Being purveyors of all things fan-friendly, we at Den of Geek tend to day-in, day-out, breathe genre. And that’s because genre is great. Whether the most punctilious of connoisseurs care to admit it or not, the vast majority of storytelling falls within some convention of genre or archetype. Like the gentle contours of a brilliant cover, originality is from how one plays or manipulates musicality, thereby creating something new. And then there’s also Gravity.
Every once in a while a genre film will come along that has all the clear hallmarks and tropes associated with a style of storytelling…and yet is something more. These tend to be works that do not fear their roots, but use them to transcend what came before. These are pictures that neither hide their populist heritage nor shy away from reaching toward that ever-so-elusive realm of art. To find such peerless endeavors that can step out of that line is exceedingly rare, especially in Hollywood. But if you haven’t seen Gravity yet, take my word that it is one of the finest films of the year, and one that will linger in your imagination long after any other feature currently in theaters. It is a film that is original, daring, and endlessly astonishing since it came from a studio system. But you can read here all about why you need to see this movie.
Whether you have or have not, it falls into a trend of small miracles that can only happen in Hollywood: The one movie that changes the rules of what is acceptable in its “genre,” and the one that will be the measuring stick to all others that come after. In that vein, we at Den of Geek thought it would be interesting to list 12 other films that have done just that in the past. So here are 12 Hollywood Films That Elevated Their Genre!
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
The best place to start is the one closest in subject to Gravity. When Stanley Kubrick chose to work concurrently with Arthur C. Clarke in creating 2001: A Space Odyssey, as well as loosely adapting Clarke’s “The Sentinel,” science fiction and space opera were hardly the realm of A-list directors. Newly reinvigorated as the filmmaker behind Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), Kubrick chose to enter what for the previous decade had been a “simple genre” in Hollywood’s back lots (save for one specific Robert Wise film). Sure, movies like Forbidden Planet and Invasion of the Body Snatchers were also rich with subtext and meaning, but they were seen as easygoing crowd pleasers for teenagers and other “undiscerning” youth. 2001 did not just lace its story with subtext; it overtly announced its high-minded intentions when the picture opens to the sun kissing the surface of an Earth shrouded in abetting darkness and the immovable majesty of Richard Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra.” It then calmly and unapologetically switches gears to the dawn of mankind itself, far before it reaches the inevitability of space.
This is a heavy film that deals with the concepts of evolution, mortality, and mankind’s inherently violent nature, which infects all our souls and is only slightly less destructive than our soulless automation coming in the 21st century. Indeed, before Skynet or The Matrix, there was HAL 9000, a supercomputer that had the ability to defy its creators and choose death for two astronauts lost in space (sounds familiar). Yet it was beyond the story where Kubrick created his masterpiece. 2001 is one of the most captivating marriages of moving image and sound ever created, scoring its listless, cold, dead orbit with the grandness of the musical greats, finding beauty and meaning in a nature beyond our understanding, yet somehow illuminated by man’s divine spark...even if there is no divinity. The psychedelic imagery of space was just not revolutionary; it predicted in 1968 what astronauts would merely confirm to Houston a year later, as our image of space travel caught up with this startling vision.
Of course, if one is to evaluate genre, they can never ignore the maestro of it. When Alfred Hitchcock is remembered as “The Master of Suspense,” there is not a drop of hyperbole in that corn syrup. Arguably the first filmmaker to find the perfect balance between art and commerce, Hitchcock helmed more masterpieces than the fingers on your hands. He may have treated his actors like cattle, but he had the greatest respect for his audiences, even as he manipulated them like lambs to the slaughter. If forced to pick a film from his intimidating oeuvre, I can find no other which left the level of impact on cinema like Psycho had in 1960. Arguably the first slasher film, Psycho did not only birth a subgenre, it changed audience-viewing habits while forever changing the thriller.
Based loosely on real life serial killer Ed Gein, Hitchcock famously duped audiences in a way that could not be achieved in the post-social media world (partly because the Twitter anger would be so intense). Psycho seemingly stars Janet Leigh, the latest actress to become Hitch’s coveted icy blonde. However, the unexpected occurs 30 minutes in: She’s mercilessly gutted by a nutty drag queen in a sleazy motel bathroom—though in this particular sequence, audiences think sweet Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) is also a victim of “Mother’s” madness. This sadistic switcheroo was so important, that Hitch insisted theaters refuse admittance into any screening after 10 minutes. If you came late, you were out of luck. This created a sense of excitement and intense curiosity about the Master’s most perverse and insidiously ingratiating film, right up until those violin strings screech and the blood mingles with the water, and its single tear. The massacre of beauty has never been better realized and more menacingly snuffed out. It’s more than a horror movie; it’s THE horror movie.
The Shining (1980)
Continuing that theme of horror, I am brought back to another Kubrick film that exceeded all precedence, including the intention of its source material’s writer, Stephen King. Yes, Stephen King hates Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), so passionately that he is still complaining 30 years on, including 15-plus years after remaking it into a truly LIFELESS ABC miniseries. Sure, by casting Jack Nicholson as tragic protagonist Jack Torrance, Kubrick removed the tragedy. One look at this guy, and you know he’s already crazy. And that’s BEFORE Nicholson is even playing the part! However, the complete loss of self to isolation and an all-consuming nothingness has never been more captivating. The Shining on the paper is about a tortured writer who moves his family, complete with a psychic son, into a haunted hotel that drives him to murder and madness. But Kubrick creates a film that is truly haunting by finding menace in perfectly lit, daytime symmetry. The repetition of long, mounted shots turns this ghostly luxury into a prison long before the spirits make themselves known. The palpable taste of crazy is so omnipresent in those surreptitiously claustrophobic grand ballrooms and hallways of the early 20th century that even the viewer will be questioning his own sanity and psychological wellbeing. The self-doubt is as inescapable in this supernatural horror as the obviously vacant tundras occupying the eye sockets on Nicholson’s face.
Perhaps though the best cacophony of the genres I have thus far been circling remains Ridley Scott’s ultimate calling card, Alien. Granted, there are many in the school of thought that prefer James Cameron’s bombastic 1986 sequel to this 1979 masterpiece. Fortunately, those people are mistakenly delusional. Alien took what was the most comical of subgenres, the sci-fi monster movie, and elevated it into a piece so fully realized that it has never been topped. This is in part due to how bizarrely “Other” the picture continues to be. A psychosexual freak show that was borne largely from the nightmares of H.R. Giger, Alien is a Lovecraftian terror of what man must never know. Before the creature was demystified as a “bug” in sequels of diminishing return, Scott and Giger’s genderless beast was one of phallic nightmares, from the way it thrust out an emasculated male’s host body fully erect, to the way its tail crawled up women’s legs and K-Y jelly dripped from its mouth (look it up). Scott was not subtle on any of his undertones, save that he never fully explained them. Why is there a “distress” signal? Who sent it? What are those fossilized creatures manning the ship? And what exactly is the living alien organism DOING to the bodies of its vanishing victims? These are questions better left unanswered (cough-Prometheus), because man is safer not knowing.
Alien also introduced one of the most legendary female characters in any genre with Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley. Originally written as a man, Scott wisely saw the value in making his protagonist a woman who is neither defined by her femininity or ability of being one of the boys. The pure feminism of the character is that she is not written through a compensating masculinity or lack of it, but by her capability at her job and her desire to survive. It is a hell of a performance that is still engrossing as her prospects grow more desperate by the minute—a form of measurement that passes painfully during Alien's unshakable running time.
Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
Strangely, fantasy is possibly cinema's oldest genre. What is A Trip to the Moon if not a lovely daydream complete with moon princesses and cycloptic lunar activity? However, fantasy for just as long has been treated as "kid's stuff." Sometimes that is no insult with timeless classics like The Wizard of Oz and The Princess Bride. But in the hands of the most pedantic types, it is the most damning insult. This disdain is intensified for "high fantasy."
That changed when Peter Jackson unleashed his colossal vision with the first three-hour piece of his nine-hour Lord of the Rings trilogy. The gargantuan undertaking adapted J.R.R. Tolkien's three-volume book to the big screen at a time when Hollywood could not fathom making more than one film at a time (oh, how times have changed!). But beyond the scope and size of the project, lay a magnificent portrait of why high fantasy, in the right hands, is so beloved. The story of a "chosen one," Frodo, and his ring that could save (or kill) us all is a classic type set on a larger than life canvas filled with fascinating lands and characters. Doubling as a wonderful tourism commercial for New Zealand, Jackson packs stunning locales with as many practical effects as possible, tending to make the CGI dragons and trolls slightly more palatable. The movie's biggest asset above all the special effects is the endearing fraternity of its titular band of heroes. And when one casts the likes of Sir Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, Elijah Wood, Sean Bean, and other terrific actors in those roles, their fanciful quest becomes so engrossing that the series can ride into three Best Picture nominations in a row.
Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
When David Lean and Columbia Pictures were forced to sell the premise of Lawrence of Arabia, they marketed it as a traditional adventure yarn. After all, is war not a jolly time? While Lean had toyed with his anti-war allegories before in the equally impressive Bridge Over the River Kwai (1957), this 1962 effort was not only a heroic war story with an ominous message, but one of the grandest epics ever presented. Shot in sweeping and lyrical 70MM, the wind-blown dunes of the Middle East and North Africa had never been more magnificently presented than under the proper bombast of Maurice Jarre’s timeless score.
However, beneath all the glory and beauty of this epic was a rotting core that threatened to bring tears to star Peter O’Toole’s sea-blue eyes. Set during World War I, Lawrence of Arabia is not the tale of a kindly benevolent parental British Empire taking care of its wards as presented in the writings of Rudyard Kipling and such films as Gunga Din, nor is it the “Men on a Mission” spectacles that had overtaken Hollywood after the Second World War. Rather, despite all of the titular Lawrence’s theatrics, he delivers the Arabian people from their Turkish overlords to those of the West at large and British in particular, albeit with an Arabian Prince (Alec Guinness) as a strongman. It’s an arrangement that still haunts the region to this day. This is not only a misanthropic statement that war is pointless as in Lean’s previous epic, but that war is a very pointed business model for the old men who “must make the peace” after the valor of young men has filled the graveyards. One of the first big budget films to elevate the war film to an art form, it’s allowed the context to suggest that the entire pretense is a clash of temperament between one that is half-mad, and another wholly unscrupulous.
Apocalypse Now (1979)
Yet, if one is to examine the war film, the most striking before-and-after entry in the genre is a movie that is only arguably a war movie. As much an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as a Vietnam War picture, Apocalypse Now may have had the most profound effect on how the subject is treated in cinema. It is not my favorite war film, nor is it even my favorite film set in the unknowable wreckage of pointless waste that is Vietnam. However, unlike any film prior to it, Francis Ford Coppola’s psychedelic acid trip into the hellacious abyss along the Cambodian border proved that not only can a war film have higher aspirations than action-adventure, but that it also can be cruel, and downright transcendent in its incomprehensible terror. Michael Cimino shed his tears for the vets the year before in The Deer Hunter, but an embrace of the complete utter inanity of mass death had never been as openly mocked, eulogized and vilified as when the attack helicopters rode like the Valkyries in the morning dew. It even makes up for the fact that the movie totally falls apart when it reaches Brando going the full Conrad while on a power trip. How could war films go back to the deluded daydreams of John Wayne and The Green Berets after this? They didn’t.
The Searchers (1956)
Of course, I am not trying to knock John Wayne. How could I when he starred in so many great films, including the most transformative of westerns: The Searchers. Directed by John Ford, The Searchers is the culmination of a lifetime of great achievements filmed in Utah’s Monument Valley, many of which also featured Wayne. Indeed, when this film opened in 1956, critics and audiences initially dismissed it as yet another John Wayne big damn hero flick. However, history has proven its wider influence. Not fully adored by filmmakers and cinephiles until the late 1960s and early ‘70s, the film was always a favorite of Wayne’s because of how bleak the subject matter appeared. The clear-cut story of a hellbent uncle and surrogate son searching for a missing niece for seven years is quaintly simple on the page. Hidden within the naked racism of depicting the Natives Americans as kidnapping fiends—a practice that real Comanche were not exactly innocent of—is the broader bigotry trailing from Wayne’s Ethan Edwards wake.
The anti-hero is a proud man who eventually comes to the decision that he will find his niece not out of a desire to save her life, but her soul from the unhuman and “Commanch” evil he associates with all Natives. And he will do so with a bullet. It is a clash of ignorance and hatred, which would lead the film’s “hero” to murder an innocent girl twice wronged by dueling cultures if not for the intervention of a surrogate son who is himself part Cherokee. The end of the film is hardly any more comforting, because though Ethan decides to spare Natalie Wood’s life, he leaves her shrouded in darkness with her “loving” distant relations while he walks away, alone and removed from a society that has passed him by. It is an ambiguous western that threw away the obligation of having a likable hero or a fully happy ending, paving the way for future westerns to push boundaries be they from Italian filmmakers or American directors who grew up watching The Searchers, thinking that they could do something profound with the form 20 years later.
If we wanted to split hairs, “noir” is technically not a genre. Rather, it is associated with a “movement” that was the dark ugly cousin of the western after World War II. This is a description coined by film-loving French writers (who else?) meant to evoke the pessimistic, and sometimes nihilistic, urban thrillers produced by Hollywood between 1942 and 1959. The dark, ugly mean side of life. It was not until the 1970s that it was even called “noir,” at which point all future attempts are thusly categorized as “neo noir.” But all this academic navel-gazing ignores what filmmakers know: There is enough style and convention to the form to make it distinctly its own.
To quote Dennis Hopper, “Noir is every director’s favorite genre.” The difference is that after the 1960s, it became considered a high art with scholarly value. The movie that visibly splits this difference is Roman Polanski’s Chinatown. Set in the deceivingly sunny Los Angeles of 1937, it is all orange fields and plastic smiles before the surgeons even showed up. The murders still add up quickly, and Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) soon finds himself on the inevitably losing side of a power struggle between the haves and the soon-to-be have-nots. It is a lyrical experience into complete misanthropy where every carefully constructed shot kills the viewer’s joy to live a little more and where trying to do the right thing is just too nosy for your own good. But hey, that’s Chinatown.
Annie Hall (1977)
Arguably a genre into himself, Woody Allen set out to reinvent one of the most classic forms in his first “serious” picture, Annie Hall. Before its release, romantic comedies could have sad endings (Roman Holiday) or they could be unapologetically silly (any starring Katharine Hepburn), but rarely would those elements be combined into something so high intentioned as to recreate the feeling of loss and emptiness that comes with a decidedly anti-love story. In this picture, Woody Allen’s latest aler-ego, Alvy, happens to fall for the girl of his dreams (Diane Keaton). However, dreams change and rifts splinter. Annie Hall is the romantic take about how people fall out of love. It is so frank and earnest in this approach that it can deal with other matters never so bluntly addressed in studio fare, like sex, because it does so within the confines of a fourth-wall breaking script that ultimately has no rules. Alvy constantly addresses the audience, and he can jump to various points throughout his nonlinear life, even turning into a cartoon character when he’s not having filmmakers dismiss pedantic gentlemen. The freewheeling tone allowed Allen to make a comedy that forced audiences to consider even Hollywood romance as something temporary and messy. It was a dose of reality to go along with the kind of surrealism that Fellini might approve of. It’s not the best romantic comedy, but it raised American audience awareness about what can be earned out of the type besides happily ever after.
The Dark Knight (2008)
The most popular and obvious genre to emerge from Hollywood in the last 10 years is the superhero. One can argue whether it was Spider-Man, X-Men, or even Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie that built the genre’s popular acceptance, but there is only one that has achieved such a level of artistry that it towers above all the rest. When The Dark Knight was released in 2008, nearly every superhero movie followed the formula set by Donner and updated by Sam Raimi. Even Christopher Nolan revisited it for Batman Begins. However, The Dark Knight really did live in a world with no (genre) rules. In part, it is because Nolan did not see his trilogy as superhero formulae, but as a “genre of cinema” that allowed for variance, not unlike the western 50 years before. This allowed him to embrace elements like true crime drama, government corruption, and political allegory in the realm of capes and cowls. The result was a film where he was unafraid to let the love interest die, the villain win, or the hero be part of a government cover-up in his biggest moment of “triumph.” With an ensemble that puts as much emphasis on the DA’s office and the police department as it does the proverbial Batcave, this is unlike any other costumed Übermensch fantasy you’ve ever seen. Plus, there is Ledger’s Joker, the single superhero movie performance to win an Oscar. Five years on it is still the gold standard, and it will likely remain so for another five.
The Godfather (1972)
The clearest night-and-day effect that one film has had on its genre to date though remains The Godfather. Always a popular genre, the “gangster film” also was seen as a bit seedy or lurid. Everyone loved Cagney in White Heat and The Public Enemy, but he didn’t win his Oscar until he did the singing-and-dancing Yankee Doodle Dandy. Bogart may have been respected for playing heavies, but it wasn’t until he played a heroic detective in The Maltese Falcon or the even more heroic cynic in Casablanca did he become a star. Indeed, when Francis Ford Coppola was hired to adapt Mario Puzo’s bestseller The Godfather to the screen, he was expected to make a “gangster picture.” Even Coppola initially considered it a big budget studio experience that he would do in the hopes of making a more personal passion project. Instead, he made one of the most definitive films of all time. The Godfather is a larger-than-life opera about the American dream and its perverse shadow that some will fall under in their to climb to the top.
Based on a number of real life figures (most infamously Johnny “Blue Eyes” Fontane), the film attempted to explore the darker side of the American Experience, as a family finds great success by importing their old ways to the New World. Sadly, they also lose their souls and culture to the commercial, individualistic nightmare from which they’ll never escape. Depending who you ask, Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) is either a tragic hero doomed to repeat the sins of his father, or a monster that embraced its destiny with a bullet (or four). Either way, it was a powerful film that dealt with universal themes of family, loyalty, betrayal and honor. It was bigger than the book that it was based on, and remains a staggering work of art. Overnight, gangsters went from being the subject of “good vs. evil” or cautionary tales to being the realm of auteurs leaving a mark. In Coppola’s wake came Scorsese, De Palma, Leone, and countless others who opened up this most respected of genres. Even on television, the most adored cable dramas of the last 20 years—The Sopranos and Breaking Bad—owe more than a passing reverence to this film that turned a violent entertainment into the most sacred of genres.
So there are 12 genre films that exceeded all expectation and left their mark on the form for the years that followed. That is not to say that this is the final list. There are countless others worth mentioning. What are some of your favorites? Leave us know below!
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