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Every year, there is one Oscar Best Picture nominee that has my heart. Two years ago, it was Coda, and last year it was The Fablemans. I am always drawn to movies with big, beating hearts that offer a few laughs and a few tears. For 2024’s Oscars, which air this Sunday, March 10, on ABC, there is no contest for my Best Picture vote: The Holdovers has me completely besotted.

True, I enjoyed Barbie. And I admired the craft that went into Killers of the Flower Moon, not to mention stellar acting by Leonardo DiCaprio and Lily Gladstone, who seems to be a shoe-in for Best Actress with her subtle, morose portrayal of Mollie, an Osage Indian woman with a target on her back for her rich oil rights. DiCaprio sold me on his character, Ernest’s, true love for his wife Mollie, while also sending chills up my spine with his murderous intentions toward her family members. Greed, tenderness, coldheartedness, apathy toward human life—Leo conveyed it all. Now that was a layered performance! Jeffrey Wright was also fantastic in American Fiction, as a novelist grappling with his identity as a Black man whose works just don’t seem “Black enough” for a pandering publishing industry. However, Cillian Murphy will likely be making an acceptance speech for his leading role in Oppenheimer, which should also claim Best Picture.

As for Best Actress, if Gladstone doesn’t capture the trophy, I would love to see it go to Annette Bening for her triumphant turn as Diana Nyad, a real-life long-distance swimmer who swam from Cuba to Key West, Fla., at the age of 64 despite the massive challenges of her aging body and the vicious ocean. Bening trained for a year for Nyad with a professional swimmer and did all her own swimming. Unfortunately, she probably does not stand a chance in this crowded field.

Back to the movie I love: The Holdovers is a quiet, modest film that seems like an odd duck next to the flashiness of Barbie or Oppenheimer. But this funny, sweet, melancholy story has charm and wisdom to spare. Paul Giamatti, himself the son of a Yale president, plays Paul Hunham, a schlumpy, by-the-book history teacher at Barton Academy, a posh boy’s prep school in 1970, amid the Vietnam War years. He’s not mean, he just has rigid standards he expects his mostly entitled students to reach. When he refuses to pass the son of one of the school’s donors—which will be the difference between him getting into Princeton or not—the dean punishes Hunham by making him stay at the school over Christmas break, babysitting the “holdovers,” whose parents are busy skiing or what have you.

Soon, the small group of boys dwindles down to one: Angus (first-time actor Dominic Sessa). Angus seethes with angst as he is trapped at school with his least-favorite teacher and the school cook, Mary (played with quiet grief and latent humor by Da’Vine Joy Randolph). The worst part about it is feeling alone in the world, as his mother seems to prefer spending time with her new husband to celebrating Christmas with her only child. It’s going to be a horrible Christmas … or is it?

For anyone who loves stories about found family, this one unfolds lovingly but without too much sentimentality. Mary is an essential character, breaking up the intensity between Angus and Hunham and adding her own sorrow. This is her first Christmas without her son, a scholarship student at Barton because of her job there, who has recently been killed in the Vietnam War. He, unlike almost the whole student body at Barton, could not get a deferment. The three lonely holdovers, each dealing with their own private wounds, must find a way to band together or risk falling into an abyss of depression and isolation.

All three actors turn in award-winning performances (Giamatti could steal Murphy’s Best Actor award, and Randolph could easily win for Best Supporting Actress). Dominic Sessa is not nominated, but he should be. Rarely have I been so affected by an actor’s performance, as Sessa’s naked loneliness, under a snarky suit of armor, made me want to weep. It’s perfect that he was plucked from obscurity as a scholarship student himself at a posh prep school; the casting directors knew gold when they saw it.

Viewers should know that The Holdovers is rated R for violence, pot use, and, unfortunately, way too much offensive language (plus one split-second glimpse of nudity in a magazine). Christian viewers will ache for these broken characters and wish that they would come to know how loved and cared for they are by the God who never abandons his children and walks with them through periods of grief and deep loneliness. (Now streaming on Amazon Prime, Apple TV+, and other platforms.)

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