"The Holdovers," the new film from director Alexander Payne, instantly went on my list as one of the best films of 2023 - it is small in scale but large in ambition, with no CGI but plenty of real characters, outstanding performances, and a heartfelt narrative. To me, it felt like something like "Harold and Maude," the 1971 cult film - and that is high praise indeed.
It actually is fitting that "The Holdovers" would remind me of a 1971 film, since it takes place in the final days of 1970. The location is a New England boarding school, where most of the high school students are about to leave for the Christmas holidays. Several cannot leave, however, and they are "the holdovers" of the title, stuck at the school and overseen by a classics professor, Paul Hunham, who as played by Paul Giamatti is everybody's nightmare teacher - strict, imperious, inflexible and insensitive. Also there is the cafeteria administrator, Mary Lamb (Da'Vine Joy Randolph), who has been unable to come top grips with her son's death in Vietnam, and Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa), whose mother and stepfather have gone to the islands without him because they need time alone.
The coming together of these wounded souls is the stuff of excellent drama, directed with understatement by Payne, who directed two of my favorite movies of the past 20 years - "Sideways" (also with Giamatti), and "The Descendants" (with George Clooney). There's nothing flashy or showy about "The Holdovers" - it is, to my mind, a perfect kind of movie, thoughtful, well-crafted, and never condescending to its audience.
Also, for what it is worth, "The Holdovers" gets the time and place absolutely right - I was a prep school student (though in New York, not New England) during that precise time period, and in so many ways, that it is exactly what it felt like.
Another real entertainment pleasure of the holidays was Mike Birbiglia's one-man show, "The Old Man & The Pool," on Netflix.
If you don't know Birbiglia's work, you should - he started as a standup comic, but has transcended that form to become a wonderfully wry and insightful storyteller. He has developed this wonderfully circular form - he starts off in one direction, takes some detours, offers some digressions, and then ends up back on a central point while building a narrative that manages to be funny and often painfully resonant. "The Old Man & The Pool" is about aging and death, but it actually is about so much more, and I heartily recommend it to you.
I have a couple of wonderful red wines to recommend to you this week - the 2019 Ameri Malbec from Argentina, which is silky and full and perfect with grilled steak. (If you want to accompany the wine and steak with hash browns, creamed spinach, salad and garlic bread, it would be entirely appropriate. And an excellent decision.
And, there's the 2019 Il Grigio Chianti Classico Riserva from Italy - which was perfect when we uncorked it over the holidays when the kids and their significant others came over for pasta and bolognese sauce. Splendido!
That's it for this week. Have a great weekend, and I'll see you Monday.