Classifying anything is a hopeless attempt to find order in the chaos of the world. Most things defy neat classification — there will always be borderline cases. If you create too many categories, to capture all the differences, you end up with an unwieldy — and ultimately absurd — system with one item per category. If you lump things into too few categories, what use is it?
Two good examples of classification systems are Library Classification and Scientific Classification (links are to Wikipedia articles). See also "taxonomy" in Wikipedia.
There is a lot of theoretical and philosophical literature on classification. But I think the best way to understand the issues is to explore an example.
Motion Pictures as a form of public entertainment (movies, films, cinema) have been around for about 130 years, and many thousands of films have been made. The Internet Movie Database, IMDb, is a good resource.
Here is my personal, idiosyncratic classification of movie types. It is based on the essential situation or story, not on the setting or style.
(An expanded listing of movies by category, with comments, is found here.)
How To Classify Movies
|War||men bonding||Twelve O'Clock High|
|Epic||lots of stars, lots of interwoven stories||The Longest Day, Grand Hotel|
|Road Movie||episodic||O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Dead Man|
|Buddy Movie||start hating each other, end loving||It Happened One Night, The Rookie|
|Western||good vs. evil||Star Wars, The Fifth Element|
|Adventure||who will survive?||The Poseidon Adventure|
|10 Little Indians||who is the killer in the group?||Identity, Murder By Death, Clue|
|Old House||things jumping out at you||Alien, Pitch Black|
|Beat The Clock||can we stop him in time?||Twelve Monkeys, The Manchurian Candidate|
|Biopic||triumph or tragedy of one character||Lawrence of Arabia, Patton, The Passion of Joan of Arc|
|Caper||plan and execution||Rififi, The Killing, The Lavender Hill Mob|
|Coming Of Age||finding the strength within yourself to overcome what the world has thrown at you||The Best Years of Our Lives, Napoleon Dynamite, Brazil|
|Hero's Tale||one sacrifices for all||The Day The Earth Stood Still, The Iron Giant, The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc|
|Thriller||bad guy gets it, good guy (usually) gets the girl/boy||Grosse Point Blank, Laura, The Big Hit, Dial M For Murder|
|Monster||how will they stop it? (monster has no feelings and bullets have no effect on it)||Them!, Godzilla, Outbreak, The Terminator|
|Hill of Beans||the problems of three little people||House of Flying Daggers, Casablanca, Titanic|
Any type can be drama, comedy, spoof (Silverado), historical, science fiction, romance, noir, martial arts or musical (Bugsy Malone). These are differences in style only. Exactly the same movie can be made in different settings or styles (Shoot the Piano Player = El Mariachi).
One thing you notice is that the greatest movies combine these categories in creative ways:
Silverado — War, Spoof, Western
The Crying Game — Thriller, Coming of Age
Princess Mononoke — Road, Monster, Hero
Die Hard — Hero, Western, Thriller
High Noon — Beat the Clock, Hero
Saving Private Ryan — Coming of Age, Road, Hero
Ben Hur — Hill of Beans, Road, Western
The Abyss — Old House, Thriller
No movie by Peter Greenaway can be categorized. Period. "Creation, to me, is to try to orchestrate the universe to understand what surrounds us. Even if, to accomplish that, we use all sorts of stratagems which in the end prove completely incapable of staving off chaos." — Peter Greenaway
There is more discussion of the specific categories here.
I'm open to suggestions.