Boxd Office: The Holdovers, evergreen coziness and endless inspiration

The Holdovers family celebrating their rise and rise.
The Holdovers family celebrating their rise and rise.

As The Holdovers soldiers on through awards season, Ella Kemp crunches the Letterboxd data and speaks to Paul Giamatti and Da’Vine Joy Randolph to figure out just why we already love its warm embrace so much—holiday season and beyond.

Keep watching. Continue to be inspired, because it inspires us. It motivates me to continue to work.

—⁠Da’Vine Joy Randolph

“Do you think it gets better every time?” asks Paul Giamatti, eyes widening after he hears I have watched The Holdovers thrice now, speaking with him a week before the film is released in the UK, where I live. There were good reasons, though. Since the world premiere at the 50th Telluride Film Festival last summer, The Holdovers has enchanted film festival and broader audiences globally: it was runner-up for the TIFF People’s Choice Award, screened in the 28th Busan International Film Festival’s Icon section, and reduced the biggest screen at Picturehouse Central to sniffles during an early London Film Festival screening.

So I’ve watched it three times: once at LFF, then in early December to put up the Christmas tree, and then on Christmas Eve with the family. I’m far from the only one—at the time of writing, over 420,000 Letterboxd members have watched the film, a number that skyrockets daily. A few reasons for this, perhaps: The Holdovers is now officially nominated for two SAG awards, five Oscars and six BAFTAs; it saw stars Giamatti and Da’Vine Joy Randolph both win Golden Globes for their moving performances; and it’s nominated for more critics’ circle awards than there are days in the festive period. “Finally a 2024 Oscar nominee that makes me believe cinema isn’t dead,” writes Kasia.

The Holdovers is a Christmas movie through and through—it tells the story of curmudgeonly classics professor Paul Hunham (Giamatti) as he gets stuck babysitting the students of all-boys New England boarding school Barton Academy who can’t go home over the holidays. Those kids are the “holdovers”, and one of them is Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa, in his debut feature film performance). Tully and Mr. Hunham find a kindred spirit in school cook and grieving mother Mary Lamb (the glorious Randolph). As David Sims notes, “Hurt people help hurt people.”

The trio share a Christmas dinner, swap gifts and celebrate the New Year. It’s festive and it’s cozy in ways that reflect the traditions and tropes of the Christian holiday, and in others, speak to a more universal sense of the period: both the warmth and togetherness you want, as much as the melancholy and loneliness you’re often left with. “That’s special, Paul,” Randolph says to Giamatti, when I tell her of my new Christmas tree decorating tradition. “I used to watch Elf. To imagine that [The Holdovers is] what you watched? That matters. I wish I was there.” Giamatti, grimacing slightly, acknowledges: “I’ve been in some other Christmas movies that are not as good as this one, so I’m pleased to be in this one. The check will be good!” (Fred Claus has its fans, too, Paul!)

Angus, Paul and Mary enjoying a family Christmas.
Angus, Paul and Mary enjoying a family Christmas.

Maybe The Holdovers will enter the Letterboxd rewatchable festive canon, but it already sits proud in the Christmas depression canon, if not quite the WTF Festive canon. —the warmth holds hands with the sadness that such enormous expectations around that time of year hold. The disappointment of which can stick around way into January, making the relatively late theatrical release in the UK and Ireland feel, with hindsight, totally fitting. (The number of reviews with the sentiment “I wish I watched during the holidays” is simply too many to count.) 

One scene in the movie and one review on Letterboxd sums it up best, from our very own Senior Editor Mitchell Beaupre: “There’s a look on Paul Giamatti’s face in a particular moment while ‘The Most Wonderful Time of the Year’ is playing that destroyed my entire soul. Partly because we’ve all felt what he was feeling in this instance, and it feels like the end of the world. It only gets worse with age, when you’ve spent so long being alone and can only sense the possibility of having love and connection in your life dwindling by the day. At one point, Paul tells Mary that he likes to be alone, that’s how he wants to be, but in that moment with the song playing you can see that beneath that stern resignation is a sad, lonely man who wants to give love and have it returned.”

Mitchell’s thoughts ring true at any time of year—The Holdovers stands the test of time, as the last five months of logging and loving have shown—as the very specific but often hard-to-describe vibe fits dozens of Letterboxd lists: Movies to see if you loved the Before Trilogy; Cold outside? Cold movies.; Phoebe Bridgers type beat; Movies to watch during breakfast. There are the factually correct ones, of course: Boarding school movies; The Definitive Deseret; A ode to the American mid-budget adult drama of the XXI century; and my personal favorite: Boring on paper, riveting in execution.

The reviews on Letterboxd do find common ground in certain details: the words “warm hug” come back more times than I can count, featuring in the top review when searching Letterboxd and speaking to so many different ways a hug can be warm, in fact. “This movie is like it was a warm hug if that warm hug ripped you to pieces and made you cry!” says Lily, which 24framesofnick sees and raises with: “Like a warm hug from a friend you haven’t seen in years all while crying in their shoulder over and over again about how much you missed them.”

There are also a lot of thoughts on the correct accompaniments: it made Stone “wish theaters sold hot chocolate”, while CinemaVoid calls the film “both hot chocolate for the soul and chicken soup for the lazy eye”, and let’s not forget that the movie, as Karsten says, “probably goes even harder with a bowl of soup.”

Here through the good and the bad times, together.
Here through the good and the bad times, together.

But the sense of comfort that emanates from the film can’t deny the ongoing growth—The Holdovers is already in the Letterboxd Top 250, features in over 6,000 members’ four favorites, tots up over 85,000 five-star ratings and has a 4.2 average rating out of five. Giamatti and Randolph are thrilled when hearing about these numbers. “That’s major,” says Randolph, before laying a challenge: “We can get that up higher.”

They can go up (especially if Letterboxd member Ed Frost has anything to do with it: “Guy in front whipped out his Letterboxd and rated this 4 stars. Troglodyte, it’s clearly a 5.”). But it’s already reached the apex for some people—the film is director Alexander Payne’s most popular and highest-rated title on Letterboxd, and also the highest-rated title for Paul Giamatti. It beats The Truman Show and Saving Private Ryan to the top spot in the actor’s filmography, even if those two titles are just a smidge more popular. It’s a similar deal for Randolph, as last year’s heartwarming awards darling Puss in Boots: The Last Wish is her most popular movie at the time of writing. The Holdovers, of course, is her highest-rated.

Her message for the community, bumping up these numbers every day and celebrating her in ways she’s not quite figured out yet herself? “Keep watching. Continue to be inspired, because it inspires us. It motivates me to continue to work.”

They will not be happy until they’re higher and higher in the Top 250.
They will not be happy until they’re higher and higher in the Top 250.

My favorite thing about movies like this, nowadays, is the vulnerability it welcomes from our community—just as much as those who have made this work. There’s so much gratitude on Letterboxd, from folks feeling seen and understood, as much in a shared sense of affection as in the moments where nobody else seems to get it. “Life has been pretty bad lately and it’s been a long time since I haven’t watched a movie in one sitting. I feel lost, tired, and numb, but this film is so heartwarming. The colour and the story pace are really nice. I cried a bit,” writes Cantika, in a review that bottles the whole thing, I think: you can say it all with a shrug, and that’s even more dumbfounding.

The Holdovers sits on some all-timer emotional lists, too: Films with a good heart, The constant feeling of emptiness and loneliness, There is comfort in pain – films for when you want to feel something. Claira Curtis’s list of movies their dad, who died in 2012, would have loved hits particularly hard for many reasons, but especially when remembering just how much Angus and Paul share on their trip to Boston. And Hits harder watching in a specific way offers a treasure trove of hundreds of titles, here insisting that The Holdovers is best enjoyed on a snowy day. 

I realize, here, that we may have neglected to communicate just how much laughter there is to be found in all this warmth and coziness as well. Maryam nails it succinctly in her review: “‘The Shining’ if it was a heartwarming comedy.” It seems to matter little what your reasoning is—melancholy, joy, soup, hot chocolate, hugs—only the promise to keep the light burning. “The Holdovers? It held nothing back,” says porksweats. Another, fundamentally, sums up what we’re all thinking: “I promise to come back here every Christmas.” And long after that, too.


The Holdovers’ is out now in US, UK and Irish theaters via Universal and Focus Features.

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