But our understanding of the genre of criticism hasn't been great. This isn't all our fault. I don't think a lot of people have much experience with the genre, which has changed a lot over the last hundred years. I teach and primarily write criticism, and it is the proverbial redheaded stepchild of literary genres: these days, artists are wary of critics, readers assume that critics are just "critical" (read: negative) about everything and out of touch, and even critics can get apologetic about what they do, figuring it's just a derivative genre that barely deserves to exist.
But I maintain that well-written, thoughtful criticism serves a culture-making purpose: it helps us understand the world we live in new ways; it teaches us about and records our cultural history; and it helps us keep a pulse on ourselves and our culture. And when it's written well, it brings us both insight and delight.
Our goal at Christianity Today—as I outlined in an article a few months ago—is to both explore movies as works that tell us something about ourselves, and to help us love our neighbors better. This follows the guidance given and modeled by some of the great cultural critics, from C.S. Lewis to Roger Ebert and many, many more.
While that governs our criticism, it's not all we think about at CT Movies. We're careful to publish critics who are Christians, who are excellent writers, and who have a certain bent toward criticism.
Specifically, we don't see our "movie review" as places to take apart a movie, bit by bit, and lay out all the pieces before you, then tell you whether or not you should see it. There can be a place for that sort of writing—but I, along with others, would call that genre of writing a "movie report" or something like that. It has a lot in common with a book report: it informs you of a movie's existence, tells you about all of its parts, and gives you a summary thought near the end.
There are plenty of reasons you might want to read a report like that. But I don't think it's criticism, which has a different goal. Our goal is to try to help readers think about movies in new ways, informed by the Christian understanding of the world that undergirds everything we write.
We—along with many other critics—think that a review ought to be an essay that uses the writer's experience with the film, along with careful thinking about a movie, to provide a perspective that the viewer might not have considered on something that's shaping the culture around them.
Along with that, we think about whether or not the movie is "good" or "bad." But we think there's a few data points to consider when we're making that judgment.
What We Talk About When We Talk About Star Ratings
What are those data points? Answering that question brings us to our star ratings, which, I believe, are at the crux of this whole question. I sense (and sometimes hear loudly) from some readers that they are disappointed that we would give a "high rating" to an R-rated film—or, worse, that we'd "recommend" it.
Recently at the Gospel Coalition's website, in a post titled "Evangelicals and Hollywood Muck," Trevin Wax asked this question as well. In his piece, Wax repeats the sentiment of a handful of responses we received to my recent review of The Wolf of Wall Street: "Take, for example, Christianity Today's recent review of The Wolf of Wall Street. Alyssa [sic] Wilkinson devotes nearly half her review to the graphic depictions of immorality, yet still gives the film 3.5 stars out of 4."