What’s your favourite film genre? There might be more movie genres to choose from than you think.
The New York Film Academy lists nine primary film or movie genres – action, crime, fantasy, western, historical, romance, animation, horror, and sci-fi – as well as fifty-six sub-genres.
The following list may not be exhaustive, but it will help you get a taste of some film genre highlights. (We explain exactly what a genre film is here).
1. The Western – High Noon (1952)
Marshall Kane (Gary Cooper) has a difficult choice to make. An outlaw is on his way, one who swore revenge against the marshall. Will the Marshall leave town with his new wife as he had planned – after all, it is their wedding day – or will he stay and defend his principles? He decides to stay, and soon learns that he’ll be fighting the gunmen alone, without the support of the townspeople he had counted on.
Why It Matters
High Noon is a classic American Western, one of the most well-known genres in film, complete with a stirring sound score, gun-slinging cowboys, and ruthless outlaws. Interestingly, however, High Noon masked an allegorical backstory.
After World War II, the American government “blacklisted” many people, including Hollywood directors, as being communist sympathisers. Some government figures feared that Russian communism had infiltrated Hollywood, and that communist propaganda was entering into film. The accused, such as High Noon’s screenwriter Carl Foreman, stood trial before the House Committee on Un-American Activities.
According to Glenn Frankel, journalism professor and author of High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic, Marshall Kane’s courageous loyalty, even when trusted friends turn against him, is allegory to this process. In fact, the screenwriter had intended the story as a parable to post-World War II America.
When the blacklisting began, Foreman adapted the story to parallel this challenge, along with the perceived “cowardice” of Hollywood in not standing up to the Un-American Activities Committee. Kane’s insistence on fighting for his principles mirrored Foreman’s own refusal to “name names” before the Committee.
In a January 2018 interview with National Public Radio, Frankel compared that point in history to modern-day America. He said, “Here we are seventy years later, at another time of political tension and backlash, a toxic atmosphere that’s just as vicious as anything that happened during the forties and early fifties. And here the question is, how are our institutions going to stand up at this point?”
2. The Epic – Ben-Hur (1959)
In the first century C.E., the tides of time reunite two childhood friends in adulthood – the Jewish prince Judah Ben-hur and the Roman officer Messala. An accident leads Messala to betray Judah, sentencing him to the hard labor of rowing Roman warships.
Why It Matters
In its time, Ben-Hur broke records in terms of budget, set size, and length of film score. The nine-minute chariot race sequence has become one of the most iconic scenes in cinematic history. Ben-Hur also represents a once-popular genre that is trying to make a comeback in the twenty-first century.
The “epic” is defined as “a genre of large-scale films set in a cinematic interpretation of the past.” Biblical epics – those based more or less on stories or settings presented in the bible – enjoyed great popularity during the 1950s and 1960s, following in a longstanding cinematic tradition.
Biblical stories had been a feature of motion pictures since the industry’s inception – for example, early multi-reel films such as Passion Play (1907) and The Life of Moses (1909). Learn about an earlier version of Ben Hur here.
Ben-Hur followed on the heels of The Ten Commandments (1956), which is heralded by the Guiness Book of World Records to be the seventh most successful film of all time. Others included Spartacus (1960) and Lawrence of Arabia (1962).
In the first decades of the twenty-first century, filmmakers have been revisiting biblical topics with such films as The Passion of the Christ (2004), Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014), and Noah (2014). These, however, have not generally enjoyed the unprecedented box office success of their predecessors.
In 2004, Ben-Hur was added to the National Film Registry for preservation by the United States Library of Congress.
In addition to its sweeping visuals, Ben-Hur is remembered for its nearly four hour length. If that seems a little too much for you, you can get your feet wet with the ‘cliff notes’ version – the 2016 adaptation of Ben-Hur.
Weighing in at only two hours and three minutes, this remake adequately represents the original, including the famous chariot scene.
Producers of the new film altered the story slightly. They cut some elements entirely to facilitate the shorter length, and the ending offers an interesting twist that I personally enjoyed, even as a fan of the original.
3. Film Noir – Maltese Falcon (1941)
Three unscrupulous persons want a jewel-encrusted falcon statue, given by the Knights Templar to the ruler of Spain in 1539. Seized by pirates, its fate had remained a mystery until the present day. Private detective Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) finds himself caught in the middle.
Why It Matters
“It was a dark night in a city that never sleeps…” Whether in original film noir, cartoons and other spoofs, or on Who’s Line Is It Anyway? you’ve no doubt heard similar lines. The impact of film noir on on popular culture is indelible (The City That Never Sleeps, by the way, was the title of two film noir, 1924 and 1953).
The term film noir is French for “dark film,” describing both the low-key black and white cinematography and the dark or cynical nature of the plot.
Film noir are generally urban crime dramas, centred around a private investigator or some other person pulled into the city’s dark underbelly. Film noir is difficult to define, as it can include detective fiction, gangster films, police films, romance, and social issues. Either way, this cinematic style engraved itself indelibly upon popular culture.
4. The Musical – The Sound of Music (1965)
“You brought music back into the house. I had forgotten.” – Captain von Trapp
A certain nun (Julie Andrews) doesn’t quite fit in at the convent. She takes a job as governess over seven motherless children. As she teaches the children to enjoy life again, romance blossoms within the children’s father (Christopher Plummer), an Austrian naval officer. Dark times and danger are on the horizon, however, as the Nazi influence spreads across Europe.
Why It Matters
When it comes to movies, millennials have a tendency to shy away from musicals. Why? I can only guess at the reasons. Is it because children’s movies are often musical, making not liking musicals the “grown up” thing to do? Because a few ill chosen musical numbers have spoiled their opinion of the genre?
Those, however, are not valid reasons to dislike musicals. From time immemorial, music has been a means of communication, one that is often more apt to stir deep emotions than words alone. Musicals, therefore – good musicals – engross the viewer in the action, cause them to feel the emotions of the characters on a deeper level. That’s called empathy – feeling someone else’s pain or joy in your own heart. Empathy is key in relating to others, so practicing it, even in a fictional setting, is a good thing.
The Sound of Music is, in the author’s opinion, one of the best musicals ever made. It’s also based loosely on the true story of the von Trapp family’s flight from the Nazi occupation. The film serves as a light introduction to one of history’s darkest hours.
5. The Song and Dance Number – Swing Time (1936)
When Lucky’s (Fred Astaire) friends delay him from getting to his wedding on time, his fiance’s father says he must earn a large sum of money to prove himself. In the meantime, Lucky falls in love with a dance instructor (Ginger Rogers) – who happens to be engaged to another man. When Lucky’s fiance calls their wedding off for the second time, will the third be the charm?
Why It Matters
During the 1930s and 1940s, a special breed of musicals featuring elaborate dance choreography became wildly popular. The nimble footed pairing of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were foremost stars of the genre. Astaire and Rogers made ten films together. A number of film critics, including dance critic Arlene Croce and political scientist John Mueller, agree that Swing Time represents the duo’s best contribution to film.
The style of these films, including cloud-lined dream sequences, has seen a resurgence in modern films such as La La Land (2016) and The Greatest Showman (2017).
6. The Sci-fi Thriller – The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
“Klaatu barada nikto.” – Klaatu
The film opens to newscasts and radio broadcasts of a UFO, which eventually lands in Washington, DC. The alien visitor Klaatu comes in peace but is soon wounded by gunfire. He goes into hiding, pretending to be one of us, but he has an urgent message to declare. The earth must not bring its warlike ways outside its atmosphere via the space program, or it faces certain destruction.
Why It Matters
The Day the Earth Stood Still is an artfully contrived, thought provoking film. The situation is first introduced by mediums with which viewers were very familiar – television and radio. Not only did they receive daily newscasts and information in this way, but viewers in 1951 could recall similarly urgent broadcasts – World War II reports less than a decade earlier, and reports on the burgeoning Korean Conflict.
The film touches on political issues that are still relevant today. For instance, when Klaatu insists that a gathering of world leaders be held so that he may proclaim his message, a government official tells him that it would be impossible. Why? “Our world, at the moment, is full of tensions and suspicions,” he explains. A later reply mirrors tensions between Russia and the United States, an issue still at play in today’s socio-political arena.
Finally, this film shows how motion pictures can serve as a vehicle for manipulating both emotions and allegiances. Klaatu, the stranger, is the protagonist – the American government is the entity that both wounds our hero and refuses to cooperate with his simple request. It is clear who the filmmakers desire us to cheer. When Klaatu gives his final warning and departs, the film leaves us guessing the earthlings’ response. Yet, we know what we want them to decide.
On a lighter note, The Day the Earth Stood Still was one of the first films to feature flying saucers. The idea of the flying saucer originated with a 1947 UFO sighting of crescent shaped objects. Newspaper misreported them as saucer-shaped, and the description stuck. Klaatu’s spacecraft was preceded in film in The Flying Saucer (1950). Flying saucers have since become an enigmatic part of folklore.
In 2008, a remake was released of The Day the Earth Stood Still, starring Keanu Reeves. This movie puts a different spin on familiar plot points. For example, Gort, the giant robot, is really, really giant. The film shows what might have happened after the closing of the original – the results of mankind’s noncompliance.
7. The Monster Movie – Them! (1954)
Atomic bomb testing in New Mexico transforms ordinary ants into enormous, man-eating monsters. With queens rising to create new colonies, mankind’s very survival is at stake.
Why It Matters
Them! represents one of the first “nuclear monster” films that took the 1950s by storm – typically, stories of someone or something mutated by atomic radiation. It was also the first of the “big bug” sub-genre. Just as it sounds, these films were about giant insects wreaking havoc on humanity. Them! has been praised for its relatively realistic puppets.
The Monthly Film Bulletin of the British Film Institute stated in that year, “Them! is a well-built example of the neo-monstrous… less absurdly sensational than most.” It called the ants “reasonably horrible – they do not entirely avoid the impression of mock-up that is almost inevitable when over-lifesise creatures have to be constructed and moved… considerably more conceivable than those prehistoric remnants that have recently been emerging from bog and iceberg.”
The influence of the film can also be scene in clips that have been used in other films and television series. Clips were included in Eight Legged Freaks (2002), and part of the film was viewed in an episode of Friends and in Lilo and Stitch 2: Stitch Has a Glitch (2005).
Though never a fan of hard core horror, Them! was one of my favourite childhood films. Scary enough for an eight year old, it fell short of becoming nightmare fuel. I could relate to the young character who survived one of the initial attacks. When exposed to the smell of the creatures, she cried out, “It’s them!” lending the film its name.
If you liked Them! you may also enjoy other big bug movies such as Tarantula (1955), The Black Scorpion (1957), and The Deadly Mantis (1957).
8. The Angsty Teenaged Drama – Rebel Without a Cause (1955)
Three teenagers from dysfunctional families discover friendship and romance after an inopportune meeting at a police station. Tensions run high after a game of chicken results in the death of a classmate. Can leading man Jim Stark (James Dean) reconcile his relationships with his parents, his friend Plato, and his new flame?
Why It Matters
Rebel Without a Cause differed from previous movies in its social commentary. It has been described as “a groundbreaking attempt to portray the moral decay of American youth, critique parental style, and explore the differences and conflicts between generations.” The film’s title was taken from the 1944 book, Rebel Without a Cause: The Hypnoanalysis of a Criminal Psychopath by psychiatrist Robert M. Linder.
This film was an early example of a deeper psychological look at the teenaged psyche, which still holds a firm position in the entertainment industry today. Long before the term was coined, Rebel truly was young-adult (or YA) fiction. The film portrays teenaged disillusionment; the death of star and heartthrob James Dean prior to the film’s release deepened this theme.
Americans welcomed the film with open arms, and still consider it one of the most important films of the 1950s. Reception in other countries differed. Officials in New Zealand, for example, banned the film for fear of encouraging “teenage delinquency.”
Theatres debuted Rebel the following year, but with some scenes removed. In Britain, officials cut scenes and gave the film an “X certificate.” At the time this indicated that the film was suitable only for audiences over the age of 16.
9. The Quirky Romantic Comedy – It Happened One Night (1934)
“Two great lovers of the screen in the grandest of romantic comedies!” – Promotional Tagline
She was an heiress on the run, trying to keep a low profile. He was a reporter out for a juicy story. They would have to work together if either were to get what they wanted.
Why It Matters
How many movies have you seen in which a lady hitchhiker tweaks her skirt and extends her leg in order to stop a car? Many viewers saw it first on It Happened One Night. Likewise, the “walls of Jericho” were recreated on the 1980s sitcom Who’s the Boss. Thus, It Happened One Night serves as a touchstone example of popular culture – in the entertainment industry, history tends to repeat itself.
In 2008, It Happened One Night was added to the American Film Institute’s “10 top 10” in the genre of romantic comedy. When Harry Met Sally… (1989) also made the list, and remains the standard for the modern rom-com.
10. The Courtroom Drama – 12 Angry Men (1957)
Jury duty. 12 Angry Men represents an hour and a half of jury duty (longer in relative time), that onerous civil service to which citizens are often called. In the film, twelve jurors debate the innocence of a young miscreant, ultimately deciding his fate.
Why It Matters
The themes of this film – justice, mercy, empathy – still resonate today. The situation forces the characters to examine themselves and their own motives. It does the same for the audience. It also explores the power that just one person has to elicit a change. A remake was released in 1997, and the theme has even been repeated in children’s entertainment, such as in Disney’s animated television series, Pepper Ann.
12 Angry Men also represents the gradual shift from radio entertainment to cinema. Producers adapted the film from an earlier radio drama. It is the predecessor of the myriad courtroom dramas that continue to flood our televisions today.
11. The Historical Drama – Gone With the Wind (1939)
War! The film opens to life in the American South interrupted by the fervor of the Civil War. Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) loves Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard), but he asks for the hand of another. Scarlett often finds that she thwarts her own intentions towards Ashley, especially when Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) keeps stepping into her life.
Why It Matters
Gone With the Wind has been one of the most influential films in history. It was, at the time, the highest grossing film of all time, and when adjusted for inflation, it still is. Hattie McDaniel became the first African-American to win an Academy Award. It was a risque film at the time, too, due to portrayals of a prostitute, childbirth, an amputation, and that famous line: “Frankly, my dear…”
Interestingly, Gone With the Wind is an example of the “forgetting process,” according to film scholar Corin Willis. Author Diogo M. Costa explains the forgetting process as “a silence that is sustained by the social power or coercion, the same power that silences the memory and, in consequence, creates culture… a social strategy and constraint that attempts to preserve the forgotten, in selectively and strategic silences, so as not to rupture the order.”
In the case of Gone With the Wind, this forgetting process involved omitting vital historical details dealing with slavery and racism. Due to its glorification of slavery, critics identify the film as “historical revisionism,” that is, depicting history in a way that is less accurate but more palatable to some audience demographics.
British historian David Reynolds put it this way: “The white women are elegant, their menfolk noble or at least dashing. And, in the background, the black slaves are mostly dutiful and content, clearly incapable of an independent existence.”
Many viewers may overlook a reference to the Ku Klux Klan – the “political meeting” attended by Wilkes and Butler. While the film does not mention the Klan directly, it depicts the group in a favourable light as protecting a woman’s honour. The book Screen Saviors: Hollywood Fictions of Whiteness identifies this as a form of social propaganda in favour of white supremacy.
While the film may not accurately represent events of the Civil War and Reconstruction periods, it does display how the passage of seven decades had altered the perception of events. It also illustrates how film has the power to influence the thinking of the masses.
12. The Action Movie – Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
Adolf Hitler seeks to collect ancient relics. He believes that the biblical Ark of the Covenant will make his army invincible. Archaeologist and explorer Indiana Jones is the only thing standing between the Nazis and this treasured artifact.
Why It Matters
The first film of the Indiana Jones franchise (though the second in chronological order), Raiders is often included in lists of “the best films ever made.” It highlights the cinematic genius of director Steven Spielberg, writer George Lucas, and composer John Williams.
Did you know? Raiders is one of neary 400 movies to use a sound effect called the “Wilhelm scream.” This stock sound effect was originally recorded for the 1951 film Distant Drums. Use of the scream is one of Hollywood’s inside jokes, and even more so in Indiana Jones – both films used the sound effect for a person bitten by an alligator or crocodile. Listen closely – you’ll also hear it in many of the Star Wars films.
13. The Fairy Tale – The Princess Bride (1987)
Narrated by a charming grandfather reading a book to his ailing grandson, The Princess Bride is a tale of the power of true love. According to the grandfather, it’s got something for everyone: “fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles.”
After Buttercup (Robin Wright) hears that her fiance Westley (Cary Elwes) has been killed, the evil Prince Humperdink whisks her away to become his bride. Can Westley rescue his princess bride in time?
Why It Matters
Tales of princes and princesses, castles and swordplay, have long been a part of European folklore, and these ideas have spread throughout the world. Most us call them “fairy tales,” and most of us grew up on them, whether through Disney cartoons or live-action films such as The Princess Bride.
I remember the first time I saw The Princess Bride. It was family movie night at my grandmother’s house, and an eight-year-old me perched on the back of the couch. It blew me away – the film left my imagination racing. That’s what fairy tales are meant to do – to spark our imaginations.
For years, whenever I encountered that dreaded “writer’s block,” I’d pop in my VHS and later my DVD of The Princess Bride. By the time the closing credits rolled, I’d have found something to write about.
William Goldman, author of The Princess Bride, notes a similar phenomena. He said, “I’ve gotten more responses on The Princess Bride than on everything else I’ve done put together—all kinds of strange outpouring letters. Something in The Princess Bride affects people.”
14. The Animated Movie – The Lion King (1994)
A young lion prince runs away from home, stricken with guilt. As an adult, he must return to reclaim his place as leader of the pride.
Why It Matters
Some resources call The Lion King an “animated musical epic.” It was made during what has been called the Disney Renaissance, when the company returned to musicals and became the powerhouse it remains today. Fans love this film, and the U.S. Library of Congress has listed it as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
Additionally, The Lion King has mesmerising visuals that utilised the then-burgeoning computer animation technology. One example of this is the wildebeest stampede, in which animators digitally multiplied the animals. Animators both traveled to Africa to observe wildlife and brought live lions into the studio.
Interestingly, the teachers may use this story as a bridge into classical literature. Said co-director Rob Minkoff, “Every Disney movie up to that point had been a classic fairy tale, but there was no underlying material we could point to and say what it was based on. It was the producer of The Little Mermaid watching our pitch who said, ‘Oh, it’s Hamlet.’ Everyone smiled and said, ‘We’re making Hamlet with lions.’”
Stories like The Lion King have been recommended by psychologists as a means of teaching children about death, or helping them adapt to the death of a parent. A number of children’s films involve similar themes, including Bambi (1942) and The Land Before Time (1988).
15. The Superhero Adventure – Superman (1978)
A baby arrives on a rocket ship from a dying world. Under the earth’s warm yellow sun, he develops super powers like man has never seen before – flight, super strength, and laser vision, among others. This Superman struggles to live a normal life while still sharing his gifts with the world.
Why It Matters
Choosing just one film to represent the superhero genre was a tough one. Why? For one thing, the superhero film is really a compilation of elements from other genres – fantasy, science fiction, mythology, psychological thriller, action, the occasional historical setting, and, often, romantic comedy. As such, superhero stories vary widely, from demigods to laboratory accidents to alien invasions.
Superhero stories have also evolved over the decades. When the idea of the superhero was young – we’re talking 1930s and 1940s – most stories were mysteries that involved solving relatively realistic crimes. Today, fans prefer superheroes who combat epically powerful, out-of-this-world supervillains.
The author, therefore, set out to find the one film that could introduce you, the avid movie fan, to all these elements. The truth is, it doesn’t seem to exist. Superman, however, represented the first superhero archetype when he debuted in Action Comics #1 in 1938. He is purely good, always does the right thing, wears a cape, and possesses the powers to back it up. Therefore, we consider the most well-known version of the story, complete with music by legendary composer John Williams, to adequately represent this genre.
16. The War Epic – The Great Escape (1963)
Prisoners of war during World War II plot their escape from a camp. This means digging a tunnel out of the prison camp – without raising the suspicions of the guards.
Why It Matters
For thousands of years, war has been a part of human existence. In the past century, humanity has witnessed wars more widespread and all-encompassing than ever before possible. The Worldwatch Institute stated, ““Three times as many people fell victim to war in [the 20th] century as in all the wars from the first century AD to 1899.” Yet, this is a reality that relatively few millennials understand first hand.
Films involving war can serve as a vivid reminder of the sadness and waste of the loss of human life. Note, however, that film also tends to glorify warfare and can at times foster prejudices against groups labeled as “the enemy.”
Filmmakers produced countless war films – or films that included wartime in their storylines – before, during, and after World War II. Other highly recommended war epics include The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and The Guns of Navarone (1961).
These 16 films and their respective movie genres are just a taste of what more than a century of movie-making has provided. Join us as we delve into the history of film and see if silent movies are worth watching.