteria. However, if you do come up with a hard rubric, try broadening your movie-watching horizons. Watch movies from cultures or regions that you typically don’t. See if the rubric holds up.

I am of the opinion that calling movies “good” or “bad” should come with the implication of personal opinion, rather than fact. I am not perfect either. I catch myself saying “X was a good movie.” If you ever catch me doing this, please understand that it’s only supposed to indicate what I thought of it.

As an expat since teen age, I have received strong exposure to cinema of multiple cultures growing up. I primarily watched Indian films as a kid, and now I tend to gravitate towards English-language films.

If I compare filmmaking styles, acting performances, and plot strucutres of well-received mainstream Indian and American movies, I see a significant contrast. Even ignoring themes and subject matter (which differ for obvious reasons), there is a contrast between their overall look and feel, tropes, expositions and other more granular aspects of storytelling. They are designed to play into expectations of their respective target audiences.

Audiences across regions are often “used to” seeing different things in their movies, and walk into the theater with different expectations. It’s not at all uncommon for the same movie to not perform well in one region, but break records in other countries. It doesn’t seem correct to chalk this up to entire movie-watching audiences in other countries not “knowing” good vs bad art. It all just highlights the subjectivity of opinions.

So Bad It’s Good

Many people find pleasure in movies that they would otherwise consider to be of poor quality. Sure, this one can usually be explained away as people enjoying film that was not produced in line with the original intention. But what if the original intent was a veiled, outwardly low-quality film?

That reminds me of so-called “guilty pleasures”. Please stop feeling guilty for liking subjective things. This might be an unrelated topic. I don’t consider myself an expert on self-confidence.

Besides, avant-garde film exists. So does parody. So do movies with multiple interpretations. How is one to interpret an ambiguous movie the “correct” way to judge it? Sure, we could ask the filmmakers what they intended when writing or producing it. Surely their quoted intent should be treated as gospel.

But then not all of them are willing to answer clearly. See 2001: A Space Odyssey, the entire Wikipedia article, and Stanley Kubrick’s intentional open-endedness around it. Or see The Room, which has gone down in history as a poster child of so-bad-its-good films. Originally sold as a drama, showrunner Tommy Wiseau as retrospectively described it as a black comedy. He may not be fooling anyone, but on the other hand, who are to challenge him? We cannot conclusively say that the film was never intended to be an unconventionally written, surreally produced comedy.

Rated 4.8 / 5

If you truly insist on labeling movies as good or bad, consider community opinions.

A larger audience base does not mean better movie. But a larger pool of ratings makes for better what-to-watch decision making in my opinion. It may be more important to consider opinions from the right audience (aka people the movie was made for), though that’s not always easy to isolate without digging deep into online communities.

Panned By Critics

I have never been the kind of person to follow critics’ interpretations. I do occasionally look at them, but take them with a grain of salt.

Critics aren’t useless. They do have a place in the industry. Audiences just need to have the right perspective when interpreting their views.

Critics play the same role in the film industry as gadget reviewers do in the tech industry; they speak for their demographic. Their views should not be taken as gospel, but rather an indicator of what their represented demographic may think of a movie.

Read their reviews if you feel they are useful for choosing movies. Then form your own opinions after watching them. It is completely valid to disagree.

Diluting critic opinions into numerical scores is risky. Numbers must be compared on the same scale, so beware of noise, especially in aggregated scores, as they may be aggregating different critics for each title.

Be very careful of critic rating aggregators. At least in the US, the general audience seems to weigh Rotten Tomatoes scores very highly. Yet, I feel that incredibly few people understand that the number is not what it seems. It dilutes nuanced critic reviews as much as humanly possible, into upvotes and downvotes, simply indicating the proportion of “positive” critic reviews, rather than aggregating critic scores into a mega-score. See RT’s own explanation here. If this comes as a surprise, Metacritic may be what you are looking for.

Praised By Audiences

There are two main reasons I take community ratings much more seriously than critic scores.

  1. If I am looking at an inexact, numerical indicator of opinions, I prefer to have the imprecision compensated by a larger sample size.
  2. They simply work better for me and my tastes.

User ratings, however, are also not immune from the demographics caveat that applies to critics. Just like any other online survey, they only speak for the demographics that contribute to them. Due to the much larger sample size, though, there is be a lesser possibility of variance by title, as long as the rating platform is popular enough.

After many years of regularly looking at IMDb ratings for movies, I have noticed patterns, such as distinct invisible rating scales that apply to various classes of movies. A few observations follow.

  1. Comedy and horror movies tend to be rated lower than dramas and thrillers.
  2. Movies of distinct regions and languages have disparate, dubiously comparable rating scales.
  3. Other media also listed on IMDb, such as video games, shorts, web originals, TV seasons and episodes, have entirely different rating scales from each other. (My familiarity with these is low.)
  4. [Opinion] There seems to be a marked stigma against Netflix Original titles. I feel that a good number of these web original titles would have been received well by the same IMDb-rating demographic if it had been released by a traditional distributor.
  5. [Opinion] I am quite likely to enjoy a western, English-language movie if it has an IMDb rating of over 7.0.

My observations here are limited to the kinds of titles I tend to watch and look up on IMDb (predominantly western and English-language movies). There may be more nuance to it all that I am not aware of.

How I Rate Movies

Being well aware that I am just a small cog in a large machine, I still take pride in contributing my own film opinions on the Internet. It also happens to work as a personal journal.

As I have touched on this a couple of times earlier, it isn’t straightforward to distill feelings into a single number. But I watch too many movies to practically write reviews for each one. Even though a score starts to form in my mind as a movie draws to a close, I place it on IMDb only when the credits start to roll. There have been exceptional cases where my opinion has changed significantly in the last 10% of the runtime; most recently, for The Platform.

Roughly, my personal rating philosophy breaks down into:

  1. ~80% my natural enjoyment of the movie.
  2. ~10% upward adjustment for technical achievements, if any stood out to me. This may include the production design, visual and special effects, music, audio mix, general style/pizzazz.
  3. ~10% upward adjustment for miscellaneous attributes that I may have appreciated. This may include long shots, unorthodox style, any production backstory, personal relatability with the subject, and so on.
  4. How this title compares overall to ones I have rated recently.

These may sound complicated, but I have just attempted to put into words what I think comes into my mind semi-consciously when I am about to rate a movie from 1-10.

Concluding Thoughts

Movie ratings are way more complicated than you may think.

Judging films objectively will always be clouded by ambiguity. The argument that films are objectively good or bad falls apart, at least in my mind, for several reasons that I have discussed above.

  1. Art is inherently subjective. Everyone has different tastes. It is simply disrespectful to call somebody else’s preferences, worse.
  2. Audiences across cultural boundaries have different expectations about what makes an enjoyable film.
  3. There is always the tiniest amount of ambiguity in what a movie was intended to be during production.
  4. If someone receives enjoyment from watching any movie, no one else can deny them that. Let’s retire the concept of guilty pleasures.

If you are a film critic, or otherwise disagree with my opinions, your thoughts are welcome in the comments section!


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