“That guy is many things but he definitely isn’t “cool.”
And so goes the argument between Enid (Thora Birch) and Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson) over the merits of Seymour (Steve Buscemi) in Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World.
The fact that we can all agree that Buscemi is without question among the coolest of the cool brings into focus the tricky nature of this most popular of slang terms. Mary Helen Specht, who once taught a course in Cool at Emerson College, suggests that it may be the longest-lasting of all slang expressions. Moving from its origin in American slave culture, where it emerged as a masked defiance of the powerful, through the appropriation by white Beat culture in the ‘50s and onto today, where it has been commodified by Madison Avenue, Cool has been marginalized and maimed, but its heart beats on. There is still rebellion – there is still Cool.
In the spirit of the Oscar’s Foreign Language Award, I would like to nominate the following six movies – one from each country – as the Hip Six of 2016. They encompass the length and breadth of Cool. New takes on old stories, and stories we never even imagined. Their visual palates are memorable and their narratives transgressive. Like pornography, you just know Cool when you see it.
And these are Cool.
From Australia – The Dressmaker (Jocelyn Moorhouse)
The one comedy on this list is a grotesque and wonderful black comedy based on Rosalie Ham’s novel. Somewhat of a cross between Durrenmat and High Plain’s Drifter. Kate Winslet is Tilly, black sheep of the dirty little town of Dungatar, who returns home to mete out judgment to those who did her wrong as a girl. With a bravura supporting performance from Judy Davis as Tilly’s mother Mad Molly and more creepy/funny moments than you will find in any number of Bad Santa/Zoolander sequels combined, the outback may be hot, but The Dressmaker is definitely cool.
From Hungary – Kills on Wheels (Attila Till)
Zoli is confined to a wheel chair. Best friend Barba has cerebral palsy bad enough to make walking a huge challenge. What better profession for these two young men than that of assassin? When they meet up with former firefighter, now paraplegic contract killer Rupaszov, they find their mentor. This darkly comic action story is a blend of live action and animation, as Zoli draws their adventures into his comic book. The end result? Ultra cool.
From Japan – Shin Godzilla (Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi)
Dr. Strangelove as a Saturday morning cartoon. How cool is that? Our first glimpse of the juvenile Godzilla is shocking for its very amateurishness. But the monster evolves, as does the entire film, and before long it has grown into a visual feast while sneaking several meaningful questions into its candy-colored shell.
From Poland – Demon (Marcin Wrona)
Hysterical ghost story that might recall Bunuel, if the whole thing weren’t so icy. Itay Tiran is a fish out of water bridegroom about to expeience a terrifying drunken wedding reception in his new home. Pawel Flis’ moody cinematography is the real star here, as the story grows more and more bizarre. By the ends, the narrative loses focus, but the blend of image and music keeps it weird and wonderful – and of course, cool – throughout.
From South Korea – Train to Busan (Yeon Sang-ho)
Park Chan-wook made a movie this year – The Handmaiden – and it will be a serious contender for the Best Foreign Language Oscar (along with the way cool German comedy Toni Erdmann). Now, you have to go quite a ways to out-cool anything by Park, but Yeon manages the feat with this “zombies on a train” concoction. It is not as good as Snowpiercer, but if you go in looking for strong characters, non-stop tension, and some of the creepiest zombies you will ever find, then Busan is your cool destination.
From the USA – In a Valley of Violence (Ti West)
Tarantino took a shot at reimaging an Italian-style western with last year’s The Hateful Eight. But West is not interested in reinventing anything. He adds a little more humor than you’re apt to find in Corbucci or Leone, but otherwise this could be lifted right out of the late ‘60s. He invests his efforts in strengthening the characters, and turning the clichés on their heads. The soft-looking hero, the fed-up fat deputy, the two warring sisters, and especially, in the person of John Travolta, the powerful sheriff who is more thoughtful than sadistic, West creates a western that is always fresh despite its obvious roots.
So leave the Oscars to the emotionally contemplative gems like Manchester, Moonlight, and Jackie. They are excellent films. But there are other gems out there. And after all, a truly cool movie doesn’t need a statuette to know that it is cool.