Over the last few years, RottenTomatoes.com has become my main source for movie reviews. Like other sites that aggregate information on the web, such as Slate’s Today’s Papers, Metacritic, and Five-Thirty-Eight (but definitely not Baseball Prospectus), RottenTomatoes is an excellent resource because it provides a concise summary of reviews, in the form of a “percent fresh” rating, as well as links to full reviews.  While resorting to algorithms might dismay film buffs, as a steadfast fan of cinema with limited time, I’ve found that the fresh rating is often a good starting point to avoid the obvious dross.

When the tomato-meter identifies a film as universally panned, it does so with tremendous accuracy.  But accepting a “fresh” rating without much follow-through is more fraught.  After a friend asked me to see Wanted over the summer, I quickly glanced at its rating (in the mid-seventies), and figured that if most of the critics surveyed liked it, I probably wouldn’t mind that it was an action movie.  I was wrong.  Had I read the first sentence of almost any of the positive reviews, I would have learned that “it’s a fun movie… if you can laugh at bullets traveling through people’s foreheads in slow motion,” or “a great film… but remarkably misogynistic.”  Thus a mid-level “fresh” rating should be read as a recommendation with reservations.

One would hope that a fresh rating so high that it qualifies as “universal acclaim,” should be pretty unambiguous.  This isn’t to say that we should ignore criticism of a film like Rear Window (100% fresh), but that even without the preparation of a critical analysis, the average viewer should be confident that they are about to watch a good, consequential film.  So when I sidled up to my local arthouse theater and saw that the Swedish film, Let the Right One In, had an astronomical rating of 98% among the site’s top critics (compared to the paltry 90% awarded to the Shawshank Redemption), I knew I was in for one finely woven tapestry of film*.404px-let_the_right_one_in

Let the Right One In begins hauntingly, with lone, 12 year-old Oskar staring out a window into the dark, dreary courtyard of his apartment complex. Quiet and insular, Oskar is abused by his classmates and neglected by his well-meaning but largely absent parents.  Rather than being melancholy or sad, Oskar is simply quiet, and as he retreats to the courtyard, his placid expression belies his pasttimes of collecting morbid newspaper articles and stabbing a tree as a stand-in for his bullies.

However, Oskar is interrupted by the appearance of Eli, a girl his age who has moved into an apartment across the courtyard.  Oskar is only a little surprised by Eli’s unusual statements and habits; she only appears outside at night, underdressed and barefoot; she lives in a boarded-up apartment with a foreboding, middle-aged caretaker; but he does little to press the issue. In turn, Eli does press Oskar to stand up to the bullies at school.

The next day, Oskar fails to assert himself at school, and Eli’s caretaker packs a bag containing a gas-mask, a knife, and a funnel, and sets out to a secluded neck of the woods, where he approaches a lone hiker.  As the audience squirms in their seats, he shows the mask to the hiker, and in perfect parallel to Anton Chigurh, asks, “do you know what halothane is?”

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