Review: ‘The Holdovers’ offers a melancholy Christmas movie that might be the best of the year

Paul Giamatti, Dominic Sessa, and Da’Vine Joy Randolph in The Holdovers (Focus Features)

At its and our best, Christmas is a warm, happy, joyous period of time just when the world could be at its gloomiest. Shortened days and long, dark winter nights can be brightened by the cheer that wells up from inside when family and friends are nearby.

However, Christmas can feel like the loneliest and most desperate time of the year when you know the world celebrates around you, but you are denied the comfort and connection that only family and close friends can provide.

Frankly Christmas can be miserable, the lonesomest time of the year when circumstances dictate hardship or simply deny you the fellowship that truly makes life worth living and the season jolly and bright.

Director Alexander Payne knows this and relates those facts wonderfully well in his latest film, a comedy drama titled “The Holdovers,” which might be my favorite movie so far this year.

The script by David Hemingson is a pastiche, reminiscent of numerous sources from Charles Dickens’ novella “A Christmas Carol,” J.D. Sallinger’s novel “A Catcher in the Rye,” and Peter Weir’s film “Dead Poets Society,” as well as others. But while reminding us of other such works, the movie in Payne’s deft hands, just works.

You don’t mind the familiarity as three desperate individuals find a measure of peace within because of each other’s company despite the cold reality each faces on their own. They bond despite how bruised and world-weary the trio are.

Set in the early 1970s, the movie stars Paul Giamatti, who worked with Payne in the hilarious 2004 comedy “Sideways.” He plays Paul Hunham, an irritable, drunken, and broken classics teacher at the boarding school, Barton Academy. Hunham is not only despised by his students and disliked by the rest of the faculty, but he also disgusts himself. He’s stuck on campus during winter break to oversee four students who will also be spending their Christmas holiday at Barton.

Newcomer Dominic Sessa plays troublemaking student Angus Tully, whose mom went on a short-notice honeymoon with Angus’ stepfather, leaving the boy stranded at school for the holidays.

Da’Vine Joy Randolph delivers a knockout performance as cafeteria worker Mary Lamb, whose son, a Barton grad, was recently killed in the Vietnam war.

Paul Giamatti, Dominic Sessa, and Da’Vine Joy Randolph in The Holdovers (Focus Features)

When the other three students are allowed to leave the school for a ski trip with the blessing of their parents, an angry Angus is stuck on campus with Hunham and Mary because his mom can’t be reached on her honeymoon.

Each of the actors know how to deliver a line, and the put downs are acerbically fulfilling each time a verbal jab is landed.

A truce is called and the three form a surrogate family to support each other during the holiday period because they have no one else upon which to lean.

The heart of the movie is the fellowship that builds between the oddest of participants.

The film is impeccably shot by cinematographer Eigil Bryld in a style that mimics 1970s cinema. The retro look and mono sound transports you back to a grittier or more realistic style of film-making that fondly reminded me of my childhood when all theater floors were sticky but it was still an event for me to see a movie in the theater even if the story was over my depth.

The movie is funny, but the mood is melancholy throughout. While there is positive change in the three lead characters, the world continues to deliver blows as each character trudges forward through heartbreak, confusion, and the pain of self-sacrifice.

Oscar nominations and perhaps wins aren’t out of the question for Giamatti and Randolph, and while Sessa can’t yet match their prowess, he is a young actor who appears to have a very bright future.

(R) 2 hr. 13 min.
Grade: A

New in Local Theaters – Nov. 17, 2023

  • The Hunger Games: Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes (PG-13) 2 hrs. 37 min. (trailer)
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  • Trolls Band Together (PG) 1 hr. 31 min. (trailer)
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  • Thanksgiving (R) 1 hr. 42 min. (trailer)
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  • Next Goal Wins (PG-13 1 hr. 44 min. (trailer)
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  • The Holdovers (R) 2 hr. 13 min. (trailer)
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Key Films Opening this Holiday Season

Thanksgiving week is nearly upon us, and that means a bevy of new films will open in theaters between now and New Year’s. Here’s a look at the ones that seem very promising.

The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes (Nov. 17)

The Hunger Games Saga returns to the big screen in this prequel in which Rachel Zegler plays the hero Lucy with Tom Blyth as her conniving mentor Coriolanus Snow. Viola Davis and Peter Dinklage add star power to the cast of this seemingly never-ending dystopian epic.

Next Goal Wins (Nov. 17)

Take Waititi directs Michael Fassbender as a Dutch soccer coach hired to whip an American Soma soccer squad into shape in this inspiring underdog tale.

Wish (Nov. 22)

Disney’s latest animated musical fantasy is about 17-year-old Asha, who wishes upon a star, and it answers in a way only a Disney hero can.

Napoleon (Nov. 22)

Ridley Scott directs Joaquin Phoenix and Vanessa Kirby in this historical epic about the great French military strategist who sought to rule the world along with his soulmate Josephine.

Maestro (Nov. 22, Netflix Dec. 20)

Writer-director-actor Bradley Cooper offers his take on the life of composer/conductor Leonard Bernstein, one of the 20th century’s premier figures in classical music. Carrie Mulligan co-stars with a cast that includes Jeremy Strong, Maya Hawke, Matt Bomer and Sarah Sliverman.

Saltburn (Nov. 24)

Barry Keough plays a working-class Oxford student befriended by a rich classmate (Jacob Elordi) in this film about their escapades during summer break at the latter’s posh country estate where Keough’s ambition and manipulative skills push him up the social ladder at the expense of anyone who gets in his way.

Godzilla Minus One (Dec. 1)

This reimagining and update of Godzilla’s origin by writer-director Takashi Yamazaki has already thrilled Kaiju fans in Japan and critics are hailing it as perhaps the best Godzilla movie ever made. It stomps its way into U.S. theaters on Dec. 1, just in time for the holiday season. Nothing says Christmas like a new Godzilla flick!

Bikeriders (Dec. 1)

Writer-director Jeff Nichols offers a gritty Arthurian-type tale starring Tom Hardy as the leader of a biker gang struggling to maintain control of his organization while new gang member (Austin Butler) takes up with his old lady (Jodie Comer) in this black-and-white film that is drawing comparisons to “The Godfather.”

Wonka (Dec. 15)

Timothy Chalamet stars in this prequel to the Willy Wonka films. Paul King, who made the delightful Paddington movies, directs this musical comedy that gives us the origin of the world’s most famous chocolatier.

Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom (Dec. 20)

The DCEU comes to an end with this sequel that has been five-years in the making and included three sets of reshoots. Rumors are that it tested poorly with advance audiences after three different cuts. A sad way to say goodbye to the first iteration of big-screen Aquaman. But the brand new DCU is already being plotted by James Gunn and his co-studio head Peter Safran. Jason Mamoa is rumored to have a role to play in the revamped universe whether this film does swimmingly or not as the interstellar hitman Lobo, perhaps being introduced in Gunn’s reboot “Superman: Legacy,” scheduled for July 11, 2025.

Migration (Dec. 22)

This computer-animated comedy from Illumination and Universal looks like a quacking good time for families. The Mallards decide to embark on their first family trip, much to the chagrin of Mack, the fine-feathered father of the clan. He’d rather stay in New England for the winter than fly south to tropical Jamaica — with a layover in New York City — before heading further south.

The Iron Claw (Dec. 22)

Named after the famous finishing hold of wrestling patriarch Fritz Von Erich, this film details the tragic story of the Von Erich brothers, Kevin (Zac Effron), Kerry (Jeremy Allen White), and David (Harris Dickinson) as they struggled with the fame, popularity, and demands of being a part of the preeminent family of Texas professional wrestling in the 1970s and ‘80s. Maura Tierney, Lily James, and Holt McCallany co-star in the biopic.

The Color Purple (Dec. 25)

This is the big-screen take on the Broadway musical adaptation of Steven Spielberg’s film adaptation of Alice Walker’s classic book. Whew, that’s a lot of adapting. But this film. featuring Fantasia Barrino, Taraji P. Henson, Coleman Domingo, Halle Bailey, H.E.R., Danielle Brooks, Ciara, Jon Batiste, David Alan Grier, Louis Gossett Jr., and Deon Cole, is a star-studded talent showcase, directed by Blitz Bazawule, that is sure to garner a ton of Oscar attention.

Ferrari (Dec. 25)

This all-star affair features Adam Driver as Enzo Ferrari, the race driver and company head behind the famous line of automobiles and race cars, during a tumultuous three-day period when his company’s financial health is on the line just before the Mille Miglia race. If his team doesn’t win, his business will be insolvent. Penelope Cruz plays his wife Laura, while Shailene Woodley, Patrick Dempsey, Jack O’Connell, and Sarah Golden co-star in the film directed by Michael Mann, his first movie in eight years.