Way Too Late

Netflix, ratings, and Lars von Trier

I want to talk about Netflix’s new ratings system, in the context of Danish auteur Lars von Trier. To date, I have seen three von Trier films: Dancer in the Dark, Dogville, and most recently, Nymphomaniac, Extended Director’s Cut, Vol. 1. Of the three, I enjoyed Dogville the most. I found Dancer in the Dark boring, and didn’t finish the whole movie. And Nymphomaniac? Whoa, boy.  At a running time just short of an Oscars ceremony, Nymphomaniac is an endurance test of a movie. You don’t watch it as much as you suffer through it. For nearly three hours I marveled at Uma Thurman’s scene-stealing moment, wondered just what accent Christian Slater was trying to affect, and prayed I wouldn’t see Shia LaBeouf’s penis. The whole ordeal involved way more fly fishing than I would have thought possible given the title, and necessitated several laugh-pauses during the run time.

And yet, while still better than The Room, I don’t know how to rate it on Netflix. For years, Netflix has relied on a five-star rating system for movies and TV shows. While not perfect, the system allowed for some nuance. I rarely gave anything 1 or 5 stars. Five stars meant the movie was perfect, which rarely happened. Five-star movies and TV shows struck a deep chord, whether joy or abject terror. My most recent five-star rated show is a perfect example. Dead Set produced a ton of emotions over its one-season run. At the end I felt like I had watched something magical…and while perfect, I don’t have the desire to watch it again for a while.

One-star reviews are (of course) reserved for Adam Sandler movies.

If the five-star rating system still existed, would Nymphomaniac have gotten one star? Doubtful. One-star movies are unrepentant and irredeemable. While bad, Nymphomaniac wasn’t bad. It was so not-bad, that I had to invent a whole new list for it. Previously, I had two lists of “bad” movies. One was for movies I’d watched all the way through (like The Room). The other was for movies that were movies so bad I never finished watching them (like Dancer in the Dark). Nymphomaniac came in at number two on a new list: the so-bad-its-good movies list. What was number one? I moved The Room over to this list. Congratulations Batman and Robin: you are once again the worst movie I have ever seen.

But ever since Netflix moved to a thumbs up/thumbs down system, I’ve found their ratings less than useless. Nuance is nowhere to be found in a binary system. What does “thumbs up” mean? That I liked the movie? That I’d watch it again? That I found the writing tight, the scenery breathtaking or the pacing admirable? What about thumbs down? Does that mean the movie is bad? What, exactly, about the movie was bad? The acting? The directing? The script?

(None of this even touches the fact that all my old ratings are gone from the Netflix site. Which means I have to tell them yet again that I enjoyed Grosse Point Blank.)

It goes further. What do I rate movies I haven’t seen in a long time? I vaguely remember enjoying Gremlins…when I was 12. How would 38-year-old me find the movie? Whereas I would have once enjoyed the horror-comedy, these days I might find the casual racism uncomfortable. Does that mean the movie is bad? Under the old system I might have dropped Gremlins’ rating from three to two stars. Now, my only recourse is to move it from a thumbs up to a thumbs down, which seems more drastic than I intend.

By reducing the ratings system to a binary up/down, Netflix rendered its ratings system useless. Movies that I love are now at a 64% match, while all of Adam Sandler’s oeuvre is at 80% and above. My biggest complaint is I don’t know how to game the system into getting it to recommend to me movies that I’ll enjoy. A thumbs up doesn’t tell Netflix that I enjoyed Kickboxer because it was a Saturday afternoon and I wanted to watch something brainless. Nor does a thumbs down tell Netflix that while I like almost everything John Cusack has ever done, Must Love Dogs wasn’t him at his best. For now, Nymphomaniac will get a thumbs down. Whether Netflix will recommend Dogville if/when that movie comes to the streaming site, only time will tell.

“Thumbs Up” image by Flickr user Paul. CC-BY-2.0.