I don’t believe in rating systems. There’s a reason that we don’t use “stars” or whatever on this site. Eventually, I’ll write an article about it. But I do find such systems useful under certain circumstances. For example, Netflix uses the system and it does work well to estimate how much I’ll like a film.
Note that in this case, the rating is for what I like; it isn’t some kind of statement about the film is. When Leonard Maltin gives a film a certain number of stars, he isn’t making a claim about his preferences; he’s making a claim about the film. (This is one of many reasons why film “critics” suck.)
Obviously, if you are going to try to quantify the quality of a film, the larger number of “stars,” the better. I am glad that Netflix uses a five-star rating system rather than a four-star system. It is probably because of the very many films that I think deserve 4 stars; somehow, 3 out of 4 stars doesn’t seem quite high enough, when 4 out of 5 does. This is despite the fact that the numbers are almost identical: 75 percent versus 80 percent.
I almost never give a film a rating of 2 stars, and I can’t remember ever rating a film as 1 star. To do so would reflect badly on me, I think. The filmmaker spent at least a year working on the film and I spent perhaps two hours. If I think it is really bad, isn’t it more likely that I just don’t get it? Even a film as sophomoric as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Undead is still worth at least 3 stars. And perhaps more, because the film really doesn’t pretend to be anything it isn’t. Would I have rewritten it? Sure. Could it have been so much better for me? Absolutely. Would doing so have reduced its potential audience by 90 percent? Probably.
Yojimbo and Its Remakes
One of the greatest films ever made is Yojimbo. It tells the story of a ronin who saves a town by setting its two controlling gangs against each other. This may sound familiar because it’s been made at least twice since then in the form of A Fist Full of Dollars and Last Man Standing. And I can think of no three films that better illustrate the difference between 3, 4, and 5 star ratings. Just so you know what I’m talking about, I rate them thusly:
|***||Last Man Standing|
|****||A Fistful of Dollars|
All of these films are good. I’ve watched them all many times. But why is Yojimbo better than A Fistful of Dollars and Last Man Standing? There are a few reasons. First, on its storytelling merits, it is better. It is funnier and more exciting. But that in itself wouldn’t cause me to put it into the 5-star category. Yojimbo is also at base a serious film with real characters.
This is not true of the other two film, which are at base comic books. Joe and Rojo in A Fistful of Dollars are superheroes. All the characters are stereotypes. The same thing goes for Last Man Standing. The argument can be made that Sanjuro is a superhero. I don’t think it is very strong, but it doesn’t matter. The people who occupy the town are very real, and the film is mostly about them.
The final thing that makes Yojimbo great is that it is beautifully shot. A Fistful of Dollars really falls down here. In particular, I am thinking of the day-for-night graveyard sequence. Last Man Standing, on the other hand is easily as beautiful as Yojimbo. This is one of the best things about it.
A Fistful of Dollars vs Last Man Standing
So why is A Fistful of Dollars better than Last Man Standing? One reason: Bruce Willis. I don’t generally mind Willis as an actor. In particular, he was excellent in the great film 12 Monkeys. But here, his performance is bad enough to almost destroy this film. Otherwise, I would likely rate Last Man Standing the better of the two.
Beyond the Numbers
I still don’t know what it is that distinguishes a good (4 star) from a great (5 star) film. I’m much more likely to give a film five stars when its intent is serious (and that has nothing to do with it being a drama; I think comedies more often have serious intents). But His Girl Friday is nothing more than a romp, and it is clearly a five-star film.
That’s why I think writing about film is a useful thing to do. It’s helpful to discuss a film — things to watch for; things that didn’t work; how one film relates to another; and so on. But to slap a number on a film is to reduce the film to a single thing. And even the very worst film is so much more than that. That’s why on our film pages, we have multiple articles. It’s easy for the same person to write ten different articles on the same film. Rare is the film that gets an entire book written about it, but I don’t think a film exists that an entire book could not be written about.
The Hidden Complexity
Still, everyone has opinions about films. They like some films better than others. What’s more, their tastes change from day to day. And Netflix does provide a good service in being able to take into account what people who have tastes similar to yours. So there is nothing wrong with rating films. And if you do, it’s probably a good idea to know why you rate different films differently. Behind ever number is an enormously complicated calculation that none of us is fully aware of.
 I believe that Sanjuro means “30-year-old” based upon the translations in Yojimbo and the almost equally wonderful Sanjuro. I highly recommend The Criterion Collection double DVD Yojimbo & Sanjuro. It’s great to have them together. Sanjuro is the name of the character. So the first film can be thought of as, “Sanjuro Goes to the Country.” And the second film would be, “Sanjuro Goes to Town.”