“To alcohol! The cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems.”

In The Simpsons episode titled ‘Homer vs. the Eighteenth Amendment’, after battling humourless lawman Rex Banner, Homer Simpson declares prohibition over and champions the brilliance of booze.

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Courtesy of: 20th Century Fox

It’s almost too on-the-nose to draw the line from that 1997 episode to Thomas Vinterberg’s Academy Award-winning Another Round (Druk). Then again, popular commentary around alcohol and abuse has rarely had nuance. Alcohol is nearly always presented as The Downfall™; a wobbling crutch for our falling protagonists; a temporary ill-fated release from depressing realities. An easy “indulgence” to nullify the pain. In terms of cinema representation, Homer’s pretty much on the money.

Now, it’s not for me, a lifelong teetotaller, to stand on a soapbox and defend alcohol, of all things. It’s simply that we all know Homer’s (in jest) statement to be patently untrue. Think about the new best friends made in public toilets. The conversations that run till sunrise, with the greatest idea of all time waiting to be actioned come sobriety. The memories. The forgotten memories. The fun. The somehow endless fun.

Perhaps that’s my own illusion of it all, as the person sitting on the sidelines. The guy holding the coats and absorbing everything. Remembering every nonsensical ramble, every minor misunderstanding, every slurring Uber home. Watching friendships, romances, and bonds strengthen and blossom. This ballet of wondrous and bewildering action creates a strange longing in me: what if I did drink? Would it increase my ability to have fun? To be fun? This is where, for the first – and, unfortunately, only – time, Mads Mikkelsen and I collide.

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Courtesy of: StudioCanal UK

Another Round follows four high school teachers – Martin, Tommy, Peter and Nikolaj (Mikkelsen, Thomas Bo Larsen, Lars Ranthe and Magnus Millang) – as they launch a drinking experiment based on an old theory proposed by psychiatrist Finn Skårderud. The thesis goes that humans are born with a blood alcohol content (BAC) deficiency of 0.05% and that returning to +0.05% makes one more creative and relaxed. Finally, a theory that supports my own occasional negative introspective suspicions!

And, so it goes, the four teachers begin their experiment: their BAC should never fall below 0.05, but at the same time they must not drink after 8pm or on the weekends. (So as to, er, keep it a matter of science, rather than pleasure.) Vinterberg’s script and direction are straightforward as the characters experience the expected highs. Once dour and of concern to all around him, Mikkelsen’s Martin is reborn. He reconnects with his wife and his children for the first time in years. He even tricks his students into voting for the vegetarian Adolf Hitler against the fat Winston Churchill and a drunk FDR. Larsen’s Tommy is a far more passionate and involved coach to the children than before, even defending the “weaker”, bespectacled kid; Ranthe’s Peter, meanwhile, finds once more the joy in his music. The only anomaly is Millang’s Nikolaj, a man who appears happier, but whose difficulties with his wife and their young family remain present.

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Courtesy of: StudioCanal UK

It’s at this point that Vinterberg and Another Round hit their stride. As the group’s enthusiasm for the project heightens, so does the BAC level – which doubles to 0.1%. This is where that traditional downfall narrative rears its head. Nikolaj is confronted head-on about his uselessness, Tommy can’t seem to keep to the ‘rules’ – in other words, he starts drinking to excess – and Martin’s own drunkenness sees him collapse in the street with a split head. Alcohol could not close a years-deep gap with his now distant wife, Anika, who in a blaring row admits her infidelity and leaves him. The experiment ends.

Well aware of the trappings of both the alcohol-driven and the mid-life crisis narratives, Vinterberg’s greatest strength is turning his film into a study in individuality. As per Martin’s history lesson on FDR, Churchill, and Hitler, people are complex – particularly in their differences. No one substance – no matter how powerful – has a uniform effect on everyone who partakes. What works for you may not work for another. Take Peter, who seems to be able to balance his alcohol intake, even encouraging a nervous student to drink before his final exam to settle the nerves. (And the student in question is never shown to experience any negative effect of this.) On the other side of the coin, there’s Tommy: the all-too-familiar tale of a man trapped in alcohol’s clutches, falling down a short, sharp spiral, eventually drowning, drunk, after falling out of his boat.

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Courtesy of: StudioCanal UK

It’s in the student’s booze-aided exam that Vinterberg drops in Søren Kierkegaard’s quote from ‘The Concept of Anxiety’: “You must accept yourself as fallible in order to love others and life.” Vinterberg’s focus in Another Round is to dispel two myths: that of alcohol, and of the mid-life crisis. Far from saying the latter does not exist, Vinterberg’s film becomes a call to arms for the individual. Alcohol will not provide you with the silver bullet to cure your social ails; nor will it necessarily attach an ever-sinking weight to your neck.

The film’s ending is a triumphant summation of this point, delivered in one of the most joyous scenes of recent years. After Tommy’s funeral, the three teachers reminisce over lunch and, towards the end, they are interrupted by their students celebrating their graduation. The drink is flowing; youth at the peak of its power. The teachers join them, cracking beers, and Mikkelsen’s ten years’ experience as a ballet dancer comes to the fore. The band Scarlet Pleasure’s unbelievably catchy ‘What a Life’ blares, as Mikkelsen takes centre stage, moving with such effortless grace and joy, it is scientifically impossible to not be infatuated with him. Mikkelsen’s genuine skill, in front of a young audience, with a young band singing, “Don’t know where I’m in five but I’m young and alive/Fuck what they are saying, what a life.” It’s an irrepressible advertisement to joy.

Alcohol is still there, though. Present at the youthful beginning and at the end – it’s easy to see how booze can connect the two, and how it can be a vehicle to escape the doldrums of middle age (or any age). Vinterberg’s film does not patronise the viewer by providing such a straight shot: good or evil. Alcohol can be bad; it can also be good. The true variant, within reason, is the individual, which is why Vinterberg’s ending lands so well. Though an instant burst of joy, it’s also deeply haunting. Moments ago, the teachers were mourning the loss of their friend, driven to death by alcoholic demons. Now, here they are, wholly embracing alcohol to excess to achieve that high once again. Are we watching the haunting dance of another doomed man? This does not feel like Vinterberg’s intent or the majority reading, but it adds another layer to the director’s overriding point that power lies in the individual.

Funnily enough, Skårderud never wrote the thesis around 0.05% BAC. It was a misinterpreted preface that the professor wrote to a book first published in 1880: On the Psychological Effects of Wine, by Edmondo de Amicis. And so it goes. My own issues with alcohol, just like the characters in the film, are largely self-built. It is in the extreme self-deprecation of my existing qualities and the exaggerated desire for new traits to seemingly override the original. We make our own joy, our own possibilities, and Another Round’s greatest strength is not in the alcohol consumed, it’s in celebrating our value as individuals with choices.

So, to recap, here’s our Top 20 to 4…

#20 – After Love
#19 – Undine
#18 – No Time To Die
#17 – Ninjababy
#16 – The French Dispatch
#15 – Shiva Baby
#14 – Dune
#13 – Drive My Car
#12 – Annette
#11 – Minari
#10 – Sound of Metal
#9 – Spencer
#8 – First Cow
#7 – C’mon C’mon
#6 – Nomadland
#5 – The Power of the Dog
#4 – Another Round

Stay tuned for the remainder of 2021 as we count down our Top 10 films of 2021!