Explanation of Grades and Values
Added in August 2010

Grades, Loosely Explained
These pertain to the film's level of aesthetic success

A+ Miraculous; a work that proves the sublimity of cinema
As thoughtful and stirring as we could ask any film to be
A– An important flaw or two, but overwhelmingly impressive
B+ Fewer peaks than an A– but commands intense respect
Solidly above average, as in the era before grade inflation
B– Considerable limitations, but it shows talent and promise
C+ Either a bland "pass" or a schizo mix of good and bad
Utterly mundane or self-undermining, but still tolerable
C– Isolated merits drown amid wild compromises and errors
D+ The core is rotten, even if the whole project isn't fully dead
If not for isolated glints of potential, I'd toss this to the dogs
D– Likely only a single scene or element saves this from an F
Either anti-competent or intent upon making itself odious
VOR Values, Loosely Explained
These pertain to the film's value, originality, and risk

Indispensable to cinephiles, even if it's flawed

Good or bad, this is risky and original work

Try to make time, but don't cry if you miss it

Even if it's good, it's hardly groundbreaking

Low ambition, little originality, easy to forget

For quite a while, I have wanted to post some contextualizing words about how and why I give grades on this site, especially since my full-time job and my slender thread of a social life often demand that I only give grades on this site. (I really do want to write more full reviews, I do!) Now that I'm finally getting around to explaining my grades, I am doing so in conjunction with an expansion of my grading system. Christopher Nolan made me do it: Inception offers a perfect, recent example of a film that I think trips pretty badly over itself, but which I fully urge people to see. Nothing about a C–, if left to stand by itself, suggests that I am exhorting anyone to plonk down their $10, but in fact I am. Whereas I think How To Train Your Dragon and The Father of My Children handle their stories and their technical executions much, much better, and yet I don't think they're as important to see as Inception probably is, if you're trying to form a critical perspective on film, or to participate in a meaningful way in a contemporary dialogue.

People ask me all the time "What's good right now in the theaters?" and "What should I go see?" and while I think these questions are meant synonymously, I react to them quite differently. If someone asked me what was best in theaters in 2009, I'd say The Hurt Locker, You, the Living, and Julia. If someone were to ask, what are the three most important films to have seen from 2009, I might say The Hurt Locker, Inglourious Basterds, and Precious. Love them or hate them, praise them or pan them, they had value in our film culture in a way that was distinct (though not totally divorced) from how good I personally thought they were.

By the midpoint of 2010, if I were assembling a semester course about the year in cinema, and I wanted to offer students a rich, substantial array of cinematic impressions worth digging into and arguing about—films exuding originality and risk, and imply a lasting cultural value—I would probably assign Mother, Toy Story 3, Greenberg, Restrepo, either October Country or My Neighbor, My Killer, either Winter's Bone or Fish Tank, either The Ghost Writer or A Prophet, and a double-feature of Inception and Shutter Island. Even a casual glace at my grades for this year makes clear that these choices are not motivated by my thinking that these are the year's best films. They are, however, somewhere close to the most valuable, most important, and most revealing that have bowed on U.S. screens bewteen early winter and late summer. Put another way: if someone were to forward me a link to a website by a critic I didn't know, the films I just listed are the reviews I would instantly rush to read. They trigger something important about how every critic or viewer thinks, they undertake unusual or important projects, and/or they seem built to last as cultural flashpoints, conversational mainstays, or valuable documents for other reasons. They evince value, originality, risk, or in the best cases, an amalgam of all three.

Hence, from now on, in addition to grades that suggest how good or bad I find a given film, I am attaching a coefficient of VOR value, a combination of Value, Originality, and Risk, in order to denote how strongly I would urge my readers to see the film, even if this means seeking out a movie that's tricky to find, or confronting a piece of work about which I harbor major objections, artistically or even ethically. (I despise The Matrix, but anyone studying or debating commercial cinema in 1999 would have been an absolute fool to avoid it.)

It stands to reason that "good" films will generally have higher VOR values and "bad" films will often have lower ones, but I don't expect these two metrics to prove redundant of each other. I like saying on the record that, for instance, Nicole Holofcener's Please Give fulfills its own rules and goals more successfully than Inception does, and hence warrants a higher grade, but what Please Give is attempting is much easier and infinitely more recognizable. It doesn't demand our notice nearly as much, or imply the same kind of shelf-life. If you want to see something I enjoyed or at least admired, refer to the grades. If you want to see something that challenged and taught me, and from which we all might learn something, for better or worse, check the VOR rating. If a movie scores high on both figures, start putting on your shoes.

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