A question that comes up often is, “How come you gave this movie an A- yet there was nothing negative in the review? What stopped it from being an A?”
The answer is that grading movies ain’t exactly a science. It’s a gut-instinct kind of thing. Sometimes you love a movie, but something makes you hesitant to give it the very top grade. It’s all very subjective, as is the reviewing process in general.
That said, I do try to be consistent with the grades. From a very broad standpoint (and from Rotten Tomatoes’ point of view), anything with a B- or higher is “recommended.” More specifically, here’s a breakdown of how I perceive the grades in my head. This is what I generally stick to, though again, it’s not a science.
(Also, you should never, ever choose a movie based solely on the grade I gave it. You gotta read the review, too. Just because a movie is good doesn’t mean you’d actually be interested in seeing it, you know?)
A An instant classic. A movie that will stand up to repeat viewings. In general, even if you don’t normally care for the genre this film belongs to, you’d probably like this one OK. Recent examples: “The Queen,” “Borat,” “Spider-Man 2”
A- If I love a movie, I’ll often give it this grade simply because, having seen it only once, I’m not certain yet that it’s an instant classic. Or, it’s a film that’s aaaaalmost perfect but not quite. Recent examples: “Hot Fuzz,” “Pan’s Labyrinth,” “Children of Men”
B+ An excellent movie, marred perhaps by a few small things (often things hardly worth mentioning) but still highly recommended. Recent examples: “Notes on a Scandal,” “Rocky Balboa,” “The Pursuit of Happyness”
B- OK, and with many bright spots, but flawed. This is often an “if you like these kinds of movies, this one’s pretty decent” situation. If you don’t like the genre, this one won’t change your mind. Recent examples: “Next,” “Blades of Glory,” “Night at the Museum”
C+ Mildly entertaining, but not worth going out of your way to see. If you’re standing at the theater, and you’ve seen everything else, and a C+ movie starts in 10 minutes, sure, go ahead and watch it. Otherwise, no. Recent examples: “Disturbia,” “Reno 911!: Miami,” “The Holiday”
C- Here’s where I first start using the word “bad.” A C- movie might have some positive qualities, but it’s still a bad movie. For serious fans of the genre/actor/director only, and even they will probably be somewhat disappointed. Recent examples: “Perfect Stranger,” “Eragon,” “Ghost Rider”
D+ Only a little worse than a C-. The only real difference in my mind is that the D+ movie has irritated me enough to deserve the stigma of a “D” in its grade, while the C- movie got on my good side somehow and made me go easy on it. Recent examples: “The Hitcher,” “I Think I Love My Wife,” “Employee of the Month”
F Completely devoid of all merit. Whatever the film was trying to do, it has utterly failed. An F-grade film should not be viewed under any circumstances, except possibly while drunk. Recent examples: “Are We Done Yet?,” “Wild Hogs,” “Little Man”