Ben Oliver

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The Holdovers

I thought all of the Nazis were hiding in Argentina.
29 January 2024

A bitter and hard-line teacher at a boarding school (Paul Giamatti) is forced to stay at the school over Christmas with kids who can’t go home for the holidays. Eventually he ends up with a difficult teenager (Dominic Sessa) and the cook (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), who is mourning the loss of her son.

Yeah I’m late to this one and late January might be the saddest time to watch a Christmas film, but Sideways is one of my favourite films and so I was curious to see what Alexander Payne and Paul Giamatti made here. I’m glad I made the effort, because this is probably Payne’s best work since that film.

Christmas is always a bittersweet time, especially if you have nowhere to go, but you also doubly appreciate anyone who has the time to take you in, and Payne has that mood sewn up perfectly. It’s snowy outside, warm inside, and as the film progresses everyone’s sharp edges begin to get filed off.

It’s a pretty paint-by-numbers screenplay but the magic lies in the execution; The Holdovers lets everything happen at a relaxed pace, and gives every character and thought time to breathe. In all the snow drifts and isolation people slowly begin to reflect on their own lives and help each other find themselves. It’s funny but also disarmingly raw and vulnerable, and a touch sentimental.

It’s set in 1970 but I love that Payne makes the effort to make it look like it was made in 1970. There’s zooms and fades and wipes that just give it a period style. It’s pure nostalgia but it seems effortless rather than contrived, and it’s so effective in a film set at Christmas.

Perhaps the ending ties up all a bit too neatly, but The Holdovers’ motto seems to be “fuck it, it’s Christmas” and for that reason a little bit of schmaltz isn’t just forgiveable but essential.

I suspect I wouldn’t be the first to suggest this might be a future Christmas classic, but it’s also one of the best films I’ve seen from 2023.

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