For the past several years, I’ve attempted to watch as many Oscar-nominated films as possible, and for the past two years I have written reviews of each film and posted them to this blog. Alas, I always run out of time and cannot see everything. This year’ ceremony has been delayed, and I started reviewing before nominations were announced, giving me a decent chance at wide coverage. Today we cover…
[Two nominations for Best Director and Best International Feature]
Like The White Tiger, here is another film I had never heard of before last week’s nominee announcement. Danish film Another Round sits oddly out of place in the Best Director category, which had me very curious about the talents of director Thomas Vinterberg. How does a film get nominated for best director, but not best picture? Is that even possible? How does that happen? To quench my curiosity, I hit the internet and found filmsite.org, which claims that there have ever only been 11 instances where a filme was nominated for best director but not best director (fun fact: two of those instances were for this one of this year’s nominee, Mank’s David Lynch, who was nominated for 1986’s Blue Velvet and 2002’s Mulholland Dr.) So… what to make of this? I think it’s tough for non-film-connoisseurs (which I firmly do not claim to be) to understand what, exactly, a director does, and what makes a good one. It doesn’t help that, to make it in a professional setting, you already have to be pretty solid. When everything is solid, though, then how can you tell what is stellar?
I personally mine two sources of anecdotal data to help my determination. First up is my short stint at film school, which I dropped out of in my 3rd year, because I was not a good filmmaker. It was one of those situations where, on day one, they have you look left and right and realize that only one of you three were going to be graduating. And I didn’t even go to a good film school! My freshman film class was full of kids (yeah, we were children) who kinda liked making home movies and decided it would be fun to do for college. We all made the same shitty movies, and they all looked the same. Our shitty freshman movies were so unoriginal that the professors set rules on certain movies we were not allowed to make. NO filming in the dorms, NO robots, no taping a gun to your camera and doing a first-person shooter, etc. Most of us were not really cut out for this, and either dropped out, or graduated but went on to do something else. But there definitely were those kids who, despite being our age, managed to create something original. They were handed the same equipment as the rest of us, but could figure out how to use it to tell a compelling story. It was pure raw talent, and it shined from a mile away even though you could never quite explain what it was that was different. Of course, in our case we were separating out “solid directors” from “bad directors,” which is easier to do than pick the best of the good directors. The other source is the short-lived HBO series Project Greenlight, which featured Matt Damon and Ben Affleck leading a contest where wannabe filmmakers compete for a change to be handed a full professional budget and staff to make their pictures. They are handed absolutely everything they needed to direct a great picture, and yet… ALL of their movies were shit. The whole series felt like it was created just so that we can understand exactly how hard it is to pull off an even remotely ok movie, let alone a great movie. If I remember correctly (and I might be wrong here), in season 1 they picked the best screenplay, and let the writer direct. Turns out he couldn’t direct for shit. So in season 2, they did 1 contest for screenwriters, and 1 for directors, and then had the winning director direct the winning script. I think they gave all the directors the same super vague script for the contest, and then judged hat they turned the vague turdburger into on the screen. The people who could take a shitty script and turn it into something decent were the ones who did the best in the contest.
What I take from all of this is that the best test of a director is whether they can turn a garbage idea with a garbage script into something watchable. If that’s the mark of a great director, then it’s no wonder that Vinterberg is being recognized here. Because this movie was garbage. Or rather… let me start over…
This movie made for a miserable viewing experience. It was honestly very difficult to sit through, and completely impossible to enjoy. Some of this is because of my own personal experiences. As someone who has had plenty of alcohol-related trauma in her life, an entire film about drinking is uncomfortable. Our basic premise is, frankly, super terrible. A small group of middle-aged teachers heard a bonkers theory that humans are operating at slightly lower BAC than they should be, and so they decide they are all going to start day-drinking “as an experiment.” Supposedly, maintaining just the right BAC means you’ll be more relaxed and thus able to function at a higher level. They set stupid rules: ONLY day drinking- no drinking after 8pm or on the weekends. This will be fun! they exclaim. I was already screaming inside at this point. WHY ARE THEY MAKING LIGHT OF THIS?!?!?! IT’S AN ADDICTIVE SUBSTANCE! EVERYONE KNOWS THIS! DON’T THEY KNOW WHAT ALCOHOLISM IS?! These are educated middle-aged men, dammit. They should know exactly where this is going to go. Unsurprisingly, they decide to drop their controls pretty soon, and, unsurprisingly, they start needing more and more. They develop addictions (duh!). They get in trouble with their families and loved ones. It’s a rough ride, but my complaint isn’t that it’s hard to watch a movie about alcoholism- it’s instead hard to watch these idiots jumping into this “experiment” and act surprised when the most predictable things happen to them. And watching it for entertainment is even worse.
But the script is terrible beyond just the central premise. Tons of shit makes no sense. Maybe Danish culture is just way more different than I realized, or maybe some things were lost in translations, but tons of scenes and elements just made no sense. Some examples: these guys are all buzzed all day every day, surrounded by students, coworkers, and family. Someone should have smelled the booze on them, but somehow NOBODY DOES. We have an early scene where students and parents call a meeting with our protagonist to tell him he seems too bored in his own class (Is this how Danish schools work?). Then, at one dude’s birthday dinner, he suddenly turns to our protagonist and goes “HEY! I HEARD YOU HAD A MEETING TODAY BECAUSE YOU’RE REALLY BAD AT YOUR JOB!” and then when our protagonist starts CRYING to himself at the birthday dinner, everyone’s just like, “Uh… so… how’s your failing marriage going?!” Like they just pile on to this guy. Why? Who has dinners like this? Also our ugly fat friend has a smoking hot wife for some reason. We never learn what our day-drinkers’ plans are for driving home from work every day. Just so many things were just super stupid or made no sense. And in general, I just didn’t understand what the point was for this movie.
So all that being said… I think I understand how this gets nominated for best director. Some of the saddest or dumbest scenes just, frankly, couldn’t be saved. But every time I started getting super fed up with the movie and was ready to write it off, we’d hit a really compelling scene. In general, the exuberant, active scenes were the best. I mean they were truly beautiful and wonderfully crafted. The first example is the actual opening of the film, when we watch a bunch of teenagers engaged in a drinking game. I started watching the film without my spouse thinking he wouldn’t be interested in the artsy foreign flick with subtitles, but the kids in the opening were having such a blast that he made me wait until he got home later to watch cuz it sucked him in so effectively. The best scene is in my selected screenplay: the night the crew decides to go balls to the walls and forget their measured BAC approach. These guys go ABSOLUTELY NUTS, and man did it look like a blast. It was both beautiful and disgusting, and I loved watching it even though I’d spent the previous hour annoyed at both the characters and the film. Finally, the ending featured a seriously beautiful dance sequence (yes, dance sequence) that, frankly, didn’t make any sense plot-wise, but was nevertheless glorious filmmaking. (Shared credit for this scene should definitely go to its very talented star, Mads Mikkelsen.)
This is the first International Feature I’ve seen of this year’s nominees, so no comment on that nomination yet. I will say, though, that I’m surprised that there are only 3 nominees this year, and even more surprised to hear this is one of them. Really? The ENTIRE WORLD only produced 3 Oscar-worthy films?! And, being that I didn’t like this film… only TWO Oscar-worthy films? I’m gonna have to go do some Googling to figure out what is happening there, because I am baffled.*
Final note that has absolutely nothing to do with anything: Danish school seems VERY different from American school. Just FWIW.
*NOTE: It turns out, whatever list I’d been referencing at this point was incomplete, and there are indeed 5 international features nominated. That makes WAY more sense. Not sure where I got 3- best guess is maybe that’s how many are available to stream in one way or another via my cable company?