Written in the stars

Star ratings have become an inevitable part of film reviews, but not all critics who use them like them and awarding all five (or 10) to a film remains an uncommon event. Metro has asked some of Australia's most well-respected critics - At the Movies's Margaret Pomeranz and David Stratton, the Herald's Sandra Hall and Paul Byrnes, and The Brag magazine's Dee Jefferson - about their opinion on stars and what a film must do to earn full marks.


''I guess I hold to the Islamic concept that only God is perfect,'' says Byrnes, who has no intention of awarding five stars to any film. Ever.

''That would be saying it couldn't be improved. I think there is always something you could do better. And ask any filmmaker, they are never satisfied they have made a perfect movie.''

Byrnes confesses he's been tempted ''on occasion'' but 4½ remains his maximum, awarded to just seven films in the past five years.

''I wish we didn't have any scores at all. They're a blunt instrument,'' he says. ''Consumer-advice reviewing is boring, fish wrap. Criticism is much harder, much more informative and requires more of the reader as well as the writer. [High-quality film criticism] is not about stars and good or bad, it's about [mounting] an argument.''

Byrnes wants to be read and believes star ratings encourage people not to bother, especially when it comes to lower ratings. ''A two-star review - that could be my most entertaining review for six months,'' he says.

Byrnes has awarded zero stars to one film, Disaster Movie (2008).

Some Byrnes top scorers

Good Night and Good Luck (2005)

Zodiac (2007)

Wall-E (2008)

Never Let Me Go (2010)

A Separation (2011)

Byrnes says watch out for

Ben Lewin's The Sessions (opens on November 8).


Stratton has no problem awarding five stars and has done so about 15 times since 2005.

For him, they're about excellence rather than perfection.

''A five-star film would be one that combines narrative excellence, performance excellence and especially visual excellence, and some kind of indefinable thing that's hard to quantify.''

Stratton also awards zeros, such as for ''Project X in March. It has no redeeming features whatsoever'' - but it gives him little satisfaction.

''I would much rather praise a film than damn it, if it's possible.

''And I think you always need to remember it's only your opinion. That is why, when we started The Movie Show [the SBS precursor to At the Movies], we wanted to have more than one person.

''I have my opinion and Margaret has her opinion and neither one is correct.'' Stratton struggles more with the middle ground.

''One thing I get criticised for is that I can review a film in a way that sounds positive and give it a three or I can give a review that sounds negative and still give it three. Everything in the middle is difficult.''

Some Stratton top scorers

Sideways (2004)

Grizzly Man (2005)

Bright Star (2009)

Hugo (2011)

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011)

Stratton says watch out for

Andrew Dominic's Killing Them Softly (opens October 11).


Pomeranz also awards five stars but not often and, with hindsight, wouldn't mind revising some of them down.

''No Country for Old Men, for example, I don't know that I'd give that five again,'' she says.

''Generally, the films I give five stars to absolutely overwhelm me at the time, emotionally. And the filmmaker has a serious intent; they are aspiring to be in some way revelatory about the human condition.''

Pomeranz does confess to the odd ''defiance rating'' when it comes to Lars von Trier films. ''David has got such a downer on von Trier that I tend to go, 'Oh well, stuff it. I'm going to give that five stars if you're only going to give it one.'

''I think [von Trier] is brave and I love brave filmmakers who really put themselves out on the chopping block.''

Stratton might be more generous than Pomeranz when it comes to fives, but he's also more liberal with his zeros.

''I don't think I've ever given a zero,'' Pomeranz says. ''But David is ruthless. Look at all those zeros!'' she says, scanning a list of their ratings. Her lowest score is half a star, which went to Rebound (2005).

Some Pomeranz top scorers

The Return (2003)

Capote (2005)

The Lives of Others (2006)

Lust, Caution (2007)

Melancholia (2011)

Pomeranz says watch out for

Peter Jackson's The Hobbit (opens on December 26).


Hall has never awarded five stars to a film, but ''when I look back now, I think maybe I should have'', she says.

''Raise the Red Lantern is a perfect film, when I think about it.

''When I think back, I would have given The Social Network a five. I actually gave it a four.

''I think the effect of time on your judgement is important. Time is a decider, really. Sometimes you are not quite sure how well [a film] is going to stand up over time.''

Hall, too, thinks star ratings have limited value. ''Because you are judging like and unlike. Inside Job, for example, is one of the most important films of the past few years, but you wouldn't call it a visual feast.

''How do you stack it up against something like The Artist, which is light as a feather and lovely to look at and just as good in its own right?''

Hall has never awarded zero to a film. ''I don't really know what has stopped me,'' she says. Hall has awarded half a star - to Zookeeper (2011). ''I should have scored it as a zero,'' she says.

Some Hall top scorers

The Queen (2006)

Up in the Air (2009)

Project Nim (2011)

Mrs Carey's Concert (2011)

Bernie (2011)

Hall says watch out for

Josh Radnor's Liberal Arts (opens on September 20) and Ben Affleck's Argo (opens on October 25).


When Jefferson started reviewing for The Brag, she was told ''the second coming of Jesus is five stars'', so 4½ is her maximum.

''When reviewers want to give something five stars, it really means, 'I love [this film] so much I want to pee my pants,' but I think readers will take it to mean, 'This is perfect and you can't go wrong,' which is rarely true,'' she says.

Jefferson also lacks affection for star ratings, and believes people should read the full review to decide if it's ''their cup of tea''.

She does admit, however, that ''they're not actually harmful. They're something we'd do in conversation. If someone asks you if a film is good, you don't start by going, 'This director is blah blah blah and the camera angles are blah,' you go, 'Yeah, it's good.' It's really just the same thing in writing.''

Jefferson has never awarded a zero. ''I don't believe in zeros. I think that's like saying a film is completely worthless.''

It's the three-star zone she finds most challenging. ''It means different things to different people. Some think, 'Three stars, not good enough.' [Others mean] this is fine, this is enjoyable, but there are better things you could be seeing.''

Some Jefferson top scorers

The Tree of Life (2011)

The Artist (2011)

Melancholia (2011)

The Fighter (2010)

Jefferson says watch out for

Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master (opens on November 8).

The story Written in the stars first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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