I find it unfortunate that I even need to explain this, but with the current climate of “anything less than a five-star review is bad”, and Amazon validating this ludicrous position by labelling three-star reviews as “critical”, here’s the standard ratings system explained. And I’m not using the word “standard” lightly—if all the reviewers at Amazon, Goodreads, etc. who only use “five stars good” and “four stars bad” would settle on a standard, then people who actually consume reviews might have some basic idea of what they’re looking at. Are you listening, Harriet Klausner and Grady Harp?
***** – TRANSCENDENT – This is a piece of media that will change the way you look at life (or books, or movies, or music, or…) forever. It is either perfect (Before Night Falls, Richard Siken’s Crush, Robert Turman’s Beyond Painting) or its flaws are an integral part of why it works so well (Jeux Interdits, Barry Hannah’s The Tennis Handsome, Caul’s Light from Many Lamps). Five-star reviews are not given lightly, and certainly never by request (in fact, the request may be enough to knock a deserving five-star book down to four and a half—no one ever said this process is objective). I don’t have hard numbers for music, though I know that I give many more five-star music reviews, but my spreadsheets currently show that I have given fifty-six five-star book reviews out of 2,390 rated items, or 2.3%, while on the movie side of things, I have given forty five-star reviews from 3,647 rated items (1.09%). (NOTE: these numbers harvested 11Mar2013.) RECOMMENDATION LEVEL: Stop whatever else you are doing—right now—and go get yourself a copy of this. Don’t worry, whatever you’re doing will wait.
**** ½ – SUPERLATIVE – This is a piece of work that is perfect, or its “flaws” are of the minor annoyance/nitpicking level, but that just doesn’t have that ineffable je ne sais quois that makes a piece of media into a life-changing event. It’s still a great work of literature/film/music, either classic or destined (as much as anyone can prognosticate such things) for classic status, but it stopped climbing at the Second Step rather than reached the peak of Everest. RECOMMENDATION LEVEL: Get this at your earliest convenience.
**** – SUPERB – It is not without its flaws, but its strengths easily overcome them. This is also the level where genre work with successful pretensions to something greater most often ends up. The lowest level of “I recommend this work to anyone, anywhere, at any time.” RECOMMENDATION LEVEL: You need this.
*** ½ – EXCELLENT – Top-drawer genre work, general work that has a few minor kinks (a fantastic record with crappy production values, for example). Well worth your time, but here is where “…if you’re into that sort of thing” starts to creep in. RECOMMENDATION LEVEL: You most likely want this.
*** – ABOVE AVERAGE – It’s distinguished itself from the pack in places, but not consistently enough to be called distinguished overall. Something that, if I rewatched movies more than once or twice a year, I’d consider rewatching (or re-reading, which I do a whole heckuva lot less). RECOMMENDATION LEVEL: It should probably be somewhere on your wish list if the subject matter/genre is up your alley, but it’s not a top priority. The lowest level of “I recommend this” without qualifiers of any sort.
** ½ – AVERAGE – The normal run of the muck, as The Locust put it 15 years ago. Bog-standard. Remember that if you’re average, you’re still better than half the pack. The one exception to this rule: on very, very rare occasions—I think I’ve only done it twice in a quarter-century—I will give something the “gentleman’s C” if the author’s views and mine are so opposed that I know there’s no way I can give the work under consideration a thoughtful enough review. RECOMMENDATION LEVEL: If the basic tone of the review doesn’t tell you which way I went, I was probably explicit about it in the final paragraph; this could go either way.
** – BELOW AVERAGE – Deeply flawed, but that doesn’t make it unreadable/unwatchable/unlistenable; for example, an interesting microbudget movie whose director didn’t think out of the box enough to do anything inventive to make it seem less like a microbudget movie, or a book that’s good for ¾ of its length, then suddenly takes the eaiest possible route to a resolution. RECOMMENDATION LEVEL: I probably don’t recommend it, but there are exceptions at this level (they will always be explicitly noted in the review).
* ½ – BAD – This is where you’re not quite scraping the bottom of the barrel, but you can see the boards through the detritus. Real crap work that has an interesting feature or two (one actor turns in a surprisingly good performance, for example). RECOMMENDATION LEVEL: If you don’t have anything else to do on a Saturday night and you’re wasted…
* – AWFUL – If you’re bothering with this level, well, you’re probably like me—searching through the acres of swine to find the few pearls. Well, I do this so you don’t have to, so you can safely ignore it. RECOMMENDATION LEVEL: I wouldn’t fuck it with your dick.
½ – HORRIFIC – The worst of the worst, but does not conform to one of the two strictures below that will merit a zero-star rating. If you’re lucky, unless you stumble upon one of my reviews of something that gets half a star, you won’t even know crap like this exists. RECOMMENDATION LEVEL: Kill it. Kill it with fire.
(zero) – MY GOD, GET IT OFF MY LEG – There are two reasons why a piece of media might be given a zero-star review, and which one triggered it will be noted explicitly: either (a) it was so bad I couldn’t bring myself to finish it at all, or (b) it is patently offensive (and I will usually spell out what it is that was so offensive unless, in the case of a movie, that would constitute a major spoiler—e.g., I called out Heini Grunbaum’s movie Flænset as offensive without revealing the reason in the review [SPOILER ALERT: a scene that starts as rape but ends as consensual sex—this is one of the few things that will always land a piece of media a zero-star review] because it happens two-thirds of the way into the film). Again, these are exceptionally rare: as of the same date, fifty-six movies (1.5%) and sixty-four books (2.68%) have received zero-star reviews. RECOMMENDATION LEVEL: You have my deepest condolences. Like The Necronomicon, even cracking the cover on something in this category might drive you insane.