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Oscar Best Picture Contenders Add New Twists to Old Movie Genres

Near the end of “Logan,” the title character yells at a young girl: “I am not whatever it is you think I am.” That’s true of him, and it’s true of the film itself. At first glance, “Logan” may seem to be another X-Men superhero movie, but it’s really a modern-day Western about family, love and redemption.

Similarly, “Get Out” was marketed as a horror movie and submitted to the Golden Globes as a comedy. It’s a little bit of both, but it’s also a social commentary mixed with sharp observations about racism.

The awards season is filled with movies that are genre-benders, which use the format and structure of classic storytelling, but then upend audience expectations by taking the movie in another direction.

The Shape of Water” is set in 1962, and director/co-writer Guillermo del Toro uses the conventions of an old monster movie — a mysterious lab, sinister government operatives, a woman in peril. But it’s actually a love story where the “monster” is the hero and the “good guys” are dangerous. It’s a romance and a parable about the foolishness of fearing strangers/outsiders.

Two favorite movie genres are the coming-out chronicle and the tale of a tourist finding love in the Mediterranean. “Call Me by Your Name” is a combination of the two but rises above both formats, feeling both warmly familiar and yet totally original.

“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” like “Logan,” is a modern Western, but with Frances McDormand in the John Wayne role. “Wind River” is a mystery thriller, but it’s much more about the mistreatment of women and Native Americans than whodunit.

This has been a good year for breaking boundaries.

Hollywood has always specialized in genre films. In the studio heyday of the 1930s-50s, definition was important. Theater owners in small towns often had to book a film sight unseen. These exhibitors needed to know what they were getting and Variety reviews were crucial. Right under the film’s title was a mention of the genre. And the review gave plot details, so the exhibitor could make an educated guess whether his audience would like this movie.

Generally, the audience got what they expected. On a few occasions, the filmmakers could put a twist on the genre, such as the 1944 comedy “Hail the Conquering Hero,” the 1950 Western “Broken Arrow” and the 1956 “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” But they were exceptions.

Audience tastes have changed and so have movies; Variety stopped listing genres in the 1980s. And cable-TV series like “The Sopranos” and “Breaking Bad” proved that storytellers can pull the rug out from under audiences, who will love it.

“Dunkirk” seems like an old-fashioned WWII epic. But those old movies usually focused on a triumphant battle, with scenes of teary-eyed folks back home, while military strategists pointed to maps to explain the action. Christopher Nolan happily avoided all those conventions.

Is “Lady Bird” a comedy or a drama? It’s both since it’s about high school, which is both comic and tragic. “The Florida Project” is a crime drama. “Downsizing” is about global eco-disaster, but it’s a comedy. And it’s too unique to fit into any easy categories.

Online bloggers and Oscar pundits like to debate definitions of a film, but luckily Academy voters don’t worry. They vote for what they like. Contenders are more nuanced and harder to define than ever. That’s a good thing.

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