July 26th, 2017

On lists and star ratings

It’s now December, the month in which two mysterious and omnipresent beings magically appear: Christmas music at shopping centres, and the year-end top ten list. Big-hitters like TIME, New York magazine and Rolling Stone as well as local luminaries such as Quickflix’s Simon Miraudo have got in early to take full advantage of the link-baiting opportunities that top-ten lists afford their publications in the month where everyone’s looking for an opportunity to slack off at work. All over Twitter some of my favourite local writers and podcasters are making their lists and checking them twice in anticipation of the final few major releases of the 2011 calendar year.

(The eternal question for a list maker: do I hold off on posting until the year is over – and therefore publish when everyone is on holiday – or do I sign off on the list early and hope that none of the Boxing Day releases would have made it in?)

I’ve always been a big fan of reading and compiling lists but there are some pretty vocal detractors out there, among them Luke Buckmaster, Crikey‘s website editor and one of my favourite local film writers:

Numerically ranked top 10s – just like star ratings -taking a craft struggling for cred (film crit) and belittling it just that lil bit more
10 Dec via TweetDeck

Now, though I disagree with him, I understand why he believes lists unfairly reduce films to a mere number. (We shared an epic Twitter conversation shortly after he posted that tweet, and while I remain steadfastly in the pro-list camp, Mr. Buckmaster has convincing points supporting his position.)

But, belittling the field of film criticism itself?

In my experience the only people who take lists seriously are those opposed to them. No list maker – at least, not one that I’m aware of – has ever suggested that a list is an exercise in serious film criticism, nor is it a replacement for a long-form film review, but Mr. Buckmaster and his anti-list brethren all seem convinced that to write a list is to hammer one more nail into the coffin of film criticism as a literary field. Do they actually believe that?

Talk to a person who compiles lists, and they’ll probably name one or more of the following as their reasons for choosing to compile lists:

  • It’s a bit of fun
  • To force them to think more deeply about films in comparison to each other
  • To champion their favourites of the year, and to spark debate with those who disagree
  • To throw some attention on films that deserve to be more widely appreciated

No list maker would ever suggest that lists even pretend to be examples of “film criticism”, let alone pose a threat to the work of Peter Bradshaw, A.O. Scott or David Bordwell. As I said, I understand why people have a problem with the reductive nature of lists, but here’s the thing: no one forces anyone to read (or write) lists.

If you think film discussion is cheapened by lists, simply refrain from clicking on those headlines and don’t compile any yourself. It seems obvious to me, but some people must be unaware that you don’t have to read everything you see on the internet, and if you feel that something is a negative influence on the world around you, the most effective way to combat it is to ignore it. I despise reality television, but instead of taking to Twitter with a torch and pitchfork and giving the debate more oxygen, I simply refrain from watching or discussing it at all. Those that enjoy their reality TV are free to do so, and I live happily in my reality-TV-free bubble.

Can’t people just let us listers scrabble around in our little sandbox without shouting at us that we’re ruining the discussion of film?

This whole debate reminds me of a previous post of mine (On criticism, blogging and entitlement), written in response to local blogger Brad Nguyen slamming the idea of star ratings for many of the same reasons as Mr. Buckmaster dislikes lists.

In fact, Mr. Buckmaster also has a problem with star ratings, calling them “the worst thing to happen to mainstream film analysis”, which to me is an incredible thing to say about something as innocuous as a star rating. The worst thing to happen to mainstream film analysis? Worse than the decline of the newspaper publishing industry, the rise of focus group-controlled production studios, and the blogging revolution? I can understand any of those things being called the worst thing to happen to mainstream film analysis (though, again, I’d disagree), but star ratings? Really?

Pictured: the worst thing to happen to film analysis. $500 reward offered for capture.

The problem with star ratings according to both Mr. Nguyen and Mr. Buckmaster is their reductiveness. They find the idea that a two-hour work of audio-visual art can be summed up in a single number to be offensive, and I see their point. But again I say, no one – no one – has ever suggested that a star rating replaces a long-form film critique or discussion other than detractors attempting to build straw-man arguments against rating movies.

The ironic thing, of course, is that Cinetology, Mr. Buckmaster’s own website and home to his marvelously informative film reviews, uses a three-point scale (“see it”, “don’t rush” and “skip it”) to reduce the cinematic art-form to a two-word summation of whether a film is worthy of your time or not. On Twitter he defended his traffic-light system as being the result of calls from his readers for some kind of quickly-digestible rating, and says he uses those categorisations strictly from a “conversational” point of view in conjunction with the expansive thoughts found within his reviews:

I view my own system from a conversational POV, not a numbers POV. I would recommend it: why? I wouldn’t: why? Etc.
10 Dec via TweetDeck

But I see no difference between the star/half-star system I use, Leonard Maltin’s bomb-to-four-stars scale, the old Siskel and Ebert two-thumbs system, the thirteen-point letter-grades favoured by Guy Lodge and Glenn Dunks, or Mr. Buckmaster’s see it/don’t rush/skip it system. At the end of the day, they all reduce a film into an easily-digestible summation that can be understood in isolation or in support of a longer review. Whether it’s three points or 100, at the end of the day we’re all attempting to do the same thing: quickly inform people how we reacted to a work of art.

I would argue that one of my star ratings is merely a higher-fidelity way of saying “I recommend it, here’s why”. Instead of reducing the film to a binary good or bad, a star rating also tells you the extent to which the rater liked or disliked the film, so “I recommend it” becomes “I recommend it, but did not absolutely fall in love with it” (three stars), or “I would rather contract a flesh-eating disease then sit through it again” (zero stars). Obviously this information is useless if you’re not familiar with my tastes and previous ratings, but then so are my 1000-word full reviews.

Again, people obviously find utility in being able to rate films, books and music out of some arbitrary number, so what harm is there in letting us do so without the accusation that we’re killing the ongoing film conversation? Don’t like it? Don’t read it.

Do you rate films and compile lists? Let me know in the comments.


An earlier version of this post incorrectly asserted that Mr. Buckmaster adopted a traffic-light rating system due to editorial pressures from Crikey, not at the request of his readers. This is not the case and I apologise to Mr. Buckmaster for the error.

About Bradley J. Dixon

Bradley J. Dixon is a freelance writer and blogger from Melbourne.


  1. Sarah says:

    Absolutely, I agree with you regarding star ratings. When I ask someone if they saw a film, and whether they liked it, I don’t want a 2 page in-depth summary of the film, I want to know if they liked it or not. It makes it easier to decide if I want to see it. ie. 5 people liked it, one didn’t. That gives me an easy way of summarising views. Same with critics, if most critics liked it (gave high star value) then I am more likely to go see it when I want to go see some quality film. I also usually read on to find out why they consider it worthy of such praise. If in general they give it low stars, I am intrigued to read further and find out why. Useful and interesting in both cases.

    • I’m exactly the same… if I see yet another one-star rating for Jack & Jill for example, I pretty much know what to expect from the review and can safely skip it. But if someone rates it five stars, that draws me in, and I want to know why they rated it so highly.

      (Though, I very much doubt that Jack & Jill has received even a single five-star review.)

  2. Anthony says:

    Nice one Brad. As a rule of thumb, we consider any film that is ‘enjoyable’ to receive at least a 3 star rating. The formula seems to work well for us.

    I think star ratings are great to categorise and classify films, as if you were giving them a genre. People can easily do a search on 4 star films, knowing there is a good chance they won’t be disappointed.

    As for the lists, we are looking to compile ours soon. But there are certainly some good ones come boxing day. Does early Jan count as well?

    • I agree with you that any film I “enjoyed” gets at least three stars, so you can read my star ratings in binary (“liked”, “did not like”) if that’s all you’re after. Do you find that having so many different people contributing to your site hampers the consistency of the ratings? Some people are far more liberal with five-star ratings than I am.

      My personal rule of thumb for lists is that everything must have received an Australian release (whether in theatres or straight to DVD) in the 2011 calendar year. If it came out in the United States this year but doesn’t come out here until 2012, it gets shifted onto next year’s list.

      Unfortunately that means that some great films I saw this year (Cold Fish for example) can’t make it onto the list because they haven’t actually been released here, apart from their single showing at MIFF. But I’ll just put films like that in the honourable mentions so I can still highlight them.

      • Perhaps that is the case (of having many contributes dilute the ratings). And maybe some of been a little more trigger happy with the 5 stars. But what can I say… we love movies.

        But to answer your question, I hope people can identify the different contributors clearly and we have some probably unknown functions in the site to easily distinguish and sort them out.
        ie… http://www.filmdude.com/dude/list/2011/stars-desc

        I also had a Cold Fish example last summer. I loved ‘The Road’.


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