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As Wax notes, this particular review did indeed garner the longest and most explicit content advisory I've ever written, which began with these sentences and went on from here:

Few CT readers would be glad they saw this film, so let's just stave that off at the outset. Take a quick mental inventory of the commandments handed down on Mt. Sinai: they're definitely all broken here, with the possible exception of murder, often quite graphically (the film got what we might call a "hard R"), generally with glee—though from what I know of certain pockets of Wall Street culture, this movie is no overstatement.

Yet as Wax also notes, the film garnered a 3.5/4 rating. For some readers, that 3.5 stars signaled that we were suggesting that Christianity Today readers ought to see The Wolf of Wall Street, a film that generated a great deal of controversy in the mainstream press (though not for most of the same reasons) and that broke the records for the number of f-bombs dropped throughout the movie.

I wrote that review (and would write the same review today). So you might reasonably be wondering: why did I give the film such a high rating? Or why did Brett McCracken give 4 stars to Her, a film with a few scenes of graphic language and brief nudity? Why did American Hustle (which is in many ways tame by comparison, save all the low-cut dresses) get only 2.5 stars?

Let me explain what we think star ratings are for. A rating should do two things: assess the worldview of the film, and assess the artistic merit of the film.

The first data point in our star ratings—I use the word "worldview" as shorthand for it—is a little tricky to define. But it's part of what makes our film criticism different from what you might get from other sources.

As we know, few movie productions that make it to your local cineplex are both artistically excellent and made from an explicitly Christian perspective. Yet you certainly don't have to be a Christian to say something true, or to have perspective on the world that overlaps with Scripture. (Furthermore, we know that, as fallen beings, Christians are perfectly capable of not seeing the world perfectly—and so can make things that don't in fact have a "Christian" outlook.)

When I'm working on a review, I think about it this way: did this movie lie to me about the world? Does it teach the viewer (however subtly) to love something they shouldn't? Does it say that sinful (or just stupid) behavior is required to live the good life?

I recently read that Roger Ebert—who had a complicated relationship with belief and disbelief that he talked about in his memoir—said that if a movie did its job, you left the movie as a truer version of who you were. If I read that correctly, then I think he means the movie teaches you something new about what it is to live well as a human, among other humans, on this planet.

There are plenty of filmmakers (and writers and other artists) who have a different idea about what this looks like than I do, of course. So I'm not just sitting down and asking them to repeat my beliefs back to me.

Watch This Way
How we watch matters at least as much as what we watch. TV and movies are more than entertainment: they teach us how to live and how to love one another, for better or worse. And they both mirror and shape our culture.
Alissa Wilkinson
Alissa Wilkinson is Christianity Today's chief film critic and assistant professor of English and humanities at The King's College in New York City. She lives in Brooklyn.
Previous Watch This Way Columns:
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