Psychology Clash Magazine, which I recently began following online, has decided to revise how it provides a score with their reviews. The change isn't massive, they'll still be making things out of ten, but it's the justification for those scores which is changing at of their April issue. Along with the guidelines, they've posted a long read asking various journalists just what the marking system with a review means to them and the context within which they decide on how to reduce the couple of hundred words they've otherwise prepared to a series of numbers or stars.
The general consensus seems to be that there isn't a consensus, other than there's a variance in audience expectation between marking something out of five or ten and that essentially everything in the middle is ignored so there's a temptation to overmark if the thing is worth listening to even if it's also a bit average (or pretty much what Clash themselves have done with the new Katy B album) (which is a disappointingly generic concoction) (though I do like the cover).
Applying this to film, I have considered giving marks to the texts featured in what's turning into my weekly review post. I think over the years I've become pretty adept at being able consider exactly where a film is on that scale, not least because both Lovefilm and Netflix implore me to do it. If we look at the films I watched last week:
Lovestruck: The Musical (**)
Mademoiselle C (***)
Sketches of Frank Gehry (****)
The Girl (****)
Hank: Five Years from the Brink (****)
Man of Steel (**)
Mike Birbiglia: My Girlfriend's Boyfriend (****)
The Wolverine (****)
Red 2 (***)
You'll notice I didn't award any of them with a single star - some of the dance numbers in Lovestruck: The Musical are pretty good even if the music's anodyne and the performances in Man of Steel are just enough to keep it watchable in the middle. There are no five stars simply because none of them bend the envelope in the way that something like Gravity or Inception does. To offer some archival examples, When Harry Met Sally is a five-star film but Sleepless in Seattle is not. It's a four. Shrugs.
Here are Clash Magazine's new guidelines and the points are pretty sound especially in relation to music. They will never give a new album a ten because it has to be a game-changer and sometimes such things take a while to seep into the zeitgeist. Most of the time I really good record will get an eight or nine with everything below a six considered average or worse. Interesting they're cautious about zeros because "if an album exists then it’s achieved what so many don’t: creation."
Could you apply similar rules to film? I think it's a bit more ambiguous, actually. The difference between film and most music is that so much of it is an industrial creation and the commercial imperatives are different. There's a lot more work involved if a filmmaker wants to more obviously put their personal stamp on the product, especially now, in comparison to most musicians, though I understand that there still can be many hands between the recording studio and iTunes which is why I used the word "most" before the word "music" there.
I'm post critic, I suppose. Having spent years trying to watch everything award four or five stars in Empire Magazine or five stars at least in The Guardian and nominated for various awards and seeing some terribly average fare anyway, I've eventually come to the conclusion that most films are probably, actually worth watching and if you're a film fan that you're just as well going with your own taste because it'll never quite match everyone elses.
Rotten Tomatoes is a pretty good guide but it can be muddled if a film is under reviewed or the reviews are poorly researched. Uncertainty languishes at 50% largely because the splat piece writers failed to notice what it was trying to do structurally even though I think the filmmakers managed to capably communicate that within the film. In some ways, I wish as in some other professions, film reviewers had to go through some kind of training before they were allowed to write. But I would say that.
To an extent I've stopped reading reviews before seeing films anyway so that I can greet all of them cold. I still listen to Kermode but I've largely forgotten the detail what he said by the time I watch the thing anyway. These days, I tend to go with curated options like making sure you see everything Artificial Eye, Criterion or Eureka releases because they tend to know what they're talking about or keeping up with various directors and actors whose work I've liked before, in other words, what people tend to do anyway.