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Alexander Payne’s “The Holdovers” is the epitome of a feel-good Christmas movie.

It’s got heart, humor and an aesthetic sense so well-cultivated you’ll feel like you’ve walked into the year 1970. Even more than that, I believe it to be 2023’s best picture.

Set during the Christmas season of 1970, the film stars Paul Giamatti as Paul Hunham, an authoritarian classics instructor at the fictional Barton Academy boarding school. As a punishment for failing the privileged son of a senator in his class, Hunham must stay at the school over Christmas break and watch the students who have nowhere to go — the titular holdovers.

Giamatti’s performance has already earned him a Golden Globe award and a nomination for Best Actor at the Academy Awards, and these accolades are well-deserved.

His performance as the hard-headed yet sympathetic teacher is among the best of the 2020s so far. His subtlety and tonal range carry an already brilliantly written character to an even higher level.

Giamatti’s co-star is debut film actor Dominic Sessa, who plays Angus Tully, the last of the students left behind at Barton. Sessa follows the arc of his character from teenage troublemaker to tragic figure with a unique blend of energy and endearment. 

Watching the two characters grow to respect each other over the film was incredibly gratifying for me — it was a masterclass in screenwriting and acting.

Perhaps greater than either of these all-time performances is Da’Vine Joy Randolph as Barton’s cafeteria manager, Mary Lamb, whose son died in the Vietnam War shortly before the events of the film.

She put forth a serious, emotional depiction of a grieving mother, stealing the show and earning a well-deserved Golden Globe and an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress.

Most great performances, however, are impossible without a good script, and this film has one of the best in recent memory.

The picture’s dialogue is quick, funny and, when called for, brimming with emotion. The narrative is surprisingly compelling for its small scale. Screenwriter David Hemingson also received an Academy Award nomination this year. 

As beautiful of a film as “The Holdovers” is, it is not entirely perfect.

My only nitpick is its use of anachronistic source music. The songs by Damien Jurado and Khruangbin are the only aspects of the movie that violate the pervasive period accuracy of the soundtrack.

Many may complain about the length of “The Holdovers” or its lack of a true main character, but I find that both of these elements give audience members the time and ability to connect with the characters.

I watched the film for the first time with my parents, who are both community college instructors. They latched onto Giamatti at the start, whereas I connected to Sessa. However, over the course of the film, each of these characters developed enough for those original positions to blur — .another feat of the script.

It is inherently difficult to pull off such a multifaceted narrative. Even well-loved movies like “Love Actually” fail at this time and again, yet “The Holdovers” pulls it off without a hitch.

The narrative is able to achieve its potential only through the expert direction of Payne, known for earlier pictures such as 1999's "Election." Payne shows a return to form in this feature, and his style employs a brilliant blend of '60s and '70s cinematic techniques and aesthetics with modern polish. The work shows Payne's mastery of pacing, composition and nearly every other aspect of direction.

I firmly believe that “The Holdovers” more than deserves to win Best Picture at this year’s Academy Awards — my personal and overall negative feelings about crowd-favorite “Oppenheimer” aside. 

If I haven’t convinced you already, go watch “The Holdovers.” It pairs well with a cup of hot chocolate. Even if it doesn’t win, it will stand as an immediate classic, and will certainly be mandatory holiday fare in my family for years to come.

@dthlifestyle | lifestyle@dailytarheel.com

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