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As with any critical shortcut, we have to be careful. It's wrong to reflexively label every movie according to its theme and then hurriedly file it away. For our purposes, genre refers to broadly accepted narrative archetypes rather than stylistic touches. The idea is not to establish some sort of critical pecking order, but to recognize that movies travel the same thematic routes as novels or stage plays or pop music. Some take the road less traveled, others the well-worn way.
Michael Haneke's Amour is an example of a film that tries to break out of ordinary avenues and tell its unusual story — of an elderly married couple dealing with illness and death — frankly and starkly; as opposed to, say, Andrew Dominik's Killing Them Softly, a familiar tale of thugs and hit men. Amour is considered an art film mostly because of its style, although its subject matter is certainly non-commercial. Killing Them Softly, however, is a clear-cut genre flick because its story ingredients, regardless of the director's style, are so well established they're recognizable at first glance. Genre films continually run the risk of being labeled by lazy critics as clichéd at face value, on account of their subjects. But many first-class filmmakers have honed their skills in genre, and many are still attracted to it.
The beauty of genre is that by working inside a set of well-established guidelines — for instance, that Westerns always have a man on a horse, or that in horror films something generally jumps out and goes Boo! — the creative filmmaker is set free to use his or her imagination in reinterpreting the form. What might have been limits for a lesser talent become points of departure for individual stylistic exploration, like a musician improvising on a riff.
Thus, when Steven Soderbergh takes a whack at a martial arts actioner, as in the case of Haywire, he's demonstrating that there are no "untouchable" categories in which a cinematic artist can work. A head-buster spy flick can ultimately prove as meaningful as a "serious" issues-oriented star vehicle à la Erin Brockovich. Everything depends on the director's style, and of course the twin virtues of writing and acting.
As it turns out, Soderbergh is responsible for a pair of genre pieces released in 2012: Haywire and the male-strip-club buddy movie Magic Mike. He wasn't the only blue-chip auteur "slumming" in the genre ghetto. Oliver Stone (Savages), David Koepp (Premium Rush), the tag team of Michael Apted and Curtis Hanson (Chasing Mavericks), and Kathryn Bigelow (Zero Dark Thirty) all chimed in, with a drug-ring actioner, a bike-messenger urban thriller, a surf movie, and a war movie, respectively.
Of course, it could be said that certain directors like Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight Rises) and Joss Whedon (The Avengers) don't make anything other than genre items, but that's their decision. If David Cronenberg wants to float a social commentary (Cosmopolis) this time around instead of such gangster sagas as Eastern Promises or A History of Violence, that's his choice as well. The net effect is that genre is no longer the poor side of town. There are no longer any unfashionable genres, only inept — or, conversely, well equipped — filmmakers. When Alfred Hitchcock, in Sacha Gervasi's Hitchcock, wondered out loud, "What if someone really good made a horror picture?" he was expressing a common artistic impulse for 2012. With Hitch's typical foresightedness, he said it in 1959. We're finally catching up with him.